The Bees Of The Invisible

Life and death are strange things. Or maybe it’s death that’s strange, at least to those of us who are still alive. A wise friend keeps saying we have to just accept the way things are, that we could go nuts trying to figure out the whys of it all, but since I seem to live on the edge of death (other people’s deaths, not mine), death and the process of getting there are often on my mind.

We start out as miniscule bits and pieces of two people, are born, grow from helpless infants to independent-minded children to independent and autonomous adults, finally ending up helpless again as our bodies deteriorate.

A few friends were talking the other day about all the nonagenarians in our lives, and someone asked what use they were. This is a question many of these aged folks themselves ask, so it’s not an insensitive question by any means. When there is nothing left to accomplish, when you can’t move about freely either mentally or physically, when you can no longer enjoy anything, not even your food because your taste buds have decamped, what use is there in living?

My 97-year-old father is “declining” as the doctors say, which is a cute euphemism for “slowly dying”. He could live a year or more, but still, everything is breaking down, even his normally sharp mind. He hates that he can’t think, hates that he can’t make instantaneous decisions, hates even more to have others make decisions for him. Even worse, he finds the situation embarrassing. I tell him, of course, that there’s nothing to be embarrassed about, that it’s part of the process, but my words don’t make him feel any better about himself.

I don’t want to live to such a great age, and especially I don’t want to wind up helpless and dependent on strangers (I won’t have the benefit my father has of a caregiving daughter). My wise friend reminds me we have no choice in the matter, which is true. The only real choice we have is to live as well as we can as long as we can.

For a long time I’ve thought that if God is Everything, then we are the sensory cells of the Everything, feeling, seeing, touching, hearing, smelling, tasting life. And the poet Rilke seems to agree. He wrote, “It is our task to imprint this temporary perishable earth into ourselves, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again ‘invisibly’ inside us. We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible.”

Maybe these nonagenarians are still gathering their invisible honey as best as they can, but even so, it doesn’t make it any easier watching the old get even older and feebler, gradually losing their touch on life.

Bee

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Dead Man Walking

In the movie The Nature of the Beast, Eric Roberts tells Lance Henriksen that “dead man walking” refers to an inmate on death row when he’s on the move. Anytime they take the prisoner anywhere, they make sure all the other inmates are locked down and that the condemned man is accompanied by several armed guards. As they walk, they announce, “Dead man walking,” because this is the most dangerous sort of person in the world. He can do anything to anyone without any repercussions. He has nothing to lose. He’s already going to die, so what can they do, kill him twice?

prisonListening to that exchange, it struck me that we are all dead men walking. We are all on death row, condemned to die, just waiting for the day when life executes us.

When my grief was at its worst, a bereft friend who was also struggling for reasons to live told me about a woman who had lost everyone she had ever loved, was now alone in her old age, but was the most joyful person my friend had ever met. We marveled at that because it seemed incomprehensible to us, but perhaps the woman knew something we didn’t. Perhaps she knew that we are all dead men walking, the penalty of death has already been handed out, and so we have nothing left to do but live each moment until the sentence is carried out. Maybe the truth is that within the prisons of our aging (and sometimes disabled) bodies, within the prisons of our responsibilities and financial burdens and fears, we can do whatever we want.

Of course, most of us have no interest in killing, robbing, or doing anything that will land us in the slammer; our desires are more socially acceptable and carry fewer penalties. And perhaps it’s not even a matter of doing what we want, but simply living each day as it comes and being open to whatever happens.

A woman who lost her husband many years ago recently told me that things will get better in ways I never imagined. She said she believes that we are all blessed and will know joy to the degree that we have felt sorrow.

Perhaps that, too, is a lesson the old woman learned, and now she is experiencing that joy. Maybe someday we all will. If nothing else, it’s something to believe in, that despite (or because of) our sentence of death, we will be blessed with unimaginable joy.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Grief Update

I haven’t been posting any grief updates lately because I haven’t had much to tell. There has been no great pain or sorrow, no major traumas or dramas, no new adventures to undertake — just living my every day life of quiet sadness and loneliness.

Although I haven’t had any major grief upsurges for a while, I do often think of my deceased life mate/soul mate, even talk to him. Oddly, now that the agony of grief has mostly subsided, it feels as if he is back at home, waiting for me to finish my present tasks and return to him. I know he isn’t there, of course, but without the pain to simultaneously bind us and separate us, he doesn’t feel quite so gone.

