Wednesday, October 29, 2014

On death and life, bravery and Brittany Maynard

We chose the day of Papa's death.

At the end of his week in the ICU wing of Harborview Medical Center, his eighth day of lying already lost to us in a coma, we signed our permission as a family to let him go. We'd seen the brain scans all week long, our daily exposure to Rorschach images that were sickeningly unsubjective, not sure exactly what to make of them except the progressive growth of darkness swallowing his brain.

That was the first part of him to die, I guess. His brain.

I'd fought it hard, the first time members of the medical team sat us down in a sterile conference room and matter-of-fact asked us what we wanted to do about his life. Our options looked grim either way: removal from life support and probable death; or transferal to a nursing home for an indefinite period of time and fraction of possibility for his living a semi-conscious life, what we often refer to as "vegetables." I wasn't ready, at that point, to surrender him to death. It knifed through me like the most permanent kind of betrayal: giving up on his life. So we asked for more time. We were given a few days.

I tried to play the scenario out in my head, the one where Papa lay in a coma in a nursing home, one foot in this world and one in the other. Tried to imagine Mom's life in limbo for years on end, and ours, too, but moving forward in ways a spouse's cannot, tethered to the shell of him. I tried, too, to imagine a scenario where he was miraculously healed after a period of time, if we only had the fortitude and faith to hold on, but I couldn't summon it. 

So much happened in those eight days, experiences and emotions crammed in on top of one another, it felt like years flew by in pages, and with each page, the acute awareness of there not being enough time. I felt robbed. Of being able to say a proper goodbye, one where he was awake and could look into my eyes and we could speak in words or none at all. But in the end, I knew. No more days added on would give us back what we had lost in the way of hoped-for opportunities. We had to patch our goodbyes together with what bits of him and ourselves we still had intact.

In the end, it's possible people could argue we cut his life short. They could write letters to us and blog posts about how we deprived the world of the opportunity to see us walk out our suffering and grief to its Divinely-appointed end.  They could say we weren't brave.

* * * * *

In the Christian tradition, I grew up with this impression, whether taught or not, that death, however it came, would be a noticeably sacred moment. A spiritual rite of passage, carrying with it an otherworldly presence and brief peek into eternity. I always expected it would be more peaceful to witness somehow. And I was certainly taught that death was not something to manipulate. I didn't know if Papa's death fell in this gray area or not, but it seemed like it might. Somehow, taking him off life support felt like a controversial act, a denial of faith, an utterly private decision we had to justify to outsiders.

Maybe this is why I have felt a lack of confidence regarding "sides" as people all across the nation are discussing Brittany Maynard's decision to die on her own terms in a matter of days. Maybe this is exactly why she's been playing at the edges of my thoughts and in the pools of memory in my heart, all week long, as I imagine her trying to come to terms with living out the last of her days. I know nothing of her or her family's anguish, but I can empathize with the grayness of it all. And while it's not for me to say whether I would do the same in her position, I think the biggest part of me has secretly wanted her to have the dignity in her death I feel my Papa was stripped of in his.

And if I'm getting down-and-dirty-honest, right or wrong aside: dignity I felt we were stripped of.

Who knows, but him and God, what Papa's experience was in death. It could have been beautifully peaceful, and him, keenly aware of the loving presence of God and family that surrounded him. But I do know mine.

It left me traumatized. And then, it left me changed.

* * * * *

I wasn't prepared for any of it, but especially not the sounds of death. Had I known, I'm not sure if I'd have chosen differently, to stay or not to stay, but I stubbornly refused to leave his room until he passed fully from us. The last, great stand of my twenty-seven years of stoicism before I cracked and crumbled.

Six hours of this front row seat of death.

My memories still, six years later, are of the horrible sounds. The change of color in his skin. The feeling of suffocating along with him, of feeling my skin was crawling, on fire, and desperately clawing to get out of it while the walls closed in. My utter helplessness.

I remember not being able to pray, except one silent, seething, anguished plea: Take him. 

I remember feeling God was cruel and this was not beautiful or sacred or peaceful. Looking back through the lens of time and distance, of course, my eyes see differently. No part of me actually believes God is cruel - not one ounce of me - and I've been offered glimpses of grace strung through this story, lighting the darkness of memory. But this experience is how death itself is branded in my memory, beyond what my intellect or even faith declares, the raw imagery of it all, where I cannot reach in and alter it with perception.

