Untethered in Time
Four years ago, as I wheeled my friend out of rehab and to my car to take her home after recovering from a fall that broke her femur, she looked up at me and asked, “Why are you doing this?” I suspect she wondered because though we had known each other for 30 years, we hadn’t been particularly close in recent years. What had changed was my freedom to be of service once I left the corporate world. Choosing to simplify my life in order to care for my aging parents, allowed me to be present for other loved ones. My reply was simply, “Showing up is my love language, and I love you. You deserve this.”
The next four years continued to be challenging for my friend and her wife, who was beginning to show signs of what would be a diagnosis of vascular dementia. They were blessed to be active members of their Unitarian Church community for over 30 years, and their friends showed up for them in many ways during those years. The hardest part about holding space for these two sacred beings was feeling as if there was so little we could do to help when so much of the struggle was health-related. But that never stopped dear friends from showing up to do whatever was possible to ease their burden.
When my friend ended up back in the hospital last October, I showed up to take her home after discharge. There were a few things going on in her body. They fixed one issue, and left it up to her to follow up with specialists to address the other issues after discharge. I had learned from my father’s experience in his final years that it would be best to stay in the hospital until you can be seen by the specialists, but for one reason or another, that didn’t happen. She made follow up appointments with three specialists and was able to see one within a couple of weeks. The other two, however, had nothing available until mid-January.
Tragically, by January 3, she and I had returned to the hospital to learn that she had been in heart failure for the last two months. One of the tell-tale signs was that her body had been retaining fluid. Her physical therapist had been wrapping her legs for compression, and when I arrived to take her to the hospital, she had a large water blister on the top of her right foot. You could see the fluid within sloshing around as if it were a snow globe. I told her not to worry about shoes, as I would once again be her wheelchair maiden and her feet would never touch the ground. The ER was quite busy, and as we rolled her from one spot to another in the waiting room, I noticed that the blister had popped, and we were leaving little puddles everywhere.
She was admitted that night, and we learned that a valve in her heart had calcified to be described like a ‘Ritz Cracker’ by the hospitalist. There would be a pig valve replacement required, but they needed to get some of the fluid off of her heart and lungs first. She lost 20 pounds over the next few days, thanks to Lasix. (We were both delighted and fascinated by the new device that vacuumed out her urine, rather than having to be catheterized.) But that wasn’t enough. When we thought we’d reached surgery day, her doctors decided they needed her to get a little stronger in order to have a successful procedure and recovery, so they prescribed a few days of in-house physical therapy.
I had been so focused on helping set-up constant communication to their loved ones, through Caring Bridge, and securing the line-up of compassionately generous friends who would take shifts sitting with her wife, ensuring she was kept nourished, nurtured, and safe, that I hadn’t gotten to the hospital the first week. When she and I talked on the phone the day the procedure was postponed, she told me that when she woke that day, she felt the presence of her Mother. To be clear, these words came from the mouth of my friend who found all metaphysical references to the mystery of what comes next to be impossible to believe. She then asked me, “Do you think that means I’m going to die?”
I assured my friend that her mother was standing by to support her healing and to offer protection, but I did worry. I probably felt that the answer was yes, but that didn’t feel helpful in that moment. Since one of our dearest mutual friends died in 2017, we have often talked through her feelings and fears about death. I once felt as she did, that when you die, that’s it… nothing. But as a skeptical believer, over many years of exploration and mindful practices, I have found resonance with firm belief in something different.
Ten days after arrival, my friend’s nurse called to inform me that her heart had stopped pumping and that they were taking her to ICU, that a pump would be installed at her groin, and I later learned that the installation procedure had caused her kidneys to shut down. They put her on dialysis. When they realized she couldn’t swallow without choking, because she had to lie flat with the pump in place, they inserted a feeding tube. For the next couple of days, she slept often and was difficult to understand when she tried to speak. Meanwhile, I was holding Zoom Healing Circles with people who loved our friend from all areas of her life and from all over the country. Each morning that followed, as we waited for the medical team to come by, I would play the recording of the voices she adored. I asked her if she knew how loved she was, and she said, “no”. She couldn’t believe that so many people were showing up for her.
