Saturday 3/2/13 9-10:45AM The open space in Ocean Room is set within a constant exchange of breath and movement in the studio below, the street outside, the family moving upstairs and in my own body. My mind finds bits of language, images, ideas. My body feels the floor shaking, hears cell phones vibrate, and speaks from within its joints. There is an open space in Ocean Room where all this happens every moment, as it does everywhere always. The difference is that in taking my seat and abiding in meditation, there is another presence, that of cultivated awareness. Breathing in the sense of universal energy throughout my body and mind, breathing out into universal energy throughout my body and mind. The ocean of breath and movement all around and within, my mind picking up pieces like a crow finding shiny objects: there I am, a pearl, set aside in Ocean Room, luminous and at rest in the tangle of real life.
Coming back to the city and stepping into my office, I’m reminded, too, that my joy is also my job (lucky me!), and this gave me the chance to sit with the Business of Yoga in a new light. A conversation I’ve had simmering in my head for a long time is now ready to rise to the surface, and it’s a conversation I’d like to share with the Shambhala community as a whole: the idea of running a yoga studio.
Without a doubt, becoming the owner of Shambhala has been a most amazing experience, an opportunity to be creative, to be connected and to be called day after day to meet new challenges and step outside of my areas of ‘expertise’ (i.e. I have an M.S.Ed degree in Museum Education, not an MBA). The stickier part has been figuring out how to define the balance between my relationship to the spiritual/community-based, unquantifiable lightness and perks of my role and the gotta-pay-the-bills reality. It hasn’t been easy! I can easily be swayed and float from one side to the other of the Keep Classes Affordable vs. Make Sure You’re Not Losing Money debate. I love to say that we offer 23 By-Donation classes a week. (note: I prefer “By-Donation” to “Community” classes because I like to think that all of our classes are for our community, just that some are By-Donation, pay what you’re able. It’s a minor detail, but I think it’s an important distinction.) And I equally love to be able to do payroll and pay rent without crossing my fingers that the checks aren’t all cashed at once. Many advisors (smart, wonderful people who I love very much!) have encouraged me to take care with the number of By-Donation classes we have, that I’m running a business and that making a profit and having a fiscally-thriving yoga studio isn’t a bad thing. I completely agree. In fact, making decisions that keep in mind the long-term health of the studio is a responsibility that I embrace fully. However, last night a student said something to me that resonated well throughout my night (and is maybe why I was awake for most of it!). For weeks, this student has been inquiring about my newly added 6pm class on Wednesdays. I joked with him, “JUST COME! We go deep, we have fun, we sweat and restore… try it, already!” And he replied, “It’s a regularly-priced class, right? I can’t afford that.” Which brought me back to the first sentence of this paragraph – I love Shambhala for calling me to be more creative, more connected and more challenged.
Back to the mountains, to ten days of staring (while listening very carefully to my teachers, of course!) out into the lush green of the rainforest. The green was perfectly intoxicating, and I relished each moment surrounded by such abundant passion for life and living. I realize that that’s the green the guides me: the abundance of nature, the abundance that comes when your are arms wide open and you take giant leaps of faith. Within that embrace, I’ll trust that the pay-the-bills kind of green will find itself. It’s worked for me before and I’m going to stick with it.
So, to that end, effective immediately we’ll have 2 new By-Donation classes on the schedule: Wednesdays at 6pm and Fridays at noon. The suggested price for these, like our others, is the regular class price, but we welcome you to look at your budget and make donations based on what will equally support your steps towards good health while supporting our teachers (who receive a percentage of your donation) and our studio. With the exception of our Blossoming Teachers (who are a pretty awesome bunch), our By-Donation classes are taught by a collection of wonderful, passionate, very experienced and knowledgeable teachers who put their heart into these classes just the same as they do for the regularly-priced classes. To be perfectly candid, there’s not a true business-oriented rhyme or reason to why some classes are By-Donation and some aren’t. With the support of you (you can always use class cards towards By-Donation classes; a $13.50 (10 class card) or $12 (20 class card) 90 minute class is an excellent value in this city!!), we hope to be able to compensate our teachers well for their efforts and sustain the studio as it offers classes, workshops and events that will enrich the health and spirit of our community.
There; the conversation is no longer just in my mind, and I feel a little better already. As always, let me know what you think. My ears (heart and arms) are wide open…
Well, it’s been over a month now since Sarah and I did the big exchange of leadership for the center – and what an emotional roller coaster ride it’s been for me! For nine years a huge part of my world was being the director of Shambhala Yoga & Dance Center, and suddenly that was gone. I’ve been reading Sarah’s emails, both to the whole community and just to the teachers list, with a mixture of so many feelings: bemused relief that I’m no longer the one having to manage the endless tasks and to-do lists of running a studio, excitement and interest over the new innovations she’s introducing, sadness and regret that it’s no longer “mine” (as if it ever were!), fear that I made a big mistake in my decision, guilt that I’ve abandoned my responsibility to the community, and just a whole lot of big, gnawing, extremely uncomfortable feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. Without the myriad of daily responsibilities to tend to, my mind suddenly had a lot of open space to meander in – and that can be a pretty dangerous thing… As I’ve heard so many times: “The mind is like a bad neighborhood – you don’t want to go in there alone!”
