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

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

ABOUT WRITING:

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

There.  Now on to the Easter Portrait.

ABOUT THE PHOTO:

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

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

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

ABOUT EMOTIONAL ENDURANCE AND THE DYING:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

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The Jewish Do Not Leave Their Dead Bodies Alone

(children intuitively understand)

One of the great sorrows when my mother died was leaving her body alone in the hospice facility after she died.  Indeed, for my sister it went beyond sorrow into trauma.  The problem was that her death was unexpected and she hadn’t done any advanced planning for the disposition of her remains.  All any of us really knew was that she wanted to be cremated and have her ashes scattered in a bay that she loved.

None of us (ten kids frantically assembling from all over the world) had a clue what to do.  We didn’t know the laws governing human remains and it was a shock to find out 1) how much paperwork is involved and 2) how much time it takes to complete it.  To our dismay we discovered that due to the lack of advance planning it would take a full week before she could be legally cremated.  None of us was in a position to wait that long…it had been hard enough just to get there in time…but more importantly, even if we could have stayed, there wasn’t really any way to stay with her body.  Cremation facilities don’t provide waiting rooms next to their refrigerators.

Turns out our culture isn’t very family-friendly where its bodies are concerned.

So instead my sister and I closed the door, gathered warm water and cloths, and bathed her body ourselves there in the room where she died, loving, tender, and stricken as we said our final goodbyes.  Then we reluctantly walked out of the bedroom and facility, climbed into a car, and drove away.

It was awful.  Leaving her all alone like that, vulnerable and helpless with no one to protect her.  It felt like we’d abandoned her to strangers and I’ll always have deep regrets about it.  But lacking any kind of long history and established customs for that kind of thing we just weren’t prepared to do it any differently.

Which is why I was fascinated to run across a beautiful, poignant article in the New York Times titled Keeping Them Company At The End.  It’s written by Joy Levitt, a rabbi with congregations in New Jersey and New York, and in it she tells the story of sitting with a woman and the body of her dead husband until the doctor could get to the house and pronounce.

It caught my attention for a couple of reasons.  One, she refers to a kind of awareness that I often hear described by people working with hospice; the recognition of “what an unusual and extraordinary privilege it was to be in that bedroom.” And she also does a wonderful job of capturing the illuminated quality of love which so often permeates the room around the time of dying.  But what started me reminiscing about my mother’s death in particular was her description of the Jewish tradition of guarding the bodies of their dead.

“Jews do not leave dead bodies alone. Communities appoint people called “shomrim” — protectors — to watch over the deceased from the time of death until the funeral. It is considered a “mitzvah” — a commanded act — and a holy thing to do, but its origins probably date to a time when there weren’t adequate ways to protect bodies from rodents (or perhaps evil spirits) during the night.”

What a great tradition.  It made me wish I was Jewish for a minute.   Not surprisingly, the white-Protestant-repressed-denial-of-death background I come from doesn’t have much to offer in this area.

I was just looking around online and found some of the following resources for anyone interested in a non-traditional approach to care of the body and funerals.

Home Funerals (lots of great links in this one)

A Family Undertaking (trailer for a really, really beautiful and inspiring documentary.  I watched this a while back and just loved it.)

Final Passages website

And to find out information on the actual laws governing disposition of human remains in my state, I did a search for Idaho laws governing disposition of human remains and found the existing legislationI imagine some variation of that would work for most states.

And by the way, if any of you have a minute, I’d love to hear about experiences you’ve had or resources you’ve found, too.  Thanks!

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

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

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

And Now A Grief Support Group

It’s coming up on a year since my mom died.

The anniversary is a scant three weeks away and after all these months of just trying to put it behind me, I received a phone call inviting me to join a grief group.  I’d forgotten about the whole grief group thing.  The hospice I once worked for sponsors them twice a year and, in an early effort to Be Diligent and Do Grieving Right, I’d looked into joining one a few months after she died.  But the timing was off and I fell into a crack between sessions.

Which wasn’t a problem mind you.  I’m not really much of a group person.  I look askance at help.  It’s more my style to see if I can’t just cope with the pain on my own.  In fact, I like doing things alone so much that a frustrated friend once pointed out that my name itself is an acronym for it: DIA – Do It Alone.

By the time the chaplain called  to let me know a new group was forming I was polite but no longer interested.  I didn’t want to join for a lot of reasons but mainly because it didn’t seem like I should need to anymore.  I mean, it was almost a year already.  It wasn’t time to start something new, it was time to wrap things up.  The official mourning period was drawing to a close and, I’m so sorry but really, there’s a schedule to keep with this kind of thing.

But somehow, when I opened my big, fat mouth to give him my answer, that stupid orifice surprised me and said yes.  What?!  What did you just say? And now I find myself stuck in a room for two hours a week, on Wednesday nights, with people that I don’t know, don’t trust, and don’t want to listen to, struggling to face a whole lot of emotions that I’d actually managed to avoid for nigh on a year by staying away from all the people that I don’t know, don’t trust, and don’t want to listen to.

(Which seems to be just about everybody these days.  Sigh.)

There have been two meetings so far and they’ve been pretty much as uncomfortable as I feared.  Mostly I sit there with my mouth closed (oh…so now you shut up?) and vacillate between fighting back tears and mentally picking apart whoever else is speaking.  I get so irritated.  It’s like I have this shitty, angry, little bricklayer inside me who’s trying to build the walls back up again as fast as they come down, but no matter how furiously he works he can’t seem to protect that place in the middle that’s so raw.  There’s no way.  I can’t seem to hold these other people off no matter how hard I try.  I hate it.  I hate them. I hate me.  I hate the chaplain.  And I hate grief groups.

I like the cookies though.  They always give us really great cookies.         

So two meetings down so far, six to go.  I’m sticking with it because the intelligent, compassionate, long-sighted adult in me knows that something good is actually happening and the pay off will be worth it.  But honestly, today this is what it feels like to the little kid in me:

Talking sucks.  Listening sucks even more.  And having to hang around these other fragile, struggling, beautiful people who’ve also been touched by shattering loss sucks most.  They make me remember.  All I really want to do is go into the garden, forget the whole world and dig in the dirt.  Because earthworms and compost don’t care if I’m irrational, bitchy, or sobbing until the snot drips off the end of my nose.  They just don’t.  They accept me the same way they accept the weather.

Sun or storm, baby.  Sun or storm.  It’s all just part of the gig.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn