photo by Ladd Greene @UnSplash
When a person dies suddenly they leave behind an unintentional debris field. Not just their stuff. There is every thing they started and didn't finish. A project left on the bench, yes, but also their amends. The conversations left off mid-sentence, 'round-to-its and thoughts unspoken. And especially the unopened gift of showing up again. Their people still living collect all the bits and pieces or let them sink into the collective liminal zone of human incompleteness. That place where the things we've left undone and unsaid rest and fade, until finally there is a little effervescent poof and all is forgotten or forgiven, and turns out well. Or at least well enough.
My pilot cousin died in a plane crash caused by a co-pilot's error. The NTSB crash investigators said he had about six seconds to gird his loins. He was heard on the flight recorder saying, Lord, you have my soul. His capacity for being present as he faced his ending has remained a source of awe for me. The one time I thought I was about to die I learned that profanity may be the last words to cross my lips. When I didn't die I felt chagrinned that I couldn't offer something more fitting for a final moment. My husband said he might have preferred I love you or even a wry see ya on the flip side, baby. The point is, most of us have no map for when we go. I hope I get myself together between now and my demise so that my own debris field, the detritus of my exquisite existence (laid bare by death) will not mostly end up in the dump. Even if my last words are trash.
My work involves the intimacy of conversing with people about things to do before dying, so I have reason to reflect on bucket lists. My body is a little prison of DNA-induced pain. The cunning spine disease that challenges this existence never lets up. To be honest, the chutzpah it takes to hang on tight in a body this funky needs some badass in the crank case to make it all go zum-zum. Zum or none, if I had a bucket list it would be full of ordinary things, like having both bathrooms clean at the same time. And getting a row of native shrubs planted or new tile installed upstairs. Sure, I'd still like to see the goats that stand in trees in Morocco and a sunset shimmering over the Bosporus at Istanbul. I'd like to eat street food in Jerusalem one more time and pass through the Panama Canal to pay familial respects to my grandfather's sweat in the dirt there. But travel is a torture with bones like mine and my neurosurgeon suggests I avoid atmospheric turbulence for safety's sake. There won't be any exotic destinations or zip line adventures for me to cross off a list or toss into some bucket.
The death walking has been steep lately. Death all day I quip to friends but really its the death all night that gets my attention. I am threading ethical needles and finding the edges of my practice-capacity. If I get up to pee after 3 a.m. my brain may kick in with Concern for Others. Its not the specific number of clients, its the additional people in their care circles. Maybe one or two, perhaps half a dozen, soon its a crowd in my head. And to varying degrees they are all included in the shelter of a doula's wing. Even a client's hospice social worker sometimes needs a reality check (granted, this one was new to hospice and still pretty green - here in the deep end they'll learn fast).
Sitting with a client and their family recently I had a moment of grace and actually kept my mouth shut, letting a silence grow into a comfort. The skill of When To Say Nothing has a longstanding needs improvement score in my regular self assessments. By longstanding I mean since the 6th grade, I've just never quite gotten the knack of when to keep quiet. Because words matter a lot to me, their alchemy and consequence, my January tradition is to choose a mainstay word for the year. The word I chose for this year, written in thick marker on a card taped to the wall above my desk, is STEADY. Being steady sustained that silence into tenderness. My client sighed gently, spoke of dying soon. His words entered the comfort we held together. It became bearable for his family to consider the whole of it.
There is a picture on the wall near this year's steady reminder (above and to the left of a chicken's wishbone draped over a thumbtack, a little witchy, yeah?). The picture is of me, maybe I am sixteen, standing on a beach in Big Sur. I'm wearing a favorite sweater, oversized Irish wool with holes in the elbows. I remember being awed by the sea and how big Big Sur is when you've made your way in, and then down to the Pacific. It was an exquisite joy being in my body that day. When I am dead and gone and this picture floats to the top of the debris field, no one will know it's my 'Rosebud.' An old photo not quite in focus of a woman standing just above where the waves roll in, watching for breaching gray whales out beyond the breaking surf. A photo that represents a state of innocence and not-yet-knowing. A sigh for all the possibility I thought was mine before the genetic disability oven timer went ding ding ding inside my dura mater.
Walking with death, way-finding in grief, navigating the intricacies of living with disability; this is my work. I have no belief in a sweet hereafter that promises relief of earthly suffering or being reunited with my cats. Maybe there is a reincorporation into the hum of the all-one-universe, that would be enough for me. I am reminded of the teaching I picked up along the way, that Om is the sound of the origin of being. A local businessman who died not so long ago left behind an impressive debris field of art supplies, small useful items, colorful socks, and bins of things you might someday need. At the end of his Celebration of Life his family asked that I invite everyone to 'do an Om' because this was the unconventional way he'd brought people into the circle of his care. Who needs a bucket list when you've got buckets of stuff and friends who will lean into the origin of being? I left them then and drove off into a summer rain, thinking out loud, if I ever get my own debris field in check, I'll be on the lookout for that little effervescent poof where all is sorted, gifted, forgiven, and well enough.
photo by Dina Stander 9/2/23