"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Monday, May 18, 2020

Toby's Last Morning

When I got up Saturday morning, Toby was lying against the wall in the dining room, as I’ve often found him these last weeks. Neither of us had gotten much sleep the night before as he moved around trying to get comfortable and as his breathing sounds shifted. He opened his eyes to look at me, but there was no flop of his tail or lift of his head. I bent down to pet him and to clean up the leakage that had accumulated under his muzzle. Compassionate Care was scheduled to arrive sometime between 8 and 10, although we’d been told it would be closer to 8. I went about my morning routine, feeding the cats, emptying the dishwasher, sitting with my coffee and the NY Times puzzles, pushing away doubts. Toby didn’t move any of the many times I stopped to talk to him and pet him.

For days I had been agonizing whether it was finally time to release Toby from the last several months of struggle with cancer. He was still eating and drinking, and peeing and pooping. He ate regularly, sometimes with remnants of his usual enthusiasm. Granted we were feeding him by hand, and just days before had to resort to hiding his twice-daily pill in cheese to get him to take it. But he loved his chicken and his dog cookies and seemed thrilled with the addition of cheese to his diet. 

Just a week earlier he came out to the front yard while I worked in my flowerbed. At one point he plopped himself down in the middle of the flowers and I didn’t have the heart to make him move. A neighbor came up our driveway to chat, and Toby leapt up and ran barking at him, tail wagging the whole way. The run was wonky and the barking was hoarse, but the greeting was clear. 

A day or two after that Toby’s face swelled up to the point he couldn’t see out of one eye. His breathing grew more labored and much louder. He was restless at night, and had a hard time getting comfortable. He had had spells previously, but seemed always to recover after a couple of days. So three days became my standard. If he didn’t get better after three days, I would consider that it might be time. 

He didn’t get better, although the swelling went down after it burst open under his eye. His breathing was liquid and glurpy and he was lethargic. He’d eat, but the inside of his mouth bled after every meal. He’d get up only if I nudged him. Walt and Toby had been going for evening strolls around the yard, and now he got outside the gate and stopped, wanting to go back before they’d even got to the front yard. 

I couldn’t remember the last uninterrupted night’s sleep I’d had, and my daytime hours were now spent managing the leakage from his face, getting him to eat, and trying to get him moving. Somewhere in my determination to not end his life too soon, I’d forgotten that joy was one of the criteria for whether to continue on. And none of us were feeling joy in Toby’s life any more, most especially Toby. 

So the call was made, and the appointment set, and I started Saturday knowing we had only hours left together. 

I decided to see if he would go outside with me one last time before the vet arrived. His absolute favorite thing in the world had always been being outside with his humans. Whether it was walking or fetching or simply lying at our feet, he lived for the hours we spent together under the sky.

After a little nudge, he pulled himself to his feet and went out with me easily. He headed for the grass and peed, then over to the birdbath to drink, all part of his usual morning routine. I stood on the patio talking to him as he wandered a bit in the gentle rain, sniffing the grass. The next thing I knew, he was doing his best version of running to the back fence, barking, his once deep voice now a raspy seal croak. He had spotted the deer on the other side, and as he had done his whole life, gave chase. He then pooped and came back to me on the patio. Instead of heading to the door, however, he moved to the gate, looking back at me expectantly.

This is the gate from which all of our walks began, from which he would be invited to join me working in the front yard, at which he always greeted us when we came home from time away. It was raining and I was barefoot and I knew he wouldn’t be able to go far, but I opened the gate anyway. We walked out together. We didn’t get more than a few yards from the gate before he stopped. It made me think of the very last time we headed out to do our daily walk so many weeks before, when he stopped and leaned against me. His body was no longer able to carry his spirit where it longed to go. 

We turned around and went back into the house. We stopped in the kitchen where I offered him some chicken, which he ate carefully, and some cheese, which he consumed eagerly. I fed him until he turned away. Then I walked him into the living room where his bed has been for months. I had pulled it into the middle of the floor and covered it with his favorite blanket. He plopped down, clearly tired from our outside adventure. I sat with him and petted him and talked to him. Walt joined us. A little before 8, a car pulled into the driveway. 

Dr. Beth, as she introduced herself, was calm and kind and gentle from the beginning. When she first came in she asked if Toby was snarling. For a second I wondered why she thought that, and then I realized his breathing was that loud. When I reassured her that we’d never heard Toby snarl, that it was his breathing, she came and knelt in front of him. I was at his head. Walt was behind him. She asked questions and filled out paperwork and petted Toby when he lifted his head toward her as greeting.

She explained the entire process while preparing, and again as she carried it out, petting Toby the whole time. At one point I heard her humming what sounded like a lullaby. Toby was calm and completely relaxed into the love that Walt and I were pouring over him. The only time he showed any reaction at all, and that was just a raised head, was when she swabbed the newly shaved spot on his hind leg with alcohol. 

Bunkie, the older of our two cats and the one who often sat in doorways for the express purpose of keeping Toby from going through, was with us through it all. He kept going between me and Toby, stopping for pets, and then gave the vet’s equipment and coat a thorough inspection. In the last minutes of Toby’s life, as we talked him over to the other side, Bunkie sat at the edge of the blanket and kneaded a steady beat until it was over. 

