MEMOIR: Chapter 33
Judy: “Tim’s not getting better.”
Guide: “Don’t be misled by appearance. He is healing. His body is not. But it could.”
Judy: “He needs a miracle. I need to help him. But I don’t know how.”
Guide: “Taking Reiki training was a good start. He needs healing touch.”
Judy: “Will you help me? You could heal him, you could use my hands!”
Guide: “I’ll help you. You have healing energy in your hands. Everyone does. You’re learning to channel it.”
Judy: “D’ya think you could’ve kicked in a little sooner, maybe?”
Guide (laughing): “Could’ve. But you have to ask, and mean it.”
Judy: “Okay, I’m asking, I’m asking.”
Guide: “About time. You’re stubborn, did you know that?”
Judy: “So I’ve been told.”
Guide: “It’s not a bad trait. Some might even call it…tenacious. Persevering.”
Judy: “Thank you. So. Are you going to help me, or not?”
Guide: “I’ll help you.”
Guide: “Promise. I help you anytime you ask. ‘If you knew Who walks beside you on this way which you have chosen, fear would be impossible.’ ”
Now my guide was quoting A Course in Miracles.
Judy: “Who am I talking to?”
Guide: “Your Elder Brother.”
The Course sometimes referred to Jesus in first person as our “elder brother.” According to the Course, Jesus is “an elder brother entitled to respect for his greater experience.” The Jesus of the Course explains, “There is nothing about me that you cannot attain.” I remembered John 14:12: “…anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works…”
So. Jesus, then? Had Jesus just promised me he would help me heal Tim?
Yes, I decided. My guide had gone silent.
Doubt crept in any time Tim had a bad relapse.
Tim and Jack started work in Tim’s boat shed on a twenty-four-foot Friendship Sloop, six layers of laminated red cedar. The upside-down hull filled the boat shed from the double door to the back wall. While they worked they listened to country music or NPR, and talked about the kinds of wood they would use in the interior, and where they would sail together when it was finished, the San Juan Islands and maybe Victoria, and whether or not Judy and Irene would be invited to come along. They solved major problems—what should be done about Congress’ mad obsession with Bill and Hillary Clinton, and the folly of schools cutting out music and the arts to save money. Jack had to remind Tim to wear his face mask when they were sanding, so he wouldn’t get epoxy dust in his lungs. Jack was a healer, though he would never claim it. His unintrusive but loving, supportive presence was good medicine when Tim had a scary or bad patch.
Between relapses, Tim enjoyed life with his family, and we often joined them on camping trips or sailing trips. For him, the year we opened The Healing Place was a quiet year.
* * *
The Healing Place opened for business in early 1994, once Jack gave the renewed house all the burnishing and finishing touches he thought it needed. By mid-1994 we offered a 12-week class on the Twelve Principles of Attitudinal Healing. We trained love-centered mediators. We offered a support group for people facing life-threatening illness, and one for caregivers.
I started a new, ongoing group based on Attitudinal Healing Principle #2: “Health is inner peace. Healing is letting go of fear.” We read and discussed a book by Ganga Stone, Start the Conversation, about how to understand and prepare for death. This group, for me, was one of the reasons I needed to create my own Center, for Attitudinal Healing.
For several years I had wanted to start the conversation about the most taboo subject in our culture—death and dying—but Mom banned such discussions from her Center. One of the Course lessons enjoins the student to “swear not to die” and Mom had taken the oath. We both believed that only the body dies and the soul survives, but she believed the body itself wouldn’t wear out and die if only she could believe enough. She had not found her true purpose in life as a spiritual leader until she left Warrenton, left Dad, graduated from college at age 55, remarried, divorced, and finally lived alone. She found the A Course in Miracles soon after its initial publication in 1976, and recognized in the book as the path she’d been looking for her whole life—a non-dualistic philosophy, a teaching device for achieving spiritual transformation through the practice of forgiveness in daily life. At age 67 she established the ACIM Center, and for her, life had just begun. Death was not a subject she chose to study or discuss. She called it the D-word. And she was in charge, so she got to choose.
