I Did It My Way
October 7, 2007
This week a friend called and we laughed and talked about what was going on in our lives. Suddenly she commented that she thought I was very brave to talk about the fact that I know I am dying and am not expected to live more than six months. Arrangements were being made for me to be taken care of through hospice. The start date: Friday, October 5, 2007.
I thought her comment was interesting because I had never seen myself as brave, so I asked her what she meant. She said that she thought I was courageous because she didn’t know any other person who was so candid about his or her own death, what they were doing and how they felt about the process. So this is basically my summary of death and dying at my age, 66, or I might be 67 when my one good eye is closed forever.
What I realize now is that I am actually a senior citizen. Quite frankly I am old. I hadn’t really thought of myself as old, but the reality is, I am. Not only that, I am both old and dying because my body has decided it prefers to run my life the way it chooses. In essence I think it is telling my mind that it is its turn to take over the top spot. My mind, too, has decided it is tired and no longer wants to be in charge. There are many things wrong with my body, each of which appears to need a huge surgery and long recovery time. Just the merest possibility that that particular problem will be taken care of has risks, challenges and unknown dangers. Analyzing these possibilities has helped me look at both living with pain for a longer period of time or living without pain for a shorter one. The choice: Quality versus quantity.
Such a choice is easy when I am in enormous pain and I know the pain can be managed. However, everything has a price. In the case of pain management I must give up some quick decision making and sometimes instant memory. Drugs help destroy brain cells. Occasionally my brain feels fuzzy and creates the idea I am in a dream-like state, out of control and totally dependent on others to meet my needs and wants. I hate that. I have always chosen to be free and independent, make my own choices and act on my own decisions. Since I am now going through pain management, I find it has softened all of me, not just the pain, but the brain at times. That choice does not appear to be an act of bravery.
Bravery, to me, has been acting heroically in spite of enormous fear. It is setting one’s own needs and wants for comfort, ease, and convenience aside and sometimes reaching through the scared and fragmented parts of ourselves to help someone or something right now. It is an instantaneous choice to support someone in the moment. It is a leaning into the fear, a forward movement, without consideration for one’s own well-being. If I extend that concept beyond the moment, and make it minutes or days, it appears to me that bravery always involves another, not just one’s self. To be self-absorbed is not the same thing as being brave. To think about one’s life, to look at the enormity of one’s choices to date, to ponder what may or may not lie ahead, to wonder about the unknown is not bravery. Being willing to talk about death is not bravery.
Perhaps it is really brave of the listener to listen to the dying talk about death. As my friend pointed out, “l don’t know anyone else who was willing to talk about it. We all know we will die, but everyone keeps it quiet.”
Maybe that is because we all see life and death differently. I see them as much the same. I didn’t know what to expect before l was born and now I can’t even remember being born. I also don’t know what to expect when I die, but I suspect somewhere somehow the soul or consciousness survives in some form or another, maybe only as a fragment of a cell, perhaps less, perhaps more.
Even with cremation something tangible remains and that something, ash or unburned bone, can help re-fertilize and give back to life what remains. So maybe life and death are merely states of being in our minds. I think they are just different, neither one better, neither one worse. To me, death is just another change. At some point I changed from a baby. At another I changed from a teenager and at still another I changed from a high energy, high achiever. Maybe those were all just mini-deaths I didn’t recognize.
When you really think about it, we all actually live in our minds. Our bodies move around and we meet our physical needs and wants, but most of our joy and most of our pain, especially emotional pain, comes through our minds. For instance, if we decide to be happy we can be happy. It doesn’t matter that I am in pain, if I make a decision to be happy or kind. Sure, the body hurts, but the mind can make a choice. I decide to refuse to allow the pain to make my mind miserable. So I try to smile, despite the pain. I cannot smile and be angry both at the same time. It may be a grimace at first, but I keep at it. In other words I try to act happy. If that doesn’t work sometimes I call a friend so I can think of something else. I may ask a friend to tell me something funny. Another way that changes my mind is if I try to focus my attention on someone else. What always seems to work for me is if I can hear about someone with a huge problem and I become so enmeshed in that person’s difficulty that I totally forget about myself.
Sometimes I can actually feel the energy shift within my body. The result for me is happiness. Eventually my mind’s shift helps my body remember, the pain killer I may have just taken seems to work a bit faster, and then I find I actually am happy because my focus shifted also. I acted the part despite my feeling and soon all of me got the idea that I really wanted to be happy and I wanted to share my happiness, instead of my misery and pain.
