Friday, December 9, 2022

CONVERSATIONS WITH SARAH - Chapter 1

 

            It's strange how history repeats itself.  This story, Conversations With Sarah, was published in 2012. At the time my dear Roma was at my side, proofreading my work, and wondering if perhaps I had gone over the edge.
        Now here I am ten years later, without her comforting presence to keep me going, living out the unscripted moments when I resort to what sounds like one-sided conversations with her......the one who first gave me permission to walk closer to the edge.
        Reading this first chapter again has me wondering how I could have known then how it would be.

   

                         CHAPTER 1


Setting his freshly-warmed coffee on the TV tray next to his recliner Hank Rolland settled back and tugged at the chair’s lever to raise the footrest to his favored first position....just enough to raise his heels off the floor. He took a few seconds to hear the last of the weather forecast then used the remote to mute the television.

“Come on, girl,” he said, returning to their conversation. “You have to give me some help here. You know about those things. It feels like I’m way over my head. 

"That damn woman won’t leave me alone. Every time I turn around, she’s there. I swear I haven’t done anything to encourage her. In fact I’ve been downright rude sometimes. But she won’t go away.”

At that moment, seated there in the back bedroom that served as his computer/work room, Hank was in a familiar and very comfortable space. Across the room, little more than eight feet from his recliner, the television flickered silently, scrolling the day’s stock-market prices across the bottom of the screen. 

His attention, however, was focused to the right of the screen....on his friend, confidante, and conversational partner. She was sitting there on the book-case shelf, cleverly disguised as a round tin can, nine or ten inches tall....a sturdy canister originally created to hold ten pounds of Clabber Girl Baking Powder. (The Balanced-Double Acting Brand.

In recent months that colorful container had taken on a higher, more noble calling as the present, if not final, resting place of Sarah Rolland’s earthly remains. There, tucked neatly inside the baking-powder tin, was a one-gallon zip-locked plastic bag  containing her ashes.

“It’s getting embarrassing,” Hank continued, venting his frustration. “Even your good buddy, Grace, was kidding me about it after church on Sunday. She told me how the two of you used to joke about what you called thewily widows,’ and how they tracked down unsuspecting single guys, especially the so-called ‘eligible’ ones. Grace seemed to be putting Angie McDonald at the top of the ‘wily’ ones list.

“Heck, even Jimmy Brooder is giving me a bad time about it. He thinks it’s the funniest thing he’s ever seen. He’s an old football guy, you know. Maybe he could show me how to outrun Angie.”

It had been just weeks after her untimely passing, nearly nine months before, when Sarah’s ashes had found a home in the room where Hank spent most of his day. From the beginning, even in those moments when he questioned his own sanity, he had drawn comfort from the unlikely fact that she was there with him. By most any measure he considered her proximity a distinct advantage. 

As he grew more comfortable in her company he had continued to rely on ‘his Sarah’ as a reliable confidante and sounding board....as he had for so many years. During the day, engrossed in the internet dialogues he followed, she was always close at hand, ready to hear his often irreverent blog responses. At night, when he settled in with a good book or watched a tense television drama, he sometimes paused to offer a thought or observation that seemed to merit her consideration. 

In truth Hank Rolland was rather proud of how his idea to have her close at hand....(or had it been her idea?)....had turned out. How else would he have continued to enjoy his wife’s company on a daily basis? That could not have happened if she had been relegated to a dreary niche in the church’s columbarium, as the pastor had suggested. In every way their present arrangement, sharing his office and work space with Sarah, was more practical and satisfying.

Even after more than fifty years as husband and wife he still wondered if Sarah fully realized how much he had appreciated her surprising acceptance of the timid and slightly overwhelmed youngster he was when they first met at State College. He was nineteen years old at the time, fresh out of Tanner Southside High School, and by no means ready for prime time. 

Looking back, Hank remembered well how his hesitant arrival on that intimidating colligate stage had been made easier by a single undeniable advantage....literally no one on campus knew who he was, or more precisely, whom he had been.

Certainly Sarah would never have given him a second look in high school. A girl like her with a guy like him? Not likely. But there in college, on her own for the first time and caught up in the exciting newness of their freshman year, Sarah Cunningham had known nothing of the old Hank Rolland. 

When he first resorted to a bit of role playing, trying on a more worldly and mature persona, there had been no one on hand to expose his duplicity. Instead he was pleasantly surprised to discover that young Miss Cunningham had actually fallen for the new Hank Rolland. From the very first day of their budding relationship the fortunate reality that she had become part of his life was never lost on him.

 For decades she had been his one constant....the affirming presence that required no further justification. Now, having overcome the initial grief of her passing, he could think of no reason to let her new circumstances interrupt their long-standing connection.

True, to the unknowing eye and unsuspecting ear Hank’s rambling computer-room discussions with Sarah would have sounded like a one-sided dialogue, perhaps a symptom of some unnoticed mental deficiency. 

