A Childhood Portrait Reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland and A Question Of Emotional Endurance

I’m the baby, fair budding to become a sunflower, second from left.  The young Queen Mother to my right is my only sister, while the boy doing the Winston Churchill imitation to her right is my middle brother.  Then there is the Eldest on the far left dignifying the portrait with his expression of Supreme Effort.  The youngest among us (who recently discovered this little treasure) was not yet born.

ABOUT WRITING:

LAST WEEK I RAN AWAY TO THE MOUNTAINS, and I think this is the first time I’ve ever missed posting on or around my Friday deadline.  Not a first-time I’m proud of or would like to repeat anytime soon.  I know there are tools available for scheduling a post to publish even when I’m gone so really, there’s no excuse.  (Not that I think it’s a life or death issue but still, the discipline is important for me as a writer.  So, note to self: research “scheduled publishing” tool and use it at least once before the end of the month.)

There.  Now on to the Easter Portrait.

ABOUT THE PHOTO:

My youngest brother became Guardian of the Box of Old Photos when my mother died a couple years ago and, during the ensuing sifting, has turned up a couple of gems like the one above.  We had no idea this thing existed.  Indeed, there are a whole series of Easter portraits that he’s uncovered, with a wide variety of outdoor backdrops (let’s play Guess What Military Base We Were Stationed At!), but this one clearly takes the cake.

The photo is of us but actually speaks volumes about my mother.  She was, like most women of her generation, trying to keep up with Jackie-O and, other than at Easter, we were always dressed in jeans and t-shirts, a fact that makes this snapshot-of-an-age even more absurd and delightful.

Ultimately though, I think it’s the accident of lighting that makes it most striking–we’re so illuminated it looks surreal, like we slipped down the rabbit hole in a string of held-hands and landed all dressed up in Wonderland.

ABOUT EMOTIONAL ENDURANCE AND THE DYING:

Moving on, I wanted to take a minute to answer a question about my last post.  In her comment afterwards, Linda over at Rangewriter asked what I meant by “emotional endurance.”  I thought it was a great question and, because emotional endurance is such a vital tool for dealing with difficult challenges of any kind, I wanted to address it in a regular post rather than just in the comment section.

Emotional endurance is just what it sounds like; the ability to endure one’s own emotions.  (Obviously, pleasant feelings don’t require much effort.  What I’m talking about are the painful ones like sadness, despair, anger, shame, loss, bitterness, guilt, regret, helplessness, etc.)  This skill was actually prevalent among the older generations but, during the current, unfolding age of budding-pharmaceutical options, has increasingly fallen into disuse.

And unfortunately, as a treat-and-cure cultural mindset has gradually replaced the older accept-and-endure one, the threshold of discomfort, pain, or uncertainty most people can continue to live and thrive with has fallen considerably.  Now…please.  I’m not saying medical advances aren’t a miraculous gift and blessing; they are.  Anyone who’d want to turn the clock back a century is, in my humble opinion, extreme.

However, there’s also profound value to be had from the old skill of knowing how to contain, endure, and navigate heavy emotions without needing to immediately escape them.  And nowhere was this made clearer to me than in the rooms of the dying.

In hospice I saw person after person after person, (all elders BTW,) deal with levels of emotional pain and loss that absolutely staggered me.  And, with only a couple exceptions, they ultimately did it without requiring antidepressants or a hastened death.  Over the course of their lives these people had somehow learned to navigate huge waves of overwhelm, fear, pain, and sorrow without losing sight of the beauty, love, and value that also populated their end.

I cannot begin to tell you what an eye opener this was for me.  I had no clue…no clue…how much stronger we are than I’d ever imagined, and if I could only pass on one bit of insight from all the wisdom I learned from the dying, that would be it.  Allow me say it one more time, because that’s just how important this is:

We are far, far, FAR stronger than most of us currently understand or believe.  By a multiple of thousands.  I know this, I’ve been there, I’ve seen it.  And I’m not talking about the rare hero, warrior, or saint, either.  (Although they are totally amazing.  Whew…)  No.  I’m talking about the rest of us.  All the ordinary, everyday, getting-along people like you and me that weren’t created for greatness; those of us who just want to raise our families, work a good job, have some hope, and live a decent life.  Us.

