Love’s Guiding Force~

Today is the 21 anniversary of my brother Kysa’s death.  January 26, 1996.  Two decades plus one year.

I sat with him as he transitioned and was with him when he died.  It was the first time I’d ever been with anyone who died and it was a very physical process for him. None of it freaked me out, really, as much as it left me in awe and wonder.  What I was privileged to witness gave me a glimpse into what I believed was a world beyond ours; it was enough to leave me shaken for years as I strove to make sense of it and find a place for it in my life.

In the month before Kysa died, family and friends sent lengths of colorful cloth to wrap him in for cremation.  My brother-in-law made a sturdy and lovely oak body board for him.  We were all very hands on in his last hours, talking to him, moistening his chapped lips with ice cubes, wiping his brow, drumming softly with animal skin drums and fanning him with feathers.

I felt like a cheerleader as he died, quietly encouraging him to relax into what was happening.  Near the very end, as he choked and the death rattle took over, I found myself chanting go Kysa you’re almost there keep going as if I was cheering him to a finish line.  And indeed, that’s how it felt.  It felt like I walked right up to the veil between this world and the next and pulled it back aside and then stepped back, because this was his time, not mine.  And as I gazed upon his quiet body, relaxed against the sheets, I felt, of all things, pride.  Pride in him, that he’d won some invisible marathon and was now beyond the veil, hands triumphantly raised in the air.

We, all of our nearby family, went with him to be cremated.  We held a service over his body on the gurney, tucked flowers into his shroud, murmured blessings, quoted poems, and then stepped outside to give his widow her time with him. 792143_10152488276805441_1728747169_o

It was the most powerful moment of my life.

Until Chuck died.

What we did with Chuck in hospice, how we tended him and loved him, and the way we cared for him as he lay dying, the way we bathed him ourselves, and dressed him, then shrouded him with soft blankets…supported his body as they lifted him to the gurney to take him away, went with him to be cremated, covered him with flowers, tucked notes into his shroud…the Love that guided my finger to press the switch that opened the doors of the crematorium…the grace that held me up as I heard the loud swoosh of the flames…

I knew to do what I did for Chuck because we’d done it for my brother all those many years ago.  Because of Kysa I knew to challenge the narrow parameters of thinking that I might otherwise have had.  Our homage to my brother opened my heart to light and Love.  What I learned at his bedside in 1996 remained in my soul and as I watched my beloved husband die, as I gazed upon his still body after a death that was unbearable to witness, I knew that what I did and how I did it was only about Love, not about fear.  All that determined how I and our daughter and Chuck’s daughter did what we did was the law of Love.  Tending the body of my husband after death couldn’t be left to strangers, as careful as they might be.

In those moments after he died, I remembered Chuck’s words to his doctors after the many surgeries resulting from his first cancer a year and a half earlier.  His left arm and right thigh from knee to hip looked like hamburger from grafting of skin and blood vessels and muscle tissue.  The bandages required twice daily renewal and the dr. wished to set him up with a visiting nurse.  Chuck thanked him and refused, telling him that he was sure they’d do a good job but I would do better because you see, Dr. my wife loves me and that makes all the difference in the world.  Mind you, I’d never done such a thing before and was most definitely not a nurse.  But Chuck was right.  I loved him and it was a service I could do for him. Did for him. With Love. 043

Which is precisely how I felt when he went into hospice in April 2013 and died 3 weeks later.  I looked at the man I loved lying on that bed, his breath forever stilled and knew that no stranger could care for him in the same way I could.  And in my mind I saw him smile at me as I dipped a clean cloth in the warm, soapy water and began washing him, and then dressed him in street clothes again because I knew he hated the hospital gown and, finally, wrapped him in colorful blankets.  A week later I gently pressed the switch to open the doors to admit his body into the flames and turn his beloved body into ash. photo

My brother Kysa in 1996 and what I learned from being with him as he died empowered me to do the same, and more, with my beloved husband Chuck after his death, many years later.

Love gives me the power to do all that needs doing and it opens my heart to possibilities and deeds never imagined.  Love is all that matters.  collage

Bearing Witness moments~

I spoke with our son, Fireman Nick, today.  He called me to tell me about the services he attended today, in Connecticut, for one of the small victims of the Sandy Hook shooting.   It was unbearable, he said.  The casket was just too small, he said.  How does this happen, he said.

