From Jane: I apologize for the lapse in time between posts. On March 1st, 2013, my wife’s mother died. It was 18 years to the day of my father’s death in the antipodes, so many miles and years away. In the following week, my wife and I helped her stepfather some with arrangements (I say ‘some’ because the efforts to recover from the loss of a life, prematurely by some standards and unfairly by many, seem inadequate). It was a week of immersion in the poverty of life and the love of two souls who were everything to each other in a world that had forgotten them. It showed me the lack that many who are chronically ill experience, and that by some standards, we live in great abundance. Above all, it told me that love is the only wealth worth taking from this world.
I don’t honestly know where to begin. In the small hours of the past weeks I have laid awake and written posts in my head, but in the daylight the words are gone. I have fundamental trust in myself, despite the vagaries and unreliability of invisible illness that the words exist somewhere, and sometime, they will filter themselves through me. They may not be as precise as I would like, but I begin to trust that they will be enough.
I met my wife’s mother, B-, for the first time in December, 2012. Some years ago it was clear that she wasn’t happy with her daughter’s choices, including her daughter’s choice of me. As a result, I didn’t meet her for the next 13 years, even though we lived a few hours apart. The day I met her in the hospital, that December, there was some awkwardness. At one point, B- voiced the discomfiture of strangers: she wasn’t one to beat about the bush.
“I don’t know you,” she said. It wasn’t an accusation, but a statement of fact, and perhaps of regret.
My small voice, needing to prove my worth in this world, returned with, “I’m a good person.” With the clarity of hindsight, I realize now that no words were necessary on my part.
Sometimes not knowing is just that: a step toward knowing. And in the next two days we experienced knowing. My wife’s heart healed, her mother’s heart healed, and I felt gratitude for being a part of it. I got to meet the woman who in so many ways defined my wife, especially her awesome sense of mischief. Most of all, I loved being able to kiss my new mother-in-law goodbye and mourn all that I got to know about her in two compressed days in a ward with dingy yellow lights and too many forgotten people.
In the last few weeks my heart has opened and broken many times, especially as I witnessed the grief of B-‘s husband. I’ve wept in ways I don’t really remember doing for so long, and despite the long absence of tears for so many years, I’ve allowed my heart to open again and again.
But I’ve also become tired. These are the realities of my illness, which I so often minimize and dismiss. I wake from unrefreshing sleep, still locked in nightmares and pain. The pain in my right side, ever present for the past 2 years, has ramped up. It’s now a 6-7, instead of a 4-5, out of 10. I can live with that pain because others live with so much more, but it took on a new character. To turn over in bed, I must now get out of bed, turn around, and get back in. I’m beginning to wonder if this additional pain can be explained by a hernia. I’m going to break my vow, and see the doctor again.
On Saturday, we went to the park. Those who know me, will know how walking in nature revives me in a way that few other things can. Even if I have a ‘crash’ and ‘shutdown’ afterwards and have to sleep for several hours, it is always worth it. On arriving, a man reached down to pat one of my beloved beagles. As many have, he mentioned Jack should go for a run, then added, because he definitely needs it. The throwaway comment pierced me with anger as the man strolled off. Underneath the anger was guilt. I know my dogs should not be overweight, as indeed, I should not as their parent. I can’t exercise them as I should. We monitor their food intake, but without exercise, they will be overweight. I have long felt guilty about failing in this fundamental area of our dogs’ health, much more than my own. Since my own weight doubled in the early days, I have long inured myself to the throwaway comments, but it seems unfair that these loving creatures should earn derision due to my decreased mobility.
For the first time in weeks, rage boiled inside me and gave way to more tears. The pain and fatigue burned me, as I tried to stifle the emotions behind dark sunglasses. We kept walking. We met other people. People who had kind things to say. I tried to open my heart once more. It felt artificial at first, but I saw the man again in the distance and I felt my heart softening. I thought with compassion of challenges he might have: his own pains and struggles, his own inadequacies in knowing the right words to say. I continued to soften. I opened my heart and smiled at our dogs: the guilt dissolving to be replaced by love. I began to feel compassion for myself, and my own struggle with my emotions.
When we got home, I had to rest as a shutdown set in. I considered myself gently as I let myself rest. When I got up that evening, I picked up the volume of Tara Brach’s latest book, ‘True Refuge’, which had arrived before all this chaos began. I began to read about presence – what so many writers and spiritual leaders and gurus have called ‘being in the present moment’. Tara Brach’s version was something deeper than this though: it was complete identification with the self we are born as, before we quickly develop our layers of protection: anger, fear, guilt, hurt, manipulation and more.
Around 5am, I woke and got up, attending to the usual dry eyes and mouth, the joint pains and muscle aches. I can’t remember what I was doing. Perhaps staring at the computer screen, contemplating a new post, or thinking of the few that I had begun but not finished over the last few weeks.
Peace descended on me. Fear disappeared. Guilt and anger disappeared. Worry about the future disappeared. Judgement of others and myself disappeared. I just was, in a peaceful state, in which it didn’t matter that I was a good person. It didn’t matter who I was, where I’d been, or where I was going. Without those thoughts, the urgent press of forces driving me through life dissipated. This feeling persisted for a long time. I experienced presence.
I don’t know if it was triggered by my reading, or the fact that I understood what I was feeling, but feeling peaceful and accepting was as valid a response as all those others, and a whole lot less taxing.
I now know that sometimes all we have are moments when things are not messy, and that the rest is messy and difficult, but somehow we have to learn to experience presence at those times too. Sometimes we have to tolerate not knowing, embrace what happens, and be grateful for the gift.
Thank you for the gift, B-.