So here is how I see this stuff called life and death. Life mostly begins with a celebration because we know that another person will be supporting the earth and its inhabitants in the growth of the world in some way. As the baby matures and eventually has plenty of experiences, always changing, life often allows its seasons to move on through the body. Old Age is known as the winter of life. Maybe I am not quite in the winter because I am not sure when winter really comes, but I do believe that the stage I am in right now, whether late fall or winter is a great time. It is a time for reviewing memories I was too busy to think about, to see who I have become as a result of the choices I made as I felt my way throughout life without a guidebook.
It was so easy to compare myself to others and find myself lacking in so many areas. Someone was always smarter, prettier, kinder, supportive, loved, loving, taller, and naturally had better skin or a better figure, but especially bigger boobs! Today I do no comparisons. I judge less. No longer do those things matter. I am who I am today, the result of environment, heredity and what I ate both physically and figuratively. My mind is sharp because I honed it. My body sags, is wrinkled and scarred because of other choices I made, some of which were dictated by the so called rules of society of my age and others because I was just plain lazy.
Despite my many poor choices, I am proud of who I am. I am proud of all of me. I am proud I have lived this long to be able to write this. I am proud I was born at the time I was and although I may have been injured or abused or picked on, these things also helped me make other choices. Maybe bravery is merely saying I am enough. I don’t need a front. I don’t need to pretend anymore, I don’t have to measure up to some arbitrary standard I formulated in my own mind. What I have discovered is most of our opinions are not even our own anyways. They were thoughts fed to us, which we tossed around a little, decided might be true, and then repeated them to ourselves or others so much we actually began to believe ourselves. With that came the judgment that someone else’s opinion was actually a fact. Today I question anything that appears to be a fact, no matter who the so called expert is, including me.
So, you see, this old stuff is really a gift – a gift of freedom. I am free from restraint. I speak when I want. I eat when I want and what I want, including calorie-rich cheesecake. I don’t worry about things. If I want to smoke, I smoke. If I want to drink, I drink. I love coffee. If I want to dance, I do that, too, but the body rebels and still remains lazy and unused muscles rebel, so I quit, because I want to quit. Sometimes I just sit back doing nothing but listening to ole Blue Eyes crooning some song about his long lost love.
I find my spirit seems to be moving more to the foreground of my life. I am more sensitive to things – a touch, a hug, a kiss, light and dark, and the incredible outpouring of love expressed in all kinds of ways. I have learned to receive it, to let it sink softly within my feelings. No longer am I afraid to cry, thinking tears made me look weak or silly or may smear my make-up. No longer do I wear make-up. Instead, I cry if the feeling is there and sometimes it is. Sometimes the tears are from sadness, those self-pitying drops, but most often they spill over from happiness. While I used to feel the tears well up and tried to blink them back, today I allow them to flow. Now they only flow from one eye. The other eye has chosen to hold back its tears, its tear ducts blocked. It is too lazy to produce any moisture for me. Even that is okay.
That old lady, with her face pushed askew by a recent cyst on the brain, the one looking at me from my mirror, is someone I don’t recognize physically. But I see beyond that face reflected back to me. I see the love and feel the energy of spirit. I see the wrinkles that emerged when I was asleep to myself, caused by life itself, the wrinkles of the smiles and laughter, the wrinkles of the concentration and frowns, the deep grooves and lines of delightful surprise and excitement. I see the wisdom that others have shared and poured into my cells both knowledge and experience, transforming my beliefs, wishes and dreams.
Never would I trade the life I have had, a life of deep sorrow and pain, but also of heady, exhilarating joy. How could l? I have wonderful friends who understand when I don’t want to see them right now and who love me anyway. My sons, those gifts of the Universe, have given me most of my gray hairs, now turned white. Through the years they taught me generosity by helping me empty my pocketbook, dipping into what I once thought was security. They are worth more than the money they cost, because those fine, confident men now contribute to the world, each in a unique way. Each one has married women of value, strong, intelligent, gentle and wise women, determined to be and have the best that life offers.