I am still very confused by death. How can he be dead? Where is he? Is he? Perhaps he is waiting for me, perhaps he is simply gone . . . deleted. I won’t know until my life is ended, and perhaps not even then. Whatever exists beyond our cloak of materiality and physicality, beyond our brains and our minds, might have consciousness, or might simply be pure energy that returns to the Everything.

I’ve never known where to put his death in my head. I can’t be glad about it, yet at the same time, he couldn’t have continued to suffer. But more than that, if he is in a better place, why I am still here? And if life is a gift, why was it denied him? I’ve held on to the idea that dying relatively young was unfair to him, that he is missing something, and a lot of my grief was on his behalf, but the other night I realized it truly doesn’t matter whether we are alive or dead. Well, his death matters to me, but it doesn’t matter to the universe, and it probably doesn’t matter to him. Nor does my continued life matter in the vastness of life/death. A few years extra of life is but a dandelion seed in the winds of time. Almost totally matterless. Maybe even meaningless. In which case it truly doesn’t make any difference that I am alive and he is dead. (Well, except for the part where I miss him, but this insight wasn’t about that.)

Even if life is largely matterless and meaningless, I am still alive and at least for now, that does make a difference to me and those I am in contact with. But it’s good knowing I neither have to be glad nor sad for him, that I can continue to live without feeling bad that he is dead. Knowing this also makes it easier to remember him, to recall what we had, to celebrate his place in my life. I am still sad, of course, and maybe I always will be. I miss him, wish desperately for one smile, but gradually I am letting go of my worries for him. He doesn’t need them, and they are an unnecessary relic of our life together. And for all I know, he could be perfectly content, sitting by some cosmic lake, two ghost cats purring in his lap.

Someday, as my grief continues to wane, I might even get to the point where I find renewed life, but I still take comfort where I can find it, and for now I take comfort in thinking that life and death are somehow one.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” All Bertram’s books are published by Second Wind Publishing. Connect with Pat on Google+

Life, Grief, and Entropy

For just a moment yesterday, while I was walking in the desert, all seemed clear to me. Well, all as related to my grief that is. I could see that things happened the way they needed to. My life mate/soul mate and I could not continue the life we’d been living. We were trapped in an untenable situation, not just because of his health and our finances, but because the place we were living was stifling us. There was nowhere to walk except a 600-yard-long road, nothing to do we hadn’t already done a hundred times, nothing to see that we hadn’t seen a thousand times, but we couldn’t leave. He was too sick to survive a move. Besides, he was comfortable where he was.

Those years of entrapment seemed to go on forever, the only changes being a continual worsening of his health, a continual increasing of his pain, and a continual deadening of my senses.

We were living a classic example of entropy. Entropy is a measure of the amount of energy that is unavailable to do work, and it tends to increase in closed systems. In other words, in a closed system, things break down and stop working. Because of his health, we could not do anything to stop the entropy of our lives. We could only endure.

And then one day, he was set free from his pain-wracked body and cancer-ridden brain. And I was set free from the horror of entropy.

It seemed to me, yesterday, that our lives worked out as they should have. That in a terrible way, we both got what we needed.

I felt at peace most of the day, but the feeling didn’t hold. Last night, the thought “But he’s dead!” hit me. And so sorrow descended once more.

I can see, though, that such moments of clarity will increase until I can finally accept that yes, he is dead, but so what? Someday, I will be dead, too. Meantime, I live to battle entropy another day.

Wondering About Life And Death And The Meaning Of It All

I don’t think I had survivor’s guilt after the death of my life mate/soul mate, but I do feel bad that I’m leaving him behind. I get a second chance at life, new friends, new vistas, new experiences, but he has been denied that. And in fact, he was denied all those things long before his death since his protracted dying kept him from doing much except struggling to get through one more pain-filled day.

He often told me that when he got incapacitated, I had to put him in a home and walk away. Just forget him. I know he’d want me to do the same thing now that he is dead, but I didn’t walk away when I had to put him in the hospice care center, and I can’t walk away now, and for certain I can’t just forget him.

But perhaps I am looking at the situation backward. His being dead is still the thing that drives my sadness — sadness not just for me but for him. And yet . . . what if it is he who left me behind? Perhaps he has gone on to a wondrous new life, in which case my sadness on his behalf is misplaced. And maybe none of this has anything to do with me. Maybe it’s not up to me to worry if he was cheated or not, or even to wonder if he’s in a better place. Despite our deep connection, he was still his own person. Maybe I’m poking into something that is his alone.

Just as I have to accept that my life is mine alone now.

About a year before he died, I hugged him and accidentally touched his left ear. I know now cancer had metastasized all the way up his left side and into his brain, but at the time, all I knew was that he pushed me away, wincing in agony. Something shut off right then, and a voice deep inside me said, “He might dying but I have to live.” For all that year, we went our separate ways, he to dying, me to living. Then, six weeks before he died, he made the connection with me again. He needed to talk about what was happening to him so he could gather courage to face what was coming, and during that daylong conversation, I remembered why I fell in love with him all those years ago.

Because of that disconnected year, a year where I felt dissociated from him and our life, I didn’t expect to grieve, but here I am, two years and seven weeks later, still struggling to deal with the wreckage of our shared life, still sad, still wondering about life and death and the meaning of it all. When life makes sense, death doesn’t. When death makes sense, life doesn’t. It would be nice to talk to him and compare notes about what we’re both doing, but so far he’s remaining silent.

One thing has changed recently. In between the moments of angst and wanting it all to be over with, in between the pinchings of grief and not caring what happens to me, that determination of several years ago is making itself felt.

He might be dead, but I have to live.

I just wish I knew how.

What is Life? What is Death? And What do Such Questions Have to do With Grief?

I always like when people think out loud here on my blog, when something I have said strikes an answering chord, and often when they’re not sure if they are making sense, they make the most sense to me. The only good thing about my grief is that I’ve met some wonderful people who are struggling with the same questions I am, and I’ve had some thought-provoking discussions about the meaning of life, death, grief, and whether any of it matters.

Leesa from Leesis Ponders believes that it does matter. She wrote on her blog:

I have spent my whole life asking if there is a god and if so what does it have to do with me.

And for me, life matters.

The search for self that blends into all matters.

The way we act towards others matters.

The way we raise our kids matters.

The way we treat the less empowered matters.

Leesa has been here with me through almost two years of grief, letting me know that my grief matters, that life matters.

In a previous post, Falling Into Grief, I wrote: Before people fall in love, they haven’t a clue of its true power, and then it washes over them in a life-changing moment. Before you fall into grief, you haven’t a clue of its true power, but it too washes over you in a life-changing moment, and all but drowns you. Even though I’ve experienced so much of what grief does to a person, I still can’t believe its power. The way grief reflects falling in love as in a very dark mirror, there has to be a hormonal component. I know stress releases hormones, as does shock. Adrenaline courses through your body, and there are changes in brain chemistry that produce hormones. Your immune system goes on hold.

Leesa responded: one thing you are absolutely spot on about is that we don’t know the power of falling in love nor the power of grief, nor indeed the power of love when ones baby is born until we actually experience it. The reality of life seems to be that our most intense experiences in life are about our deepest connection to each other. These experiences are life altering and this goes way beyond the DNA imperative.

For me personally then questions upon questions arise. Why is this intimate connection our deepest need, our greatest joy?  What is pain about? What is the sense of being alone about? How does our idea of separating off into couples and nuclear families contribute to our sense of loss when death occurs? Why are we so interdependent on each other, on the planet on everything else. And, what is death about? 

I know that many people feel they have their answers to that last question, some theologically, some via science but personally I don’t. Another bunch of folk seem to think we can’t answer such questions. I don’t agree. I think since many of us have dumped traditional theological answers or scientific reductionist responses as inadequate we’ve kind of given up questioning. I think we need to keep questioning because whilst we are subject to many biochemical reactions to life events there is a deeper reality.

Of course none of this helps a person smack bang in the middle of grief. It still has to be lived through. But I’m convinced that we need to keep asking. I hope this makes sense to what you’ve written…I’m not sure it makes exact sense to me. I guess I just feel that once we truly understand more our experience of these events will be perceived differently…perhaps the pain will be the same but perceived differently. I’m not sure really but I am sure we don’t know enough to interpret meaning yet.

Leesa’s question, “What is death about?” haunts me. She’s right — many people do think they know the answer, but there is no way to know for sure, which is why it’s called a “belief” and not a “surety.” I do think there is a deeper reality, I’m just not sure our conscious selves are a part of it. We are so much a product of our genetics, our hormones, our brains (anyone who has had to cope with an Alzheimer’s sufferer or a loved one who had cancer in their brains, and found a stranger in that familiar body, knows how much the brain controls who we are), that I’m not sure how much of “us” survives.

There is a theory that our bodies are like television channels, receptors for certain wavelengths, so that our “souls” actually reside outside our bodies, but what does that have to do with life in our bodies?.

My friends laugh at me (affectionately) when I ask what we’re supposed to do with eternity. We have no mouths to talk, no hands to write, no arms to hug, no eyes to read or watch movies, no legs to walk.

On the other hand, if human life is a spectrum as I postulated a few days ago, then perhaps the spectrum of a human life is the same sort of spectrum as light — beginning long before the visible part appears and ending long after the visible part disappears. Of course, the non-visible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum aren’t light but sound and radiation and other invisible waves, so whatever exists outside of the visible human spectrum might be something completely different from we can ever imagine.

When I get lost in the questioning, I hold tight to Leesa’s credo that such such questions matter, that life matters.

The Awesome and Awesomely Terrible State of Grief

Whenever I hear that one of my sisters (or brothers) in sorrow is being cajoled into taking drugs to overcome her grief, I want to lash out, and this is how I lash out — I write a blog about it.

Grief is not a medical disorder. If the bereft has sunk into a severe depression, if she can’t sleep, if she is suffering symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, perhaps pharmacopeia can help. But if the bereft is taking care of herself and her family, if she is connecting to people in a real way (or as real as is possible considering how isolating grief is), if she is not endangering herself or anyone else, then the last thing she needs is to be badgered into solving her problems by taking a pill.

Grief is not a problem to be solved. It is not an abnormality that needs to be corrected. Daily bursts of grief during the first two years are normal. In fact, for many bereft, the second year is worse than the first. The original shock of losing the most significant person in your life and the shock of confronting death on a visceral level do not begin to wane until after the first year. As that protective shroud begins to unwind, the truth is shown in all its stark horror. He is dead, and there is nothing you can do about it. Of course, you knew that, but during the second year, the knowledge seeps into your soul, and you feel the truth of it.

All during my first year of grief, I kept listening for the phone, hoping he would call and tell me I could come home, that he forgave me for whatever it was I did that made him reject me. I do not know where that thought came from. I never did anything (except small inconsideratenesses) for which I needed forgiveness. And he didn’t reject me. He died. But somehow, that is the way my mind made sense of the situation.

About fourteen months into my grief, the truth sunk in that he will never call to tell me I can come home. This set off an upsurge of grief that stayed with me for weeks. Now I’ve regained my equilibrium, but I still have bursts of grief every day. Sometimes they last seconds, sometimes they last minutes, sometimes they last longer. This is normal. Truly. (Not having bursts of grief everyday is normal, too, but that is not the issue here.)

All grief is not the same. I lost my brother and my mother a few years ago. I was sad at their deaths, but felt no great life-altering grief. Then my life mate/soul mate died, and his death caused such a soul quake that I am still reeling from the effects. (Recently, another layer of the shroud has unwound, and I can think more clearly now than I have for many years. I must have been more numb during the last years of his dying than I thought I’d been.)

Grief is not just a state of sadness. Grief is a regulator, rewiring our brains to accept the enormity of life and death. Grief is a prism, focusing our attention on the big picture, forcing us to ask the important questions of why we are here, where we are going, and how we connect with each other and the universe. Grief is a teacher, helping us to grow, to become more than we ever thought possible. (At least I think it does — I am not yet the person I hope to be.) Grief is also a gift, perhaps even a privilege. Not everyone has the opportunity (or the ability) to connect so deeply with another person that the death of that person changes the whole universe.

I make grief sound like a good thing, don’t I? And maybe it is. Why do all good things have to be happy things? Given a choice, of course, I’d rather him than having to deal with the pain of his absence, but it’s only by feeling the pain and processing it that I can see what it does and how it works. Sometimes I think my whole life has led to this very moment, to this place where I can separate the myriad feelings of grief and translate them, to explain the truth of this awesome and awesomely terrible state.

This normal state.

The Soundtrack of Our Lives

I never paid much attention to the soundtrack of my life until a few months after my life mate’s death when I realized all the things I wasn’t hearing. Every morning for decades, I woke to the motorized whine of his blender as he made a protein drink, the shushing of running water as he filtered the drinking water for the day, the clink of weights as he did his exercises. We were quiet people, but during the day, I’d occasionally I’d hear the soft hum of his music or tinny voices from the television in the other room. In the summer I could hear the rustle of the hose in the weeds as he watered the bushes and trees outside my window, and in the winter I could hear the stamp of his boots when he came in from clearing off snow. And always when we were together, there was the lovely sound of his voice as we talked and talked and talked — we talked of anything and everything until he got so sick he couldn’t carry the thread of a conversation any more. At the end, there were the scary night sounds of his falling when he tried to get out of bed, and the even scarier sounds of his yelps when he woke and couldn’t remember who he was or where he was.

Just from those sounds, you get an idea of our life together and how it ended. What is the soundtrack of your life? How has it changed over the years?

If you are a writer, what are the soundtracks of your characters’ lives? What do those sounds mean to your characters, and how does the soundtrack change during the course of the book to reflect the changes in their circumstances. How much can your readers tell about your characters from the sounds they hear?

A Search for Meaninglessness

The death of my life mate — my soul mate — has posed such a conundrum for me that for the past sixteen months I’ve been questioning the meaning of my life. Life didn’t seem meaningless when he and I were together. I never felt as if I were wasting time no matter what we did — even something trivial like playing a game or watching a movie — so why do I feel I’m wasting time if I do those things alone? Don’t I have just as much worth now that I’m alone as I did when I was with him? Of course I do. It’s the things themselves that feel a waste. I feel as if I should be doing something significant. Something that has meaning. The problem is that very little seems meaningful. So much of life consists of basic survival tasks such as eating, sleeping, chores, paying bills, which are essentially meaningless (or meaninglessly essential). Even more meaningless are the things we do to kill time, such as playing computer solitaire, watching television, or writing blog posts.

When I was out walking in the desert recently, I had a revelation of sorts. I decided that if my life mate still exists somewhere, if he still has being, if life doesn’t end with death, then life has an inherent meaning — whatever we do or think or feel, no matter how trivial, has meaning because it adds to the Eternal Everything. If death brings nothing but oblivion, then there is no intrinsic meaning to life. So a search for meaning is meaningless (except on a practical level. We all need to feel we are doing something meaningful so we can get through our days and even thrive). Life either has meaning or it doesn’t. Meaning isn’t something to find but to be. So, I’m going to search for meaninglessness, or at least accept it.

Such thoughts seem as meaningless and as trivial as the rest of life. They get me knowhere. (I’m leaving that typo, because . . . wow! So perfect!) But I need to find the bedrock of life, a foundation on which to rebuild my life, and meaninglessness seems as good a place to start as any.

Multi-Asking

Ever since my life mate died, my mind has churned with unaswerable questions.

Is he warm? Fed? Does he have plenty of cold liquids to drink? Is he sleeping well? Does he still exist somewhere as himself or has his energy been reabsorbed into the universe? Is he glad he’s dead? He brought so much to my life, but what did I bring to his? Why can’t I see him again? Why can’t I talk with him? Will we meet again, or is death truly the end? Was it fate that we met? Fate that he died? I’ve been finding comfort in the thought that he is at peace, but what if he isn’t? What if he’s feeling as split apart as I am?

Will he recognize me if we ever meet again? Will he be proud of what I become? He helped make me the woman I am today, but what’s it all for? Where am I going? And why? It does seem as if my life is a quest for truth, for understanding, but what’s the point? I suppose the journey is the point, but still, at the end of a quest story, the hero returns with the magic elixir. She has a purpose for what she’s gone through. Do I have a fate, a purpose? But what about him? What was his purpose? I try to make sense of his death, but how do you make sense of something senseless?

How do I find meaning, or at least a reason to continue living? Do I need a mate in order for my life to have meaning?

Can a person drown in tears? Yesterday someone told me that life on earth was an illusion and so my mate still exists. But if life is an illusion, why couldn’t it be a happy figment? A joyful one? What’s the point of pain? Of loss? Of suffering? Why did he have to suffer? Why do I? Do I have the courage to grow old alone? The courage to be old alone when the time comes?

Why do we cling so much to life? In the eternal scheme of things, does it matter how long or short a life is? Does it matter that he only had sixty-three years? Does it matter that he was alive? What is the truth of life and death? If he’s in a better place, why aren’t I there? If life is a gift, why was it taken from him?

Is there anything universally important? Love, perhaps, but not everyone loves or is loved. Creativity? But not everyone is creative. Truth? But what is truth? Is the human mind, with its finiteness, capable of understanding the truth? If nothing is universally important, does anything matter? Maybe it’s better to let life flow, to try to accept what comes, but isn’t the point of being human to try to make a difference? To try to change what is?

Supposedly, you can have a relationship with someone after they are dead, but it’s all in the mind, in memory. What’s the difference between that and fantasy? And how much of life is lived in the mind? All of it? All except the present? But even the present is lived in the mind since the mind (or rather the brain) takes the waves of nothingness and transform them into somethingness. So what is reality? The intersection of all minds?

I know there are no answers, I am simply . . . multi-asking.