Her sister decided to come from afar, and I offered her sanctuary. Later, we would tell my friend how lucky we felt that she had brought us together… her best kept secret – after 30 years, how much her sister and I had in common. One afternoon, a doctor entered the room and asked which one of us was ‘the sister’. My new friend’s reply, “I’m her bio-sister and she’s (pointing to me) her soul-sister.”
Each morning, we would pull an oracle card for our beloved, before heading to the hospital, and we would pay attention to signs from the universe. We were of one-mind, on the same page. One morning, my new soul-sister alerted me to a white rabbit in my backyard. I have lived in this house for 25 years and this was a first! What I heard in my head was, “I’m late! I’m late, for a very important date!” My interpretation was that we should not waste any time. Our beloved would soon be departing.
She had seemingly rallied at the arrival of her sister, so her step-daughter questioned whether she should tell her son to come now or to wait. I encouraged her to get him here now. Far better to have time with her while able to speak to him. He booked a flight to arrive on Friday. Exchanging a sister for a grandson… the changing of the guard.
On Thursday, we finally heard from the cardiothoracic surgeon. He said that we were running out of options, and that the remaining ‘Hail, Mary’ possibility would be to punch a hole in the valve to see if the heart would start working on its own again, but that procedure came with great risk. On the phone, he presented it as an option that must be taken ASAP. I told him that her grandson and sister-in-law would be here soon. I asked if it could wait until next week. His concern was that waiting would allow time for more to go wrong.
When I told my friend what the doctor had indicated, she understood it to be the only chance she had to continue. She decided that she wanted to do it. I informed the nurse and left the room. I went to the bathroom and cried. Then, I called her important people to come. I asked her about her fears, and she shared that she was afraid that when death arrived it would be like turning out the light. She didn’t want to leave because she hated to miss anything. I asked her to join me in suspending disbelief, and to consider that when she left behind her broken body, she would be unlimited as she would return to the light of truth. She would then be able to be everywhere, all at once.
We were all gathered around our friend when the doctor came to see her. His language was a bit different than it had been when we spoke on the phone. He suggested that perhaps she should wait, and spend the weekend with the family who would soon arrive. He also explained what the trauma of using every means to save her life might look like, and she agreed that either now or in the middle of the postponed procedure, she did not care to have a 300 pound man climb on top of her to pound her chest. We appreciated the way he added a bit of humor to the very real information he was giving her, which was… that he was highly recommending a Do Not Resuscitate order, because she was nearing the end of life.
And just like that, we understood that we were not going to lose our beloved on an operating table that day. We were simultaneously heartbroken and relieved. Together, we sang the most stunning rendition of “Spirit of Life” by Carolyn McDade, that I’ve ever heard. I call it the Unitarian theme song. It goes like this: “Spirit of life come unto me, sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion. Blow in the wind, rise in the sea, move in the hand giving life the shape of justice. Roots hold me close, wings set me free, spirit of life come to me, come to me.” We would sing that song several times more over the next few days.
During these difficult days in the hospital, friends were holding space for her wife. We wondered how much she would retain about her wife’s condition, as her memory was challenged to retain much of anything from moment to moment. In one conversation with a friend, she had reportedly referred to her wife as being in the hospital and having a lot wrong with her, looking forward to her getting better and joining her in their future home in assisted living, not knowing if she would ‘make it’, and that she was already dead. I felt so fascinated by this recounting from our mutual sister-friend, as it reminded me of a sci-fi series that featured a quantum traveler being unstuck in time. It seemed as if dementia could possibly be described as such… being untethered from reality, while being able to visit the future, as well as the past.
Also happening during this timeframe, was the parallel hospitalizations of my life long friend’s mother. The day after I was in the ER with my friend, my favorite tomboy was in the ER with her Mom. Understanding the second half of life is certainly cemented when we find ourselves walking mindfully with our aging loved ones, wanting to ensure their safety and wellness, while holding our breath to prolong the number of days we will be blessed to share. Her mom would be in the hospital a few times that month. I visited with her, upon request, to help determine her wishes for care, as her kids worried she would choose rehab so not to be a burden to them. I advised against it, knowing that she would just be left in bed as a fall risk for all but 30 minutes a day. I knew she was better off at home.
