“The Work Will Teach You How To Do It”
“The work will teach you how to do it” – Zen proverb
My family and I are backpacking in a foreign country. Everything is diffused in a gorgeous golden Mediterranean light as we walk into an elegant city. We approach a plaza and on the plaza’s edge there is an enormous marble columned building. Hushed figures walk about in the mysterious aura of this grand building. We walk up the steps towards the building’s entrance and look down an enormous hallway where people seem to glide, rather than walk. The whole atmosphere is quiet, and serious. The seriousness seems to be Holy, nothing to be frightened of. As we proceed, we see that the hall opens onto a large room where something important is happening. Six to eight darkly clothed figures sit behind a long table. The rest of the room is filled with people waiting their turn to meet them. We stand outside the door, watching and trying to figure out what is happening, and why we are here. But we know, without a doubt, that we all have to go in. Without knowing exactly why, I turn to my family and say, “What the heck, I’ll go first.” I start to head to the back of the room to wait my turn when one of the figures motions for me to come up to the table right away. I don’t remember seeing their faces, just their presence. They turn all of their attention towards me and asked me to sit down.
It suddenly dawns on me what is happening and I sink into the chair, crying. It is a life review. “I really tried!” I sob. And with profound kindness, they assure me that they already know. I speak to them in words, but they communicate to me telepathically. I feel their thoughts. I experience a deep sense relief from the kindness they emanate. They take out a large, oblong book and open the pages before me. On the pages are the trunks of several trees, and each tree represents something I have done creatively to lift myself above my circumstances. I see the antique letterpress print shop I developed 30 years ago; I see the foreign film library I operated out of a small rural town and a few literary magazines I started; other creative endeavors, including the Hemingway Project, transform into trees printed onto the white pages of the book. Each time I found a mentor or mentored someone else, or made a friendship, a new branch suddenly materializes on the page. The trees fill out with the things I have learned. They silently show me that I have lived a full and good life. “Thank you for showing me this,” I say. “But there’s one thing. I never made much money. I feel like I didn’t do my part.” They close the book and ever so gently, silently communicate, “And that’s why we want you to stay. You need to learn to value yourself.” I instantly feel foolish for forgetting something I already knew: it’s not about money, not even close!
If there was ever a moment of foreshadowing in my life, it was this dream that I had two nights before my unexpected stroke that partially paralyzed me and brought news that my breast cancer had returned, with metastases to my brain and lungs. I’ve never heard the expression “near–death dream,” but that is what is it was.
This is a part of my story that I’ve wanted to share for a long time.
Over a year ago I posted my first essay that was not about Ernest Hemingway. Instead, I wrote an essay about me. This post is a follow-up to the first one, summarizing my life after my “two months to live” diagnosis in May of 2013. My family and I didn’t realize at the time how irrevocable those changes would be, and how long they would reverberate in all of our lives. If you need the backstory, click this link.
In the beginning, I was very positive. Maybe it was my hopeful nature. Or maybe I could not accept what was happening in my life. Ironically, my sense of humor was at its all-time best during my first year of recovery. People would marvel at how calm I was, and how light-hearted. Looking back now, ignorance truly is bliss and this “forgetting”, whether conscious or not, bought me more time to actually face my situation, until all of us could.
We have only been able to comprehend it by degrees. I’ve cried more in the last two years than I thought anyone could possibly cry. But in sharing my story with you, I am reminded again, that despite feeling like a grand piano fell on my head, the story I’m living is actually quite beautiful. These two years have been heartbreaking in some ways, and in other ways a time of incredible love, profound learning, some truly hilarious and humbling moments, and yes, miracles.
Despite every single doctor’s negative response to my persistent optimism, those two months flew by, and I was still very much alive. In fact, I felt good most of the time. We were cautiously excited by how well I was doing. The first year passed, and to everyone’s surprise, I started another year of life. And then with quite a few bumps in the road, another year passed. As of last week, I am now starting my third year of life after that initial diagnosis.
