Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Facing mortality

As you probably know, if you've read my blog before, or read the essays I've written for the Shadow Work email newsletter over the past 2 years, I took care of my mother at the end of her life and have been grieving, and thinking a lot about grief, since she died September 2, 2011.

Over the past 6 months or so, the grieving has shifted, so that it's far more clearly about grieving my own mortality -- the inevitability of my own eventual death -- than it is about grieving Mom's passing.

That's partly why I haven't been attending the quarterly memorial services held by the hospice organization that cared for her. Although I suspect the people of Rainbow Hospice would say we grieve many griefs at the quarterly service and not necessarily just the most recent loss of a loved one, it hasn't seemed quite right to go and grieve for myself.

I'm really aware of grieving my own mortality today, and frankly, also for the mortality of my partner, Paul. Grief has been more on top since April 8th, when a friend of mine died, but last week put it squarely on top, and I only just realized it today while sitting on the CTA going downtown. There I sat, crying on the Red Line, because for most of last week I was hearing Paul having difficulty breathing, and I've come to associate having difficulty breathing with the end of life. My mother's "death rattle" lasted for 3 days, and I don't know if that's unusually long but it certainly seemed to last forever. My friend Loren Binford's death rattle lasted less than 24 hours, but I listened to it at close range for hours on the evening before he died as I sat in his room at Evanston Hospital. During the afternoon other friends of Loren's, many of whom call themselves Friends with a capital F because they are Quakers, as he was, but the last of them left at 5 PM and I stayed on until 11, primarily to act as advocate since he had no family, until I knew for sure that the hospital was going to treat him as a hospice patient and neither take any heroic measures nor fail to make him as comfortable as possible.

So last week, when Paul had an asthma attack brought on by dust and working in cold air as he helped an elderly friend of ours move out of her apartment, and it turned into a relapse of the pertussis he had last year, I heard him having difficulty breathing, and I think on some unconscious level Mortality moved higher on the list of things I was experiencing. And I didn't realize it until today, probably because he's in the hot climate of California's central valley and on the phone last night it seemed his breathing was finally back to normal, and probably also because I finally caught up on sleep.

I find it difficult to think about my mortality, and Paul's, without feeling some shame. The shame says, That's seeing the glass as half-empty, it's so "negative"; how about seeing the glass as half-full, that you've had a wonderful life and most likely have many more years? Why grieve at all, in fact, if you have another 30 years to enjoy? Those 30 years are going to be far happier than I would have imagined 18 months ago, because I now have Paul, and I can also look forward to my daughter's wedding next year and her eventually having children.

I think the shame has made it harder for me to see that I've been grieving. Shame so often acts like a foggy blanket, obscuring the truth that is too painful to see.

It feels really good to write about it.

There's another kind of shame around this, too, I think. This other shame is harder to hear clearly, so I guess it's still coming to the surface. It's about my spiritual beliefs. Is it really in line with my spiritual beliefs to be grieving my eventual death? It seems ungrateful to the Divine that I've felt so close to at times.

That's all I can hear clearly so far, perhaps the rest will come.

That night at Evanston Hospital, I held the vigil alone, as I'd done for my mother in her final hours, and there's something sad just in that, that there wasn't a family gathered at his bedside hugging each other as we cried to see him leave. I didn't have someone to really grieve with for my mother until a full week later, because the family members who lived nearby don't do grief in the way I do and even believed that they weren't grieving but only joyous for her (and our) release.

Last week I was listening to "The Pilgrim's Chorus" from Wagner's opera Tannhauser, as sung in English by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. As I said to Paul, it was played at my father's memorial service in 1990 at his request, which said he wanted it played loudly enough that he could hear it. When my brother Tim arrived in Glenview, he came to my house, where I was playing "The Pilgrim's Chorus" in anticipation of the service. As he walked in, I said to Tim, "No matter how loudly we play it, he still won't be able to hear it." And we held each other and cried for a long time. That's the kind of grieving I want to do when I lose someone, grieving with complete support. Quakers aren't very emotional as a rule. Loren's service will be held next Sunday, and I'll likely be one of the few crying openly and getting as many hugs as I can.