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

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Let There Be Light! Easter and The 14′ Stihl Telescoping Gas Powered Pole Tree Pruner

stihlusa.com

In honor of Easter I’m following a Let There Be Light! theme in today’s post.

The first miracle?  Sunlight  now penetrates into areas of the property that haven’t seen it in over a decade (some of which probably still shouldn’t…oops) because last Saturday we rented a tree pruner and got totally carried away.  The loss of restraint may have been due to simple gloom-fatigue, but more likely it was because of the totally bitchen miniature chainsaw (seriously!! a tiny chainsaw!!) strapped to the end of a long pole that could reach anywhere.  Anywhere.

It was heady stuff.  Who knew that even itty bitty chainsaws can grant that level of intoxicating power?  The chore quickly turned into a kind of pruning Bacchanal, except no wine or naked women.  I believe we cut something off pretty much anything taller than four feet.  Redbuds, catalpas, blue spruce, photinias, apple and maple and peach, and then there was the mugo pine.  (God?  Please help the mugo pine.  We didn’t mean to hurt it like that and we’re really, really sorry.)  The little Stihl Beast cut through tree trunks like butter, apple wood like soft pine, and soft pine like a it was a down pillow exploding, only with wood chips instead of feathers.

We just couldn’t seem to stop.

(The mugo pine; going from five trunks down to two)

The bad news is we have to wait for the trees to leaf out to learn who survived and who didn’t.  But the good news is twofold: 1) The sun will shine on our happy home once more so I should be able to get a decent crop of vegetables again;

(Sugar peas and arugula seedlings: note the elegantly arranged chicken wire to keep out the hostiles)

…and 2) the drastic pruning created all kinds of carnage for the squirrel interstate highway system around and over the garden so maybe Dane the mangy rescue mutt will finally be able to catch a couple of them in his powerful, crunching jaws.  (As I mentioned before here, I currently feel no charity towards them.  None.  They declared war on me, so I will despise them and wish every conceivable kind of harm on the twitching rodent horrors until our usual winter’s truce returns.)  

In the meantime I have a lot of debris to clean up.  Because of time constraints and back pain we hauled anything that fell over into neighbors’ yards, to the dump.  Then we piled the rest into three (big!) piles: one on the driveway, one under what’s left of the mugo pine in the corner, and one in the middle of the lawn.  Why?  Because in spite of the fact that the hubster leans toward hauling the rest of it to the landfill as well, I’m hell bent and determined to chop it all up and use it for kindling and firewood in the wood stove next winter.

Why am I hell bent?  I don’t know.  I just have to.  It’s one of those things.

So five days later I’m about two thirds of the way through the first pile on the lawn.  The hubster is twitching a little himself as he worries about the grass slowly dying underneath, but still refrains from pressuring me.  (Saint Hubster: patron saint of obsessive compulsives.)

I’m doing it all with hand pruners and loppers, cutting each individual piece to sixteen inches or less.  (Again…I don’t know why.)  I’m piling everything against the back fence where it can dry out in the hot, summer, high desert sun so as to readily ignite come next November.

(Looks like salad, no?)

But enough of that.  Now, on to the second miracle.  In spite of last weekend’s widespread destruction, we still managed to preserve and protect the perennial gifts of hope, rebirth, and new life (thereby following a loose Easter theme), that Spring has brought back to the garden this year.  Here are a couple things I found blooming around the garden this morning:

(rain drops on bleeding heart)

(miniature iris with a cluster of hens and chicks on the left)

(and some tulips nestled among the up and coming daylilies)

Blessings on all your gardens and families and Happy Easter!

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

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

When Not Quitting Is The Miracle

Thought I’d post a quick update on my mini-triathlon quest.  There’s good news.  Progress is now detectable.  The trainer who adopted me at the YMCA is terrific, enthusiastic, and more importantly has learned to scale back her ambitions where I’m concerned.  Her early training schedule with six days of alternating weights, running, bicycling, swimming, and stretching with a seventh of optional hiking has been revamped to three days of weights and running.

And I’m consistently hitting two of them!  To the outside observer that may not sound like much…and the trained athlete of bygone days in my head would emphatically agree…but to the shell shocked depressive inside who’s spent the last six years floundering between seclusion and creeping paralysis, two days of successful sports training is definitely cause for celebration!

Honestly, I’m a little breathless at my biggest achievement to date…I haven’t quit.  It hasn’t been easy.  This whole thing has felt a lot like sailing along a treacherous coastline littered with underwater rocks.  Each time I start to pick up speed, working out two or three times in a row on schedule, I think Aha!  NOW I’ve got it.  Now I can unfurl the sails and really fly! Then I hear that damn thud and scraping on my internal hull and suddenly, for the rest of the day, I can’t even leave the house.