Mimsy, the cat who adored Toby and who often curled up against his belly, didn’t come out at all. When Toby’s great heart finally stilled and Dr. Beth went out to her car to get the stretcher, I went looking for Mimsy. I brought her out and set her on the floor next to Toby. She sniffed and walked away. However, when the vet came back in and knelt again in front of Toby with the stretcher to prepare him to go, Mimsy came back in the room. She marched up to Toby’s back feet and rubbed her face and body against them like she had rubbed against his legs so many times before.

The three humans enshrouded Toby and then carried him out to the vet’s car. She drove him away to be cremated and returned to us so we can return him to the ground of the place that became a sanctuary because of his presence. There will be a dogwood tree to shade and bloom over him in the years to come.

Dr. Beth was gone by 9. Walt and I went back into a deeply quiet house to begin the long journey of learning to live without our boy. My heart is broken, but it is a larger and softer heart with a much greater capacity for love than it was before Toby. Recalling the gift of Toby’s life and the gift of his dying in the time ahead will help weave the pieces back together into a heart that reflects the greatness of his own. 

Monday, February 24, 2020

The Gift of a Long Goodbye

It’s a dark wet February morning. I’m the only one awake. Toby, in what has become a new normal, came into the bedroom at 3:00 a.m. and woke me up.  In this new routine I pet him and talk to him and try to convince him to lie back down, but he isn’t having it. He needs to go out. Exhausted as I am, I soak up the warmth of his coat, the sweetness of his face, the special toasty smell that has always been his. I get up and let him out, feed him, let him back in. He goes back to sleep, along with the cats. I am wide awake. 

As I have so many times this winter, I consciously accept the gift of his presence and of this early morning time with him. 

At the end of November, just a month after he turned 12, Toby sneezed himself into a nosebleed. A week later we knew for certain he had a mass in his nasal cavity that was cancerous. After a lot of research and a long conversation with our vet, we decided not to pursue treatment, but instead to take him home and enjoy our remaining time together. Three months was the number I found: the time after diagnosis without treatment that we might expect to have with him. 

We cancelled the February trip to Hawaii with friends that we’d been planning for two years. I gave up tentative March plans, unwilling to commit to an assumption that he might be gone by then. For a while after the diagnosis, I cancelled a number of outings because I needed time and space to absorb this new reality of our lives. 

An accounting of sorts began the day we heard the news – a daily quality of life inventory. We knew that at some point the balance would tip and we would be making the decision to end Toby’s suffering. Our vet agreed to come to us when that day arrives, and the relief of that has helped make this journey more bearable. The question of how we will know when that day arrives is how I start every day now. It’s a terrible question to face. The weight of it threatens to crush. But I refuse that. So that our remaining time can be as joyful as possible, I cannot dwell in the darkness. So far no day has been that day. Today is not that day. And I am trusting that Toby will let me know when that day finally does arrive. 

What Toby could do in December far outweighed what he couldn’t. His symptoms, mostly sneezing that resulted in sprays of blood or drops on the carpet as he slept, were spaced so that we could go fairly long stretches without focusing on his illness. There were days when I could almost forget the diagnosis, and when I could almost believe Toby might live forever. Cleaning up after him felt purposeful and meaningful, like I was somehow in control. Every successful walk and meal eaten felt like a small battle won.

Slowly, inexorably, the disease consumes more and more of our old life. If this is a war, I won't win. The only control I really have is how I choose to walk this path. 

On what turned out to be my final walk with Toby a week ago, he stopped more than a dozen times and leaned on me to rest and be reassured. He refused to turn back then, but didn’t protest when we cut the walk in half. Often now when he hears the telltale sounds of me getting ready to walk, he doesn’t move from the floor. When he came with me eagerly to start our walk a few days ago, he stopped on the road and leaned on me before we’d even gotten out of sight of home. We turned back and he trotted  a few steps toward the house.

Sometime in January he stopped eating the kibble that he’d inhaled for his whole life. I bought canned food to add to the kibble and that got him cleaning his dish again for a bit. When that stopped working, I added chicken to the mix, and the bowl would be cupboard clean in a matter of minutes. Now it takes him all day to finish breakfast, and he usually finishes dinner just before bedtime. Even with the extra food and lack of movement, he’s losing weight.

He only goes upstairs now if we’re both up there with him. He has slept in his bed at the top of the stairs for most of his life.  With his failing eyesight and balance, he fell coming downstairs a couple of times early on. So I started escorting him up and down. I would go upstairs when I got up in the morning to bring him down to start the day. Now he sleeps at the foot of the stairs, and his bed is in the living room.

With every new loss, we regroup and adjust and keep going. 

The daily quality of life inventory has turned out to be an amazing teacher. I am a planner and an organizer. I like knowing what’s coming. And while I do know the end of this story, I don’t know the path or the timing that will get us there. This time demands being fully in the moment.  Looking backward at what no longer is, or forward at what is inevitable, are equally painful. Now is the only bearable place. Opportunities to choose gratitude and seek joy are boundless, and it’s up to me to find them. 

I look for evidence of joy in Toby’s life. It’s all little things now: a wagging tail, a meal consumed with gusto, a walk around the yard. His head rested against my lap so I can pet him. His eyes lighting up at the prospect of a treat. He’s not in pain, his breathing is still open enough, and he greets me happily when I’ve been away for a bit. 

Because I want him to feel loved and not upset, I’m choosing to be upbeat with him as much as I can. I laugh at his sneezes, hug him when he has a hard time standing up, talk to him endlessly. He gets treats often, and for no other reason than being so damned cute. Every time I walk past him lying in the hall I reach down to pet him, the contact as much for me as it is for him. There will be abundant time later to be carried on the currents of sadness that are there just below the surface. 

As hard as this time is, I am truly grateful for our long goodbye. Every day I am reminded what a magnificent companion he’s been. Our long decade together has been the best time of my life, in large part because of our relationship and the inspiration of his spirit. He has taught me lessons in loving and living, and finally dying - all done with a particular grace only dogs seem to possess. Now I get to give him the ending his life deserves, and while my heart aches, it also swells with love.  

The eastern sky is beginning to brighten. It is perfectly still outside. I hear Toby snoring in the other room. I breathe this moment in with gratitude. 

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Toby Turns Twelve

It’s a perfect fall afternoon. The time of year when Toby blends into the big leaf maple leaves and fallen fir needles covering the path. The time of year when sloshing through those leaves ignites inner children who delight in both the sound and the fragrance. The sun shines sideways into our faces, and the breezes bring leaves dancing around us. We’ve been doing this walk together, Toby and I, for going on twelve years. 

I stop while Toby sniffs at coyote scat on the ground, and absorb the moment. I feel deep gratitude for all of this: Toby, the wild blue air, the gentle warmth of a soft autumn sun, the flicker calling in the distance. And the fragrance that is both death: the leaves and needles beneath my feet; and life: the moist earth already holding next season’s possibilities. I breathe it all in. I embed it in my heart, knowing I will need to draw on its beauty and truth sometime in the fairly near future. 

Toby is turning 12, and the opportunities for days like this are dwindling.

When we first came down to this wild area, Toby was still a puppy. I brought him to the river so he could swim for the first time. It was early spring and the river was in flood. He took to the water like the retriever he is, bounding in and out of the river’s edge. At some point he went a bit too far out, ignoring my calls, and the current caught him. I watched him paddle hard toward the bank as I ran to catch him, terrified I’d lose him. He reached shore, fairly unruffled, and we headed back home. That moment would be a hallmark of our relationship. Toby has an independent streak that will not bend to demands, but he will always honor our connection, just not always as quickly as I’d like. 

Because our walk route is a campground and mostly undeveloped, I could allow him to roam free. In the early days I called him back repeatedly, just to make sure I didn’t lose him. Over time we developed a rhythm. He would run ahead, or off to the side, exploring, sniffing, chasing. If I was out of sight for too long, he’d come back looking for me. A few times I called him back and had to wait an uncomfortably long time before he returned. But he always did, and so I would often become so absorbed in my own walk experience I would lose track of him without worry.

We always ended up at the river. A beach that’s private property, but almost always empty. In the early years he would swim for sticks endlessly, ready to rush back into the water the minute a stick had been retrieved. He dove for rocks, digging in the water to find the perfect one, then submerging his head completely to bring it up and carry it to shore. I stood in the shade of a huge big leaf maple reveling in his exuberance, and absorbing his joy.

He chased everything: robins, rabbits, shadows. Deer were his favorite, although once they spotted Toby, all that was left for him to chase was a lingering scent. Owls would lift off in front of him and he’d take off barking, running circles certain he’d find one until something else caught his attention. Our route is a two-mile loop that he did twice or three times that distance in his pell-mell joy-filled chases. 

There were a number of coyote encounters. One season it was an older male that was claiming territory. Toby chased him a couple of times, until I started keeping him close as we passed through that part of the camp. We eventually changed our route completely in the early summers when it became clear that year’s pups were out and the mom was on patrol. Much of Toby’s marking on our walk involves him reclaiming coyote territory for himself.

We walk year around, and every season brings its own gifts. The river has been a constant and ever-changing companion. 

Winter is high water and bare branches, kinglets peeping invisibly in the trees, winter wrens singing their tiny hearts out along the trail. Spring is flooding, cottonwood greens so vivid they vibrate, the shell of a robin’s egg found on the path. Summer is a singing river, the water low enough to dance over the rocks, an abundance of flowers and berries and greens of every shade, an abundance of bird life: owls, towhees, kingfishers, dippers, mergansers. 

Fall, my favorite season, and Toby’s birth season, is low water and salmon spawning, then high water from the seasonal rains. Storybook blue skies against evergreen greens, vine maple reds, big leaf maple yellows, and diamond studded spider webs festooning everything. Mushrooms of every size and shape, often with tiny tooth marks at the edges. My eagle sitting in the snag across the river, or lifting off from the bank where he’s been dining on salmon. 

Being witness to these seasonal gifts is possible because of Toby, and made so much richer in his company. 

We are both in the autumn of our lives, although he will reach winter far sooner than I. At 12, he is 84 in people years. For a while earlier this year I grieved the dog he’s left behind. The one with endless energy and able body and sharp eyesight. The dog who insisted on a ball being thrown so he could fly to catch it and bring it back to be thrown again. All joy and play and exuberant life. 

I have learned to love and treasure the old dog he’s become. I’ve never had an old dog before, so never experienced the losses and gifts that come with this territory. 

His face is almost completely white. His body is covered with lipomas. His back legs are weaker and joints are stiffer, so sometimes he’s unsteady. Chases last a few yards now. Ball throwing is a happy memory – when I threw the ball while working in the yard a few days ago, he didn’t even look at it. He barks more because he can’t see who’s at the door, or in the driveway. Sometimes he just seems confused. 

He’s also so much sweeter, leaning his head into my lap for comfort and ear scratches often. He still dances for his dinner, and begs for treats. He still plays with his toys, but for much shorter stretches. He doesn’t like it when one of us is gone, preferring to have both members of his pack with him at all times. He still gets excited when I get ready to walk. 

