Sunday, January 22, 2012
In December 1996, the Pacific Northwest, where I live, was hit by a huge ice storm. As “The Evergreen State” Washington is known for its beautiful tall forests of trees. At the time our hillside house backed up to several acres of undeveloped wooded property. It was semi-rural living close to town.
One night, as many people around here will remember, Mother Nature’s coldest rain clung to each of the naked branches of deciduous trees and greenery. Then it froze. Our entire community became an ice sculpture of itself as a gloss of translucent whiteness covered houses and lawns and streets, and of course, the trees. It was beautiful as only ice can be. But beneath the beauty and awe, danger waited. Ice is brittle, and heavy.
During one of those nights the tree branches began giving way to gravity. In the most stillest and darkest of night a sound of gunfire echoed through the forest behind us. Pow! Then another. Crack, it would reverberate. But this was not gunfire, it was the fall of branches. The ice was bringing down branch after branch falling tens of feet to the ground. It went on all night. I remember thinking that this is what it must sound like in a civilian war zone, where fear and sound and darkness keeps you wide-eyed all night. I worried for those who suffer military action PTSD as it could surely cause flashbacks. Nine year old Leah slept between us.
When daylight came there was light coming through the forest behind us. More light than ever, leaving us feeling vulnerable to the view to and from our distant neighbors that once was hidden. In the aftermath of storm there was a perfect thinning of the stand of trees that no trained forester could have created.
Once the danger passed, and the air cleared and the modern convenience of electricity was restored (We were out for 11 days during this storm!) it was evident that the fury of nature can also be the wisdom of nature. The following Spring the greenery that is Washington State flourished. It was given breathing room as the flora and fauna responded to new growth-promoting light. Mother Nature knows.
This past week we saw the ice cling to the branches again. In our more urban setting the damage was limited to a couple of big branches. When the ice melted and left the backyard naked again, I could see more lineal board feet of fence than ever before. Light streams more brightly through the open air. Our neighborhood boundary greenbelts are thinned just like the forest behind our house had been 15 years ago.
This is a long way around to a very important awakening in this household. Wednesday’s snow storm turned to ice. The back yard was glistening with the familiar translucent whiteness. Beauty and danger. Electrical transformers and power lines fell along with our comfort of modern day conveniences under the brittle and heavy weight of ice. Only this time the fallout included life-giving oxygen for Dave.
We were without electricity for 28 hours.
* * * * *
In writing there is the what. In death there is the event. But it is the subsequent step of delving into so what that is important to understand and make meaning of any what. In our storm, the what is ice and fallen branches or trees and lack of electricity. The so what is seeing that we can’t really fool Mother Nature. She knows that sometimes we must clear out a few things in order to make other things flourish. Even if it is painful and difficult and there is loss.
This most recent storm brings along with it an analogy of new growth on this journey of living and dying. The storm was very harsh for Dave. He was without supporting oxygen for six hours. He was cold, weak and felt helpless. He had to work at breathing. I know now. There was a lot I couldn’t know while we were in the storm. I had my own perspective. We had been through storms before, without electricity before. It is survivable.
But Dave faced a perspective that said perhaps this wasn’t survivable. He has seen where he might draw a line in the sand to dare not cross. He never wants to go through a power outage again.
The so what result of the storm is that we have now began the most difficult end-of-life conversation I have been trying to approach without much headway. Dave knows, and I know he knows, that he will die. He isn’t ready to die he says. But now we acknowledge that just because he isn’t ready doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
After the storm, yesterday, we sat and talked. We dug deeply into life and death. I told him about the hour and a half I sat by the bedside trying to awaken him for his scheduled medicine. What was said. How I felt. What response or none response that I observed. He didn’t know.
Now we know. We both know that there are things I see and hear that he doesn’t. We know there are goings on and things he hears and see that I don’t. We understand that even if he is not ready to die, it can and will happen anyway.
He is facing his first fears of where this journey will eventually take him. Well, it is not a matter of confronting his fears actually, but talking aloud about them. Our conversation opened on the topic that if he talks about it then it becomes real and perhaps true. My response is that if he doesn’t talk about the end of his life, death is going to come regardless. Scary words.
There is much more to our conversation but for the outside world what is important, in my opinion, is that we are talking. And the question is not that broad inarticulate “how are you?” or even the secondary “where are you at?” (I’ve tried those approaches before) or the “don’t you know you’re dying?” I’ve wanted to yell at him on occasion, but the question had to be aimed at “Are you perceiving/experiencing/aware of the same things I am?” The short answer is often “no.”
So,we have broken the ice on the subject of his death. Can you believe that? (I didn’t see this statement coming!) “Breaking the ice” paves way to growth. When we can talk about this time of life, then we can begin to talk to others. There is no secret lurking any longer. He can’t be perplexed as to why I called to have the nurse come earlier than her usual schedule. I don’t have to look at him quizzically when he wonders why Leah was not leaving the house, but going to go sleep on the couch. We may have to repeat ourselves because our level of consciousness and cognition for each other’s world is changing. I think we are fortunate our path is widening together before it splits in the necessary separate directions.
Dave and I are thinkers. We’ve built our marriage on friendship and discourse. It starts with intellectual questioning and observation. This gives us the opening doorway to explore the so what of feelings and understanding and communication. In my experience, once the thoughts are voiced aloud (for me, this voice is now through writing) then we can give the thoughts due attention. In our case, the conversation about death gives us the opportunity for mutual understanding, forgiveness, validation and expression of true love.
What started as an ice storm has become breaking the ice. Beyond our so what will be our writer’s now what awaiting another chapter and the required attention duly noted. But I also find in this analogy of storms and trees and broken limbs is a bigger picture of life and death – nature’s circle. Dave is our old tree now vulnerable to wind and ice, even just falling over, or whatever nature has in store. Sometimes we can see the tree is likely to fall. Sometimes Mother Nature comes ravaging through taking out much in its path both young and old, quickly, unexpectedly. Regardless, in its wake is temporary destruction and wounds that will give way to healing scars, new light and even hope. The old tree may fall, but under its branches and decay life continues, and in fact, in nature, becomes the nourishment and the mulch for life yet to come.