A Cautionary Note Concerning Paper Toilet Seat Covers At Public Pools

I’m looking for ways to procrastinate on the transcription and thought another quick blog post could work.

I just wanted to warn people about this because, being not only unmentionable but embarassing, I doubt anyone else will:

Whatever you do, don’t ever, ever sit down on a paper toilet seat cover while you’re soaking wet.  Ever. It’s like instantly coating your backside with a layer of papier mache and it’s very, very difficult to remove.

Especially when you discover the problem as you stand up in a narrow, public, bathroom stall with your bathing suit hanging around your knees and you panic because it won’t peel off and your feet start spreading too far apart as you try to reach around and under and through to try and rub it off your cheeks and thighs but it just disintegrates turning into a thousand, million little wet paper balls falling down to the floor like gray snow for anyone in the stalls on either side to glimpse causing them to wonder what the hell is she doing over there anyway and…what IS that?

You can’t get it all off without washing, BTW.  You just can’t.  It’s that sticky.  The good news is that you, yourself, won’t be able to see all those ragged, little remnants of sanitary protection clinging to the back of your legs as you peek both ways before making a mad dash for the showers.  You’re spared that lingering mental image at least.

On the other hand, if you ever want to make a piñata shaped like a butt, this could be an excellent way to begin.

(Can you believe it?  You can find pictures of ANYTHING!!!!  These lovelies are for sale over at Bigass Pinatas).

Oh.  And P.S.  Wet turns a once-sanitary paper toilet seat cover into a veritable delivery system for virus and bacteria so humiliation could be the least of your problems.  It’s been two weeks and I’m still alive and wiggling so no harm done in my case.  But you be careful out there.  These things turn dangerous when cornered.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Hmmm…An Agnostic Reports A Light While Dying

I recently heard a fascinating dying story.

A woman told me how her elderly mother…either a scientist or an engineer (I can’t remember now, sorry) who was hours from death, drifting in and out of consciousness and totally non-lucid even when she was conscious…began to report on what she was experiencing internally, in a disembodied kind of voice.

It seems the discipline of a lifetime dies hard.

What struck us both was that the last thing she communicated was an experience of light.  She said There’s a light.  Twice.  Which seemed surprising because her mother was a firm agnostic.

The conversation paused briefly as we mused over this.  I mentioned that I’ve heard a lot about this experience of light (of course, who hasn’t?) but the scientist hanging around in my own head, while curious, has remained unconvinced  without further evidence.  The fact that her mother was a scientist and agnostic definitely carried some weight.

To which the daughter, who seemed to share her mother’s rational sensibilities, responded that it didn’t necessarily mean anything more than that her mother was having a visual experience of light.  There’s no way to know for sure what was causing it, and certainly no way to know if it was a sign of anything else.  And I got that.  There really isn’t.

But still…it comforted me.  I mean, seriously, out of all the possible experiences I can think of having to go through during my own transition, heading for light is definitely up there in the top three.  It sure beats seeing something like monsters coming to get me, or heading for a giant buzz saw, or disappearing into a gaping, empty, black void.

Light is good.  I’m all in for light.

And…if any such light turns out to be the precursor to something more cool?  Well, even the non-committal scientist in my head grins at the thought and says, IF that’s the case, then she’s totally on board, too.

Photo by Zouavman Le Zouave at Wikpedia

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

A Curious, Amazing Thing That Often Happens Just Before Death

Image by Vlado

Both the hubster and I were there with the family, at the house, when our good friend, Mr. B, died a couple weeks ago, and I wanted to tell you about something amazing that happened right before he passed.  Actually, this type of dying event is common and it frequently (certainly in every case that I’ve been involved with) lifts the spirits of those who are there to witness it.

It was nearing the end and Mr. B had been unconscious for close to a day and a half.  The hubster, driven by the common, but often unspoken, instinct displayed by loved ones to never leave their dying person alone, was taking his turn sitting beside the bed and holding Mr. B.’s hand.  The family was scattered throughout the house, cleaning up from breakfast, while Mrs. B was on the other side of the room discussing something with their son.  She’d just finished and was walking past the bed on her way out to the kitchen when Mr. B. suddenly, the hubster later told me excitedly, squeezed his hand.


“Like this!” he said, grabbing my hand and crushing it in a way that sent shooting pains up my arm.

“Ow!”  I snatched my hand away and glared at him.  “That hurts!”

“I know!” the hubster started nodding vigorously, relieved that I got it. “That’s just what it was like!  He did that to me, too!”

And suddenly I did get it, and I was amazed.  My mind flew back to the last hour when Mr. B. lay there helpless and still; pale, shrunken, and almost gone.  He’d grown so weak he fell into a final coma from which he couldn’t seem to climb back out, but then somehow…in that last minute…he powered back up anyway.  He’d grabbed onto the only thing available, the husbster’s hand, and squeezed it so hard that the hubster had to sit up and pay attention.

“He opened his eyes and locked onto mine…and I just panicked,” the hubster admitted.  “I didn’t know what was going on but I sure didn’t feel like I was the last thing he needed to see.  So I called Mrs. B. and she was right behind me.  She sat down and took his hand, spoke to him gently telling him she was there, and then a few seconds later Mr. B died while gazing into her eyes.”

The husbster paused, reflecting for a moment, then looked at me and said, “I feel like that’s what he really wanted, y’know?  That’s why he squeezed my hand.  He knew it was time to go and he wanted me to get Mrs. B. for him.”

Later, Mrs. B told me the same thing.

“It happened just as I was walking past the bed,” she mused.  “I think he knew it.  I think that’s why he made his move right at that moment.  He wanted to tell me good-bye.”

