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.

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.

Soul mates, courage, and happiness

The “Happy” image from the Mixed Emotions card deck (c) 2012 Kris Wiltse
If I were blind, how would you explain “yellow” to me? “It looks like the sun feels on your skin,” perhaps. Or, “It looks like lemonade tastes.”

Until about a year ago, the term “soulmate” was just as inexplicable to me as “yellow” is to a blind person. Nothing you could’ve said would’ve helped me understand what it means–until I met Eddie and discovered the exquisite agony of finding my soulmate. Exquisite because I have never felt compatibility or unconditional love like this before. Agony because Eddie and I could not be together.

The best definition of “intuition” I’ve ever heard is: knowing without knowing how you know. I have only a nodding acquaintance with the concept of reincarnation, but when I met Eddie, I knew that our paths had crossed in many lifetimes. I also knew that we’d seldom been together. There were lifetimes in which I wasn’t allowed to choose my own mate. Lifetimes in which he was poor, I was a nun, he was a Jew, I was a slave, he was married, or we were both the same sex.

Though there were obstacles to overcome, we realized that in this lifetime, we could finally choose to be together. There was a price to pay, though. It would take courage to be happy. Eddie would have to unplug the life support of a marriage that had flat-lined years ago. He’d have to hurt people he loved and grieve the loss of what had been while simultaneously acknowledging and celebrating what could be.

The “Hopeless” image from the Mixed Emotions card deck (c) 2012 Kris Wiltse

It was as if Eddie had been in a ship that sunk so slowly, he didn’t realize he was underwater. Then, on realizing where he was, he swam toward the surface so quickly that his body could not accommodate his rapid ascent. He got “the bends” as his body caught up with his soul and the emotional work of processing endings and beginnings sometimes left him physically exhausted and ill.

Meanwhile, my heart and head were at war. I had never known or been known the way Eddie and I knew each other. I had never felt more safe. There were so many words we didn’t have to say, so much explaining we didn’t have to do because we were One. When I was with Eddie, I felt a sense of rightness that never wavered. But when we were apart, my head kicked in. The ghosts of failed relationships haunted me. I lived in fear of judgment. Eddie wasn’t a logical choice for a number of reasons, including financial ones, and it would take blind faith to keep putting one foot in front of the other and see where a life together would take us.

The “Loving” image from the Mixed Emotions card deck (c) 2012 Kris Wiltse

There’s a saying that I’ve lived by: leap and the net will appear. Eddie and I screwed up our courage and leapt. Life has been real, gritty, and often hard. But now, we are experiencing the enormous privilege of living it together–held safely in the net of unconditional love.

Judgment day

When I was in the fourth grade, my younger brother, sister, and I responded to an altar call at the Bible Baptist church in Rantoul, Illinois.

Now, it wasn’t like we weren’t Christians before. Mom had been raised a Methodist in Germany, and opting out of the state church to join a different one meant something. It meant you were conscious about your faith. Mom’s ancestors were Huguenots, who were driven out of France for being protestant, so consciousness around faith went back for generations.

cross in handWhy wasn’t that good enough? Because the salvation part was missing. So Mom took it up a notch, accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior, and encouraged us to do the same. Dad politely declined. (Actually, he threatened to start smoking again if Mom was baptized, but she did it anyway, and he never followed through on his threat.)

Salvation brought division into our family. The pressure on Dad to convert was unrelenting. We were right, he was wrong. We were saved, he was a sinner. Everything was black and white.

Eventually, I became a Sunday school teacher, youth group leader, Christian camp counselor, and a resident advisor in a dorm at a Christian college. The black-and-whiteness of my world made me feel safe, and Christianity brought order to my universe. But one day, I said to myself, “This is too easy. I can fit the God I believe in into a shoebox.”

I went out to my Grandpa’s pasture and prayed, “God, show me how big you are.” And then all hell broke loose. Mike and Jill, two of my youth group kids, died in the same car accident, and my faith shattered.

