(Continued from Part VIII: Advance Directives: Dying Inside Our Big, Hairy Healthcare System)
The hubster and I just spent five glorious day up in the Sawtooth Mountains.
Snowshoeing. With heavy packs. Uphill. Both ways.
It sure seemed like it though. The snowshoe into the family cabin at the beginning of any trip is always a bitch and this was no exception–a two mile trek from the highway to the cabin, uphill with fully loaded packs, after a four and a half hour drive to get there. The bad news was that the trail wasn’t groomed like we were expecting so Dane the Mangy Rescue Mutt (with bad knee and brace) started really struggling in the deeper powder. (He made it though, and we’re more confident about his knee now than we have been in a while.)
The good news was that we got a late start leaving home so we didn’t actually strap the snowshoes on and start up the hill until about 8:00 pm. It was already dark and the stars that night…the stars my friends…were outrageous. It was one of the clearest nights we’ve ever seen and that’s saying a lot. We rarely use flashlights because 1) you really don’t need them once your eyes adjust and 2) the electric light is so bright it dims the night sky.
As you may have heard, there was a spectacular crescent Moon/Venus/Jupiter conjunction going on last weekend and, sure enough, that trinity was hanging just over the silhouette of snow capped mountains as we got started. However, the moon set after only twenty minutes so we had to content ourselves with a radiant swathe of Milky Way arcing over our heads from horizon to horizon while thousands of other constellations and stars filled the rest of the sky bowl curving down to the ground on either side of it. (We made do.) Meanwhile, the snow reflected all that diffuse light back into the air so that after a while it felt almost like we were trudging through a softly glowing snow globe. I couldn’t get enough of it. I just couldn’t. I’m sure my face would have gotten frostbite from staring up through the bitter wind for almost two hours, except that my skin was too hot to freeze. The heavy exertion was making me huff and puff and sweat like a pig. (The hubster loved the stars too but was more preoccupied with trying to recall what were the exact symptoms of a heart attack.)
(Photo courtesy of Steve Jurvetson)
We’re getting older. There’s no denying it. And we’re not sure how many more times we’ll get to have these kinds of adventures. Physical limits are getting harder to ignore. But so far we’ve pushed on anyway because when you think about it, there are far worse ways to die than collapsing cradled in the wild beauty of high mountains while gazing up into pure, celestial wonder for the last time.
But not until we’ve finished our advance directives of course.
We packed these documents in along with everything else and spent one of our days at the cabin, pens in hand with a snowstorm raging outside, finally filling the things out. It was surprisingly emotional. We found it was one thing to sit and diligently read through them over the course of a few weekends, and something else entirely to actually write in our various notations, initial the desired boxes, and sign on the dotted line with each other as witnesses.
Everything suddenly got very final and real, and I kept hearing a heavy door swing shut with a key turning in the lock. At first I struggled with the feeling that, by signing the thing, I was somehow giving up all my rights and instinctively, I started backing away and questioning the wisdom of the whole project. I was surprised at how powerful…how primal…the wave of fear was.
But then I remembered something we’d read earlier, that if worst ever comes to worst and I’m finally lying unconscious and helpless and vulnerable somewhere, Somebody is going to step in and start making decisions for me. Whether I’ve filled out an advance directive or not. Whether I’ve picked them to be the person or not. Whether they know what I want or not. And I suddenly got it…on a deep, gut level…that my advance directive is not the thing that will strip me of control and make me silent and helpless, it’s the thing that will help protect me in case I ever am.
That helped my resolve firm again and I was able to continue.
The hubster told me later that the fear he faced arose from a sudden and overwhelming realization that he will, absolutely, someday just cease to exist. Poof. Evidently, it was a huge moment for him but I never would have guessed it. He didn’t look like he was sitting there reeling from the blinding, existential awareness of total, inescapable, physical annihilation to come. From the outside he just looked absorbed. Studying the paper in his hands, reading glasses perched on the end of his nose. It’s not that he was trying to hide his fear from me, that’s just the way he is. His courage is so unconscious most of the time that he usually doesn’t even realize that’s what’s going on.