It’s well known within hospice circles that the dying are far more aware of and, in a lot of cases, far more involved in the timing of their actual departure, than most people realize.  Hearing seems to be the last sense to go and the dying often still respond to auditory stimuli…familiar voices, favorite music, sensitive information (which is why it’s so important to exercise caution when speaking within their hearing btw), etc….even from the depths of coma.

I love this…the fact that our relationships with one another don’t just stop because one of us loses consciousness.  The connections we build are so much more complex, beautiful, delicate, and tenacious than that.  It often feels…there in the rooms of the dying…like some vast and luminous web has been spun around us, supporting and binding us at a thousand, twinkling, alternate, junction points so that, even if we can no longer speak or see or touch, our love still travels easily along the other pathways, the ones that haven’t collapsed.

My mother awakened in her last moments, too (even though that was scientifically impossible with all the heavy sedation she was under,) her eyes opening for one last, brief glimpse as my brother read a passage aloud from the Upanishads.  My grandmother was decidedly more active about her’s.  After three days of coma (and six solid hours of heavy labor where she seemed to be stuck in her body and unable to leave) she finally sucked in one last, mighty breath, opened her eyes, and let out a yell on the exhale, as though she’d stripped off her helmet, mounted the sound, and was riding it wildly out of her own mouth in a last, triumphant charge.   I remember how I sat there stunned for a moment…and then burst out laughing.  With relief.  With applause.  With joy.

But my favorite story, the one that always cracks everyone up, involves the last moments of The Feisty One, an elderly German woman whose final words probably best sum up the sheer shock-and-awe effect of the transition from life into death.  She was what we call a colorful character; a regal prima donna who commanded everyone, was disdainful of doctors, dismissed all the symptoms of her decline with contempt, and who kept telling me that really, it was all just a bad case of constipation and she’d be up and around again soon. 

And then, she insisted, I’m going to cook you a real German meal.

I adored this woman.

Her daughter-in-law was the one who told me the story of The Feisty One’s last moments.  How she’d had a burst of energy and talked for something like fifteen hours straight, all through the night and well into the following morning, before falling into a coma.  How she then just lay there, finally quiet, for a day and a half, her breathing growing increasingly labored and shallow.  And then how, right at the end, she drew one last breath and opened her eyes again, staring at them all in complete surprise, before exclaiming, “Shit…SHIT!…SHIT!!!”  After which she collapsed back against the pillows again and promptly died.

I can only imagine how those may very well be my own sentiments exactly some day.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Building Immunity: Dying isn’t avoidable, but the horror of it is.

So what drove me to work with hospice in the first place?

Dying encompasses a significant chunk of our total life experience yet, because our society has such an ingrained revulsion and fear of it, we tend to quarantine, hide, then ignore the people who are actually doing it.  And because I grew up in our society, I dutifully learned to wrinkle my nose, too, to try and avoid things like illness, decay, ugliness, aging, abuse, and death.  Poop and throw up.  Sadness and sagging.  Helplessness, wrinkling and loss.

Everything was going along just fine until one day I started to notice that, with aging, more and more of the people and places I loved were passing under the shadow of these things.  This, of course, made avoiding the necessary things more difficult and I started to chafe.  But it wasn’t until it reached the point where avoiding the scary stuff became synonymous with avoiding the people I loved who were experiencing them, that something inside me finally mutinied.

The system clearly wasn’t working the way I’d been told it should.  So, after some thought, I dug my spear out of the closet, painted and crossed myself, then marched off into the heart of darkness to investigate that big, hidden chunk of life for myself.  Go explore it.  Learn my way around.  Find out if it was really as bad as everyone said it was, and discover if I had the stomach for it or not.  I quickly found a hospice where I could volunteer, then approached my first bedside and sat down with a catheter bag knocking against my knee, the fumes of urine wafting steadily up into my nostrils, for the next two hours.

And in direct contradiction to all I’d been led to believe, I survived.

So I continued.  I stepped in and volunteered some more.  Decided to go a little farther and return to school to get certified as a nurse’s assistant.  I gave my first naked, elderly gentleman his bath, wiped fecal matter from the wrinkled genitals of a younger woman whose multiple sclerosis had left her paralyzed, and slipped my arm and strength behind the shoulders of a grandmother who could barely raise her head from the pillow while she heaved up blood into a trashcan.

And, lo and behold, I still survived.

So I relaxed a little and started falling in love with people.  I listened to their stories, sometimes over and over again, and fell deeper into love.  I studied those struggling in the depths of decline and loss; witnessed those who once walked stopped walking, those who once spoke stop speaking, those being left behind look around blindly, their hands reaching out, bewildered and lost, for something they’d never find.

And I started to do more than just survive.  I started to change.

I began to see through the blood and wasting and smells, the crushing overwhelm, occasionally catching glimpses of something shining behind the clammy skin and unfocused eyes.  I occasionally heard something in the way people spoke, something gentle just beneath their words that was so vast it wrenched my heart and stole my breath.  And sometimes—sometimes—I’d feel that thing there in the room, flowing all around us like a current of air or water, an underlying, pulsing love that was so searing and tender it left me sobbing over the steering wheel afterwards, shaken to the core.

Something transforming me, bit by bit by bit.

The concept of immunity fits well with the changes I’ve experienced.  You see, it’s not that the dying process isn’t as hard as I feared.  It most certainly is and, what’s worse, I now have all the details.  No.  I didn’t become magically oblivious to the horrors involved.  What seemed to transform was my ability to witness and contain the dying of others without being devastated by it.  It was a gradual process of course, requiring a gradual exposure, but over time, as I discovered how much stronger people are than I’d previously suspected I felt myself growing freer from my fear for them, and as my fear dissipated it allowed me to see their strength more clearly.  It became a self-perpetuating feedback loop of expanding perception and depth inside me.

This developing immunity involved something inside me growing larger with each passing day.  I’ll say it one more time because I feel it’s so important to understand—it’s not that the suffering I witnessed diminished in any way.  The hardships endured by the people I was serving remained just as real and grueling as ever, and my heart never ceased breaking for them because that’s what a heart is designed to do when confronted with the profound human suffering of others.

