Around and Around


My husband is a hospice chaplain in the small, rural area where we live.  He is someone who ought to be in the position he’s in, because he somehow manages to come home every day with a smile on his face, as if he is a soul of such age that he understands what is “transpiring beyond that which is occurring,” as my beloved Pir Vilayat would have said.  He told me the following story today:

Today, while I was driving our Hospice Medical Director around for the clinical “face-to-face” evaluations required by Medicare to recertify patients for Hospice care, one of the husbands of an Alzheimer’s patient, who is himself age 94 and still active, said to the doctor, “You don’t remember World War II, because you’re too young, but after we liberated the death camps, I operated a bulldozer at one of them to knock things down and move some earth around.  There were people who looked like that,” pointing to his wife’s naturally emaciated and gaunt form, “because the Nazis starved them.  I was told to dig a big hole for a grave, and they brought those bodies there.  They had somebody pray over them and I’d cover them up.  I never thought I’d have that in my family.”

Love and Freedom

Death takes away the weariness of life and the soul begins anew. — Inayat Khan

My husband just found out that his only remaining brother was killed in a car accident last week.  His family was not a very close one, for various reasons, and all of them have died now.  This particular brother could have been described as rather a “lost soul,” because David suspects that he had numerous mental and physical problems, although his family was very careful to veil these.  I think it was a generational thing:  when I was a child, parents did not rush to take their children to a therapist or try to get them into special programs in school if they were dyslexic or hyperactive or had any of the many issues that are currently fashionable for explaining children’s behavior.  In those days, if your child had problems, they were either punished to “make” them behave (thus, no doubt, exacerbating their problems), or their problems were denied and attempts were made to veil them.  In this case, the statement I often heard was “poor little Leon was anemic.”  Evidently, this explained his scholastic failures and what my husband is fairly sure–as a mental health professional–was schizoaffective disorder, or what I would call a unique way of being in the world.  A “lost soul,” as I’ve already said…but was he?  He did serve in the military, in Germany, and that seemed to work for him, or at least we never knew otherwise; perhaps the clear discipline and routines of military life were helpful, although he never rose in the ranks, and was given an honorable discharge when his time there was finished.  After that, he had a series of jobs, and lived at home with his parents for many years, until both parents, successively, died.  His older brother and sister-in-law took over the family home, which they had evidently inherited, and adopted  children; while Leon lived in the attic until the older brother died and the sister-in-law left.  The house, by then in a state of complete disrepair and filth, was sold.   He then moved on to a series of jobs and residences, may well have been a “street person,” and was, finally, killed going to work at his “graveyard shift” Walmart job.  It was dark and rainy, and he didn’t cross the street at the crosswalk and so died . . . violently and alone.  My husband didn’t hear about any of this until a week later, when a cousin saw the news on the television and when he didn’t hear from him contacted another cousin who contacted him on Facebook.


You might ask, where was my husband while all this was happening?  One relative criticized him for not moving his family back “home” and becoming Leon’s “custodian.”  Leon, when presented with this idea, was not happy, and my husband chose to live his own life with his own family, which means me and our daughters.  These were rough years, because one of my daughters had myriad problems, as has been mentioned elsewhere here, and he had his work cut out for him, professionally as well as at home.  He wrote to his brother often, sent Christmas presents, and at least tried to call him at a succession of phone numbers his brother gave him, none of which he answered.  I know for a fact that he worried about his brother, yet didn’t feel inclined to try to somehow “take charge” of him.  He did contact his doctor at the VA hospital, but that didn’t make any real difference.  In any event, his brother seemed able to hold a job, although he was occasionally known to lose his temper, jeopardizing at least one job.

And now he’s gone.  My darling husband and I have been processing it for the past couple of days, and I know he has been grieving, while trying to get information through friends and relatives, some of whom were attempting to claim his “assets,” such as they may have been.  But I think my husband’s chief feelings have been ones of guilt:  should he have “taken better care” of him, should he have tried to have him institutionalized, should he have stayed nearer, etc.?

It is easier to do one’s duty to others than to one’s self. If you do your duty to others, you are considered reliable. If you do your duty to yourself, you are considered selfish. — Thomas Szasz, MD

I pointed out that it seemed to me that the conundrum was whether he had “not taken responsibility” or chosen to encourage his brother to be free to live in his own way, as he himself did,  in his.  Life, to quote my beloved teacher Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, is about “reconciling the irreconciliables.”  Or, in my own terms, accepting the unacceptable.  How many situations are presented to us, in this planetary life, that have no ready solutions, and are truly unjustifiable in terms of the values we are shaped with as we grow into earthlings.  We like to think that love is the greatest law we live by, but in fact power and control are the watchwords of those who have the means to shape the world according to their desires.  The archetypal “street person” is called “mentally ill,” said to be “milking the system” for a living, yet when questioned often presents with a desire for freedom, even at the cost of hunger and lack of resources of all kinds.  Perhaps they are the strong ones, those who refuse to surrender to those in power and their invented realities.

He who does not accept and respect those who want to reject life does not truly accept and respect life itself.  –Thomas Szasz, MD

Insanity – a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.  –R.D. Laing

I think most of us wonder, from time to time, whether these lives we are living in the world have any meaning, whether what we have lived through and said and done have been of use to anyone.  I certainly do.  Yet here we are in the presence–or recent absence–of someone who probably never once thought that he had any importance to anyone other than his mother….and look what he is teaching us.


Death takes away the weariness of life, and the soul begins anew.  –Inayat Khan

I grew up in a small coal-mining town in West Virginia.  Despite the overall vision many people seem to hold of that state (“You mean people there can actually read?” a woman in a Massachusetts shop once said to me), it was a kind of “Wonder Years” experience I had as a child, despite the most common–and numerous–of the usual family and community dysfunctions.  I had a lot of friends, too, and in my junior high and high school years, I made one I chose to call my “best friend,” and we had many good, good times together.  We raised each other really, I think, as adolescents do when they turn away from their parents and toward each other, giggling, squabbling, dreaming, romping…  She and I, and two other girls with whom we formed a little clique, went through all the usual joys and trials of the teen years, and when I got married–for the first time–at age 18, and she went off to college, and we gradually lost touch with each other.  Even by then, I think, we had decided to head down very different roads.  She became a scientist, and quite the achiever:  went to work for a large corporation that paid her very well, married the boy I’d grown up next door to, and by all accounts, her life was very successful.  I became a somewhat half-hearted hippie (never could get into the drug thing), learned to meditate, ran around the world, and didn’t even start college until I was 31.  By the time we came back together, I was close to my Ph.D., but I was to learn that psychologists are very different people from scientists.

Many years later, she found me on the Internet.  It had been some 30 years, and we tried to stage a comeback, but…it just plain didn’t work.  We loved each other, yes we did and we do, but we didn’t much like each other.  I was into God.  I lived simply, had children and had become the introvert I suppose I’d always been, innately.  She, meanwhile, had achieved great things, never had children, and was quite gregarious and extroverted.  She talked a lot and then wondered why I didn’t.  I tried to tell her it was because she didn’t give me a chance, but I never could find the way to say that in a way that was acceptable to her.  She didn’t understand my spiritual leanings, and was both fascinated and repelled by them.  She seemed, really, to resent me for them.  I don’t generally speak of these topics with anyone who doesn’t ask about them, nor do I believe in the least that because I’m into God you have to be.  All in good time.  Inayat Khan said that everything and every being is in the place it needs to be in and all things will awaken in their own time, and in their own way.  He remarks elsewhere that it doesn’t really matter what a person believes or doesn’t believe, what is important is that they live according to their values.  I resonate to both these ideas.  So what she believed or didn’t believe wasn’t a problem for me; but somehow, it was for her.  We went on trying to be friends for several years, but somehow we just couldn’t get comfortable with each other, although we continued to feel a great bond.  In a sense, I think she was my other half, the half that went outwards while this part of me turned within.  In retrospect, it seems to me that her biggest problem with me was that I just could no longer be the person she remembered me as.  And she didn’t want to hear about God, yet she kept asking.  <sigh>  And our efforts to communicate failed time and again:  I would say something that seemed pretty clear to me, and later it would come back to me as something I was pretty sure I’d neither said nor thought.  I’m sure she felt the same, although I pride myself, as a retired therapist, on my careful listening and reflection.  But somehow, with her, it didn’t work.

