Sunday, November 18, 2012

whimpers and gurgles and sobs

Last week I was rather mindlessly wandering around Safeway when I came upon the adult diapers I had once bought for and put on Tad.  Quite unexpectedly I found myself whimpering in the middle of the brash light and mind-numbing supermarket colors of the personal hygiene aisle. I quickly calmed the tears and went to the check out.

But the next day at home it bubbled up again without warning. It was early in the morning; I was alone. This time I decided to let it flow. I wept for one full hour, howling my pain from the living room floor of my apartment, urging it to come out when it slowed down.

Towards the end I finally called a girlfriend who I knew would listen lovingly and shared my grief with her.

The ironic quality of this gushing moment is that it is both painful and soothing; it opens up something deep inside. In a way I was happy to somehow reconnect with this deep level of crying for the first time in a very long time; I had missed it.

This summer while up in the mountains hiking I found myself napping next to Fall Creek. When I woke up I decided that one of the curves in the river was too steep and that by creating another path I would open up a beautiful new waterfall. So I began industriously pulling out stones and branches, displacing large rocks, shifting handfuls of silt, digging a small trench in the alluvial deposit with my bare hands to create a trickle. Then I pulled out just the right river rock and hit a tipping point. The gushes of water started coming down my side of the little trench creating a second beautiful path for the river and making a sweet gurgle over a pile of rocks.

That moment when the water started coming after all the hard work: that is what this sobbing feels like.

When I ran process groups for nurses and doctors working with mostly terminal patients in the 1990’s I would ask them to classify emotions into families then describe to me how the emotions “behave”. They all agreed that we can accumulate them if we don’t take the time to express them. “Particularly grief,” one older charge nurse said. Everyone nodded.

Unlike the weeks surrounding Tad’s death, today I can overlook the sadness cues my body is sending me. Or if I do hear/feel them they are so much smaller than they used to be that I can ignore them, sort of give them a rain-check.

Indeed from early on in this whole adventure with leukemia I’ve known that part of my work is to stay “in life” – to keep myself from wandering into forms of what I would call non-life. These for me are moments where I would sit around wishing Tad were alive. Wishing he didn’t have leukemia. Time thinking how I could have done things differently. Or even time poring over photos and talking for hours about Tad with friends.

Another form of this would be for me to start comparing my sweet burgeoning relationship, which of course has its flaws, with my old one. In the glowing light of post-mortem love it of course appears perfect.

Cesar always offers me the opportunity when I mention Tad to talk about him opening  with “Do you miss him?”

It’s a funny question for me because I’m not exactly sure what it means. Do I wish he were here still? Of course. Do I find myself yearning for that? No because my mind knows it’s vain: he’s never “coming back”. I watched his body go into a flaming oven.

I think the truth is I cry because I have a clearer sense of life’s tragic side. I cry because Tad and I lost a fight; one that consumed our lives for nearly eighteen months. I cry because beautiful, caring people are here one day and not the next. I cry because life can be painful and most of the time my brain has well-worn strategies that help me keep that out of my awareness. I cry because grief is a lonely process; a necessary solitary path.

I also think –and this is a very distant thought, barely audible - I cry for the little boy who got beat up at school and never quite fit in, I cry for the teenager who could only separate from his family through a move to the other side of the world, I cry for the betrayals from people who said they loved me then did unethical things to me.

I don’t know I’m crying about these things. Tad’s untimely departure is the cover-up for these things. Yet they are there, like one of those scrims barely visibly hanging in front of a scene on a stage.

In my mid-twenties I would regularly get together with a fellow free-lance journalist to kick around new story ideas. She and I would talk about this or that emerging trend in the Paris arts scene, a new interesting building that was breaking ground, an edgy film in post-production. Once we decided for the fun of it to write auto-biographical pieces.

She copy-edited mine with a proper red pen and commented in the margins on the fact that my character cried a lot suggesting he lacked subtlety. I wondered if – despite her Australian birth –her English upbringing had given her that certain un-American composure I found in most of my British friends. I didn’t feel like I cried more than the average person.

But of course this writing wasn’t about me – it was about an idea of me, the me that was finally able to let out all that sorrow and disappointment.

Is Tad’s death finally letting me feel that bitter-sweetness of sorrowful relief as it flows through me like the water down the silt furrow and somehow heals my broken heart just a bit?

I yearn for the day when I can close my eyes and remember the good times Tad and I had, when the pain of his last ten minutes on earth struggling to breathe in my arms doesn’t dominate the tableau. I find myself envious of one of the members of my spouse grief group whose husband rolled over in bed one night and was dead. No months of hospitalization, no screaming matches with medical staff, no mind-reading strategies to figure out what they’re really saying, no painful trips to the ER to save him one last time, no catching him in my arms as he passes out unexpectedly from low blood pressure, no wondering what his insurance won’t cover this time.

Is it possible in the book of “How Emotions Work” that I’ll get to the sweetness by walking through the tears?