I have only been able to gaze at the pictures of these children for short spurts of time.  It’s probably the same for you.  Evil entered that school and gunned down innocents.  You’ve read the stories.  I won’t repeat them.

One of the things my son and I spoke about is how, as his career develops, he will, more than likely, face  similar circumstances.  Maybe not a shooting.  But an accident where a small child has died.  How do you prepare for such a thing?   And what do you do with that kind of experience afterwards?

How many first responders showed up at that school, went in, and found the soul-wrenching carnage?  I hope enough is being done for them, as much as can be done for them.  It will be a life-long process, I have no doubt, dealing with the images seared into their hearts and minds.  These responders, the police, the fire departments, the EMTs, have been attending the funerals as they’ve played out over this last week.  I’ve been thinking of them a lot.

My heart ached for Fireman Nick.  Being a mom, trying to help your child, I don’t care how old they are,  parse through an experience such as this-where do you go with that?  What do you say that really makes a difference, makes it better?  Nothing, really, I think.  I told him that I was glad he went to stand in support of the other responders.  I’m glad he went for that sweet little girl, Ana Grace Marquez-Greene.  There are no words for any of this, we all know that.  Such horror and pain have no words.  So I told him that what was important was that he went, and he bore witness.  Bore witness to the abject sorrow of her parents and brother, her family and friends, her classmates and teachers, her neighbors, her community, the responders who went in, and came out with their hearts shredded, and  he bore witness for us, the larger community around this country.  He stood there, amongst the almost 5000 people, dressed out in his Class A uniform, and paid his respects.

And maybe tonight, I suggested, what he could do to help his own heart, was to light a candle for that little girl, who is now a part of his memory.

Thanks for standing there, Fireman Nick.  20121222_043853_anna-grace-marquez-greene-newtown-shooting-victim


How a Dear Penthouse letter starts, and yet, this isn’t~

Don’t all Penthouse letters start “I can’t believe this really happened to me” or, “I’m not the kind of person who believes in this stuff” (not that I ever read a Penthouse letter, mind you..)

I’m thinking back, 15 years ago, when I sat at my brother Kysa’s bedside, as he was dying, and had my life changed forever.  My own experience mirrors that of many others, I’m sure, but it was something I never thought would happen in my life.  I don’t know that I even knew about such things, though I’m sure somewhere in my reading, I had seen the term near-death experience.

This was the first time, in being with my brother Kysa, I had ever been around anyone so ill, and possibly and probably, dying.  So I went in with a clean slate and no pre-conceived notions.  It was one of those suspended times.  You just kind of go with the flow-or at least that’s what I was doing.  What dying actually consisted of,  all the implications of it…who knew?  There wasn’t even fear going on with me-it was more uncertainty than anything, about how to care for him when I was alone with him, and concern that I wouldn’t do it right, or hurt him unknowingly.

There were so many moments in that last week of Kysa’s life-maybe someday I’ll make it into a book.  And I’m looking back on it now from 15 years (my god, that number is inconceivable to me!).  Now, with all I’ve learned since then, I have much more of a frame of reference…

Kysa was surprisingly alert in that week.  The cancer had taken so much from him, and he was in a hospital bed, and we had hospice in (my first exposure to that wonderful way of life support!)  At times, he would drift in and out, yes, but he was there.
The day prior to Kysa’s  death,  I was busy out in the kitchen.  His house was so very small, and it was just a couple steps around the corner to go into his room, where he had a hospital bed.  I went in to check on him, but stopped short at the door of the bedroom.  Kysa was sitting up in bed, his eyes open and trained intently on the far right corner of his room, not too far from a window.  His gaze was so strong and focused that I had to stop, as I felt like I was intruding-though, why I don’t know, as there was nobody there that I could see.  I said nothing to him, only watched.  For a moment there was a quiet silence, and then Kysa nodded and said quietly “yes.”  Another silence, as if he was listening to someone, and his eyes were still trained on that right corner.  Again, he said “yes”, another moment of nothing, and then he said “thank you”, and that was it.  He lay back and closed his eyes.   I could speculate in so many ways about that, but I chose to let it just be what it was, and so I let it rest now, and you may draw your own conclusions.  Who knows?  Until I put it with what happened the following day…