But as my immunity to the horror grew, my heart began to break in a different way.  Not in the destructive way that leaves smoking ruins and rubble in its wake, but more like the way an egg cracks open to release a new and different form of life into the world.  That’s what it felt like time and time again; as I watched a frantic daughter stumble into the room at the last minute to collapse by her mother’s bedside, sobbing with relief because she’d reached her just before she died, or a husband, desperately struggling out of a morphine fog for a few moments to take his wife’s hand and tell her how sorry he was for not recognizing her.  That inside, where he still existed, he would always, always love her.  Each time I felt the enormity of their love and loss inside me like a physical blow, felt a sharp pain inside my chest as something smaller and restricted cracked violently open allowing something fragile and dripping, unfolding and new, to spill out and fill me.

It was as though I was dying a little too–each time—and then being reborn again as something clearer, larger, and calmer emerged from the shards.

In a very real sense I felt like I was being vaccinated with the pain and dying of these people, so that my own capacity to bear such things, to understand and contain them, could grow.  I’d always thought of immunity as a physiological response but the capacity seems to exist on the mental, emotional and spiritual levels as well.  It became increasingly clear to me that, while the benign and loving experiences of my life are what nourish and prepare me, it’s the injuries and hardships along the way that force me to harness and deploy that strength.

I’d like to leave you with a quote that best describes this process of immunization for me, as well as its resulting gift of strength.   It’s from Victor Frankl, a Viennese psychiatrist who survived imprisonment at Auschwitz and afterwards authored the book Man’s Search for Meaning, and he captures the insight far more succinctly:

That which is to give light must endure burning.


copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Shark Whisperer

I just stumbled across this three minute, somewhat-unnerving-yet-deeply-moving video of Christina Zenato, a woman diver, interacting with sharks down in the Bahamas.  Frankly, I didn’t believe this kind of gentle relationship was even possible and yet here it is anyway.  Sometimes it feels so good to be wrong.

Disclaimer:  Evidently she’s a pro, so I wouldn’t recommend trying this at home. 

What fascinated me most was what happened in my brain while I watched.  I swear I could feel it rewiring.  Some deep and unquestioned prejudice against sharks took a hit here.  Big time.

(Which was strange, because I thought I was already fairly enlightened in my attitude toward sharks.  The hubster feels a deep affinity for them and his love for them has rubbed off on me over time, so it was surprising to discover these deep underlying layers of stereotype still lurking in the shadowy recesses of my mind.)

Initially, I admit I thought this woman was an idiot, especially when she started feeding them by hand.  But by the end I realized she has a much fuller understanding of sharks than I do, based on actual, nourishing, beautiful and real life interactions with them.   Something I totally lack…which is probably why my bias has thrived.

Prejudice is funny that way, isn’t it?  It feeds on unfamiliarity.  It doesn’t tend to fare as well when faced with living, breathing, sentient beings.

(Stray thought: Believing in stereotypes is like eating cheap carbs.  They’re like white bread, candy, and soda pop for the mind, not very healthy but what a rush!   Relationships with living, flesh and blood creatures, on the other hand, are more like whole grains; harder and slower to digest but far more nourishing in the long run.)

Once again I’m reminded that all creatures tend to respond positively to understanding, patience, respect, and intelligent handling.  I don’t know why I keep falling back into the default belief that some creatures (including some humans) are impervious to kindness and love…that monsters are real.  That kind of early conditioning is hard to shake I guess.

The video is only a couple minutes long.  If you get the chance I highly recommend it.  It’s soothing and inspiring.

About the technique she employs at the end of the video:  “Practicing a little known technique of rubbing and manipulating her fingers across the ampullae of Lorenzini, the visible dots [electro-receptive sensory organs] all around a shark’s head and face, she induces a tonic immobility. To the observer, this looks like a shark falling asleep right in her lap.”  

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Ghosts and Cemetery Babies

The Haunted Lodge built back in the 1920’s

And now for more from our recent trip to the Olympic rainforest.

The hubster and I were surprised to learn that Lake Quinault Lodge, where we were staying, is haunted.  Famously so.  The Lodge has been featured on a couple of supernatural-styled TV shows.

We were surprised because we heard nothing of ghosts during our first stay in 2008, even though we stayed for two whole weeks.  Perhaps the locals were too busy recovering from the recent hurricane at the time, in which case we forgive them.

Evidently, the ghost is named Beverly and she died when one of the original structures on the property (the boathouse which served as a kitchen) caught fire and burned to the ground back in the nineteen-teens.  Beverly was trapped and burned to death and she’s been hanging around the property ever since.  She’s reported to be a nice ghost and is usually detected in two favorite rooms.  (According to a helpful comment from Josh, evidently “the lodge staff call her favorite room, The Beverly Suite.”)  We were thrilled to learn that one of her haunts was the room right next door to ours, where she likes to open windows that overlook the lake.

(Once I found out about her I invited her to come over to our room a few times, but she refused to be lured.  Our windows remained firmly shut.)

The story that really got us excited though, was a personal anecdote from Michael, the activities director of the Lodge.  He once owned and ran the small mercantile/cafe across the street, and in those days guests from the Lodge regularly spilled over into his establishment.  In fact, on our first trip the hubster and I frequently haunted his cafe ourselves as the food and coffee were to die for.

(Intentional pun.)

Michael told us that one day, a woman came into the merc who was clearly agitated and it didn’t take much prompting to get her to tell him what happened.  She said she’d checked into her room earlier that day and, while unpacking her bags, turned around to discover a woman standing across the room behind her.  The guest became angry and demanded to know who she was and what she was doing in her room.  The strange woman explained that her name was Beverly and she worked at the hotel.