What I’d love to see is a cultural return to the recognition and development of this skill for emotional endurance, all the while keeping the growing arsenal of available treatments and interventions ready as back-up, just in case.  Y’know…for those rarer yet dangerous periods when life erupts into something that really is too much, too hard, too destructive, unendurable.

Can you imagine what we’d be capable of, what our lives would be like, what our world could become, with the power of inner endurance and medical relief at our disposal?

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

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It’s OK To Still Love Their Bodies Once They’re Gone

Before Mr. B died, he made sure his body would be left lying for twenty-four peaceful hours–at home–before going to the crematorium.  How sure?  Sure as in he sat down with his lawyer and wrote it into his will sure, making his wish legally binding in Idaho.

His request may sound strange to a lot of people–it certainly does to the average person around here–but the practice is customary among Buddhists who believe that the bond between personality and body takes time to unwind after death.  (I’m not Buddhist but I think the following link is a fairly good explanation of Buddhist beliefs about death and dying for those curious to learn more.)  Of course, the Buddhist belief is different from the prevalent one held in our culture which says our personality/essence/soul/consciousness/whatever one calls it…our us-ness…separates from the body completely at the moment of death.  Even Christians and scientists are aligned on this point–they don’t seem to diverge until the question of what-happens-afterward crops up.

Mr. B’s family was totally on board with his choice and perfectly willing to keep him around.  And me?  I was all for it, too.  I had a personal stake in finding out what effect this choice would have on the loved ones Mr. B was leaving behind. Two years later and I’m still grappling with the distress I felt at abandoning my mother’s body in the hospice house where she died.  I looked at this opportunity with Mr. B as my chance…a gift!…to see what it’s like for a willing, loving, respectful family to keep the body of their dead beloved with them for a little longer–to discover if it helps ease their grieving afterwards.

The hubster and I lingered for an hour or two after Mr. B died, drifting along on the tender current of hugs, tears, laughter, phone calls, rehashing, and story-telling that always follow a good death.  But finally I needed to head home.  I hadn’t gotten much sleep during the night and required a shower and a nap.  Just before leaving, I returned to the bed, leaned over, and laid my cheek against Mr. B’s, whispering I sure do love you, sir.  Have a safe journey.  Knowing you was an honor and a gift.  Then, unexpectedly, I started to cry.

Mr. B’s face was still soft and life-like and, for whatever reason, in that moment it felt like like he was still there.  Not necessarily inhabiting his body per se, but just present somehow.  Around.  It seemed like he was smiling and relieved.  Like everything was okay.  No…better than okay…good.  It felt like he’d suddenly gotten a lot bigger, too, in some insubstantial but still oddly tactile kind of way.  Hard to describe.  (This experience of a sense of presence is actually common among the bereaved, with some studies putting the rate of occurrence at well above 50%.)

That momentary sense of his presence pierced the numbness of fatigue creeping over me and sent me plunging back down into my heart again.  The tears felt painful, bewildering, and sweet, all at the same time.  It reminded me of the day I discovered the stuffed animals my daughter abandoned the day she left home, still sprawling against the pillows in her bedroom.  It was unexpected, walking in and finding them like that–an innocent reminder of her childhood life with us–and I curled up on her bed, gathered them in my arms, and lay there in the ache of remembering for the longest time.

We shared a bond, these toys and I.  They’d been left behind, like I’d been left behind. She loved them, like she loved me.  And lying there clinging to their soft bodies and fake fur, I was awash in all the nourishing, enduring love she’d left behind for us.  I could feel her again, all across the bed, and I realized we’re all born magical like that–with a mysterious ability to place a tangible, lasting kernel of ourselves inside the people we love so that no matter where we go, no matter how big the hole our departure creates, at least we never leave those behind us completely alone.

(This post is turning out to be longer than I originally anticipated so I’m going to spare you all and spread it out over a couple posts.  Next time: Their Body: It’s Not Them Anymore But It Still Deserves Our Thanks)

copyright Dia Osborn 2011