The change in our walks has been the hardest for me to adjust to, and amazingly, one of the biggest gifts of my life right now. 

We used to do the two-mile loop every day, be home in 30 minutes, and he’d want to stay outside and play. The weather had no impact on his desire to walk, or his joy in the time outside. I walked a brisk pace to keep up with him, pausing at the river while he swam for sticks, or to watch the deer and owls he flushed, but otherwise taking in my surroundings with a quick eye. Often a good portion of the walk would pass with me in my head processing problems. It never felt like I was missing anything. It actually felt like those walks were the best of everything: time with a joy-filled pup, immersed in an ever-changing canvas of life, moving in harmony with my body and my surroundings. 

Now I never know what to expect. We don’t walk every day because he needs time to recover. Some walks are short because he’s plodding along, clearly not enjoying the experience. Sometimes, coming up the hill from the camp, he’ll stop and lean on me for a few minutes of petting and comfort before moving on. For a while this summer our walks were so short I thought we might be nearing the end of them. I took him to our spot on the river one day and he went in, but I had to help him out over the rocks, holding up his hips so he could regain his footing. I was sure we were done with the river. 

But then autumn arrived, and he seemed to come to life in a way I haven’t seen for months. He started trotting more, heading down parts of the trail we hadn’t done for a while. He led me to the river, walked into it, swam around, got a rock, and headed back up the trail – all without a hitch. He’s chased the owl, and deer, although the pursuit is much shorter. 

He’s never out of my sight on our walks now. I follow him, and talk to him fairly constantly to let him know I’m there. He will stop and look for me if he can’t hear me. What was once a brisk stride is now a slow stroll. At first I resisted the change of pace. Slow felt foreign and uncomfortable, and left me with no way not to see Toby aging before my eyes.  That started to shift the day he went back into the river. I realized that I don’t know how much time he has left. I don’t know from one day to the next how he’ll be. What I do know is that every day with him going forward is an extraordinary gift. 

And so our walks have become long slow rambles of gratitude and absorbing the changes of the seasons more completely. While I stand and wait for him to sniff some new treasure I feel the sun on my face, and hear my eagle call in the sky, and see one single golden leaf spiraling down. I breathe deeply, and marvel at the glory that is Toby, my constant companion for the last twelve years. My teacher. My playmate. My comfort. My guide into old age. 

Happy Birthday, sweet boy. Your yearly ice cream treat awaits. Your humans love you as completely as human hearts can, but don’t come close to the love we receive from you. 

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Grief Lessons

It’s been a year since Mark died. Before his death I would have said I knew grief, knew how to grieve, knew what lay ahead. I would even have said, I think I did say, you can never truly prepare for a grieving time. But, despite previous experiences with grief, and the surprises it brings, I was completely unprepared for the deep muck of this last year.

Mark died on May 27. I left for Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago a little more than a month later. In that time between, the grief I could feel took the form of gratitude that he was no longer suffering, and a renewed closeness with my two remaining brothers as we moved forward into a world without our middle brother. My anticipation of the pilgrimage in front of me, and the shock that carries us through the early days of loss, kept the hard work of grief at bay. I also believed I had done a large part of the grieving in the two years I watched Parkinson’s Disease and Fronto-temporal Dementia steal my brother away bit by bit. I expected I might do what was left of that work on the Camino during the long hours of walking alone. 

The Camino, however, had other plans for me. What I felt more than anything else as I walked those miles was joy and a sense of aliveness and a complete occupation of my whole self. Or I was tired beyond thinking and road weary and hot. There was no space for grief.

Twice on the Camino I felt Mark’s presence as though he was walking with me. Both times I felt that magical combination of sadness and joy that is the knowing of loss ameliorated by the grace of a spiritual gift.

The first time was fairly early in the walk. I was alone, crossing a field, headed to a bright yellow arrow painted on a fence post. Hanging from the post, laminated and attached with a zip tie was this sign: 

So how long does a man live, finally?
And how much does he live while he lives?
We fret, and ask so many questions –
Then when it comes to us
The answer if so simple after all

A man lives as long as we carry him inside us,
For as long as we carry the harvest of his dreams
For as long as we ourselves live,
Holding memories in common, a man lives

B.G.C. 1930-2017

I read it several times, took pictures of it, read it again, and moved forward with tears brimming. That afternoon I texted the picture to my brothers, hoping they might find comfort there as I had. 

The second time Mark joined my Camino was four weeks into my six-week pilgrimage. I had been walking with a couple and a single woman for a couple of weeks. We were in the last village before O’Cebreiro, the last big climb of the walk. I had been nervous about this climb for months, and although I had managed every challenge of the Camino so far, I was still concerned. Our albergue was right next to a small church at which there was to be a pilgrims’ mass that night. My walking companions retired early, so I found myself sitting in a pew next to several younger pilgrims whose English was limited. I watched the priest arrive – a young man with dark unruly curls, smiling and radiating joyful energy as he set up for the mass. I smiled as he got out his phone and set it on the altar next to the traditional paraphernalia. As had been my experience previously, most of the mass was in Spanish, and a small part was in English. The phone, it turns out, was for music. Which the priest played between each part of the mass. 