Which means I have to keep starting all over again and it’s frustrating.  Early on these frequent stumbles really scared me because I thought if they kept up, they’d eventually make me stop.  But two months into the whole thing now and my confidence is starting to build.  I wonder if this is what it’s like for an athlete who suffers a big injury and has to learn how to perform all over again with a new and different body.  Only in my case, the injury was to my mind.  Everything I used to take for granted…simple emotional discipline, mental focus, and freedom from chronic fear and occasional panic…is kaput, so I’m having to learn a whole different set of mental skills and strengths to compensate for it.

It feels good though, even if it’s producing some additional anxiety.  The hardest thing by far is making myself go to the gym.  You may not know this but gyms are very social places.  Lots of active, purposeful, energetic people all striding and pumping and pulling on complicated, noisy, bewildering equipment.  It’s like a ten freeway interchange with heavy traffic flows and well-orchestrated on and off ramps.  Everyone else seems to know exactly what they’re doing and then here I am, an outed hermit dressed in frumpy, old activewear, newly sucked out of my hole and doing my best not to trip and fall off the treadmill (yes…I’ve done it once so far) or hold up the line of nice but impatient people waiting to work on the weight machine I’m currently tangled in.

So much for dignity.  But in spite of everything I’m actually starting to feel individual muscles once in a while instead of the more generalized trembling and collapse I started out with, and the length of time I can run without walking is definitely growing.  I even tried my hand at running on the track yesterday, instead of the treadmill, and I’m happy to report that I didn’t trip, run into anybody, or attract undue attention with all the extraordinary bouncing going on around my chest, hips, and behind.  (The complex physics involved with fat on a jogging person is really something to experience firsthand, let me tell you.) I’m still trying to get a handle on the whole fashion element involved and have yet to figure out how all these women are wearing what amounts to tights with no…I repeat no…visible signs of underwear.  Surreptitious observation in the locker room has only revealed one thong so far, so something else must be going on.  The anthropologist in me is intrigued.

I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, if you’ve got an extra ten minutes, here’s an ESPN awards video telling the stories of two, physically-disabled athletes who have been changing the world.  Jim MacLaren, who endured two catastrophic accidents that successively stripped him of his athletic gifts, but who went on to make his miracles anyway, died in August last year.  But his inspiring legacy continues to grow through extraordinary disabled athletes like Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboa of Ghana.  Seriously, if you want something that both puts life in perspective and inspires you to keep hoping, watch this.

Because sometimes just not quitting is the most amazing miracle of all.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

A Yuletide Wish

Image from Wikipedia

THOUGHTS FROM THE YULETIDE 2010

Dearest family and friends, old and new;

Greetings from the slushy, drizzling, overcast, and fog-riddled, slightly-far north town of Eagle, Idaho!  We fervently hope the holiday season is bringing you a lot more sunlight than we’ve seen here over the last month, and that your vitamin D and serotonin levels are correspondingly higher.  I really shouldn’t complain of course.  We need the moisture, and the snow in the mountains is a godsend.  But still. We’ve been buried under low, heavy clouds and dense fog for so long now that it’s starting to feel a lot like Venus.

The family is doing well.  Cal’s had a great year at work and, yes, he’s still traveling back and forth to the Northeast every month and loving the job.  Go figure.  A double life really seems to suit him.  And thanks to both good luck and their stellar work ethics, Lorin and Kit survived the transition and still have jobs after Hewlett Packard bought Palm last year, laying off a lot of the old work force in the merger.  McKenna graduates from Boise State University in a few days with a B.A. in English/writing emphasis and a minor in History and has developed into both a talented academic and a sensible, hard working woman.  We really couldn’t be prouder.  As for me, I was eventually buried under the organizational demands of trying to write a book about dying, so I shelved the project and started a blog about dying instead.  Turns out it’s a lot easier to continue to sound coherent in a few paragraphs than it is throughout hundreds of pages.  Who knew?  I have a deepened respect for anyone who writes an entire book about anything.

*          *          *

Well, right after I wrote the above paragraphs two weeks ago the tsunami hit and I was swept out to sea by the combined demands of holiday preparations, graduation celebrations, blogging schedule, joining a gym (not the best timing on that one…), and cramming a block of dental/medical appointments into the end of the year to try and catch the insurance benefits before they expire.  That’s how I find myself sitting here a day and a half before Christmas, stuffed and tired, pressured by deadlines, sweating and sore, screened and cleaned, just a wee bit stressed out, and still trying to think of something warm, fuzzy, and holiday themed to say in the yuletide letter this year.

Merry Christmas?

