death

DANCING WITH DEATH

I’ve been dancing with death. I believe that death begats birth…and I appreciate the tender new soul growth emerging from the soil of loss. Truly I understand the circle of life…yet my heart grieves still… 

Before we could bury Gran, I had to attend another funeral. 

Just one day after Gran passed; I chose to join my husband’s family at the beach. One of Gran’s favorite places. But they gathered without me…instead I drove 95 miles from the foggy coast to the high desert to see a patient. 

I don’t usually make house calls. Most of my patients live 50 or miles from me. Some are out of the country. So making house calls is not really practical. But I did this time. 

Anita was one of my favorites…not that I should have favorite patients…but we had been working together for almost four years…really tough healing work, the kind that shifts the soul…hers and mine. Anita had cancer. 

She came to me for a spiritual healing. Her cancer had advanced and her family thought this was it. I asked her. “Do you want to live or are you ready to die? Either way I’ll help you.” She chose life. So I did my best to help her live. 

Nearly four years of research, trying the best in alternative care—that was her desire—and integrating with some conventional therapies…the best of both worlds. It was a rollercoaster ride—thrilling and scary. I am not a cancer specialist. I’m a hormone specialist. But I’m really good at medical detective work. And I favor the underdog. I hate when patients are not given choices. So I try to investigate the root cause of their dis-ease and usually find something we can work on. Sometimes the root is physical. Sometimes it’s psychological. Always I dig up spiritual roots. 

So in our very first consultation, I got to the heart of the matter. Clearly there was not time to waste with stage IV head and neck cancer.  The conventional physicians she had consulted had not given her much hope…so she explored alternative treatments on her own. It’s sad that we don’t integrate medicine as much as we should. We are all on the wheel of health care together…why can’t we partner? 

Well, at least my patients are willing to partner with me. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s their dance. They pick the music, I follow their lead. And I love to dance! And I haven’t met anyone I can’t partner with on the dance floor. The secret is being open to receive them. Same with patients…if I am open to receive them…our dance is harmonious. 

So I danced with Anita. Followed her lead through the slow laborious melodies and the rapid tumultuous tunes. It was always her dance, not mine. Not that I didn’t have to remind myself on more than one occasion. Like last year, just before her daughter’s wedding. We were nearly there…having accomplished the last of her goals. She wanted to attend her daughter’s wedding as healthy and happy as possible. And all looked well…except I had a niggling worry. One that wouldn’t stop pestering me. Her daughter’s wedding was what she was living for…there was nothing beyond seeing her daughter all grown up, graduated from college and happily married. 

So I brought Anita home…Yes, I work at home…in an office on my property, surrounded by healing herb gardens and great energy…but never had I invited a patient to stay with me, until Anita. It was a deep healing journey for both of us. I helped her discover where her “death wish” originated. We all unconsciously and sometimes consciously direct our bodies towards dis-ease. Sometimes towards death. It begins as a belief that manifests in our body as dis-ease. Anita had hers…and I felt that my job was to enlighten her…then help her reverse the “death wish” and replace it with a “life wish”. That meant finding her purpose. 

She named a possible purpose…yet before she left I asked what she learned…and her “purpose” had not stuck… She said, “Being with you, watching you take care of yourself while you take care of me, makes me realize that I’m not taking care of myself as well as I could be.” 

Anita taught me a crucial lesson. BEING is more important than DOING. Walking my Talk…Being my Truth. Taking excellent care of myself physically, emotionally, spiritually left the deepest impression on Anita.  When we parted, she thanked me. The following month, she attended her only daughter’s wedding—as whole as possible in the face of her disease—pain-free, able to dance all night, as she wished. 

And afterwards her health diminished. Plagued by complications of metastatic cancer, she rallied for months. She tried a promising alternative therapy, yet the cancer progressed. I hesitated to order that last MRI. I knew she didn’t want to know. And we discovered the worst—the cancer had spread to her brain. 