I continued to live by Christian principles, not knowing anything else, but eventually, after spending a year in Germany, I fell in love with a German man and we decided to move in together. Now, in Germany, this was no big deal—not even for Mom’s brother, a Methodist minister. But we decided to set up housekeeping in the U.S., and it definitely was a Big Deal for my family. For the first time, I felt the sting of Christian judgment.

Any kind of fundamentalism is based on a we’re-right-they’re-wrong sort of belief system, and judgment is its lifeblood. In the religious tradition in which I was raised, swearing was wrong. Consuming alcohol was wrong. Smoking was wrong. Secular music was wrong. Premarital sex was wrong (but so was masturbation). At the Christian college I went to, even dancing was wrong because it was a “vertical expression of a horizontal idea.” Thinking outside the fundamentalistic box was wrong. I could go on and on.

When it came time for Reiner and me to move to our new place, no one in my family helped—as they’d always done when I moved before—because helping would imply support for our decision to live in sin. Perhaps, by shunning me, my family hoped to encourage me to return to the fold, but it had the opposite effect. My family’s judgment hurt so deeply that I could no longer bring myself to judge others, and my Christian faith came to an official end.

Walt Whitman said, “Be curious, not judgmental,” and I’ve tried to live by that since. I fail daily. But I often succeed, and my world is much richer now that I love people who are different from me. Now that I respect and defend their right to be different. Now that I’ve given up any attempt to evangelize them into my way of thinking.

I would love it if my mother respected my beliefs. The little girl in me yearns to be loved for who I am, not condemned for who I am not. But, I’m not going to spend a single second judging or trying to unravel her belief system in an attempt to make her love me as I long to be loved. Her faith nourishes and sustains her, helps her make sense of the world around her, and gives her a group of like-minded people to belong to. It makes her happy.

In the end, I respect the differences in others because it makes me happy. I like who I am when I’m not judging others. Love just feels better.

The fortress

The day I walked through the doors of Gifford Grade School at the beginning of third grade, I entered my sixth school. By then, my father’s career in the military had taken my family from:

Gifford was a Lake Wobegon sort of town. It had around 600 inhabitants, and we lived there for three years—long enough to put down roots. We caught fireflies, got lost in  endless fields of popcorn, and actually knew people where we trick-or-treated. We skied down snow drifts, became Cub Scouts and Brownies, and sang for the residents of the local nursing home.

Then, Dad retired from the military, and we headed west in the station wagon, towing a travel trailer behind us. I loathed the forever place to which my parents retired and missed Gifford terribly.

At 11, I was on my way to my seventh school, and something snapped inside me. I had said so many goodbyes over the years that I couldn’t bear the thought of saying any more. So I addressed the problem by building a fortress that surrounded and protected me. By preventing hellos, it would prevent goodbyes.

It worked. It kept me safe—and very lonely—into adulthood, and despite my best efforts, still exists today. Occasionally, someone breaches the wall, but it’s relatively rare, and I wonder sometimes what makes it so effective, especially now that I no longer want it to be.

Recently, however, I was minding my own business at a coffee shop, when I turned to find a stranger inside my battlements, fiddling with a cream pitcher. I had no idea who he was, or how he got there. We exchanged a few sentences over the course of the evening, and went our separate ways. I was shaken.

The stranger appeared inside the battlements several times after that, and each time I felt a sense of joyful recognition that was completely inconsistent with how well I knew him. Then, one day, he skittered under the portcullis just before it closed and declared his love for me from the other side.

What am I supposed to do with that? Leave? The fortress?

I am intensely and inexplicably drawn to the stranger. Can I work up the courage to leave these walls I’ve come to know so well?

And will he be there if I do?

Destiny, boys, and men

How I failed to meet my Destiny

As I was washing dishes in my teens one day, I looked out the window and “saw” a joyful little girl on a swing, her pigtails flying behind her. Perhaps, I thought, this was a visitation from a child I will have someday. I named her Destiny and thought of her often through the years.

