Finding Purpose

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

There’s a constant narrative going through my head, especially in the morning; retelling and telling my previous day, my thoughts, my experiences anew. The noise is immense, until I notice a period of silence when I can barely find a thought at all. I am caught in a whirlwind of change and opposites. It is a tug of war between intellect and emotion; the yen / yang seeking harmony; the left / right of brain function. My first words written when I began this journal last Thanksgiving were a working title of My Grief My Joy. Almost six months later I struggle with the same antitheses.

I feel a calmness and purity of love this morning, a bond between Dave and I right now that comes from years of togetherness. It is the ability, or more “being” able, to sit in the same room saying nothing. This is a similar presence I bring, that overcomes me naturally, when I sit by a stranger’s bedside as a hospice volunteer. It is in the same realm, I think, Dave speaks of in not being afraid of death. (I remember when Leah was born and our family nurse noted “calm parents, calm baby.” I have the same deep inner sense of peace of being a new mother. Love? True, unconditional love? Maybe this would be a good time to practice yoga!) I am alive with sensation at the same time I am numb. A point in all directions is the same as no point at all. This pull makes no sense, yet I experience all at once.

In a matter of moments I can go from strong, or perhaps brave, to crying. They are my public and private faces.  Yes, my husband has been admitted to hospice care since I saw you last. Yes, I am dealing with it the best I can. I wish there was something you can do, but I can’t think of anything now, thanks. I am taking care of myself.

Driving Myself To Tears

The car is maybe not a good place for me. Songs, random thoughts, locations can touch off tears. Yesterday I thought I would drop by the funeral home since I would be in the neighborhood. Ha! In the neighborhood. I haven’t wanted to make this call. I’ll stop in, find out what an appointment will entail, maybe get a brochure (really? an 8.5 x 11” trifold glossy?). Go learn what I need to learn. Set up a time so I can let Dave’s kids know when I’ll be meeting.

I drove by the building on my way to my destination, thinking I’ll wait for the return trip to make sure I have enough time. Hmm, yes. Ok, this first appointment went very quickly.

There is a long gentle curve of the four lane roadway on the approach to the cemetery and funeral service office. It is a well traveled main road. As I drive closer, before the curve, I am projecting memories of our granddaughter’s wedding reception at the Masonic Temple a couple of years ago, comforted by knowing there is a base of good memories in this location. I think about what I need to consider… cremation I know, removal of the body, divvying up the cremains. Does every child want a small vial of him? I think of our dog Buck’s ashes in its plain wooden box sitting on our bedroom dresser. I’d like something a bit more commemorative. Leah and I have talked about taking her father and my remains and making them into diamonds. She can wear us out during her most important worldly moments long after we are gone. I’d like you to meet my parents we’d joke. Will we have a service? When? No time soon I hope. I don’t like funerals. Can we send some remains to Red Rock, Western Australia? Would Jim M. be willing to hold a memorial there in our stead? It’s a favorite location Dave has wanted for a send off. What’s the international law for mailing ashes? Would Leah and I make the trip? I flash on the funeral home tour I took for a bereavement volunteer training, the crematorium. My mind visualizes the little display units in the locked mausoleum with photos, mementos and ash urns safely preserving the lives and memories of loved ones in their own niche. Forever. I recall my sister-in-law tell me recently about her feelings of leaving her mother in the cold ground last December while she carries on in her warm home. What will this cost? Does it matter? Can you put a price on a proper ending?

I can feel emotion begin to well up through my chest and spill out through my eyes. This all happens in a matter of a few miles, just moments after the brave front I was proud to get through. I navigate the dust and delays through a seemingly never finished construction zone and long street lights. The closer I approach to the curve, the bigger the tears. I see the old and new headstones dot the busy corner ahead. I’m in the left lane, my car unwilling to stay right for the necessary turn. I think I laughed aloud.  I’m not ready; I’d better call tomorrow. I still have one more stop before I get home. There’s just ten miles before I have to look brave. Like someone who has not been crying. Good luck with that.

Side Note: Choosing a Funeral home

Side note. How does one pick out a funeral home? Could I be interviewing different companies like a bid for a plumbing job? Do you choose a service based on location? There are varying costs that should be compared. I once again can fall back on years of business in this community that served our senior population and work which overlapped the death industry. I know most of the local resources and funeral homes so I know who I want to “do business with.” I have backed up my decision by talking with others having also used this particular company’s services.

