Meditation – 7/13/12



What are we? What have we become?
Light fills the picture, the rising sun,
the three of us advancing, dreamlike,
up the steps of my grandparents’ house on Oak Street.
My mother and father, still young, swing me
lightly up the steps, as if I weighed nothing.
From the shadows, my brother and sister watch,
waiting their turn, years away from being born.
Now my aunts and uncles and cousins
gather on the shaded porch of generation,
big enough for everyone. No one has died yet.
No vows have been broken. No words spoken
that can never be taken back, never forgotten.
I have a basket of eggs my mother and I dyed yesterday.
I ask my grandmother to choose one, just one,
and she takes me up—O hold me close!—
her cancer not yet diagnosed. I bury my face
in soft flesh, the soft folds of her Easter dress,
breathing her in, wanting to stay forever where I am.
Her death will be long and slow, she will beg
to be let go, and I will find myself, too quickly,
in the there-and-now moment of my fortieth year.
It’s spring again. Easter. Now my daughter steps
into the light, her basket of eggs bright, so bright.
One, choose one, I hear her say, her face upturned
to mine, innocent of outcome. Beautiful child,
how thoughtlessly we enter the world!
How free we are, how bound, put here in love’s name
—death’s, too—to be happy if we can.

— Elizabeth Spires


After dying in a car crash, three friends go to heaven for orientation. They are all asked the same question: “When you are in your casket, and friends and family are mourning over you, what would you like to hear them say about you?”

The first guy immediately responds, “I would like to hear them say that I was one of the great doctors of my time, and a great family man.”

The second guy says, “I would like to hear that I was a wonderful husband and school teacher who made a huge difference in the children of tomorrow.”

The last guy thinks a minute and replies, “I guess I’d like to hear them say, ‘Look, he’s moving!”


A READING FROM Pilgrim At Tinker Creek
BY Annie Dillard

I wonder how long it would take you to notice the regular recurrence of the seasons if you were the first person on earth. What would it be like to live in open-ended time broken only by days and nights? You could say, “it’s cold again; it was cold before,” but you couldn’t make the key connection and say “it was cold this time last year,” because the notion of “year” is precisely the one you lack. Assuming that you hadn’t yet noticed any orderly progression of heavenly bodies how long would you have to live on earth before you could feel with any assurance that any one particular long period of cold would, in fact, end? “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease”: God makes this guarantee very early in Genesis to a people whose fears on this point had perhaps not been completely allayed.

It must have been fantastically important at the real beginnings of human culture, to conserve and relay this vital seasonal information, so that the people could anticipate dry or cold seasons, and not huddle on some November rock hoping pathetically that spring was just around the corner. We still very much stress the simple fact of four seasons to schoolchildren; even the most modern of modern teachers will still muster some seasonal chitchat and set the kids to making paper pumpkins or tulips for the walls.

But there is always unseasonable weather. What we think of the weather and behavior of life on the planet at any given season is really all a matter of statistical probabilities; at any given point, anything might happen. There is a bit of every season in each season. Green plants–diciduous green leaves– grow everywhere, all winter long, and small shoots come up pale and new in every season. Leaves die on the tree in May, turn brown, and fall into the creek. The calendar, the weather, and the behavior of wild creatures have the slimmest of connections. Everything overlaps smoothly for only a few weeks each season, and then it all tangles up again.

Time is the continuous loop, the snake skin with scales endlessly overlapping without beginning or end, or time is an ascending spiral if you will, like a child’s Slinky. Of course we have no idea which arc on the loop is our time, let alone where the loop itself is, so to speak, or down whose lofty flight of stairs the Slinky so uncannily walks.


We wind up our sneak preview of the ten people who will be joining you in the on-the-page support group in The Amateur’s Guide To Death and Dying; Enhancing the End of Life. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to get to know them better once you start the book, but until then, these thumbnail sketches will serve as a handy reference.

Max, 86, is a retired salesman. He is 5’7” with a stocky build. He has the spry demeanor of a man twenty years his junior. He sports a full head of unusually black hair. “Comes right out of a bottle. Gray hair is for old guys.”

He is quick with a joke and has an infectious Cheshire cat grin. Max had bypass surgery several years ago, and until recently has been healthy and active.

Six months ago he began to complain of stomach pain and noticed that he was losing weight. The doctors found cancer in eighty percent of his stomach. Surgery was out of the question, because at his age it would be too risky. When pushed, his doctors finally conceded that, at best, he might have a year to live. “The news hit me like a ton of bricks. It’s not me I’m worried about, it’s my Sylvia.”

Max is the primary caregiver for his wife of sixty-five years, Sylvia, who recently has had a series of small strokes. Max’s three sons and other family members have been trying to buoy his spirits by reminding him that he is a fighter. “You’ll beat this too, dad. You’ll live to be a hundred.”

Sylvia is also in denial about Max’s condition. She claims he is fine and assures everyone that they are managing just as before. However, when their youngest son came to visit the other day, he found no food in the house and discovered his parents had not eaten in over twenty-four hours. Sylvia broke down and tearfully admitted she had been rejecting relatives’ offers to shop and cook because they were too ashamed to admit they couldn’t care for themselves.

Max was raised a pious Jew in Poland, but now he says he’s an agnostic. “How could there be a God when there is so much pain and sorrow in the world?” Max concedes that instead of planning for his death, he is frozen in a panic about what will happen to Sylvia after he dies. “I know this isn’t helping matters any, but I don’t know what else to do.”


We continue our sneak preview of the ten people who will be joining you in the on-the-page support group in The Amateur’s Guide To Death and Dying; Enhancing the End of Life. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to get to know them better once you start the book, but until then, these thumbnail sketches will serve as a handy reference.

Robin, 25, is in recovery and has been for four years. She ran away from home at 16 and lived on the street until she was 19. She was a big-time heroin addict who turned tricks to pay for her habit. “It was a crummy life. I had this total death wish. I shared needles, had unprotected sex, you name it. How or why I survived, I’ll never know. I’ve been raped, beaten, and robbed, each more than once.”

Only after being hospitalized for a severe case of pneumonia and testing positive for HIV did Robin begin to turn her life around. “Is it okay to say that HIV is the best thing that ever happened to me?”

After a year of rehab, she got a job at Safeway and moved into a small flat with her boyfriend Bobby. “We met at an AA meeting. He’s in recovery too.” Her life was finally coming together. “The new HIV drug cocktail I’m on has worked miracles. My viral load went from 700,000 to an undetectable level. I applied to journalism school and am supposed to start in the fall.”

But she’s had to put everything on hold. Bobby wasn’t as lucky. No combination of drugs halted the ravages of AIDS for him. Now 27, he is actively dying. It’s not likely he’ll live out the month.

Despite Bobby’s bad luck, Robin is trying to stay upbeat. “I’ve been through so much to get to this point. I can’t let this setback pull me down again. Bobby would never forgive me.”

She says that watching the man she loves slowly die is the hardest thing she’s ever had to do. “Getting clean and sober was a cakewalk compared to this.” She’s emotionally drained. “It feels like something in me is dying.” Tears well up in her green eyes.

Her moussed platinum hair is scattered wildly on her head. One simple nose ring is all that remains of the dozen or so body piercings she once brandished. A poorly designed tattoo on her upper right forearm peeks out from under her baggy sweatshirt. “I don’t even know how I got this. I was strung out most of the time. Let’s face it, I was a total freak.”


We continue our sneak preview of the ten people who will be joining you in the on-the-page support group in The Amateur’s Guide To Death and Dying; Enhancing the End of Life. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to get to know them better once you start the book, but until then, these thumbnail sketches will serve as a handy reference.

Raul, 18, was born with a genetic kidney disorder. He has had countless hospitalizations and surgeries. He has been on dialysis for many years. He had a kidney transplant three years ago, but his body rejected it. Within three months of the transplant he was back on dialysis. “Man, I am so tired of living in a body that never works right.”

Raul is as thin as a reed and his skin has the ashen pallor of one who is near death. His chronic pain has aged him far beyond his years. During his interview, Raul is having difficulty making himself comfortable. “I’m havin’ a bad day. The pain is real bitchin’. It ain’t like there’s some days when there’s no pain, only most of the time it ain’t this bad.”

Raul is exhausted and exasperated. Many family concerns weigh upon him, adding anxiety to his already difficult life. “My parents are heavy into the church. I am too, but not like them. They keep telling me it would be a sin to give up. But hey, man, how can it be a sin to wish this shit would end? It’s not like I haven’t tried. I’ve been in the hospital so many times I can’t even count ‘em.”

Raul’s anger and frustration are written all over him, but his machismo prevents him from revealing too much of his inner struggle. His teeth clench against the pain, but then his eyes brighten for a moment. ”Hey, ya know there’s this real hot babe in my school. She’s so fine. I try to talk to her, but she don’t like talking to me. I think she’s afraid I’ll give her some kind of sickness or something.” Raul has never had a girlfriend. “I never even kissed a girl, ‘cept my sister, and she don’t count. What if I die before I get some lovin’? That would really top off this crummy life.”

Only one of his sisters knows that he wants to do this group. “Amelia is the only one who tells me it’s okay to feel the way I do.” Raul is looking for some support for expressing his feelings. He hopes this group will provide that. “I want to be able to talk about dying with my family, but I don’t know how. We’re all real messed up, I guess.”