And so, I can find it in myself to wish something different for Brittany. For her loved ones. That they all would be given the gift of saying goodbye while she is still in tact, heart-wrenching as it will be to let go of each other. Because of my experience, I can believe that, whatever her choice is on Saturday, it will be a brave one, even if the death she experiences comes a little sooner than it might have. Does someone have to face the full gruesomeness and violence of a death like brain cancer to be considered worthy of the title Brave, or for us to learn something from the way she lived? The way she suffered, still? The way, ultimately, she dies?

No matter the circumstances, saying goodbye is always a tearing and an act of courage we are never ready for, no matter how ideal - or not; how peaceful - or not; how soon it comes - or not. But pressed for a choice, I cannot deny I would want a lucid goodbye with loved ones around, holding my hands while I crossed over, taking with me their gifts of love - if, indeed, we can take these immaterial things with us - and leaving with them mine to plant in the soil of grief.

Those seeds of a life that long outlive our bodies.

* Please note: Many of the things I write here today are not meant to be taken as statements from a theological standpoint, but as a human being grappling with the human experience of death. I know the bible well, and I know the positions on both sides of this argument, but these are not primarily what I'm speaking to in this post. 

Also, what I write about experiencing my Papa's death, I do not write for sympathy, but as a backdrop against which I can look at another's situation with compassion - in this case, Brittany Maynard's. 

Above all, my prayers and sadness of heart are with her and her family.

Monday, October 27, 2014

When you begin to trust rhythms more than rules (Guest post at Chronicles of Grace)

There was a time when certain words made me uncomfortable to hear, back when the "f" word was only four letters, instead of ten. 

That's right, fellowship

I have different words that settle in different ways on my ears and in my heart than they used to, and not because they are vulgar to me or possibly anyone else. No, it's that they trigger anxiety that springs from someplace inside me I can't entirely map out. Only, that I know when I hear this word fellowship, and words like it, I feel I would like to turn and run the opposite direction.

Slip right out the back door. Tune out. 

It's not until recently I started paying attention to this anxiety - this specific strain of it that surfaces when I'm in churches, or hanging out with a group of Christians, or reading things written in the language of Christian culture - without a heap of guilt. Even though, I feel that guilt, too, as I write this, crowding in my periphery, and another "f" word, fear. Fear of being offensive. Fear of being misunderstood. Fear of being alone.

For the rest of this story, would you click here to follow me over to Kelli's? She has graciously hosted me today for the weekly link up of Unforced Rhythms.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The conception of a family

We faced each other in a room of people, hands held, and I swayed a little with my weight on one leg, dizzy from pain and the pills to mute it, looking in his eyes. And we promised to take each other on as family, no matter what - that which was not flesh and blood now fused mysteriously - body and soul and flesh. 

We promised to love, knowing we would fail often.

We promised to stay, knowing, at times, we would want to leave.

We promised to see each other, really see who this other is, in a world where the eyes miss so much.

This blonde American with this black haired Mexican, in both Spanish and English, for the first time chose our own family.

And so, with the questions coming not long into this story of marriage - But when are you going to start a family? - I squirm inside, protesting. But don't you see? We already have.

For what constitutes a family? 

For us: One Mexican, one American, one Russian tortoise.

This, right now, is our family. 

It may or may not grow bigger, but our love, will this not swell? And as it swells, will we not also spread open our arms and give away the increase?

It is not children who make a family a Family. It is people, loving each other, in abundance and in lack, in sickness and in health, in desire and in struggle, till death do us part.

And the glue of Grace holding all our fragile, fickle promises together; this family God's created, calling us good.

Linking up with Unforced Rhythms

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

When being is a coming out

photo credit

I am a moth cocooned. 
Seed breaking open in the earth. 
Match flame flickering on cave walls. 
A waxing crescent moon. 
A chick sodden in birth's yolk, pecking her way out to bigger life.

* * * * * 

I stood in a barn on Saturday and watched these chicks behind glass, incubating, stumbling around on shaky legs, fluffing feathers as they dried. A row of eggs in front showed varying signs of birth in process. A beak poking through webbing cracks. The upper half of a tiny body wriggling, struggling in slow motion, to emerge. 

She looked so alone in that foreground, the only one breaking this far out. I wanted to stay and cheer her on. I needed to know she'd make it. Instead, I finally whispered to her and walked away among the children clamoring around the farm.

* * * * * 

In passing conversation, people often ask, What's new? and the most honest and compelling answer would be - Me. I'm new. 

But this, of course, is not for words exchanged in a hurry. 

It's one of those seasons where most of life seems to be happening beneath the surface and I forget how hard it is to translate this kind of life into words at all, let alone here, in my writing. My writing, in so many ways, has become my way of seeing. My gauge of sight. If I am not writing, I fear it is because I am not seeing. Anxiety swoops in, strings her web across the walkway, and I feel it on my skin, trying to shake free. All the things I am not doing in order to live the life I desire, all the ways I am not being that normally open my eyes to see, taunt me.

Until I STOP. 

And remember where I am. For maybe it's true that I need, for the rest of my soul, for the care of my body, to slow down and sit and rest in these places of seeing. But scolding myself only makes me curl in a ball of shame.

And maybe it's true, too, that be-ing isn't always a quiet rest and slowing down, as much as this is what I crave. Maybe be-ing can also be a coming out and into who I am, who I've been all along and who I'm still becoming. And this, right here, is not a quiet process. It's turbulent, exhausting, unnerving, compelling. Yes, this. I am compelled to come out. To become this person I can't quite see yet, but who is slowly coming into focus.

It's a season of staring from the inside at walls that are cracking, opening, breaking. A pushing up and out of the earth. A shaking out of birth's dampened wings. And I am learning, ever so slowly, to be more gentle with myself, for it's hard to see in here.

Harder, still, to grasp for words. And yet, I reach.

* * * * *

Joining the beautiful, gracious community at Unforced Rhythms.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Why Dia de los Muertos matters to me

The original artist and creator of La Catrina

If you had asked me - before I knew my husband or anything, really, about Mexican culture - what I thought of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), my answer would have been something like this:

- I don't know... Mexico's version of Halloween?
- Skeletons and skulls are not my thing. 
- It seems morbid. What's their fixation with death anyhow?
- Something I don't want any part in.

All I saw was death. And it was bizarre, colorful, primal, an odd blend of Catholicism and indigenous traditions. Without saying it straight out, I guess I assumed it was evil. I mean, just the name of it, right? Day of the Dead? Sounded like a holiday for zombies.

But then, I had an experience one day when I stumbled upon a celebration of El Dia. And my world peeled back, my eyes came into focus, and I saw something else. 

I saw life. Vibrancy. Reverence. Permission to remember loved ones lost. 

Our own Dia de los Muerto fiesta
I love those moments that catch us unaware, turn us inside out. This was one of them - one of many in my four years of knowing Ricardo, for he himself caught me unaware. Moments where things and people are not as they once seemed, where life leaps out in living color, multidimensional, raw and holy and irreverent, too. 

That's what I've been learning from Mexicans. They often take subject matter that is heavy and find ways of holding it lightly. With Mexicans, grieving and partying really are woven together, and this ability to laugh until you cry real tears presents what feels like a paradox to those of us who aren't Mexican. There are many sides of the same coin - reverence and irreverence, Catholic and Spanish colonial and indigenous Mexican, and you couldn't separate them no matter how diligently you tried.

Sometimes, I mourn a little, the things and people I have passed by without being willing to really see them, because I wonder how much I've missed. It took me years to read the Harry Potter books because all I saw was they were about witches and wizards. And I wasn't into witches and wizards. So when I finally picked the books up, I couldn't put them down, because I soon discovered they were really about so much more. Friendship. Courage. Purpose. Sacrifice. Imagination. Character. I'm not exaggerating when I say these are some of the best books I've dared to read, and maybe they're not for everyone, but for me, they opened me up to not always dismissing things based on appearance. 

I think those of us who come from the Christian tradition can so easily forget how bizarre our faith is in appearance. We dismiss skeletons, forgetting our main symbol is a Roman cross - a symbol of death, torture, suffering. We write things off as morbid, like sugar skulls (symbolically, "eating" your own death) and regularly participate in the Eucharist during our worship gatherings - symbolically "eating" the body of Christ and "drinking" his blood. 

Calaveras de azucar
Maybe we can relate more to Day of the Dead than we care to admit.

So when I look at drawings, paintings or any matter of Mexican art featuring skeletons (calaveras), faces painted in death's mask with colorful embellishments, I no longer see death. I see a culture remembering their dead, celebrating the lives they lived and passing stories onto their children. A culture comfortable with a much thinner veil between life and death than the culture I come from. A culture that lives with the awareness that we all will meet the same end one day, and in this we are all equals. Rich and poor, weak and strong, educated and uneducated, male and female, elderly and babies, sinner and saint, we all will know death's mask. I see a culture willing to face hard things with a sense of community, tradition, boldness, unflagging remembrance, even festivity.

And let me tell you, this means so much more when you've lost someone dear. Unless you've lost someone in the military in the U.S., there aren't holidays for remembering loved ones who have died. There aren't built in traditions for passing on their legacies around our tables, on altars of remembrance or throwing parties in cemetaries. We may be too afraid of death, too uncomfortable with the subject matter or emotion of it all, too private, too reserved. Who knows.

But me, I'm becoming more Mexican each year. And I'm learning to celebrate like one. 

My altar one year for Papa

* * * * *

Linking up with Kate and the Five-minute Friday community, to the prompt of "Care." And as per usual, I rarely stick to the five minute limit - this post was no exception.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

* In which this is what counseling looks like

photo credit

She told me she saw me as brave. After a month of listening to pieces of my story, of themes repeating and changes in process, of barbed language about myself - all those shoulds and oughts and I feel so bads and not enoughs - of the exhaustion, the grief, the loneliness, the wrestling. I see courage written all across your story, she said. It's beautiful.

And at this point, the tears shimmered like waves about to crest in my eyes.

I don't feel brave, I said. And then the waves broke.

* * * * *

It just so happens I feel the most intensity of emotion right as we're wrapping things up, or when I step out into the street and begin my trek home. Back when I had a car, I knew I had a safe place to break after sessions like these. Now, I have the streets, the bus, the moments where I tuck away into music in the midst of a crowd. 

The bathroom stall.

I hole up in the dark metal stall, because I don't know what else to do. The tears are streaming as I leave her office. So here I sit and let them roll and crest and break, for ten minutes, until they slow to a trickle. 

And here I let myself feel not alone.

I see my reflection in the pane of glass on the train. A girl - I know she's a woman, but somehow she'll always be a girl to me, I think - stares back with bloodshot eyes. Sad eyes. I am not all of me sad, this I know. But tonight, my eyes say that I am. So I don't fight it. I don't worry about the people on their ways home, what they think of this girl with the bloodshot eyes, because I know they have their own griefs hidden in their eyes, too. I know this is not who I am, the full story, but there is no need to hide it tonight. We, all of us, can just be human tonight.

* * * * *

I wasn't prepared, exactly, for how much space my faith would take up in the counseling office. I thought I went primarily for other reasons. And I did. But this issue of faith - of evolving faith, questioning faith, discarding elements of what I had once considered faith - is here, front and center, equal parts liberating and terrifying. And it is a blessed relief, once a week, to have a place, a person, I can let it all hang out with as I sort through pieces. And it is also exhausting. For I live with this every waking moment.

I can no longer take so many mainstream Christian beliefs at face value. This big, wide, complex world is literally breaking open in me and much of it, I keep to myself. Because, tell me, where can I go in the church to question these things without being told what I should think or believe or how I should live, who I should listen to and who is not safe? 

Some of it creeps out into my writing, this is true. I write in process. And as I've shared before, I don't write with the outward goal of being inspirational, of overtly sharing the gospel or prescribing a way for others to live and believe. I write the messy, unfinished pieces and I trust that this is not the end of the story. But these are pieces that fill out the story, that make it a beautiful story, and though there is darkness here and though I don't always point to the light and say, "Here it is, in case you're wondering" there are shards of it filtering through. Redemption's crumbs and evidence of a bigger story unfolding before and during and long after mine has been told. And because of that, there is hope.

There is a real fear, an uneasiness, I think, among writers who identify as Christians, that sharing too much of the hard stuff will be read as self-pity. As wallowing. Over-identifying with brokenness. Self-indulgent. Not pointing enough to hope and truth and light. 

What are we so afraid of - our humanness? No, I am not writing for pity, self or otherwise.

I'm learning not to listen to this fear, at least in my writing, though it just seeps in other places.

For most of the hours of the day, you will find a battle waging in my head. Me, with my club, taking swing after swing at the tired girl in the mirror. Telling her she doesn't love well. That she needs to move on, to figure things out, to fill up so she has more to give. Because, damnit, people need her and she is failing them.

As if it were that simple. As if this is what will help her "get her stuff together," a well that won't run dry.

And my counselor today, sitting across from me with brows knit compassionately, asked if I could start by loving myself well, the way I want to love others.  The rest, she said, will follow.

My tears came then, answering her question for me.

Linking with Unforced Rhythms

*I borrowed this from a beautiful writer, Sarah Bessey, who begins many of her blog titles with "In which..." Because some days, I find there is no better way to say it. So, cheers to Sarah.