Yet from the beginning of their new working arrangement, from the day she first joined him in the computer room, Hank had made a point of addressing his wife out loud, in a normal speaking voice. It seemed to him that simply thinking his part of their exchange would make him something less than an active participant, and their conversation something less than real. He had never been willing to settle for that.

In the same way, the absence of Sarah’s audible response was rarely a deterrent to Hank’s sense of her involvement. After more than fifty years spent in her company he understood the extent to which her replies tended to be situational. Divining her unspoken answers, filling in the blanks of her silent responses, was seldom an obstacle. Still, in spite of that, there were moments of regret too real to ignore.

“It’s a damn shame, you know,” he had told her once. “Having to visit like this, never getting to see your silly grin when you scold me, or how your eyes get all squinty when you’re really mad. If only you’d have hung around a while longer. There were still a lot of good times left in us....things we could have done together.”

Things they could have done together.” Hank's thoughts lingered there for a moment, as they often did at that point in his remembering....taking time to sense her response, to feel the feelings she must be feeling. It was a favored retreat, that quiet mind space they had shared....a comfortable blend of hopeful moments from years past, of half-made plans, and elaborate visions of things they would do when Sarah got well.

“It could have been so good,” he added softly.

A moment later he was on his feet, at the window overlooking the back yard, viewing the untended clutter of Sarah’s once-proud garden having gone to seed. Though she knew well his heartfelt distaste for gardening, she would never have stood for such a mess.

“It seems like I spend most of my time anymore trying to fill the space you left behind. Staying busy is the best way I know to do that. Last night I got out those old letters you wrote me when I was at Ft. Ord. You remember that box you kept under the bed? I used to give you a bad time for saving them, but you always told me they were important. Turns out you were right.

“Of course, I never looked at them while you were here. There was no reason to do that. But lately I’ve had them out a couple times. Last night felt like the right time, so I went through them again.”

In the quiet that followed Hank was transported not to Sarah’s letters and how they still spoke to him, but instead to bittersweet recollections of U.S. Army Pvt. Hank Rolland standing in mail-call formation, hoping to hear his name called....reliving the warm, welcome times when it was.

“I remember all that," he continued. "Listening extra hard to hear my name. There was a guy in our company, from Cleveland I think it was. His name was Tony Rowland, R-O-W-L-A-N-D, which sounds the same as Rolland. The clerk would call out our last names. If it was your name, you answered. Well, when the clerk called out ‘Rolland’ we were never sure which one he meant. About the time I’d get my hopes up it would turn out to be for the other guy.

“Anyway, it was always so great to get those letters, especially during boot camp. Our Platoon Sergeant was spending twenty-four hours a day making our lives miserable. That was his job, to get us in shape, to teach us that the only ones we could count on were the guys around us. That’s how a soldier’s supposed to think.

“And all that time I was ‘counting on’ you and your letters. Hell, you could have sent pages from the phone book for all I cared. Though I’m glad you didn’t. What mattered was that while the Army was trying to make me a soldier, your letters were the one bit of sanity in that whole insane place. 

“That’s what I remembered last night when I first opened the box. Then I started reading what you wrote. Wow. No wonder it felt like I could go through anything they dished out if I knew you were waiting for me on the other side.”

For the next few minutes Hank checked out of their conversation. He considered that an important benefit of talking with Sarah, being able to interrupt their dialogue at any point, knowing he could pick it up a minute, or an hour, later. 

In the kitchen he refilled his coffee before returning to the computer room. There, he took Sarah’s container from the shelf. Grasping it in both hands, he explained, “So when our daughter tells me I should be ‘moving on,’ and what she really means is that I ought to find a new ‘someone’ to share my life, it’s hard to take her seriously. Though I will admit I still wonder if that’s what you were trying to tell me on that last morning.

“Anyway, there are times when it feels like the whole bunch of you....Kelly, Eric, and you, are ganging up on me. But that’s okay. I just keep telling each of you the same thing. I got lucky once. That kind of lightning doesn’t strike twice. So there won’t be a new ‘someone’ with Hank Rolland. You got that?

“Instead,” he added, reminding himself to say the words out loud, to her, “I’ll be right here with you. I’m seventy-two years old and just about used up, but when it’s all said and you’re the only thing I need.” Kissing the canister lid he set the tin back on the shelf.

Back in the recliner, his drowsy gaze again settled on his Clabber Girl sitting there on her shelf. Predictably, his last words to her that evening were spoken only in his sleep-shrouded mind....heartfelt and inaudible to all but her.

“It’s always good to know you’re here to talk to. It’s usually the best part of a day like today. Sweet dreams, dear.”

Hank opened his eyes long enough to locate the remote and switch off the television, before settling again into his half-dreamed reverie. After a draining day of mind games, sleep was not far off.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

LIVING WITH DYING - Chapter 8

 




                        CHAPTER 8


              I’ve Waited Long Enough

                        (August, 2017)


They are only words, you know....simple spoken sounds. Yet they can have such power. Simply saying them out loud can turn a sunny day dark, leaving us overwhelmed by tumultuous storm clouds that blot out the hope we need to survive.