She did one great favor for me, though:  she kept my memories.  The woman never forgot anything.  I learned a lot about extroverts through her, because most of the people I tend to hang out with are like me, turned within, although certainly capable of deep friendship and listening.  Extroverts, though, I was to learn, do all their work “on stage.”  In order to think about anything, she said, she had to talk about it.  I am the opposite:  I need to reflect, to go within and work things through, and then either write or speak of them.  But there was never time for me, it seemed.  I missed my chance with her again and again.  And I’m sure she felt offended that I became exhausted by marathon conversations during which I said little, to her puzzlement, and she didn’t seem to realize that she talked so constantly that I truly couldn’t fight my way into the conversation without interrupting, as I suppose I must have when we were teenagers.  I got more and more frustrated, and she grew more and more impatient.

But about those memories she kept for me:  perhaps what I learned about the precious nature of early, deep friendships, is that by their nature they provide a witness–or mirror–for each person in the relationship.  There were many things that happened to me in my very dysfunctional family situation, for instance, that I “forgot,” read:  repressed.  But she didn’t forget.  She was there.  And by the time we got back together, she was just about the only person left in my life who had been.  And when I needed her to, she reminded me of what I knew but didn’t want to think of, yet….needed desperately to recall.  She loved me.  I loved her, too, but in her case, that fact wasn’t quite so amazing, because she grew up with parents who loved her and people who were in her corner.  I grew up in a sad, sick family of people who didn’t know how to love themselves, each other, or their children.  My best friend, early on, loved me and gave me her family, who also seemed fond of me, and let me spend quite a bit of time at her house.  They were all extroverts, it seemed:  loud, boisterous, humorous, competitive….  and they fed me, something that didn’t happen often at home.  I loved them.  They were the complete antithesis of my family.

My best friend loved me.  She wanted to fix me.  She wanted to heal me.  She wanted to take care of me.  She wanted to rescue me.  In many ways, she did, too, and despite the fact, in these last years, that we could barely stand each other, that never changed.  I’m grateful.  It was healing to be caretaken graciously and with love.  We didn’t much like each other, but either of us would have taken a bullet for the other.

My best friend, while all this was going on, neglected to mention just how sick she was.  She talked about her doctors and her treatment a lot, but I had the impression that these were the most interesting things in her life, although perhaps I should have realized.  She had so much more conversational energy than I did, I suppose I just didn’t realize.  And then…she died. While I didn’t realize just how bad things were,  I was aware, in her last months, that she had decided that she didn’t want to live any more.  Because we only talked on the phone, I didn’t see her physical deterioration, so perhaps that was part of it.   I think she must have had a lot of fear about dying, because she grew angrier and angrier with me, and I couldn’t figure out what I was doing that made her so angry.  I realized, eventually, that it was my fairly adbvanced spiritual commitment that bugged her, because she didn’t want to think about dying.  I said as much to her one day, and she admitted this to be true, and yet…she clearly had decided to die.  This person who seemed–to me at least–to have it all, obviously didn’t find what she wanted here, and she moved on.  I could almost see–dare I say it–an intentionality in her actions toward herself during the entire process.  Who knows how much control we have over our living and dying?  Not me.

But I do know one thing:  the morning my best friend officially passed on, she came to see me.  I have had this experience numerous times before when people I’ve loved have died.  Not always, but often.  One has to be paying attention, or it’s easy to miss the visit.   I was just waking up on that particular morning, and  she sort of “swam” into my consciousness, and surfaced in my mind.  Like a friend you’re swimming with, and they surface beside you, laughing, dashing the water out of their eyes.  She was overjoyed.  It was as if she was dog-paddling in the ocean of Spirit  and saying, “Look at me!  I’m free!”  A silver, swimming fish or a whirling dervish; something like that.  Awake and free in the ocean of consciousness.  I felt very happy for her.

My best friend was free.  I don’t suppose I know anything more about the afterlife then any of us earthlings do:  it seems we’re programmed to forget where we came from when we pick up our lives here, and perhaps that is necessary.  We remember, sometimes, however briefly, when something triggers our nostalgia for a more perfect freedom and beauty than we know here.  Perhaps it happens when we hear an exquisite piece of music, or see a profound work of art.  Poetry does it for me, and images of angels or a fresh snowfall.   Gregorian chant or a Tallis mass, Buddhist chanting.  Whatever evokes the purity and perfection of the planes of consciousness through which our beings unfolded on our way to earth will cause us to recall our origins, and awaken our longing for our real home.  My friend went to her real home a bit early, but I really don’t blame her a bit.  May peace be upon her, and upon all those who loved her.  If I know her, she went to prepare a place for us all.