So I sat in the semi-dark of a very small church, surrounded by pilgrims and the local women who seemed to find their way to every pilgrims’ mass and the fragrance of candle smoke and ancient stone. I was relaxed, delighted, completely present in that time and space. The next song on the priest’s play list was Silent Night. It took a minute to register that that was what I heard, and when it did, the tears came. I was right back to the last time I’d sat in church with Mark, at a Christmas Eve service. It was our last Christmas Eve service and our next to last Christmas. We sang Silent Night at the end of the service in a room full of the stars of lit candles held aloft, as we had for several years in a row. 

After the song finished in the small church, the priest switched to English, addressing the pilgrims seated in front of him. I was having a hard time focusing on his words, until I heard him say that our prayers went with the pilgrims who walked into eternity. 

At the end of mass, the pilgrims were called up to the altar to receive a blessing from the priest. In Spanish, and then English, he explained that our blessing would be in the form of a small stone with a yellow arrow painted on it. A reminder to carry with us that the arrow shows the way and the way is love. 

That mass, and Mark’s clear presence at it, was a comfort. It carried me up O’Cebreiro the next morning, and I carried it in my heart for the rest of the walk.

When I returned home mid-August, I expected to bring the light and joy and heightened awareness of the preciousness of life with me. I expected to continue my pilgrimage in the day to day, as the person I came to know and love on the Camino. If I considered it at all, I expected the worst of my grieving of Mark was done, and that I was ready to move forward.

That was not how it unfolded.

The first couple of weeks were fine as I enjoyed home and the luxuries of modern life, as I floated on the memories of the most impactful experience of my life. As the shine wore off, however, and despite the beauty of my favorite season settling around me, I found myself unsettled and out of kilter. The bright colors of fall didn’t touch me. The home I love with its bright new kitchen and lovely yard failed to move me. The usual comforts of pets and the love of friends and family barely penetrated a heart that just a short while before had been so responsive. I longed to be back on the Camino. I continued my practices of self-care: intentional gratitude, walking, yoga, journaling. But none of them touched the darkness that grew deeper with every day. 

It was a long hard winter, both inside and out. But it was also a winter during which everything seemed fine on the outside. There was no big crisis. My life overflowed with an abundance of love, and every need and most wants were fulfilled. I grew closer still to my two remaining brothers. I found ways to enjoy my newly retired husband, although I longed for the return of days of solitude.  I saw friends. I traveled a bit. I even had the opportunity to coach a family preparing to walk the Camino this summer, which let me relive my time there and created a new and much treasured friendship.

I felt wrapped in a cocoon of wet cardboard. Nothing really got in. At least not in the way it had before the Camino, before Mark’s death. Had I failed as a pilgrim? Spent all those weeks walking and so fully alive, only to come home less than I was before I went? Had I failed as Mark’s sister, unable to cry for him, or feel anything much at all about his loss? Had I lost all my healing, all the work of the previous years, only to be this tired, sad, unmotivated old woman?

Of course it’s not that simple.

 As each of those questions presented itself, I found my way to a negative answer eventually. That didn’t make me feel better. If anything I was more confused. Always before when I found myself in a spiritual wilderness, I worked my way out of it through reflection and study. New insights brought new light and a new level of healing. I had never before felt like I was working harder and losing ground faster.

As spring arrived, I began to emerge from the muck into the new light. Nothing had changed except the passage of time and the arrival of a new season. I began to feel stirrings of joy again: at the first robin song of pre-dawn, at a walk in balmy air and sunshine, at little spontaneous connections with people. Gratitude developed dimension again, growing from two-dimensional words on a page to magical multi-dimensional light.

One of the images gifted to me in the winter was that of the lotus flower. It starts in muck – slimy, thick and dark. It emerges from the muck, growing through water, emerging into the light as a singularly beautiful blossom with a very short life. The metaphors here are multitude, but the one that seems to speak most clearly to me is this: That lotus’ roots are still in the muck, and it could not live without it. 

Always before when I came from darkness into light, aside from believing I’d brought myself there, I believed I’d left the darkness behind. That isn’t the case this time. Mark is still gone. My Camino still continues beyond what I asked or hoped and far beyond any previous spiritual experience I’ve had. I’m aging, as are my husband and my dog. The world is a terrifying place full of death and disaster too overwhelming to absorb. 

And yet:

Last week, just days before the one year anniversary of Mark’s death, the three remaining siblings took him home. We had talked at length about what to do with Mark’s ashes, and in a rare occasion of easy agreement decided our childhood playground was the perfect place. The playground is a mountain, specifically the Third Cliff, as we have always called it. I joked about throwing Mark off the cliff, a tribute to childhood times when perhaps we all considered doing that with each other.

The trail to the cliff was obscured by housing development and overgrowth of brush, but we found a way up on a rough cat road. Straight up, and then bushwhacked across, until we found ourselves looking down on our childhood home from the Third Cliff. Younger brother led, carrying Mark in a backpack, his ashes surprisingly heavy. Older brother took the middle position, and I followed.  Emotions filled the air like the cottonwood fluff of our childhood. We were all near tears, and when we reached the top, no one seemed to know what to do. I think we were all reluctant to release Mark. So I started, was given permission to go first as the oldest. We each tossed a cupful of Mark into the air, each offering our own prayers and words of love as he flew. We laughed and hooted and hollered, at ashes blowing back on us, at the relief of saying goodbye, at the joy of each other’s company. 

It was a gift of a day. The weather could not have been more perfect. Mark was there with us, laughing and delighted that we were together and connected. In the last years of his life, his biggest mission was to bring his fractured family back together. We gathered, and buried hatchets, and allowed our love for each other to surface for Mark. On the mountain that day we were a family and love won.