My favorite tomboy told me that after that visit her mom said to her, “I think Missy thinks I’m dying.” I hadn’t really felt that she was, but I did realize that having walked so mindfully with death these last few years allows me to be in a constant conversation with it. It seems to me that death is always near and that it is worth our time to honor it, make peace with it, and then get on with living.
Back in the ICU, I was there each morning to greet the team of doctors and specialists who would brief each other on each patient in the unit. Each morning I would ask if we were at the point of hopelessness, and each morning they would indicate that we may be close, but not yet.
One afternoon after the decision to do the procedure had been postponed, my favorite tomboy (MFT) and our other childhood angel sat in my living room discussing the health concerns for both our mutual friend in ICU and MFT’s Mom. I looked out my front window to witness a flurry of wings, as a frenzy of birds danced at the feeder. There were Grackles and Titmice, and something else… maybe a Wren or a Warbler. I’d never seen anything like it! My logical mind considered that it might have something to do with a migratory path, but that didn’t make sense. I’m in Florida, and these birds are here all year. What I heard in my mind was that the spirit of our friend was gathering strength and preparing to fly. Looking back , I can feel the flutter in my chest and the truth that was being revealed.
On Sunday, I pulled an oracle card for my friend, and it felt ominous. Since I had a lunch date on the 22nd, I had planned to go to the hospital later that afternoon. I checked in with my friend’s family during their morning visit, and they reported she had discomfort in her belly, and an x-ray appeared to show possible constipation. During lunch, another friend who was visiting called me to report that test results had come back on her platelets that revealed her body was destroying them. That would mean any procedure would be prohibited due to her inability to clot. I set down the phone and cried into my hands. I was also told that they were taking her for a CT scan of her abdomen because her pain was increasing.
Shortly after my arrival, our medical team arrived with the results of the scan. Our beloved being had received her final blow. A perforated bowel. Of course, they could do nothing to repair it, as she would have bled out. Once again, I had to give my friend the bad news. As I explained it to her, and asked her to tell me what she was thinking, she expressed feeling baffled by how things went downhill so fast. She said to me, “So, there’s no hope?” “That’s right, my love. The doctors say we have to let you go. They will protect you from the pain of sepsis, and you will not suffer nor be alone.” I asked her if she knew how loved she was, and without hesitation, she spoke a resounding, “YES!”
Reflecting on that moment now, it feels as if, after weeks of waiting, we were suddenly on fast-forward. Things seemed to move so quickly. I called the family and closest friends to come. Paperwork was signed. I asked our beloved community to read the Phowa Practice for the transformation of our dear one’s soul into the Light of Truth. I let my mother know that I would not be home that night. Like my father before her, I would walk my soul-sister into the underworld.
The vigil was long. Twelve hours from her last words to me, “So there’s no hope?” Our beautiful being was tended by her wife of 43 years, her sister-in-love, her step-daughter, her soul-daughter, and her grandson. Her minister and her friends were there to sing her through the process of letting go. Shortly after 5am, I found myself following her breath with rapt attention. Just when I wondered if there would be another breath, it would come. I knew that her soul had already found its freedom, but that sacred vessel that had carried her light for so long was so loyal that it refused to stop doing its job.
Throughout the night, we had taken turns speaking our love into ears we’ve been told can still hear our words. One soul-sister sang to her, another joined me in reading aloud the Phowa Practice for the transformation of her soul back into the light of all that is. And I finally read to her the oracle card I had pulled the morning before everything had gone so wrong. From Alana Fairchild’s Journey of Love deck, I read, THE VOID:
“At the ending of every cycle, and the beginning of every cycle, there is a moment of transition. It may last for any amount of time – a moment of feeling, or many years of deep inner work whilst feeling displaced. The transition may require patience to endure the absence of knowing, the lack of certainty about who you are and why you are here on this planet. A void may open up between one moment of meeting with your lover and the seemingly endless stretch of time – even if it is only days that seem as though they are eternal in duration – as you wait to reconnect again.