I always wanted children, but married a man who didn’t, and it took us years to come to a compromise. He finally agreed that we could have one (and only one) child if I could conceive it without the aid of fertility drugs or in-vitro fertilization. In spite of the fact that I was in my late 30s, I conceived easily. But I knew in that intuitive way mothers often do that this baby was a boy. Since I had only one chance at motherhood, that meant I would never meet my Destiny.

Over time, however, the baby I carried managed to communicate with me in various ways, and I warmed to him. In fact, by the time I miscarried two-and-a-half months later, I would have been disappointed if he had been a girl. His purpose was clear. Like John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus, the first baby I carried prepared the way for the son I bore about a year later.

How having a son turned out to for the best

The fact that my child was male turned out to be a brilliant cosmic move that ensured that my family history didn’t repeat itself. My mother and I were completely enmeshed. I didn’t know where she ended and I began, I just knew that my purpose in life was to meet her expectations. I worked constantly to stay within the target area of her love—because falling outside it was life-threatening. Would she care for me if she didn’t love me?

My son and I will never become enmeshed because we are so different from each other—that Y chromosome is our continental divide. In this otherness, my boy has given me a new understanding of and respect for men. He has unwittingly taught me this:

Girls are born women. They begin nurturing soon after they can walk, and there is nothing remarkable about the fact that they eventually become mothers. Boys, on the other hand, are born boys, and thanks to my son, I know what an enormous metamorphosis it takes to turn armpit-farting, BB-gun toting megaburpers into daddies.

Today, witnessing daddies who deeply, compassionately, and meaningfully engage with their children sometimes moves me to tears. These men bear a message from the future that helps put my troubled mama-mind at ease.

“Don’t worry,” they seem to say while wiping their child’s nose with their shirttail. “Your son’s going to turn out just fine.”

Life, and how we move through it

As I walked through the forest on my son’s birthday yesterday, I reflected on how challenging life has been since the moment, 12 years ago, when he was born. At the same time, I’ve grown weary of thinking about how hard it’s been. Weary of feeling sorry for myself. Weary of My Story.

I realized that the past twelve years have felt like walking through chest-high water, which is something I used to do on purpose for exercise. There’s a much more efficient way to get through water. It’s called swimming.

Walking through the water of my life hasn’t exactly been a conscious choice. I do it because it’s all I’ve ever known. But I’m ready to find a more efficient and joyful way to move through life.

I’m going to sign up for swimming lessons.

Truth, and where to find it

I was raised a fundamentalist Christian, and the Bible was our sole source of truth. It was considered inerrant, which means, in essence, that God dictated every word of it, and that it was perfect in every way.

It doesn’t take much scrutiny to discover contradictions and ethical quandaries in the Bible, and that’s not a problem if you consider it a book that was written over a period of hundreds of years by countless authors. But if you believe that the Bible is literally the word of God, these contradictions are a big problem that leads pastors everywhere to cherry-pick the bits that serve them and sweep the rest under the carpet.

Of course, as a Sunday school teacher, youth group leader, Christian camp counselor, and resident assistant in a dorm at a Christian university, I cherry-picked, too. Only I swept much bigger things under the carpet—things I never understood. Like why Jesus had to die for my sins (the core tenet of fundamentalist Christianity) and communion (the idea of symbolically eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood grossed me out). Large cracks began to form in my faith, but on the whole, it still held together.

Then two of my former youth group kids died at the age of 17 and 18 in the same car accident and my faith crumbled. It took two decades to rebuild my cosmology, and I slowly found new sources of Truth. I no longer wanted to BELIEVE something was true. I wanted to KNOW it was true.

When I believe something, it calls on me to have faith. Like, say, that the Bible is literally the word of God. When I know something, every pore in my body opens to receive it and incorporate it into my being. Believing is an intellectual experience. Knowing is a physical one.

Long after Mike and Jill died, a woman in her seventies handed me a cassette tape and suggested that I listen to it. I did and knew there was Truth on that tape. Then I learned that the Truth was channeled. This posed a problem. If I accepted this new source of Truth, I would have to keep it secret. My fundamentalist loved ones would consider it satanic and fear for my mortal soul.

In the end, I decided to accept this new source of Truth and concluded that:

Truth is Truth, no matter where you find it.

This mindset has made it possible for me to find Truth in unexpected places. Like a quote by musician Marilyn Manson in the movie Bowling for Columbine, while dreaming, and while packing for a move.

Recently, I discovered my most cherished source of Truth yet: Shamanic journeying. Journeying provides a means of obtaining direct revelation, which is something I’ve yearned for all my life. Until now, the quality of my connection with the Universe was about as good as you can achieve with two soup cans and a string. I always longed for a hard-wired, broadband connection that provides me with a sense of direction and spiritual companionship. Journeying is it.

Again, I have found a source of Truth that I have to hide from people who love me. But Truth is Truth, no matter where you find it. And I couldn’t be more grateful for this one.

Oh, hell

My 80-year-old mother and I got into a big argument about hell on Sunday. She’s absolutely certain that I’m going there, and I’m just as certain that I’m not.

Here’s my reasoning:

  1. One of the most important laws of physics is that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It can only change forms.
  2. I believe that our essential selves–the core of who we are–are made up of energy.
  3. This was made clear to me at the funeral of my friend Jill, who died in a car accident at the age of 16. Seeing her body at the funeral was a shock. Though it looked like Jill, her essential “Jillness” was gone, and all that was left was a shell.
  4. Jill’s death caused my then-fundamentalist Christian faith to crumble. It took me 20 years to rebuild a belief system that made sense to me. But I never stopped believing that Jill’s consciousness had survived the accident.
  5. I concluded that, because a disembodied consciousness (or “soul”) does not have physical senses, you can’t hurt it by hitting, stabbing, or burning it.
  6. So, even if a physical hell did exist, how could it hurt something that is pure consciousness?

There are many other reasons why I don’t believe there’s a hell (more of my journey away from fundamentalist Christianity is described here). But as I said, Mom is just as sure that there is a hell, and that it’s my destiny. There’s a little girl inside me who has always yearned for my mother’s approval, and it hurts to know that the only way I will ever receive it is to become what I am not. I find it difficult to reconcile Mom’s professions of love for me on the one hand with her insistence that I am going to hell on the other.

A few years ago, Mom got not one, but two ulcers. She attributed them to my sister’s and my refusal to accept Jesus as our lord and savior. She was hospitalized, so I called the hospital’s gift shop and asked them to fill up two helium balloons, then write my name on one of them with a permanent marker, and my sister’s name on the other. I asked them to take the balloons up to Mom’s room, then called Mom and instructed her to go outside and let the balloons go. I wanted her to experience the release of that, but she didn’t do it. She asked my brother to go outside and do it for her, saying she’d watch from the window. I don’t know if he ever did. The whole meaning of the ritual was lost.

So here’s take two: A declaration of emancipation.

Declaration of Emancipation

Hear ye, hear ye!
Be it known to all that read this that

[my mother’s name]

is herewith absolved of any responsibility for
the eternal welfare of

Petra Elisabeth Martin

Petra joyfully takes complete responsibility for
her spiritual journey in this life
and for her life thereafter.

Declared on this 30th day of December 2009

_______________________________________

Petra Elisabeth Martin

I don’t know if it’ll help Mom, but it helped me. When my son and I want to let things go, we find big rocks, write what we want to release on them in permanent marker, and throw them off a bridge into the water. It gives us a satisfying feeling of release.

Our New Year’s Eve tradition (in fact, we just did it today), is to conduct a burning bowl ceremony. We write on slips of tissue paper all the things that we want to release, take turns sharing them with each other, touch the paper to the flame of a candle, and then drop the burning paper into a metal bowl. One of the things I burned up today was “My mother’s expectations.”