But for me, my own near-approach to death followed by Lee’s death, had made it a very real subject. I wanted to understand how to be with, listen to, and talk with those who were facing the end of life. I no longer felt immortal. My own purpose found its home at The Healing Place, where, with input from my Board, we could decide on the palette of class and group offerings. There were no taboos.
There was a hunger for a place where questions and fears about death could be discussed without frightening loved ones. Groups and classes filled quickly. Attitudinal healing gave people an alternative to fear and offered an approach to inner peace, without religious trappings.
In the “Start the Conversation” book group we had just completed Chapter Nine on “Regret-Proofing Your Life” when Mary, an older woman in the group, didn’t show up one evening.
“Why do you want this class?” I had asked her. “Are you ill?” She looked healthy and fit, a robust gray-haired woman in her early seventies.
“No,” she answered. “I just…had a feeling. I need to understand more about death. I don’t have religion any more, but I’ve lost so many friends… I know we’re all going to die. I just want to…talk about it.”
The night Mary didn’t show up, I called to check on her before I locked up. Her daughter, who lived in San Francisco, answered Mary’s Portland phone. Her mother had died unexpectedly the night before. Mary must have had a premonition, because she had been eager to start the conversation.
Some of my students or their family members asked me to be present with them in their dying process. Though I felt ill-prepared, I agreed, knowing they would teach me more than I could ever help them.
One of the first was Lore, a young mother who had lost her tongue to cancer, which had spread. Her cousin was in one of my classes, and, with Lore’s permission, asked me to visit her.
I visited Lore several times in the hospital, and several more in hospice care at Hopewell House. Her mother and I spent time together. But Lore was a great communicator herself. In one visit to her hospital room, we had an important conversation.
Lore’s husband Dan stood by the windows on the far side of the Lore’s large and high-ceilinged room, like all OHSU rooms, with the same musty smell of long-ago sicknesses. He chatted amiably with two of his friends. They laughed, their backs turned to the bed where Lore lay.
Lore gave the visitors a look of pure hostility, then grabbed her writing pad and a heavy pencil. She wrote with angry jabbing motions, and thrust the pad at me: “I wish they’d just leave! They stand over there and talk as if I weren’t even here. No one talks to me.”
I spoke softly, just to Lore. “Do you want me to ask them to leave?”
More angry scribbling. “No! He needs to see this.”
Her mouth was an empty black hole. Even her teeth had been removed, along with 12 inches of tongue.
“All these years he’s never let me speak, he needed to make all the decisions for me. Now, he has to do all the talking, and it makes him crazy. I sit here with my empty mouth and no words coming out. But they’re all inside my head!”
She paused for a moment, then dug her pencil into the paper one more time. “All those words, all the words he never let me say.”
“Tough punishment for him, huh.”
“Not tough enough.”
“Can you say them to him now? You have your writing pad.”
She made a gutteral sound in her throat. “He’s not listening. Never has.”
I glanced over at Dan, who had paused to look at her, hearing the heavy pencil scratching.
“Keep talking,” I said. “I’m listening. So is he, now. Sometimes we figure things out too late.”
“Yeah. Too late. Serves him right.”
Dan said something to his friends and strolled over to the bed, his hands in his pockets. He gave me a brief, measuring glance. “Do you want something?” he asked. He might have been talking to me, but his gaze had turned to Lore.
Lore stared at him with narrowed eyes and opened her mouth, which seemed larger than a mouth should be, without teeth and tongue. She pointed into the empty space.
Dan looked puzzled. He gestured toward her orange plastic water pitcher. Lore shook her head and made the guttural sound in her throat.
“Maybe she’s saying…” I guessed, “she wants her tongue back.”
Lore nodded vigorously. More punishment.