Yet if you can accept that entry into the cosmic void as preparation for your next cycle of manifestation, if you can accept that darkness is holding you with love, not with unfeelingness, then you can relax and let the preparation be what it must be. Then you can be well equipped for the next steps forward on your glorious divine adventure this lifetime, meeting the beloved – whether divine or human lover – in a fresh new moment, excited, open and curious, always.
This oracle brings you guidance. There are parts of your own process unfolding that you simply cannot know about yet. It will not always be this way, but for now, it is most helpful for you to only deal with what is immediately before you. All else will be shown when the time is right. There is growing to be done and then the void will bring forth the next step on your path to meet you. You do not have to worry and you do not have to search. Be present. Be patient. When you can do something, do it, when you cannot, just be. Your time will soon come. If you are holding a question about relationship – surrender it into the void and let it become what it must be according to spiritual wisdom and love.
A coming together
A blending of one
Spans the space between
And separation disappears
As others rested their eyes, I laced my arm through the bedrail and placed her left hand over my right, then stroked her hand with my left, as I spoke aloud. “Thank you, sacred vessel, for carrying the soul of our beloved these many years. Thank you for breathing life into this remarkable woman who was a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a wife, a step-mother, a grandmother, a musician, an artist, a counselor to many grateful hearts, and most importantly to me… a true friend. I know it is hard for you to let go of the sacred responsibility you’ve carried these 78 years, but it is time now to let go. For as long as we have breath, we will sing your name to the stars. Our beloved is now one with the Light of Love, and it is time for you to finally rest.
I must have gasped as I recognized her final breath, as everyone came to the bedside to hold our sweet beloved as we tried one final round of “Spirit of Life”. But we choked on our tears and quietly witnessed the slowing heart monitor until it transitioned into stillness. As I type these words, I look at the time to see it is 9:11. It was her birthday and it is now my new angel number. When I see it, I will know she is near.
When she was gone, her wife asked me, “What do we do now?” I explained what next steps would look like, and a few minutes later, she asked again. I know that her consciousness, clouded by dementia, was really saying to me, “What will I do without her?” As the nurse was doing her final exam, I lifted the sheet to see my friend’s feet. I felt a cord at my solar plexus pull me backward in time as I saw the bandage still wrapped around the site of the water blister on her right foot. Suddenly, she and I were rolling through the ER, leaving puddles everywhere. It was now January 23, and this was not the outcome either of us expected twenty days before.
Together, we exited the hospital, an exhausted tribe of devotees. It was 6:30am and our beloved had been gone for an hour and seemingly forever. I went home and slept for a few hours. At 11am, my phone rang and I heard the voice of my friend’s widow, “I’m calling to let you know that Sharon died.” “I know, honey. I was with you all night. Do you remember?” “That’s right, I remember now. Thanks for all you’ve done for us.”
The next day, I met the family at my friends’ home. The neighbors came out to ask about our beloved, and her widow told them that she had died. I affirmed that we had just lost her yesterday, and her wife was shocked to hear it, for she felt it had happened two weeks before. I continue to be curious about this affliction. The brain that is starved of oxygen seems capable of time travel. I am hopeful that it helps with grieving, for this beautiful being lost so much more than her wife, she has also lost her home, having moved into memory care for the lack of a constant companion and the need of greater care. I cannot fathom the shock of it all.
There is still so much to write, but I will save it for another post. What I am most grateful for is that I was able to show up for my friend during the most difficult days of her life and throughout her transition into the mystery of what comes next. Further, I am so enormously pleased that I had the opportunity to be mindful with my love and gratitude for the gifts my friend had unknowingly given me. By loving her, I was given the opportunity to speak with and write to her many friends and family members over the days that followed our fated final ER visit. I have met her people and now claim them as my own. I got to thank her for it while she could consciously acknowledge my thankfulness, with a reply of, “I’m so glad.”
In a recent text exchange with her sister, she signed off with, “I love you most”, and I replied, “As your sister would reply to me, I love you best.” She told me to hold onto those words, and I assure you… they are mine for all time.
Thank you for walking this path with me. And thank you for sending your love to surround the widow of my dear friend. May she have all she needs to feel safe and cared for until she is ready to join her wife for their next grand adventure.