My very beautiful friend Anna was only thirty-five when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. The youngest of her three children was only two years old. She conducted herself with so much poise and grace that unless you knew her well, it would be easy to miss her fierce nature and inner resolve in service to what was most important to her.
Just after the last round of soul killing chemotherapy which flattens the best and most hearty of women, she had a life altering dream. While I can’t remember the details, the essence was that she was tasked with a really important job, one she had to succeed in doing. She set about committing herself towards that end and only in the final scene did she discover the name of that job: ‘Project Staying Alive’.
Her youngest is now 32 and she is as fierce and brilliant as ever. She has not lost that single-minded capacity to focus on what really matters and is able to walk away from much of the fluff and noise of the non-essential.
Now the whole world is tasked with the job of both staying alive and determining what really matters when we are stripped down to a more elemental level of consideration. In the time of Covid-19 pandemic we all take our positions on the wheel of fortune, potential loss, fear and need to determine how we will conduct ourselves. For many staying at home is simply not an option. For many others, it appears like an overreaction to what is perceived as only slightly more dangerous than a virulent flu.
For those who are ‘high risk’ due to age or pre-existing conditions, (in my case both), we hunker down. We shelter in place; we wash our hands and wash the apples, we wipe down door knobs till we realize that no one is coming into the house anyway. I realize yet again, that we are the privileged ones who can self-isolate under a solid roof and crawl into a warm clean bed at night. We have each other to prattle to, cook with, share the cleaning and other chores of day-to-day life. We even have dogs who pull us out on a daily basis for walks, whether or not we want to go. Most luxurious of all, we have time and space partially freed from much extraneous external activity.
Those of us who have been ‘at home’ will undoubtedly come out of these months with some hitherto undiscovered pearls. Those on the frontlines will have, through virtue of exposure, confronted deeper aspects of self, be it courage, resolve, commitment, fear, resistance, perhaps not fully known or turned into before.
For myself, I discovered a gemstone of a completely unexpected nature and one that doesn’t shine any heroic light upon me.
Generally speaking, it seems that many/most folks become aware of the prospects of dying and the inevitability of death at least by the time they enter their sixth decade. The thick and very well-constructed armor of denial is beginning to wear thin by age of 60-ish, or it’s just gotten so dented by life’s wear and tear, it’s more penetrable. I was no exception to this. Of course, I understood the notion much earlier in my life, but still didn’t really believe it would apply to me, and if it did, it would not be for a long time to come.
In an attempt to come closer to this new-found realization that death belongs in life and as such is part of my life, your life and all of our lives, I leaned into death with all the sincerity of someone who wanted to bat it away by bringing it in so close, so as to neutralize its power to terrorize or intimidate.
I washed my mother’s dead body when she died and many subsequent to her as part of service work. I wrote about impermanence, dreamt it, grieved it, talked about it and practiced it. All in an attempt to befriend the stranger and be prepared, hoping that by so doing, I would not kick up too much of a fuss and might die with some modicum of dignity. I had and still have some notion that dying well is a testament to having lived well. A crowning glory, so to speak, rather than the certificates, trophies or successes that are so hungrily racked up as a hedge against being irrelevant or ordinary.
How we die, how I will eventually die, could be a compass with which our life, my life, has weight and grace. To be able to model a gracious death to my grandkids would have more value than all the diamonds I could possibly leave behind. They may well disagree with this assessment.
Padma Sambava, the man who brought Buddhism to Tibet from India said that his guiding principle was ‘to live and die without regret’. This notion struck me open and resonant. I practiced endings (see poem below). Imagining my end days, and others close to me. Appreciating impermanence as real and true, even as I sometimes fought against it.
Then COVID hit. With all the drama of ventilators and high death rates for the frontline workers and the elderly. I registered that I was feeling apprehensive. When it was apparent to me after a litany of symptoms slowly started to mount up, that this virus had probably made home in my body, I found myself strangely relieved. Now I would be in it, in full participation of whatever it would be, rather than being merely scared of it. I figured it was probably on a long layover in the Seattle airport at the end of February, on a return from what we had decided would be our last air travel (for any reason other than emergencies involving family or close friends), that I may have been exposed. Naturally, the unkind part of me that measures and balances like a miserly accountant immediately retorted, ‘Serves you right.’