There were several times during the day with my brothers that I became aware that I was happy. Simply and perfectly. As I followed them up the mountain, as we carved Mark’s name into an ancient Ponderosa Pine that had watched over us as children, as we wandered the property that had been our childhood home – I felt lighter and more alive and more of the self I was born to be than ever before. 

Spring is warming into summer. The world is every shade of green, vibrating with birdsong, filling with colors almost too vivid to be real as flowers bloom everywhere. I feel it and my heart, still broken and still heavy, sings along with the birds. I brought what remains of Mark’s ashes home with me. Some will be planted in my flowerbed with a yellow rose that bloomed every summer of our childhood outside one of the barns. Younger brother and I dug several starts before we headed home from our mountain adventure. As we’ve returned Mark to the earth and the air, it helps me remember that I exist in both as well. Firmly grounded in the fertile dark muck of all loss and pain, reaching into the air for the light of love.

Saturday, June 30, 2018


Love gifts for my Way

After two years of dreaming and planning and studying, I leave tomorrow for Spain. When Patricia first mentioned the Camino de Santiago in a conversation over coffee all those months ago, I'd never heard of it. By the time she was done explaining that The Way of Saint James is an ancient 500 mile pilgrimage route across the north of Spain, I was hooked. When she suggested I join her, I said yes without hesitation.

When I said yes, I didn't really believe either of us would actually get ourselves on the Way. I will never say no to an invitation to adventure, figuring I can work out the details later, knowing that more often than not things fall through. Patricia has kids at home and has never left them before, and I didn't think she could.

At first I was going along just to hang out with Patricia. However, as I read and studied I realized the Camino was beckoning me. Anecdotes would brings tears to my eyes. Pictures would tug at me like silver threads pulling me toward a light my soul couldn't live without. The movie The Way, which I'd somehow missed previously, made me want to get on a plane, get to Spain, and start walking that minute.

Telling Walt was the first hurdle toward making the walk a reality.

I would be gone for 45 days, almost the entire first summer of his retirement. He would be home taking care of critters and yard alone. We were struggling with the transitions created by aging and retirement. I was already leaving for the Canyon for another rafting trip in April. We had a big remodel project planned for early spring. My brother was ill and declining rapidly. Walt's dad was failing. In the face of all of that, he promised his support. And he's kept that promise. He's encouraged me without reservation. He's helped with travel plans, and technology issues. He's sending me off with gifts that will remind me every step of the way that I am loved.

We bought our plane tickets early January this year. From that point forward, everything in life was filtered through the impending pilgrimage. I got serious about getting in shape with long walks, hikes, and yoga. I read books and articles and forums. Patricia and I had long conversations. I told friends, who more often than not looked at me like I'd lost my mind. My enthusiasm eventually won them over, or they were at least kind enough to allow me the dream regardless of their belief that no sane 66 year old woman would walk 500 miles willingly. Even my hip doctor, when I went to get permission to put those miles on my replacement joint, said yes you can, but why would you want to?

Why indeed.

The truth is there is no simple answer. My first answer was that it was an adventure. Later I said I wanted to come back with a plan for how I'll spend the last third of my life. Sometimes I would say I was seeking a connection with the spiritual energy that is a huge part of the Camino. More recently I've said I'm looking forward to enjoying the company of my own inner self with no distraction. I'm looking forward to testing my limits. I'm looking forward to meeting people from all over the world. I'm looking forward to the freedom of simply walking every day, with no obligation beyond self care.

A lot has happened in my life since Patricia first mentioned the Camino. Events that provided opportunities to grow and grieve and expand my heart. It's as if my Camino began the minute I said yes.

Around the time of our Camino beginnings, my brother Mark became seriously ill. He'd been sick for a long time, but none of us knew that until things reached a tipping point where his symptoms could no longer be easily explained away. In the course of these last two years he went from living independently in a sweet little house, to assisted living, to a locked memory care facility, to the hospital, to a nursing home. Visiting him became a cornerstone of my weeks, so I was with him as he declined with a speed that shocked us all. I considered delaying the pilgrimage for him, but the timing seemed out of my control. As it turned out, there was no need. Mark died on May 27 with his siblings by his side.

This week, as I've walked Toby and enjoyed my morning coffee ritual and visited with Walt at the end of the day, I've held the moments as treasured gifts I'm offering to release as the price for this pilgrimage. The comforts of my own bed and newly-remodeled bathroom. The joys of familiar birdsong and flower beds exploding in fireworks displays of color. My beautiful new kitchen. My friends and family. The comforting routines of a retired life. All being left behind so that I can experience something new and sacred and life-changing.

My pack is packed, and within a reasonable weight limit. Patricia and I have been firing texts and pictures back and forth for days now. We are as ready as we're going to be. We'll meet at the airport in the morning, say goodbye for a while to lives and people we love, and fly away to follow the Way of Saint James to wherever it leads us.

You are invited to come along this summer as both Patricia and I will be posting on Facebook from time to time.

Thursday, August 17, 2017


Thirty years ago yesterday, I walked trembling down an aisle and met this man at the end. We made promises to each other without really understanding where those promises might take us. In the time since I have both regretted and rejoiced in my commitment to a life with Walt, as I know he has. Regardless, we have stuck together. We created a life.