Actually, I say that carefully.  A few years ago Cal and I took a walk along the river on Christmas day and ran into an older couple who wished us a Merry Christmas as they passed by.  When we smiled and wished them the same, to our surprise they became agitated and stopped to talk.  Evidently, they’d wished someone else a Merry Christmas earlier in the day and whoever it was had bristled and taken offense at the greeting.  Our older couple had retaliated by taking offense at the fact that offense had been taken and, lo and behold, in direct opposition to the spirit of the season, the cycle of bad feelings was up and running, passing on its merry little way downriver to us.

I’ve thought about that one ever since.  I realize there’s often tension these days around what Christmas…and other traditions for that matter…are supposed to mean, how they’re supposed to be celebrated, and whether or not they should even hold the prominent place they do in a secular society.  It’s understandable.  I think we all tend to get a little territorial about the traditions that are most important to us, and it’s only natural to resist the intrusion of other traditions onto our own.

The urge to protect the unique rituals, values, and celebrations that nourish, strengthen, and guide us in our lives is universal.  I know I certainly don’t want anyone else messing with the way I celebrate my season.  But having said that, please believe me when I say that neither do I have any desire to dictate how you should celebrate yours.

We weren’t a particularly religious family when I was growing up, so my parents took the Santa Claus track and really poured themselves into celebrating the magic of Christmas.  They went to great lengths to create as much joy, wonder, and sense of miracle for us kids as possible and, funny though it might sound, some of the most important, foundational lessons of my life were learned from the way they taught us to celebrate the season.

First of all, they taught me that Santa Claus was real. That there actually existed a jolly, caring, magical being who was so generous–so loving and happy–that he devoted his whole life to flying through the world to try and touch, enrich, or bring love to every last, living person in it.  Naturally, this understanding evolved quite a bit as I grew up.  (You’ll be relieved to know I no longer believe in Santa.) However, it also instilled a couple of lasting and important beliefs in me:

1) There are powerful and benign forces at work in creation that sincerely desire my happiness, and

2) Gifts aren’t always given because they’re earned or deserved.  Sometimes generosity is just for its own sake.

Secondly, my parents taught me that sometimes miracles come in the night, and I can’t begin to tell you how much courage and hope I’ve drawn from that lesson over the years.  Throughout my childhood and on into adulthood, it’s helped me to be less afraid of the shadows, to trust that along with the monsters, darkness also harbors miraculous, luminous gifts.  And I honestly think the odd faith I developed from that early lesson helped me more during the lean, dark years of my battle with depression than anything else.

Third, my mom and dad required us, from the time we were small, to think about, select, wrap, and give gifts to each other.  And when we finally got to open them all on Christmas morning, we always did it one at a time, each of us taking turns opening a present while everyone else watched and shared in our excitement.  We circled around and around this way, as many times as it took, until everyone was done and it was this ritual, more than any other in my life, that taught me how the giving and receiving of gifts is really a banquet for everyone to sit down and enjoy.  I learned that whether I’m giving or receiving, ripples of happiness can be created either way, and the truer the spirit with which I do both, the wider the ripples become.

There were a thousand other lessons of course, opportunities to develop qualities like patience and self-control, as well as learning how to manage things like disappointment, envy, and greed.  I’ve continued to build on these early lessons all my life, and I feel like the Christmas traditions practiced by my family were actually fundamental and essential to the development of my deepest sense of humanity.  I’ve always known that my family’s way of celebrating Christmas was neither the “right” way nor the only one, but it was our way and that made it beautiful, nourishing, and perfect for us.  It created magical ties of love, faith, strength, and generosity that bound us closer together, and gave us a way to reaffirm each year the things that my family cherished most.  And I’ve done my level best to pass the same gifts and lessons down to my own children.

I guess this is all just a long way of trying to explain that, if Cal and I wish you a Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays or Peace of the Season or any other kind of holiday wish, it’s not because we’re trying to impose our childhoods, or beliefs, or values, or culture on you.  We’re not.  We don’t believe in that.  We love the fact that everyone gets to find and draw meaning for their life in the way that feels right and true and most nourishing to them.  And we love even more that we all have the freedom to do just that.  No.  All we’re really trying to do with the greeting is make a deep, sincere, and heartfelt wish for you from the language of our childhood joy:

For us Merry Christmas means that, no matter what holiday you do or don’t observe, and no matter how you do or don’t observe it, from the depths of our hearts and with the greatest good will, we wish for you all that is best in your world, from all that is best in ours.

With great love and even greater hope,

Cal and Dia

Wikipedia again

copyright Dia Osborn 2010

Life Is Like A Trust Fund

In “Dying” Is Still Alive I talked about the cost of focusing so much on trying to cure a life threatening illness that we risk going straight from being sick to being dead, with no time left for the opportunities that dying offers in between those things.  In the comment section afterwards, Linda of What Comes Next? posed an important question:  When fighting a life threatening illness, is it possible to embrace dying too soon…to forfeit the opportunity to rise above it and live longer? This is a great question and one that a lot of people ask.