It was time to let her go…to follow yet another path…this time to a major medical center. A path she had resisted…yet at the end she had to try one more possibility. I knew the specialists would want to try more than she believed in…so I went to the hospital to see her before surgery…to be sure she understood that it was palliative, not curative. She understood but had to do it for her family…to show she tried…everything…even though she was tired…even though she was scared. That was the last time I saw her walking and talking…clear headed…determined…yet knowing there was more. She wasn’t quite ready to go then, but she had accepted her death and felt the extra time would help her daughter let her go. And the last ditch effort to save her would help her husband feel they had exhausted all possibilities. She told me then that she did not want to die in the hospital…reminded me of her wishes…and thanked me for my care. 

Over the last three months, she was enmeshed in conventional cancer treatment. The specialists kept telling her everything looked good…but our phone consults, the reports from the visiting nurse, the lab reports told another story. I knew she was dying but her family did not. So I went to her home to help them let her go. 

All the way there I reminded myself why I had become a Family Nurse Practitioner. This was the circle of life. I birth them and death them…it’s a dance of midwifery into the body and out of the body. Yet still it’s hard to let go. 

When I arrived, Anita’s husband let out a great sigh of relief. I could feel the heavy burden he had carried for so long. I gave him a hug and greeted her daughter and son-in-law. They too were delighted to see me…and escorted me to Anita’s room. 

Anita was a lilac flame…a bright and beautiful energy…very loving, a bit tender, yet strong willed. But that night her brilliance had faded. The energy of the dying fades back to white. Hers had concentrated in her heart chakra only a faintly purple glow. She didn’t have much time. 

Carefully I examined her, describing to her family what I saw. Anita was resting, not comfortably and was barely lucid.  Gently I explained the process of death. What would happen to her physically, mentally and energetically.  They wanted to know why the doctors had not told them the truth. Just two days before, she had radiation and they had to cancel that day’s appointment. Clearly she couldn’t go. Clearly… 

As hard as it is for me to let my patients go, it’s harder for doctors. Death is seen as a failure in medicine. Anita’s husband felt the same. “I don’t know what to do if I can’t fix it.” 

I reassured him that they had done everything possible, but now it was Anita’s time to leave her body. I suggested things that they could do for her to help her be more comfortable and how to be with her energetically. I told them their job now was to imprint themselves with her energy, so when she chooses to come to them, they would more easily receive her. Her husband wasn’t sure about what I was describing, but I could feel his desire to know. 

Her daughter got excited by the possibility and remarked how strange it was that Anita seemed to be seeing things. I perceived the energy of Anita’s mother, dead now some 20 years, in the room as soon as I entered.  I smiled, “Of course, that’s your grandmother! And we’re tripping over a big dog that won’t leave your mother’s side.” Her daughter cried, “That must be Savannah! She died just before Mom came to you.” 

At that moment, Anita opened her eyes and nodded vigorously. Weakly, she waved me to her. I leaned close and she barely grasped my arm and whispered, “Thank you.” 

Anita died just thirty hours later. We got hospice involved just in time so the family had support. In fact, I believe her husband was finally able to let her go when he signed the hospice paperwork the next morning. I called the team who worked with her…my collaborating physician, the dedicated pharmacist, the caring nurse. Tears flowed for all of us…as we supported one another…but for Anita…she was free of her pain, finally. 

Her memorial service was so well attended…she had asked her sisters-in-law to organize a family reunion that weekend. She never made it, but they were all there to say goodbye.

Her family spoke eloquently with pictures of Anita as a young woman floating in the background. But it was her husband’s choice of music that touched my soul… 

“The Dance” by Garth Brooks…”I’m glad that I didn’t know.. the way it all would end, the way it all would go. Our lives are better left to chance. I could of missed the pain, but I would had to miss the dance.” 

Thank you, Anita, for allowing me to dance with you.

CELEBRATING GRAN

Gran’s funeral was a great day of celebrating a life well lived.