On the afternoon of the day he died, my sister Catharine came over to sit with Kysa.  His wife, Sarah, was at school (yes, surprisingly, life does continue on).  Catharine was out in the living room, speaking to our brother David, who was in South Africa, updating him as to Kysa’s condition.  I decided to leave her to her phone call, and go sit with Kysa.   Two steps to his bedroom door, and no more than two steps in, and I was stopped short in my tracks.  Kysa was asleep, peacefully, it seemed, with the back of his bed elevated, so he was half-sitting up. (He wouldn’t ever let me lower the bed so that he was lying down).  I wasn’t frightened, just curious, but more than that-is there a word?  Because what I heard was music, as in singing, and it was coming from the same corner of the room that he had been looking at the previous afternoon.  Quiet music.  I stepped further into the room to look for a source.  No radio playing, no music from anywhere in the room.  Look outside the windows.  Nobody walking by with music playing.  Nothing was playing anywhere in the house.  There was no source to be found.  So, I just quietly, so as not to wake him, went and sat next to his bed.  Not seconds later, Catharine came in, and stopped in the exact place I had, and she was clearly listening to something, and looking in the same corner as I had, and that Kysa had been looking towards the day before.  I asked her “Catharine, do you hear anything?”  And she answered “music”.   I told her that I had heard something too, but could find no source for it.  “Its the angels gathering for Kysa”, she finally said, and we let it rest.

Kysa started dying that night. It didn’t start out well-he let out a scream, clutched his head, and stopped breathing.  I was horrified-his eyes were still open.  And, in one of those moments that you just have to laugh (at least afterwards, with time),the one thought going through my head was “I have to get his eyes closed. How do I keep his eyes closed?”, and I put my hand over his eyes, and remembered that (thank goodness that I was an avid history reader!), when Abraham Lincoln died, they had placed gold coins over his eyes to weight them.  And actually cast about in my mind for where I might have some gold coins-

He did start breathing again, and we went on through the night.  He would open his eyes frequently, make a comment to us, or to nobody.  One time he said so clearly “there are so many choices, so many doors.”  My heart was breaking as I watched him, so I kept busy, giving him ice chips, a cold cloth, whatever I could.  It took forever, it took minutes.  He had, up to this point, stubbornly refused to lie down on the bed, but he finally looked at us and said “I’m ready. Help me lie down”.  And so started his dying.  And, at some point I became aware that my “job” now, with him, was to be his cheerleader, to be a witness to what was going on…and I would say to him, “come on, Kysa, just one step further. You’re almost there.  One more step.”  I said everything, I said nothing, and became aware that something was going on, something that was beyond us, something that truly was only Kysa.  This was his-and I was only permitted to go so far with him.  He seemed to be straining towards a place, towards something unseen by others in the room.  

In hindsight, it felt like I was going through a near-death experience, but not my own.  It was as if I went all the way to the edge of the cliff with Kysa, and saw the veil between this world and the next lifted, saw him step through, but had to step back-this was his, not mine.  The most astounding part for me was, when I finally realized he had died, when Sarah and I woke at 3 AM on that morning of the 26,  I felt, not sadness, not pain, but joy such as I had never felt before, triumph for him-he had run a race and he had come in first.  Such joy, such total and complete love as I had never, ever experienced.

My sister Catharine and I washed and dressed him ourselves, our final gift to him.  We laid him on an oak body board that her husband Robert had made for him. We wrapped him in colorful cloth-paisley pattern, solids, brights-friends and family had donated in the months ahead of his death.  On his chest we placed a dream catcher made by our sister, we tucked a self-portrait done by our youngest brother under his arm.  We rested his head upon a crochet quilt, made by our mom.  And we went with him to be cremated.  I was in the first car behind the hearse that would take him to the cemetery, along with my younger brother in the seat beside me.  As we were winding our way up the steep hill leading to the cemetery, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a bird coming right at my car, a bird with a HUGE wing-span.  Except that it was no regular bird.  Holy shit! is all I could think or say-it was an EAGLE, wings spread wide, and it swooped down and passed right in front of my windshield!  What makes this all the more stupefying is that, in the previous week, as I sat with Kysa, I would gaze out his window, to a stand of rocks not too far away, and watch as an eagle would drift high above on the wind currents.  I saw this eagle numerous times, drifting, swaying  on the winds, as Kysa drifted, swaying with the currents of his body…was this the same eagle?

