Grief is a sacred journey

Soul Care in Hard Times

DSC00770“No detectable disease on CAT scan. Better than last time.”

I received this text message from my brother Jim as I loaded my car to drive to his home seven hours away. When I read the message, I wept. Then I danced in my driveway. We expected scan results that day, so I was hopeful with an edge of anxiety. Each scan feels like going before the judge. What will the sentence be?

Jim was diagnosed with cancer more than eighteen months ago. He did well with chemo, but suffered harrowing surgeries. It was worth it when cancer receded—for a while. After cancer returned, he had another rough period, but since March, he’s built strength and felt surprisingly well.

DSC00763-001What can we do when illness and grief become a permanent part of life? How do we avoid being consumed with fear and worry?

“I’m buying a boat,” Jim said in the spring. “This may be the last summer I feel good. My bucket list is more time on the Westport River.” He’s traveled all over the world and had an impressive career. He still works part-time in his seventies, but cancer changed his priorities to less work and more time in a quiet flat-bottomed boat suited for this river that flows in and out with the Atlantic tides.

“When you visit, we’ll go out on my new boat,” he said a month ago.

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Cormorants

Cormorants

The day before the boat ride, we talked about the serious things we rarely discussed before his illness. Reflections about our father’s death when we were teenagers. Reflections about his kids and mine as they deal with their fathers’ illnesses. Reflections about mortality and facing life with an expiration date.

Once on the boat, Jim moved into another world. He focused on removing snaps in the right order, folding things just so, lowering the motor to the right angle, and untying and securing ropes. DSC00801In the driver’s seat, he turned ecstatic. We traveled south toward Buzzard’s Bay, following the buoys that mark the deep ocean current under the river. He pointed out landmarks he loves, birds, dogs in other boats, and the old town of Westport. Westport, settled in 1670, was the westernmost port of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and an early center of shipping and shipbuilding.

DSC00777The sun was warm, but not hot. The breeze was constant and gentle. Jim had planned our trip for high tide. I felt once again how large bodies of water absorb and calm turbulent feelings.

My brother has a realistic scientist’s attitude. He reads Atul Gawande and thinks about the big questions. He may not think of his boat in terms of soul care, but I do. The Westport River is a good place to grapple with the Great Unknown.

Old Westport Harbor

Old Westport Harbor

“I’m glad I wasn’t at death’s door this visit,” Jim said as we hugged goodbye the next day.

“I’m here for you no matter what the test results,” I said.

“Yeah, but I prefer it this way,” he said with a grin.

We laughed. Yes, so much better this way, but the seriousness of his situation adds weight and urgency to our connection. Life is precious when we admit we are mortal.

***

Where do you find solace and comfort? I visit my forest and lean into big trees or go to Seneca Lake and throw sticks for my dog. What soothes you when you’re worried about health issues or sad about losses? For another post about turning to nature for healing, see Planting Joy in a Season of Sorrow. I also suggest exploring Mark Liebenow’s website Widower’s Grief for inspiring articles about healing the heart in Yosemite.

26 Comments
  1. Your strength and wisdom, your emotional honesty and authentic sharing sustains me when I feel discouraged. Thank you, Elaine.

    • Ava, thank you for telling me this is helpful to you. I think talking about these things brings connection. I know what Jim’s thinking about. He knows what I’m thinking about. It’s better when we aren’t isolated.

  2. Another wonderful post, Elaine. I’m so happy about your brother’s news. As soon as I am able I will buy your book. I’m so proud of you for the hard work you’ve done to write, edit and publish it. Then there’s that brave lady doing all the promotional duties. Patting you on the back and then…a big hug.

    • Patti, I bet could get it from your library. They’ll order it through interlibrary loan or at least all the libraries I know do that. Maybe you can talk them into buying one for your library. The promotional duties are slowing down and changing now. I’m grateful for a summer with less pushing, but it was an interesting ride. Thanks for your sweet kindness. I’m glad to be back in touch and I’m so glad to see your photos.

  3. Every time I read a new post, I find one or more quotable lines, Elaine. This time: ” I felt once again how large bodies of water absorb and calm turbulent feelings.” And now that I have copied this, the statement seems antithetical. How like life! My heart goes out to you and Jim.

    To answer your question: My last post and one publishing this week reveals my preference for the woods and forest lands, an attachment I have felt since childhood. Last week I sat on the deck and just stared into mountain space, patches of blue sky.

    • How interesting, Marian. I don’t understand how the sentence is antithetical, but I’d love to know. In any case, I’m glad it made you pause. I’ve known the calming influence of Seneca Lake for a long time. And before living near this huge and deep body of water, Vic and I lived in an old winterized cottage that had Cayuga Lake in the front yard. We always noticed how it quieted any agitation and fear.

      I’m glad you had time to sit on that porch and look at the sky. I look forward to part two.

  4. Wishing you and your brother the best. I, too, love being on or around water. And the thing I do to settle my soul is go hiking in the woods with my dog. When we reach an overlook or a pond, I feel the sorrow being absorbed by the sky, by the light.

    • My brother is on one of those cancer therapy regimes where he will get treatment until it doesn’t work anymore. I see how it wears him down physically, but he’s determined to make life good.

      Those sweet dogs. Willow wants a walk right now and can’t believe I’m sitting at this computer. And the absorbing sky.

  5. Thanks for sharing this special time with your brother Elaine. It felt so light and loving. There’s nothing like expanses of water whether sea or rivers or lakes to feel that calming presence. Also woods and forests – anything in Nature really is a balm for the soul. All are soothing maybe more so in troubled times – and the times they are a troubling …

    • Yes, the times they are a’troubling. I was able to celebrate two positive US Supreme Court decisions while with my brother. He and I have harmonious political views.