And the Italian side of the family cooked for two days before Gran’s Day. Steve squeezed over 100 lemons for lemonade and picked tomatoes and basil for the bruchetta. Everything came from our garden…the garden Gran loved so. While my Mom cooked up sausage and peppers, marinated shrimp and zucchini, and Mediterranean wraps, Kyra and I baked Italian cookies. In the middle of baking, I had to leave her with a particularly difficult cookie—bruttis—meaning ugly little cookie—made of ground toasted hazelnuts and meringue, they were delicious! So handling her baking emergency calls while driving to pick up Jarys at the airport…well, it was a very busy day…yet filled with joy, because we were doing it all for Gran. 

As Jarys got settled, I whipped up lemon icing for the agnolettis. Kyra had just put magic bars into the oven (Gran’s favorite). “Jarys is home and here we are baking,” she said with a bit of powdered sugar dusting her cheek, “it feels like the holidays!” Yes, it did. And Gran was with us enjoying every moment. 

Not that I didn’t cry at her funeral. I tried to hold it together with everyone looking to me for direction—not unusual since I tend to lead—but I didn’t have time to cry while setting up for the reception so I just got frustrated. Mom blamed it on hormones (or lack thereof) but all the cookies got plated and the buffet laid out nicely. Flowers from my garden graced the tables…Gran loved to arrange bouquets and her presence was strong while I placed the roses and hydrangeas in vases. So strange how my roses all perished the day she died…then new buds blossomed in time for her funeral. 

Before entering the chapel, I had to stop and cry under a tree. I know Gran wasn’t in that fancy coffin but with me and each of us…in our hearts…yet the tradition of burying the dead…it’s hard. I do not remember my own grandparents’ funerals. I remember their deaths…too well…but their funerals were not celebrations. I didn’t want that for my children…nor would Gran…so we celebrated! 

The chapel was filled with people dressed in…bright Hawaiian prints. Gran loved color! No somber black to dishonor the brightness of Gran.

During the service, Steve honored Gran first. He spoke of her energy and how attached we all were to her energy of hope and home. How by being loved by her, we would always know her energy; she would be attracted to ours and always be with us. Since her death, Gran has come to Steve. He is amazed but not surprised at the clarity of their connection. I am so grateful that Gran has become his spirit partner through the veil…there is no separation. 

Gran was home for the entire family. She never knew a stranger. She loved freely and as Jarys said “accepted each of us for who we are.” The pastor could barely contain us as we stood to speak our love for Gran. 

Five generations attended her funeral…she left a legacy of hope. The reception afterwards turned out to be the party we wanted for Gran. Sharing our memories, loving each other, enjoying the food…of course we made way too much…so Steve’s family was sent home with leftovers. 

Yet I kept some biscotti…to dip in coffee, a cup for me and a half cup for Gran.

IT’S BECAUSE WE’RE ITALIAN

A few days before Gran died, she was expressing her gratitude: “I’m so fortunate to have my family taking care of me.” My mother-in-law responded, “Of course, Mom, it’s what families do.” Gran smiled, “It’s because we’re Italian.”

My mother-in-law gently explained that they are not Italian. (In fact very Anglo-Saxon. The family name is Jones!) Now I’m from an Italian American family and Gran spent an awful lot of time with us…I do believe Italian rubbed off on her. How could it not? We spent most of the time in the kitchen cooking. The rest of the time in the garden enjoying a cup of coffee. Gran loved her coffee. While she was here, I never drank so much in my life! “Come, Debbie, have a cup of coffee with me.” She would ask late in the afternoon. “Oh, and maybe we can have those cookies we made the other day. Just a couple. We don’t want to spoil our dinner.”  How could I refuse? It was precious time spent with an amazing woman…my only grandma.

