Mon Pere Speaks! Hospice in his own words.

I’ve written about my father-in-law’s surprising, tricky, and wonderful journey with prostate cancer and hospice in several posts now. (I’ll have links to them at the bottom for anyone interested.)

Well, Mon Pere’s experiences with hospice have been so good that he’s become quite the convert and unbeknownst to anyone in the family, he went off and did an interview with the Idaho Quality of Life Coalition in order to try and help alleviate some of the persistent confusion that exists around hospice care.  Afterwards the video was posted on Youtube!  (Which is all kinds of ironic since Mon Pere doesn’t own, want, or even like computers very much.  I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know what Youtube is.)

Anyway, my brother-in-law just stumbled across it by chance today and emailed the link to the rest of us.  I thought I’d put it up here, too, both to help Mon Pere with his awareness raising efforts as well as introduce him to you all in person.  (The interview is about six minutes long.)

He’s really trying to behave himself but his ribald sense of humor sneaks in towards the end with his little joke about dancing (the unabridged version suggests a more carnal activity.)  We’ve all heard the joke…and others like it…more times than I can count but he laughs like it’s the first time, every single time he tells it.  He’s such a character.

Without further ado I give you Mon Pere.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

The other posts:

Elders and the strange gravitational effect of final mystery.

I’m still here. Updates on wildfire smoke, a hospice patient in the family, and garden things.

“I hope you don’t mind but I’ve never died before, so I have some questions.”

Massachusetts and Question 2: Should doctors be allowed to prescribe lethal doses?

 

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Wild Deer Ask For Passage On Boat

(Photos courtesy of Sharon Kelly and JuneauEmpire.com)

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

I may be the last one to have seen this news story but was so touched by it that I had to put it up again anyway.

Four young Sitka deer got into trouble swimming through rough and frigid waters off the Alaska coast.  Exhausted and hypothermic they evidently spotted a charter boat sailing nearby and swam over to circle it, looking for some way to climb up out of the water.

The local family on board were amazed and sprang into action to pull the four up on the deck where they immediately collapsed.  By the time they reached land one deer was recovered enough to jump into the water and swim to shore by itself, two had to be coaxed but eventually made it to the woods, and one was still too weak to move.

So they loaded it into a wheelbarrow and rolled it up the dock to shore where they remained with it for a few hours until the deer could finally stand, wobbling but unassisted.

It’s an extraordinary story that once again breaks down some of the barriers we tend to build in our heads about what animal/human interactions and relationships can be like.  What particularly fascinated me was that the owner of the boat is a hunter but didn’t feel right about taking these deer.  I suspect he was responding to that deep instinct most of us have that we’re not allowed to harm something that has come to us for help.

The entire family was reportedly delighted and moved by the experience, considering it a gift.  In other words, they were grateful, thus earning their experience a respected place as a story worthy of Thanksgiving.

May this day be filled with the same for all of us…generosity, compassion, gratitude, and just a wee bit of magic.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

The Fisher King Goes Fishing

A friend of mine was once a vital, physically dynamic. backpacking, canoeing, outdoors enthusiast and passionate, social worker powerhouse.  Then she contracted West Nile virus during one of its earliest appearances in the West, collapsed overnight, and almost died from the severe neurological complications.  It was sobering, how a tiny virus can take down a strapping, healthy, wildly intelligent woman in her prime like that.  Somehow I had thought that only the young, old, and already compromised were vulnerable.

Fortunately, she survived and has been industriously working to rebuild a new life out of the ashes of devastating illness.  One of the biggest challenges has been trying to get to know who she is now as a result of all the neurological damage that took place.   Her mind is still as keen, curious, and active as ever, but tends to quickly overload and go smoky with any kind of strain.  And while she still loves the outdoors and continues to camp and hike a little, she walks a razors edge in terms of how much physical exertion she can pursue before her brain short circuits from the flood of brain chemicals released by fatigue and stress.

For a woman who largely defined herself by her independence, extraordinary mental acuity, and physical dynamism, the loss of self she’s experienced through illness has been profound and the continuing effort to redefine herself, grueling.  But she does it anyway…and inspires me  in the process.

We used to talk a lot about how hard it is to let go of who you once were, then try to rebuild a new life according to this other, lesser version you’ve turned into.  (At least that’s what it feels like in the beginning.)  I experienced something similar during my rapid descent into a long and severe depressive episode twenty years ago, an illness that effectively blew my old life to smithereens.  Like most people in our situation I, too, spent the first few years trying to first recover, then return to the old life I’d known.  It was only after it grew apparent that could never happen that I finally got on with the job of crafting a new life and a new identity to go along with it.

Any kind of major illness or injury can create this cycle of course, but there was a unique challenge we both faced in that we still looked the same from the outside.  All of our injuries are invisible at first glance, which makes our inability to perform certain, standard tasks very confusing for others.  And when we frequently failed to meet the seemingly normal, reasonable expectations of people it wound up creating friction in our relationships with them, a fact that then made it even harder to figure out and accept who we had become.

But time is a great healer and has been slowly revealing that we didn’t actually become lesser people after all, just different ones.  Our identities have changed substantially–who we are and what we can do in relation to the world around us–but it turns out our essential selves haven’t really changed at all.  We still love the same things we’ve always loved, with the same depth.  We still strive to give, serve, behave, and belong in a way that nourishes the greater world.  We’re still just as committed to the happiness and welfare of our children and husbands, doing whatever we can to support them.  And we continue to try and pass along the little tidbits of light, inspiration, and meaning we uncover while sorting through the various piles of debris that now litter our lives.

Today, she sent me the following three minute video and it reminded me again of what an extraordinary gift and accomplishment it is to survive in this world at all.  Its many and formidable hardships aside, life is still pretty magnificent and I do so love getting to participate in it, for however long it lasts.

