Dying Without an Elephant

Elephant on bench looking out window

Toward the end of my brother’s life, he spent every waking hour in a faux-leather armchair by his living room window. He was companioned by the puff-puff-puffing of an oxygen concentrator, a walker with a basket full of pills, a laptop that helped him stay connected to people around the world—and an elephant.

I don’t know whether the elephant’s name was Denial or Hope, but the sicker my brother got, the bigger the elephant grew, nourished on secrecy, silence, and relentless positivity. The floor around its feet was covered in eggshells.

That elephant robbed me of some of the most meaningful time I could’ve spent with my brother. I never got to tell him how much I admired and loved him. I didn’t get to thank him or relive memories that only the two of us shared. And I never got to say goodbye.

I didn’t realize what I’d missed until Kelly Lindsay was diagnosed with glioblastoma and began writing about his experience in a CaringBridge blog. He refused to embrace battle metaphors. He wasn’t “fighting” cancer, his tumor wasn’t an “invader,” and he wasn’t striving to “beat” a disease that would eventually kill him. Instead, he strove to unconditionally love it.

Not only was Kelly’s experience elephant-free, his choice to love his tumor put me in an uncomfortable position. I could not love Kelly and hate what he loved. If I was going to love him, I had to love all of him, including his tumor.

I didn’t want to do that. I struggled to accept, much less love, the thing that was killing him. So, I asked Kelly for help.

“This tumor is part of me, and I’m actually grateful for that part,” he said from a faux-leather chair with a view out his living room window. “The whole year has been valuable. Not in ways I could really enumerate, and not in ways that, when I was first diagnosed, I’d say, ‘Oh, fantastic! That’s great news.’ As far as a learning experience, it’s not one I would’ve wished on myself or on anybody else, but it’s been pretty spectacular.”

Kelly had cancer once before, and his wife Diana had it twice. She was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in 2006, and oncologists gave her three to 12 months to live. Kelly was her caregiver then and, miraculously, she became his caregiver more than a decade later.

The two of them were in cancer graduate school, and that might be what enabled Kelly to harvest riches from an experience that everyone else would rather avoid. He said the year after Diana’s diagnosis was the best one of his life.

“And this year, if it’s not the best year, is the second-best,” he said. “It just shows how wrong I can be about a big picture. It’s all actually pretty exciting, Petra. In a way I wouldn’t have thought.”

Kelly and Diana transmuted their cancer experience into something that has benefitted hundreds, if not thousands, of people through the founding of a nonprofit called Healing Circles. It offers social support through small groups of people (called circles) who have a challenge or interest in common.

“In a lot of the circles at Healing Circles, people have focused on death and dying and made it an interesting, intriguing part of life,” said Kelly. “Instead of this scary, awful thing that ends something, it starts something, and you don’t want to miss it. I want to know when the side effects end so I can enjoy this other part of it that doesn’t need to be scary. It doesn’t even need to be endured. It needs to be enjoyed, so that’s probably where the loving part comes, too. This is a whole new aspect of life. Why rush through it?”

Loving someone who’s dying without an elephant is excruciating. It was difficult to simultaneously hold onto Kelly and let him go. To stay present with him and grieve the loss that I knew was coming. I say that as a distant planet orbiting Kelly’s sun. By contrast, the orbit of his brother Tom brought him much nearer, close enough to be overcome by his love for Kelly and the loss he knew was imminent.

Could I have born the anticipatory grief that Tom bore for Kelly? Could I have grieved for my brother the way Tom grieved for his? Would I have had the courage to speak openly about the death we both knew was coming?

I think so. I prefer the present pain of acceptance to the deferred pain of denial. Death comes with or without an elephant, and grief is inevitable.

When Tom’s friend Bin, whose mother died of glioblastoma, learned that Kelly had been transferred to hospice, he wrote, “Lean into this crazy shit, my friend. The only thing worse than what’s happening is pretending it’s not.”

I didn’t have the opportunity to lean in with my brother, and pretending that he wasn’t dying didn’t keep him alive. So, I will say now what I couldn’t say then.

“Petey” and “Tommy”

Thank you, Tommy, for being such a good-natured companion throughout our child- and adulthood. I can’t remember a time when you didn’t take the high road.