God I hope so.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

past conditional

Tad's birthday came and went. He would have been 45 years old. I posted to Facebook hoping people would respond with a wave of love but not much happened. Though his FB profile still exists, it doesn't show up when I want to add him to a post - so his circle didn't really see it.

Funny how we do that calculation: imagining what would have been: what if the Eiffel Tower hadn't been built? What if I had fallen for that person instead of this one? What if German had become the official language of the US? 

We humans are no doubt the only species able to do this: use our brains to conjure up an image of the present as if the past hadn't really occurred. This incredible pre-frontal gymnastic no doubt causes us a lot of unnecessary harm as well.

My life today is grounded in the present with almost no more forays into the painful past and not a few into possible futures which I mostly picture as happy and fulfilling.

Buying Tad's house is the first of these projects. I am not always sure what is good for me but I keep noticing that my life is better when I am in his garden, sitting in his living room, petting his cat, chatting with the neighbors in his mobile home park -- all of which have become mine. It seems like a natural next step to offer to buy it. Happily the owners are quite open to the idea and would finance it for me since I have no money per se. Usually my fantasy of a perfect life doesn't include mobile home living but I see now that has changed.

I have also begun considering returning to work. Yesterday I interviewed for a government job. I am not sure I want to work for the government or am ready to work a full time job but the idea is pleasant to ponder.

This government job of course offers the wonderful cushion of generous benefits but appears to take away all the pleasures I enjoy in being a psychotherapist: going deep, working in peaceful settings, choosing one's clients.  The fact that the interview was in a room that was inaccessible to me and no one was able to direct me coupled with the fact that the job itself looks absolutely nothing like the want ad both lead me to believe that I will not work for them. It's a mindset so far from mine.

I was recently invited to become part of an advisory group for a University of California research lab that is being created. While there I discovered that folks with my rather strange health condition tend to die earlier than others. They didn't give age ranges but needless to say it was a quick yank into an uncertain future, a rather unwelcome notion to ponder as I have been drenched in these various projects that have me looking forward - possibly over a few decades.

Hence I find myself wondering the age-old question: follow the material comfort or follow the passion?  And if I am going to live ten more years the answer to this question is much different than if I am going to live thirty-five?

Finally there is the fact that I am in a new, promising relationship with a loving and kind man. Younger than me and full of dreams he exudes hope for the future. He envisions building a career for himself, maybe having a family in Santa Cruz with me. Even though my time with Tad has taught me that people can disappear in an instant - I see myself pulled from the present moment and enjoying the pleasure of imagining a future with him. 

(At times a heightened sense of duty slaps me down - telling me that I am not doing Tad a favor, that I am not respecting him nor his family's grief.)

While hiking down a canyon of the San Lorenzo River yesterday, I stopped on a certain flat boulder squeezed between two rushing rapids. I looked around me and took in the sounds, the smell of the bubbling river, the towering trees and dying logs. Cesar came up behind me and said wisely:  "This is why dying people cry. It's so difficult to say good-bye to this much beauty." Little did he know that I was weeping, remembering the other times I had sat on that very rock speaking to the vastness.

Once --before Tad died-- I sat there squinting my eyes and picturing his soul flying above the river, up through the redwoods and out into the sky. Days before his actual death I wonder if I wasn't hastening his departure somehow.

Now that I think about it -and it's extraordinary that this never occurred to me before - I am so lucky (we are so lucky) that Tad was actually mentally present until the last twenty or so minutes of his life. I am so grateful that the morning of his death he was able to ask for breakfast, to tell me he was going to stay in bed a little longer and to say to me with a loving smile "I don't think I am long for this world - am I?". 

I don't believe in God or spirits or souls. I do believe in these incredible brains --that we are fortunate enough to have running our machinery. In the same way they can imagine realities that might have been I sense that they see things beyond three dimensions in ways that are mysterious. This keeps me ever fascinated by human beings and what incredible things that happen when they come together.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

standing at the gate

FreeCell is the most amazing thing in the whole world - bar none!

A pile of cards tossed onto my screen in random order end up slowly but surely in four nice little stacks in the top right hand corner of my computer. I can carefully refresh my browser until I get a pile of chaos that looks not-so-chaotic thus making sure I win. When I'm done I can hit "Play Again" and the near-orgasmic pleasure of doing nothing but stacking cards on a screen starts all over.

This has been my main focal point for the last several weeks.

Of course I do dishes, make the bed, eat good meals. I go for hikes in the hills and walks on the beach. I spend minimal time with friends and continue to explore this new loving relationship. But mostly I play FreeCell. Come to think of it - I think I'll take a little break from writing and play another round.


Now I feel better

Actually I don't. The game itself creates a sort of tension in my body - a cheap, low-grade excitement that isn't quite relaxing. It distracts my mind from thinking about....thinking about...actually I don't know what.

I see that I have learned over the many years of mindfulness training to not allow my mind to get lost in clinging to thoughts of life with Tad. Today I have the skills to notice the urge to hang out in the past, to wish the present were not what it is or to yearn for something that can't be. And thankfully I can stop myself. Engaging in those thoughts brings me some joy but mostly it brings me sorrow. Life is so full of good things. Being alive is so full of pleasure that I don't see the use in setting in motion my incredibly well-designed imagination to create worlds that are not real.

When I mention this to folks I imagine them saying to themselves "Aaah denial! Such a great little trick we play on ourselves! Well - we'll see how long it takes for that to bite you in the butt."

This is similar to the thoughts I imagine people having when I mention that I have started seeing a delightful man: "Humpf...well that's not very respectful of Tad, is it? That flight into a new relationship will no doubt catch up with you sooner or later."

(I haven't entirely learned how to manage my imagination - as you can see.)

If I take the time to see the bigger picture - something this blog allows me to do - I see that I am in a liminal phase of this whole grief thing.

I am standing on the top of a hill at a gate. Below me is a big new life; both the continuation of my present life and something new and different. It is stunningly beautiful and calling out to me but behind me is a field, the one where I met Tad. And it too is so gorgeous - so full of life and love, tenderness and tragedy, beauty and respect. So full of fond memories.

I am standing in the gateway, my hand on the old wood post. I feel the urge to take that first step into the new field sweeping out below me but just can't seem to do it. So I stay here trying to keep my focus on my feet on the ground and get the lay of the land.

I have engaged in a lot of homework of what that future life might look like. I've read reams of IRS documents to understand incorporating (and see more clearly how the rich get richer). I've spoken to experts in mortgages, first-time homebuyer programs and looked at places to buy in Santa Cruz. I've explored retirement accounts legislation and done endless calculations and simulations.

But I keep coming back to non-movement for the moment - to this idea that now is not the time to make big change happen.

In all fairness this is actually good news coming from a man for whom "diving in" has always been the antidote to anxiety.

Feeling a little shy at a party?  Go chatter with 12 people back to back!
Feeling unsure about a job? Read 10 books in three hours then start the next day.
Feeling uncertain about how to express affection for someone? Jump in bed!

Here is a glimpse into the thoughts:

I don't want to call Tad's dad because I'm afraid it will hurt too much even though I think about him everyday. I enjoy looking at the many photos of Tad around the house but digging through his stuff is too much for me so I don't. The memory of his precise smell, texture of his skin, or sound of his voice has mostly faded. I could just listen to all the voice mails I've saved but don't. I avoid the Goodwill Store for fear I'll see one of his shirts for sale. I an aware when I do activities I wouldn't have done in his lifetime because he was so shy and think "Ah Tad and I never did this". I don't feel the raw emotions of our fight with cancer or the weeks surrounding his death. I get to have my life focus back on me.

But then there's the emotion. I carry this deep conviction that if I don't express the sorrow it will somehow build up like clutter in a neglected bedroom and haunt me one day.

So I try to let myself feel sadness and cry when the urge comes up without clinging to thoughts. In fact recently in the shower I purposely let myself bring up lots of thoughts of Tad and his illness, the tragedy we crossed through for months on end. And I was able to cry a bit - but it didn't last long.

The spontaneous crying tends to happen at two different moments:

1) when I am hungry and/or tired. Twelve steppers use the acronym HALT - Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired- to recognize when it's time to stop everything and do some self care.

2) When I simply stop my brain and settle into beautiful sweet silence - but this doesn't happen every time. Lying on the ground in a mountain meadow, feeling the gentle silent wave after a climax or sitting in meditation at my local sangha bring me incredible joy. And sometimes these situations bring heaving tears of sorrow (usually mixed with joy).

This is in fact the closest I come to heaven as an atheist; the closest I get to the "place where God lives"; those deep moments of silence that spur the joyful tears.

In those moments I am so alive and yet so aware of death.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

wandering in the desert

Tad has stopped talking to me. Worse: he actually sent me hiking.

In reality he was the one hiking. He was wearing his usual baggy shorts and tank top t-shirt, his sturdy hiking shoes and blue backpack and was walking away from me on a mountain path waving good-bye. I was sitting on a sand dune in the Moroccan Sahara watching the sun set for the last time before heading to a hotel the next day where I would marvel at the magic of real running water. The tears were streaming down my face as I kept yelling to him "Turn around! Please turn around please! I'm begging you. Let me see your face one last time!"

But he just kept walking away, saying "No - that won't help. You don't need that right now. This is not life. Go home and live."

He always was stronger than me in that way.

This was the end of a long conversation that had started two weeks previously when we first arrived and my friend and mentor, Maurice, invited us to imagine a guide, a sort of wise being who would accompany us through this difficult hike. He asked us to picture someone walking up behind us, then invited us to turn around in our minds and greet the Guide.

I didn't need to turn around since I could already feel the strong, familiar arms of Tad Crandall around my torso, holding his chest up against my back. My tears knew the arms were his.

To be honest I was actually a little pissed off. I wanted a real Inner Guide, I wanted a Jesus or a Buddha or a Guru. I had been in conversation with a higher form of Tad for months and frankly didn't want it to continue so intensely. During that time he had become less and less the day-to-day Tad and more and more the deeply loving, unconditional Tad who had been brought to his knees by leukemia. He had become an angel - one I was afraid to speak about for fear I start resembling those people who deify their dead relatives, who see none of their flaws once they are dead.

