Life is in the Body

Sometimes we know when the end of our lives is coming. Sometimes we don’t.

I was holding my friend Beth’s hand when she died at 31 years old. We were at a hospice facility. I had been sure I could still feel her pulse. But her hands grew cold and the life left her face, and I realized the pulse I felt was my own. The moment was quiet, and she was at peace, surrounded by people who love her.

This experience didn’t match my memory from January of 1995, when my Dad came into my room in the middle of the night to tell me my aunt and my little cousin had died in a car accident, and that my uncle remained on life support, and that my other cousin was alive. He told me, and then he told me again. I had forgotten they were on vacation in Arizona. I was sleeping.

Wait, what happened?

An accident?

Marybeth and Laurel didn’t make it?

We don’t know about Uncle Mark?

What happened?

For years I woke up in the morning consumed by a fog, dark skies, and stormy weather. Grief is thick.

My mother would stare out the window at the river in every season, as the steam rose from her coffee, mourning the loss of her brother and his family. Or lie under blankets in the afternoon on the couch. The unstoppable one, stopped in her tracks by this loss. It felt like we talked about it constantly, and never.

My father unraveled, and that was enraging because we needed somebody to take care of our family. I had unexamined expectations about how my father should be in an emergency: stoic, consistent, unwavering and the other mastery over nature characteristics expected from men by patriarchy. It’s a cold and lonely mind training, this separating ourselves from our humanity.

The loss of my uncle, aunt, and cousin, and the subsequent shattering of my entire extended family to grief, was my first heartbreak, and it was distinct from any of the heartbreaks I observed in the teenage dramas at my school. It was the loneliest time of my life. In my friendships I performed smiling, laughing and joking, but in my mind most often I was smashed and alone.

We all disappeared into anger, or drugs, or pretending. We disappeared into everything we could get our hands on because the pain was overwhelming. Pretty soon, the reason for the pain was obscured. It had officially taken up residence.

This life is in the body, and when a young person with a seemingly healthy body passes, the shock sticks for ages. Because we plan to live long adventurous lives. And not everyone does. I learned this from the car accident, and my next move was to plan nothing, to only do things that made me immediately happy, and to shy away from any long term planning.

Running, running, running; no idea where to go.

Terrified I would miss life for this sadness.

Pain management, breath to breath.

22 years later, sitting with Beth as she died long before she dreamed, and long before she was ready, I came face to face again with the fragility of life.

A couple of weeks before she died, Beth sent me a letter saying that I must keep doing visioning work because I am helping people to plant seeds for their lives. I wrote her back immediately. As I wrote I knew, this is probably it. I think this is the last letter. I must tell her how much I love her. We didn’t talk about that terrible fight in the Catskills, but we both knew it was settled. She’d not officially asked us to be there when she died, but we knew. It is the spoken and unspoken closure we did that made this loss feel different, not any less painful.

In the hours after Beth died, there was a rare solar eclipse. I put on my cardboard eye protection glasses and reclined back onto the ground, exhausted. I feel grief, and it is okay. Feeling how I feel about losing a dear sister, that is living my life to its fullest right now. There is nowhere to go, nothing to do. It will have its way with me. Surrender. My body began to relax into the grass.

Loss has been my teacher that change is the only real thing. Even the sun will die. The future is an unfolding path to our shared fate: leaving this body. Sometimes we know the end is coming and sometimes we don’t. Our vision must be clear, and our actions must be now, working with whatever conditions present themselves.

Beth is alive in my life. Mark, and Marybeth, and Laurel are alive. All who came before me, their lessons, their mistakes, their habits, their failures, and their lights are alive in my cells. The information exists in my conscious and subconscious mind.

Dreams are real instructions. They don’t need to be thought of as something fantastical that should be filed away or tossed or beaten out. We will not finish if our dreams are sufficiently big.

We will be remembered for the seeds we help to plant.

We will be remembered for blossoming at the correct pace.

The future is unknown, and it’s okay.

Every amazing story has a twist.

Beth Ryder-Kenna was my wife’s best friend from growing up, and her closest friend in Boston. After Beth died, our house quickly was filled with their whole Portland, Maine posse. We drank and ate and burned candles and laughed and cried and prayed for strength.

Beth Ryder-Kenna was my wife’s best friend from growing up, and her closest friend in Boston. After Beth died, our house quickly was filled with their whole Portland, Maine posse. We drank and ate and burned candles and laughed and cried and prayed for strength.