We just love to have solid ground under our feet, and anything that shakes that ground can feel like a direct threat.
Transitions – and especially big ones like divorce, death of a loved one, loss or change of a job, moving homes – are always fraught with the anxiety of change and uncertainty. We humans just love to have solid ground under our feet, and anything that shakes that ground can feel like a direct threat to our very survival. In yogic terms we would call that the realm of the first chakra, “muladara” the root chakra – the part of our energy where we process our relationship to safety, security, protection and a sense of belonging. With a healthy, well balanced first chakra, we feel relatively safe and secure in the world, and even in the midst of great change we are able to navigate our way through without a complete breakdown of our ability to function. When the first chakra is seriously impaired, a general feeling of danger, anxiety, even terror and paranoia can set in and color everything that we perceive.
Big life transitions can trigger any unresolved issues that the first chakra center has buried – all of the traumas that we’ve suffered throughout our lives that left us feeling vulnerable, attacked, weak or exposed – and for a while it can seem as though our entire system has descended into the abyss of a panicked and unstable first chakra, similar to the syndrome of post-traumatic stress that earthquake victims experience – it literally feels as if the earth is still moving. Remember the children’s story “Chicken Little?” Any minor event can be perceived as “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”
Our first chakra is formed early in our life, from our time in the womb up to about 18 months of age. If our family and cultural environment is fairly stable, loving, protective and nurturing, then our relationship to the world will be fairly trusting and confident. If however, there are factors that cause a chronic feeling of tension and fear, then we will absorb an energy pattern deep in our gut that says “Life is not safe; there is no one to take care of me when I’m vulnerable; I’m alone, adrift and in danger.”
That’s a little bit of what I’ve been feeling lately. It’s no secret that my early life had more than its share of confusion and chaos, mixed in with tremendous love and support – a real rich smorgasbord of experiences, but definitely not stable! The default setting in my first chakra is fear, anxiety, dread and shame for being so “needy.” It calls for tremendous self-love and tenderness to soothe oneself through these murky, scary feelings. For me, what happens is that a vicious cycle gets set in motion: an unsettling change such as the sale of the studio – no matter how welcome and right it feels – triggers these feelings of anxiety and uncertainly, and in response, a whole truckload of self-judgment and abuse kicks in:
“What’s wrong with me that I feel so out of sorts, so depressed, so confused? Why can’t I just ride through this with a feeling of appreciation and gratitude for all the wonderful years I had as the director of Shambhala? Why do I feel so lost and lonely and abandoned? (No one abandoned me, after all – it was I who chose to leave!) I must have been a fraud all those years – teaching about acceptance and abundance and seeing the good in everything – and now I can barely get out of bed in the morning without feeling like I’m dragging the weight of all my unrealized dreams and longings and regrets! Who the hell am I, anyway?!!!”
Pretty vicious stuff! One of my teachers, Pema Chodron, talks about times like these as being the gift that opens the door for us to soften our hearts and once again learn the deep lesson of compassion and mercy. If we can’t learn to offer acceptance and love to ourselves, and to stop using ourselves as a punching bag, how will we ever truly be able to accept and love others? Another teacher, Stephen Levine, says that for every question and confusion, the answer is always “Have mercy on yourself.” And Thomas Merton, the great Catholic mystic, said that it’s during the times when we feel most lost, miserable, disgraceful and unworthy, that God’s grace and mercy are most tenderly available and waiting – longing! – to comfort and hold us through our dark night.
Times like these are gifts that open the door for us to soften our hearts and once again learn the deep lesson of compassion and mercy.
And so I find myself – once again – waking up in the pre-dawn hours with a mind full of racing thoughts and a heart filled with confusion and dread. I always think of that old Billie Holiday song “Good morning, Heartache, here you are again… I tossed and turned last night ’til I was sure you were gone, but here you are with the dawn.” And just when it feels like I’m going to go crazy from the relentless assault of these psychic muggers, as I call them, a door suddenly opens just a crack and that tender grace appears.
For me, it most often appears in the very particular, personal form of my envisioning of God – the orisha Yemaya. She comes to me with her soft, knowing eyes and her sweet, soulful smile, and just holds out her arms. I crawl into them and pour out my troubles to her, repeating all of the mean, cruel things I’ve been saying to myself: “I’m such a loser! I’ve blown it! I have no friends, no community, I’m a big fraud!” And she just listens and rocks me in her arms and soothes me with her sweet lullaby voice, and surrounds me with the healing balm of her deep, accepting love. And finally, little by little, my body softens as I release the grip of these lies, and I can often fall back into a soft, peaceful sleep.
I am sometimes dumbfounded at my willingness to expose myself so intimately in these musings to you all. After I send them out, I often go through a bout of “Oh my God, why did I send that? That’s WAAYYYY too personal! But I know that the teachers who have made the greatest impact on my life have been the ones – like Pema Chodron and Stephen Levine, and my yoga teacher Todd Norian – who have been willing to bare their souls and spirits to their students. No guru up on a pedestal here! Just regular, complicated, messy human beings who are “still struggling after all these years” to paraphrase Paul Simon.
