We go at our appointed hour.

A word of caution…I am writing about death…so come and go, as you like, as you need.

The second Yahrzeit (the Jewish observance of the anniversary of the death of a loved one) for my brother and his twenty-two-year-old daughter, tragically killed in a car accident, was a week ago. Because the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, the date shifts from year to year. Last year it was 28 July, this year it was 17 August. This shifting is something that brings me an odd kind of comfort, the way the date meanders in and out of the grid that our western calendar stamps over day-to-day life. It gives me a simple and deep connection to some greater river of Life…and Death, through a connection to the cycles of the great and mysterious moon. As my grief for their deaths is still so close to my surface, I am thankful for anything that brings me comfort in relation to this heartbreak.

According to one tradition, a candle is burned for twenty-four hours, from dusk to dusk. It is a time of honoring, of remembering. I was raised in a Jewish family, but as was somewhat common in the 50’s, our observance of Judaism was more cultural than religious. As an adult, I have cobbled together a patchwork of spiritual traditions that serves me well. Yahrzeit is one of the traditions that I have carried with me. It found a place in my home, in my heart, with the deaths of my parents in 2003 and 2008. How fortunate for me that this beautiful and simple practice was already in place in my life when these shocking, heart-wrenching deaths came knocking at my door.

What I remember about Yahrzeit is the candle lighting; it was a powerful thing to witness as a young child. Actually I think that early on, it went from lighting a candle, to turning on a special little lamp…a lamp that did its best to look like a lit candle. Every year I wished that we would light a real candle, and this year, for my brother and niece, a simple beeswax candle sat atop my cast iron woodstove – a safety precaution that I mention particularly to ease my mother’s mind. She’s gone now…but wherever she is, she would be worrying about a candle burning all night.

I returned home from a class close to eight and dusk was coming on – the light more dim indoors than out. I made preparations to light their one simple candle, struck a match and began to make my prayers – prayers of honoring, of remembrance, of gratitude, of grief. I spoke out loud of how their deaths have shaped my life, and tried to see what their deaths, their leaving, teach me. Sitting in the glow of a golden candle burning, my mind contemplated this thing that we call death. As the rabbi asked us at the Unveiling ceremony last year, what is their legacy? What teachings do I carry with me from these two ones who lived life so fiercely? How is, or shall, my life be guided by the lives that they lived?

How to be insatiably curious, or “excessively enthusiastic”, as one of my brother’s colleagues (turned reviewer) once wrote as the only criticism she could come up with during his review. This exuberant and brilliantly gifted brother of mine was a devoted father to two lovely, shining, brilliant, creative young women; he was a husband whose depth of love and friendship and devotion to his wife I came to know much more deeply after he was gone, and of course, he was a son. Thankfully our parents did not have to live through such a loss.

His younger daughter, the one he traveled with in that car, the one he died with on that last day, had become so talented at the art of debate that he proudly announced to me he could no longer win an argument with her. Being five years younger than my brother, and not the sort that actually enjoyed his “debates”, I knew what an enormous feat this was for my niece. She was just coming into her own Way, heading toward a possible career as a bright and creative scientist, as well as an incredibly gifted artist and a talented and passionate athlete. Oh yes, and she was also beautiful – strikingly so. I remember as we were discussing with the clergy early on in the planning of the funeral service that one of them said he was a little confused, as he’d seen a picture of Celine…but thought that somewhere he’d also read that she played rugby at Emory University. He could not make these two seemingly disparate things fit together in his brain. In our grief, we were able to weep and laugh at the same moment. That was the exact essence of Celine: she blurred all the lines, broke lots of rules and the world is so much better off for how she taught this with such grace. And she learned these ways from both her father and her mother.

I sat on the steps of my cabin and watched the great shining orb of the sun, a rare sight for us here in the northwest this particular summer; I watched it slide down into the salty Salish Sea that our little town edges up against. Slowly the light became less, and the dark became more, and the shine of their candle burned more brightly. Bats, our neighbors who come out each and every evening to dine on our great abundance of mosquitoes, began to swoop and dance this way and that. A little neighborhood of birds rustled into their nests.

As I allowed myself to sink more deeply into a great silence of mourning, of love, of remembering, I heard words from my teacher. Just to be clear…because our English language is a bit slim in this area…this one that I speak of, he is not “my” teacher. He is my Teacher, as in – what great good fortune has struck me, almost knocked me over a few times, that I am lucky in a most deeply profound way to have stumbled out of the brush, off some crazy path as I went this way and that with the many twists and turns of my life. In this heart-broken-open space that I entered that evening, I remembered the words of this one who gives so generously to we, his students, the ones who try to remember but most often forget.

We were gathered together at a workshop. It was less than a month after these deaths in my family that I write of. I was still mostly in shock. Crushed with grief, but also in some other part of my knowing, hearing tiny little threads of a voice that was trying to help me make sense of it all. There were a hundred or so of us and we were standing in a circle, a large circle…just one person deep. We had stood up to sing, and were still standing – all spread out around the great-room that we were to spend these next two days in, deepening our hearts, our remembering.

This one who has come along at this time in my life, he was slowly walking about the circle, speaking to us, weaving threads like he does on so many different levels, weaving a dazzling, shimmering story there in that circle – speaking to us about our ancestors, about comings and goings, about this world and others – slowly he made his way about our large, gathered circle, and just as he came to me, speaking all the while, just then when he arrived right at my shoulder, he turned ever so slightly, and momentarily touched my shoulder with his hand as he reminded us that we all agree to go at our appointed hour. As his hand ever so briefly paused on my shoulder, our eyes met, he spoke those few words, and continued moving along the circle. The pause in his movement and words was almost imperceptible…but for me, in the state that I was in, it felt like he stood right in front of me and spoke directly to me: loud and clear. In a way, he did. I heard his words clearly. I still hear them.

When I mentioned this to a few of my friends that were present on that day, they either did not hear him say those words, or did not notice that he was standing in front of me when they were spoken…and maybe he wasn’t. That’s the way it is with him…it’s hard to say where he was standing when he spoke. I’m pretty sure that he spoke those words. Out loud. I needed to hear them. And I did hear them, and still do. They are the over-arching way that I see and experience life and death. We go when it’s our time…our agreed upon time. But. These two in my family? Together? With so much outrageously rich life left to live? And I hear a voice softly reply, “Yes. It was their time.”

Sometimes I hear “yes.” Sometimes I hear, “no.”                                                                                                                                                         “No.”                                                                                                                                                                            “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.”                                                                                                                                                                           There is still wailing that I hear in my heart, in my head. It dwells in places in my body that I cannot yet reach. And there is also, “Yes, of course they would go together – they were so much alike.” ¿What does that mean? I don’t know.

With their flame dancing nearby, I remember facing my own appointed hour, one that still resides in me somewhere. It seemed that my appointment had arrived – and then something shifted. And back I came. Back to This Side from the Other Side. When the state policeman saw the car that I told him I had just climbed out of, he said that was impossible, there was no way that I could have been in that car. He said there was no way the person driving that car could have lived through that, and to prove it he simply pointed and said, “Look at that car!” Unfortunately, I got a good long look at it.

He found me staggering around in the dark, in a driving rainstorm, barefooted and hysterical. Until medical aid arrived, the patrolman decided the best place for me was inside his patrol car. The door shut with a thud and then a deep, thick kind of silence. I was actually locked in…no door handles on the inside of a patrol car. The engine was running and I was thankful for the heater that slowly thawed me out. As I calmed down just slightly, I saw that his car was facing mine, the one I’d just climbed out of, and with his car’s high-beams illuminating the red ’67 Volkswagen, I had plenty of time to look at it.

November will mark twenty-seven years since I approached my “appointed hour”. Its memory came back to me as I stared into their Yahrzeit candle. There is something I am chewing on. Or maybe there is something that is chewing on me. It’s a slow process. Each time I awoke to the deep, warm glow of a candle burning through that night, I’d have to sort it out again. Slowly, achingly, I would remember, and I would sense more than say, “I remember you Paul, I remember you Celine – your light illuminates me. Your light illuminates all whose lives you’ve touched. From this place where I live to wherever you are, love is what I send Across.”

The Best Use of Me

I had been off on a grand, month-long adventure, and just recently returned to my sweet little village. In the midst of a birthday party for a dear ninety-year-old woman, one of my friends mentioned something about her new job, a job that I knew nothing about, because I’d been gone. When I asked what she was doing, she, in a respectful whisper, said that she’d fill me in at some later date, because it warranted more than the span of one whisper stolen away from the festivities. We ended up leaving the party together, and as we walked out into the delicious summer evening, she went ahead and spent a little time telling me about her new job as a caregiver for another one of our community elders…a ninety-year-old man.

She then mentioned to me that one of his caregivers was leaving and wondered if I might be interested in taking the shift that was opening up. Seemed like a simple enough question, but it did not feel simple. No, not at all. “Oh, yes,” I thought to myself, “that is an EXCELLENT question.” A question which caused some kind of not so minor shock waves to rumble through my fairly delicate world – delicate because I had not been home that long after being away for close to a month…and I am not that great at the leaving or the returning, as far as taking trips is concerned.

I have a deep, abiding respect and love for the wise ones who have graced and still do grace my life. I’ve had remarkable and long-time friendships with some wondrous and rascally folks in their eighties and nineties, been a caregiver for a ninety-five-year-old and was present during much of the last few years of the lives of both my mother and father who lived to be 83 and 94, respectively.

Having been deeply involved in the increasingly complex, heart wrenching and utterly bewildering spiral staircase which sometimes headed up, sometimes down, and sometimes felt like it was part of Alice’s journey Through the Looking Glass, and which morphed over and over again as we attempted to give my father, with his advancing dementia, as long and as rich an access to his beloved home of some sixty years as we could possibly create, I have many stories…and many big, fat opinions (as one of my friends used to say about any of us who like to throw our words around) about what could give our elders a richer life as they head toward leaving this world to wherever is next for them.

After being interviewed on the radio earlier this year about a story of one such friendship and then speaking to a “dementia care” class, I realized yet again how deeply passionate I am about what so much of dementia care does look like these days and what it possibly could look like. And I began to understand and realize something about myself…about a gift that I am beginning to see and acknowledge, more fully.

I have always been quite sensitive to life, in pretty much every sense of what that statement could possibly mean. In looking at the experiences I have had with some of these wondrous old ones, I have begun to realize how important that sensitivity is – that very same sensitivity that has felt at times, almost crippling to me. One of its aspects is that I am able to experience with sometimes chilling accuracy, what others around me are experiencing, especially when they are in an altered state. For example, during high school and college, when I was around people who were drinking alcohol or using drugs, I would experience their sense of reality even though I was not imbibing in any mood altering substances myself. Some term this a “contact high”, and for me it was extremely disorienting, to say the least.

Because I have this “gift”…although I certainly did not see it as such when I was younger, it seems that I can be sober, and also sense where someone is when they are experiencing a different reality. What I have been able to see more recently is that because I am now so much more grounded, I can experience someone else’s altered state while still being connected to this “reality”. Hmmm…are you still with me?

The first time I saw how I can, in a sense, walk in two worlds, is when I was a caregiver for a ninety-five-year-old woman with Parkinson’s disease. She’d fallen and luckily ended up with a cracked pelvis instead of a broken hip. There was still a great deal of pain…but with the possibility of a much more gentle and rapid recovery. She too was someone who was extremely sensitive to most all of life, including drugs. We emphasized this to her medical team, but still when they dosed her pain medications, she ended up having some terrifying hallucinations. It just so happened that I was scheduled to work a shift with her not long after a round of the hallucinations began. I was able, in a sense, to keep one foot in this reality, while the “other foot” was standing with her, wherever she was. Because she could feel me with her, her fears were not completely all-encompassing…somehow she was able to also stay connected with me and this enabled her to eventually pull back from the hallucination and not be completely devoured by it. Later on, she was actually able to verbalize some of this, telling me how important it was that I had been able to be with her in that way. I heard her…acknowledged that somehow I was able to serve her well…but it was not until I had similar experiences with my father that I really began to see this as a “gift”.

There were several occasions where my father would, in a sense, get lost in “time”. He would fall into a place of not knowing where he was physically, and also not know what part of his life he was in. I was able to gently stay in touch with him in a way that enabled him to sort things out, with me again keeping one foot in this reality and one foot wherever he was. I was able to help my father find his way back by drawing a map with my words. He did not become quite so fearful, and therefore was much less traumatized during and after. Slowly he was able to return…sitting on the same sofa he’d been sitting on everyday for decades, and later on, he was actually able to speak of some of where he’d “been”.

Through these experiences and others, I’ve developed a way of relating to folks that doesn’t simply negate their experience…but instead allows it to coexist with the one that I’m having. As I recognize what I’m able to do, I have had a mostly unconscious debate about whether it would be best to “use” me as a caregiver…or as one who helps caregivers find their own ways to relate to elders who are slipping in and out of the places that they will visit more and more often as they prepare to leave. Maybe there is some other use of me that I have not even glimpsed as of yet.

When my friend posed her question wondering if I might be interested in taking the care-giving shift, all of this came tumbling through my mind in a moment’s passage. At the time she asked, she simply encouraged me to think about it and let her know. As it turned out, we both had the same idea…that this question deserved a conversation where we could really look into it. When that conversation occurred on the very next day, I heard the answer quite quickly. And my answer was “No!” I am still re-charging from the intensity of the time I spent with my father..letting the aquifer named “patience” fill back up, slowly, with cool, clear water.

Most of the rest of our discussion moved in the direction that I’ve been imagining myself being “used”. I asked questions about situations that were arising during her shifts, shared perceptions that have come to me about all the weighty and not so weighty issues that arise when a group of us concerned and loving younger ones try as best we can to sculpt a lifestyle, try to come as close as we can to what might have come naturally in some distant or not so distant time when our villages were still able to “raise a child” or “help an elder across”. When I heard that my answer to her question was “NO”, I also heard what I was saying “YES” to. We shall see where that clear “YES” leads me.