I learned recently that it was doubtful that continuing medical treatment would prolong my life. It was hard to hear but no surprise.
My wife, Jo, and I have made a deliberate project of tending my illness and preparing for my death. Time seems shorter. The great grief is upon us. We are in the remaining stages of embracing the reality that upcoming bumps in the road present.
Many of you who have read my columns have commented on how helpful you’ve found them. I’m pleased about that. I’ve written only what I have experienced in the hope that by candidly sharing some of what’s happened to us and the thoughts I’ve had about it, this might be of help to others who grapple, not only with mortality, but those myriad losses that plague us through life. Reading the posted comments has kept my spirit buoyed at a time when it goes up and down like a yoyo.
I have no advice to give. I say that because this whole business has been a first for me and I can’t say I know that much. Well, some, I guess. My work with others as a priest, therapist, and spiritual guide, even as a hospice chaplain has informed me some. However, that was with others. There’s a huge difference between knowing about something and understanding it for yourself. As I live into dying, I understand life more clearly, particularly love, the power of human and divine presence, and the blessing of community.
I’ve been both delighted and surprised about discovering more of my heart in the process. It’s been a good heart for the most part, but like the Grinch, three sizes too small. My spiritual heart has kept me going for 87 plus years. I’ve related to my spiritual heart more as a casual but dependable acquaintance rather than an intimate friend, a friend much too selective in his openness. In the spiritual life, an enlarged heart is the only way to go; absolutely guaranteed to keep the spirit vibrant and resilient while maintaining the soul in peak condition; my heart stays in top form when it’s curious about others, wanting only the best for them, having others gently on my mind including some whom I really don’t like . . . that’s been one of the perks of this stage in my life.
Giving up old claims is like traveling without baggage. Death makes it clear that I’m always welcome but can’t bring anything with me. Just as I am; those are the house rules.
I’ve experienced love in its several iterations and enjoyed them all. I imagine most of us are launched into the experience of love by our first romantic relationships. They are lovely. In young love, never will the sky seem as blue, the clouds so white and the flowers so vibrant. Definitely a great way to get started but, unfortunately, romantic love is notoriously fragile. But of course, we have to start somewhere.
Most of us love our parents but we really don’t know them. Mine spoke little of how they felt or thought about relatives, friends or even the state of the world. So much of what I remember is mostly circumstantial. I never recall they ever revealed any curiosity or discussed what they felt even about the political affairs of the time when we were about to enter WWII. This is why I feel so passionately about letting my children know how I feel about my life in general and specifically my present situation. I want to go out with them knowing more than they may want to. Better that way than knowing too little. I noticed that when my parents were long gone I slowly understood them better through memories I assembled like scattered pieces of a jig saw puzzle. It was hard work. Strangely I grew to love them more deeply than I did when I knew them only through the eyes of my needs. This maturation of love, like wine, reaches its best bouquet with time.
I say I love certain things and I do; the pleasures of darkroom photography or sailing, the smell of pines, watching dipper ducks that vanish under and then reappear on top of the water, writing essays and a good martini ice cold with two olives.
As time grows shorter, I’m more acutely aware of the presence in the many people of my life who, by their presence, have sated my spiritual hungers. I’d put it this way: I’ve dealt with others kindly. I know I had a need to be a good guy. The hint of posturing lingered doggedly in my relationships. I don’t need that anymore. I understand love and presence, not as an exchange of needs or being mutually entertaining, but as the universal tissue of our human and divine connection. I know the pleasure offered and received by being there as others have been there for me. Love is wanting everything good for people who come into my presence, even some I’ve never seen. This describes love as I’ve come to know it.
When I consider love now in reflection, I understand it differently. Maybe not love as necessarily a tender feeling –– although that may often be there –– but as a deepening appreciation of the presence that another brings to my life. Their presence makes me feel safe and releases a kind of a soft energy in my soul, as if being infused with ambient light glowing somewhere in the core of my being. This presence communicates to me what Julian of Norwich, the Christian mystic once wrote centuries ago when she said that it was given to her to understand that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.