Emotions flitted across his face—chagrin, bitterness, regret. He turned away and went back to his friends.
There were more such conversations, while she worked out her anger. Soon, she moved to a room at Hopewell House. The large, comfy home for the dying always smelled of chocolate chip cookies just out of the oven, and something roasting for dinner. Outside, pink roses climbed around her window.
One day as I sat with her, her mother Nancy told me of Dan’s suffering at the prospect of raising two small children alone. She watched her daughter sleep, deep worry lines etched across her forehead.
“I’m not going to take over raising these children,” she said. “That’s Dan’s job now, whether he likes it or not.”
“But you’ll help?” I’d seen the two little girls, the way they clung to their grandma.
She sighed. “Can’t help but help. Of course I’ll be in their lives. But he’ll be the one getting them off to preschool, fixing their meals, cleaning up after them, comforting them when they’re hurt, putting them to bed…he’s already doing it.”
That was reassuring.
She looked down at her hands, twisting together in her lap. Her voice was soft. “He’ll probably remarry within a year, the way men are about being alone. Then things might change.”
“You’d still be Grandma, though,” I said.
“Yes, I’ll always be that.” Tears pooled in her eyes. “Her girls both look like Lore did when she was little, the dark curls and big, sweet smile. Looking at them, I can remember…”
I glanced over at Lore, still sleeping. I’d never seen her smile.
“How is Dan doing now, about Lore, and taking care of the kids?”
She swiped her forearm across her eyes. “He hates to come over here. Feels helpless. He stays with the kids.”
“He probably can’t stand to see her suffer,” I said.
“No one can stand it,” she said. “But I’m here.”
Her eyes welled up again. “I hope this changes him.” She shook her head. “But it probably won’t.”
My encounters with death and dying challenged what I thought I knew about the process. Some parts of it were gruesome, messy, painful, anguishing. I had to practice, constantly, the eighth principle of attitudinal healing: “We can choose and direct ourselves to be peaceful inside regardless of what is happening outside.”
A particularly big challenge came during my last visit to Lore in the hospice. A large tumor had burst through the side of her neck, and oozed putrescence through the dressing. Her mother seemed not to notice the odor that permeated the room. This was her beloved little daughter, and she saw only her beauty, kissed her and fixed her hair. Lore slept, sedated, her mouth gaping open, Dan not around. Home with the kids. I stayed and talked with her grieving mother.
When I got home I went in the back door, and realized the odor had stuck to my clothes and skin. It was all around me. I would need a shower. Then my eye fell on a brown plastic bag of potatoes leaning against the wall by the back door. One potato had turned gray and slimy. Rotten. That was the smell—putrefying flesh. The smell of death in all organisms. Sometimes it happens even before death.
Part of the process.
Another encounter was with a talented young woman writer, Luann. She had been an early member of the THP support group for people with life-threatening illness, but stopped coming as her late-stage colon cancer advanced. One day I sat with her in her home while her partner ran errands. As we talked, her colostomy bag broke loose. She panicked and ran into the bathroom, where she pulled off all her clothes and danced from one foot to the other, shaking her hands in frustration.
I stood in the bathroom door, my mouth open in shock. A slow brown ooze flowed onto Luann’s white, surgery-scarred belly from a plastic flange set into a hole in her flesh. “I don’t know how to change one of these things!” she cried. “Andrea always does it! Fix it, please fix it!”
I controlled my own panic at this sight. This wasn’t part of the deal! What the hell do I do now? She’s a mess.
But I’ve got to do it.
I’ve changed diapers way worse than this.
I can do it.
I grabbed a washcloth and held it under the hot water faucet. A messy condom-like plastic bag lay in the sink. I let the water run.
“I’ve never even seen one of these bags,” I said, “but let’s get you cleaned up a bit, then you can lie down on the bed, tell me where you keep the bags, and we’ll figure it out.”