We read and scribbled and talked about things for hours. Sometimes we laughed, I cried some, but mostly we took turns trying to explain what we were afraid of, what we longed for, and how much we loved. The process flushed out things that had been hidden and dormant for a long time. Tenuous hopes and secret dreads, things to be examined, cradled in tender hands, and then placed into each others’ keeping in a final gesture of deep trust.
I’ve been really surprised throughout this whole process at the huge relationship component involved in filling out these forms. Maybe because it was also a research project for me and we took so much time with it, maybe because we did it together as partners, I don’t really know but I tell you, it’s added a whole new level of meaning to Till death do us part. Overall it’s been a healing journey full of deepening intimacy for the hubster and I. We’ve shared things we didn’t know we hadn’t shared, and revealed things we didn’t even know ourselves until now.
I guess if there was any advice I could give out of everything we’ve learned so far it would be this:
Do your advance directives together. Find someone else who hasn’t done their’s yet, or who hasn’t looked at it in a long time if they have, and hold hands as you walk through it. The person you pick doesn’t have to be the same person who will be your medical proxy. (Although, if experience is any guide, you may want them to be by the time you’re done.) And it doesn’t have to be only one other person either. It could be a group…if you could find that many people brave enough. I strongly suspect that this is one area of life where the maxim There’s strength in numbers holds especially true. If you can possibly help it, don’t try to take this journey alone.
And take your time with it. Break the process down over a few days or weeks. If you let yourself sit with the questions for a while, you may be surprised by some of the answers that come up. I know we were.
Y’know, it’s kind of funny. In walking through our advance directives, it almost felt like an opportunity to practice for the real thing…for dying…from a safe distance. Emotionally speaking I mean. In our imaginations the hubster and I got to slip on the experience of profound vulnerability and dependence that goes with dying temporarily, while we’re still healthy and vital and strong. It was scary in some ways, but far less so than what I’d imagine it would be like facing it for the very first time in extremis.
And we got the chance to start honing a couple of the emotional skills that are essential to have during dying…things like the ability to surrender to the inevitable, to be openly vulnerable and reveal our needs to one another, to gratefully accept the help that’s offered and to be dependent gracefully. Things that, in our culture anyway, we tend to think of as weaknesses or failings, and yet they’re not. Those are things that actually require tremendous courage and strength. I didn’t realize how much before. To openly accept the willingness of another human being to step up and care for us isn’t easy, and accepting it with dignity is rare. (Especially for somebody as controlling as I am.) And yet the hubster confided a couple days ago that, during this whole process, he’s felt increasingly overwhelmed and touched by the depth of my trust. Our willingness to open up and be vulnerable with each other turned out to be, not a burden, but a gift.
So anyway, these are just a couple of the things we discovered while filling out our advance directives. It’s been a beautiful, frightening, surprising, hard, uplifting, sorrowful, strengthening, sobering, illuminating and profoundly intimate journey for us both.
And it’s still not over! Next, we’ve set up an evening to meet with the people whom we’ve selected as our alternative medical proxies, to get their consent and share our advance directives with them. Then we need to get the forms notarized, witnessed, copied, distributed and filed. (Note: Because Idaho’s laws place unusually high hurdles to a simple, low intervention dying process, we’re taking precautionary legal steps with our advance directives that wouldn’t be necessary in most other states. It’s extra insurance against something that probably won’t happen but still…better safe than sorry.)
And then, after we get ours taken care of, I’ve got the kids in my sights for theirs.
To wind this up, here are a series of photographs taken of some icicles hanging outside the cabin window during our recent stay. The changes they went through over the days we were there feel similar to the changes the hubster and I have gone through on this whole journey with advance directives.
Stage One: Glowing and happy from the previous night’s starlit adventure. Delicate, sparkly and naive:
Stage 2. Advance Directives Day–blasted by the elements, bewildered, and storm bent. Not so sparkly anymore, but still…multiplying and stronger:
Stage 3. Skies are clearing, brunt of the work is done. The amount of growth that happened during the storm is kind of surprising. Thicker, longer, and a lot more:
Stage 4. Older, calmer, wiser, stronger. Not so much sparkling as glowing. We’re a lot more confident now that we can weather the storm.
copyright Dia Osborn 2012