As a childhood asthmatic, there remains some residual terror of not being able to breathe which is why I found myself so wary of this particular virus. So sure enough, as if by dint of trickster, my lungs eventually started to register heaviness, aching, shortness of breath when walking or attempting even the gentlest of inclines. Rolling symptoms of chest constriction, persistent low-grade fevers, mild coughing, flattening fatigue, rapid heart rate, burning toes, a few well days followed by relapsed ones, were all on my particular viral menu.
I would find myself on many a night in April and even into early May, attempting to manage both my constricted chest and my terrors. Would it progress to a pneumonia with a full-blown inflammatory response or would it remain a well-mannered mild case that hardly registered in the annals of Covid-19 cases? All those years of practicing equanimity in the face of the small deaths that life throws at us (as practice runs), out the window in one humbling heartbeat and heavy breath. Was I scared of dying, or not being able to breathe? Both!
I made sure my will was current, all the things worth having and passing on were properly allocated, and I registered my deepest response which was unequivocal. Not Yet! Not Yet! Is what I heard. My way of saying NO! I did not want to die. I was not ready to die. NO!
I did not qualify for a Covid-19 test because my fever was low and I had not yet developed a cough at the time of my initial request. It was a time when tests were only given to those who clearly had it, rather than to those who may well have it, so I rambled along in a cloud of my private fears without benefit of medical validation but with the great benefit of two friends who were going through a similar arc of Covid-like symptoms with frequent relapses, with whom I could share stories, offer and get support. We had the additional benefit of a healer who herself had contracted the virus who could and did help tremendously. We were not alone; we were our own little Covid pod.
It was working me, changing the way I was seeing and feeling the world, each and every day I got to wake to another day. Whether it was a good day or a bad day, a bright day or relapsed day, it was another day in which each I registered a level of gratitude for the bounties of life itself, in whatever form it took on that particular day. I found myself happier than I’ve known myself in a good long while. I found the beauty that surrounded me wriggled into my tight chest to pry it open just one breath more. I looked anew at our dogs and felt as if finally, I came a little closer to learning the real language of Dog. I saw my husbands look of love and concern as a gift beyond measure. His many kind and caring acts as the most intimate love poem. I watched the new buds appearing on the bushes and trees with glassy eyes, full of fever and wonder.
With the passing weeks (and this has been a very long 13-week haul) I came to see that my terrors were not only a resistance to my own death, which they surely were, but something else as well. My ardent NOT YET was also an expression of my desire to re-engage and participate with life itself. It was also a testament of the deepest level of appreciation for life itself. The whole big messy, imperfect, profoundly scary, often senselessly cruel and violent life that is ours at this junction of Earth’s history and herstory.
Maybe it’s too early to tell how this will integrate into a lived life, since this time out of time has altered the landscape of most of our lives, but it could be that my practice has also shifted. Rather than attempting to secure a good end by practicing endings, I rather suspect that this re-engagement, this falling in love with life again, will continue to be my deepest ally when it is time to let go into death. Whenever that time may be for me.
With love to you all,
P.S. Since writing this piece I took an antibody test for SARS-Covid-2 that came back negative. Time may tell if that particular test was accurate or if the strain of virus tested was indeed the one running through my body. Time will tell if all people who get Covid-19 develop antibodies or even how long those antibodies are in play. At this point, it remains a mystery like so much surrounding this novel virus. The gems that have arisen out of this illness however are invaluable and immediate, as is my marvel at my body’s brilliance as week by week, I continue to heal.
at any moment
it may all collapse
the economy, icebergs, fragile peace
best be ready, I practice endings
write my memorial poem
prepare my husband’s eulogy
even as he sits beside me
reading, full bodied, content.
all this dwelling
on the utter beauty
of a trillion snowflakes
blown from their nighttime perch
caught by dawn’s first orange
the luxury of an empty day unfurling
a carpet to ride or lounge upon
like a cat
the shadows of the deer moving
over the white field at full moon
I could go on, and on
tell me, how else can we open our eyes
but by knowing that soon enough
they will close.