What I’d like to do is break it down into two parts.

Part # 1)  Is it possible to embrace dying too soon?

My answer, which probably won’t surprise anyone, is absolutely not.

Personally, I think we should all start embracing dying (i.e. looking at it, accepting it, and using the daily awareness to live as wisely and fully as possible) early on, ideally in childhood.  The opportunities for exposure are rife.  Like the first time we see our father crush a bug, or our mother put a cooked leg of something on our dinner plate, or have a family pet die, or hear about our little friend Emily losing her grandpa.  As I’ve mentioned before, it’s never hard to find dead bodies scattered along the side of pretty much any road in America and, if all else fails, there are the innumerable references to, and reports of, dying and dead on the news twenty-four hours a day.

However, since children learn how to embrace dying from their parents, and since most parents don’t know how to teach it, most of us wind up as adults lacking the skill.  In fact, most parents not only fail to teach how to embrace it, they treat it as something unspeakable and do their best to hide it.  The most common metaphor for dying used in our culture is The Enemy, a horrible, looming foe to fight against tooth and nail, both bitterly and indefinitely.

As a result, most of us don’t learn to embrace dying as the last, natural, grueling-but-luminous stage where, if we’re lucky and blessed, we have the time necessary to successfully wrap up our life.   Instead, we deny it as long as possible which can drastically shorten or, sometimes, even eliminate the opportunity to fulfill our end-of-life tasks.   Most people don’t seem to realize that it takes time, sometimes a lot of it, to wind up our affairs, make our bequests, and absolve and be absolved by those we care about.  To link trembling hands one last, aching, transcendent time and say I love you.  I’ve always loved you.  I will always love you.

As a death averse society, we haven’t fully grasped yet that dying at peace, with no regrets, and with our loved ones prepared for a life without us afterwards, is a necessary and worthy goal.

Instead, most us learn to look at dying as the gruesome, terrifying end of everything.  To run.  Run! Hard and fast, for as long as possible toward escalating medical intervention; drugs, surgeries, and treatment regimes that can not only consume most of the time we have left and create more layers of suffering, but actually shorten our lives as well.

In La Crosse, Wisconsin, where end-of-life discussions are the established, accepted norm, life expectancy is actually one year longer than for the average American population.  And a 2006 study by the NHPCO found that the mean survival rate for patients on hospice was 29 days longer than it was for patients who were not on hospice.

For a person who’s spent their entire life regarding dying as something horrific, it’s a real challenge to switch gears, turn around, and embrace it when it finally comes.  Not impossible mind you, but definitely harder.

Helping people make this switch was one of the major goals we always worked toward in our hospice.  We fought hard to help people make the difficult transition from fighting for life to accepting dying because we saw, consistently, what a profound and healing difference it makes.  There’s more trauma involved when the state of dying is embraced late, or never embraced at all.  There just is.  Sometimes this is unavoidable, as in the case of a swift or sudden death.  But more often in today’s medical system, it happens as a result of focusing entirely on finding a cure without also preparing for dying.

Which brings me to the second part of Linda’s question.

2)  Is it possible to forfeit the opportunity to rise above it and live longer?

While this question initially seems to reduce the situation to its simplest elements, I think it’s actually creating a trap.  To explain, I’d like to use a teaching story.

Imagine you were born with a trust fund, and in this trust fund was a billion dollars. All your life you’ve been able to draw from this fund whenever you wanted, using the money for any old thing your heart desired.  While you learned early on that the trust would eventually wind down and close, everyone was kind of fuzzy about the dates on that part.  So in the end you just kind of forgot about it and started spending.

Then one day your lawyer calls to tell you that the termination clause has been activated.  He’s learned that you’re going to lose access to the funds in about six months.  He knows there’s no way to break the clause entirely, but he thinks that if you fight it, you might be able to win a temporary stay.  Buy some extra time.  The tricky thing is, you have to draw down the money in the trust fund to mount the court battle.

You now have three forces at work:

First, there’s the hope:  You might win extra time and still have some money left in the fund afterward.

Second, there’s the real and measurable cost:  You’ll be diverting money to the fight and depleting the funds you need for everything else in your life.

And third, there’s the risk:  Court costs these days can easily eat up most of the trust.  Even if you eventually win more time, the funds might already be exhausted.

Considering these three things, you really, REALLY need to ask yourself some important questions before you decide on a strategy.  The trick is what are the best questions to ask?  Naturally, you want the ones that will give you the most insight and wisdom, the ones that will be most helpful in guiding you in your choices during the time you have left.  So what are those questions?

Linda’s question, adapted to our metaphor, is one possibility.  If I just accept the clause and forgo taking it to court, will I miss the opportunity to use the trust fund longer? The answer?  Well…yeah. Of course you would.  The answer to that one, just from the standpoint of pure logic, is obvious.  Which initially makes the right choice seem like a no-brainer.  Of course you should fight.  Anything else would be giving up.

However, this way of looking at it is actually misleading.  It makes it sound like, universally, there’s only one possible option that everyone should always make.  But that’s not true.  Why?  Because every person is different; with different needs, different dreams, different circumstances, different ages, different strengths, different fears, and different prospects.  All these things need to figure into the choices that each person makes, so the questions we ask need to include them.  Ideally, they’d run more along these lines:

Okay.  Exactly how much extra time are we talking about fighting for here?  Rough guess, what are the odds of my winning this fight?  Am I really interested in betting the farm on longer, riskier odds?  Just how much money is left in the fund to fight for at this point anyway?  Is there something other than legal fees I really want or need to spend that money on?  What will I lose by mounting a fight?  What’s more important to me; having the funds available to spend in the future, or spending them today on what I love?

And what is perhaps the most important question of all:  How much of the fund should I reserve for what I love, value, and cherish the most, to ensure I have no regrets–that my loved ones will still be okay–when the trust eventually closes?

The metaphor of a trust fund is apt because, in reality, life isn’t something that belongs to us. It’s not like our mothers gave birth and then picked up a receipt at the front desk.  Life has never been ours, something we’re entitled to own and control.  On the contrary, it’s only ever been a miraculous, incomprehensible, immeasurable resource controlled by something else too big to understand.  Life is something that we didn’t earn and don’t even necessarily deserve, but that we nevertheless get to use however we want, for free.

To me, life is exactly like a trust fund…only times a gazillion. It’s our fortune.  Our treasure.  A limitless, jaw-dropping, sphincter-releasing wealth beyond our wildest, freaking dreams.  I’m talking real-life fairy tale here, a winning-the-biggest-lottery-of-all-time kind of luck.  A staggering, incalculable store of riches that’s set up in trust for us when we’re born and that we get to draw on and use for as long as we’re here.

But of course, as with all fairy tales, there is that one small catch:  We only have access for a limited time.  And while the question how much time? is certainly a compelling one, it’s unanswerable.  For me it’s more valuable to ask instead, What is the best and brightest use of whatever time I do have?

The medical mindset at work today tends to glorify the fight to live, and skim over the deep human costs involved in such a fight.  This often leads people to continue fighting in the face of increasingly long odds, instead of devoting their remaining energy to fully living whatever time they have left.  It’s surprisingly easy for the fight itself to take over and become the goal.  That’ why it’s so important to remember that the fight is only worthwhile in so far as the life it seeks to preserve is worth living.  When it begins to consume and destroy that life instead, then it’s time to stop.

We’re living in a transitional age where developing technologies have granted us miraculous gifts.  We’ve gone from having little to no choice at all about how we die to an overwhelming explosion of options and, even though we don’t have any more power to prevent death today than we ever did, we’ve developed an extraordinary, mind-blowing capacity to manage its timing.

However, there’s still a gaping hole that exists between these developing powers and our understanding of how best to apply them.  Subconsciously, we’re wrestling with a lot of confusion.  All the old instincts about dying are alive and well and active, lurking just below the surface.  We’re still firmly in the grip of old memes, superstitions, beliefs, and attitudes about it, only now we’ve added layers of wild (and often unrealistic) expectations born of a new, more sophisticated world.  Our collective understanding and response to dying, developed through tens of thousands of years of helplessness, hasn’t evolved as quickly as our intellectual, technological knowledge, creating turmoil and chaos.  But it’s also opened the door for some amazing exploration and new possibilities in how we want to ultimately embrace and manage the way we die.

We’re living in an exciting, intoxicating age where we’re all medical pioneers, where we all get to explore and experiment in our own lives with how best to apply this new wave of knowledge.  I suspect, as we evolve and mature in our understanding of what dying and death mean in today’s world, we’ll become more skilled in balancing our profound desire to live with a deepened, more authentic acceptance of dying.   We’ll discover new and wonderful ways to navigate, treat, live…and still dance…with chronic and terminal illness.  Ways that, today, we can’t even begin to imagine.

I think the current, explosive growth in medical possibilities offers us a parallel opportunity, both as individuals and societies, to grow and develop at a pace that simply wasn’t possible before.  We now have  the chance for our deepest humanity–our collective courage, generosity, insight, humility, and wisdom–to grow at the same exponential pace as our technology.

Personally, I love it.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

“Dying” is Still Alive

I’m starting to suspect a lot of people use the terms dying and death interchangeably, or link them so closely together in their minds that they can’t easily discriminate between the two.  At least subconsciously.  I suppose that’s to be expected, considering neither of them are things we talk about much.  Let’s face it, anything unfortunate enough to tumble into the closed pit of taboo topics is destined to collect a lot of misunderstanding.