We all went into the huge building that housed the crematoria.  Each person there was invited to step up to him and say whatever they wanted to say, and kiss him goodbye if they so wished.  We piled him with colorful flowers, representing each of his family/friends who weren’t able to be there.  We rang chimes, we read aloud.  It was just impossible for me to walk away from him, but I finally did.  His widow Sarah, wanted to be alone with him as the gurney delivered his body to the flames.  I was walking out with Catharine, and, as I lifted my foot to breach the door sill, I heard a great “whoosh!” sound, and I turned around and looked, and, from the chimney atop the building, saw a puff of white smoke.  Yes, I knew what it was, but, once again, I was taken aback at the feelings that arose in me when I saw it-feelings of joy so strong, so triumphant, that I wanted to leap in the air, and scream “YES!!” as Kysa’s spirit was finally released to the skies above, a clear, bright blue sky on a very cold January day in southwest Colorado.   He had been freed from the body that so constrained him during his illness, and, in that, I could only feel beauty, and, as if life had finally done something right.  It was merely the completion of what had gone on in his room as he was dying.  And it took me many years, and much exploration, before I was able to give words to what that entire experience had been for me, from the time I stepped in his room to see him staring at the far right corner, to the sight of white smoke raising up to the skies, carrying my beloved brother to the next place….

Always loved, never forgotten…

It was the day my spirit opened up, and expanded, and saw life, and beauty, as I’d never seen it before.  My eyes opened,  and I felt, and I saw, and knew,  and my life opened and was never the same…

a sacred moment~

My dear friend Rhoda was buried on Sunday. I attended her funeral, along with some of my angel sisters.  The sun was bright, it was a little crisp temperature-wise, which always, as far as I’m concerned, makes it all a bit more bearable in such circumstances.  Rhoda was Jewish, though non-practicing, and her service followed the beauty of their traditions.  It was closed casket, so I didn’t see “her” until we were at the cemetery.  I stood with the others as the pallbearers lifted her coffin out of the hearse and set it on the gurney.  It was shocking to me, and painful, to see-it was so very small and narrow. Cancer had done its’ worst to her, and the feeding tube wasn’t enough to keep her where she needed to be. There was little left to sustain her, and her poor body and her beleaguered heart, so grieved since her mom’s death, just decided enough was enough.

The Rabbi said a prayer as we all stood there, and then we were invited to follow behind her coffin as we made our way to her burial site.  There was the deep hole for her coffin, with the pile of dirt beside it, and numerous shovels.  I took note of them but didn’t realize what they were for until later.  Prayers were said, her coffin was lowered, and then, some of the mourners stepped up and started picking up the larger rocks, and dropping them carefully into the grave alongside her coffin.  Shovels were lifted, dug into the pile, and then dropped over the grave.  It took my friend Alisa stepping up to me to explain to me that, in the Jewish tradition,  family/friends take turns shoveling the dirt over the coffin. It is our final gift to the one we love, that we perform this last service, rather than strangers.  I could do that.  It made me think back to my brother Kysa, when he died, and we went with him to be cremated.  So I stepped up and took a shovel in hand, and, as I went to work, I spoke my farewells to Rhoda.  I had been so fortunate to call on the previous Thursday, and her most wonderful friend, Alan, answered, and after we spoke, he put the phone to Rhoda’s ear, and, though she was already unresponsive, I know she heard me speak my love to her, say goodbye and wish her godspeed.  So, as I shoveled, I whispered a prayer to her, then stepped aside for another to take the shovel.  When the services were over, I asked for my angel sisters to stand in a circle, along with her two friends who took such care of her, Alan and Cathy, and  we put our hands on top of one another’s, and thanked her for being a part of our lives, and prayed that she would always walk in beauty and love (which I am so sure she is doing now).

Rest in peace, dearest Rhoda, and dance among the clouds…