This is footage of an osprey fishing from the BBC archives.  First sequence: he catches half a dozen fish in one strike.  Second sequence: he dives underwater and plunges talons into a flat fish resting on the bottom.  Third sequence: he captures a huge fish that looks as if it weighs more than he does.  (How they get this kind of footage is beyond me but they do.  Pretty brilliant.)

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Part IX: Out Of Town And Back Again (With Advance Directives In Tow)

(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.

Kidding.

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

Blip Two From The Book: A Curious Cure

(Still tied up with the class.  Here’s more filler until I have time to write real posts.)

“11/25/04

Thanksgiving!  I’ve got half an hour to write until the turkey goes in and true bedlam begins.

I seem to be spending most of my time with Janice these days reassuring her that, Yes.  Of course.  Just like everyone else who’s ever lived from the dawn of time, she, too, is going to die.  She’s survived so many things, so many times now, it’s gotten ridiculous and she’s starting to battle horrifying visions of immortality.  I can’t help but laugh, yet feel a wave of compassion at the same time.

Whenever she starts moaning about it I point out every sign of decline I can think of, and when I hit on something that resonates her eyes light up with hope. Yesterday, we talked about two things that have to take place before a person can finally go.  One is advanced disease in the body and the other is a surrender of sorts; a  person gradually lets go of the drive to live, the one that makes them get up day after day.  I’ve seen signs of this in Janice lately.  Since she moved to the nursing home she sleeps a lot of the time and rarely participates in any activities.  She told me yesterday there are times when she doesn’t want to eat and she even said she feels “dead” inside most of the time now, which is, of course, a classic description of the depression she doesn’t believe in and refuses to treat.

So, casting about for some way to cheer her up I mentioned, “Y’know, Janice, those things might be a sign that you’re finally surrendering.”  She perked right up.

“Really?  Do you think I’ll die after all?”

God, what a character.

She’s slowly, slowly turning in some kind of invisible womb, her head shifting gradually downward toward the birth canal, preparing for her journey through the passage that connects this world to whatever comes next.  Regular activities are losing their grip and she’s starting to drift, turning increasingly to the doorway of sleep and its other dimensions.  She tells me her daughter keeps encouraging her to take part in the facility’s activities, that she would be happier if she did.

But Janice looks at me, distraught, and says, “She just doesn’t understand.  I can’t.  I don’t feel good enough.”

It would be so hard to be ready to go, to long for it, and still be stuck here.  Day after day.  Year after year, dealing with constant pain and constant loss and constantly diminishing ability.  It’s so weird—how some people can want so desperately to live but die anyway, and how others seem to get trapped.  Wouldn’t it be great if there was some kind of cosmic barter system set up where we could trade final time with one another?

“I’ll give you three of my unwanted years for your quickie.”

“Done!”

I hope I don’t die of congestive heart failure or M.S. or Alzheimer’s, something long and protracted.  Please God, can I have cancer or something else shorter?  Not a heart attack or a car crash though…I’d like time to say my good-byes, to let Cal and Lorin and McKenna know how much I love them.  It would be unbearable to leave without being able to tell them one last time.

After we talked I drove Janice over to the bank, and while we were sitting in the drive-through she spotted a Dollar Store across the parking lot.  Boy, did her eyes light up!  I asked if she wanted to go in and she grew more excited than I’ve seen her in months.  She looked…dare I say it?  Happy.

(Everyone says that, during dying, hearing is the last thing to go.  But watching Janice yesterday I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps, with women, it’s really our love of a great bargain.)

She couldn’t shop for very long, of course, as it was a big store with a lot of stuff.  But she stubbornly managed to drag herself…doubled over her walker and sucking strangled huffs of oxygen in a way that alarmed everyone within hearing—up and down a couple of aisles before grabbing some crackers and gasping that she was ready to go.  By the time I wrestled her back into the car she looked bloodless, ghastly, and absolutely euphoric.

“That…was so…much…fun!”   She wheezed and gazed up at me with grateful eyes from where she’d slumped to the bottom of the seat.  “I really…enjoyed…that!”

She so delights me.  This Thanksgiving I’m grateful I took Janice to the dollar store.”

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

The Gratefulness Exercise

Part of this year’s harvest.

Thanksgiving is on Thursday so naturally I’ve started thinking about what I’m most grateful for this year.  (Or any year for that matter.)  I thought I’d try for at least the top ten here:

1)  Thank you for my life.  (This is always number one because the fact that I’m still alive after 53 years is nothing short of amazing to me.  For however long it lasts, thank you thank you thank you.)

2)  Thank you for starlight, waters, storms, mountain vistas, seasons, and the hikes I’ve taken through all of them. 

3)  Thank you for things I can’t control.  I hate them but I know they’re good for me.

4)  Thank you for yogurt.

5)  Thank you for the hubster, beloved son, and beloved daughter, as well as giving them the patience to love me back when I’ve made it hard.

6)  Thank you for Dane’s epilepsy cure and helping him to still be able to walk after all.  I was so scared for him.

7)  Thank you for this blog and the chance to have a voice.

8)  Thank you for all the help and support from people over the last year.  In fact, thanks for all people everywhere.  Doing this whole life-thing alone would have really sucked.

9)  Thank you for the depression easing up so much.  I can’t tell you how good it feels to be hopeful again.

10) And lastly, thank you for both light and darkness.  Having both helps keep everything in perspective, y’know?

Here’s wishing everyone a meaningful Thanksgiving full of love and healing.

More of the harvest. Yum!

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Sometimes the small picture IS the big picture.

Actually, most of the time it is.   But it’s easy to forget.

