Part III: Both The Light And The Darkness Conceal and Reveal

(In Part I and Part II of Chapter 5, I described my quirky attempt to break free of agoraphobia by hiking back into the mountains for three days and three nights alone with my fears.  When I left you last week I’d just come through my greatest terror; that of the sun setting, leaving me alone in the wilderness at night.  Part III is the conclusion.)

The perspective I gained that evening, that darkness delivers a profound gift has, over time, effected a slow yet massive transformation.  Initially, during those three days up in the mountains I clung to the realization primarily as a way to help ease my fear of being alone at night in the wild.  But over the coming years it unfolded in ways I never could have imagined, slowly permeating and changing my understanding of another, more human dimension of darkness; the kind that arises inside us from living with things like pain,  suffering, and death.

It was during this mountain retreat, six years after my grandmother’s death, that I decided to begin my work with hospice and later, by the bedsides of the dying, I wound up experiencing the same sense of revelation and coming home that I’d felt under the evening sky.  All the vulnerable, generous people I worked with were like the stars all over again—shining beings gradually re-emerging as the bodies that had veiled them faded and thinned.  During the hours I spent with them and their loved ones—bathing and turning and wiping and rinsing and listening and laughing and crying—I felt like I’d finagled a seat in their caravan as they journeyed out all together to the farthest edges of life, a beautiful, twilight place that reveals something else, something breathtaking that lies out just beyond.  And as I watched this transformation take place over and over again it slowly dawned on me that the process of dying is not so much about shrinking and expiring as it is about finally growing too big to contain anymore.

A gentleman who’d lost his wife of sixty-plus years once told me that he woke up a couple of times, in the nights immediately following her death, to glimpse her for a moment standing next to his bed looking down at him.  That sometimes, in quiet moments he’d still hear her voice clearly speaking his name.  A woman devastated by the recent loss of her husband told me it was eerie how she kept seeing an eagle overhead–a bird he’d always felt an affinity for–every time she felt like she couldn’t go on.  And still another man confided in a low voice that he’d seen his dead brother the day before, waiting by the graveside as the wife who’d only survived him by eight months was laid to rest.  Over and over I’ve heard similar stories from those who’ve bid a loved one good-bye, and while the events they relate take different forms there’s a common theme between them—a sense that the bond of love itself is not severed even though the loved one has physically disappeared.

Lying there in the mountains I was aware that many of the stars I looked at were actually gone, exploded millions and billions of years ago in supernovas.  What I was gazing at, breathless and awed, was their remaining light, the part that continues to travel through the vast reach of space and time long after the stars themselves die.  I wonder if these stories people told me of sensing the continued presence of a deceased loved one are like that somehow, indicating that sometimes, for those who are aching with injury and loss, there’s another tender, reassuring glimpse available to remind us we don’t have to worry.  We don’t entirely disappear.  No matter how dire things look in the short-term all the light…the love…that we generate over a lifetime continues on.

Here’s an example of something I experienced that falls into the pilot and lightning, lovely-but-not-a-clue category.  Over the years I noticed a phenomenon taking place in the midsections of patients engaged in the late stages of dying.  There was a faint radiance emanating from their solar plexus which increased in intensity as the wasting process accelerated.  I speculated on physical causes, wondering whether there might be a link between the physiological deterioration taking place and an emerging light source.  In physics, unstable atoms emit photons of light when one of their electrons jump from one level to the next and I wondered if perhaps a dying person’s atoms become increasingly unstable as their body shuts down, emitting a cascading increase of light.  I also considered a possible late stage, chemically-induced bioluminescence, like fireflies or the microscopic, sea organisms that light up the wakes of boats.

But most of the time I was just bemused by it.  Those glimpses had the same effect on me as struggling over the last, hot sand dune to gaze across the sparkling expanse of the sea.  The beauty soothed something hunched and shaken inside me.  The radiance in those exhausted, collapsing bodies was so unexpected and lovely that it felt as though the ordinary world was slipping out from beneath my feet and, whatever was happening, whatever was causing it, seeing that light triggered moments that made my heart both break and soar.

But as tantalizing as glimpses of that kind of phenomena were, I have to admit the view that really knocked my socks off was the one looking back towards here; this small, ordinary looking, blue, sky-encased life we live in most of the time.  It’s not that I started seeing unusual things here, too.  It was that, from out there at the edge, everything ordinary taking place back here looked like a miracle.  Changing a shirt, taking a bite out of a sandwich, saying hello, saying good-bye.  Complaining and tears.  Smiles and breath.  People longing and loving, pooping and peeing—nothing looked mundane or small anymore.  Nothing.

I remember all those moments when I turned from a dying person’s bedside and headed back to my life—when I left their homes, climbed into the car, and just sat there staring, gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles like I was about to fall off a cliff.  I’d tremble for a while, looking down the street at the trees, cars, and houses, my heart ripped wide open and bleeding down somewhere near the gas pedal because everything suddenly looked huge and luminous.  And I’d reel from the fact that just a few hours earlier I’d been totally oblivious, taking it all for granted.

Stupid, stupid me.

Knowing that in a few hours time the awareness would fade and I’d be taking it for granted all over again.

Secretly, I like to imagine there’s something mysterious and radiant hidden inside of me, too—a hitherto unsuspected light in my midsection being slowly strengthened and seasoned by all the suffering and love, loss and joy, despair and redemption I’ve managed to endure and survive.  And that when my time comes it won’t be disease or neglect, violence, incompetence, or age, but instead this very light inside that kills me by swelling to an immensity, a brilliance, that finally grows too big for further restraint.

These days I spend a lot less time thinking about how not to die and more of it trying to truly live, to touch and savor everything I can while I’ve still got the chance; the pleasant and crappy, fun and hard, dark and luminous, all of it.  It doesn’t feel so much anymore like my dying will come as the result of a final, catastrophic failure; of my body or my choices or the medical system that cares for me.  Rather it seems like it will simply be the arrival of my own promised twilight, finally coming full circle in a vast and primordial cycle encoded in my body from the start.

copyright Dia Osborn 2010

A Dream of Her Dead Beloved

image by Salvatore Vuono

I arrived at a patient’s house one morning to be greeted by the news that Adelle, 104 years-old, had seen her husband last night in a dream.  It was a vivid, full screen, Technicolor kind of dream that she couldn’t stop talking about once she woke up.  Father of her children, love of her life and dead for over 40 years, she told me how healthy he looked in a tone of mixed surprise and delight, her face luminous with a happiness I hadn’t seen there in the year I’d helped to care for her.

Usually, she didn’t remember her dreams—in fact she was remembering less and less of just about everything.  Nearly blind and almost deaf, her retreat into the chambers of stillness and shadows had been recently accelerating.  We’d all noticed.  The complex web of threads that had once moored her here to the people and places she loved was unraveling, while her physical senses, whose job it had been to reach outward and connect her to the things of this world, were now reversing and cutting her off.  Spinning closer and closer around her like some kind of growing cocoon.

A shower fog thick with shimmering and whispers slowly curled around us there in the bathroom as I toweled her dry. 

It was like nothin’ I ever seen before she confided softly and I felt a little breathless myself at the strange radiance lighting her face.  Her words helped lift a growing load from my heart.  She’d been turning inward, slipping away from us to struggle alone across the borderlands for so long that I was relieved she was finally coming within reach of the other side.

Adelle lived a long, clean, healthy life and her heart, while ancient, was still strong and vital.  For over a hundred years that had been a good thing.  But now, as the rest of her body was slowly grinding to a halt, her persistent, tenacious heart had unexpectedly become a liability.  It was yet another of those odd reversals that take place in the dying world—how good health can turn out, at the end, to be something unlucky.  I saw it a few times in those with unusually strong physiologies.  There was a man with the strength of an ox whose cancer advanced to a degree of horror before his heart finally (finally!) gave out.  And another woman centenarian whose muscular control and mind had long since failed but whose heart (Oh, fabulously strong, pulsing, galloping heart!) continued it’s pounding on and on.

It puzzled me, how one organ could be so oblivious to the fact that its fellow body parts were dropping around it like flies.

Or, even more bewildering, why we would step in and medically intervene with a heart or any other body part that was paying attention and trying to shut down.  Propping them up with the brilliant science and medicine we’ve developed over the decades and thereby unintentionally furthering a degree of suffering that was never naturally intended, aggressively slamming shut every other door that offers a kinder and more timely exit.

I’ve been viscerally struck by the dear and true friend that various acute diseases turn out to be as we decline and fall apart.  Even with as miserable as things like diarrhea, flu and bacterial infections are in the short term, they can save us from an equally miserable and far, far longer dying process.

Adelle was blessed with an extraordinary heart.  She was the last of her generation by a long shot, and now longed to catch up with those who had gone ahead…more than ready to leave but forced to linger on and on.  I don’t understand, in the grand scheme of things, why her journey entailed the extended suffering that it did and it’s not my job to judge it in any way.  (Thank god.)

But I’d grown to love her and in my heart I couldn’t help but feel she’d endured enough…enough joy and grief, love and loss, strength and pain, enough long, long life.  She was ready to go and as far as I was concerned she deserved to.  She’d earned it.

I was glad her beloved had come.

Van Gogh

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

Alf and the Fly Part I

Once upon a time there was a man named Alf who was dying.  Again.  He was dying before, a few times…at least that’s what the doctors said.  But it turned out they were mistaken and he wasn’t dying at all.  He was just living faintly from time to time.

Alf had lived with a diagnosis of congestive heart failure for twelve, long years and, somewhere in the middle of all that illness and decline, his heart got bored and figured out it could trick people into thinking he was dying.  His heart enjoyed tricking people.  It was like a coyote it was so tricky.  It liked to make the doctors think This is it! so they would then tell everyone else, including Alf, the news.  And that was when it would surprise them all by coming back strong and not dying after all.  It made his heart look like a hero.

That’s how I first met Alf.  His heart was at it again and, in spite of all the times it had tricked them in the past, everyone was certain this time was different.  So, as often happens when someone’s illness is declared terminal, hospice was called into the case.

I came into their lives as a home health aide and I spent hours and hours every week helping Alf and his wife, Mrs. Alf, with things like, oh…showers and transfers and household chores.  There was always cooking and cleaning and errands to do.  Help with personal hygiene and bathroom support.  I was the supply inventory-er and medication monitor as well as a critical all-around liaison with the rest of the hospice team and a jack of all trades for sure and certain.  In fact, so indispensable was I that they paid me an extortionate wage well down into the single digits, a sum that made me the envy of nobody in particular and the wonder of all those who knew how much I’d paid for my college education.

But I digress.

I worked with Alf for close to two years before everyone finally wised up and realized he wasn’t dying this time either.  But what a two-years it was!  We had a ball, Alf and I, and he taught me lots of wonderful things.  For instance, being a great one with his hands, we spent many happy hours together building bird houses which is when he taught me how to use a table saw.

Now if you’ve never seen a wobbling, wheelchair bound, mule-stubborn, ninety-three year old man who can barely pull himself upright to begin with, lean unsteadily on his elbows while using his bare hands to guide a tiny piece of wood past a twelve inch diameter, hot steel, spitting saw blade, then you just haven’t lived my friend.  Everything always turned out okay (miracle!) but each time afterwards I had visions of flying fingers and blood splatter dancing in my head.


We also had a grand adventure at the local, home improvement warehouse where Alf wanted to race an electric shopping cart up and down the aisles at top speed.  He never got full control of the thing but he wasn’t a man to let a detail like that stop him–at least not as long as the other customers were willing to keep diving out of the way and store employees hadn’t figured out yet who was running into the shelves.  No sirree Bob.  Alf was beyond such mundane considerations.  Alf was magnificent.  Dirty looks and mumbled expletives weren’t nearly enough to dampen his wild elation at finally getting behind the wheel of something with a motor again.

All in all we had a great run.

But eventually, everyone figured out he wasn’t dying this time either and the gig was up.  He was discharged from hospice   and without the benefit of a daily schedule to throw us together, he and I slowly drifted apart.  I heard bits and pieces over the next couple of years about how he declined to the point where they finally had to put him in a nursing home, about how he just lay there curled up and incapacitated, unable to feed or dress or toilet himself anymore.  I couldn’t help but wonder why his heart wouldn’t just buck up and surrender like the rest of his body.  I shook my head at its foolishness.  Sometimes, being trickier than tricky can really work against you.

But the day finally came when Alf turned the tables on his heart.  He died peacefully in his sleep while it was off dozing, slipping out before it had a chance to wake up fully and figure out what was going on. His family was bewildered at first by the strange turn of events and understandably wary, which could be why they decided to have an open casket at the service

Just in case.

Alf’s was my first ever viewing.  I walked up to the front of the funeral parlor to look at him as soon as I arrived and, between you and me, I was feeling guilty as all hell because I hadn’t been to visit him in so long.  But the minute I saw him lying there in his Sunday suit, looking trim and dapper as ever, I felt better.  He was okay now, finally free of his tricky heart, and in the end that’s all that really mattered.

I leaned over the side of the casket to whisper an apology in his ear while at the same time laying my hand every-so-gently on his chest, but then nearly jerked it off again upon discovering he was ice cold and hard as a freaking rock.  The sensation startled me.  It felt like a frozen rack of ribs slipped into a coat and tie.  It took me a minute to get my head wrapped around the practical details of what’s required to keep a dead body looking fresh and presentable, and then promptly forgot all about it as I returned to bidding him a fond farewell, the best of luck, and a heartfelt wish for grace and fun on his journey to wherever he was headed next.

Thanks for everything, AlfReally.  It was an honor.

I made my way to a seat in the back row, took my place between our hospice’s Social Worker and Nurse, folded my hands primly in my lap, and settled in to try and behave myself during the service.

And that was when the Fly showed up.

Once again, this post has gotten a little too long (windbag?) and I’m gonna have to finish up next week.  Stay tuned.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

Alf and the Fly, Part II

When we left Alf last week he was lying in state at the front of the room while the rest of us sat politely listening to the pastor (who clearly never met his subject) reiterate the sterilized summary of his life as laid out in the obituary.  I was doing my level best to stay awake and fend off the head-bob when the Fly first started buzzing around me.

This was just one of a number of remarkable photographs published in The Daily Mail. It was taken by physiotherapist Miroslaw Swietek at around 3am in the forest next to his home.

I was surprised.  For one thing, it was hard to believe that something as wildish and chaotic as Musca domestica could survive in a place like that.  The room felt as sterile and life-sucking as the sermon currently bouncing off its stark, white walls.   Call me wrong but I’d have bet good money that anything smaller than, say, a finch or a bat would have died and dropped to the floor the instant it hit the atmosphere.  Equally amazing was the fact that the Fly (fat, hairy, and droning) had to negotiate five doors and a security force of germ-phobic staff to penetrate that far in.  Truly, this was one determined fly.

However, my wonder was soon replaced by consternation.  The Fly, after buzzing in circles above my head a few times, commenced a series of land-and-crawl maneuvers targeting places like the top of my head and the side of my face.  At first I just brushed it away while still maintaining my focus on the pastor, but after the third or fourth time The Fly finally had my undivided attention.  I studied the situation.  When I glanced at our Social Worker and Nurse on either side of me it was plain they were outside the fly zone.  Neither displayed the harassed look I was rapidly adopting.  And when I looked around at everyone else in the immediate vicinity I realized they weren’t being bothered either.

Naturally, this annoyed me.   So the next couple of times I swatted the creature towards the Nurse, to see if it would switch victims and crawl on her instead.  But it didn’t.  It not only came right back at me each time, it seemed to redouble its efforts.  That was when it struck me that, for some odd reason, the Fly seemed intent on making my life, and my life alone, miserable.

It got worse.  After a few swipes the thing started dodging my hand, feinting to one side in the air before diving back in to skip across my forehead, my cheek, my nose.  Or, if I swung after it had already landed and was doing the Tinkerbell dance across the back of my neck, it would leap into the air just long enough for me to slap myself before gracefully alighting again in a swift succession of tiny steps.

The Fly was really starting to get to me.

Yet it wasn’t until it began lifting my collar to crawl under my shirt and down my back that I truly began to panic.  What the hell was this thing?  It was like no other bug I’d encountered, intelligent, crafty, and motivated.  Like something out of a Jeff Goldblum movie.   I was right on the verge of making a full-blown scene, shrieking and jumping to my feet, writhing madly while trying to slap my back and tear off my shirt, when something stopped me.  I had the strangest thought.


The Fly stopped in its tracks.  It stayed still for a moment, huddled there under the fabric between my shoulder blades, then turned around and crawled back up out of my shirt, lifted into the air, and began to fly around in front of my face in a figure eight pattern.  I couldn’t believe it.  My mind was spinning.  Just how is that kind of thing supposed to work?  My imagination took off and I wondered wildly whether Alf had temporarily turned into the Fly itself, or if he had just rigged a tiny, leather bridle and bit and was now sitting astride its back, grinning and waving at me with a cowboy hat.

It was at that point that the Alf Cloud descended.  I felt it wrap around me like something warm and soft, and then an image of him…smiling, standing with nary a wheelchair, walker, or cane in sight…exploded in my mind.  It felt like he was right there in the room.  I could almost smell the clean soap coming off him, feel something warm like body heat.  He was chuckling and I almost laughed out loud, too, but then remembered where I was.

It was odd and wonderful and such a relief.  He still felt exactly like Alf only without any of the weakness and strain.  No frustration, irritation, or pain.  He felt strong and easy and laughing, not at me but with me, like he knew that I of all people would appreciate this new-found freedom he’d found.  And I did.  I really did.  The last tattered remnants of sadness and guilt washed away and there was nothing left inside but happiness for him.

I grinned.  You rascal. And as soon as I said it, the Alf Cloud was gone.  The Fly stopped its circling and meandered away, bumping into people and chair backs and walls as it went.

I told our Social Worker about the experience on the way home and we shook our heads, wondered what it all meant, then chatted for a while about what we thought might happen when we died ourselves.  I told him I was hoping for a lot of love.  He said he’d be happy if he could still experience anything that felt like sex.

The next day when I arrived at the office our Social Worker had already been there for some time and was sitting at his desk when I walked in, studying a small fly crawling around near his coffee mug.  He glanced up at me and smiled.

I was just wondering, he said, then looked back down at the fly.


copyright 2010 Dia Osborn