The time between this delicious sensual hug on my first night in the Sahara and his waving good bye to me my last night was incredibly intense. Ironically little happened externally besides walking, eating, packing, unpacking, sleeping, squatting and the occasional chanting. But internally….! I simply can't possibly describe all the deep, invisible movement that happened to me inside. Hints of these changes emerged in the evenings during our Sharing Circles, at night in my star-filled dreams and during the day in my journal just before afternoon naps. The latter are the only concrete traces that remain with me today reminding me the whole experience was not just a dream.

I need to share some things with Tad's and my community. The first is this idea that Tad told me to move on.

(The vulnerable part of me is already afraid you may think me crazy or fanatic. So I need to add that my rational brain of course tells me that this is all my projection and that the only voice I hear is mine disguised as Tad's.)

During many long, tear-filled conversations in the Sahara Tad showed me that by checking in with him, by asking him for advice, by seeing his perfectly wise self as my inner voice I was clinging to the past. Again and again I came back to that moment in our bed about ten days before he died when I shared my uncertainty of how I would get along without him. He spontaneously sat upright, looked at me with a generous smile and held my face in his hands: "Are you kidding me!?" he blurted out, "You've got a WORLD to change. You WILL change the world!"

Ah the wisdom of those staring death in the eyes.

At one point during free time in the desert I spent a long period watching a group of rocks. Normally when I have free time in nature I become a seven-year old with a million things to do:

"Oh my god! I need to go climb that hill!"
"I wonder what's beyond that ravine!"
"Later on I'll get naked and lie in the sun over there!"
"Let's see…where is the best place to write in my journal?"
"Where should I eat my lunch?"
"I wonder how that big slab of rock got there!?"

So at one point I decided to lean into the less comfortable - to sit, find a rock and stay focussed on it for as long as I could.

I sat for seven hours.

A deep, deep sense of quiet came over me - a rare sensation bigger than any pill or post-coitus wave. Every time my mind wandered I came back to my mesmerizing pile of rocks. A couple of times I napped but when I awoke I turned my eyes to my rocks. Finally as the sun began seriously tilting toward the horizon - I got up and started walking, watching my feet on the sand and rocks, one foot in front of the other. I began to wonder about something and as usual asked Tad for guidance. But there was no answer. Or rather there was an answer but it came from someplace inside me that wasn't Tad. It's as if Tad's wise voice and my Stone Silent inner voice had merged.

I was both intrigued and scared. Had I lost Tad? Would I ever get him back?

But I knew his voice was just a form of my voice. It was my loving Grandma's voice - now long dead. I understood -with some sorrow - that when I am completely calm and on my path all the voices of love - including my own - merge into one solid voice. And in essence that voice doesn't have much to say beside "Yes" to each loving step I take. I both wanted to hear Tad's voice and knew that this was part of the "grief work" - part of learning to be present. I know that life is not lived by staring at the past (nor the future for that matter) but simply glimpsing it from time to time.

The end result -one that seems so lackluster on the page- is a deep feeling of confidence that I can trust my inner voice in the present moment; a sense that Tad's voice is just a newer version of the deep healthy voice of love burrowed beneath all my doubts and busy mind.

At one point during this month away I had the privilege of chatting with Catherine a woman who had watched her seventeen year old son die of brain cancer. When I expressed a sense of tragedy she told me serenely that it was clear to her he had lived a full and accomplished life.

There had been a moment during Tad's illness, five or six months into the whole mess, when I stood in my living room sobbing and negotiating aloud with some unknown entity: "Take me!" I kept saying. "Take me instead!" I knew I had lived a good life, a full life. I knew I had been loved and had loved others deeply. I felt I was so much more ready to leave this planet than Tad who for many reasons seemed to just be coming into his personal power. This was of course a very romantic notion - that somehow I could step in for another person's turn in death- but it came from a deep conviction that my life had been good and that if possible I could let it go so Tad wouldn't have to.

So, I wondered as I walked gently in silence behind the padded round feet of the camel, how is it that --unlike Catherine-- I can't see Tad's death as anything but a tragedy? Why does his death seem premature? Unfair? Cruel? Could I ever feel that Tad's life was complete? What exactly is a complete life?

And I thought about my own readiness to die. Sure I regretted not writing a play that would change the world, not having kids, not creating another foundation - but mostly I felt comfortable with the fact that I had loved and been loved deeply, unconditionally.

Tad left behind no major corporation, no manuscript for a heart-wrenching novel, no composition for a gorgeous symphony. His name will not appear on a stone like the multiple war memorials sprinkled all over France nor the new wing of a library in the US. No grandchildren are lining up to take away nicknacks and the hundreds of photos I've inherited nor the boxes of shirts and trousers stacked in the garage.

I see how the absence of all these material traces reinforces my feeling that his life was not significant - that his death was too early - that he hadn't had time to make his mark.

And yet.

And yet.