There’s nothing quite like the reality (or threat) of dying to help clear up any misunderstanding on this point.  I saw that a lot.  In almost six years of working with hospice I never once saw a person at the end of their life still wishing they could meet a celebrity.  Or win the lottery.  Or grab fifteen minutes of fame.

You know what they did long for?  (Besides wishing they didn’t have to die of course.)  To see their child or friend one last time.  To make sure their spouse or partner knew…really knew…how much they loved them.  To still be a part of the circle. To be in their own home, surrounded by their own things, and cared for by people they knew they could trust.

It hit me every time, how all the events that were happening in the big wide world…things that just a little while ago had seemed so huge, overwhelming, and important to them…telescoped down to the tiny, the few, and the essential.  It was a revolutionary insight.  I’d somehow completely missed this lesson before; that the small things ARE the big things.

Something reminded me of it again this morning.  A couple of YouTube videos have been hanging around my inbox for quite a while now.  They’re both on the long side, ten minutes or so, and…really…who has time for that shit?  I can’t get to all the real stuff that needs doing.  The only reason I didn’t delete them outright was because they were from people who might ask if I’d watched them.  And I suck at lying.

I’m pretty good at procrastination though.

But this morning the guilt set in so I watched them both.  And, lo and behold, what used to happen in hospice happened again.  I had the weirdest sensation of the world turning inside out (where big things get small and small things grow huge) and then I suddenly remembered what’s really important.  Yes, the broader world is something of a mess right now, but there are always plenty of little things going on in it that are perfect and beautiful and right.  And if I just remember that, then all the chaos in the universe can’t stop me from being grateful for my life, or for the many small but essential miracles that fill it.

So…if you ever have some extra time:

The first video is the story of the spontaneous boat lift that happened on 9/11, when a random flotilla of boats materialized out of nowhere to evacuate the hundreds of thousands of people trapped in lower Manhattan that morning.  (If you only have time for one video, make it this one.  It helps heal something that’s still, after a decade, surprisingly raw.)

The other video is a David Letterman segment about a young woman and her horse who got between a charging grizzly bear and the boy it was about to kill, and actually charged the bear.  Twice.  They saved the child’s life.  It’ll blow you away.

Editor’s note:  The original embedded video was taken private so I’m supplying a link to the interview which has been posted on Youtube instead.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

A Good Skill Set For Depressives (With or Without Drugs)

I’ve been living with clinical depression for a couple of decades now.  It can be challenging terrain…lots of sheer cliffs and deep canyons that are way too easy to get lost in, especially in the beginning when they can feel inescapable..but after twenty years I’ve learned how to get around.  Mapped out the local territory, made friends with the natives, and built a beautiful life there that I really love and am deeply grateful for.

I’ve done it without antidepressants.  And before anyone gets their panties all in a bunch, I’m not opposed to pharmaceutical treatment. (I so dislike that whole battle.  It’s divisive, distracting, and a waste of precious resources.)  It’s just that, back when I slipped into my first severe episode, I didn’t know what was happening to me.  Depression wasn’t the by-word it is today.  It took a while just to figure out what I was dealing with and, once that became clear, I still couldn’t afford long-term, continued access to drugs.

So it was fortunate I’d already pieced together an alternate treatment plan that was working for me.  It’s complex, eclectic, and tailored specifically to my life and strengths, so there’s no point in going into detail here.  But there were a handful of important skills I had to develop in order to make the whole thing work and I suspect they might be helpful no matter what treatment plan a person turns to.  So just in case that’s true, here they are:

A DEPRESSIVE’S SKILL SET:

1)  Develop emotional endurance.  A lot of it.  Do exercises.

2)  Trust your instincts, you’re not crazy.  Some studies have suggested that depressives actually have a more realistic view of the world than non-depressives.

3)  Question your conclusions.  Depressives can take that aforementioned realistic view (especially in a severe episode) and translate it to mean everything is futile and unbearable when it’s not.

4)  Develop emotional endurance.  Really.

5)  Depression annihilates confidence so cultivate stubbornness instead.  (Desperation is also a surprisingly effective motivation for short hauls but it’s tough on the adrenals.)

6)  Did I mention develop emotional endurance?

And 7)  Look for light.  It’s a discipline that can save you.  If you can’t find any immediately, then hang on to memories of old light until you can.  Living with depression is a lot like living at night.  Colors fade out and disappear during a descent, and the whole world falls into shades of gray.  But once you figure out where to look and start to see them, the stars in there will knock your socks off.

The Pillars of Creation

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

The Laughter and Sorrow of Being There

Luna Moth

I’d forgotten…how much better it is to be there when someone dies, than not.

Our dear friend Mr. B died at home, surrounded by those who loved him, last Sunday morning…which was actually pretty fast.  The doctors said he’d have more time, but then I’ve found that doctors usually overestimate;  partly because they feel it’s kinder and partly because they tend, personally, to be more afraid of death than the rest of us.

But Mr. B was glad it didn’t take as long as they said it would.  After four grueling, futile months of rotating between hospital, rehab center, and wound care center he was more than ready to move on.  He was grateful.

That’s the often overlooked gift of extended suffering.  Horrible as it is, there’s simply nothing like it for helping us let go of this otherwise far too rare and luminous world.  If something didn’t come along to tarnish the glow and loosen our grip, dying could (and sometimes does) drag on forever in this current age of limitless medical intervention.

Mr. B and his beautiful wife, Mrs. B, wanted the hubster and I to come and be there with the family during the passage; to help, to laugh, to cry, to steady, to witness.  I was surprised, deeply touched, and thrilled.  I love “a good death”; the kind that happens when someone dies prepared, surrendered, and surrounded.  There’s something potent and magical that happens when a family assembles to lift and love one of its members through the final transition,  something mystical and disorienting that occurs when a body and the life that inhabited it whisper farewell and break their long embrace.  Standing as witness to these things both shatters and transforms me, every time; actually it shatters and transforms everyone that’s lucky enough to be there.