Thank you for your thoughtful kindness and for the compassionate way you advocated and cared for our parents. And thank you for loving me in a way no one else could.

I miss your bear hugs. I miss your mind. I miss our in-jokes and the way you called me “Petey.” I even miss the noogies.

There are nearly eight billion people on this planet, but it feels empty without you.

The mountains are bigger today

I live on a jewel of an island flanked by two mountain ranges. In the morning, the sun peeks over the Cascade Mountains, igniting the snow on the Olympics in shades of pink. And in the evenings, the sun slides behind the Olympics, bathing the Cascades in golden light.

The thing is: The mountains move. Not side-to-side, but forward and back. Some days, they look like they’re right on the shores of Puget Sound. Other days, they seem teeny and distant.

Why? It turns out that the mountains look close because of a temperature inversion. Warm air sits on top of air cooled by the frigid waters of Puget Sound. Light rays bend toward the colder air, causing the mountains to appear above or taller than their actual position. The greater the inversion, the bigger the mountains seem. 

The point is: The mountains seem bigger because of something in my environment.

And so it is with my grief. My beloved little brother Tom Roush died earlier this year.  We were born a year, a month, and a day apart, and we were a set.

Tom and me sitting on our grandparents’ steps in Ossweil, Germany (photo by Irmgard Roush)

This planet is teeming with 7.7 billion people, but in the absence of a single human being—this particular human being—my world feels hollow and empty. It was so, so much richer when he was in it.

Some days, I’m OK. Some days—lots of days—I’m not. Today, I was taking the garbage out and heard a single-engine airplane overhead. Then I saw a passenger jet flying low over the horizon. Tom would have known what kind of planes they were just by hearing the sound of their engines.

I went inside to make lunch for my partner’s birthday and realized that I’d never get another birthday card from Tom. I was never much of a card person, but he spent time picking just the right one, and we signed cards in a way that only we found amusing.

Like the mountains, my grief looms larger depending on environmental conditions, and my loss seems  bigger on those days.

Tom and me in May of 2016 (photo by Stephanie Himmel)

But sometimes, the mountains are invisible. At night, for example, I become blissfully unaware of my loss, only to rediscover it in the disorientation of morning, when I feel the weight of sadness in my body. Other times, the mountains are obscured by clouds, hidden by my need to attend to the banalities of life. But when my task is complete, the clouds part, revealing the mountains again.

There is no moving these mountains. But in their mercy they grow, they shrink, they disappear altogether and, in so doing, they help me learn how to live without Tom.

Header photo shows the Olympic Mountains from Ebey`s Prairie on Whidbey Island and was taken by Steve Halverson  (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.) Thank you, Steve!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On loving, losing, and then loving again

When I was a freshman and sophomore in college, I was a youth group leader at our church. Jill, one of my “kids,” had lost her mother to cancer when she was nine, and like other women at church, I felt drawn to take Jill under my wing. Her boyfriend Mike was also dear to me.

For my junior and senior years, I transferred to a four-year college about an hour away. On the way to Seattle, with my car packed full of dorm-life necessities, I stopped at the cemetery, knelt beside the grave of Jill’s mother, and prayed, “God, I can’t take care of Jill anymore. Take care of her for me.”

But in January of my senior year, Mike and Jill were both hit by a drunk driver and killed. Mike was 17 and Jill was 16. I never felt such raw grief before or since. But beyond the grief of losing two people I loved at the same time, beyond the feeling of wrongness when young people die, there was a sense of betrayal. I had asked God to take care of Jill, and now she was dead. My faith shattered.

The fact that everyday life continued around me felt like sacrilege. How could people go on about their business when my world had changed so profoundly? Nothing would ever be the same. The world, populated by billions of people, felt empty now that Mike and Jill were no longer among them.

But there was a time when I didn’t know Mike and Jill. The world didn’t seem empty then.

I didn’t consider that until two years ago. We moved to an intentional community and, shortly thereafter, a single mom moved there with her son, who was three-and-a-half at the time. Cooper and I fell in love with each other. His mom raised him alone 24/7, and I was happy to care for him when she needed to be elsewhere. But often, he would just show up, enjoying the free-range childhood that an intentional community on an island can provide.