I am now extravagant with myself, buying myself flowers, stunning arrangements I enjoy looking at from my hospital bed in our family room, since I will never physically see one of the flowers that may arrive after my check-out date. I don’t make my bed any more. Others even change my sheets for me. Today I lounge around in my pajamas, something I love to do. Even though I have a short time to live I bought new pajamas, new high thread count sheets, a new down blanket, each one a gift to me, strictly for me, for my comfort.
Maybe old age is allowing oneself to finally think about one’s self first. Maybe it is not being self-centered, but true, honest to goodness selfishness. If so, I must say I love it. It feels great. Today I think I am actually entitled to whatever I want, because I gave what I thought I should and what I could, while I could. Now I understand I deserve the best, not second best, not make-do, but the best of anything. Perhaps I always did, but in the good old days I just thought about it, passed judgment and decided others deserved it or wanted it more than I. Obviously I really never permitted myself to have it until now, because I believed it was better to give than to receive. I have finally learned to receive graciously.
Throughout my life many friends have moved on, living here or there or dying, with dreams still dangling, their books unwritten, wishing to sing the songs unsung. Some were jealous when my husband and I traveled for six years, unwilling to give up the game they chose to play instead, wanting to do something like that. Like me, busily working, they missed some of their most glorious opportunities. Some, like I once did, missed their children’s games because too much had to be done and they needed to be responsible.
Today I have lists of things to accomplish before I, too, move on to another stage where I can act out some other dream, perhaps play another game. Some of my dreams today are costly. They will cost me time or money or thought or prayers. It is payback time, time to honor those who so willingly gave of themselves and to whom I can now give, because I have the most precious gift of all—free time to do it each day my eyes open one more time. Like you right now, I have the present to do it in. I will not have the future to do it and the past is long gone, so I missed many chances for making those dreams come true.
Never would I trade my incredible friends, my wanderlust, itinerate life, my mistakes or even my three marriages for my old ash blond hair. I paid dearly for my white. If I droop here and there, I realize I have earned the right to those sags, as well as my wrinkled, collagen-free, spotted skin. When I look in the mirror and find a stranger looking back at me, sometimes I am kind now, a bit less critical, recognizing that aging allows itself to be seen in vastly varied forms, including my own Mammy Yoakum look, slanting mouth and all.
Do you really care if I watch TV at 3 a.m., nodding off when the commercial airs? What’s wrong with playing cards with strangers on my computer at midnight? So what if I don’t know how to perfect my PowerPoint presentation? If I am entitled to my own brand of fun, so are you. Why ask permission, even of yourself? Is it courageous to take a chance on your own joy, having fun your own way?
No longer can I walk on the beach in a teeny weenie bikini, hoping it will stay up as rippling muscled guys look me up and down. What’s more I can’t even walk on the beach with a thigh concealing one-piece skirted bathing suit. In fact, today I can’t physically walk on the beach at all.
But I can do something else. I can laugh in the wind as it blows my white hair straight up, fling out my arms and twirl, bits of sand crunching between my bony toes. I can be free to live my own beach scene in my mind. I am still free to dream. Also I am free to envision life as you describe your delight, to see you in my mind, feel your happiness in its purity, and experience your joy vicariously.
Here is another truth. Someday you will get old too, if you are lucky. Then you may recall the look of pity you cast my way when I acted silly or did what you considered strange things. Like you, my heart has been broken more than once, been mended many more times. No one can be a loving human being without some grief or pain. Our grief and pain can help us grow into compassionate and understanding spiritual beings, wise enough to let love grow and be as it will, simply for the experience of becoming human beings.
It does not take courage to grow old. It does not take courage to die. It takes courage to live in the moment, to stop for some alley cat crossing the street and learn to be grateful for the instant, for the gifts that life so freely bestows.
To live is to be courageous. To be imperfect is courageous. To be wrong is courageous. Above all it is courageous to learn to love yourself and the perfect world you are creating.
My advice given lovingly knowing that this may be the last year I live is: Be you, accept all of you, that dark, shadowy side and that light, brilliant part too. Be free. By doing that you will find yourself less critical of yourself, you will be kinder to yourself and this will be reflected back in your life experience. Be courageous enough to be who you really are. Love and celebrate yourself today. Be your own best friend. If you do, you, too, will grow old and die with dignity and grace and will willingly and happily share your own story of life and death, with its unique twists and turns. Living your own life the way you want, where you want and with whom you want may be the most courageous thing you can ever do.