The guest immediately went down to complain to management that one of their employees had trespassed in her room, only to be told that they didn’t have an employee named Beverly.  She was further upset when, upon discovering her room number, management explained the trespass with the story that her room was a favorite haunt of a well known ghost named Beverly.  At this point she’d evidently had all she could take and, returning upstairs, repacked her things and left the hotel, stopping only to pick up a few sundries across the street from Michael’s mercantile on the way out of town.

I’m fascinated by these kinds of personal stories.  I always have been.   Partly for the delicious, spooky thrill involved, but even more so because of the peculiar demeanor that comes over a person who’s been involved if you can get them to talk about it in the first place.

Which usually isn’t easy because unless it’s on a hotel tour, around a campfire, or at a slumber party, we all know we’re not supposed to discuss ghosts, unseen things, or any other kind of experience that isn’t scientifically explainable yet.  At least not seriously and not if we want to have any reputation left afterwards.

I don’t understand the reasoning behind this and it bugs me.  As with so many other subjects, I believe that talking about it openly would be healthier.  I’ve always noticed when I can get a person to open up about an odd kind of experience, most of the time they’re eager to talk in a way that feels like a dam bursting.  Having to hide these things seems to build up varying degrees of internal pressure.  In cases where the experience is not particularly significant, the pressure is small and there’s no real damage done to the person keeping the secret.  But if it’s either a traumatizing event (as it clearly was for the woman who left the Lodge in a huff,) or a meaningful experience (as is often the case when the recently bereaved are experiencing a sense of presence of their lost loved one) then this pressure to remain silent can become a burden.  In a worst case scenario, it can even start to interfere with a person’s ability to cope and heal.

This strikes me as pointless and stupid.  I’m by no means opposed to verbal taboos as a general rule.  Some of them are valuable and essential.  Like not talking about sex in front of small children, or not saying cruel things about someone who died in front of someone who loved them, or not talking throughout the movie in a theater full of other people.  I’m totally on board with taboos that serve to nourish and strengthen our communal ties.

But this taboo against discussing strange, spooky, or mystical things doesn’t do that.  In fact it does exactly the opposite.  It takes a significant chunk of common human experience and puts it in the back of a closet where it can no longer be shared, explored, tested, eventually understood, and then utilized.

Poo on that.

Moving on, Quinault has a tiny, lovely cemetery that I fell in love with on our first trip and returned to take pictures of during this last visit.  Judging from the housekeeping, the ties between living and dead in this place are clearly still vibrant and celebrated.

As you’d expect of an old graveyard full of the original homesteaders and their colorful descendents, it’s fascinating to stroll around listening to the stories the headstones and other grave adornments have to tell.

I loved the patriarch of this family who was clearly a testy, old lumberjack.  Since our first visit the fern has almost completely overgrown the headstones.

Someone is still coming to sit and drink with Will here, as evidenced by the total lack of rust on the beer can.  Whoever it was left some liquor behind in one of the bottles for him.  There was an ache of memory in the gesture that moved me.

Some of the residents clearly came from money:

While others were remembered in less costly (and less enduring) ways:

Indeed, there were quite a few open areas among the gravesites and I stepped among them gingerly, hoping and praying I wasn’t walking on someone.  In a rainforest environment, anything less hardy than stone disintegrates at a rapid clip and I suspected many of the earliest grave markers were probably lost to the elements.

Here was the age-old tale of a couple who couldn’t live without each other.  Duane died in 2004:

And Maxine followed him less than a year later:

But as always the most poignant graves were those of the children.  In this cemetery there seemed to be an endearing custom of putting them to bed for a final sleep:

From youngest to oldest, here we have baby Kristan:

…little toddler Alexander:

…and six year old Trevor:

I was so glad and grateful that these children were here, in this close-knit, tiny cemetery surrounded by elders who would know who they were, who would be sure to look after them.  I know it would be harder for me, to bury a child in a big, sprawling cemetery somewhere, surrounded by strangers.

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

A View From The Edge (Part II)

“Lunar Eclipse” by Lorin Kline (my son)

(Last week in Part I I described the forces that drove me high into the mountains for a three-day rendezvous with my deepest fears.  This is the continuing excerpt from the book, Chapter 5.  Dia)

While the list of things scaring me was varied and long, when I arrived at my campsite I discovered one fear in particular standing head and shoulders above the rest.  More than all else, hands down, the prospect of the sun setting terrified me.

There was something so final about it.  I was all alone. Cal had chosen a spot about five miles away and there was no way to communicate with him, no satellite phone or flare or even matches with which to build a signal fire. The trailhead where we’d left the truck was only a two-hour hike away, but without a flashlight I was unable to traverse the steeply forested, snow-slick, north side of the mountain I was on in the dark.  If I panicked I had no weapon to wave wildly at the night, no back door, no safety-net.  Once darkness fell I’d move beyond the reach of any help and for the next eight hours or so, whatever came into my circle I’d have to face.

Which is exactly what I’d intended of course.  Back home it seemed like such a good idea.

Struggling to control the impulse for white-eyed, foaming flight I forced myself to sit down on my sleeping bag facing west.  I called on the desperation that had driven me up there in the first place and made myself watch, eyes unaverted, as the sun dropped towards the peaks, observed as the light around me faded and thinned—and in the process discovered something surprising.

You may not know this but it turns out night doesn’t fall.  It rises.  Shadows start at the bottom, puddling and pooling in the hollows and roots like water and then filling things up from there.  Initially, I was suspicious as I watched the darkness climbing out of the valley towards me, enveloping each boulder, bush and bare spot in its path.  But eventually some subconscious, nightmare expectation in my mind relaxed and I realized there wouldn’t be any eerie wailing or flapping of leathery wings, nothing with foul breath descending on me from above and behind.  The big, bad dark was not coming to get me after all.  On the contrary, as the night shadow rose higher the world grew hushed and peaceful, feeling—rather than a monster—more like some great mother coming to tuck her children into bed.

