I have chosen to re-post this second of a two-part blog that was written over three years ago. Part one was re-posted moments ago. It is still a really important story in my life and I believe relevant to today and the ways Corona is growing, changing, challenging us. In the blogs I share a story of how being close to a friend’s death process awoke so much in me. I share because we are all living within sight of our mortality in these times, and too many of us have lost loved ones. All of us who live beyond this time will be transformed and what we are learning now will be a part of the bundle we carry forward.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece entitled, “An Oyster Who Had Earned His Pearl,” about my friend Dan and what the discovery that he had cancer taught me about myself.
This is part two of that story.
It was March and the first signs of Spring were making brief appearances in between late winter storms. Colorado weather always dances wildly, and that Spring was no exception. I was driving home after a day of work, leaving the city and heading into the mountains. It was a window in between storms, and I was grateful for the dry roads, which were forecast to be snow packed again in a couple of days.
My phone rang.
It had been less than five months since Dan had moved out of our house. He had been living with another woman in the community, and it was her name I saw pop up on my phone:
“Dan’s not expected to make it through the night.”
I got off at the next exit and turned my car around.
I called my husband and broke the news. He said he’d meet me there.
This was before the days of GPS, so it took me a bit to find the hospice, and a little bit longer to find my courage. Even though I had known this day was coming for months, I had no desire to go into that building and see Dan dying.
But eventually I did. What unfolded through that night and into the next morning was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
Dan was propped up in the bed and his eyes were closed. He looked comfortable. His small frame had shrunk even more and his white hair looked like snow melting into the pillow that propped up his head. He opened his eyes slightly as I approached and managed a short pained smile.
There were three or four people in the room. I knew all of them through ceremony and all but one by name. They were all part of my spiritual community. We were bonded in that unique way that only community can bond, where we all loved each other even if we didn’t like each other. We all knew personal things about each other, but rarely knew each other’s last names.
Something changed in me when I saw these people surrounding Dan. Up until that moment I had a belief and a plan that I’d never told anyone. My belief was that I could know when I was going to die and my plan was to die in India. I had a plan to get on a plane when the time was coming, and go half way around the world to die. That was the extent of my plan, which meant it wasn’t so much of a plan as an idea, an idea of dying alone.
But when I saw Dan surrounded by all these people we both knew, I gave up on my secret plan. I decided right then and there that whenever my time comes and if I am fortunate enough to have a dying process, I want to be with people who know me. I realized that I was already part of a community that would be there for me — where someone would be there whenever one of us died. That night I understood that it didn’t matter if we knew each other’s last names or professions, or what we liked to eat or how many times our hearts had been broken. All that mattered was our love for each other. A love that was there even when we didn’t like each other.
That was the first life-changing event of the evening.
I’d only been in the room several minutes.
I stayed until just after the sun came up.
By midnight, my ex-husband and I were the only two left in the room with Dan. We were the last shift.
My Ex and I were at our best as a couple in these kinds of moments where our strength was apparent and needed and effective, moments when we could team up with a common purpose and had no reason to be jealous of what the other one was doing or pissed about what the other one wasn’t doing.
I spent a large part of the night awake at Dan’s side, holding his hand. I decided that if I was in his position, I would want someone to hold my hand, so I held his. Dan’s breathing was labored and he couldn’t talk, but he could meet my gaze and squeeze my hand. It was good to matter by being present. I was so glad Dan was not dying alone.
We kept Dan’s mouth moist with those pink lollipops that are abundant at hospices, and we sang and prayed and told Dan stories. We spent a lot of time in silence together, the three of us watching the night unfold. Each passing hour carried a spiraling weight, like water poised at the precipice of a waterfall, about to journey to new depths. There is nothing like the hours before death arrives, each one ringing in with a deeper tone that makes the sound of each breath remind us of the priceless gift of life.
I might have slept a half hour that night, maybe. As the sky lightened, my head was heavy, as if it had been numbed by multiple shots of Novocain. I was awed by the strength of my wanting to stay awake that had somehow held all my body’s instincts to sleep almost entirely at bay. Through my exhaustion I had somehow stayed present with Dan and his journey.
