"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, April 10, 2017

Rallying



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.




Saturday, January 28, 2017

Voice

Standing on the bank of the river that has provided me sanctuary so often, I listen to the shushing of cold water, a steady calming pulse of sound. Here I can breathe easily and see clearly. The air this time of year is clean and cleansing as it enters my lungs. Purifying as it leaves and returns to the forest that surrounds me. Some days my eagle watches from the snag across the river, chuckling at me occasionally, more often silent but oh so present, and oh so powerful.

Toby chews on sticks, or splashes in the shallows, radiating joy. In this place I am able to focus on the abundance in my life, the blessings for which I am grateful. Minute by minute. Hour by hour. Day by day. The shouting of the world that exists outside of this one small beach echoes in my brain, but is no match for the river's constant voice. The fear that threatens to overwhelm and win has no voice here in the land of moving water and life-giving trees and creatures with wings to remind me that there is more.

The river's murmuring allows me to hear my own voice. The one that lives deep and that I've often disguised to be more acceptable to people I needed to be loved by. From childhood, my voice has been the one to challenge and question. I was the "why?" kid. Then for a long time I became agreeable, my outer voice echoing the voices of others, even when inside I was still asking why. Perhaps inevitably, what came next was a very loud voice, declaring truth righteously and angrily. Demanding to be heard and understood. Huge noise that sounded like explosion, but was in fact a heart breaking. When none of that worked, I wrapped my voice in soft cotton and put her away in a safe place. And while out of danger, I felt distressingly invisible for a very long time.

Over time I learned that honoring my own voice was less about being heard, and more about simply being human and present. I choose to remain quiet as much as possible (although there are some who would dispute that I'm ever quiet).  I listen as fully as I'm able. And then, when I believe my words will bring light or new truth to a situation, I'll find a way to offer them. My voice as an offering, not a weapon of aggression or shame, or a handmaiden of fear.

A tiny brown winter wren chips and flits just inches from where I stand. His voice ranges from the chip-chipping he seems to use as he seeks food in the underbrush, to the full-throated glorious celebratory song far too big to be coming from a few ounces of feathers. He doesn't regulate his voice to please, or out of fear. He sings and calls in his wren voice because there is no other way to be a wren.

For better or worse, there are many many ways to be human. There are times when I want to shout over the shouting of others, frantic to be heard before it's too late. It seems like the loudest voice wins, even though I know this is not a game or a competition. Whether in family or in the larger world, I am one small voice. And, as has been the case for most of my life, my voice does not often reflect a majority view. I am choosing not to shout, or demand. I am choosing to attempt to hear what the shouting voices are saying, although the louder and harsher they get, the harder it is to hear. Which in turn reminds me why stillness and gentleness are really the only escorts I want for my own voice.

Stillness, not silence. Light, not fear. Love, not shame.

Walking away from the river, headed toward home, I stop for one last look upstream. The river's voice fades into the background. Toby and I make our way along the trail into the woods and another voice whispers overhead. The wind has joined our walk. Much like the river, wind's voice is constant and soothing, speaking truth that has no words. Like river, wind's voice can get loud, but neither are so loud that their voices diminish the importance of my own. Their voices simultaneously humble mine and honor it.

Each voice is important. Each voice deserves to be heard, if for no other reason than to reveal the speakers to themselves. At the same time, each of us is one very small voice in an incomprehensibly huge gathering of life. We matter. But we don't matter most. Not one single one of us. Understanding is always one river bend away, one wind voice in the trees speaking a language just beyond our ability to interpret. Seeking to understand is when voice seems to offer the most comfort, and the most wisdom. Asking why, voicing possible answers, being open to the entire chorus of humanity. Searching for harmony.




Sunday, January 8, 2017

Another Yoga Lesson



In yoga recently the teacher compared the 90 minute class with the 90 years of a human lifetime. The first 50 minutes, he said, like the first 50 years of your life, are preparation for the most challenging part which comes after. Bikram yoga starts with a series of standing postures that focus on balance, strength and discipline. The standing series feels much harder than the 40 minutes of postures done on the floor.

Balancing on one foot and then the other, posture after posture. I stagger, regroup, tip over, breathe, and find a center from which to be still. Suck in your stomach, tighten up your thighs, glutes, knees. Use your bulldog determination. Breathe, always breathe. If you can't breathe you need to back off a bit. Listen to your body. Go beyond your limits, but not too far. Sweat rolls and pools and drips. Muscles hold and then tremble and then hold again. Breath catches somewhere in my chest and I have to go inward to bring it out. But often there is no time. Forward movement leaves little room for catching up.

I'm aware of people around me going to the floor at times during the standing series. Doing only one of the two repetitions of each posture. Or none. Triangle, also called the master's pose, referred to as the top of the mountain, never fails to bring at least one person to their knees. Already exhausted, but also as flexible as we're going to get, doing triangle requires complete focus and an ability to shut out the voice that says you don't have to do this. I think now and again about only doing one, and always talk myself out of it. Better to do the posture in less than full expression than to go to the floor and maybe not want to get back up again.

The standing series feels like hard work, and the work often hurts. In those 50 minutes we resist the pull of gravity, as much as we resist the urge to inertia. That time is about building muscle and endurance. We're directed to focus outside of ourselves on our reflections in the mirror, not for judgement, but to check for alignment and form. That judgment inevitably happens then becomes part of the work.

The last of the standing postures is the Bikram version of tree or toe stand. Balanced on one leg, hands in namaskar, focused on one spot, breathing evenly, standing strong and proud like an oak tree. This is one of my favorite postures. In part because the floor is only seconds away. In part because I have seen much improvement in the months I've been practicing. The best part though, is the green energy field I can see radiating from my body when my focus is clean.

As we settle into savasana (dead body pose) at the beginning of the floor series, the teacher will often say the standing series was the warm up for what comes next. There's always a bit of a chuckle at this, because really what could possibly be harder than what we've just done. We're pretending to be dead bodies, with nothing expected of us in that moment but stillness. And breathing. How hard can that be?

It turns out that it's a completely different breed of hard.

No longer struggling against gravity, we are encouraged to let the earth hold us as we lie on the floor. The strength required for this is more mental than physical. The mirrors are no longer available for feedback, so it's even more important to go inward. To listen to the body voice and the heart voice. We don't always appreciate what those voices are saying, but there's no way to escape beyond the spectacle of fleeing the room.

Rest is built in, savasana done after every posture. Done, we're told, to allow the body to absorb what it's just been through. A time of focusing entirely on breathing. None of the distractions easily available when standing; no twitching or wiping sweat off or drinking water or pulling at your yoga pants so you look thinner.

The most challenging posture of the floor series is camel. Meant to strengthen and stretch the spine, it also opens up the heart. The result is often a flood of emotion, or nausea, or dizziness. The teachers often say we might feel euphoria here, but I think that's a fantasy thrown into the dialogue to trick us into not giving the nausea too much credit. Feelings are pushed to the surface through the opening up of the front of the body. Not for the faint of heart for sure. As the analogy goes, I see this pose as a chance later in the process for a final cleansing and releasing of long-held pain. It also involves a release of control. There's no real way to know what might find its way to the surface.

After the standing series, there is no energy left for anything but essential movement. Monkey mind is quieter. Energy is conserved. Focus is on small adjustments, which bring small improvements. There is also less inclination for comparison with fellow yogis because it's much harder to see others from the floor. A feeling of camaraderie replaces the pull of competition so hard to resist when we can see each other in the standing series. We've all gone through this thing together, a family of sorts. The privilege of being human becomes a gift to be cherished in those clear clear moments. The gift of breath. The peace of exhaustion and attention paid to every part of being human in 90 minutes. The space created around the troubles and worries brought into the room makes life outside the room easier and brighter.

When I was younger, I looked at retired people, if I considered them at all, with envy. Old people had it easy. No responsibilities. No worries. Sure there could be physical issues, and losses, but mostly it looked like a cake walk. I looked forward to being one of those people. From the hubris of unlimited energy, endless possibilities for starting over, and reliable mental resources, I neglected to understand I would be one of those people but in an older body with an older mind. Not retired with the energy and perspective of my middle age as I expected.

I'm discovering that being in the life version of the floor series is indeed more challenging than it might look from the outside. The resting in between postures is essential. Everything moves more slowly and requires more concentration. Instead of pushing myself harder, it's much more effective to be still and relax into whatever is being asked. Resistance no longer serves. Acceptance and listening and breathing into the stretches has replaced muscling through. Asking my body, not demanding.

Just as I feel lying on the floor in class, in many ways this time of life seems easier despite the challenges. It's really just me and my own inner voice. Outer voices only carry whatever weight I'm inclined to give them. The struggle is less physical and more everything else. It's harder to get away from unpleasantness, cradled in the arms of the earth. Running (or resisting) requires more energy and intention than simply staying put. On the other hand, staying with the discomfort turns out to be not as terrible as I used to believe.

I find myself in a time where it would be easy to forget my grounding and the lessons of breathing to expand and clarify and cleanse. Like so many, I'm still grieving the election. Winter, and this harsh winter in particular, and the literal darkness that comes with this time of year, always challenge my healing and my equanimity. Freedom of movement is curtailed by ice and snow. Electricity has been lost to winds with the power to uproot giant fir trees and to split my favorite oak tree in half. A younger brother is caught in the whirlpool decline of dementia. Family members are in pain and struggling, and sometimes their struggles create pain for me. There is a clarity that powering through is no longer an option. This groundedness is really my only choice, even when it doesn't feel like enough, and too slow and with no illusion of control for comfort.

But there is a fluidity to the ground. Change is embedded in everything. Each in-breath brings in new air, new life. Each out-breath takes away what no longer serves. Even in stillness there is movement. In death, life. In darkness the memory of light that burns through, that promises to return. Living to 90 feels less important than living to 90 fully alive. Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. Live.