(If you haven’t already, check out Part One of the ‘Notes from the Broken Heartland’. It will help this make a bit more sense.)
‘I’m not dead yet’
I was just listening to a 2006 Fresh Air interview with Reynolds Price–a southern writer who died January 20th of a heart attack. Despite being a Duke grad and professor, he had some very interesting insights*.
(*If we can’t pick on Duke then what do we have left?)
I caught the portion of the interview in which he shared his thoughts on losing his legs due to a cancerous spinal tumor. He said he wished that someone had come into the room after his surgery to say (I’m paraphrasing here): ‘Reynolds Price is dead. Who do you want to be now?’
This hit home for me in the chill-running-up-my-spine-and-tingling-out-the-top-of-my-rapidly-balding-head way that only ‘Capital T Truth’ can. It also helped me to glimpse into what’s been ‘wrong’ with me over the last few days. You see, I hit this energetic melancholy earlier this week and, no matter what I did about it (sleep more, walk more, stretch more, eat felicitously), I wasn’t feeling better. Two people told me that I looked ‘tired and frazzled’ and I had to concede that I did indeed feel that way. I ascribed my state of being to a combination of coming down from the heavy lifting necessary during a move (after being back for over a month now, ‘normal life’ has returned) and the significant increase in my workload. Keep in mind that I was chronically underemployed for the better part of a year so I’m now flexing atrophied muscles beyond their limits of comfort.
Too much work and the end of a transitory phase… that explanation–like any intellectualization–made perfect sense. I also knew energetically and emotionally it was incomplete.
Before hearing the Fresh Air interview, I caught up with my dear friend Catherine in KC. We touched on many topics–updates, expectations, emotions–and our conversation concluded with a check-in on various friends… including the woman I loved. With that conversation fresh in my mind, I realized minutes later, upon hearing Reynolds, that I didn’t know the answer to his question. In part one of this missive, I talk about ‘surrendering the future’ and now I realize I have to wrestle with giving myself permission to die.
Suffer While You Can
One of my spiritual compatriots in Kansas City has a bumper sticker on her car saying ‘Suffer while you can’. The notion always intrigued me beyond the thoughts we bandied about during our meditations and blessings: once you’ve awakened and set yourself earnestly on the path to enlightenment, suffering ends. Once you die, suffering ends.
Humans have many gifts that make this world magical–language, music, insight, and, I add, the tools with which to suffer.
The wonderfully eloquent Brene Brown points out our primary responsibility to children is to tell them that they are imperfect but completely and totally worthy of love, not to shield them from suffering and/or tell them they are perfect. Children come into the world with a profound capacity for suffering and we do them a great disservice when we create environments that leave those tools to collect dust. I posit that many of us have lost the ability to ‘lean into the suffering’ as our culture tells us to anesthetize rather than embrace. If you can’t suffer, you can’t come to the end of the dark night and see the sun rise again. If you can’t suffer, you can’t let go. If you deaden the feelings of suffering, you deaden all other emotions; you can’t selectively avoid emotions.
We are incredibly vulnerable when we’re suffering so our survival mindset shuns the feeling of vulnerability. Yet, it is precisely because we are so open that times of suffering can also be times of incredible growth. One of my intentions in my relationship in KC was to help give the woman I loved the resources (time, space, a ride, etc.) to share her gift with the world. Yet it is largely because of this opportunity to share that we are no longer together. Be careful what you wish for.
I suffer ever time I think about that. I suffer whenever I hear a snippet of music that reminds me of what happened. I suffer whenever the memory of a place or a smell or a laugh takes my mind wandering into those dark places. I suffer when I see events, toys, signs, and other ‘teachable moments’ knowing that I can’t share those moments with all the beautiful children I left behind in KC. I suffer when I think of my friends (the equally beautiful parents) even though I know I will see them all again for I also know that nothing will ever be the same.
I’ve learned to be grateful for these chances to suffer and to lean into that suffering so that I might grow. Now I must acknowledge this is also an opportunity to celebrate a death. Mine.
Appreciating Each Little Deaths
Earlier this month my great-aunt JoAnne called to tell me that my other great-aunt Marge finally succumbed to Alzheimer’s Disease after several years of attrition. When I told my mom, I said I have ‘good news’ since, to me, it was the end of a lot of pain both for Marge and those who loved her. My mother–a very astute observer of pain and loss… unfortunately (fortunately?) because she’s dealt with a lot of it–said she agreed it was good news; she’s long since learned death happens in increments. With diseases, death manifest as physical, mental, emotional loss. In the case of Alzheimer’s, the first death is the loss of the personality; when you forget your relationships you forget yourself. In the case of someone like Reynolds Price, the first death comes in the form of waking up with no legs.
A colleague of mine lost her best friend to a brain tumor that took a year plus half of her body–paralyzed in a seizure–to run its course. This friend was in Nepal at the time and received the full funeral rites afforded a Tibetan Buddhist. The pictures of the wrapped body, the chanting monks , and the open cremation were absolutely beautiful. I said in response, ‘Good for her. She got out in a most magnificent way.’
Really, what more can we ask for?
In life, deaths happen rapidly and repeatedly–growing up, growing old, ending love, moving, losing. The little deaths continue for all of us until we finally shed this mortal coil. Yet we usually don’t give ourselves permission to regularly suffer and die, to see that death as the chance to start anew, to express gratitude for what was, and to begin at that moment of ending.
We don’t embrace death with the same fervor with which we embrace life. We often don’t let ourselves admit that the death of something is easier than trying to keep it breathing against all odds. We pull the bandaid off one hair at a time We shoulder a back-breaking burden and then define ourselves by the stooped frame it engenders.
This week confirmed that I am still not ready to let the me that I was even a month-and-a-half ago die. My drive west was defined by an intense process of letting go but I’ve still not said goodbye to that Steve. I’ve still not allowed him to die.
Am I ready now? What would I do if you walked into the room and said, ‘Steven Joiner is dead. Who do you want to be now?’
Whilst I set off to make funeral arrangements (as it is often in the preparation that you ready yourself for the event), I will stop by to ask the same of you.