But this particular area of confusion intrigues me more than most because it’s hard to find two things more different than dying and death.  Exactly how different are they?  Polar opposite different.  World’s apart different.  Different as in “If you had a choice of which one you wanted to be at this very moment, which would you pick?” different.

Death is dead.  Dying is still very, very much alive.

In fact, it may well be one of the most alive periods we get over an entire lifetime of being alive.  I think this is a very, very important point to remember because, startling though it may seem, dying can be easy to miss. 

(Not dead…dead is unmistakable.  Dying can be easy to miss.  See what your mind did there?)

With the current medical paradigm focused primarily on cure, we can spend so much time fighting not to die that we wind up going straight from being sick to being dead, thereby missing the peculiar and healing light of the world of dying that lies in between those two.  We can miss both the chance to realize Oh wow…this is it.  I’m dying now….as well as the gift that comes from spending the rest of our days in that final place where life first collapses, and then supernovas into Life itself.

So if there was only one piece of advice I could pass along it would be this:  Don’t close your eyes. Don’t condition yourself to denial and blindness.  Because, for all their power to transform and heal, the miracles at the end of life are delicate, twinkling, and brief and, if you’re not alert enough to look for them, they can be very, very easy to miss.

copyright Dia Osborn 2010

Incurable Miracles

One of the most common responses I used to get from people when they found out I worked with hospice was, That must be depressing. I was never quite sure how to answer that.

Because it wasn’t depressing at all.  It was a whole lot of other things; hard, heartbreaking, inspiring, curious, overwhelming, humorous, wonderful, challenging, exhausting, transformative, and ultimately very, very uplifting.

But never depressing.  Not once.  And I’m a depressive.

I’ve been riding the cycles of major depressive episodes for almost two decades but, far from aggravating the symptoms, hanging around with dying people actually helped.  They showed me what it can look like, living in the world of no-cure.  How being incurable in no way limits the ability to make your miracles.

I’d always thought the dying were about-as-good-as-dead, so imagine my surprise to discover they’re actually still very much alive.  In some ways more than most people.  Dying didn’t suppress their ability to live, it enhanced it.  They still felt everything we all do, only times a million.  They were throbbing with life.  Writhing and radiant from it.  The fact that some of that life was transcendent love and some was sheer hell was incidental.

Life has always been a package deal.

So anyway, I’ve never been able to explain this beautiful side of dying with words.  But here’s a video called The Unseen Sea by Simon Christen that captures the essence of it.  This is how it felt during the hours I spent with them, turning and toileting, bathing and dressing, capturing all the last whispered, aching, illuminated stories of their lives.  It often felt like floating on an ocean, carried along by some timeless, perpetual current that ebbed and flowed, swirling around us, filmy and comforting and soft.

This is some stunning time lapse photography of the changing skies around San Francisco.  Just make sure you turn up the sound because the music is exquisite, too.

http://vimeo.com/15069551

You can find the original posting of this video at Simon Christen’s Vimeo site here.

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-Coming or A-Going

An important thing I learned while working with hospice was that the dying didn’t need me hauling any more heavy emotions into the room.  At all.  They had plenty enough of their own to deal with, not to mention all those generated by the loved ones surrounding them, and while all those emotions were natural and perfectly appropriate, they were weighty.  Very.  In fact, if they were barometric pressure, the skies would be swollen, threatening, and dark.  Nobody needed me tossing some of the more typical reactions to dying…sadness, pity, horror?…into the mix, too.

What they did need was help.  Calm and guidance were good and cheerfulness was like a cherry on top.

It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it what it looks like, the kind of emotional buoyancy that helps most in the homes of the dying.  It’s not that I behaved like a game show host or anything.  It wasn’t a cheerfulness born out of summer carnivals and silly pranks, first love and hot pants.

Although I did usually fall in love with them, these people who were allowing me into their lives at a time when they were fragile and reeling, and the loving of them made me happy.  I also cared about what was happening to them, deeply.  I knew they were suffering and I wanted to do whatever possible to ease the journey they were on, to lessen their fear.

But mostly I was cheerful because I felt really, really lucky to be there at all.

It’s not easy to gain access to the dying, a fact that most people don’t realize because they don’t want access.  But if they did they’d soon find there are more barriers in place around the dying than at almost any other stage of life.  Part of this is due to a tendency on the part of overwhelmed loved ones to circle the wagons against anyone who’s not absolutely necessary.  Another part is due to the fact that dying people just don’t get out much.  But mostly access is challenging because our society quarantines the dying in powerful, unconscious, and insidious ways, not only making it harder for them to be seen (and thereby remind us of things we don’t want to be reminded of), but also making it more difficult for those of us who want to, to find and reach them.