For me it has always been deeply reassuring to know that these wise souls who have worked diligently on themselves for many, many years, are still facing the same dilemmas, the same challenges that I’m facing, and are bravely marching on and, like hikers on a treacherous mountain trail who have taken the point position, are turning around every so often to call back “Watch out for that loose rock over there… be careful as you make this turn… there’s a snake up in that branch!:.” And so I continue to make these humble offerings of my own perfectly imperfect humanness in hopes that it will encourage at least one other soul who is feeling lost and confused and down on themselves.
A wonderful American Buddhist teacher, Tara Brach, wrote a beautiful book called “Radical Acceptance” in which she talks about the terrible burden of the “trance of unworthiness” that so many of us suffer from. And that the remedy for this is complete and radical acceptance of ourselves, no matter how flawed, how mean-spirited, petty, selfish, and cruel we may believe ourselves to be. To have the courage to see ourselves in all of our muck – and glory – and say, “That is a human being, no doubt about it! That is exactly what it looks like to be a human being on this planet at this point in time.” And to recognize that there is a vast, vast difference between who we REALLY are – our essence in its truest sense, our shining perfection – and the personality that has formed around that essence in response to life.
Radical Acceptance means having the courage to see ourselves in all of our muck – and glory.
There’s a delightful story about a great Tibetan master who, even in his later years when he was considered a saint, had a terrible, uncontrollable sweet tooth – an addiction really. Every time the cook in the monastery would prepare a special dessert, usually just once a month or so, this master would sneak into the kitchen to steal as much of it as he could, stuffing it into his mouth, pockets, anywhere he could hide it. But after he had done this, he would call out in a loud voice, “Thief! Thief! Help! Come quick!” And all the other monks would come running into the kitchen to find him there, his face coated in a gooey, sugary mess, pockets bulging with the sweets, and a big sheepish grin on his face. It was his way of making light of his wonderfully human, flawed personality. By “telling on himself” he removed the burden of shame of carrying the secret of his imagined unworthiness.
What would it be like if we could all have that same light-heartedness about our own character flaws, our own predictable, embarrassing, shameful patterns of craving and self-protection, ruthlessness and greed? To be able to say, “Yeah, I’m pretty judgmental, self-centered and sometimes an awful gossip. What else is new?” And to be able to add to that, at least to ourselves, “And I’m also kind and loving, a wonderful, caring friend, a good listener, and a great dancer!” Kind of like the old Dick Clark “American Bandstand” song ratings: “The lyrics are a little corny, but it has a good beat and you can dance to it…”These days I’m spending a lot of time out in the park with my new puppy Gus. He’s the gift I’ve given to myself and my sons after years of living dog-free (or dog-deprived, as I think of it now!) Every day I’m out in glorious Prospect Park, often way before sunrise, reveling in the wonders of the crisp, late fall mornings, running and playing with this amazing spirit who drinks in life like every moment will be his last. We spend a lot of time working on our training (my 13-year old son and I are taking him to weekly sessions, and then we work with him on what we’ve learned in between lessons).
It’s a wonderful metaphor for training the mind. This wild, exuberant puppy is like my crazy mind – jumping everywhere, nipping and biting and foraging for rotten old food that if he eats it will make him sick, but still he clamps down on it with jaws of steel like he’ll die if he doesn’t get to have that! And I tell him over and over and over, all day long, “Gus, come… Gus, drop it…. Gus, sit…. Gus, don’t bite…Good boy, Gus, good boy…”
That’s the way I have learned I have to work with the mind, with those cruel psychic muggers. Patiently, but very firmly. “Drop it… drop it … drop it… Sit… be still…” And to offer to myself the unconditional love and endless forgiveness that dogs are so beloved for offering to their masters. It is truly one of the greatest gifts of having a dog — to experience the love in their eyes as they melt into a kind of rapturous frenzy when they see your face. It’s as if they are incapable of seeing the personality — they can only see straight through to your beautiful, glowing essence, and they are madly in love with that. (And the food that you feed them, of course!)
May we all enjoy these last beautiful days of fall. And may all beings, everywhere, be free of the suffering, and come to know the love and mercy that is always surrounding them.
I look forward to seeing you all around the neighborhood. I love you all…
Peace & blessings,
Cathy (& Gus)
Hello friends & Happy New Year to you all…
My mother passed away on Friday evening, December 3, in the midst of the season of Advent, Hanukkah, and on the eve of the feast day of the great Orisha king, Shango. I had the honor to be by her bedside through the three long nights leading up to her big transition, and to be with her as she released her final breath. She was surrounded by many of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren during the final hours of her life. We sang to her, stroked her hair, massaged her hands and feet, rubbed her swollen belly, swabbed her parched lips with a tiny wet sponge, and told her how much we loved her over and over and over. It was a beautiful death, an experience that left us all blown open to the mystery of life and filled with a wild awe at the transcendent force called love. In a family that has seen more than its share of sorrow, conflict, confusion and separation, finally here was an experience that united us all in a way that left no doubt that love is, in fact, stronger and more powerful than any other force.
When last I wrote one of my “Reflections” essays, I was in the throes of ambivalence and emotional turmoil over my transition out of the directorship of Shambhala Center. Within days of sending out that last email, I received the news that my mother had gone into the hospital with distressing symptoms that finally led to a diagnosis of very advanced ovarian cancer. Given her age (94!) it was decided that no course of treatment would be appropriate, and my family accepted the advice to move her into hospice care. Within hours of this news, I was on a plane to St. Louis.
This was, without a doubt, one of the most profoundly moving and transformative experiences of my life, and I came back to Brooklyn a few weeks ago still high from the bliss of sharing this beautiful passage with my mother, as well as my sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, and our two sons who arrived just hours before she passed on, in time to sit by her bedside and tell her how much they loved her. The funeral mass was planned to include all of her huge family (9 children, 34 grandchildren and 45 great-grandchildren! A true matriarch…) and was one of the most celebratory spiritual events I have ever participated in.
We were no longer mother and daughter, but two souls sharing one of the most intimate gifts that life has to offer.
After a lifetime of confusion, doubt and regret – interlaced with great love, passion and deep family bonds, my mother at last made peace with life – and death – in her final days, and I was graced to be the one who shared the long final nights with her as she wrestled with her demons and prepared to move into the next adventure. My siblings and I were on a schedule by her bedside, so that she was never alone, and I had volunteered to take the night shift. All of the personal history between us was dissolved during those long nights together, and by the time she passed on, we were just two souls sharing one of the most intimate gifts that life has to offer. No longer mother and daughter, no more regrets, disappointments or resentments. Just two hearts opening more and more as the great mystery of Death moved quietly into the room and waited patiently for her to accept his outstretched hand.
During the weeks that I was there I kept a journal and sent periodic emails to a circle of friends that helped me to process all that I was experiencing. When I returned home, it was to the news that one of my closest friends and mentors had just been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, and I went immediately into a routine of spending long days by his hospital bedside, supporting him as best as I could as he underwent emergency surgery, went through many tests and procedures and then began his first round of chemotherapy. With great humility and awe, I recognized that in spite of the long internal struggle over my decision to move on from my role at the studio, that I had all along been guided by a clear message from the Divine that my attention and energy would soon be needed elsewhere. With my time freed up from the day to day responsibilities of running the center, I found myself able to be there without distraction, both for my mother, and now for my friend who faces a long journey with this master teacher that we call Cancer. The lessons I have been learning, as someone who is sitting bedside, have been some of the greatest spiritual teachings of my life so far.
So I thought it might be of some value to share with you all some of the insights and challenges that life has brought my way through these past few months. Probably the easiest way to do this is to share some excerpts from the journal & emails that helped me give voice to the great movement of Spirit through my heart as I traveled deeper into the realm of the Great Mystery…
(This is a long one, so take it in doses… ? )
Wednesday, December 1 – 6:00 am
It’s very early morning, still dark, sitting by the bedside of my sweet mama, who is transitioning into her next adventure. She is not expected to stay in this body for more than a few weeks or months at most. Last night I felt surrounded by a peaceful and soft energy in her room. A light snowfall began just after dark, and I sat watching the big snowflakes drift by the window as the noises of the hospital quieted down and I began my vigil by her side. The nursing staff is so loving, respectful and kind – I feel like I’m surrounded by angels. All my judgments of “western medicine – ugg!” have flown away as I receive their support and help with a grateful, humble heart.
She is resting quietly, slipping in and out of lucidity, seems to be communing with the spirits of her loved ones as she prepares to make the journey. There is a picture of her and my father by her bedside – they were very young, in their 20s, madly in love. I can feel his presence so strongly, calling to her to come and join him. There was a lot of confusion and pain between my father and me during his life, an awful drama of abuse and betrayal – but after more than twenty years of hard work on this wound, I am hoping that the pure forgiveness that I feel for him in my heart will radiate out to her, and allow her to move peacefully and joyously into his waiting arms.
Big waves of grief coming and going, deep pockets of still unresolved pain, regret, shame and sorrow. My brother Mike held me last night when I first arrived, as I wept and poured out all my regrets about not having been a good enough daughter, all my “if onlys” and “what ifs” tumbling out of me like a rushing river. Having a brother like him is such a blessing – words cannot express my gratitude for him!
This is where my yoga and teaching will unfold now, taking it off the mat for sure, hopefully guiding me in showing up as a humble servant in the healing process for our whole big, complicated family. During the night as I sat by her side, I visualized her surrounded by a bubble of light, then the same for me, and then gradually I placed a larger bubble around the two of us, encompassing our individual light bubbles. Very healing, very loving. So much deep healing still at work in my soul with this woman whose life and mine were so complexly intertwined. My prayer now is the one I use from my 12-step work:
“God/dess, I offer myself to you, to build with me and do with me as you will. Release me from the bondage of self, that I may better do your will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of your power, your love, and your way of life. May I do your will always.”
So yes, my Divine Guide surely knew what she was doing when she sent me the message to release my role at the studio. My work is elsewhere right now, and I am feeling very blessed and honored to be entrusted with this service.
Wednesday, December 1 – 4:00pm
A big day for Mom. A lot of doctors coming in and out to check on her, to see if she was ready to be released. The palliative care director came and spoke with me out in the hall, and her eyes welled up with tears as she saw my pain when she told me that the best thing now was to keep her as comfortable as possible as she approached death. As she said good-bye, we hugged and I told her how grateful I was for her kindness and care.