Luanne flopped backward onto the middle of the white chenille bedspread, her arms out, skin tight over bones on her delicate, tiny body. An image flashed in my mind of a near-naked body stretched on a cross. Her spiky blonde hair had thinned to limp wisps. She’s been sick for so long, I thought.
With Luanne’s help we got her cleaned up and I changed her colostomy bag, awed by her courage and by my own new skill. I helped her into clean pajamas and we went back to the living room to continue our conversation.
She positioned herself on the couch, arranged cushions and pillows around her. Her gray cat jumped up onto her lap and stretched out, purring and kneading its claws into her thigh. She petted it absently, and took a deep breath. “I can feel it. It won’t be long now.”
“What do you think will happen?” I asked.
“My gut will get blocked again, and that will be it.”
“Oh, Andrea will probably rush me off for surgery again. But I’d just as soon get this over with. I’m ready.”
“Do you have a religion?”
She snorted. “I wouldn’t call it that. My dad was Native American, mother Jewish.”
“So, do you have any beliefs or rituals from either tradition to help you prepare for death?”
“I’m not observant, but I respected Dad’s beliefs. Mom’s too. I went to a pow-wow at Kah-nee-ta a couple of weeks ago. And Saturday morning, synagogue for prayers.”
I knew very little about Jewish traditions, raised as a Christian. “What would be the Jewish way of preparing? Or the Native American?”
She rearranged her cushions and let her head drop back on the couch.
“What I got from my dad’s beliefs was reverence for death as a part of Nature. Death is just a journey to another world.”
“Sounds almost Christian…”
“No! Nothing like that. No heaven or hell. It’s a spirit world. That’s where I’d rather be, anyway. All that New Testament stuff, Revelations, that’s just in there to scare people.”
She sat up and leaned forward, pushed the cat off her lap and pressed a cushion against her belly. Her intense blue eyes, huge in her pale face, bored into me.
“But I talked to the rabbi.”
“He told me about the tradition of viddui, or confession. It’s to forgive and let go of any hurts or wrongdoings, even if they weren’t done intentionally.”
“Have you thought you might call the rabbi to come and do the viddui for you?”
She leaned back, holding the cushion tight. “No. I don’t need a holy man to do it. It should be a woman, anyway.”
She sat forward again, eyes glittering. “You could do it!”
Oh my God. She can’t mean it. I’ve never even been in a synagogue. I know very little about Jewish tradition. I’d rather change a colostomy bag!
“Luanne…I have no idea…”
But she was rummaging in an end table drawer. She came up with a printed piece of paper, flopped back onto the couch, and thrust the paper at me.
“Here. You can read it. Out loud.”
I scanned it, and realized it was a prayer that would ease the soul of anyone preparing to die. I looked up at her.
“There are places here where something is spelled YHVH—how’s that pronounced?”
“Jews don’t say or write the name of God. Just read it as Yahweh. It’s okay.”
I looked down at the paper. “And…Shekhina? Is he an angel? I don’t know that one.”
“She’s a Jewish goddess. Mom taught me about her. She’s like…the presence of Yahweh on earth.”
A goddess. There was so much for me to learn and understand.
“I can’t ask Andrea to do this, she’s an atheist,” Luanne said. “Read it! Let me lie down here, first. You can be the rabbi.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t…”
“Rabbi only means teacher, anyway. You’re a teacher. You read it.” She eased herself onto her back, stretched out, and closed her eyes. A tiny smile played across her lips.
Yes. Jesus’ followers called him Rabbi, Teacher. But that was Jesus. The thought gave me small comfort.
I dived into my Higher Self. Jesus, help me with this. Say the words for me. Be the rabbi.
I cleared my throat, and slowly read the words on the page in a soft voice.
“Forgive and release any hurts or wrongdoings done consciously
Lift up all _______’s (I hesitated, then filled in her name) Luanne’s worries and fears.
Wash them away.
Let goodness flow over her
and surround her now.
Help her as she readies for her next passage.
May her worries for us her loved ones be eased.