I watched as she enfolded everything in a calming embrace and when the shadow finally reached my toes I sat stock-still, observing the light that bathed me fade as the sun sank behind the mountains.  Suddenly, I felt excited and couldn’t wait to change into my long underwear, brush my teeth, and climb into my good-to-15 degrees-below-zero sleeping-bag.

I zipped around and still had enough time, after climbing into my bag, to watch as the last rays of light disappeared from the higher ring of mountain peaks that surrounded me.  Everything terrestrial was now encased in the beginning shadows of twilight but it would take a couple more hours for everything to move into full darkness.  I lay there, looking up at the fading blue of the sky and realized that the shadow was still reaching skyward, enfolding even the air, molecule by molecule, and as I watched the darkness deepen in tiny degrees I began to tingle at the thought of seeing the stars.

Back in the Sierra Nevadas during the long nights of my survival training course, while lying there looking up at the brilliant, twinkling worlds spread out above me, I’d slipped into a state of quiet, serene delight.  Feeling like no matter what happened everything would still be all right, that I was safe and cradled in ways that defy explanation.  As the memories of those nights came flooding back I grew excited–couldn’t wait to feel that sense of well being again–but since I knew it would be a while yet, in the meantime I turned to gaze at the deepening shadows on the ground around me.

My enthusiasm swiftly unraveled as I watched the things of this world, the trees and mountain peaks, flitting birds, the carpet of dusty pine needles and stones, the three plastic water jugs and backpack I brought with me, disappearing into the gathering darkness.  The horrified, creeping fear returned as I felt myself being cut off and isolated, stripped of everything familiar, and I began to wonder again if something would come out of that dark unknown to get me during the night–a cougar, a drunken hunter, a wave of bone-chilling cold, a demon.  I frantically reminded myself of the stars that were coming as I turned my eyes back up to the deepening darkness of the sky.

And it was in that moment, as I lay trembling and unexpectedly longing for the darkness of full night to arrive, that I had my revelation.  In a flash I recognized a truth that seems so obvious now but that I’d somehow completely missed.

Both the light and the darkness conceal and reveal.  The light reveals the ordinary world around us.  It gives us one another and makes everything seem smaller and more manageable, wrapping us in a bright and sunny cocoon because as mortals we’re tiny and fragile and need a sense of protection.  But it conceals, too.  It creates the illusion of a blue sky, a ceiling, a world that has limits and is safe and known and predictable.

It isn’t until night arrives that this seductive illusion of containment dispels.  The darkness comes swallowing everything in its shadow,  tugging us away from the usual daylight edges we cling to with white-knuckled fingers until there, in our moment of greatest fear and isolation, it tenderly unveils the larger truth…that we’re cradled, floating in infinity.

The insight was blinding.  Even though it didn’t alter the basic realities of the situation–I was still all by myself out in the middle of nowhere exposed and trapped–it transformed the darkness from a terrifying, alien thing I had to outsmart and survive into a bringer of gifts and grace.  I felt as though I’d reluctantly entered the enemy’s camp only to discover it wasn’t an enemy at all.  It was an ancient, lovely world of starlit depths that had been longing for me, calling me home for years.

A decade of depression slipped away as I fell into an exhausted sleep and, when I woke back up again a few hours later, a twinkling universe stretched out above me.  The soft radiance bathed me as I lay there and quietly wept under the steady, pulsing of starlight.

(Next week, the conclusion.)

copyright Dia Osborn 2010

The Stars We Steer By

LH 95 star forming region of the Large Magellanic Cloud

The results are in from the thirty-seven people who voted in the poll, (hardly representative but enough for a tiny feel), and I’m both surprised and heartened.

But before I launch into that discussion, I wanted to thank everyone who voted, as well as everyone who tried to vote but couldn’t because of technical difficulties.  There were a lot of you latter, I know.  This post got about five times the number of hits as translated into votes so clearly, the glitch some of you reported was a big one.  Bummer.  I really wanted to know what you thought.  I’ve recently been assailed by doubts about the value of what I’m trying to do with this blog and the eventual book, and I was trying to establish whether there was really a need for it or not.

Note to self: Learn more, much more, about conducting a casual poll.

And now to the results.  Taking into consideration that the sampling was minuscule and the line of questioning was leading at best, I was still surprised to find that my suspicions were baseless.  In spite of all the progress medical science has made over the last century, everyone who responded still sees death as the natural conclusion to our biological destiny.  While there were those who thought our age span might be extended beyond 120 years, a few who thought we’d find a cure for aging, and some who thought disease would eventually be eradicated, nobody checked the Live Forever box.   The proponents of Immortalism will undoubtedly be bummed, but it makes the job I’ve undertaken seem more feasible.

For those who didn’t know yet, I have an agenda here.

We all have our particular stars to shoot for and I’m no different.  Mine involves trying to ease some of the unnecessary levels of fear I’ve seen around dying.  I’m not gunning for ALL the fear mind you, because some of it is appropriate and perfectly healthy.  It’s like a couple of people mentioned in their comments; the instinct to survive is in our DNA and, without the fight or flight response, we wouldn’t last long as a species.

No.  What I’d like to target is the unnecessary fear.  The excess.  The bogey man part.  The kind of terror that results from things like lack of education and unrealistic expectations, from misinterpreting symptoms to grossly underestimating our own strength.  I want to tackle the kind of creeping, obsessive fear that arises from focusing on external, technological solutions which we often can’t control, to the exclusion of internal strengths that we can.