I felt profoundly lucky to reach them, every time, to be allowed into the chamber from which they were preparing to take their departure.  I discovered a host of amazing people cradled and waiting in an equally amazing, intermediate world.

I often felt like I’d stumbled into some secret society where the mystery of the ages was finally revealed.  And I had a ring side seat.  It reminded me of the two magical days when I spread my legs and watched a trembling, wide-eyed babe slip into the world.  Only opposite.  Because at both ends of the spectrum the same magical portal appears, briefly opening to allow life’s safe passage between this dimension and some other.  And I was equally spellbound whether that life was a-coming or a-going.

To me, it seemed miraculous either way.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

So What Happened to David?

When we left him last week, David was dangling from the top of a telephone pole while the wild cat that chased him there clung halfway up the side, ferociously guarding the only escape route.  I, in the meantime, was trying to drive the demon off by wildly throwing rocks into the cattails, the nearby trees, the air, and one that even went a full forty-five degrees down the road to my left.   I was considering trying to shimmy up the pole myself when, for no discernible reason, Wild Cat suddenly decided to call it quits.  It went silent for a few seconds before backing down the pole and disappearing into the surrounding brush and then poof.  It was gone.  That fast.

Initially I was relieved.  Elated.  Jubilant.  But then I looked back up at David still hanging from the crossbar and realized he probably didn’t know how to climb back down.  Of course he hadn’t really known how to climb up either but he’d had the benefit of adrenaline-fueled terror moving in that direction.  Now that it had worn off he was just uncomfortable, limp, and fat.  The thought occurred to me it might be time to see if firemen really do rescue cats from high places.

In the end that wasn’t necessary.  It took close to twenty minutes of cajoling but David finally decided to come down on his own.  He scooched back along the crossbar, transferred to the pole, and worked his way down to the ground backwards.  Once there, no amount of coaxing could lure him back up onto the exposed vulnerability of the road, but he followed me on a parallel path through the brush as I turned and beat a hasty retreat back to the apartment.  At the last he had to break from cover and make a wild dash across the road to the door where he bunched himself into a corner, casting panicked glances over his shoulder for the few seconds it took me to unlock it and let him inside.

Needless to say, David refused to ever step outside the apartment again and I no longer invited him to even accompany me to the door.  We were both pretty shaken up.  Color me superstitious but I found myself wondering if  his agoraphobia might not have been due to some kind of premonition on his part.  What if he actually knew what was waiting for him out there?  Maybe he’d had wild cat nightmares from kitten-hood, warnings sent from the future to Stay!  Stay inside for godsakes! no matter who beckons–no matter how friendly or safe the girl who eventually opens the door might seem.

The good news is that, after things settled back down, as long as he didn’t have to go outside David was the same bloated, happy, affectionate cat he’d always been.  Aside from a new tendency to give the front entryway a wide berth, he seemed basically unchanged by the whole experience.  His world  returned to the small, cramped space it had been before, the one which constricted his geographical range but in no way limited his level of contentment.  That was what particularly struck me.  In spite of his phobia David the Scaredy Cat remained one of the sunniest, most upbeat creatures I have ever, to this day, encountered.

I thought about him a lot, years later, as I spiraled down into the collapsing world of agoraphobia myself.  My first instinct was to fight against the overwhelming tendency to withdraw, to try and force myself to go out anyway and do all the things I’d always done, but it was like trying to swim out of the gravitational pull of a black hole.  I could spend hours in paralyzed terror contemplating the front door, trying to work up the nerve to grab the knob and turn it, but the harder I pushed myself the more extensive my internal collapse became.  Eventually, not only was I unable to go outside the house most of the time, I could barely function inside it either.

So finally, in desperation, I decided to try David’s trick.  I surrendered.  I shaved down my life to the bare essentials, outlining the few critical commitments I had to at least try to meet–getting out of bed in the morning, taking a shower, feeding my family–and then deliberately cut the rope that tied me to all the rest.  I redefined my basic world as the one that existed within the four walls of our home, accepted it, and–surprise, surprise–experienced an immediate rebound.

This is not to say I instantly attained David’s zen-like level of perfect bliss by any means.  Not hardly.  My agoraphobia was only a beginning symptom of something far bigger that would take me years to learn how to navigate.

But the immediate paralysis ebbed somewhat.  As soon as I stopped demanding a full return to my previous, now impossible life schedule, something frozen in me started to thaw again.  It wiggled its fingers and toes.  It drew breath.  It tentatively started to work again on the now drastically scaled down version of my life.

