I just left the hospital where I went to visit my father, who is 84 and suffering from progressive dementia. It is such a sad thing to see his brilliant mind fading into that gray zone of confusion and disconnection. There is a different kind of grief that comes with this slow, daily losing of him that I sometimes feel is even more painful than was the sudden loss of my son. There is a constant waiting for the inevitable and the wondering each time I prepare to go see him how he’ll be today – will he know me? I wonder sometimes at the tenacity of the body when the mind seems so ready to let go and move out of this life. I find myself drained and numbed after today’s visit. Perhaps in a day or two, I will be ready to write more about this process of watching a loved one slowly fade, but my visit to Dad today reminded me of an essay I wrote last year when my mother was in that same hospital. I share that with you now:
At eighty-five years old, my mother is in the hospital for the second time in as many weeks. She is weak and tired and more than a little frightened. At the age of eighty, her kidneys failed. She’s been a dialysis patient for five years now, and while it’s given her new life it has also been hard on her body and spirit. Heart problems, pneumonia and now a GI bleed have required these most recent hospitalizations.
She lies in her hospital bed looking out the small window. The angle of the bed is such that what view there might be is mostly blocked by the outer wall of the building. She stares off into the small slice of sky that remains visible and asks me what I can see from my vantage point in the chair opposite her bed. I tell her it’s not much – the parking lot and some trees in the distance.
She tells me about an old TV program she’s reminded of. In the program, she says, two men share a hospital room. One man’s bed gives him a view out the window and the other’s does not. The man by the window is always telling the other man what he sees: children playing, beautiful trees, a grassy meadow filled with flowers. As the months go by, the man without the view grows extremely jealous and eventually he murders the other man in order to get his bed so he can see the view for himself. Having done so he finds that outside that window there is only a wall. All along, it seems, the other man was imagining all those beautiful things.
She goes on to recall some other hospital stay long ago where she had to do physical therapy on a treadmill and a stationary bike in front of a window that overlooked a field full of cows. She can’t recall when and where that was. How odd, she says, for a hospital to be out in the middle of nowhere like that. I have no idea what she’s talking about. It could be a fantasy, a real memory, or a combination of memories from different times and places combined into one.
My mother remembers such odd things now – things from long, long ago. But she forgets what happened yesterday, or even this morning. She’s forgotten why she’s in the hospital. Last week she told the home care nurse that she moved into the Beatitudes, an assisted living facility, right after she and my dad retired and sold the house. There were at least twenty-five years of experiences between those two events that, for the moment at least, she seems to have forgotten. Time runs in circles and folds over upon itself in the workings of her mind. She doesn’t remember this morning, but she remembers that TV show about the view from the window from decades past.
As she sleeps, I read a book by the psychic, Sylvia Browne. It’s called Life on the Other Side and it outlines what the world beyond death is like, based on Sylvia’s own near-death experience, the departed souls she’s connected with, and the stories of the many, many people she’s regressed to past lives and the lives in between. She describes a fascinating place of beauty and continued learning, a place where we understand everything we’ve experienced in all our lifetimes and where we can choose what lessons and experiences we want to undertake in our next lifetime on Earth. In this place, which she calls “Home,” we can be with everyone we’ve ever loved and every other soul we are connected to. When we are Home, we have an immediate and visceral experience of God’s love for us. There is no fear, doubt or confusion. Reading her words brings me deep peace and reaffirms the conclusions I’ve been coming to since Cameron’s death. Our real selves, our souls, never die. Love never dies. Separation between this world and the next is an illusion.
It strikes me that my mother’s memory of that TV show, apparently triggered by her limited view out the window, may in fact be signaling a deeper longing in her to know not just what’s outside her hospital room window, but what’s on the other side of this life.
We never talk of such things. In my family, the subject of death is taboo. So far, I haven’t been brave enough to be the one to open the conversation. There seems to be an unwritten law that says if you don’t speak of death it won’t happen. And there seems to be a lot of fear around the subject of death. I think this is not just true within my family, but a part of the collective consciousness. Would we fear death and dying so much if we knew, really knew in our hearts, that death is not an ending but simply a transition from one living state to another?
My parents had the idea that once you reach eighty, you start to fall apart. And, like clockwork, that’s what happened. My mother’s kidneys failed a few months after her eightieth birthday. My father is a few years younger. He turned eighty a week after Cameron died and a few months later suffered a series of small strokes that whittled away some part of his previously brilliant mind and left him struggling to find the right words for simple, every day things.
We don’t expect to outlive our children and certainly not our grandchildren. My parents have outlived one of each. My brother, their oldest child, died at the age of fifty in August 2000. A few years later when Cameron died, they lost a grandson. And since we never talk about death or dying, I have no idea how either of those events affected them. As I observe my parents now, I can only guess how much their decline has to do with aging and how much with unexpressed grief and the gnawing fear that death is an enemy to be conquered rather than an adventure to be embraced.
More than my parents’ eventual passing, I fear and resent having to watch their slow collapse. It is too reminiscent of Cameron’s years of self-destruction and seems even less fair since there is no apparent level of choice or will involved. Their deterioration seems to be happening to them through no choice of their own. Once again, I find myself asking God, “Why do you keep giving me stuff that I can’t fix?”
And perhaps the answer is, so I can learn that it is not mine to fix at all. It could be that this is the true challenge of faith: to see things as they are and not judge them as broken, but know them as perfect at the level of Divine Order.
Sylvia Browne speaks of our “chart” – the plan we make before incarnating here. Others, like Carolyne Myss have called it a contract. I can believe in such a thing. I think we do devise a plan that maps out, if not the specific experiences we will have, at least the outline of the lessons we wish to learn or the difference we wish to make while we are here. It can be hard to fathom the purpose of suffering, but perhaps it is an integral part of our journey.
It can be hard to accept that we chose to experience the pain we have in our lives. But it seems to me we may have chosen it so that our hearts can be cracked open, thereby allowing more love to flow through them into this world. We can choose to react to the painful passages in our lives from fear or from love. I’ve learned to ask myself, “What would love do? What is the loving response?” The answer isn’t always clear.
I think that in this case, love would overcome fear and break the unwritten taboo. It would speak of death and dying with gentle and hopeful words. Love would speak with passion and conviction about the children playing, the beautiful trees and the grassy meadow filled with flowers that wait on the other side even though, temporarily, there may be a wall blocking that view. Love would see through that wall to the truth beyond it. Love would tear down whatever walls fear has built and expose dying for what it really is – the soul’s heartfelt and joyful homecoming.
As always, I wish you peace on the journey.
Please visit my website, http://www.deepwaterleafsociety.com/ for more information on the upcoming release of my book, The Deep Water Leaf Society: Harnessing the Transformative Power of Grief.