I scanned ahead for other places where words should be changed.
Let her know You will walk alongside, and be present for us those left behind,
for her soul is entwined with ours theirs.
Here I had to pause and swallow hard. The room was an ordinary living room, but it felt like a holy place, with a benign and loving energy humming around us. I looked at Luanne, her face peaceful, her smile beatific. I blinked to clear the tears, and read on.
As she comes close to You,
bathe her in your light.
Love her and carry her.
Shelter her under Your wings.
Ready a place in Your garden for her.
Into your hand we trust her soul.
Gently, lovingly, tend her now.
YHVH Yahweh blesses you and watches over you.
YHVH’s Yahweh’s Presence shines upon you and sheds grace all around you.
YHVH Yahweh garbs you in light and bestows peace upon you.
Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Ehad
I stumbled over the words, pronounced them as best I could.
Adonai Hu Ha-elohim
May Your angels come to Luanne’s sides.
On her right, Michael, carry our prayers;
on her left, Gabriel, protect her;
before her, Uriel, light her way;
behind her, Raphael, heal all hurts;
and over her head and all around her,
Shekhina, may she rest within your wings.
Shekhina. Apparently a powerful female angel. She sounded maternal, comforting.
I laid the page on the coffee table between us. The room was still. A holy instant
of time stretched into infinity.
Without moving, Luanne spoke. “Thank you. I’m almost there now. That was perfect.”
After a few moments, she opened her eyes and fixed their radiant blue on my face. “There’s another Jewish tradition that I like.”
Now I was in danger of straying even further into rabbi territory. Sacrilege, maybe.
“It’s about never leaving the bedside of the dying person. So they don’t feel the fear and pain of separation.”
Is she telling me I can’t leave her? There’s no way…
“That’s why Andrea asked you to come and stay with me today,” Luanne said. “She’s promised me I won’t be alone.”
Is she dying now?
I looked at the front door. Where was Andrea?
I can do this. I will do this.
“I understand,” I said. “It’s an honor to sit with you. Especially to read the prayer, the forgiveness. It reminds me of a Hawai’ian tradition…”
Her eyes were closed. “I know it. Ho’oponopono.”
“Do you want to say it, together?” At least this was something I was more familiar with.
“Yes,” she said. “Do you remember the four steps?”
“I think so. Yes. They are: I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you.”
Her lips moved silently. I closed my eyes and whispered the four steps myself, to her, to my own beloveds, to myself.
I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you. There was a sense of completion in saying it, over and over, a mantra, a chant.
The front door opened quietly, and Andrea stepped into the room. She saw Luanne lying on the couch and held her finger to her lips. I gathered my things and went to the door. We stepped out onto the porch.
“She had a colostomy blowout,” I said.
Not a bad description.
“We got it cleaned up. She’s okay now.”
“Thanks so much for coming,” Andrea said. Her sturdy shoulders slumped, and I saw the dark gray circles of fatigue under her eyes. “I needed some time out, just needed to get some stuff done, and she doesn’t want me to leave her.”
“It’s part of her Jewish tradition. Not to leave the bedside of someone when they’re dying.” I sounded knowledgeable. “She just explained it to me.”
Andrea sighed. “I know. But she doesn’t have family, her parents are gone, so…we’re it.”
“Call me if you need another break. It was a privilege, sitting with her.”
Luanne died two days later, during surgery to treat a blockage. Andrea was nearby. But Luanne wasn’t alone, not with Shekhina holding her in her wings.
How naïve and narrow I had been in my understanding of ways of approaching death with meaningful rituals, dignity and grace, and great spiritual growth.
I still have the pair of Luanne’s crystal pendant earrings Andrea gave me after her partner’s death. I wear them when I need clarity.
Soon, there would be another walk to death’s door with a beloved.
The chapter which follows is from the sequel to Looking Through Water, and is only slightly fictionalized. Once again, I never fictionalize the miracles.