Throughout the morning, I massaged Mom’s swollen feet and hands and that helped the swelling go down quite a bit. At first I was reluctant to do this, since my mother has always been a very modest and private person – it seemed such an intimate thing to do. But I asked first, and she said she would like it, and then later said how good it felt, so I continued off and on for several hours.
The hospital discharged her to go back to her nursing home, and around 11am two EMT men came in to move her onto a stretcher and into the ambulance for the ride back. I asked if I could ride in the ambulance with her, and they graciously consented. Mom had been agitated and irritable, and it was hard to tell what exactly was going on – perhaps she was just feeling confusion and fear about all of the commotion she’d been through in the last few days. As I sat by her side during the ride, I felt the presence of my father’s spirit very strongly. When I closed my eyes to center myself, I saw him so clearly, kneeling by her side, stroking her hair and kissing her forehead, telling her how much he loved her. She winced and pulled away from him, saying, “Don’t look at me! I’m so old!” and he smiled softly and said, “Look at me – I’m old too! See, we’ve grown old together just like we always wanted to.” (My father had died over twenty years ago.) Then she relaxed and looked into his eyes, and he just held her eyes in his smile. So beautiful, I felt tears rolling softly down my cheeks and I had to stifle a sob, my heart was so full.
Thursday, December 2 – 11:00am
Last night was a bit restless for Mom – apparently it was quite a strain all of the events of yesterday, moving from the hospital, getting resettled into her room at the nursing home, etc. Her breathing was labored throughout the night, she was coughing quite a bit, and kept asking for water. Her roommate was also very restless – getting up and down, turning on the lights, talking loudly in her sleep. All in all, not a very restful night for any of us!
This morning at around 6:30am Mom suddenly wanted to get dressed and up out of bed. Just as she had settled in to the table and had a few small bites of food, she said she felt terrible and needed to go back to her room right away. Meanwhile, my sister Barb had come in to change shifts with me, but I decided to stay on since Mom was agitated. When we laid her down in her bed she looked up and me with great fear in her eyes, and said, “I feel like I’m dying.” I reassured her and told her that her body was very weak from how sick she’s been, and that she would feel a little better once she got some rest, although I was quite alarmed by her condition.
By the time we got her back into bed she had broken out in a clammy sweat, had patches of deep purple under her eyes and on the inside of her lips and tongue. I went back to the nurse to tell her and she said she thought she was having an allergic reaction to the medication, which apparently she’s never taken before. So she called her doctor, who prescribed benadryl for the allergic symptoms, and said to switch her back to her former sleep medication for tonight.
I massaged Mom’s feet and legs with lotion, which seemed to soothe her a lot, and then dabbed her forehead and neck with a cool washcloth, which she said felt really good. Then she said she needed to go to the bathroom, which the nurses helped her with – a good sign that she was finally able to pass a little something through. Finally she was able to relax and fall into what appeared to be a deep sleep. Then Barb and I went to talk with Sharon, the hospice nurse, who had arrived around 10:00 to do the first check-in exam with Mom.
We had a meeting with Sharon, who is very sensitive and caring. She talked about the whole issue of whether to bring up the fact of Mom’s imminent passing with her, or to just wait for her to bring it up. We told her what Mom had said about feeling like she was dying. She said that she likes to be open and honest with her patients, so that they have a chance to prepare and to be able to deal with the emotions that will inevitably come up, both in her and in her loved ones coming to visit. She said she would probably have this talk with Mom tomorrow, depending on her condition, definitely giving her today to recuperate from the move of yesterday and the allergic reaction to the drug.
She told us that it is most likely just a matter of weeks that Mom has left, although of course no one knows that for sure – she could take a turn and go even more quickly. She assured us that she will be very straightforward with all of us, so that we can be prepared. She said that once she stops drinking water, it will be just a matter of days before she passes on. Even small sips of water from time to time will not be enough to keep her body functioning.
It was a very sobering, very honest and intimate discussion, and I felt deeply grateful for the whole hospice movement, and how these workers are so skilled in helping us to deal with such a natural process as death without all of the denial and terror that can so often accompany it when it is not openly acknowledged and respected. Sharon said that one of the most valuable parts of this whole hospice experience is that it gives everyone involved an opportunity to come to terms and bring resolution to their relationship with the loved one who is passing on. So she said she will talk with Mom about how some members of the family may have difficulty seeing her like this, and may need to talk with her openly about their feelings and so forth, and that she is going to encourage Mom to allow that to happen. That it will be part of Mom’s process of preparing to move on, just as much as it will be healing for the family member in helping them to let her go. She also told us that there is a counselor/social worker and chaplain available for all of us, if we would like someone to talk with openly about our feelings and reactions as the process continues.
Barb and I talked about how we sense that Mom is beginning to feel and see the spirits of loved ones who have passed on, and that this is the beginning of the process of her making the transition. She seems to be moving in and out of time frames – sometimes in the past (as when she suddenly opened her eyes at dawn and told me she had to get up to go out and buy coffee and milk for “all the crowd that’s coming later”. I assured her that we had plenty of coffee and supplies, that it was all taken care of. She seemed to be back in our old house on Fairview Avenue preparing for some big family gathering. (I guess that’s how we often seemed to her, like “a crowd” !) At other times she seems to be drifting into the future, she gets a dreamy look in her eyes as if she’s looking beyond this world into the next.