In thirty years we've loved three golden retrievers, twenty-six cats, two homes, hundreds of children. We've travelled thousands of miles in three different Hondas. We've planted dozens of trees together. We've hiked hundreds of miles on trails that took our breath away and took us to heights that made us certain of love and a higher power. There have been laugher and tears. There have been silences, some comfortable, some icy and painful. We've sat in the dark of movie theaters holding hands. We have said I love you and hugged good morning and good night every day. We've held each other through losses that felt unbearable, but which we bore together.

Our anniversary celebration included a rafting trip, and a mini road trip that took us through a bison range, a ghost town, a national park, and up a mountain on a chair lift. We hiked down that mountain together, enjoying the sunshine, the huckleberries, and the ability of our aging bodies to still move with some agility. We navigated the time and the miles together, occasionally getting lost or turned around, but always ending up somewhere interesting. We planned and changed plans, negotiated and renegotiated. We problem solved and focused on the adventure rather than the inconvenience. In so many ways, the two weeks held the elements that define of our thirty years of marriage.

In those times when I was sure I'd made a huge mistake walking down that aisle, I stayed because being with Walt has allowed me to become the best possible version of myself. His steady and unwavering love has provided the ground from which I've blossomed. I've learned to love from him.

During this most recent trip, I came across a quote that illustrates almost exactly what our marriage has become. The words of Rainer Maria Rilke both validate what is past and provide a map for the years ahead of us:

"The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky."

In the years that remain to us, as we learn to become old in the most alive way possible, the journey will be richer and fuller because we travel through an immense space of sky together.

Monday, April 10, 2017


My brother, Mark, turned 61 on April 6. He is the middle child in our family constellation. I am the oldest, only girl, and do not share a father with the three boys who followed. There is a brother between me and Mark, and one younger than Mark.

A year ago, when he turned 60, he flew to Palm Springs alone to celebrate that landmark birthday with his older brother and sister-in-law. A few days after, a group of us, including younger brother and spouses, went to iFly at Southcenter in Tukwila where Mark entered the wind tunnel and flew. He'd been recently diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. It showed in his stiffness, lack of emotional response to the celebrating, and tremoring in his right hand. But we were hopeful then, his siblings and his friends. Parkinson's is very treatable in many cases. There are medications and surgeries. Stories abounded of people who lived long and satisfying lives after diagnosis.

We rallied: work parties at his house to clean and do yard work; family meetings to discuss next steps; systems put in place to make sure he had the support he needed to live as independently as possible for as long as possible.

Mark continued to fail. Bills went unpaid. His antique business, which he'd poured heart and soul into, languished. He beloved Maltese puppy Max went untrained, so that the carpet Mark had so proudly purchased for his house became soaked with pee. Worse, he grew more and more quiet. He smiled rarely. He seemed to be completely disconnected from any of those new realities. When asked what was going on, he couldn't answer. "I don't know," was his most common response to any questions.

Doctor visits focused on the Parkinson's symptoms. Questions about  Mark's other symptoms went unanswered. Different medications were tried, including antidepressants. Except Mark wasn't depressed. He felt nothing.

In concerned conversations out of his hearing, his siblings acknowledged how much like our mother he was becoming. The mother who spent the last five or so years of her life lost in the swirling mists of dementia. Deeper research into Parkinson's revealed a cognitive component that is rarely discussed, one that might explain Mark's confusions.

By the end of that summer, it was clear to all of us, including Mark, that he could no longer manage day to day living on his own. He turned his affairs over to older brother, who stepped into the role like he was born for it. Mark was moved into an assisted living facility in September. His new place was close to his church and the house he'd just moved from. Max moved with him. The apartment was full of his antiques and pictures of past sibling gatherings that he had been instrumental in orchestrating. For a while he seemed relieved.

I think we all felt relieved then. It seemed that with the stresses of managing his life removed, he was more himself than we'd seen in a while. Visits involved driving him on errands, shopping, movies, lunch. He called from time to time, mostly when he wanted someone to take him on an outing. It was a new normal that, once adjusted to, could be lived with comfortably. A different path than the one we all hoped for him, but still one in which he was still more himself than not.

Then he got sick just before Christmas, a virus that knocked him flat for days. Walt and I planned to pick Mark up at his apartment on Christmas Eve, and take him up to younger brother's for the holiday. Older brother would be in Palm Springs as is his tradition. After several back and forth phone conversations, we decided to continue with our original plans. Mark and I already purchased his gifts for everyone in the family on my last visit before he got sick, and they were wrapped and ready to go. Mark wanted to spend the holiday engaged in traditions that were formed almost a decade previously when he got out of prison. We had rallied then, working to heal old sibling rifts, to help him re-enter society.

Walt and I headed north mid-morning Christmas Eve. I called from Centralia, less than an hour away, to tell him we were close. He promised he'd be ready. When we arrived and knocked on his door, he called in a wavery voice for us to come in. The door was unlocked. I opened it and looked toward his voice to find him sitting on the end of his bed. Stark naked. With a small white washcloth placed in his lap, and a befuddled look on his face. I made a sharp right turn into his living room. Walt following on my heels. He got the unenviable job of going in the bedroom to help Mark get dressed. I stood in the living room listening gratefully to the gentle murmurs of Walt directing Mark to move various body parts while I texted our brothers.