I can say without a shadow of a doubt that Tad Crandall's love transformed this world.

I watched doctors and nurses weep in the face of this man's illness. I saw volunteers come back again and again with pleasure to visit him. I saw how he expressed concern for the hard-working hospital staff and how it touched their hearts. I saw how our own love deepened and thickened as the cancer became more and more tenacious - a notion I struggle to explain since my concept of love had always stayed close to that of the pop songs of the seventies. Who knew love could be so complex? So multi-layered? I have a hunch that like the nucleus of an atom - love is infinitely vast - that I have only begun to scratch the surface of it. And for that I can thank Tad Crandall.

These thoughts moved through me, took shape and transformed throughout this journey, one step at a time mile after mile, every night when I laid down on my mattress under the canopy of a million stars, every time my pelvis rocked forward as the camel moved under my buttocks, every time I hid crouched behind a rock to take a crap or wiped my body down with a stingy wet towelette.

In the end I found myself grateful I am now full of the incredible love and wisdom that Tad Crandall concocted and that Tad and Greg co-concocted.

I see how in the same way a child born today has access to so much more accumulated wisdom than when I was born, I can recognize I am a very lucky man to have spent five and half years with this man.

I swam in the Dead Sea, ate delicacies in the Eiffel Tower, won battles to improve legislation, walked among zebras in the African pamper, carried newborns in my arms and held a beautiful man as he died.

I am a more loving man for it all. And my life continues. My work continues.

What strikes me about the walk I took after the seven hours with Saharan rocks is that I knew what my goal was: that funny acacia tree at the base of the cliff near the path that leads to the well.  But I didn't focus on the goal.

In this extremely calm state I simply stayed focused on the up and down of my feet and the rocky land beneath them. My eyes stayed gently poised on ten square feet. I didn't notice the rather impressive hill I was overtaking, the fact that there was a far less rocky path to my left or another to my right that would have softened the blow of the wind in my face. I didn't wonder seek out a camel or goat path - so surprisingly common in the middle of nowhere - but made my own path.

This notion may seem so inconsequential but is a revelation to me each time I rediscover it. It goes something like this: When I live in my breath, in complete serenity, in one-step-at-a-time I identify my goal then I let it go simply trusting the earth will support me one step at a time.

To phrase it another way I put my focus on my steps and not on the destination; on the present and no longer on the future.

This simple solitary experience frees me of a decades-long search to somehow identify something I can have faith in. My quest becomes moot. I see that all this time it is not faith in the invisible I need but simply confidence in the visible, in the minutes that tick by, in myself, in the world around me.

At one point during this walk I realized I was on top of a towering hill. I lifted my eyes and took in the entire area where we had been camping: the never-ending sweeping cliffs, the million year old river bed, the low-spots where water had once collected (last year? last month? last century?). If I looked behind me I saw boulder where 48 hours earlier I had stood barefoot sobbing and yelling to any wayward Berber who might hear me that I wished Tad Crandall a pleasant journey, one full of things he loves: children, flowers, cats and computers.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

Ironically a few days before I left for the desert I discovered in my absentmindedness I'd failed to find people to help my sweet friend Jim take care of my cat. He adores her (it's reciprocal) and whenever I leave he comes to the house every few days for a visit - a tradition we launched during Tad's many hospitalizations. Our usual plan is to have neighbors come and cuddle with her in between his visits.

So I went to see one of my neighbors, a beautiful woman who works as a nurse doing in-home care for children with cancer. I had promised her I was going to start hosting support groups for nurses again. This idea came to me after she shared that the organization she works for offers no mental or emotional support to its employees.

I went to her house for feedback on my written proposal and to see if by any chance she or someone she knew could care for Astra.

She, her partner and a friend were doing deep spring gardening, tearing out vines and cutting back branches. The friend was a handsome young man who kept blushing each time I addressed him.

Due to a rapid string of incidents he was able to move into the house, do housekeeping and take care of Astra for the last half of my trip. When he came over to the house to talk out the details I was unexpectedly delighted to receive a kiss as we said good-bye.

Now - nearly two months later - we are still spending time together. Astra adores him and he often asks me about Tad. I feel as if I need to take him to distant rural Arizona to get Tad's father's blessing. Ironically Sonny is the one person who told me very early on: "Greg you need to get out and meet someone new."

And so the wheel of life continues to turn. My goal is no longer the prickly acacia tree but rather to spread the incredible love I am honored to hold. I need to simply keep putting one foot in front of the other, trusting Life.

P.S. Below is a quote from George Bernard Shaw that sums up quite beautifully how I feel:

"This is the true joy of life, the being used up for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live.

Life is no 'brief candle' to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for a moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations."

Saturday, February 11, 2012

love letter(s)

Dear Tad

I miss you. No. Somehow that's not strong enough.


Of course I don't miss our fights, your stubbornness (not mine of course), our disagreements on what to buy or not to buy, your determination that you couldn't live without a new truck. I miss the loving you. I miss the part of you that is perfect.

I miss the calmness I feel when you are around.

I miss loving myself the way I do when you are around.