My experience planning a funeral is limited. Really, I only played a minor role related to my dad’s death. Even then, many of decisions were already taken care of before his death – the part I am doing now for Dave. The funeral home had been chosen. He was on hospice and died at home. He was buried in the last family plot with his mother, father and sister and a few ancestors in a small cemetery in the town my grandparents met. He was divorced and this was most logical. I am glad to have a place to visit and reflect about the extended family there. It’s a nice, neat little package really.

Almost immediately after Dad died, my brothers, and I think even Leah, met at the funeral home to “make arrangements.” I was content to weigh in, but not sweat the details. I was comfortable just being the youngest sibling. The experience was surreal – dark-suit-and-tie men at heavy wooden desks in a small tastefully decorated room, calmly explaining the paperwork and handing over the tissue. I didn’t feel a need to control any particular aspect of the service toward a specific direction. I subscribe to the protocol for Good Samaritans I learned about in an emergency first aid course long, long ago: Let the person who steps forward be the leader, as long as they do no harm. Even if you (think you) know more. This is not the time to right fight. It is the time to make sure there is safe harbor until the experts arrive. Remember, I don’t like funerals. I’m fascinated by ritual, but don’t like the most American one of all. I guess websites are the place to start for someone who has to navigate this task alone. Weird.

Can Love Make the World Go Around?

I am faced with one other concern as I write and I actively begin my sharing of this blog. What will others think? Writing helps me know what I think for myself. It is especially important now as I work through these difficult steps that separate me from Dave. I am preparing to be alone. I don’t want to discuss everything with Dave that relates to “later” as it only makes the direction of our destiny more evident. We’ve even talked about this, too! So I do make mention or acknowledge that I have certain task such as funeral arrangements, but I don’t necessarily go over the details or the pain of what I have to do. The overall decisions such as cremation have been discussed philosophically between us long ago.

But what will others think? There are many very individual, personal choices to be made at the end of life. One reason our hospice family meeting went so smoothly is that fundamentally everyone is comfortable with Dave’s decisions, the way he lives his life spirituality and philosophically, and they seek to honor his wishes. I seriously doubt that every family is so understanding and together!

But here, what will others think?  Now I step across my cathartic writing and begin to worry about the public response. In many ways it doesn’t matter, but I don’t want to be vulnerable to criticism or other people’s belief system for doing what works for us.

Finding My Purpose

I guess my hope in writing aloud is to help create a place of acceptance; a world of acceptance. If there is one bigger wish that comes out of my grief work– from personal to Storybooks for Healing to volunteer service – it is a yearning for peace among different peoples, the desire to see that we are all human first, perhaps proven by recognizing ourselves in the universality of grief. Then religion, race, gender, and all the other things people point and shoot about are bonds among the subsets rather than reasons to hate another. There are so many people in this world, why do we want to interfere in how some live by decisions that don’t harm anyone?

Should I have to fear that talking about our most personal decision, in this instance to lay a body to rest after life by cremation, will offend someone or bring about a rant on their belief system regardless of relevance to mine, my life or that of my loved ones? How long one fights illness, how many antibiotics, to continue treatment, consider artificial feeding, accept hospice care… there are many small decisions made every day that I never expected. Mostly I struggle with I didn’t know I had to decide, more than what I think is the proper decision. I want to bring to light that these decisions may need to be made, and an emotional rollercoaster is a constant companion. But I know there will be someone somewhere who thinks I am awful for whatever we might choose as Dave’s body and mind travel his unknown road.

Why is there a societal fear of death? Where do the tough conversations belong and who is responsible for getting them started? What about the bigger social choices such as Death with Dignity, funding end-of-life counseling, using medical marijuana, even hospice itself, or any other hushed conversations among professionals? Is it a medical, legal, financial, spiritual, or personal conversation? Each topic is fought vigorously pro and con in State Legislatures and the US Congress. Should any one person’s belief or disbelief in an afterlife dictate another’s options for their care? Will we ever let differences be and accept that choice is not only OK but can be embraced as a celebration of life all around the world? Can we give death as many options as we give birth?

I can only hope that education, dialogue, even experience shared through blogs and social media become the entry point for understanding which ripples outward like a single drop upon a quiet pond. I can only hope that my grief and reflection can mean more than one woman’s words and tears. If so, then being vulnerable and writing for not only me to see what I have to say, but others to see themselves, is worth the risk.

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