That last one was what I was trying to gauge with the poll.  As a society, we’re dedicating our resources and faith to medical science at a rate that’s escalating geometrically, and I wanted to find out just how much faith.  Because if most people are starting to believe deep down that dying is ultimately unnecessary then, honestly, there wouldn’t be much left for me to do here.  The hope of living forever raises an entirely different set of fears about dying that I wouldn’t have a clue how to address.

If that was the case I’d be free to begin a whole new star-hunt.

However, thirty-seven out of thirty-seven people still believe that dying is biologically inevitable and, while it’s not universally representative, it’ll have to do.  I’ll just assume that trying to ease some of the fear around dying is still a relevant and worthwhile goal to pursue after all.

Note to self:  Possible things to talk about in future posts.

1)  Cultivating internal resources like courage, endurance, gratitude, trust, humility, strength, inner dignity, etc., provides the most powerful fall-back position for when technological solutions fail.  (Other options:  Despair.  Rage.  Blame.  Generally falling into the abyss.)

2)  Cultivating the above also dramatically improves the quality of life before dying.

3)  Instead of devoting all our attention to fighting over who’s going to pay for the viral growth of outside, institutional services, we can also look into designing and building closer, committed homes and communities where it’ll be easier to help care for one another.

4)  Before we pour our hearts, souls, and tax dollars into more of the bitter, divisive legislative battles raging, we could first try to weave a constructive, workable meaning for suffering to help us navigate with a little more grace.  (Of course this would require courage, trust, humility, etc., which brings us right back to the practical uses of number one.)

I know there’s a way to die that isn’t as scary as most people think it is.  I’ve seen it.  I witnessed a variety of ways to navigate the process that not only make it less devastating for the person who’s dying, but actually helps buoy and heal those who have to pick up the pieces afterwards and carry on.  I just need to figure out if there’s a practical way to communicate what I learned to anybody else.

That’s my star.

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

When Something More Important Than The Parachute Failed

image from Wikipedia

While I was browsing around yesterday researching skydiving and back-up parachutes, I came across a news story from February 2009.

It told the tale of a skydiving instructor, George Steele, who died of a heart attack mid-jump. Now, that piece of information alone would have made me sit up and keep reading because, even though I naturally link skydiving and the possibility of death in my mind, I don’t usually think of it as happening due to a heart attack.  But the story actually gets far more interesting from there.

It turns out this skydiving instructor was not alone when he died.  He was doing a tandem jump and had a novice strapped to his chest.  Now this piece of information electrified me.  Like a lot people out there, I’ve considered doing a tandem jump (someday) as a bucket list kind of thing.  But of all the risks I ever thought might be involved, the instructor strapped to my back having a heart attack was never one of them.

By now I’m on the edge of my seat.  I want to know more.  I have to know more.

Turns out the newbie, Daniel Pharr, was a 25-year old soldier trained how to respond in a life-threatening situation.  His instincts proved up to the task.

The two were the last of the group to jump out of the plane.  After a minute or so of free fall Steele pulled the chute.  Everything became very quiet, which Pharr commented on, and Steele replied to.  And it was shortly after this that Steele’s heart quietly failed.  Pharr soon realized Steele had become non-responsive so, going off of what he’d seen on TV (and our mother’s told us TV would just rot our brains) he grabbed the right steering toggle and guided them safely to the ground about a third of a mile away from the designated landing site.

This was turning into such great story!  Double surprise twist with a happy ending.  Dia, I told myself.  It doesn’t get much better than this.

But wait! she answered.  It does!

Turns out Daniel Pharr’s first thought, when he recognized the danger he was in, was , “So at that point I realized I was just going to have to do what I had to do to get down to the ground and try to help him.”

The article had been great up to that point but this part totally knocked my socks off.  I was inspired.  I was in awe.  I couldn’t help but compare what my own response would have been because…well…it just wouldn’t have been as good.  I’m self aware.  I know my own mettle.  I’ve been in enough emergency situations to realize that I’m primarily driven by self-interest.  Oh sure.  If my kids were involved I’d be a little more noble (as long as they hurried) but otherwise I’d be swelling the herd stampeding for the door.  I probably would have been cursing the poor guy for having a heart attack.  But not Daniel.  Oh no.   Daniel was thinking just as much, if not more, of his partner than he was of himself.

Pharr’s evolution from victim to survivor to hero was like food for the secret, emaciated Better Person languishing inside of me.  He gave me hope, a guiding star.  I fell in love with Daniel Pharr on the spot and wished him, wherever he was and whatever he was doing, continued good fortune and everything blessed and best in life.

But having spent all this time telling you the rest of this stuff, here’s the aspect of the whole story that I really wanted to highlight:

It looks to me like, as deaths go, George Steele got to die a really good one.  Yes, he was only 49-years old and sure, he probably didn’t want to die and most likely wasn’t prepared for it.  But having said all that, clearly he got to do it doing something he loved.  In his relatively short life he’d already done over 8000 jumps.  He’s already taken numerous people out for tandem jumps, sharing in the thrill, exuberance, joy, and rush of all those he introduced to his passion for the first time.  And even though at the end he was doing a tandem jump, he was lucky enough to be doing it with someone experienced and savvy enough to survive the dangers his sudden death created.

But even with as great as all that is, this is what really got me: George Steele didn’t die alone.  When he took his last breath, he got to do it with another warm, pulsing, vibrant, strong, caring, enthusiastic companion strapped to his chest, someone sharing in the same sense of wonder, excitement, and joy that he was feeling himself.  Here’s how Pharr describes what turned out to be Steele’s last moments, floating up there in the sky:

“He pulled the chute,” Pharr said. “It got super quiet. It’s eerily quiet up there. I made the comment to him, ‘It’s surprising how quiet it is.’ And he’s like: ‘Welcome to my world.'”

Welcome to my world. Those were the last words he ever spoke.  I only hope mine will be so great.

I’m not happy for George Steele that he died.  At all.  But I am very happy for him that when he did, he died well.