For someone in my position, I have been extremely lucky. I am in very little pain considering my inventory of broken parts: a paralyzed right hand from the stroke, lost vision in my left eye, diminished hearing, poor short term memory, and, recently, a broken femur. A few months ago, I fell and snapped my femur bone in two – sending me back to bed for a few months and completely shattering my confidence for awhile. This was about the time the word “handicapped” started to show up in conversation with doctors. Like the word “hospice”, I wanted none of it, and I made sure everyone knew it.
But as time went on, even though I have made so much progress in all areas, I was compelled to deal with what I’ve lost and where to start again. I can certainly draw a line in my life and say, There I am as I was, but who am I now? My spirit is strong but the body is lagging behind. I need help with zippers and buttons, cutting my food, getting in and out of the shower, and much more. I am, of course, describing a person who could legally be granted handicapped parking plates for the car. We haven’t gotten the plates yet, and it’s more than odd to think that we could. Like Ernest Hemingway, I made a mad rush to the door for freedom and independence at an early age, especially freedom. Authority figures make me itch all over, still. It is more than a humbling experience for someone like me to need so much help from others.
With a heavy heart, I realized that I was going to have to learn how to live in a completely new way.
I have been talking with a friend recently about how it feels to essentially start your whole life over, to rethink it, and remake it. He hesitated. That sounded hard to him. In fact, it seemed like a risky idea. But you know what? I think I am already good at it. One of the reasons that I find the position I am in right now so crushing, is that the years just before my cancer reoccurrence had been the happiest, most interesting, positive, adventurous and loving years of my life. But the bulk of that happiness, that liberation, was hard earned.
Our family’s journey abroad started in Argentina, where we signed a two-year lease on a beautiful house in the wine region. For me, moving to Argentina was like being thrown into the deep end of the pool without knowing how to swim. As beautiful as it is, I felt like a woman on the Oregon Trail, shedding possessions, roles, assumptions, attitudes, habits, and parts of myself left and right. It was not easy, and it was just the beginning of a long refining process for me, one that eventually, after almost breaking me, set me free.
Because the Spanish language did not come as easily to me as it did for the rest of my family, I was often lonely (click here to read about learning Spanish). I could not find books in English and so much of what was my life, or rather, my identity, was gone. I went from a life that was pretty easy for me, and a life in which I knew exactly who I was, to an existence that was challenging in every way. It was very disappointing that I found no comfort in meeting other women in Argentina as potential friends. They were all very interested in my husband and sons, but not me. Not at all.
During this first year of living abroad I was struggling more than anyone realized, and the situation demanded that I essentially “transform or fail”. Everyone else in my family was having a blast in this exotic new place – especially our sons, who were 15 and 18 at the time. To their delight (and my horror) Argentine women fell all over them, one woman who was almost 30 telling my youngest that the best way to learn Spanish was in bed! Ours sons, at that time teenagers, went from public high in a small town to Tango shows that started at 1:30 in the morning in smoke-filled clubs on streets whose name I couldn’t pronounce. I could not have felt more displaced, especially in my role as their mother, which I’ve always considered sacred and the most important thing I’ve ever done with my life. We were there two years after the 2002 financial crash and only thirty years after the Dirty War, when so many mothers lost their children. It was hard not to pick up the sense of grief and melancholy that can still be felt there.
We all learned that year. For instance, our sons learned not to take off their shoes and give them away every time someone asked for them. (Yes, this happened twice). I did learn pigeon Spanish, but what was birthed in me during that first difficult year was my ability to set aside what I knew and stay open to whatever was in front of me. This was not without tears, but it was a matter of survival for myself and for my marriage.
When I came back to the states after a year and a half, what I carried with me and who I was were completely different than when I left. That year was beyond humbling and was certainly a trial by fire. Some of my best lessons about kindness and compassion came from the most unlikely, humble people. I, who was so clever in my own country, was now being rescued, taught, and saved by modest gestures of kindness and care. As a matter of survival, I learned about how to read people, how to connect at a deeper level, and how to re-invent myself as the situation required. I came to a place of surrender, of giving up everything but the moment.
Gradually, that “self”, became braver, kinder, more generous, and less attached to everything. In the next 10 years we would live in Chile, Spain, and Panama and with every month and year of disorientation in new countries, I became oriented to my self, my core, what is left when everything familiar is gone.
