Friday, June 10, 2011

Dying: A Self-Help Manual

Mr. Murphy was dying. Mrs. Murphy came to visit. For three days they talked & wept. Sister Brigid wondered if she should intervene. But on the fourth day, Mr. and Mrs. Murphy laughed. Sister Brigid asked Mrs. Murphy what had happened. Mrs. Murphy told her they had spent those days sharing memories of their 40 years together. "This story," the Rinpoche writes, "shows to me the importance of telling people early that they are going to die, and also the great advantage of facing squarely the pain of loss" (Sogyal, 179).

Books about dying are books about talking. They advise the dying to talk, and the living to talk, the dying to talk to the living and the living to the dying, and they talk about all of this. We ease our fears by talking; we clear our psychic inventories by talking; we are cured through our communicative powers. "When I hold her hand," Christine said this morning, "she rubs her thumb back and forth on it, like she did when I walked her to the community center." At meals, I remember, she moved her thumb back and forth over her own other hand.

"Talking about dying is very difficult," David Kuhl writes. "We are afraid that talking about death beckons it" (xv). I say my mother is in hospice, and what I hear back most often is quiet.

--She's weak, she's very weak. Closes her mouth when she doesn't want to eat. We bring her soft foods, puddings, oatmeal, jello. Not doing well on Ensure. Likes the cranberry. She closes her mouth sometimes when she doesn't want us to feed her.

--Did you tell her I'm coming? Next Thursday.
--Yes, oh yes, and I'm going to keep telling her.

My neighborhood is full of signs: real estate signs, do not let your dogs poop signs, reunion signs, birthday party signs, lost animal signs. "Please return my puppy / I am crying" reads one. Another asks its reader to return a stolen rabbit. There are photos, but the puppy is too small and the rabbit appears only from the back. Mark (a third one) says he and his roommates in Boston lost their cat. They spent all night making signs and posting them on Beacon Hill. Hours later, arriving back at their apartment, his roommate released the lever of the lazy boy. Out popped the cat.

Like the first rush of a martini, like the moment meditation reaches the top of the skull, like the time you notice leaves in the air between your eyes and the Ko`olau, like the inside of a house that is suddenly larger than its exterior, like a meadow that stretches like toffee, like a simile strained to the point of rupture, like an active alert patience, grieving.

An impossibly synchronous annoyance. Do not play your video game so loudly. Do not leave your trash in the living room. Do not tease me. Do not stop packing for your camping trip. Do not look at me that way. Do not pass me the phone. Do not treat me like this is an ordinary day. Don't you understand!?

"Connect by talking. Connect by listening. Connect by encouraging memories" (Miller).

I talk to the nurse at Arden Courts. I talk to the nurse at Heartland Hospice. I email the social worker from the care-management agency. I talk to the receptionist. I talk to the man at Murphy's Funeral Home. I email my lawyer. I email the hospice people about Medicare forms, requests to treat forms, requests not to treat too much forms. I send attachments about the body being given to science. I talk again to all of the above.

Bryant and Sangha are on Kauai, camping. If they are near a cell tower, they will call. Bryant did not call last night; he has not called this morning.

The books do not tell me how to connect without talk, without sound, without memories. The books do not tell me what it means to grieve one-sidedly. The books do not tell me this isn't so, that there are as many sides as during meditation--no sides at all. The books keep talking at me. I am at a lecture on grieving and there are five stages to learn for the exam. This will be the most difficult exam you will ever take, I'm told. The results will be scientific, as the form is multiple-choice. You will find yourself a) calm; b) angry, or c) watching a lot of baseball on your computer. The Greek word is a) thanatos, or b) minotaur. Be sure to use a number two pencil and press with confidence.

Which of the following statements is most helpful to the loved ones of a dying family member:

2) You are so much on my mind right now.

Word problem: You are on an ocean liner looking in at a dock of faces looking out. There is the space between you, which breathes. If you look at the water's surface, you see flying fish, birds, whitecaps. (The telephone lines at Souza Dairy field yesterday rippled with light, as if there were abacus beads floating back and forth between old wooden poles.) A canoe sets out from the dock, but it does not have the ocean liner's horsepower (sic). Someone is paddling toward the ocean liner as quickly as she can, left hand at the top, at the bottom, right. Will she get there in time? What equation do you plan to use in your calculations? (Be sure to record the process of your work, as well as your final results on the test paper.)

May the Queens of space and hosts
Of angels come behind us, circling
To cover our backs
And together deliver us
From the dreadful
Straits of the liminal, and carry us
To the shores of freedom.

I always thought it would be wonderful to be reborn as a seagull, my mother said, until I realized that they live on garbage.

Works Cited

David Kuhl, M.D., What Dying People Want: Practical Wisdom for the End of Life. (NY: PublicAffairs, 2002). This book belonged to Scott Swaner, a Tinfish translator, and was sent to me by his sister, Sheri, after he died. Thank you, Sheri.

James Miller, "Ideas for a Time When Someone You Love is Dying,"

Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994.

Caroline Sinavaiana's version of "Fundamentals of Navigation" from The Tibetan Book of the Dead.


Sina said...

Thank you for this morning's meditation on impermanence, Susan. Much appreciated!
Wondering if you know yet of Dharma Seed ( It’s a repository – treasure, really -- of dharma teachings in digital format and so available as podcasts and online. There are other good sites which I’ll send you later, but this one’s a mother lode (that curious word). I listen on my morning walks in the valley and so feel well-launched into the day. The best possible company I could wish for you/us (all) on the sinking ship. Ahoy, matey!
Holding you and your mom in my heart.
Love you,
PS—Glad you’re finding “Fundamentals of Navigation” helpful. Actually, the phrase is my own rendering of the prayer’s name, as I found the English translations elsewhere somewhat stodgy (no disrespect), EG, Trungpa/Fremantle: “Inspiration-Prayer for Deliverance from the Dangerous Pathway of the Bardo;” Thurman: “Prayer for Deliverance from the Straits of the Between;” and the latest (and acclaimed) by G. Dorje: “Aspirational Prayer which Rescues from the Dangerous Pathways of the Intermediate States.” You see my point.

slarry said...

Susan, as always, beautifully written... I am so grateful the book helped-my gift to you, because you see things with with such clarity and your compassion and empathy towards me that surrounds Scott's death, was immeasurable. You will always be one of my favorite people-and yes, I am a HUGE fan. Aloha xo