      Nature works for me every time. I’m glad my brother found his way to the water since he’s a city guy.

  6. Ah, in my comment I was probably thinking of the ocean close to us, a large body of water, sometimes turbulent. In this context, the line seems antithetical. Of course, the description wouldn’t apply to Seneca Lake. 😉

    • I thought that might be what you meant. The turbulent water absorbs our turbulence–but I think it does. The Westport River was calm the day we were out, but it’s a wide river close to a large bay on the Atlantic. It can get wild just like Seneca Lake gets wild because it’s 40 miles long and 2 miles wide. Somehow our wild human energies seem to be put in perspective near water, or that’s my experience.

  7. Life is short, as we all know. We have to live our well moments to the fullest as we strive to dodge the bullets. 🙂

    • Yes. I agree. I also think opening to mortality makes us better human beings. We lose our illusion that we’re in control of life and know we’re also helpless. We also feel how everyone suffers. My two cents.

  8. I love the way you see, and even better “feel” what’s truly important in the most ordinary of situations: a boat ride with your brother, a walk in the forest with your dog. This mindful presence with your inner and outer lives at the same time, combined with knowing how fortunate you are to be able to experience this miracle of life in the current moment….this is how I describe consciousness. You and your brother are so lucky to be able to share this awareness together. It must be such a comfort to both of you during this worrisome time. Wishing him continuing good health… Jeanie

    • Thank you for positive mirroring, Jeanie. I love the way you see me. My brother and I have had time to connect at a deeper level than before and we’ve established that he can count on me to not get freaked out about his illness. I’ll be there and then for his family. We began getting closer when Vic got sick. We are opposites in terms of function, but my grief didn’t upset him. He felt it was normal. That was an incredible gift. His chemotherapy continues, but he does better than we could have imagined. He is realistic, sad, introspective, and grateful he can enjoy life. I’m grateful he can, too.

  9. So glad you got to spend time with your brother, sharing deep conversations and creating wonderful memories! What a lovely place to wash your souls and get energy for whatever is to come next. Grateful for the good news and for the special bond you share.

    • I’m grateful, too. I last visited him three months ago and will visit again in early fall. We’re having the deepest conversations of our life and it’s a good time to have them. Nature heals the heart, as I know you know.

  10. How I’d like to meet your brother, or see his face without sunglasses to find your family face in his or visa versa. What a happy look nonetheless. You’ve been bouncing around this globe so much, I worry about your energy and your health. Becky, Joe, and the kids are in from Columbus for the next 12 days. I’d like to invite you to join us one of those days to imbibe the love juice coming from those kids. Travel safely and hope to see you soon.
    D.

    • My brother and I don’t look alike. He takes after our mom’s family and I look like our dad. He’s tall. I’m short. He has blue eyes. I have brown.

      I’m glad for the love juice flowing in your family from the wee ones. They have that love power. I haven’t traveled much other than going to Cambridge, but I’m off to CA in a few weeks to see old friends and my son and see how my body likes a dry climate.

  11. Elaine – I’m so happy to hear Jim’s latest scans yielded wonderful news! He looks so joyful and content in the photo at the top (steering the boat). I imagine being able to share the news – and the visit – with you made it all the sweeter. Dreaded cancer. But the silver lining is that he stopped just thinking about his bucket list and WENT FOR IT! We should all take a lesson from that. Even at 49 (okay… 3 months from FIFTY), I feel strongly that there is a balance between planning for our future and living for today. For me, it’s this trip to Italy. Should I spend the money? Probably not, but I’m doing it because tomorrow simply isn’t promised. My mom dreamed of taking this very trip and never had the chance. I’m not going to let that happen. Thank you for the reminder. Continued blessings to you and to Jim…

    With love,
    Ann

    • Go for it, Ann. Your Italian trip sounds worth the stretch. Yes, now. Get those reservations nailed down.

      I’m taking a two week trip to CA this month. I’ve wanted to see a few friends and my son there for too long. I’m going! And my son is organizing a book event. We never know what will happen next, but we do know we don’t have forever. Italy is one of my favorite places ever. Sending love, Elaine

  12. What a lovely post. Thank you so much for sharing this and I hope your brother’s cancer stays away.

    I find solace and comfort at my church and when I’m with my animals. I also find it at a good coffee shop, surprisingly enough!

    • Thank you, Suzanna. Treatment continues as before and it’s considered incurable, but he’s doing better than we hoped and he’s having a great summer.

      It’s so important to find places of solace. Tomorrow I’ll post a blog about a woman I visited on the way home from seeing my brother and the comfort she and her husband found in their church after the loss of a child. I’m held together by my sweet dogs and the nesting birds and my garden. Thanks for your comment.

  13. Lovely story, great photos, happy for him and for you. Was away for six weeks and just read everything i had missed in your blog and facebook. Luckily with your and Mark Liebenow’s cyber company i found a way to communicate with my ill brother recently diagnosed with cancer, who doesn’t know how to talk about his feelings and is mute. It is mutual he doesn’t know how to communicate and we don’t know either. I emailed him asking if his sisters could go visit him in San Antonio (we live in Puerto Rico)and he called to say “i have invited you a trillion times to come visit. Of course you can come, but not to see ME, implying of which there’s not much to see, but you are invited to come see San Antonio.” Ok brother we’ll go see San Antonio ;). I think we’re beginning to break the communication problem.
    I like your “… facing life with an expiration date.” Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you, Nati. I’m so glad you’re communicating with your brother. I hope you’ll visit him very soon so you have time to re-establish connection. My brother has incurable cancer but is holding his own at the moment. We have become much closer in recent years–since his daughter’s illness, since Vic’s death, since his diagnosis. Crisis makes me know we don’t have forever to sort things out and express our love.

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