Oh Tad - I wish I could love me as much as you loved me.

I am about to leave our house for a month and I am not sure it's the right thing to do.

I have been running around a lot lately - trying to numb the pain I feel from your absence. I know it's not the anti-dote. I've got pretty good evidence that in the long run it just makes things worse. Yet I persist.

In the desert there is no place to run. Picking myself up every morning, rolling up my sleeping bag and walking another 20 kilometers in silence will keep me from escaping. Or so I imagine.

I was going to take your ashes with me. But once I got them to slip into the backpack I realized I was just trying to take them as far away from here as possible. The same way I have put all our pictures in boxes stored deep underneath other boxes.

I don't really need to do that - it's just more escaping. So I left some yesterday on that beautiful beach north of town with the crazy crashing waves and the sheer cliffs. Of course the Pacific breeze blew them all back into my face.

I walked back through the hills my boots and jeans covered in minuscule bits of you my beloved and the cardboard box they burned you in. Tomorrow I will put the rest in our beautiful garden with the dahlias, the fuchsias and the cat poop.

I sent myself two Valentine's Day cards. I tried to trick my brain into forgetting Valentine's Day by being on a trans-Atlantic flight all day but a friend nudged me lovingly.

In them I wrote deep words of encouragement, I thanked me for being such a loving, courageous man walking around with a brilliantly shining broken heart.

Of course when the cards arrived and I read them at breakfast, your cat sitting on my lap, it was your voice; your voice coming back from the dead to thank me for all the ways I showed up for you, for us. Who knew I was still yearning for you to thank me?

Tad - cancer was easier than this. We had a goal, a battle. Mostly we had each other. This part of the battle is a lonely one - and I don't do lonely very well.

One silent step at a time.

With deep gurgling fountains of love,

PS Thank you for having been such an avid hiker - I found all the equipment I need for my trip tucked away in your shed.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

dream number three

I dreamt of Tad this morning.

I was walking up a grass-covered hill with a group of French-speaking friends. The place was a cross between the Marin Headlands (steep hill with a view on the other side) and the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City (wide expanses of grass with a few tourists here and there). Deep green hill on a majestic blue sky.  When we got to the top of the hill (effortlessly!!) a small group of people were sitting around talking and enjoying the view of a huge suspension bridge in the distance and water below.

Suddenly Tad walks up from the other side and speaks to them - he is wearing his usual baggy shorts and a tank top t-shirt with a back pack over one shoulder. He has his beautiful pre-cancer body back: broad masculine stance, thick biceps, perfect baby-skin, massive thighs, dark shock of hair. The only difference is he now has a tatto on his right shoulder - a radiant, sun-like circle with beams coming out.
He looks up at me, makes eye contact and smiles. I feel that immense indescribable warm sensation I get from his gaze, our gaze -- a gaze only he and I can create, so different yet similar to every other gaze in the world.

Then his sweet cat woke me up to tell me it was time for me to fix her breakfast. I tried to go back to the dream but it was gone. Dream chasing at 6:30.

Now - later - I am trying not to cling to it, to replay it all day like a looped video but the temptation is great.

I am preparing my bags for a long hike in a place I don't know, with people I don't know, in conditions I don't know.
For two weeks.
In silence.

The only thing I do know is that the organizer is a man of principles, a man of love; a mentor who has been part of my life for two decades now; who spoke the eulogy in a small village church when my dear friend's cousin was viciously murdered.

At a time when I see clearly that I do not want to make a new life for myself, I do not want to move on to the "next phase" of my life because I do not want to say good bye to the last one -- I am choosing to do something frightening and mysterious. I am choosing to step deeper into the world of the invisible relinquishing a large dose of control (which is of course only my fantasized version of "control").

I see clearly that silence speaks volumes more than all the words and noise, that the invisible is far more sustaining of my essence than the visible, the mystery is immensely more wise than the predictable.

How long will it take me to really understand this? And when will I start living by it?

Friday, February 3, 2012

things that surprise

It has been nearly five months since Tad died. Here are a few of the things that surprise me from where I stand today:

I'm surprised at how much I can enjoy life.

A few days ago I took the neighbor's dog for a long walk on a remote beach (said neighbor is by no means naive: she knows perfectly well that asking me to walk her dog twice a week is incredible therapy for my broken heart).

As we climbed over the beautiful sweeping green downs before hitting the beach I put Strauss's Last Four Songs on my player. Arly was beside herself with excitement. The smell of wild sage filled my nostrils. I peaked the first hill and got a glimpse of the rocky coast and the incredible expanse of blue the music swelled. I stopped and took it all in - weeping with some kind of joy/sorrow.

Words like peace, awe, joy come to mind to describe my inner state.

Now that I recount it I realize that at no point did I feel the cloying yearning to have Tad back here holding my hand or smiling over at me as we communicate silently about the incredible landscape around us.

This leads me to a second surprising notion:

 I am surprised music and nature always come through

In this painful period where my crazy brain has been reminded against its will that we humans are temporary creatures I am amazed to see that some things are permanent.