Italians pass the time playing cards. Gran never played cards before, but she learned fast. Her youngest daughter was surprised, “Mother doesn’t play cards!” Gran was brought up in the Reformed Church of the Latter Day Saints…no card playing allowed, no dancing, no drinking, no swearing. Well, in our house Gran played Gin-Rummy, enjoyed “just a sip” of Steve’s homemade wine and no, not a virgin margarita, but a real one “you know I love the salted rim!” and once we were having a frank discussion after dinner about the consequences of proposition 8 and Gran got upset, “It’s no one’s damn business who people love!” Oh yes, and she and I would dance. Foregoing the walker, I would hold her tightly in my arms and we’d sway to the music.

When Kyra would come home, we would all be in the kitchen making something delicious. My Mom would join us—she runs my practice which is right here on our property so I could be home for the kids and then for Gran—four generations making fig jam, stuffing zucchinis, preparing yet another meal. Mom would squeeze Gran and give her a kiss. “It’s not a kitchen without a grandma in it!” Just as Gran took me in as her granddaughter, she treated my mother as a daughter.

Gran had enough love for all of us and more. Years ago she “adopted” a young black man who reveres her. And her Hispanic caretaker came to the hospital in February, laid her head next to Gran’s and wept. She stayed hours petting and fussing over Gran.

Gran worked in the Farmers Market for 30 something years making friends with Jewish, Asian, Hispanic and Blacks. She did not see race or color or religion or sexual preference. Gran only saw people. And she was always delighted to meet them, all of them…and perhaps share a cup of coffee?

Steve and I were reminiscing last night. I know you tend to elevate the dead, forgetting their worldly transgressions and focusing on the good. But no need to embellish Gran. Like Steve said, “She was always genuinely glad to be see me, accepted me completely and my presence brought her joy.” Gran treated all of us like this…in her presence our truth shone…because she really “saw” us…she looked past the shadows and embraced the light in each of us…

Steve believes karma is incurred over your lifetime. He’s spent his consciously banking good karma. Gran didn’t know much about karma…but her bank was full. I believe karma can be imprinted. My research shows it begins in the womb…remember the Red Cord…yet I have been branded by Gran. She has imprinted me to the roots of my soul.

Only one day gone, I miss her so.

The family is making plans for the funeral. They want to get a hall for the reception afterwards, get a caterer…you know cold cuts and petit fours. I called my mother-in-law and told her “The Italian side of the family is cooking! Oh and we don’t do petit fours.” She laughed and told her sister. I could hear Auntie in the background. “Thank goodness, I love tomato, mozzarella and basil.”

I’ve started the menu entitled—Gran’s Day—the day we gather to celebrate her life: Bruschetta, melon and prosciutto, marinated grilled vegies, olives, of course lots of bread to dip in Mom’s sauce…she’s doing most of the cooking. I’m the baker in the family… Gran loved my holiday cookies and they go so very well with a cup of coffee. We’ll go to the kitchen to connect— I’m sure Gran will join us—to reminisce and to prepare delicious food, lots of it… It’s what family does…because we’re Italian.

Let’s Not Say Goodbye

We said goodbye to my husband’s grandmother. No, Steve insisted, not goodbye, but so long. My grandfather used to say the same thing. Poppop hated goodbyes. I remember his sad long face as he helped my father take our suitcases to the car.  “Say So Long, not Goodbye,” he would tell me.

“Why, Pop?”

“Because, Poppy, Goodbye is forever but So Long means ‘sooner than you know it, we’ll be together again.’”

At nearly 91, Gran was on her death bed. Yesterday we surrounded her with love. And afterwards I wondered how much longer it would be…my medical mind said less than 24 hours, my intuition said at the 11th hour. And she died today at 11am.

Just before the eleventh hour, I asked her through the ethers, “Will I feel you go, Gran?” A lightness of being floated through my soul. And then I got a call she had passed.

Steve then called our son. And Jarys already knew. He wouldn’t say how, but we know he’s intuitive. I reminded Steve of our conversation last night.

My husband and I sat up late talking. He had heard me commenting to his mother how faded Gran’s energy had become. And my mother-in-law, also a nurse, agreed. “Yes, no more irritable reds. She’s resting peacefully pale now.”

Gran’s life force was a soft watery turquoise color. These last few months as her health had been failing, she had been fading. Steve asked about how energy fades at death. I believe we come into this life as pure white light and through the prism of this reality become refracted into our life color. Gran was turquoise. I’m violet. Steve’s green, very green. Jarys is blue—indigo blue. Kyra’s gold.

“Well, what about the other colors—the chakras—you’re always talking about?”

We are all made up of all the colors. The chakras in rainbow order from first to seventh are red to violet. All shades of the colors…like the first chakra—the root chakra is red, but can be any shade from rusty brown to bright cherry. Yet these colors are within the life color—the color of the aura—like a brilliant inclusion of carnelian in a rose quartz.

Being a police officer, Steve has seen lots of death. “When a person dies rapidly like in a car accident, it’s more like an explosion of energy out of their body.”

That’s sudden death, but when a person dies from a terminal illness or old age they slowly fade back to white. He was confused. “I’ve seen old people dying in nursing homes and I would describe their energy as “dimming”.” 

Yes! He perceives energy as light. I perceive energy as color (and light and sound and sometimes smell…but that’s another story.) It’s the same thing, we just describe it differently.

Then we discussed whether the energy that made up our life force had consciousness. He wasn’t sure comparing the body to a car and the energy to the key. “It’s potential that creates consciousness.”

I believe the energy that makes us alive…our life force…our soul…is conscious. It gathers the energetic imprint of our life experiences and then is attracted to those energies in this life and beyond. When we get a visitation from a dead loved one—I believe their energetic imprint triggers our memories of them and we experience them—their voice, their touch, their smell.

Years ago, I was driving to my sister’s house with Jarys and Kyra in the backseat. They were little—6 and 2. I didn’t want to go without Steve, but he had to work that Thanksgiving. And I was nervous. I had been having visions of crashing the car. Suddenly, Old Spice wafted through the car and I felt an oiled leathery hand caress my cheek. Poppop. And I heard, “It’s alright, Poppy.” I felt safe and protected by his love. And Jarys piped up from the back seat. “I smell Poppop!” Yes, he did, thank goodness, so did I.

My grandfather died in 1983 nearly twenty months before Jarys was born. So Jarys never knew him. Or did he? My mother and I were sure Poppop helped guide Jarys to us. Mom was holding Jarys when he was a baby and he reached for a picture in her hall and said “Poppop.” It was his first word. And the picture was of my dead grandfather. So, I do believe the veil is very thin between the worlds. And some of can perceive through the veil. Jarys can.

Kyra, on the other hand, had a close relationship with Nana. When she was just two to three years old, Nana sang to her at night and picked four leaf clovers outside her bedroom window during the day. My grandmother died in 1984. Kyra was born in 1988. Kyra described Nana just as she looked as a very young woman. Not my memory, not even the lullaby Kyra sang for me. My Mom recognized it as one Nana sang to her, but she had never sang it to us or to her grandchildren. And Nana loved to search the lawn for four leaf clovers. Kyra also can perceive through the veil that separates this reality and the next.

Lots of children can and many adults retain or remember their abilities. It’s a gift.

In fact, death is more like a spiritual birthday. While we cry tears of grief here, in the spirit world, Gran is being joyously welcomed. We mourn her physical presence instead of celebrating her freedom. She is free from a body that no longer served her. And we were blessed to have so much time with her. Nearly 91 years!

And the past two years, my family has gotten so very close to Gran. A series of synchronistic events brought her to us. Two autumns in a row, she spent precious time in our home. We’re so fortunate. Gran’s energy, her personality is one of delight. She was delighted to meet you, to share a meal with you, to be with you. She was delighted with the sunshine and the stars, with the birds and the butterflies. She was especially delighted with flowers. A professional flower arranger…she taught me how to make the perfect bouquet…for every season…we collected blossoms, and herbs, greenery and leaves to make delightful arrangements for every table in the house, even outside. I have vases filled with gifts from my garden throughout the house and all the outdoor gathering places. A little bit of Gran…always. 

I’ve known Gran since I was 17. She’s always treated me as one of the family…”our Debbie”, she would call me. And my Granny died a few years after my Nana died. Gran was my grandmother too; I shared her with Steve and his two brothers and nine cousins and lots of great and great-great grandchildren. Gran was my only grandmother left on earth.

Gran was unique—someone who accepted everyone for who they were.  She saw the good in everyone. Steve said Gran has a Pop soul—my Poppop was by far the most generous man I’ve ever known. As my brother-in-law said yesterday, no matter how hectic their lives were, Gran was always there for them in that little house in Van Nuys. You could call anytime or just show up and she would take you in and get you what you needed to feel whole. She was home for her family.

Years ago when I was going to grad school at UCLA, I stayed with Gran. She took care of two year old Jarys while I pursued my advanced degree. I depended on her to take care of us and she did it so well, so graciously—delighted to spend time with me and especially with her great-grandson. The memories are so clear for me, for she was home for me too.

I’m so grateful that we have created a home for us. Gran loved it here. She loved the garden, the flowers, the butterflies and hummingbirds. She loved being here and we loved having her. Two years ago, she came to stay when my mother-in-law had to be hospitalized. Gran was a bit unsteady using her cane, so Steve took her to the pharmacy to test drive a four-wheel walker. No, no let Medicare pay for it…the family protested. No, no, I was not going to risk her falling on our wood floors or Saltillo patios, so I took her back to the pharmacy and got the walker. Gran cried. And became really mobile for the first time in over a year.  She pushed that walker all around the house, into the outdoor room and out onto the patio overlooking the herb garden. We had to stop her from trying to negotiate the steps on her own. The walker had a little seat that she would stack with dishes to set the table or laundry to fold while she watched “Ellen.” She loved helping me cook. Her coordination was not such that she could safely work over a flame, but she was a great prep chef, chopping and measuring. When my mother-in-law got out of the hospital and came to our house to recuperate, she was surprised to see Gran using a knife. “She’s on Coumadin! What if she cuts herself?” I smiled. “No worries, I can stop her bleeding. She’ll be fine.” And she was and free for a long time.

When Gran lived with us, she needed help bathing. The first time, I drew her bath in the guest room. I thought the tub would be perfect…a sitting tub with a little seat inside a shower. I helped her in and helped her sit down, and she said, “Uh, Oh!” Well, not so perfect. The seat was too low and her knees were higher than her hips. “You’re not going to be able to get me out.”

I said, we’d deal with that after her bath, and planned to call Steve if necessary. She must have heard my thoughts. “I’ll be so embarrassed if Steve has to help.” Yikes!

Well, by the time we finished, it was clear that I would not be able to get her up from outside the tiny tub. So I stripped off my soaked nightgown and stepped into the tub with her. She laughed; her youngest daughter did that too. No wonder. I had given bed baths as a nurse but not tub baths and this time I had gotten as wet as washing three little kids.  I bent my knees with one between hers, gave her a big hug, stood up, and we stepped out of the tub. She didn’t let me go. “It feels so nice to hold you like this.” I squeezed her tight. It did feel nice. Then she laughed, “But there are only three breasts between us!” I nearly dropped her slippery self. She was right. She had a mastectomy some 15 years before!

A great sense of humor in a vast pool of sweet wisdom spiced with more love than most people ever know. That was Gran. That still is Gran. Because I know she will come to me and to my children and husband and the rest of the family whenever we need her, if we are open to receive her.

So long, Gran. Not goodbye, because we will meet again.

For more on the Spiritual Transformation we call Death: read my article Death and the White Light