Frailty and Responsibility

My former manfriend had a blog that he wrote every week called Loose Canon, and he was. Just over a year ago, he died of cancer after a year and a half of a slow decline that was simultaneously excruciating to experience and a gift to participate in. I sat with his daughter just after he passed reading TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, a poem he had spent nearly all ten years I knew him memorizing. “The past is all deception and the future futureless.”  “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

Last week, my mother went into the hospital for the second time in a month, this time with a shoulder fracture having fallen in the middle of the night. She doesn’t remember falling, only the excruciating pain as she lay on the floor, for hours, nearing hypothermia, before her neighbor finally heard her calling out and called 911. I received a call that she was in the emergency room and found her with a shoulder the size of a football.

Just over eleven years ago, my nineteen year old son died in a car crash. He was driving too fast, spun out on a sharp curve five miles from home, and hit a telephone pole. Despite driving a Volvo, a car my ex-husband insisted was the safest thing around, he died instantly. The hardest moment in my life was going into the funeral parlor with my younger son and together, saying goodbye to his cold, stiff body, his hand raised up in the air as if clutching a steering wheel. When I went to visit my mother’s neighbors to thank them for finding her on the floor, I had a visceral flashback to the time I called on the people whose power went out when my son hit the pole in front of their house, rushed outside and found him dead, and called the police. It lasted for ninety seconds, which according to Jill Bolte Taylor, author of My Stroke of Insight, is the natural amount of time for human emotion to flood the system when it is not being conflated by what the Buddhists call “the second arrow,” that is, not pure, natural, healing grief, but suffering, which is a choice.

Other than that moment, I’ve been holding up remarkably well through my mother’s recent episode as I spend hours and hours every day plotting her next move from home to hospital to rehab to assisted living. If you have done this, you know what’s involved. If not, I will spare you the details, but suffice it to say, it is human complexity of the highest order. Take system (the human body), apply specialty after specialty at different pay scales, put together in a small, institutional room with wires, tubes, and beeping boxes, and shake and bake. Add the megalomania that is the health insurance industry that charges $24 for an aspirin and you know what I’m talking about.

I am someone who abhors drugs and hospitals and all things medical. Now I know my mother’s drug list and diagnoses as if I were a physician. I can navigate the Medicare and MaineCare systems as if I were a social worker. And I am becoming steeped in the extraordinarily large business that is helping the gigantic aging population in this country go from “independence” to “assisted living” to “skilled nursing” to the grave. Today we called on a family friend who happens to be a partner at a fancy law firm in town to draw up a “durable power of attorney” so I can take charge of my mother’s financial affairs, as well as her medical decisions when the time comes with the “health care proxy” I signed some months ago with the home health social worker. Over the course of her past two hospitalizations, I’ve been asked a dozen times what my mother’s “wishes” are. You better know what they are, because you don’t want to be dragged through that system any more than you sign up for. Or if you do, you better have insurance to cover it.

The episode with my mother is following on the year and a half of navigating my friends demise from cancer, with similar tenaciousness, despite the fact that we were no longer a couple. The day he couldn’t move from his chair in excruciating pain, I’m the one he called and said, “Please come. I don’t want to die alone.” I was there through it all: radiation, chemotherapy, caregivers, social workers, hospice, family, friends. And the long, slow process of watching a man who up until age 77, stubbornly rode his bicycle everywhere through all manner of weather, groceries piled into a large backpack, decline to a state of shuffling across the floor with a cane, skin and bones, drugged out on morphine, talking nonsense half the time and weeping the other half.

Virtually every industry is in on it, the living and dying game, big time. Is one human life really worth that much money? A friend of mine told me that in the last year of his mother’s life, the hospital bills totaled $940,000! I tend to be an isolationist, a hide-your-head-in-the-sand kind of girl who wants no part of any of it. I’d rather be writing poetry and sailing off into the sunset with a lover. And yet here I am, right smack in the middle of what George Harrison called “Living in a Material World” or as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” And I will now invoke Joni Mitchell, “my favorite theme,” and bring me back to my reference point, “We are stardust, we are golden.” And we are each worth lightyears more than what money can value, which I believe is my point.

Needless to say, none of these are worlds I have chosen to visit – the death of my son, the demise of my friend, the decline of my mother – but this is what is called RESPONSIBILITY. Last year at a 5Rhythms dance retreat called The Holy Actor, that word was on the altar of the hall. My immediate reaction was ICK, cross my fingers in front of it, please don’t remind me of THAT while I’m here practicing freedom! Until my friend told me what someone had pointed out to him, a reframe on the word: responsibility is THE ABILITY TO RESPOND. It is that ability that I have been cultivating a lot of late. The ability to see what is, as it is, and to respond in the moment with what is needed, without judgement or drama, and without REACTING from a place of FIGHT, FLIGHT, or FEAR, that is, from the limbic part of the brain, the part that is conditioned by past experience. Add to that list the other key players of the primitive brain that run much of our lives SUBMIT and ATTACH. I learned these new ones from my therapist and clearly see how they too have played out in my life. The twenty-two years of my marriage and the ten years following with the man who died were examples of both.

The key to waking up, to rising above these habitual responses to higher levels of consciousness is AWARENESS, aka MINDFULNESS. The fact that this word is becoming mainstream is a pretty cool thing. And yet, as those of us who try and practice it know, it’s easier said than done. Until you just get it. You simply wake up one day and say, oh yeah, I am not reacting, I am responding. I am doing what needs to be done without my primitive-brain-emotional-drama-self driving the bus. And when they start to move from the back of the bus to the driver seat, I am conscious enough to know what that feels like in my body, and I put on the brakes, stop the bus, and step outside.

I recently went for a walk in the woods with the Mindfulness Meetup, and it was the most amazing experience. To  practice noticing, in detail, what the senses were taking in: the towering trees, the chirping birds, the cold air on my skin, my heartbeat. And once again I was reminded how much I love the woods. How being in nature makes me see things differently, with an artist’s eye. How collecting bark and moss and pinecones makes me feel like a child. And how all of it comes together as a poem in my heart that uplifts me like a song. As for the title, that’s for another day.


Walking in noble silence
mindful of the sense doors
thoughts replaced by
pinecones and driftwood

a spring chill penetrates
skin to bone
blood pulsing freely
feeds the soul-body

a family of trees
urge each step
protecting from above
supporting from below

no distinction between
living and dead
form and formless
earth feeds earth

reflections dance
in flowing pools
a moving masterpiece
of creation.

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