I wasn’t sure if my being there through the night was helpful or not. At one point she asked me with obvious irritation in her voice, “Why are you still here? I’m okay!” But then she would call out for me throughout the night, and seemed to be grateful that I was there to offer her sips of water and so forth. Then later by mid-morning she was sighing and saying how wonderful it was to have me there, massaging her feet and hands, and how much she appreciated my being there. She said, “Everyone feels better with you here.” Not sure who she meant by “everyone!” She looked up at me and smiled sweetly and said, “Catty Ann is here” and I kissed her and said, “Yes, Momsie, Catty Ann is here.” Then she called me by all of my old childhood nicknames, one by one, “Kitty Kat, Kitten Katten, Catty Cat” and we both chuckled softly. I kissed her forehead, stroking her hair and said, “Catty Ann is here with Panny” and we both giggled. (Panny was her childhood nickname.) Then when I was getting ready to leave, I asked her if she would like me to stay tonight again, and she said “Oh, yes, please! You’ve been so helpful!” So I guess that answered my doubts.
So I’ll be back again tonight, and as many nights as is needed. I’m not too worried about the lack of sleep – I’m getting a bit of rest at Mike’s in between, and I have no responsibilities while I’m here other than just being of service in whatever way I can.
Thursday, December 6 – 5:00pm
So many feelings rolling like waves through the turbulent sea of my heart. One scene from early this morning kept playing out in my mind’s eye. When Mom suddenly decided she wanted to go to breakfast this morning, I called the wonderfully kind attendant, Mary, who came to help me. She said, “Ann, we need to clean you up, honey, before you can get dressed. We’re gonna give you a little bath, okay, sweetheart?” Mom looked up with those little girl eyes and said “Okay, that would be nice. Thank you very much.” I asked Mom if she would like for me to massage her swollen legs a bit as Mary was washing her, and she said, “Oh yes, that would feel so good.”
So I began softly rubbing her legs and feet as Mary drew up her nightie and began to remove her “diaper.” Immediately I turned away out of respect for my mother’s modesty, but somehow that began to feel not right. It seemed as though I were reinforcing a sense of shame at her vulnerable condition, and so I slowly turned around to face her and to help Mary with her washing. Mom looked up at me briefly, as if to see if I would have a reaction of embarrassment or even disgust at her swollen, disfigured body. Our eyes met and I gave her a little smile and said, “We’re gonna get you all cleaned up, Momsie, then you can go down to breakfast in your nice clothes.” She smiled and relaxed into our care. The nurse on duty came to help out in turning her onto her side this way and that so that we could clean her whole body.
It was one of the most profoundly intimate experiences of my life – to wash my mother’s naked, vulnerable, ravaged body with tenderness and love and deep respect. I kept having the image of the three Mary’s washing the battered body of Jesus after he was brought down from the cross and finally handed into their care. And I realized with a shock that I had never seen my mother’s naked body in my entire life! How much shame and secrecy we have in our society about our bodies – a wave of sadness washed over me with this thought. After we had finished the sponge bath, we began to dress her. She was relaxed and calm and accepted my help peacefully. I drew her arms into her blouse and lowered it over her head as Mary helped ease her pretty blue slacks up over her legs. She looked beautiful!
Monday, December 6
The room was dark when I arrived Thursday evening, and my sister Maysie was sitting quietly in the armchair by Mom’s bed. She came out into the hall to fill me in on her condition: restless, a bit agitated, having trouble setting down for the night. We hugged, then looked deeply into each others’ eyes, expressing what words could never reach, the longings of a lifetime, the bond of love and sorrow that can feel almost unbearably sweet and tender. She left, and I began to quietly arrange my little pad by Mom’s bedside, hoping we might both be able to catch a few hours’ sleep. But that was not to be.
“Is that you, Catty?” she called out into the darkness as I moved quietly around the room. I bent down to kiss her forehead, “Yes, Momsie, it’s me. I’m here now. Let’s try to get some rest, okay?” Her little voice squeaked out, “Okay, that would be nice. I’m so tired.”
So I sat down on my pad by her bed and began to do some gentle yoga stretches to help me relax and unwind, then settled into what I hoped would be a half hour or so of meditation to center and quiet my mind.
But after about five minutes Mom called out, “Cathy? Cathy? Where are you?”
So I jumped up and knelt by her bed, “I’m here, Momsie. I’m right here. What do you need?”
“Oh, you’re here. Oh… should I go to sleep now? I’m so tired.”
I stroked her hair and whispered, “Yes, Momsie, go to sleep now. It’s time to go to sleep.”
“Okay. Let’s go to sleep. I’m so tired.”
“Yes, go to sleep now…” I murmured and kissed her again.
And I went back to my pad and had just settled in to meditate when she called out again, “Cathy, where are you?”
And we repeated the same scene over and over and over, probably ten or fifteen times over the next couple of hours. Sometimes she would ask for a sip of water. Sometimes she would say she had to go to the bathroom, and I would reassure her that she could just go because she had a tube in her that would take the urine away. And always she would end by saying, “I just want to go to sleep. I’m so tired.” To which I would reply, “Yes, go to sleep now, Momsie. It’s time for bed.”
Her mind was becoming more and more confused, and her voice began to sound more vulnerable and weak and frightened. After a while she asked me who the “two men” were who were standing behind me. Her eyes had a far-away look, but she didn’t seem frightened by their appearance.
So I said calmly, “They’re just coming to visit.”
And she said, “Oh, okay,” and seemed to be listening to something they were telling her.
Later she asked, “Who’s that little girl over there?”
Again I said, “Oh, she’s just here to see you for a while.”
This went on – spirits coming through to speak with her? Hallucinations of a rambling mind? Who knows…. Then after a while Mom began to get quite agitated, and kept saying over & over, “I just want to go home. Please help me go home.” She said she had left her two little boys alone at home and needed to get to them. I told her I would be sure that they were okay. Her mind was slipping more and more into the past, and it was as though she were going back and revisiting every home she’d ever lived in, and sorting out what was still unfinished there. At one point I walked her through the big old house where she raised all her children…
“Look, Momsie, see everyone around the dining room table. And look, there’s some of the kids watching TV, and there are some out in the backyard jumping on the trampoline. See, everyone’s here. Everyone’s fine.”
The night rolled on like this, and it felt like we’d entered a strange time warp, filled with demons from the past and wild, unnameable night-terrors. At one point she accused me of kidnapping her and taking her away from her home. All I could do was to keep reassuring her that everything was okay, that I was there with her, that she was safe. I had opened the blinds so that the first hint of dawn would be apparent, and sure enough finally the sky began to grow lighter.
“Look, Momsie, the night is over! You made it through! Now you can rest.” Her eyes looked so worried, and I asked her, “Is there something worrying you?” And she said, “Yes.” I asked, “Would it help to talk about it?” And she nodded her head, and said, “My children… I’m worried about all the tragedies my children have had.”
So I went down the line, starting with my oldest brother, all the way to my younger brother Mike, and talked about how each of them had made it through hard times and now had loving families of their own. She finally relaxed a bit, and I said, “See Mom, everyone is okay now. Yes, our lives have been tough at time, but we’re strong. It’s okay for you to relax and rest.”
I looked at the clock – it was 6:30am, and I felt a wave of panic move through me, and the thought – I can’t do this alone any longer! I knew that no one was scheduled to come to relieve me until 9 or 9:30, so I found my phone and turned it on, intending to call Maysie and tell her she should come right over. There was a text from her waiting for me – she had a feeling that she was needed.
Maysie got there with half an hour, and together we sat with Mom as she grew more and more disoriented. The little girl appeared again, and then there seemed to be a whole banquet of food around her. She would reach out, take something in her hand and slowly eat it, savoring each mouthful. Maysie and I would say softly, “That’s good, Mom. You need to eat. You need the nourishment. Eat as much as you like.”
Finally the hospice nurse arrived and spoke with us while an attendant stayed with Mom. She said it was time to start calling the family – that this is the stage that they call “terminal agitation” when the end is very near. I told her that I had kept having the feeling throughout the night that I was a midwife, and my mother was in the throes of a long and difficult labor. Her spirit was trying to being born from her body, but her body was fighting the release.
Over the next few hours, family members began to arrive. The day took on a mystical, surreal quality, as some brought their guitars to sing to her, others read poems, and all took turns stroking her hair, kissing her and telling her how loved she was. She gradually drew away from us, her eyes moving off into a world that we could only speculate about, she stopped talking, and her breathing became more and more shallow. At around 8pm, her spirit quietly slipped out of her body.
Later my siblings and I decided to snip locks of her hair for each of us to keep as a way to remember her and honor her. Since she had decided to donate her body to science, there was some feeling of sadness that we would have no grave to visit where her body would be held, or a spot where her ashed would be scattered, so this felt like a sweet alternative – to keep a little lock of her hair so that her presence could be always felt. As my sisters and I snipped her beautiful white hair, we thanked her for being such a great teacher, for all that she had taught us about life. As we spoke together quietly later, we acknowledged that in fact this was the deepest truth – we had learned all there is to learn in life from watching our mother, both what works to bring happiness and peace, and what does not…
So….. there you have it. Quite a journey for all of us. And just a few more things that I’d like to share, lest anyone be tempted to turn this into a yardstick to measure their own experiences against. Remember that each of our lives – and deaths – are completely personal and unique. I can imagine that someone could hear an account like this: a 94 year old matriarch dies a beautiful, peaceful death, surrounded by her large loving family – and use it as a “compare and despair” story. There is no one “right” way for death, or life, to unfold.
It makes me think of one of Paul’s and my closest friends, Bert, who passed away about ten years ago from cancer. He had never married, had no children, just a small circle of friends, was a retired musician who didn’t believe in God or spirituality at all. He used to say, “Don’t talk to me about that spirituality b.s.! When we die, it’s over! That’s it!” And this made total sense to him, and he was fine with it. He died in a hospital in the city, with just one person by his side – Paul, who told me that as Bert slipped into a light coma, he leaned down and whispered into his ear, “Hey Kiddo (that was Bert’s favorite term for good friends) – “you’ve had a great life. It’s okay to let it go now. We all love you.” And Bert quietly – and just as peacefully as my mother – slipped away.