Music, laughter, the smile of a child, time in nature, a hug, humble honesty…these are some of the things which never fail to deliver on their promise. These things always (okay almost always) manage to touch something deep inside me that is indeed permanent, that I feel goes beyond this fragile life.

I am surprised how I know which things Tad touched

As I go through my days I am aware which household objects were around when he was around. The bottle of ketchup he used to smother his fries is still there. The tube of toothpaste that's reaching the end was the one he bought for his last hospitalization. The ice cream in the freezer was the one I served him the day before he died. My brain is somehow keeping tally of which things in the house were here during his life and which ones are new since then.

As with every object I first feel the strong pull to keep whatever it is; to find a way to never throw it away somehow. I have now learned I can set things aside and give them time. After a few days I realize I don't need to keep certain object anymore - sometimes I realize I don't even like them.
Then I can let them go.

I am surprised I keep two houses

I am surprised by the fact that I still live part-time in Tad's house, still pay rent on a lease in his name, still pick up his mail and scrawl "DECEASED RETURN TO SENDER" on his bills. But more than that I am surprised at my capacity to give myself permission to keep this place. Well actually I haven't quite given myself full permission.

It makes no sense to me how this place fits into my "plan". I don't understand how it makes sense to live part time in one city and part time in another without being fabulously wealthy. Even though I paid an accountant who sat down to look at my financial situation and deemed it perfectly affordable - I still feel deep down that I'm not allowed this frivolous situation.

But here is what really surprises me: I am allowing myself to do something that doesn't make sense long-term but completely makes sense one day to the next. When I chat with my neighbors, play with my cat or walk on the beach -- all in Santa Cruz -- I can't find a reason in the world why I woudn't be there.

I am surprised people don't ask more questions

Having my beloved die in my arms feels like the biggest, most incredible event I have ever lived through. It surpasses all the major events of my life:  exploring wildlife in South Africa, helping push through new legislation to protect patients, being published in fancy magazines, getting a masters in midlife.

Daily I tell people I am in mourning because my husband died of cancer a few months ago. It's the most prominent fact in my mind. I would be an impostor if I didn't say outloud what was filling up so much of my mind and body these days.

And yet I am surprised no one asks questions about it.

If the same thing happened to a close friend I would want to say: "How did it go?" "Was it peaceful or a struggle?" "What were his last words?" "Tell me what it's like because my spouse will die one day and I'd like to be prepared."

Then again - I have never asked this of any of my friends or acquaintances. (Though I did have long loving talks with my grandma in her sweet little house by the lake the year before she died - asking her to share her thoughts and feelings about it all).

I am surprised I have no attachment to Tad's ashes

The crematorium assured me that in exchange for his war-torn corpse which I reluctantly handed over to them - I would get a bag of ashes within 48 hours. It actually took them far longer than that causing me to sputter and blame for a good week. During that time I couldn't wait to get the ashes.

My beloved friend Carl took me to a houseware store to help me find a handsome urn while I awaited the return of what was left of Tad's beautiful body. So it is quite a surprise to me that I have no attachment to these ashes or the urn they sit in.

I keep them in a prominent place, with a few photos of him beside them, a sitting Buddha smiling peacefully, a candle and some incense which I light from time to time. But the truth is I feel no connection to them; they are nothing to me.

They are not Tad. They are not love. They are not a sweet touch on the hand and a murmur in my ear, "Could you bring me some more coffee please?"

I have decided to join some friends for a two week hike in the deserts of Southern Morocco. I will take Tad's ashes with me and leave them there. I will take the urn and break it into pieces to be used for potting in my garden.

I am surprised at how little compassion I have for myself

Yesterday I tried a new strategy during my morning meditation: I imagined a therapy session with myself. I sat down across from myself and lovingly asked: "So tell me: how can I help you?". Then I told my other self about losing my partner, about the pain, the loneliness. What I saw was that when I see myself with my therapist eyes I am amazed at all the good things I've done, all the positive healthy things I do daily to take care of myself. I am deeply moved by the other me's sorrow and the incredible enormity of what the other me has been through and is still here to tell.

Sadly during the day I find myself thinking I should be better at this, thinking I should be doing things differently, thinking I should have my sea-legs by now.

In the same way if I put myself in Tad's shoes, if I imagine for a moment that it is me with the cancer who has died I see how serene I am with that. I feel very fatalistic about the idea that I have lived a good life and that -if it were to come to this - I could say good-bye serenely.

But I can't accord the same serenity to Tad. I see his death as "premature" and "unfair". I see his absence as not part of the normal way things work and I resent it, lament it, blame someone for it.

I am surprised by the insidiousness of numbing behaviors and gratitude

A strange tragic phenomenon occurs with people who have severe depression. They actually attempt (or succeed) suicide when they start to get better. It seems that in the throes of mind-boggling depression they have very little strength to do anything but once they start medication and are on the upward slope they finally have the energy to do what they've been wanting to do for a long time: find a permanent end to their pain.

I am not suicidal. Far from it.

However I see that I am healing, I am getting stronger. And in so doing I see that I have the strength to do things I couldn't before.

For instance I am numbing more. I recently went out with friends and before I knew it I was drinking more alcohol than I ever would in normal times (a very moderate level compared to most people but a lot for me!).

I am purchasing more. I see that if I am not careful I could start spending in ways that are wasteful and unnecessary.

I am staying up more. I tried moving our bed into the office and putting the office in the bedroom. For various logistical reasons mostly having to do with a loud furnace it didn't work. So after repainting the death bed bedroom I put the bed back there. I now stay up late and watch silly drivel on television then find myself clicking it off at some single-digit hour.

In the same way I had my first fender-bender in the weeks soon after Tad died I got my first speeding ticket in my life this week. In all my years of mindlessly driving fast I had never been ticketed for it. Not so anymore.

And I am surprised at how quickly these various numbing strategies slipped into my life while I was looking the other way.

But an important good thing I see sneaking in as I gain strength is a deep undertow of gratitude.

Maybe in my new practice to be more compassionate with myself I should have started with this one.

I find myself wanting to buy cards, flowers and chocolates for the bevy of  caregivers who spent time with Tad and me during the seventeen months of hell. I find myself wanting to stop at the various Oncology Units and give warmth and thanks to all the people who greeted us, hugged us, fed us and loved us day in and day out.

When I think about it I usually cry which could mean I'm not ready yet but I see the day is getting closer.

Ironically this week I crossed paths with Kelly one of the more proactive and loving nurse practitioners working with us locally. I glimpsed her across a busy avenue so I yelled her name and waved. She looked then turned and walked away. Later when I called to tell her it was me she apologized profusely. "I thought it was some straight guy making cat calls and hitting on me!" she said. I forget that women constantly get solicited in unsavory ways by men like me.

I am surprised how much I know what's good for me

I have spent a good chunk of my life not always knowing what is good for me.

Many times I have turned towards the mystery of what is behind door number two all the while seeing that door number one was wide open and behind it were an array of healthy things for me.

I am surprised that despite my sorrow and my fears that many times I do know how to turn to what is good for me.

I know when the clutter in the house is beginning to affect my serenity and I need to stop doing what I'm doing.

I usually know when it's time to pick up my phone and call another person, to let someone else's healthier brain help me pick over the details of the giant museum of memories that is my mind.

I know how to call my doctor when I feel sick, to stop and eat when I feel hungry, to let the tears come out when I feel sad/moved/overwhelmed.

I know I need to keep going to therapy each week.

I know I need to keep letting go of Tad's belongings that don't serve me.

I know I need to keep stepping into the mystery of nature.

I know I need to shut down my brain after a certain time by meditating, watching silly TV or changing the topic to something light and inconsequential.

This inventory may seem frivolous to some but to me this is huge. Self-care has not always come naturally to me. For years it never occurred to me that after a long hike in the rain or in wetlands I could actually take my socks off to dry therefore avoiding a cold.

I am surprised that my broken heart is actually an open invitation 
to something bigger, something more alive
I know this sounds crazy.

When we walk around with a heart this tender, this fragile the first thing we want to do is bolt down a thick protective concrete shield  to keep it from being hurt more.

We want to tell people "I'm fine". We want to wait til we're in the privacy of our own home to blubber til the drool comes out. We want to share few details with strangers because we don't want to burden but mostly because they're not intimate enough and our cave man brain thinks they might use it against us.

Fortunately my level of sorrow - and no doubt years of learning not to apologize for being gay - have made it such that I can't keep the cement cover on any longer.

When people ask me how I am I stop and identify - as well as I can - what's really happening for me. And it is difficult since it changes so quickly and comes so intensely these days.

What I'm seeing is that somehow this open vulnerability is leading me to something bigger. And I must admit I don't want it to go away - or at least not entirely.

I was planning on joining a group of friends on the beach of a small remote island in Southern Thailand. I've been there before and it's quite glorious in its simplicity and beauty. But at the last minute instead of booking that ticket I chose to join a group of 20 or so people who will hike in silence in Southern Morocco for two weeks.

I know this sounds masochistic. Let's call it the "road less traveled". I just have a hunch that - as scary as this is - it is the better place for me to deepen this living with an open heart.

I've already shared that I noticed that complete strangers offered me loving kindness during Tad's hospitalization in Seattle when I tearfully wandered the streets trying to find housing, public transportation vouchers, an open-hearted clergy and goodwill stores to buy clothing.

This experience is teaching that part of my brain which wants to have a Five Year Plan that I can just trust myself and other people each day.

Yesterday for the first time I got out on a sort of surfboard in the Pacific Ocean - a passion shared by a good half of the inhabitants of Santa Cruz it seems.

I am suddenly obsessed by the idea of getting back out in the water and doing it again. I feel like all of a sudden it makes sense to me why I see all those people walk, bike or drive with a surfboard over to the coast day in and day out, sitting for hours in the water waiting for the thrill of a good wave.

My next thought was: Now it all makes sense to me!! This is why I needed to stay in Santa Cruz.