About a year ago, Cooper’s mother decided, after a great deal of agonizing, to move two hours away to live with her boyfriend. Understandably, the dream of having a traditional nuclear family eventually outweighed the support she received from our intentional community.

I wept many times in anticipation of Cooper’s departure. How had I ever been content to live in a world without him? But I held him with open hands, believing in Richard Bach’s quote, “If you love something, set it free; if it comes back, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.”

Cooper and I get to see each other every month or two, now. Because of the distance between us, and how rapidly children grow, we have had to fall in love with each other over and over again. In spite of the fact that I’ve set him free many times, he keeps coming back.

I’ve lost a great many people, but I have also been surprised by joy. And as risky as it seems, it inspires me to open my heart again and again.

Flowers for Sarah

A few weeks ago, we were invited to a “Sarahmony” to finally welcome Sarah home to Whidbey Island. She’d known for decades that she belonged here, and after her partner died last fall, she was finally able to heed the call. She got rid of almost everything she owned and drove her Subaru from Minnesota to Whidbey Island with her dog Pepper and friends Christina and Ann, who would be her new neighbors.

On the way to the Sarahmony, we stopped at the Tilth Farmers Market to get Sarah some flowers. I had my eye on a beautiful mixed bouquet, but we made the mistake of getting something to eat, and I saw someone else buy the the flowers I’d earmarked for Sarah. My heart sank. The only other alternative was sunflowers, which weren’t as diversely colorful, but having no other choice, I bought five of them.

As we approached Sarah’s new place, I saw lots of camp chairs arranged in a circle on the lawn. Sarah is on the board of The Circle Way and wrote her doctoral dissertation on circle as a transformative process, so of course, the chairs were in circle. She stood in the center, speaking to two young men, and I approached her with the sunflowers singing, “You are my sunshine.” This is, in fact, true. Sarah is everybody’s sunshine.

Having just moved in with the very fewest of possessions, she had no vase, but Christina brought one over. I arranged the flowers, and Sarah said, “We can put them in the center.” The center! That is a place of honor in circle practice.

After socializing for a bit, we all settled into camp chairs, and Christina opened the circle. She walked to the bouquet of sunflowers in the center, pulled one out, and explained that we would be using it as a talking piece. The talking piece! That meant that the sunflower would be handed from one person to the next, all around the circle. Most people unwittingly held it like a microphone, where it “received” the most memorable and loving things that each person had to say about Sarah.

On the way home, I reflected on the significant role my B-list bouquet had played at the Sarahmony. The mixed bouquet that I originally wanted for Sarah might have gone in the center and looked more beautiful, but being far more fragile, it was less likely that one of the many flowers would have been used as a talking piece. A robust sunflower was far more likely to survive an orbit around the circle.

A week or two later, something disappointing happened, and my partner commiserated.

“Sunflowers.” I said, trusting that this disappointment, too, would turn out for the best.

Header photo by Ganesh Panneer CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Bad boys

max_und_moritz

On Saturday night, I spent time with my reciprocally adopted five-year-old grandson Cooper. It was getting late, and I couldn’t find Charlotte’s Web, so I grabbed a German children’s book.

We snuggled on the couch, and I opened to the first page. Suddenly, I realized that I was about to expose this innocent child–who got so scared by Finding Dory that we had to leave the movie theater–to unimagined levels if mischief that do not end well.

“Cooper,” I said, trying to prepare him. “This book is about bad boys. Very bad boys.” At this, Cooper hopped off the couch, walked over to the Amazon Echo on the kitchen table, and said, “Alexa, play bad boys.” And Alexa did!

Theme song established, I began translating Max und Moritz for Cooper.

“Max and Moritz tied strings into an X, then tied delicious morsels to the end of the strings and left them out for the Widow Bolte’s chickens to find and eat. When they did, it tied the chickens to each other like a string of fish, and in their panic, they wrapped themselves around the branch of a tree. The hens laid one last egg, and then they all died.” 1-10

“The Widow Bolte cried when she found her chickens dead, but decided to roast and eat them. Max and Moritz smelled the chicken roasting, climbed up on the her roof with fishing poles, caught the chickens with hooks, pulled them up, and ate them.”