I began these Living With Dying installments a few months ago by recounting my doctor’s simple, but searing explanation. “It is bladder cancer,” he said rather matter-of-factly. “In a fairly aggressive form.”

He had more to say about it, but truth to tell I do not remember much of that. By then my mind had been hijacked by a least three very pertinent details. 1)--He had said “cancer.” I knew at once I did not like that word. 2)--It was “bladder cancer.” I had heard second or third-hand stories of bladder cancer. As I recalled those accounts rarely had a happy ending. 3)--My cancer was apparently an ‘aggressive’ version of the species. That did not bode well.

At that point I had no symptoms to speak of, painful or otherwise. It was not the cancer that had me stressed. Instead, it was the doctor’s spoken words, and the dire thoughts they produced, that had me out of sorts.

However, at that point there was work to be done, and skilled, compassionate caregivers to do it. There would be months of Immunology Therapy, sprinkled with periodic breaks to help my body cope, then finally a month-long recovery period before a second bladder scan and biopsy could provide an informed reading of how effective those treatments had been.

For weeks I had done my best to focus on making the best use I could of the time I had left.... be it months or years. I had convinced myself that was a worthwhile exercise, which could help me find something like solid footing in what had become a most unsettling time. At that stage of the game I was glad for the incentive to work my way through those mind games, and the lessons they provided.

Finally, on a sunny Tuesday morning, it was time to march back into the fire one more time.....to hear the doctor’s latest assessment, and the impact it was apt to have on my future....our future. Once more Roma and I, along with our son, Adam, waited to hear the newest words the doctor had to add to the conversation.

As you know, physicians are busy folks. There are always other patients waiting to see them. But this morning he seemed to have a bit more time. He was less hurried as he explained the truth of it.

“I can’t guarantee it will stay this way,” he began. “But as of now, at this moment....it seems that you are cancer free.” About then I forced myself to keep listening.

“It seems the original surgery that removed the tumor,” he continued. “Along with the weekly sessions of Immune Therapy, have done their job.” 

He was looking into what by then must have been my silly, disbelieving grin when he added his cautions. “I can’t say it won’t came back. But we did X-ray your kidneys, to be sure it had not spread there. And they were clean. 

“Still," he said. "It was a nasty strain you had. So we will continue with another mini-round of therapy and periodic bladder scans to see that it doesn’t sneak up on us again. But for now I can say with confidence that you are bladder-cancer free.”

You can probably guess that the three of us were walking on air as we crossed the parking lot to the car. Of course, I had day-dreamed about such a storybook outcome, while warning myself not to get my hopes up. But there, as of that moment, I was a big fan of ‘getting my hopes up.’

Remember......I began this narrative by telling myself I must learn to Live With Dying. I had to find a way to do that because my future, which I had always taken for granted, had suddenly become rather murky....clouded by unsettling, perhaps ultimate possibilities.

You know what? Those particular outcomes may have lost their intimidating hold on me. But I still need to find better ways to live in the face of a future that will invariably end just one way.

I need to remember the lessons I was able to squeeze from those hard times. Cancer-free or not, all of us are charged to make the most we can of the time we have. Everyone of us has to keep Living With Dying.



Friday, December 2, 2022

LIVING WITH DYING - Chapter 7

 





             CHAPTER 7


                      While I Wait

                       (June, 2017)


I suppose it goes without saying that a story which purports to follow the course of my cancer adventure can only go as far and as fast as the disease itself and my efforts to deal with it. 

And now it seems that for the next month or two I am in a holding pattern, waiting to see how effective the round of immunology treatments have been. With that in mind I am not sure how interesting this installment (the last one for a while) will be. In one sense it feels like whatever drama is involved has been put on hold. 

Fact is, this chapter is really for me, a way to remind myself of how my life is being changed by this new lifestyle, while reviewing some of the ways I have tried to cope and adapt.


~~~


What has become my present situation began with some bad news. In time that had me wondering if the reasons I had to keep going, the ones I had learned in the course of a long life, would be enough to see me through to the end. 

In the face of those new challenges I was looking ahead, hoping to envision that future....with its obstacles and possibilities....asking myself if I have what it takes to live a purposeful life in the face of death....i.e. Living with Dying? 

(I will pause right here to scold myself. Why make it sound like that these troubles are happening only to me, when in fact everyone must carry on in the face of death?)

One thing for sure, I want to move beyond the geriatric fluff I read and hear about late-life....the stiffly-posed advertisements showing idyllic golf course scenes and smiling couples sitting by the pool enjoying their cocktails. 

Fact is those do not reflect my life at all. More to the point, I have lived enough of that idealized ‘fluff’ for one lifetime. I want my remaining years to deal with the ‘real stuff.‘ In my mind cancer qualifies as ‘real.’ It seems my response should be just as real.

I have been around long enough to understand that a life devoted to the pursuit of superficial goals....wealth, recognition, status, etc....is likely to be a superficial life. I know that, because I have spent a fair part of my lifetime chasing after those seductive prizes....with very mixed results. 

But now, as the veil of November reality settles over me, I can see that those once-appealing goals were too often idols....false gods, tempting but empty. I hope my last years can be more than that.

That, of course, does not mean that I know where all this is leading me. There are more than a few things I have not worked out yet, and probably never will. I most definitely do not have all the answers. 

For instance, I will admit that I still wrestle with a particular slice of that ‘false-god scenario,’ one I may never outgrow. Friends, family, even complete strangers, keep posting alluring photos of enticing, far-away sights on Facebook. Some of what they depict are places Roma and I remember visiting, and would love to see again. Others are destinations we have never seen, but wish we could.

 It would be so easy to place those intriguing travel adventures near the top of my November ‘to do’ list....at least until I reel my thoughts back to the ‘real’ world. You see, given our health limitations, financial capabilities, and simply the people we have become, late-life reality argues against extended travel. 

As a younger man I would never have imagined that spending a night or two in a classy hotel would have this once-bold adventurer longing for his own bed. Truth to tell, that is my new reality.

So instead, we are likely to put those travel dreams aside and revisit the shelves of photo albums we have accumulated over the years, remembering those times (when we can) and reliving those moments.

In the meantime I am left to wonder what comes next in the personal adventure I am living now. Chances are it will be a while before that sorts itself out. The doctor tells me it will take another month or so to know how effective the first round of immunology treatments has been. At that point he will recommend the next steps. 

And while I wait I want to sort through some of the options I have in mind for the future. I will start that process with the hopeful, but realistic assumption that most of us October and November folks have more resources to work with than we sometimes realize.

We have spent a lifetime gaining hard-won elder wisdom....all those things we have learned along the way. Those we-remembered lessons ought not be dismissed, especially in our ‘down and out’ moments, when it feels like our late-life potential is slipping away. We must not give up on ourselves.

Personally, I intend to keep going....filling these blog pages when it seems I have something to say, and carrying on with my Tanner Chronicle stories. There are two of those in the works right now, and another taking shape in my slightly deluded mind.


        ~~~~


 With that, I want to sign off with a bit of that ‘elder wisdom’ I speak of....something my cousin Leslie learned as a younger woman. When her four-year old son faced a terminal cancer diagnosis, given two weeks to live, she railed against God and life in general....until that is, she was visited by a wise and inspired epiphany, a simple question that seemed to put everything in perspective.

Instead of getting bogged down in “Why is this happening to us?,” she was moved to ask, “Why not us? Why does it always have to be someone else?” 

With that understanding came what she remembers as a ‘wonderful feeling of peace.’ Today, after decades of sometimes harsh treatments and troublesome side-effects, her son is 42 years old and ‘still a pistol.’ 

I will end this on that happy note, and the understanding that when it comes to Living with Dying I am a rank amatuer. We live in a world where unexpected trials are visited on people every day....harsh circumstances that make my late-life trial look like a speed bump. 

So when our turn comes, and you know it does for everyone at one time or another, it is up to us to summon the inspiration and strength to keep sharing our love and caring....to keep Becoming.

That is all there is for now, until then there is more to report. In the meantime....keep trying.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

LIVING WITH DYING - Chapter 6



                           CHAPTER 6


                 The ‘Why’ of it

                                   (May, 2017) 



As you can tell by now, my approach to dealing with ‘Living’ (as opposed to ‘Dying’) is probably different than yours would be. I can assure you it’s different than I expected. 

After all, you and I have spent a lifetime assembling what seem to us viable answers. We sort them out, think them through, and keep the ones that appear to fit our circumstances. Then, having gathered those ‘keepers’ together, we tell ourselves that we have created the ‘life-answers’ that work for us. It is all so logical and straight forward.

Until that is, we are forced to test those assembled ‘answers’ against a not-so-logical real-life challenge. Are they still a ‘fit,’ even in the face of potentially terminal consequences? A time like that calls for strength and direction. Do those ‘answers’ of ours suffice?

And of course there will be times when those answers are not enough….when we are stymied by uncertainty and a lack of verifiable facts. When it come to health issues, whatever our ailment, there are bound to be unknowns. Trials of that sort do not move ahead on a predictable schedule. 

Even now, with my first round of treatments completed, I must wait another month or so before the results of that therapy, good or bad, can be determined. Only then can the doctors chart the next stage of my cancer journey.

Still, in the face of that uncertainty, and with time on my hands to think about such things, I am looking ahead….wanting to identify the hopeful elements of my circumstances, while at the same time seeking the strength to confront what threatens to undo me. For me, as perhaps for most folks, that leads me down what I consider a spiritual path, seeking something solid to lean on.

If you have followed my earlier chapters you know by now that I accept the Divine as a part of me, instead of a separate ‘other.’ I do believe in the ‘more’ that touches our lives. I believe that ‘something more’ has a cosmic connection to our Source, THE Source. And when I need to name that source I call it God.

Finally, any honest discussion of cancer and its emotional impact must deal with the possibility of death. It is, after all, the 800 lb. gorilla most of us cannot ignore. I have read somewhere that the middle-East ISIS army countered such concerns by promising to have 26 virgins waiting for each fallen warrior who reaches the Great Beyond. Apparently that worked for them, though I’m afraid my arrival would be a disappointment for all concerned.

In any case, for someone like me the details of that ‘hereafter’ remain` an unanswered question. I accept that after death the Source may well make use of my soul in some way. I am personally attracted to the possibility of reincarnation, as befits one weaned on Edgar Cayce and Wayne Dyer. Still, no matter what comes next, I expect I will have to wait until then to find out (or not.)


