April 2018

Friday, November 22, 2013

Planning Ahead

For my class on death and dying (it’s kicking me in the heart), I completed an advanced directive, a document to identify my proxy, the person who is to make decisions should I be unable (not just because I’m indecisive, but because I’m in a coma or something like that.) 

This is the second time I have completed an Advanced Directive. The first time, I was preparing for brain surgery. At that time, I also drafted a will: everything goes to my partner Ann, so that wasn’t hard, but I did note sentimental items that I wanted to go to my nieces and nephews. (My sister wanted to know, “What about me?” It was a good question and is interesting that I didn’t note specific items for family or friends in my generation: I think I felt that with these people I had lived a long life and would be remembered for the gifts over time, but I felt that I was leaving the younger generation before I knew them as adults and felt they needed a token to remember that I loved them.)

The first time I wrote an advanced directive, I didn’t spend much time or energy on it. Though I knew it was possible that in surgery I would die—or what seemed worse to me, lose my sense of self—I felt I had lived a full and good life and loved people who also loved me. I trusted my partner. (I still trust her. We took a quiz recently to determine how well she knows my wishes. We have been good students for our lifetimes, and we did well.) 

I believed Ann would make respectful decisions about my care in any circumstances that I could not at the time predict. I am not afraid of death, and though I’d like to keep living as my life is more whole, peaceful, meaningful and full than I ever imagined it would be when was a child, it seems likely that I will one day die. For this life, I really feel amazingly lucky.

An attentive student, I was more deliberate in filling out the directive this time than I was before my surgery, when so much was going on. I suspect I put more thought into it this time, and it has more details than my last advanced care directive, but it is essentially the same. 

I was sad about the possibility of my death before brain surgery, and I would be sad now if I were to learn that I am going to die soon. I love my life, and there are things I’d like to do before leaving: publish a couple of books, begin a new career, work in some new way for social justice and continue the work I’ve been doing, watch my nieces and nephews grow into adulthood, deepen connections with people I love and make new connections.

Aside from having goals, I generally like living: I would like to continue loving the everydayness of gratitude for my partner, family and friends, good meals, a rose’s perfume, the hillsides of Paradise (at Mount Rainier) in August, poetry that sings to me, connections with strangers for brief moments of noticing their mysterious humanity, finding a right analogy, learning a new word, noticing the humor and the absurdity of so much around me, feeling my body stretch, breathing in sacred breath.

As those of you who follow this blog know, I have been having a hard time. I have been in free-fall, spinning with grief and loss. I suppose that I was so busy working to claim my life after surgery that I did not take time to grieve, but deep sadness was in me, and this quarter it surfaced. Like a turtle, I pulled head, arms and tail into my shell and tried to nurture my heart. Each time that I thought I had come to peace, I would poke my head out and fall and whirl again. I am reading a book on grieving (thanks, Denise!) that normalizes much of my experience: the feeling of being in free-fall, feeling like a turtle in my shell, manic emailing (sorry, professor!) 

For now, I feel like I am on solid ground again, though I am more aware of its tenuousness.  It could give way at any time. This is not madness. This is being human.

I am a different person than I was at the beginning of this quarter. I feel like my old self and my new self are just getting to know one another. The image of dogs sniffing one another (no, not the bum sniff), keeps coming to mind. I trust that these two selves will integrate eventually, and for now I’m just trying to give myself time.

This class has exposed my vulnerability, and though I am generally one to get along fairly easily with people, I have not been easy to support. I have not wanted my professor to take me on as her burden, and I have told her so. I’m not sure why I have been so insistent. Perhaps I am not good at accepting emotional support. 

The day before I left the hospital, a female nurse named Joey sat beside me and delivered a kind lecturette about how I needed to learn to let people help me. The sternness of her advice surprised me at the time. After all, friends and family were helping me stand and walk, flushing the toilet for me, reading to me, and bringing me chocolate chip milkshakes. My community has continued to support me in so many ways, and I am learning to advocate for my needs in school, which means asking strangers who are yet to be friends for help. 

All of these ways of seeking help, however, are external. Asking for help with my spirit is more difficult. I haven’t known how to do that, and I sometimes associate such help with pity, a response to me that pisses me off. I have actually felt respected by and understood by my professor, so maybe this doesn’t explain it. Maybe that’s just a lot of words to say that I don’t like to feel vulnerable, and I have. I am more comfortable being a support than a weight.

What have I learned? I need to be present and pay attention, even to myself and even when it’s hard. Maybe especially when it’s hard. My therapist (who is fabulous. I thank God for her) says that I should integrate my awareness of loss into my daily life just as I have integrated my sense of gratitude.

I have been asked to think a lot about death this quarter, which I don’t think I find especially upsetting. It’s loss that upsets me. As part of this activity, I was required to think about the details of my funeral service. Perhaps oddly, I enjoyed this part. (My paternal grandmother planned three memorial services for herself: one in her seventies, one in her eighties, and the last—the one we used—in her nineties. I carry her name and perhaps her proclivity for planning ahead.)

As the lightest part of the class, we took a field trip to a fancy funeral home with a lot of real estate for graves, fancy rooms, a columbarium (which I hear is lovely, but we didn’t see it) and a crematorium. I don’t want my services or my remains to be in that anonymous place. I want my service to be in my church, a sacred space for me. I want the choir or some lovely soloist to sing. I want familiar hymns to be sung, hymns that are deep with joy and longing. Maybe “Tú Has Venido a la Orilla” (Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore). Maybe “Amazing Grace,” though I’ve never felt like a wretch:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me.
 I once was lost but now am found,
was blind, but now I see.
 I have not run in such a long time. I miss its ease, so perhaps at my funeral, it would be right to read from Isaiah 41:
But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; they shall walk, and not faint.

Though it may be overdone, perhaps it would good to read the 23rd Psalm:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. 3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. 5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
And for sure, I hope there will be a reading from the end of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

I want to be cremated, and I want my ashes to return to nature. For years, Ann and I had planned to have our ashes scattered on Green Mountain, the place where we hiked the day my godson Sam was born. The trailhead to that hike has been closed, however, and it is now several days’ journey to get there. I no longer walk along narrow wooded trails, so I no longer want to rest there. Perhaps, I’d like to rest at Paradise, where the flowers bloom in hillside bouquets, the mountain watches over the fields on lovely days, we’ve watched a black fox hunt for an early morning snack, and I can still walk with Ann’s help along the paved and firm gravel paths.

This sounds like a lovely service, doesn’t it? I hope it won’t be needed for a long time.

Peace. Namaste. Mary


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