When I sensed the sun coming, I left the room and the hospice and climbed up the small hill above it. I waited there to greet the day, something that I love to do when I can. I watched the beautiful orange being who keeps us all alive begin his journey into the day, and I prayed for Dan’s big journey, one the sun had borne witness to billions of times.
Once the sun had risen into the sky, I lingered for a few minutes and then headed back down the hill and into the building. The moment I came back into Dan’s room I said, “Hey Dan, the sun is up!”
Dan didn’t move, but everything inside me changed.
Suddenly, I was no longer present. Thoughts inside my head began screaming with judgement: “What am I doing here? …Maybe I’m just here because I want to witness Dan’s death… That’s not a good reason! I shouldn’t be here. What am I trying to prove?”
On and on these thoughts in a thousand permutations rolled for what seemed like an hour, but was likely less than ten minutes. Ten long minutes.
After pacing around madly, I sat down in a chair.
“Dan,” I said silently, “if you want me to go, please let me know.”
Instantly, I shot up out of my chair. Startled but very clear, I said to my husband: “I’m going now. Dan will be gone in twenty minutes or so. I love you. See you at home.”
As I drove home in the warm morning light, I wondered what the hell had happened. How could I be so present and then so confused? What was that all about? This kind of confusion was hard for me to shake, and even harder for me not to decide something negative about myself, to start rewriting all the clarity and beauty of the night before a muddy symphony of doubt.
My phone rang about half an hour later: “Dan’s gone. The last minutes were beautiful. I’m going to stay with him awhile.”
I crawled into bed and soon fell asleep.
It wasn’t until a couple days later, talking to someone else in our community, that everything started to make sense.
He said, “I heard you made it through the night, but left right before the end.”
“Yeah. Right after the sun came up I started to feel weird.” I told him about the thoughts in my head and shooting up out of the chair.
“Oh, that makes sense,” he said.
“Well, I saw Dan the morning before. His voice was weak but he could still talk. He said all he wanted was to see the sun come up one more time.”
It took extra-long for my breath and my throat to form words. All I eventually managed to say was, “Wow!”
Like the sun rising into the day, slowly it dawned on me that Dan didn’t want me to be there when he died. That I could accept as it was up to Dan, and I knew that people want who they want and who they don’t at both their birth and death. I could also accept it because it meant that my doubts had a purpose and played a role in giving Dan what he wanted. But it had never occurred to me that my being there through the night allowed Dan to make it through the night. I’ll never know why Dan wanted to live until the sun came up one more day, but I know that my being there helped make this happen, and I wondered if he arranged for us to be there through the night knowing that I would greet the sunrise. Again, Dan had reminded me that we don’t have as much choice as we think, that we are placed with exquisite precision in each moment to do something bigger than ourselves. Whether we do that or not is often up to us, and it can happen when we’re not even trying. Making a difference in the smallest of ways can be huge.
All these years later, when I go back to that moment of discovery about Dan wanting to live one more day, my awe has not diminished one bit.
And neither have the gifts Dan gave me. They continue to shape the way I walk in the world and what I choose to do in it. I’ve known death since my birth, and it’s always been a great teacher. But I haven’t always been a willing student. My experiences with Dan’s death helped me accept that life is a bundle of experiences, both gifts and challenges. When I recognized Dan’s illness, an experience I wrote about in Part 1 of this story, I decided not to toss out one thing in my bundle that I have never wanted, the ability to see death coming. I don’t always have this ability, but when I do it’s been accurate. The kind of accuracy I never wanted or needed and certainly never accepted — before Dan.
If I could sum up what I learned from Dan — which I can’t, but if I could — I would say that I learned not to discard or demean my gifts or my actions. I can say that I now have more respect for the bundle I carry and recognize that it is all one piece – that I can’t take away one part of myself just because it’s not one I want or understand, because when I do that I don’t have the same access to all of my gifts, or all of myself. I can grow what I have, I can deepen in my capacity to use my gifts well, and I do work hard every day to turn everything I’ve done and learned in my life into a gift that can be of use to another. But I cannot discard a piece of myself and still be whole. None of us can.
Acceptance is not something we can pretend to have. It is a real tangible sometimes hard-earned and often fleeting experience. Dan taught me about acceptance, and from what I saw, he found it for himself at times. I still feel him around sometimes, and I am still, and will always be grateful for all he taught me.
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