The other thing is that I can also imagine that people might be tempted to put me up on a pedestal – “Oh, how wonderful that she was there for her mother, so full of forgiveness and selfless love. I don’t think I could do that…etc. etc.” …blah blah blah… Let me reassure you that my ego was constantly on the watch for opportunities to puff itself up. Don’t think it didn’t cross my mind, MANY times, how impressed everyone would be when they heard I had stayed up all night – three nights in a row! – with my dying mother. And how calm and centered I remained throughout the whole ordeal. More than a little bit of spiritual smugness was most definitely creeping in to stake out its territory. There were even moments when I have to admit, thoughts such as this crossed my mind: “I bet so-and-so wasn’t this present and dedicated when her mother died!”
It reminds me of a wonderful parody that a comedy group popular in NYC clubs in the 70s used to do: an outrageously bouffanted country singer would stand up at the microphone and with the sweetest smile, belt out the opening lines of her song: “Jesus loves me more than he loves you!” Oh yes, I can relate – in the yoga world it usually takes the form of finding ways to drop details in conversation about how often and for how long one meditates or does yoga or what a close and special relationship one has with one’s “spirit guides.” The ego just loves these kinds of spiritual competitions. So don’t take the bait. I’m no more or less spiritual or evolved than any one of you. I wrestled with my own pettiness and selfish demands throughout the weeks that I was there with my mother and the rest of my family. In fact at one point I was fuming with resentment over what I perceived to be the controlling, dismissive way that one of my older sisters was treating me (clearly she was not recognizing just how self-sacrificing I was being!), and I spent hours concocting elaborate schemes to publicly discredit and expose her. Luckily my aforementioned brother was available for a bit of “process time” in the nursing home’s chapel – after a good ranting vent (my brother admired my creative usage of curse words!), I was able to go back and restrain myself from carrying out my plans of revenge.
And this little amusing tidbit: around 2 am of the third night, as I walked down the corridor to speak with the night nurse, I noticed a scale over in a corner. Sheepishly I went over to it, stepped on, thinking “I’ve been up for days, haven’t eaten much… I bet I’ve lost weight!” When I shared this story with one of my nieces who had lost her mother and older sister to cancer five years ago, as we talked about how petty we can be even in the midst of great sorrows, she laughed and said, “Oh yes, my sisters and I call it “the family tragedy diet! – great way to lose weight!” and we had a really good laugh together.
And so as the weeks pass, I’ve come to see that my mother’s death was truly the greatest gift she ever gave to me. In her dying, she allowed me to share in her confusion, regret, fear and doubt. She was perfectly and beautifully human in her vulnerability and need for comfort and support. By witnessing her final struggle to make sense of her life, to release the fears and regrets of a lifetime, I was given permission to step fully into the often confusing and stormy world where my life plays out. While I like to say that I feel her spirit with me now, who knows if that’s really what I’m feeling? It could just be my own need to feel her with me. The greatest thing I learned at her bedside through those long nights was that in fact, I know very little, maybe nothing at all! That life is indeed a huge mystery, and the best I can do is bow down in humility, and ask for support, comfort and guidance as I do my best to open my heart wider and wider, and express my willingness to live fully, enthusiastically and with great abandon so as not to waste this precious gift of life as a human being, a fragile, weak, vulnerable, petty – and also powerful, glorious and stunning – human being.
Perhaps the biggest teaching through all of this, and continuing now with my role as support person for my friend who is facing cancer, is a kind of graduate course in learning to release my addiction to having things be the way I think they should be, the way I want them to be. When I spend long days and nights in a hospital or nursing home setting, almost nothing is the way I think it should be, and certainly not how I want it to be. And the teaching keeps coming up: Can I just show up, and relax with things as they are. Can I meet life on life’s terms, and look for the small openings that lead into little miracles of love and connection? I’ll leave you with this little vignette from my days spent up at the hospital where my friend has been:
Lincoln Hospital is a big public hospital in the South Bronx, and it often feels like you’ve entered a chaotic beehive when you walk through the main entrance. The tension, stress, confusion and fear are palpable. There is a large reception desk where you go to have your picture taken and get your visitor ID tag. Three or four people sit behind this desk at their computers, signing you in. There is one woman who sits in the middle that I like to wait in line to get, even if it means letting other people go ahead of me. She always greets everyone with a big smile and asks how your day is going. Then after she asks for the name of the patient and prints out the ID, she looks you right in the eye and says – in her Bronx Nuyorican accent, “I hope when you get upstairs you find your dear one feeling much better than when you left him. God bless you both, and have a beautiful visit, Mami.
The other day I told her how much I enjoyed seeing her each time I come there, and that she really makes a difference in my day just by her simple greeting. She said, “Well, we all gotta do our share, right? It’s a tough life, and we might as well try to sweeten it whenever we can, tu sabe? Keep smiling, sweetheart, you got a beautiful smile!”
Angels everywhere, performing (as Paul likes to say) acts of random kindness and senseless love.
Peace & blessings to you all,