2-05

“The Widow Bolte blamed her dog, Spitz.”

2-09

“Next, Max and Moritz nearly sawed through a bridge, then taunted Taylor Böck from the other side. He came after them, the bridge broke, and Taylor Böck plunged into the water.”

3-06

“After that, Max and Moritz put gunpowder in Teacher Lämpel’s pipe.”

4-03

“The pipe exploded the next time he lit it.”

4-09

“Then, Max and Moritz put bugs in Uncle Fritz’s bed.”

5-13

“The boys broke into a bakery, fell into a bin of flour, fell into a vat of dough, and the baker kneaded them up and baked them. Somehow they survived being baked, chewed themselves out, and escaped.”

6-15

“After that, Max and Moritz cut Farmer Mecke’s sacks of corn, which made the grain run out. But Farmer Mecke caught Max and Moritz, put them in a sack, took them to the miller, and asked him to grind them up. The miller did.”

7-09

“And his geese ate up what was left of Max and Moritz.”

7-12

The end.

There was a moment of silence. I thought perhaps I’d traumatized Cooper. This was like no children’s book anyone has ever read to him.

“Again! Again!” he said excitedly, hopped off the couch, told Alexa to play Bad Boys, and snuggled in for a second round.


Max und Moritz was written by Wilhelm Busch and published in 1865. It has been read to generations of German children (including myself), who did not resort to lives of crime.

Go figure.

New Year’s Day

Frost lay thick on the ground,
and people in sensible coats,
warm hats, and woolen mittens
gathered to reflect
on New Year’s Day.

But the four-year-old would not
wear her jacket.

“What were you most grateful for last year?” the guide asked.
We plodded down the trail, contemplating,
and the girl bounced past,
with the focused concentration
of a new skipper.

“What did you let go of last year?”
We stopped to recall,
and the four-year-old embraced
the legs of one stranger
after another.

“When did fear hold you back?”
As we remembered,
the girl hid among trees,
chirping occasionally to
let us know where she was.

“What will you stand for in the new year?”
This time, we walked,
and the girl stood still,
watching us flow around her
like a river.

© 2015 Petra Martin

When nature trumps nurture

Parenting a teenager is kicking my butt.

The good news is that my now 15-year-old son has made enormous cognitive leaps in the past three years, and recent testing gives us a peek into his brain that we haven’t had before. He’s been in Special Ed. for three years, but is now essentially at grade level, and the person who conducted his testing has never seen progress like his before. It was she who said, “Maybe all that cognitive development work you’ve been doing actually helped.” By that, she meant Fast ForWord, which, through “games,” strengthens the cognitive weaknesses that make reading difficult.

The bad news is that my son’s behavior in school has him in danger of being suspended because he is so disruptive and disengaged. That behavior is going to keep him in Special Ed. As is the case with many teens, my son has developed an “allergy” to me and tunes out everything I say, which effectively closes the window of opportunity I had for influencing his development through nurture. At this point nature has the upper hand.

I have turned over stone after stone and done everything I know to do for my son, and feeling discouraged, recently told a friend (who happens to be a neuroscientist), “I wonder how much of this challenge is accepting my son the way he is. I keep trying to ‘fix’ him.”

ImageHe said, “So here’s the glorious opportunity that kids provide us: lots of practice by what they say and do in not letting our own adrenals be the boss of us. Remember the old Pink Panther movies? Inspector Clouseau had this manservant, Kato, whose primary job was to try to catch him off guard with a surprise attack. Your son is your Kato, inviting you to become more skilled in the game of mastering your own neurophysiology and escaping from Adrenal Hell.”

He’s right. Not only do I need to view the dynamic between myself and my son differently, I owe every mother I’ve ever judged an apology. I radically overestimated the amount of influence one can have over one’s children.

Though I did everything I could to establish a solid foundation that my son could eventually build a life on, the “house” he builds on that foundation is up to him. Now my task is to let go of the illusion that I have control over this outcome, hope my best was good enough, and comfort myself with stories of what men I respect today did when THEY were teens–including my dear neuroscientist. It is truly a wonder that our species survived.

Oh, and from now on, I’m calling my son Kato.