I don’t know how much longer I will live. I know that I am dying. But this is not new knowledge, and it is not ALS. It has always been so. Disease only changes the circumstance and the speed, but the knowledge remains as it was. The autumn sky removes the blinders, so that even sadness has a hidden joy. Bruce Kramer, We Know How This Ends; Living While Dying
When I lived in Detroit I frequented (frequently) a great takeout only place not far from where I lived. It had delicious food and zero pretense. It was the size of a walk-in closet and jam packed full of color, fun, and love . The owner was a young guy, so very humble, fun, and gracious as the day is long. This place was a strangely important place of community for me in a really lonely time of my life. Yes, I paid him to cook for me – I know, I know. But, there was so much neighborhood love, commitment, and hospitality packed into that tiny space.
I was sent his obituary this past week, by a dear friend from Detroit who remembered how much I loved the place. The owner, Paul, was 53 years old. He and his wife opened the tiny restaurant 20 years before. Just a month ago he had a massive heart attack, which revealed a very serious and previously undetected birth defect in his heart. And he never recovered.
The obituary was so sweet and clever and full of love that I read it over and over again. It named the traditional family members who he is “survived by” (is that the term? what a strange phrase, huh?) like siblings and wife and then without any change in tone names best friends. And with the same ease and grace names beloved friends and family that preceded him in death. They went on ahead.
This is surely not how he or his wife imagined it would all go. Even if you have a known history of heart disease you don’t expect a heart attack. He didn’t have the luxury of time to tie up loose ends in relationships or take that walk by the lake one more time.
This is so mundane and stupid, but I keep thinking that he surely had a pile of dirty laundry left undone. Not that the laundry is important or should be on anyone’s list of concerns before dying. But, it just is so jarring to imagine how unexpected it all was. And somehow the pile of dirty laundry, the clothes he was just wearing and planned to wear again — it’s what I think about.
The quote way up on top of the page is from a book that tells the story of a very different death. Bruce Kramer died of ALS. It is a really beautiful book about life in the midst of loss. Which is kind of everything, isn’t it? He lived to hold a finished copy of the book in his hands, and died before it was published. It never tells of his actual death at all, because that really is his story to tell, right? So he tells the stories of living with the heightened awareness of dying. It’s all gift. He talks about finding balance in life inherently requires the joy & the sorrow, the positive & negative. He had the luxury of time, some might say, to see death coming and do what needed to be done. He even wrote a beautiful book along the way. (click on that link to find it for yourself, eh?)
I imagine there are many others who would rather not know that death is coming at all. Plenty of people don’t want to have make the agonizing decisions of who will take care of this, or how to arrange that, or anticipate the pain and suffering creeping up so close. And reasonably so. No one wants to suffer long or drag out drama. And yet…
While you can’t control too much of your last days, you can put some thought into the living of these days now. Right now. The next Daily Bread Yoga Saturday Morning Retreat is about this. We are going to chew on this notion of how we want to live while we are dying. We will use some of the questions of The Five Wishes as a framework for the retreat. The Five Wishes is a living will or advanced directive – a document that states your wishes when you are no longer able to speak for yourself, near the time of your death. It’s an important document not just for you but for your friends & family. And I think it’s an important document that gives clues to what is most important to us right now.
It will definitely still be a YOGA retreat as all of this is about our actual body, mind, and spirit. It all matters. We will still do about 2 hours of the physical practice of yoga. You still need to be able to get up and down from the floor with relative ease. We won’t be actually talking about death as much as we are talking about life. Living. Today. Tomorrow. And especially together. No one needs to do this alone. Deal?
Maybe you want to look at The Five Wishes website? Maybe you have already made some of these decisions? And maybe this is really hard to think about let alone talk about with other people. I agree. It is really hard. And scary. I’m a ridiculously superstitious person and making plans and just talking about death gives me the creeps and feels like a bad idea.
So let’s do it together; we’ll do a few sun salutations and call it a yoga retreat?! I’ll bring snacks. Dress in layers as you might start out cold and then get warm and then get cold again.
Here are the details; Saturday, March 10th, 9a.m.-noon at Philo Presbyterian Church. Cost is $20 if that works for you. Bring a yoga mat, a blanket, and a water bottle. And maybe bring a pen & notebook, if writing things down is in your nature. Please let me know that you are coming so I can look forward to seeing you. 🙂 If you want to register or have some questions, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you aren’t one of the lucky one to live in the beautiful prairie of Champaign-Urbana but wish that I would come to your place and lead this yoga retreat about living and dying – ask me! Let’s see if we can make it work.
Peace on your head, You.
*** And here is such a beautiful quote from the book that I just cannot not include. It is from a blog entry named “Love Notes from the Universe”, posted two years before he died.***
Less than two months ago, I truly believed that my time was finished. I was always tired, and I spoke in whispers, afraid that if my voice was any louder, it would overwhelm the holy act of dying. I planned my funeral, mustered all the energy I could find for one final push of writing, reframed my dis ease in the comfort of a life well-lived and the regret of a life cut short before its time. I was convinced this would be my last Christmas, my last anniversary, the winding down with the family and friends that I love. In that time, my heart became very quiet, and my hearing acute. Suddenly I realized that whether on the stage before a thousand people or in the quiet intimacy of my own thoughts, the love notes that before had to disrupt my awareness in order for me to perceive them, required no such violence. In the quiet solitude of winding down is the ocean roar of love. Bruce Kramer
the ocean roar of love. That’s It.