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

P.S.  By the way, when asked Daniel Pharr mentioned he’d be willing to jump again himself, but his family put the kabosh on it.  What a guy.

Master of Surprise

October is a big month for me.  It includes my mother’s birthday, my daughter’s birthday, my patron saint’s day, the anniversary of the day I was initiated into Eastern meditation (I used to convert a lot,) the anniversaries for my mother’s wedding, my brother’s wedding, and my own, a dentist appointment, a trip back east for the hubster, and what is arguably my favorite holiday of all time, Halloween.

So guess which one the flowers are for?

(If you guessed the dentist, you’re wrong.  Everything went okay this time.)

No, these are an anniversary surprise from the hubster, something he arranged to have delivered while he was far, far away in New Jersey on our special day.  The card is actually signed in his handwriting so I know they aren’t just an FTD.com cover-up.  He really pre-remembered and went to all the trouble of setting things up, which makes me feel warm and fuzzy and loved, but then totally awful, too, because I pre-forgot and didn’t arrange anything.  (Which is why I’m now writing this blog post.)

Unlike me, who can’t keep a secret long enough to surprise our dog, the hubster is a master of diversion of surprise.  Yesterday morning at the crack of dawn, just as he sat down on the edge of our bed to wake me up to take him to the airport, I surged up from a dead sleep in a panic because I just remembered that I forgot.

Oh no! I wailed.  I forgot our anniversary!  I didn’t do anything for you!

Then, crafty devil that he is, he assumed a look of chagrin to match my own, hung his head a little, and echoed, Oh no…I didn’t do anything for you either.

And because not only am I incapable of keeping a secret to save my life, I’m as gullible as the day is long, I believed him.  I was wildly relieved and made him promise not to do anything to try and make it up, and then I promised him I wouldn’t either.  We agreed to do something when he got back after which I thought I was home safe and guilt-free.

But he lied, he lied, he lied…which is just one more reason why I adore the man.

Happy Anniversary, sweetheart.  And thank you, too, for marrying me on that breathtaking, autumn day back in Jefferson County Park all those years ago.  Thank you for chasing me when I took off running during the ceremony, for catching me before I got to the trees, for carrying me back to the preacher in your arms, and for understanding why, after my first marriage, that I just really, really needed to make sure.

I sure do love you.

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

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

Alf and the Fly Part I

Once upon a time there was a man named Alf who was dying.  Again.  He was dying before, a few times…at least that’s what the doctors said.  But it turned out they were mistaken and he wasn’t dying at all.  He was just living faintly from time to time.

Alf had lived with a diagnosis of congestive heart failure for twelve, long years and, somewhere in the middle of all that illness and decline, his heart got bored and figured out it could trick people into thinking he was dying.  His heart enjoyed tricking people.  It was like a coyote it was so tricky.  It liked to make the doctors think This is it! so they would then tell everyone else, including Alf, the news.  And that was when it would surprise them all by coming back strong and not dying after all.  It made his heart look like a hero.

That’s how I first met Alf.  His heart was at it again and, in spite of all the times it had tricked them in the past, everyone was certain this time was different.  So, as often happens when someone’s illness is declared terminal, hospice was called into the case.

I came into their lives as a home health aide and I spent hours and hours every week helping Alf and his wife, Mrs. Alf, with things like, oh…showers and transfers and household chores.  There was always cooking and cleaning and errands to do.  Help with personal hygiene and bathroom support.  I was the supply inventory-er and medication monitor as well as a critical all-around liaison with the rest of the hospice team and a jack of all trades for sure and certain.  In fact, so indispensable was I that they paid me an extortionate wage well down into the single digits, a sum that made me the envy of nobody in particular and the wonder of all those who knew how much I’d paid for my college education.

But I digress.

I worked with Alf for close to two years before everyone finally wised up and realized he wasn’t dying this time either.  But what a two-years it was!  We had a ball, Alf and I, and he taught me lots of wonderful things.  For instance, being a great one with his hands, we spent many happy hours together building bird houses which is when he taught me how to use a table saw.

Now if you’ve never seen a wobbling, wheelchair bound, mule-stubborn, ninety-three year old man who can barely pull himself upright to begin with, lean unsteadily on his elbows while using his bare hands to guide a tiny piece of wood past a twelve inch diameter, hot steel, spitting saw blade, then you just haven’t lived my friend.  Everything always turned out okay (miracle!) but each time afterwards I had visions of flying fingers and blood splatter dancing in my head.


We also had a grand adventure at the local, home improvement warehouse where Alf wanted to race an electric shopping cart up and down the aisles at top speed.  He never got full control of the thing but he wasn’t a man to let a detail like that stop him–at least not as long as the other customers were willing to keep diving out of the way and store employees hadn’t figured out yet who was running into the shelves.  No sirree Bob.  Alf was beyond such mundane considerations.  Alf was magnificent.  Dirty looks and mumbled expletives weren’t nearly enough to dampen his wild elation at finally getting behind the wheel of something with a motor again.

All in all we had a great run.

But eventually, everyone figured out he wasn’t dying this time either and the gig was up.  He was discharged from hospice   and without the benefit of a daily schedule to throw us together, he and I slowly drifted apart.  I heard bits and pieces over the next couple of years about how he declined to the point where they finally had to put him in a nursing home, about how he just lay there curled up and incapacitated, unable to feed or dress or toilet himself anymore.  I couldn’t help but wonder why his heart wouldn’t just buck up and surrender like the rest of his body.  I shook my head at its foolishness.  Sometimes, being trickier than tricky can really work against you.

But the day finally came when Alf turned the tables on his heart.  He died peacefully in his sleep while it was off dozing, slipping out before it had a chance to wake up fully and figure out what was going on. His family was bewildered at first by the strange turn of events and understandably wary, which could be why they decided to have an open casket at the service

Just in case.

Alf’s was my first ever viewing.  I walked up to the front of the funeral parlor to look at him as soon as I arrived and, between you and me, I was feeling guilty as all hell because I hadn’t been to visit him in so long.  But the minute I saw him lying there in his Sunday suit, looking trim and dapper as ever, I felt better.  He was okay now, finally free of his tricky heart, and in the end that’s all that really mattered.

I leaned over the side of the casket to whisper an apology in his ear while at the same time laying my hand every-so-gently on his chest, but then nearly jerked it off again upon discovering he was ice cold and hard as a freaking rock.  The sensation startled me.  It felt like a frozen rack of ribs slipped into a coat and tie.  It took me a minute to get my head wrapped around the practical details of what’s required to keep a dead body looking fresh and presentable, and then promptly forgot all about it as I returned to bidding him a fond farewell, the best of luck, and a heartfelt wish for grace and fun on his journey to wherever he was headed next.

Thanks for everything, AlfReally.  It was an honor.

I made my way to a seat in the back row, took my place between our hospice’s Social Worker and Nurse, folded my hands primly in my lap, and settled in to try and behave myself during the service.

And that was when the Fly showed up.

Once again, this post has gotten a little too long (windbag?) and I’m gonna have to finish up next week.  Stay tuned.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

Alf and the Fly, Part II

When we left Alf last week he was lying in state at the front of the room while the rest of us sat politely listening to the pastor (who clearly never met his subject) reiterate the sterilized summary of his life as laid out in the obituary.  I was doing my level best to stay awake and fend off the head-bob when the Fly first started buzzing around me.

This was just one of a number of remarkable photographs published in The Daily Mail. It was taken by physiotherapist Miroslaw Swietek at around 3am in the forest next to his home.

I was surprised.  For one thing, it was hard to believe that something as wildish and chaotic as Musca domestica could survive in a place like that.  The room felt as sterile and life-sucking as the sermon currently bouncing off its stark, white walls.   Call me wrong but I’d have bet good money that anything smaller than, say, a finch or a bat would have died and dropped to the floor the instant it hit the atmosphere.  Equally amazing was the fact that the Fly (fat, hairy, and droning) had to negotiate five doors and a security force of germ-phobic staff to penetrate that far in.  Truly, this was one determined fly.

However, my wonder was soon replaced by consternation.  The Fly, after buzzing in circles above my head a few times, commenced a series of land-and-crawl maneuvers targeting places like the top of my head and the side of my face.  At first I just brushed it away while still maintaining my focus on the pastor, but after the third or fourth time The Fly finally had my undivided attention.  I studied the situation.  When I glanced at our Social Worker and Nurse on either side of me it was plain they were outside the fly zone.  Neither displayed the harassed look I was rapidly adopting.  And when I looked around at everyone else in the immediate vicinity I realized they weren’t being bothered either.

Naturally, this annoyed me.   So the next couple of times I swatted the creature towards the Nurse, to see if it would switch victims and crawl on her instead.  But it didn’t.  It not only came right back at me each time, it seemed to redouble its efforts.  That was when it struck me that, for some odd reason, the Fly seemed intent on making my life, and my life alone, miserable.

It got worse.  After a few swipes the thing started dodging my hand, feinting to one side in the air before diving back in to skip across my forehead, my cheek, my nose.  Or, if I swung after it had already landed and was doing the Tinkerbell dance across the back of my neck, it would leap into the air just long enough for me to slap myself before gracefully alighting again in a swift succession of tiny steps.

The Fly was really starting to get to me.

Yet it wasn’t until it began lifting my collar to crawl under my shirt and down my back that I truly began to panic.  What the hell was this thing?  It was like no other bug I’d encountered, intelligent, crafty, and motivated.  Like something out of a Jeff Goldblum movie.   I was right on the verge of making a full-blown scene, shrieking and jumping to my feet, writhing madly while trying to slap my back and tear off my shirt, when something stopped me.  I had the strangest thought.


The Fly stopped in its tracks.  It stayed still for a moment, huddled there under the fabric between my shoulder blades, then turned around and crawled back up out of my shirt, lifted into the air, and began to fly around in front of my face in a figure eight pattern.  I couldn’t believe it.  My mind was spinning.  Just how is that kind of thing supposed to work?  My imagination took off and I wondered wildly whether Alf had temporarily turned into the Fly itself, or if he had just rigged a tiny, leather bridle and bit and was now sitting astride its back, grinning and waving at me with a cowboy hat.

It was at that point that the Alf Cloud descended.  I felt it wrap around me like something warm and soft, and then an image of him…smiling, standing with nary a wheelchair, walker, or cane in sight…exploded in my mind.  It felt like he was right there in the room.  I could almost smell the clean soap coming off him, feel something warm like body heat.  He was chuckling and I almost laughed out loud, too, but then remembered where I was.

It was odd and wonderful and such a relief.  He still felt exactly like Alf only without any of the weakness and strain.  No frustration, irritation, or pain.  He felt strong and easy and laughing, not at me but with me, like he knew that I of all people would appreciate this new-found freedom he’d found.  And I did.  I really did.  The last tattered remnants of sadness and guilt washed away and there was nothing left inside but happiness for him.

I grinned.  You rascal. And as soon as I said it, the Alf Cloud was gone.  The Fly stopped its circling and meandered away, bumping into people and chair backs and walls as it went.

I told our Social Worker about the experience on the way home and we shook our heads, wondered what it all meant, then chatted for a while about what we thought might happen when we died ourselves.  I told him I was hoping for a lot of love.  He said he’d be happy if he could still experience anything that felt like sex.

The next day when I arrived at the office our Social Worker had already been there for some time and was sitting at his desk when I walked in, studying a small fly crawling around near his coffee mug.  He glanced up at me and smiled.

I was just wondering, he said, then looked back down at the fly.


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