I discovered that–for me–in spite of the fear, in spite of the sluggishness, in spite of the overwhelming sense of heaviness that kept dragging me down towards lethargy and despair, I still somehow retained the capacity to both love and navigate.  That was my miracle during those years, the transcendent thing I could still create even in an incredibly shrinking world.   My territory got a whole lot smaller, yes, but my heart and willingness to explore it didn’t.  And that’s what David’s example taught me.

That’s also why David is, along with Cerebral Palsy Man, one of my biggest heroes.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

Irrationally Happy

Until I met Cerebral Palsy Man I secretly believed that my happiness was determined by circumstance.  I’d never admit that of course, because I know I’m supposed to believe that I determine my own happiness.   But I didn’t believe that.  Not really.  How could I?  I’d never seen it before.  I had no role models.

That was before I met Cerebral Palsy Man.

I discovered him while doing my clinical hours in a local nursing home which…may I be frank here?…repelled me.  It’s not that it was filthy or filled with evil staff or anything.  It wasn’t.  While there was a faint aroma of urine that pervaded the place, and the quality of work smelled of a corresponding by-the-hour ethic, no one I met there seemed to harbor any ill intent towards the residents.  The place itself just seemed to drain them.  Physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  It was like a black hole for positive energy–no matter how much you started out with when you first arrived, by the end of the day the run down furnishings and endless, linoleum hallways littered with sagging people in wheelchairs sucked it right out of you.

I’m not alone in thinking that institutionalizing illness and aging isn’t working.  Pretty much everyone dreads these places.  I’ve never met a single human being that’s told me Boy howdy! I just can’t wait to get old so I can go live in a nursing home. While there’s an excellent movement afoot to try and change this sorry state of affairs, to date (as we all know but still deny whenever we have to we drop off one of our own elders) nursing homes are by and large depressing places.

Yet strangely enough it was here, in this horrible environment, that I discovered the surprising existence of Cerebral Palsy Man.  He was a gentleman in his seventies who’d been living with the disease all his life–had in fact resided in a string of nursing home-type environments since he’d first been institutionalized in his twenties.  To my mind, after what must have been a long and miserable existence (right?) he should have been reduced to little more than a lump–a morose, dejected huddle of a human being just waiting and wishing to die.

But au contraire!

How wrong and riddled with stereotypical thinking I was.  Instead of some sad and depressing lump of a man I found a total radical.  In spite of the fact that he couldn’t bathe, dress, toilet, shave, transfer, turn, or feed himself, he was outrageously happy.  Contagiously so.  Everyone loved him.  The only time I didn’t see him smiling was when he had to stop and open his mouth for a spoonful of the pureed, mystery meat they served for lunch that day.  Otherwise, he sailed up and down the hallways in his electric wheelchair, singing out a warm and (to my inexperienced ear) totally unintelligible greeting to everyone he passed including his new roommate and blushing bride–a plump and cheerful, equally helpless woman who shared his name, bathroom, and cerebral palsy diagnosis.

So what was wrong with this man you ask?  Why didn’t he just knuckle under and curl up in defeat as required?  Everyone else living in that awful place seemed to get it.  The majority of them were actually far more independent than he was but still obediently complaining and morose.  Why didn’t he conform?  What made him think he could be different?

Aha!  But our Cerebral Palsy Man was no novice.  He had a gift that few of the others there shared–an entire lifetime of dependency and debilitation.  He’d had over seventy years to adjust and adapt to not only the strict boundaries his body dictated, but the grim institutional settings they’d landed him in.  And–here’s the real kicker–he’d used that time to nose around and discover a secret that most of us never do:

Limits don’t in any way restrict our ability to make miracles. Because they can’t.  How could they?  Limits and miracles don’t even exist in the same dimension.

It’s like the difference between the world of time and space that exists within the speed of light and then the mystery that exists out beyond it.  His body (and the dreary hallways and overworked staff and pee odor and bad food) all belonged to the slower, visible, measurable world.  But Cerebral Palsy Man had managed to launch out somewhere beyond into a radiant realm brimming with unreasonable joy and enthusiasm.  Trapped for life in a nursing home for godsakes, and this man (my role model, my idol, my superhero) was totally and irrationally happy anyway.  That was his miracle.

Well, let me tell you it didn’t take much time spent in his company for the sleeping radical in me to sit up and take note, too.  She studied him for a little while, then looked back at the gray people, then looked back at him again, and finally whistled low and long.  Whewee, she said.  Fuck following the herd then.  I want whatever he’s having.

And really I ask you–if he can do it, then why can’t I?  So what if I’m a depressive?  So what if I’m a multi-phobic person with a dissociative disorder?  So what if I spend more time curled up in the fetal position than your average Joe?  Evidently, if I want to go ahead and be irrationally happy anyway, I can.  All I need is a cape, a grin, and somebody to show me the way.

Bingo!  And now I want to be just like Cerebral Palsy Man.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn