(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