We eventually made it north to younger brother's. The holiday was weirdly happy. Mark smiled more than we'd seen him do in a while. He sang and clapped during the Christmas Eve service, and we all pretended not to notice the strong urine smell. He helped set the table, played Mexican Train, ate like a starving man. He also needed help with everything (toileting, showering, dressing), which younger brother managed with such grace and dignity it felt like a miracle. Again, we allowed ourselves to hope. Once he recovered from this illness, surely he'd return to pre-virus abilities.

He did not. The time between the first of the year, and the birthday we just celebrated held more change and loss than I've been able to absorb, let alone grieve. Additional medical testing revealed fronto-temportal dementia. It explained so much about Mark's lack of emotion, loss of language, inability to problem solve.  While knowledge is often empowering, in this case it broke our hearts.

Our sweet, smart, generous brother - the one who could solve any tech problem, who talked to everyone as though they were the most important person in the world, who stitched our family back together with his humor and stubborn will - would continue to disappear. We had already watched first a father, and then our mother, disappear as their brains slowly died. There was no treatment, no slowing the slide, no hope.

His dog Max went to a new home when someone discovered Mark had been forgetting to feed him. A cane and then a walker accompanied him everywhere. He didn't answer his phone much of the time, and when he did was difficult to understand. He slurred and stammered and froze - indecipherable words, or no words at all. He couldn't figure out how to work his Keurig, or the remote to his television. Always a canny navigator before, he would tell me to turn left when he meant right.

Still, hope clung to life stubbornly. I rallied, increasing my trips north to take him on outings. We went to movies and to lunch and wandered stores for treats. I realized at some point that I was really enjoying our dates, and the person Mark was when we were together. The silences tended to be long, which is not my natural state, but they held no tension so I let them be. When we did talk, glimpses of his old humor revealed themselves like the first lightning bugs on a summer night. I could get him to laugh with outrageous declarations of hyperbole. He even asked about my life once in a while.

On Saint Patrick's Day we sat across from each other at lunch. I commented on his green shirt and asked if he chose green because of the day and because he knew I'd pinch him if he wasn't wearing green. He looked down at his shirt, grinned, and grunted yes. Then he peered at me intently, head to waist, clearly searching for green, and just as clearly hoping for a chance to pinch. He seemed disappointed when I pointed out the green in my earrings. The miracle of that moment shines still.

With every visit came some evidence of continued decline. Once he answered the door in nothing but his Depends and an open shirt. Lunches were material for sitcoms as he would eat forgetting he already had a mouthful so that food would stick out of his mouth or fall to the floor (or on his shirt or back to his plate).  I didn't mind any of it. Not really. I was just grateful for no nakedness, and that he enjoyed our outings. I was determined to get as much time with him as I could manage. The long driving day (5 to 6 hours total, depending on traffic) seemed a small price to pay for these gifts of time.

I knew the day would come when he needed more care than the assisted living place could provide. Eventually he would need to live in a memory care facility. But eventually came much sooner than I was prepared for (or agreed with), less than a week before his birthday. He turned 60 in a home he bought and created with pride and love. He drove. He worked. He used a computer. He was active in his church. He golfed with his best friend Paul.

He turned 61 in a nursing home.

Walt and I drove the 2 1/2 hours north yesterday to see Mark's new home and take him out to celebrate his birthday. The new facility is in Gig Harbor, a 20 minute drive from his apartment. It's clean, the staff friendly and willing to talk. He has a couple of his antique pieces and his pictures of the siblings who love him in such different ways. He also has a roommate who snores, so he's not sleeping. When asked what he misses most about his apartment he said his queen bed. The cot-sized bed he has now leaves little room for his 6 foot frame to spread out on. He says the coffee's not good. It's a lock-down facility, but he discovered in the first days that the code was written above the door. He almost made it to the front door from his wing. The code is no longer there.

When we walked in, he was sitting at a counter finishing his breakfast. I got the first of what would turn out to be a multitude of smiles that day. The second came when I handed him an Easter basket much like our mom gave us as kids. We drove him to his old church for Palm Sunday services. During the years before his illness, Mark's siblings would attend Palm Sunday services to hear him sing in the choir, so this was a continuation of that tradition. Except Mark wouldn't be in the choir this time. Younger brother and his wife met us there. We sat close to the front, Mark on the aisle, me next to him, Walt next to me, then sister-in-law and younger brother.  Mark sang and clapped to all the songs, although the singing was barely audible and the clapping was out of rhythm. He took notes on the handout during the service. And made a beeline for the donuts when the service was done, leaving us still making our way to the aisle. After some discussion, we decided on lunch at a burger place at Tacoma Mall. Mark's best friend joined us, so the table was a happy gathering of people who love Mark. Laughter and conversation bounced around the table, keeping the sadness that's come to live with us permanently pushed to the periphery.

My routine with Mark will change now. Phone conversations require passing through two people and waiting for him to walk from his room to the dining space. When I drive to get him, I need to traverse the Narrows Bridge. I have to close my eyes as a passenger to keep the car from flying over the edge and into Puget Sound far far below. I'm hoping that concentrating on the road in front of me will have the same preventative effect, and that repetition will conquer this fear as I've conquered others in the last few years. Once in his wing, someone will have to let us out the door, which I'm sure I won't be told the combination to. We'll find a new theater to go to, new places to explore for lunch. The drive home after will be longer, with three major pockets of rush hour traffic to navigate instead of the two I had gotten used to.

It's all detail, and while hard to do, easy in comparison with the changes coming far sooner than we ever thought possible. I will step into my fear, I will push through the fatigue, I will make friends with this particular species of grief. As long as I can be a sister to my brother, I will rally.