Strangely enough, this…the good and healing part of dying…is the aspect I somehow forget about in between.  I’m not sure why exactly.  Maybe because, in spite of its potency, the experience is nevertheless fleeting and insubstantial and therefore easily overshadowed once it’s past.  Or maybe I forget because this part has become so invisible in our culture of death aversion that’s its just hard to hang onto.  I don’t know.

What I do know is that there’s an energy, a force generated during a good death that both cuts and cauterizes simultaneously.  It mauls me extensively, each time, but then it lays eggs of some vast and tender love there in the wound itself, as if it was some horrible yet sublime parasite, transforming me against my will into something better.   Someone more courageous, caring, and gentle.  Somebody wiser.

I think that was the gift Mr. B. wanted for me..for all of us.  I think that underneath everything else that was going on, somehow he intuitively understood that giving us all a good death would make the gaping hole after he left easier to survive.  Easier to recover and return from.  He used his own dying to create a final, profoundly generous, and life-affirming act.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Maybe I’m Just Dreaming Here…

In ordinary, everyday life, things look ordinary and everyday.  They just do.  Days tend to go the way we expect them to which makes life comfortable, predictable and…let’s face it…easy to take for granted.  Abundance is one of the things that breeds this kind of carelessness.  When it looks like we still have an unlimited supply of tomorrows it can make what we do with today seem unimportant.  Less urgent.

Which isn’t true of course.  Every last thing we ever do from taking a breath, to grumbling about chores, to graduating from college, to losing a job, to giving birth, to getting old, to dying, is an irreplaceable, priceless gift of life on a long chain of irreplaceable, priceless gifts.

But the illusion that any given moment doesn’t matter can be powerful and, when I think about it, perhaps not altogether unnecessary.  After all, it could be hard to get stuff done if we were face down on the floor all the time, incapacitated with the kind of wonder, longing, and gratitude for life that often comes to a person when they learn it’s their time to die.  I mean Big Awe can be fabulous, for sure, but it’s not terribly practical when you’re tackling a to-do list.

And yet, I do so love that feeling of dawning wonder.  Those moments when I look at my life and realize (for a mind-blowing, gut-wrenching moment) just how fragile, miraculous, and brief all this is.  Oh sure.  Those moments tend to wreak havoc with my daily routine because after a glimpse like that I want to slow down and savor everything.  Even things like taking the trash out and wiping under the rim of the toilet bowl take longer because crappy though they are, they’re suddenly glowing, like everything is glowing, and it’s really distracting.

But this spike in inefficiency is worth it to me because, for however long those moments last, I’m not afraid anymore.  Of anything.

Look.  I realize that dying is generally held to be a morbid subject and I know it’s odd for me to want to talk about it as much as I do.  But I can’t shake the hope that if I could just capture a couple of those brief and luminous moments in words, that maybe somehow it might help ease some of the deep, unconscious fear somebody else has, too.  That maybe if some of the general, widespread terror could be alleviated, our lives and relationships with one another might be transformed today, long before we ever have to face dying ourselves and embark on our own journeys.

Of course this is probably just a pipe dream.  Most likely, everything is perfect just the way it is and I should just be quiet and garden instead.  Dying is probably a reality too big to cope with in everyday life, too vast and searing to look at until we’re right on the brink of falling in.  Maybe we’re supposed to just forget, fall asleep and live in the dream of small, safe things until the yawning maw opens wide to swallow us at the end.

But then again…maybe not.  What if there’s no law ordaining that we have to wait until we’re actually dying to glimpse the strange, revealing light it offers?  What if the rules are more flexible than that?  What if it’s perfectly okay, even good, to look around us sometimes with transformed eyes while we’re still healthy, happy and whole, so we can see once again, however briefly, just how huge, beautiful, terrifying, priceless, miraculous and brief this life really is?

What if, however impractical or inefficient they might be, moments of heartbreaking wonder were actually good for us?

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

The Generosity of Dying

view from the family cabin

When I think about dying as some grim, black destiny waiting to reach up from the dirt, grab me, and drag me back under someday, it’s pretty scary.  How could it not be?  That perspective makes me feel small, helpless, and…frankly…screwed.   But there’s another way of looking at it that spares me the Freddie-Krueger’s-a-coming sensation and it goes something like this:

Inescapability aside, it’s also true that dying is the final gift I get to give back.

I discovered this perspective while hanging around out in the natural world.  Idaho has the largest total area of intact wilderness in the lower forty-eight and, like most people who live in this state, I love spending time outdoors.  The wilderness has long been the community where I experience my deepest sense of belonging.  The high lakes and rocky trails, swollen rivers, green canopies and night skies are the congregation and confessional I most naturally turn to—the places where, for whatever reason, it’s easiest for me to uncurl and unclench, drop my arms, and slowly look up in trust again.

They’re also the places that teach me the most about life’s cycles and seasons, its hardship, endurance, and resurrection, its silence, beauty, and hope.

And dying.  Of course, dying.  Sometimes, while wandering through a part of the forest that’s shadowed and damp, I’ll come across one of the old giants, an ancient tree lying broken and rotting, stretched across boulders and trails.  It can take the old Douglas firs and Ponderosa pines decades to decompose, years sometimes just to fall all the way to the forest floor because the surrounding trees catch and hold them in a slow, deep kind of tree-grief.

I sympathize with the forest’s unwillingness to let them go, these great old ones.  I feel the ache of loss, too, gazing up at their towering frames, suspended and creaking as the other trees supporting them slowly give way over the years in an unfolding ballet of grace, sorrow and ultimate collapse.

But they do eventually fall, they break, they settle and rest, where the busy (and far briefer) lives of the forest floor can set about their work of release.  Ants and beetles.  Fly larvae, bacteria, and a host of other microorganisms all nibbling away at the bonds that hold the mighty trees together until finally, at some mystical point where every bit of chemical bonding in the wood is broken down to a brittle point of perfection, the dead tree explodes in slow motion, spilling out across the ground in an aromatic blanket of rich, red compost.

It amazes me.  Every time.  It stops me dead in my tracks and I just stand there breathing in as deeply as I can, gulping the sweet smell of pine decay.  Or I kneel to run my fingers through the moist, rotted particles, gathering a handful to carry home to my garden as a gift from an ancient life that gave itself away, leaving its nourishment for all that follows.

It was there on my knees one time that it first occurred to me, how perhaps human dying doesn’t have to be entirely sad and clinging.  It’s not that I think it’ll be easy to give all this up.  I don’t.  I love this world, my life, and the thought of saying those final good-byes to the mountains and moonlight, to everyone I love, to everything I felt and learned, touched and became over the years, is heartbreaking.

And yet…and yet.  To think that I’m leaving room and resources for the others yet to come, helps.  The knowledge that by standing aside, I’ll leave space for someone else to step up and gaze at the stars or across the peaks and be stunned by their beauty like I was, makes my own loss easier.  More worthwhile.  My death will mean that someone else gets a chance to come forward and cradle a newborn in their trembling arms for the first time, or to search for new ways to heal and comfort the illnesses of the future, or to experience any of the thousand thousand other gifts that go along with just being alive and drawing breath.

When I think about it like this, the generosity of dying takes my breath away and I’m no longer as frightened or resentful.  Instead, I feel like everything will still be okay.  In the act of giving myself away like that, somehow I’ll still be okay.  In the deep place inside me, the old place, I know this now which is why I don’t really want to tear my hair or gnash my teeth anymore.

When my time comes I’d rather just say Today, I have taken enough.  It’s time to move aside and leave room for others to come and gaze and marvel, too. I leave the food I won’t eat, the warmth I won’t require, the resources I won’t take for myself, to others who still have their whole life before them. And here on the ground where I stood, I leave a pile of everything I’ve collected during my years, a pile of everything I was and learned and became.  I leave it as a gift for those that follow, and as a small token of my gratitude for everything.

Everything.

I think back now to the dying people who allowed me into their homes and intimate circles.  I remember the stories they gave me, the wisdom and secrets and pain they shared that fell like rich, moist particles of compost inside me.   I must have breathed in the swirling, escaping molecules of their vanishing bodies as I held them, dressed them, bathed them.  Breathed them deep down inside me like the sweet scent of pine and humus, breathed their memories and joy, their suffering and release, and been nourished by it.

Up in the mountains, walking the trails and witnessing the dying and decay that’s always and everywhere present up there, I’ve always felt renewed.  Surrounded and cradled in the generosity of the natural world, I eventually came to see that I, too, am an integral part of this sustaining circle.  Which is why, when it’s my turn to step aside and return the life that was loaned to me for this brief, miraculous, blessed, blessed ride, I want to do it with gratitude rather than regret, and with prayers of generosity in my heart for all who follow.

Bridalveil Falls

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

Of Troughs, Wombs, Longing, and Loss

Today is the sixteenth month anniversary of my mother’s death.  Her birthday was a week ago and I’m experiencing some sort of strange sadness-lag.  Kind of like jet lag, only emotionally.  I was fine on her birthday.  I actually had a great day with lots of fun and happy thoughts about her.

The hubster and I spent that day taking his father on a belated birthday, airboat ride down in the Snake River Canyon.

There were storms rolling in across the southern part of the state later in the afternoon and we were treated to thunder echoing off the canyon walls, one of the most spectacular double rainbows I’ve ever seen, and some distant lightning.

“Hand of God” looking isn’t it?

(Smiting?  Anyone?  Anyone?)

It was wild and intoxicating and celebratory, the kind of day my mom would have adored, and there were a few times during the day when I secretly felt like what was going on in the sky was the meteorological equivalent of confetti and giant candles on a big afterlife cake.

But that was the anniversary of her birth.  Now I’m at the anniversary of her death and the happiness engines have reversed and I’m feeling sad instead, gliding back down into one of the shadowed troughs between waves on this huge ocean of grieving.  I thought I’d grown accustomed to the ups and down of the whole process but this slide has taken me by surprise.  The troughs have grown farther apart over time, and I guess it’s been long enough since the last one that I actually forgot and thought I was done.

Silly, silly me.  Like the waves of the sea are ever done.

Maybe in the end this isn’t so much an ocean of grieving as an ocean of love, and this vast, rhythmic fluctuation of ups and downs, joy and sadness, fullness and loss is simply a continuation of the love my mother and I always shared…and still seem to share in some new yet confusing way.

On the morning that she died my sister and I gathered water, soap, and washcloths by her bedside.  We closed the door to the room and together bathed her for the last time, gently touching her arms and legs, her face and hair, all the intimate, beloved parts of her body that granted us entrance and life so many years ago.  At one point I stopped and rested both hands over her womb.  I closed my eyes, struggling to remember what it was like back then, when I was infinitely fragile, tiny, and curled.  Waiting and dreaming.  Contained and safe in the first home I ever knew in the world.

Perhaps this ocean of love I’m drifting up and down, up and down in now is like some second, larger womb I came into when I exited the first.  A continuation of the warmth, protection, and nourishment she enveloped me with after I left her body and began to grow outside of her.  What she smiled and still cradled me in as I pushed her away, developed into a woman, and came to believe I was somehow separate.  Only in the end, not quite so separate as I thought.

Thank God.

And now, even with her beautiful body collapsed and dead and returned to ash, I can still float along in the waters of this other great womb that her love for me once created, and my love for her now sustains.  It’s probably okay to welcome today’s weight of longing as much as I welcomed the joy of a few days ago because in the end, they’re each a different expression of the same exquisite gift.

I miss you, Mom.  I’ll always miss you.  Thank you for loving me.

Thank you for everything.

Taken on her 70th birthday, playing in a tributary of the Salmon River: The River of No Return

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

The Burden of Miraculous Choices

One of the strangest side effects of my years working with hospice was the collapse of my sense of belonging.  I had no idea beforehand, how much of my identity was tied up with the various beliefs I held and the different groups I identified with because of them.  National, ethnic, familial, political, economic, spiritual, you name it, I had come to define most of who I am by the ideals I held.

But then, as I entered homes filled with beautiful, vulnerable, dying people…who it just so happened believed in a wide variety of  things that were frequently different, even opposite, from my own…I made the unwelcome discovery that many of my ideals were actually fed by lurking, unconscious prejudices that lay, seeping and contaminated, just underneath.

I was naturally horrified.

One of my biggest prejudices was against the medical/industrial complex and especially the pharmaceutical branch.  (Please understand, my admission of a prejudice is not to say there isn’t a problem.  I’m not alone in my concerns about our over-prescription, over-use, and over-reliance on drugs.  A lot of thoughtful people, both in and out of the medical field, are worried about it.)

But for complex reasons, including a couple of personal encounters with disrespectful (and in one case unethical) doctors, I went beyond simple concern into deep prejudice.  I began to think badly of medical, pharmaceutical, and health insurance people as a whole.  I came to question not only their motives but their basic humanity.

I secretly began to suspect they were monsters.

But then one day I had this irresistible urge to work with the dying and as a result, actually entered into the medical/industrial complex as a participating member.  I joined a hospice, took a class, and became a nursing assistant.  I did my clinical hours in a nursing home.  Visited patients in hospitals.  Worked closely with nurses and doctors and even filled prescriptions at pharmacies, delivering them to the people I helped care for.  And lo and behold!  Somewhere along the line, in the gentle, surprising way that grace frequently delivers its gifts, I rediscovered the value, relief, and miracle that modern technological advances have to offer.

I discovered there aren’t really any monsters after all, just an odd amalgamation of deeply caring, deeply flawed human beings.

As a result of this journey, modern medical technology has taken on a slightly different cast for me.  Not so much a cold, uncaring, manipulative, disrespectful power that takes over our bodies and ignores our humanity, but an offering of something extraordinary, a possibility of the truly miraculous.

I had a patient once.  Maggie–dear, beautiful, polio stricken Maggie Full Of Grace–who wrote a little book about her sixty year journey with the disease and it’s after effects.   I read it after she died and in it I found the answer to a question I’d always wondered but never found the courage to ask her.  How did she feel to be one of the last to ever contract polio?  The vaccine was introduced two years later and the disease, for all intents and purposes, was eradicated.  Did she ever feel cheated?  Did she ever think Why me?  Why wasn’t it discovered two years sooner?

I found the answer in her book.  First, she described the terror she and her husband initially experienced in those earliest days, not for her but for their three small children, the fear that they might also contract the virus.  She’d been nursing her five-week old baby at onset so he was particularly exposed.  That description was then followed by this passage:

“One of the greatest blessings I would later thank God for is the presence of the vaccine, the fact that our children and grandchildren will never get polio.”

I started to cry when I read it.  It was as though she was still there whispering to me.  Still trying to answer the secret question, the real question, I so desperately needed to ask her.  She’d been powerless to stave off infection from the polio virus itself, but somehow she’d successfully fought off the bitterness and regret that so often follows in the wake of such trauma.  How?  In the face of decades of the resulting hardship and suffering,  how in the world did she protect her heart from that kind of collapse?

And somehow there the answer was, miraculously written down for me in her book.  Her love for her children and gratitude that they were spared served as her vaccine.   The power of those two emotions filled her heart with a kind of immunity that no bitterness, however real, however justified, could overcome.   It was something I’d always heard but somehow never really understood before, the simple difference between looking at a glass as half full rather than half empty.  Both realities are always true.  Both have an impact that must be absorbed and coped with.  But the choice of which one to cleave to is always ours, which one we’ll ultimately allow to fill our vision and heart.

I’d never understood before, how often I fill my own with emptiness.  No wonder I’ve struggled with so much sadness.

It was the people I met like Maggie Full Of Grace who started anchoring me back into an older place inside myself, turning me into a person far more tolerant and oblivious than I’d been before.  Over time things like politics and religious differences, economic backgrounds and cultural beliefs, all the myriad and ever-multiplying array of opinions that seemed to matter so freaking much beforehand just didn’t anymore.  Over time I became freer and happier and better and more loving…and increasingly confused by the change.

It was like climbing up to the peak of the very highest mountain in the middle of a vast wilderness where I could finally see forever and ever… but then the wind sucked the map out of my hands and blew it away.  The views were spectacular in a way that knocked me to my knees, sure, but how the hell was I ever gonna find my way back out?

(Don’t delete this photo again dammit…it’s my picture!)

How was I supposed to navigate without the instinctive bearings my prejudices gave me?  I’m still, five years later, struggling to figure that one out.

Maggie came forward in time sixty years to instruct me on the brutal, harsh reality of how it really was back then.  Watching her struggle every single day within her twisted, paralyzed body, hearing her stories of those long, painful, uncertain months in the polio hospital, of how many husbands abandoned their wives, how many crippled children were left behind and forgotten, all these things brought that world to life for me.  I finally got it, why the word, polio, used to strike such terror into the hearts of all who heard it.  Why Jonas Salk was such a hero and how the vaccine really was a miracle of deliverance.

Life before penicillin, immunizations, knowledge of basic hygiene, and the vast array of other developments and discoveries we have today was often cruel.  What we were forced to rely on instead back then was Adaptation with all its tools—the human qualities of creativity, determination, strength, patience, fortitude, and grace.  And now, today, we sit at the junction of these two ages, emerging from a period of helpless vulnerability when we were forced to cultivate our deepest, inner humanity just to cope and survive, and entering into an age of blossoming outer powers where we no longer have to simply grit our teeth, accept, and endure.

We’ve discovered a will, an intelligence, and an imagination within ourselves that can generate miracles…and the breakthrough is heady.  It’s created an insatiable hunger within us for more power, more knowledge, more salvation.  We now dream wild and intoxicating dreams of freedom from all disease, all aging, all pain, all suffering.

Even, perhaps, from death.

But I’ve watched a strange and disturbing thing happening as our outer powers increase.  It seems that our inner powers, the long-cultivated wisdom of our deepest humanity, seem to be diminishing as they lay, forgotten and misplaced in the hallways just outside of research labs and insurance offices and fear-filled waiting rooms.  The ancient tools that served us for thousands of years—things like courage, sacrifice, endurance, surrender, the ability to recognize and be grateful for all that we still have—are threatening to atrophy with a current wave of under-use.  And in their place things like fear, anger, blame, grasping, desperation, and bitterness frequently rise instead.

I have hope though.  I don’t think the current trends will last.  I suspect that we’re simply in the first flush of wild discovery and have yet to understand the limits, comprehend the costs, of pure, unbridled dreaming.  After eons of helpless suffering the pendulum is swinging wildly to the other extreme , but pendulums always swing back.   Someday we’ll remember that we can’t just eradicate things like suffering and death because to do so would also eradicate the great arc of wounding and joy that is life.

No.  I think we’ll eventually settle down, find some equilibrium, and begin the practical task of roping in our miracles, tethering and training them, instead of letting them stampede through our lives, trampling the older, extraordinary knowledge we’ve already developed.

Here’s hoping for a divine marriage between the two someday soon.  A day when our modern technology becomes firmly anchored in our ancient humanity, and when our collected wisdom is further deepened by the discoveries and miracles of today.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

A Parrot’s Grief


We once had two dogs.  They joined the family two years apart, lived most of their lives together frisky and inseparable, then died at the end, also two years apart.  Our big guy died first.  Swift and unexpected.  He was fine and healthy for years and years, and then one day got sick and three days later died.  Just like that.

Our second dog was lost without him.  For a month following his death she withdrew.  She’d still come to us if we called and try to look happy to see us, but as soon as her duty was done she’d slip away to the corner where they used to sleep together and lie down again, eyes open and unfocused and numb.

We were heartbroken for her and heartbroken for ourselves.  We all missed him terribly.

But time worked its magic and one day, for no particular reason, she returned.  She followed me around the house that morning, trying to flip my hand up on her head with her nose again, and my heart eased knowing she’d be okay.  We had two more wonderful years together before she, too, eventually died.

There’s a lot of controversy on whether animals experience emotions, but the suggestion that they can’t feel things like simple grief makes me angry.  I usually try to respect the beliefs of others but, because this particular belief is so often used as a justification for exploitation, neglect, or abuse, I don’t respect it.  I find it suspect.  The claim is far too riddled with conflicts of interest to take at face value.  Besides, in five decades of living, every interaction I’ve personally had with animals and birds, (and reptile, fish, and even a few insects believe it or not) has confirmed that these other strange and wonderful companions I share my world with feel a great deal, even if most of the time I don’t understand what exactly that is.

A case in point:

One of my first hospice patients had a parrot she said she’d smuggled over the border from Mexico twenty years earlier.  She was a wild, untamed kind of woman and her parrot was just like her.

I don’t remember now what kind he was, but he was smallish, maybe a little bigger than Snowball the dancing cockatoo, and he spent most of his time in those final days perched on the valance above the window next to her bed.  I was a little nervous at first because family members warned me that sometimes he flew down on people, swooping at them again and again, testing to see if they would duck and run.  He was a fierce little thing, tolerating only a handful of people and attacking the rest, but he clearly loved and needed that woman lying on the bed and was made achingly vulnerable by her approaching loss.

He never flew down on me.  I used to speak to him gently when I was on that side of the bed, changing her sheets or dressing or incontinence pad, and he’d closely monitor everything I did, anxious and curious, sometimes fluffing up into a ball of down and shaking his head rapidly, raising his wings for a moment like he just couldn’t stand the uncertainty anymore, then settling back down to watch and wait again anyway.  He’d sidle back and forth along the length of the valance, first to the left, then to the right, over and over again like a loved one pacing the corridors of a hospital.  He knew something was wrong and it seemed to fill him with unease.

Once I saw him fly down to the bed while I was in and out of the room, doing laundry.  She was asleep and he seemed to want to just be next to her, to touch her.  He awkwardly waddled up next to her head, curling into the warmth still emanating from her.  He bent his head over next to her mouth as though checking for breath and just stayed there for a long time, frozen, his feathers brushing her lips.  My heart broke for him and I wanted to pick him up, cradle and croon to him, but I knew he’d bite me if I so much as extended my hand.

First her sister told me and then her daughter.  How he wept on her body when she died.  He flew down from the valance to her chest and started nuzzling and nipping at her, trying to make her respond.  Stroke him.  Yell at him.  Anything.  But when she didn’t move he went still and stunned, and it was then that he started making the strange, small noises, noises unlike anything they’d ever heard him make before, like sobs.  His head bobbed slowly up and down to the rhythm of the sounds, and her family just stood there around the bed, surprised and stricken by his grief.

Later, when the men from the funeral home came to remove her body from the room he attacked them.  Viciously.  Angry and hysterical, he dive bombed at their heads repeatedly until one of the men ran  in the bathroom to hide.  The family finally captured him and put him in his cage while they took her body away.

I’ve often thought about him over the years and hoped that he eventually found someone else he could trust, someone he’d allow to love him, to bring him back in healing and wholeness.

Like just about every other person I’ve ever known, the deep emotional bonds I’ve shared with animals over the years have provided me with a well of strength, beauty, unconditional love, and hope.  My ties to these companions have helped shape me, often healed me, and even saved me, more times than I can count.  I really, really hope that some day soon we’ll grow past the economic and scientific need we have to deny the depth of their vulnerability to us, and instead forge a higher, kinder relationship based on mutual respect.  They’ve already given us all so much.  They deserve something far better than what they’ve gotten in return.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

Observing the One Year Anniversary

Tomorrow will be one year to the day since we lost her.  June 10, 2009.  Karling Evelyn Shaver Wheelock Kolter died peacefully, surrounded by family that all loved her.

Now they all miss her, too.

As I sit here and hail back to the events of that day, I thought I’d post the notification letter I sent out a week later so you could hail back as well.

This is in memory of Mom.

June 17, 2009

To all those who’ve been holding my mother and all of us in your loving attention:

Our entire family was deeply touched at the outpouring of love and support that came in response to my last email…I can’t tell you how much it’s helped.  The stories so many of you shared about the way in which Karling touched your lives were profoundly moving.  We knew, of course, how much she had influenced our own lives.  We suspected she had influenced a great many more but we honestly didn’t realize just how many or how much.  Thank you for the education.

For those of you who have not yet heard, Karling died a week ago yesterday of colon cancer.  It seemed sudden to us all, primarily because her symptoms didn’t seem severe enough to indicate an illness that serious until a few weeks before the end.  She actually died a serene, peaceful death in a beautiful hospice facility in Las Vegas surrounded by gardens and fountains, a central courtyard garden and an aviary full of the birds she so dearly loved.  It was soothing to be in a place of peace and calm, surrounded by people who view dying as a profoundly valuable time of life.  The entire family made it to her bedside in the end—her husband Jim of course, all ten kids with their various spouses, her brother, sister, and a dear nephew, a smattering of grandchildren and great grandchildren and a few close friends.  We were a boisterous, emotional bunch but the hospice staff welcomed that, too.

She was largely unconscious for the last four days, resting for the most part in a state of deepening silence–we think she was probably just waiting for the last of us to arrive from the far flung parts of the world where some of us reside.  There was a strange thing happening to her body, too, as she lay there.  At first we thought that perhaps it was just our imagination but every day she began to look younger and younger–her wrinkles and age spots simply disappearing.  Her skin grew increasingly soft, supple, and clear, taking on a translucent quality that appeared almost radiant, and at the very last her face looked more like that of a young girl in her twenties than the seventy two year old woman she actually was.  It was really quite extraordinary and made us sometimes laugh out loud and wonder.  During this time she also seemed to be making the rounds.  It’s amazing how many of us either felt her around us, dreamed about her talking to us, or actually heard her laughter or voice at different times.  (These kinds of experiences continued to a lesser degree in the days immediately following her death, which has really helped as we try to navigate the transition into a world without her arms, her voice, her smile, and all the other myriad, everyday gifts of physical presence.)

India 1969

Through an extraordinary set of seemingly random and disconnected events, most of us wound up assembling in her room minutes before she was to take her last breath.  Various family members read scripture passages or said prayers from a variety of spiritual traditions, which seemed absolutely perfect.  She had helped to foster a deep love of spiritual life in each one of us, always embracing Grace in whatever form it happened to present itself—it seemed right that it presented itself in multiple forms at the end.  For myself, I had a kind of vision as she seemed to be leaving her body that both surprised and comforted me.  It was as though I could see her–feel her–filling up the room, filling up the facility, getting bigger and bigger as she spread out over the city, over the country, finally blanketing the entire world like a gauzy layer of blue and rose tinged atmosphere.  The expansion made me think of descriptions I’d read of supernovas and I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that her physical body had managed to last as long as it did–trying to contain something that huge for all these years.

She died a good death–just as she lived a good life–and I’m deeply grateful for the final lessons and insights she gave us even in her passing.  She was always, always a great teacher.

UC Santa Cruz, 1989, Bachelor of Arts

…with grandchild

And now, for some of us, the winding journey of bereavement and adjustment begins.  For myself I find that it’s constantly changing.  Sometimes I remember and ache, sometimes I remember and laugh, and sometimes I forget for a little while and enjoy a brief respite, dreaming that the world is still the way it always was.  I realize this passage is going to take time and some parts will just hurt, but it feels like it will all still be okay. This is my first time with a significant loss and I still have much to learn.  But I suspect that as pain goes, the kind that comes from loving without limit through the wounding of great loss is probably about as good as it gets.  Certainly, my mother is the one who taught me the courage and wisdom of loving that much.  Strangely enough, I wouldn’t trade this sweet, sweet ache of loving her for all the gaiety and happiness in the world.

Lastly, I’d like to thank you all for loving her, holding her in your hearts, and valuing her through her final passage.  And thank you, too for surrounding us all with your kind thoughts and gentle concern.  I can’t begin to describe how the waves of prayer and support and beautiful, loving attention coming from all over the world really, physically helped and sustained us in our final efforts to care for her during her transition.  We all felt it.  It was like being spun in a cocoon of light and grace and strength with her at its core.

Jai Guru Dev

Dia

Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho, 2006

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn