It is What it is What it is but Really it’s Not
There is a moment during the course of an illness, either one’s own or that of someone close, during which the mind returns to memory, then the future, and then the agonizing present, and the result feels like Love. Not love in the normal course of a day or a month or a decade, the mundane love that makes a life possible and is also, paradoxically, possible to ignore: the Love of which I am thinking is more akin to the falling sort. All else fades. One’s reality becomes the memory of before the love, when the love first made its arrival, and fretful fear over the future date of its departure. Sum & total, c’est tout, turn out the lights it’s over – that sort of Love.
But in this case, the love overlays grief and loss as a fragile palimpsest. Just beneath the surface, illness. Pain. Of the physical sort, or the metaphysical sort. Illness makes electric feelings and memories long dormant, but illness is also a reminder, a reminder of a promise we were given at birth: all this too will fade.
How we live our lives primarily ignoring the solidity of this promise always leaves me in a bemused state of astonishment – we all do it, the denial is an addiction tucked into biological necessity. This is one of the brutally beautiful revelations of sickness: here it is, the presence of Death, undeniable as the tides.
Primarily, we live life as children. There is a boundary surrounding us. The boundary is time. It is age. Sickness. Death. In order to feel as though we are alive and free, we pretend the boundary doesn’t exist, or not yet, or perhaps only for others. To dwell is morbid, to ignore is freedom.
I have seen Death come to many, starting as a child with a great and slavish love for animals. One of the most visceral memories I posssess is that of lifting the great, warm, limp body of an enormous orange cat off the hot pavement in front of my house on a summer night. I was a tiny child. I remember feeling the blood, the heat and the unmistakable absence of Life all blended together, like a dream twining itself to a waking dawn. The cat, he was so soft, so surprised, really, at his violent murder. I remember thinking I could not pick him up, he was big as my body, and besides what was I to do with this noble and innocent creature…. these thoughts return to me as if his body were laid across my lap as I write these words.
There it is again: the visceral reaction to the presence of Death, how similar it is to the emergence of Love.
I have the image of a lonely noble girl in a stone cottage with her first stag. Is guilt inherent in the experience of life ending? This small girl, bewildered, yet very much transfixed and transformed by this first understanding that at the core of Life is Death, and the heart of Death would be broken without knowing first the song cycle of birth and growth and decay.
The Upanishads, the pre-Socratics, the encompassing myths from Greece to China to our indigenous peoples, not to mention the perfect lines created by British Metaphysical poets: all these tales and worldviews unfold for us the mystery and umbilical connectivity between Love and Death. It is a common and powerful tale, endlessly enthralling, to have one stand in for the other.
However, for those of us odd enough, unlucky enough, or perhaps just macabre and lonely enough, there is exists a distinctly personal overlap and identification with Death’s preamble, no matter the length, and that of a new Love. Perhaps it is the immediacy. Or the urgency. Nonetheless, the link exists, like a pendant. Or a chain.
I am extremely lonely in my beautiful and rich life. All my interests, my intelligence, such as it is, my creativity, such as it is not, and my keen desire to get rid of the word “my,” which is a lifelong practice of Practice – all this fades during long weekends without my children or friends or lovers.
It is during these times I become decidedly self-destructive, both actively and in passive but long-lasting thoughts of cruel self-loathing. To stem the flow of this pattern, I have begun listening, uncharacteristically, to podcasts.
I love them. I love the disembodied voices. I love the act of listening, which is both an act in its true sense and more and more also a lost art. Poems require listening. Spiritual practice requires the deepest listening, too much sometimes for my traumatized body. Music requires listening and understanding and, I think, a response beyond the emotional. And podcasts, those written and spoken by thoughtful humans, require listening as well. But the listening is companionable; it has a sweetness to it that poetry rejects, that spiritual practice allows only occasionally, and that music dictates, necessarily, out of one’s control.
I digress. Podcasts. There is one in particular I love right now. In it, the speaker refers to grief and working with the loss of “Your dead person.” This phrase never fails to make me smile and to also wonder “which one?”
Right now I am working with the tumult of what this podcaster might call “Your sick person.” And the work is really just engaging in being actively present. And being actively present with a sick person one loves beyond all language is really, really exhausting. And this act of presence brings up intense memories of the “before” sickness, the during, and the “what next,” or, worse “what is… after?” And these memories, combined with the urgencies of the present woes and demands and newly carved out roles of dependency and irritability and need, resistance to need…