It seems to be a season of dying. It’s probably my age—almost 60—and the age of many of my friends. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that mortality is in the air.
It’s not that I haven’t experienced death before. My father at 69, my old friend Sigrid at 36, my sister-in-law at 40. Cancer got them all. Now cancer is getting my good friend Marilyn.
Marilyn has late stage ovarian cancer. She just turned 60. She had two rounds of chemotherapy, and the doctors thought they had things at bay. But the cancer came back fiercely. There is no more treatment for her; just digging in at home with the comfort of friends, the right pain meds and medical marijuana. Palliative care.
Marilyn called our old group of friends together. Many of us had met during our freshman year of college, in 1972. Most had migrated, one by one, from New York to the Bay Area. Now we were hanging out in Marilyn’s living room, drinking wine, nervously milling around, knowing that we were there to say goodbye.
When the time seemed right (the afternoon unfolded as though it had its own internal rhythm), we arranged ourselves in a circle. We waited for Marilyn to speak. Tearfully she read a piece she had prepared. She described the state of her health, how long she had left to live (two months or less most likely), which medicines she was taking. She talked about her fears (“not paralyzing”) and her sadness–not so much of dying, but for those she was leaving behind who would be left grieving, especially her mother.
Marilyn was always enamored of “Dopey,” that most lovable of Snow White’s dwarves. Her home was filled with Dopeys of all sizes, in a variety of Dopey expressions. She pulled one off a bookshelf and designated him as our talking stick; our “talking Dopey.” (Marilyn and her partner Jim had gone through a “shamanism period,” so this ritual adaptation was very natural!)
When a person held the “talking Dopey” it was their turn to speak, to say whatever they needed to say. So around the circle Dopey went, from hand to hand.
There were tears and laughs. There were expressions of love and affection and of long held guilt, for actions taken and opportunities missed. And a feeling of deep connection; not only to Marilyn, but also amongst this group of friends who had known each other for so many years, friends who had been close and then were not, who had fought, separated and were now together again.
Sitting on the precipice
Sitting with one who is straddling the line between life and death has its own feeling state. There is always sadness of course. But there can be more. Being with Marilyn that afternoon I also had a sense of wonder; of being in the company of an adventurer about to strike out into the unknown, her gaze fixed on something beyond the room, one foot already on the path.
She had changed a lot physically in the last few months, shedding a great deal of weight. But there was something else, something ethereal. It felt like she was energetically unwinding; as if the molecules of which she was composed were reconfiguring, altering their state in preparation for a scattering back into the great cosmic sea.
The power of intention
And Dopey kept moving around the circle. With each pass and each story told, the boundaries of personality that separated each of us seemed to dissolve. On some level, the group merged into one. The feeling that arose could only be described as love.
I looked around the circle and saw tears, and I felt my own. I wasn’t crying just for Marilyn, who would soon be passing on. But also for myself; for realizing how much of my precious time had been wasted on petty squabbles. There was one friend I had not spoken to for five years. We had fallen out, somehow; and I could not even remember why. In a few brief moments my harsh, negative feelings dissipated into thin air.
How could things that had felt so real, so solid, that had held me for so many years just evaporate? It seemed to be some kind of healing. And if it was healing, what was the mechanism of that healing? And if I experienced this, in this circle with Marilyn at its center, did others as well? Did Marilyn?
Can one who is dying be healed? And what would that even mean?
Death and healing
In my education, both formal and cultural, death has always felt like a kind of defeat: a failure. Death and healing seemed incongruous, oxymoronic.
Now I’m not so sure.
What I saw and felt in that circle was the deep power of presence, and the healing power of love. Marilyn was not being defeated by death. She was dying into whatever was coming next. She was affirming the life she had lived and the one we had all shared. That was her gift to us that afternoon. And in that giving, we all (including Marilyn) were lifted.
I have visited Marilyn weekly since that gathering. I sit by her bed, sometimes alone, sometimes with other friends. We talk, reminisce and laugh, gossip and cry a bit. She has lost more weight. It is as if she is lightening her load for the journey ahead; sifting out what is no longer essential, including those people who are not able to add to the life force she wants and needs right now. In these last weeks, what she desires most has been laughter: energy that will float her, provide healthy distraction and not drag her down into self pity. The nonsense of life is fading into a vague static back drop.
The grim reality
But as the process moves forward in time, the awful face of this terrible disease makes itself more fully known: a scourge that swallows our bodies, that consumes us. Those beautiful gifts of love and healing become harder to find under the oppressive weight of the cancer. The world narrows and becomes little more than the pain and suffering of a loved one, tempered by meds, the “comfort pack” delivered by hospice nurses. The light dims.
I became angry. “Fuck cancer and its lessons,” I said to myself. “What has it really done but take my family and friends?” But cancer tells a story that will eventually become our own.
The great inevitability
We all have loved ones who have died. And we know our time will come as well. We may try to push it away and spend big chunks of our lives dedicated to its denial, as if accumulating enough material wealth will produce a gravitational force strong enough to keep us attached to this world forever. But deep down we all know that resistance is futile.
A thank you
And so, Marilyn I want to thank you for being my friend. For reminding me of those difficult lessons that it is best to learn sooner, as they will surely be faced later. For being a brave pioneer, and shining a light on the path we will all soon tread. And for teaching me that even when facing death, the greatest unknown, one can still open their heart to love and healing.
Dr. Ricky Fishman has been a San Francisco based chiropractor since 1986. In addition to the treatment of back pain and other musculoskeletal injuries, he works as a consultant in the field of health and wellness with companies dedicated to re-visioning health care for the 21st century.
Copyright 2015 Ricky Fishmanricky@rickyfishman.com www.rickyfishman.com