"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

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.