One of the best things I learned from people in Spanish speaking countries was something you don’t often find in American life. It is a sense of play – and best of all, flirting. I don’t mean flirting the way we usually think of it – this kind of flirting was an invitation to mischief and delight, word play and innuendo, but it wasn’t about sex, it was about being alive. They flirted with the world and taught the world to flirt right back. They entered into almost every exchange with a look of delighted expectation; the exchange was going to be interesting, fun, or best yet, funny. This was true of the vegetable peddler, the traveling flower salesman, and the door-to-door knife grinder. All of them did business with a certain measure of play and flirtation. This made something as simple as going to the corner store to buy butter a rather touching and more intimate human exchange, and it’s a way of relating that has always stayed with me. It taught me to be present and playful with everyone and anyone who crossed my path.
But the remaking of my life this year has been another story altogether. I am in yet another country, the country of serious illness, trying to figure out the lay of the land, trying to figure out who I am again. What I am essentially learning now is how to be handicapped – temporarily or permanently, I don’t know.
These losses are bittersweet, because as painful as it is to lose so much, I cannot deny the holy sweetness of putting my hand on the crown of my grown sons’ heads as they kneel to the loving task of helping me tie my shoes. I cannot ignore the way my whole family stopped doing what they love doing to wait for me to get better. I have felt more loved these last few years than I have ever felt in my life. The way we’ve handled all of this transition includes a lot of laughter and a more than a few tears.
For instance, one morning I just had to wear my favorite Spanish dress with tights to a doctor’s appointment. Imagine that you have lost use of one of you hands and you need help to get in them. Well, all women, no matter what shape or size, have to wiggle into their tights, because, well, tights are tight. In this case, my husband, and with great hilarity, tried to help me. It was not unlike the game of twister, except with someone you know really, really well. I highly recommend the experience!
Six months before I broke my femur bone, I did 40 days of treatment in a hyperbaric oxygen tank. This put me in contact for the first time, with people like me, only everyone else was at least twenty years older, except an All-American football player from the local university who recovering from a broken ankle. After a few days, we all loosened up and got to know each other. Here was a group of people who had gone through what I’ve gone through and with whom I could ask anything – I mean anything.
There were two older people that I felt especially close to, and both of them had health situations that required an exceptional kind of courage, far beyond what most people could bear. When I first had to use a wheelchair, I was a little embarrassed, and to be honest, angry. I am too young for this! my heart howled. But just a week or so before I started the oxygen tank I complained that I didn’t know how to do this. Just exactly how do you learn how to be handicapped? Shortly after that, I was locked and sealed inside a metal tank with two people willing to teach me!
I live such a difficult limbo now. My spirit is very strong, but my body is weak. Although it is the same for all of us, I truly do not know how long I am going to live. Some days I laugh and some days I weep. I live from a deeper place now, a place that straddles this world and the next one. I am still me, but in so many ways, I barely recognize myself. Is it a good thing that I have lived this long after my initial two month prognosis? Sometimes I don’t think so. The very act of staying alive places such a heavy burden on my family, and that is something I never anticipated. But then again, a month from now I could be walking on my own and feeling confident again. I just don’t know. I am very grateful for the rich inner life I have always had, which is a profound comfort to me during challenging times.
Dreams have been an incredible source of healing and inspiration for me most of my life, but especially in the last few years. In my dreams I am always well, always standing or walking, as if my subconscious cannot or will not acknowledge the limitations of my illness in any way. Below is another dream that surprised me, especially considering that my spiritual practices do not fit into a traditional catagory.
I am standing at a distance watching a field at night. The sky is undulating wave after wave of deep, surreal colors – which created a light show in the sky above the field. When the colors brighten, I see that there’s an object in the field and I am curious about it. Just as I am about to go towards the object, Jesus walks out onto the field, glowing and radiating golden light. He walks toward the object on the field and picks it up. I can only see from the back, but I can see that Jesus has picked up an infant swaddled in blankets. Suddenly, I’m right in the scene, and I see that I am that infant. Jesus is surprised and delighted to see me. He speaks to me by name, and then he walks off the field carrying me. After a long time, he comes back and gently lays me back down in the field. It is clear that I’ve been healed.
With overflowing love,