          ~~~


In the meantime here I am, having come to terms with a cancer diagnosis, and moving past the initial shock to concentrate on living with that reality. Chances are I will have years to work on that, for which I am indeed thankful. 

 But as I explained earlier, I am not particularly interested in gaining an extended life span simply in order to live longer. I don’t want to score my life by how long I live….but rather, how well I live. Stated another way, I believe that outliving the ‘worst case’ of any existential threat implies an obligation to use the time gained in a worthwhile way….to have a reason or purpose for staying alive.

So let’s take a moment to think about 'having a reason to keep going,' to staying alive. What does that mean? And where do I stand regarding the ‘purpose’ questions I have raised along the way? Have I found credible reasons for going on….one or more personal goals suitable for the last years of an old man’s life? Do I know what I should be doing with those year?

In a word, or two….”Not exactly.” 

Still, though it is too soon to settle on the specifics, let me explain where my thoughts have taken me so far. For instance, I have recognized the need to strike a balance, a productive blending of the external and internal elements of late-life into a functioning whole.

Most of us would agree that family, and the loving attachments it represents to aging grandparents, is reason enough to continue nurturing those connections. Remember, science tells us the reproduction and continuation of the species is a primary function of life. I am quite willing to accept that as a noble purpose. 

More than that, I can claim an extraordinary level of success for Roma and myself. We have certainly fulfilled that reason for our being. Our family….four children, eight grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren (so far)….is most certainly a blue ribbon assembly. Not only that, they are showing signs of doing their own part to continue an expansion of the race. Score one for our side.

Yet family is only part of what I call my ‘external’ life. Beyond those vital relationships I must also consider the role that friends and associates play in completing a whole and wholesome life.

It is there, in that ‘friends and associates’ realm, that I sense a definite need for improvement. Though I have sometimes been accused of being anti-social, I prefer to label myself ‘unsocial.’ I do like people, but in small doses. 

I am not, however, one of those who needs a constant stream of human interaction. So, without quibbling over definitions, I can safely say that cultivating my social skills, with an eye towards being a better friend to more people, is something I ought to work on. 

Is making friends something I can accomplish by simply trying harder? I don’t know about that. But a person like me, wanting to make the most of his time, ought to be doing more than I am.

With that I turn to what I call the ‘internal’ side of life….that ill-defined assemblage of mind, consciousness, and soul which resides in my heart and between my ears….the part of me that motivates, evaluates, and directs my thoughts and actions. 

Although I absolutely believe in the value that ‘inner me’ can add to my life, I must admit that my level of success in those ‘internal’ matters is dubious at best. Too often I have fallen short. Perhaps I can explain.

Several years ago, in a vaguely remembered time of trouble, I composed a simple prayer, which I continue to revisit on a daily basis. The opening lines of that meditation go like this:


“Thank you, God. Thank you, Spirit. Thank you, Source. 

“Help me I pray, to be an instrument of your intention….so that your intention might be my intention.”


In those few words I hope to remind myself of the Divine God-spark that I believe resides in me. In even the best of times I need the help of Its ‘intention’ (i.e. Its Love.) to keep going. Though I have too-often overlooked the need for that help, I accept that my pleadings are real, and my hope is justified.

You can tell at a glance that I owe my prayer format to a special hero of mine, St Francis of Assisi. Or perhaps I should say my interpretation of St Francis, because he might not agree with me at all. In any case, my intent is simple enough. I am reminding myself that, aided by Divine intuition and inspiration, it is my responsibility to become the means (the instrument) of living out what I consider the Divine intention….i.e. Love.

Finally, in this early stage of my seeking I have identified one other reason to carry on. In the course of the last fifteen years I have invested an inordinate amount of time and thought creating the late-life Tanner Chronicles stories I tell, along with the family adventure tales that Roma and I have written together. 

For that long I have tried to make those books as authentic and true-to-life as possible. More than that, in the process I have learned a thing or two about October and November life.

Whether or not the resulting stories, seventeen so far, have literary merit they, along with my October Years blog, have served a personal purpose….a reason to get up each morning and exercise that most amazing example of our Divine inheritance….our imagination. I expect to keep doing that as long as I can.

And that, in a few paragraphs, provides a glimpse into some of the nooks and crannies I am exploring, seeking the best ways to use my remaining years, the ones that seem more vulnerable than they did six months ago. 

Whether I turn to external reasons, internal reasons, or the stories I imagine into being….these are not necessarily grand and noble purposes I am contemplating. Instead they are the ones that pull me forward….the ones I hope will blend my time, my love, and my imagination into a future that honors the time I am given.

In the meantime, as I hopefully avoid the painful symptoms that cancer is capable of producing, and continue to recover from the post-treatment ‘punies,’ I intend to concentrate on Living in the face of Dying, and at the same time continue to blog about other late-life matters.


                          ~~~


As I close for now I am thinking back to questions I asked myself at the beginning. Has it helped me, telling this still-incomplete story of mine? I believe it has. If nothing else it has provided structure for the way I view my dilemma, while helping turn my thoughts from dark and gloomy to something brighter. 

Beyond that, putting these thoughts on paper has served as a wake-up call, nudging me toward a more internal, dare I say more spiritual, understanding of how to carry on in the face of an apparent disaster. In the next chapter, which will probably the last one for a while, I plan to address my understanding of where that not-so-subtle ‘nudging’ is leading me.







 

Saturday, November 26, 2022

LIVING WITH DYING - Chapter 5




                 


                                        CHAPTER 5


                      A Focus on ‘Becoming’

                                (April, 2017)


Do you ever pause to consider the context of the life you are living? I took a moment this morning to revisit the first chapter of this LIVING WITH DYING story. What struck me at once was its tone. Those early days….that was nearly three months ago….were not a good time. I was down in the mouth….caught up in the harsh reality of an unexpected cancer diagnosis and feeling sorry for myself.

I began that post intending to see where this daunting journey, with its overtones of terminal possibilities, would take me. Now, after all that time, I can sense a distinct change in attitude. 

The threat I feared at first has retreated to the background….still there, but not nearly as intimidating. My once-dark thoughts have evolved from ‘Dying’ to ‘Living,’ and I try to concentrate more on possibilities and potential, and less on the ’worst case’ trials that may still await me. 

Contributing to that change of heart has been the feedback some of you readers have offered regarding these blog posts. I made the point earlier that trials like mine are universal. Many of you readers have experienced the cruel reality of cancer and other late-life tests in ways far beyond what I will ever face. Given that, what right do I have to play ‘poor me’? Instead, I need to deal with the life I have.

In any case, it feels like I am ready to move on, with a special focus on what may strike you as a new and slightly different way of looking at a life well lived.


~~~


As I mentioned at the end of the last installment, my reading has led me to a vaguely familiar place, and an expanded, more coherent explanation of what I have long tried to put into words….an understanding that rang true the first time I considered it and still does.

In his recently published book Emergence, Derek Rydall uses an oak tree as a metaphor for the process he is describing….emerging from a tiny acorn to become a deep-rooted giant, reaching upward and outward in all its mature majesty. That seems to me a useful image, illustrating how over time the sprawling oak emerges from its modest beginning.

Before we go any further I invite your reaction to one of the Rydall’s primary conclusions. Reduced to its simplest form it reads something like this….our deepest, most soul-felt desires are hints of a Divine instinct that already dwells in our consciousness, longing to emerge, wanting to be lived out in our daily life. 

Still using his graphic 'oak tree' image, the author then argues in favor of another bit of existential magic, something I found very familiar. 

He hypothesizes that every sort of life, whatever its form....flora or fauna….arrives on the scene with everything it needs to become what it is intended to be. Beyond that, he concludes that the human link in that life-chain, the part which includes you and me, begins as a speck of DNA-infused matter that includes a spark of Divine energy, brimming with the potential to ‘Become.’

Again, at the heart of Rydall’s logic is the belief that whether it is a forest acorn or a human embryo, with proper nurturing that divinely-inspired beginning contains everything it will require to emerge as the creation it was meant to be. 

In the human example, he surmises that what we see, feel, taste, or touch, and every relationship we have….everything that we encounter in life….is experienced in our mind, aided and abetted by that same Divine energy. What that means is this…. whatever happens to us ‘out there’ in what we call the ‘real world’ is a reflection of what is already in us. I must admit, his understanding of our internally directed ‘Becoming’ seems valid to me.

I hope you will bear with me for a moment as I compare Rydall’s insight to an excerpt from one of my Tanner Chronicles stories written way back in 2009. When I first wrote this scene I was calling the story “Maybe This Time.” It was the brief exchange I offer here that unexpectedly sent my narrative off in a very different direction, to become the book I published as “Becoming.” 


“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked, knowing that I was not sure at all. “I’m not exactly a church kind of guy, you know.”

A moment later Maria nodded her understanding, so I took a deep breath and threw caution to the wind.

“Okay, here’s the deal,” I began. “You talk about a God who has rules for every step you take….who comes down hard on you when you break those rules.“ That had her nodding her agreement. 

“But the God that makes sense to me,” I continued. “The One I can accept, gives us the freedom to be ourselves and expects us to play a part in what It is creating, even when we make mistakes along the way.

“Let me explain if I can.” By then my unfamiliar role as spiritual advisor was growing more uncomfortable by the second. “What I think of as God has given every single thing that It creates all that it needs to become whatever it’s supposed to be. 

“And once It has done that, It sends that creation off to become that intended ‘something.’ That is true for a tree, or a flower, or an animal. They all use what they’ve been given, and do their best to become what they are meant to be. And I believe it’s that way for people too.

“That’s what I think we’re supposed to be doing here,” I added, hoping I had not lost contact with her.

“We’re in the process of ‘Becoming.’ And as long as we live we will never outgrow the need to continue that journey. Along the way, part of our job is to learn what it is we’re supposed to do or be….that might be a caregiver like you, or a storyteller, or anything else. The main thing to remember is that we’ve already been given everything we need to be whatever that is.”

With that I had pretty much exhausted my God-thought repertoire.


Small wonder I found Derek Rydall’s hypothesis so compelling. He had taken an idea I had been trying to sell for years, dressed it up and made it presentable. 

To be clear, he stresses that success in any ‘Becoming’ venture is never guaranteed. Life’s fragile ‘Emergence,’ whether in a sprouting acorn, a newborn child, or a November octogenarian, begins with a hopeful dose of potential….possibilities that are awaiting the nurture, care, and circumstances necessary for their Becoming.

Where Rydall departs from the spiritual logic most of us learned as youngsters, is the role of an external deity in that emerging life cycle. An ‘up-there,’ ‘out-there,’ ‘behind-the-curtain’ God to whom we address our prayers and make our pleas is not part of the ‘Emergence’ he describes.

If I interpret him correctly, Rydall’s vision of the Divine (a concept that he readily accepts) does not include a heavenly scorekeeper who hears humanity’s prayers, then distributes them into files labeled ‘granted’ and ‘not granted.’

Frankly, I appreciate the way he faces those stumbling blocks head on….moving beyond a God who makes such arbitrary choices. 

He addresses the age-old rationale that “God knows what is best for us” by simply asking, “What kind of god has all the answers at hand, yet offers them to only some petitioners….perhaps the ones who believe the right truth or worship the right god? Besides, what kind of god allows children and refugees to starve by the thousands, or tens of thousands when He or She could stop it? ”

Instead of petitioning that external ‘Heavenly Father’ to help us find our way, Rydall turns to the Divine God-spark, the soul-deep inheritance of our birth, that he believes already resides within us. It is, he claims, that bit of God-magic that enables our Emergence. Fueled by gratitude for the gifts we have been given, we are able to give away the treasures we possess….our love, caring, and kindness. 

Rather than turning to a remote, out-of-reach God for direction, Rydall insists that we….as spiritual beings who are living for the moment in a material world….have, with proper nurturing, the means to use our inherited gifts, the Divine within us, to fulfill our own destiny. I will confess that his logic rings true for me. Once again, I don’t expect everyone to agree.

So here I am, looking November right in the eye, trying to convince myself I ought to keep Becoming. More to the point, how should I use the time I have….time that seems more vulnerable than ever before? 

And of course I am not the only one asking those questions. Every one of us is living in that ‘limited time’ universe, aren’t we? I can’t speak for you. But I want to spend that time doing the right things ….hopefully emerging more like the person I was meant to be.

In that case, if I am to move beyond an ‘Ask and you shall receive’ God to follow the Divine-spark I have carried in me since birth, how will I know what path to take? I have, after all, arrived at this point in search of a reason to keep going in the face of what has the feel of an existential roadblock….a cancer diagnosis.

Thankfully, I can sense my late-life seeking coming into focus….as though I am finally asking the right questions. A good thing too. For all I know I may be running out of the time. (Though hopefully I can keep going for years.) 

In any case, I had better get to work, harvesting my remaining potential….and exploiting the life-possibilities I have yet to live out. Before I can do that, however, I need to get a better handle on what those ‘possibilities’ might be. Obviously it is time to continue that search.




Wednesday, November 23, 2022

LIVING WITH DYING - Chapter 4


 




           

       Where is the answer?

                  (April, 2017)



I am eighty-years old. Even with the best of health, my productive future is limited. Still, in the face of a cancer diagnosis and the vulnerability that suggests, I am anxious to make the best possible use of whatever time I have. 

Though it has taken me a while to reach this point, it feels like things are finally coming into focus. While the doctors and the disease are at war with each other, using me as their battlefield, there is only so much I can do on the medical front. In that case why not concentrate on things over which I have some control? It is time for me to address  a life that includes cancer.

I understand, of course, that it would help to have a reason to keep going in the face of my troubles….a reason beyond simply staying alive. If my only goal is to exist for another month or another year, what will I have to show for that a month or a year from now?

Truth be told, I have seldom thought in those terms. But the more I do, the more it seems that what matters most is not how many days I hang around, but rather the use I make of those days. 

But what would be the most productive use of that time? What worthwhile ‘something’ can an old fossil like me accomplish at this stage of the game? And if I don’t know, where should I turn to find those answers?

Bottom line….I want to spend my allotted time doing the right thing. Chances are that means returning to the spiritual side of life that I mentioned in the last chapter.


  ~~~


By now the gut-wrenching shock of a cancer diagnosis has worn off and my thoughts have turned to Living, rather than Dying. A couple months ago, while still bogged down in a post-surgery funk, my dark thoughts viewed the time I might have left as a very limited and very precious commodity. 

Now, with the first round of treatments behind me, my perspective has changed. The time I have left  (which I expect will be numbered in years, not months) remains just as precious, but hopefully my priorities are different. Let’s see if I can explain.

It seems that mankind, from the beginning of the species, has tried to identify and connect with the nebulous mystery of ‘Divine energy’….that hard-to-define ‘more’ which touches our lives in ways we struggle to express. Throughout recorded history, in every corner of every continent seers and shamen, gurus and mystics have created mythologies and sacred stories, cults and religions to better understand the mystery of the Divine.

Whatever explanation we accept as our personal answer, and whatever name we assign to it, I have said before that I believe there resides in each of us a bit of God-spark, a DNA-like gift of birth. That in turn is part of another great mystery….how the complex and complicated person we have become, including that Divine inheritance, could have been encapsulated in the microscopic bits of sperm and egg from which we emerged.

I have read, and perhaps you have too, that some folks believe our God-inheritance is linked to a companion possibility….the notion that our earthly incarnation includes a particular reason for our being….a ‘purpose’ that our time on earth is meant to accomplish. 

I find that possibility especially intriguing at this stage of late-life, as I cast about for the best way to use my remaining years. Do you suppose there is ‘something’ I ought to be doing, or at least trying….a purpose that was sent here with me?

I will admit that from time to time I have patted myself on the back for my self-judged virtues, congratulating myself for my occasional good deeds. (I tend to forget the not-so-good ones.) Those moments, however, certainly fall short of being a ’cosmic reason’ for my existence.

In fact I have always found the idea of a specific reason for my being hard to accept. It has the ring of a simplistic ‘churchy’ answer….with overtones of a micromanaging God. Truth to tell, I am not a God-fearing person. I make no secret of my belief in the Source, or Spirit, or God that dwells in me. But in my mind the presence of that Love-based essence is not something to be feared.

So for the last few weeks I have plodded along, looking for better answers. My gloomy diagnosis had me mired in a sometimes-doubting limbo ….until the night, a few weeks ago, when I lay in bed, letting my half-awake thoughts take me where they wanted. 

Apparently ‘where they wanted’ was what I now accept as a minor epiphany, which arrived in the form of a single word….one that I repeated to myself several times, to be sure it would not be swallowed and forgotten by a night’s sleep.


~~~


“Potential.” That is a fine word, isn’t it? I will admit I find it a bit ironic that in a world that longs for exact, succinct answers I am willing to accept something as wishy-washy as ‘potential’ to be the raw material from which to construct my reasons for moving ahead….a logical first step toward finding the ‘something’ that fits me.

Like I said before, the possibility of a single life ‘purpose’ is hard for me to wrap my head around. It sounds so concrete, denoting a certainty I have rarely felt. ‘Potential,’ on the other hand, has the ring of ‘what might be’….hinting at a range of possibilities that could set me on the right track. Beyond that, it is something I have experienced myself. I know a thing or two about potential. 

After all, we have four children, four living and breathing examples of individual potential. We knew from the beginning how different they were from each other. As they grew each of them exhibited his or her distinctive characteristics ….drawn to become themselves by exploiting their unique potential. 

The more I pondered that ‘potential’ notion the more it sounded like something worth exploring. Though it was rather late in the game, the notion of a reason to keep trying was coming into focus, arriving with a clarity that perhaps comes with age. 

By then I was following my long-held ‘Becoming’ rationale back to its roots….confirming the possibility of a Divine organizing spirit, my own God-spark if you will. Though I still struggle to understand what that means, I am less willing to consider my arrival at this time and place as a totally random event.

That in turn has me wondering. Are these simply the wishful thoughts of a tired old man trying to wring answers from a late-life crisis….wanting to know the best way to use his remaining time? Perhaps so. Yet I am persuaded that somewhere out there is a potential reason for me to keep going….a valid ‘true north’ by which to set my internal compass as I face a new and daunting challenge.

So, you might ask, what was it that helped cement my belated acceptance of a potential reason? Actually it was a book….authored by Derek Rydall, titled Emergence….which struck me as true. More than that it seemed to elaborate on my own primitive thoughts. 

Derek Rydall explains how what I call our ‘Becoming’ (which he labels ‘Emergence’) requires us to ‘give away’ the love, the kindness, and the caring we already possess. That is a logic that rings true for me.

I have long believed that even in my personal November, (at least I hope it is) I am still in the process of ‘Becoming.’ I have written whole books advocating that reality. Beyond that, it feels as though I still have time for another lap or two. 

Without knowing for sure where this latest obstacle is leading me, or whether my eighty-year old body is good for another year or another ten, I am determined to wring all the meaning I can from the years I am gifted.

True, the results of my future efforts will not look like the good old days. But hopefully my ‘trying’ will confirm that even in late-life I can reach down inside myself to set in motion another bit of the Divine energy that has kept me going this far. Perhaps Mr. Rydall is showing me how to do that. Hopefully I can explain his logic in the next chapter.