Thursday, June 30, 2011

Turning Point (posted by Andee)

Over last weekend, Kirstin and I had many difficult, and wonderful, conversations.  About her eagerness to spend several hours with each of her friends before the end, vs. the reality that she probably only had a week or two of "good time" left.  About not wanting to die at all, and yet being ready to let go.  About the fact that as her breathing got worse, she would eventually have to choose between taking enough drugs to be comfortable, and being able to be awake and alert.  About her love for each of us, and for God, and her trust in the next life, even as she felt all the terror of letting go of this one.

By Tuesday morning, she was struggling with every breath.  And when the Hospice nurse came, she made the choice to start taking morphine to ease her breathing, even though the combination of morphine and drugs to control its side effects would knock her out almost all the time, and leave her loopy and drugged during the moments when she was awake.  It was not a choice she made lightly; she had so hoped to have more time with us, and did not expect this to happen just hours after we had talked about the possibility.

Yesterday, a group gathered here to celebrate the Eucharist with her, and to anoint her with the wonderful words written by her friend Margaret Watson:

"Thank God for your eyes which saw the world in Love; for your ears which heard the Word in Love; for your mouth which spoke truth in Love; for your shoulders which bore the burdens of the unloved for Love's sake; for your hands which worked unhesitatingly in Love; for your feet which walked under bridges and among the poor and suffering in Love; for your heart undone and remade without fear, for Love's sake; in the Name of the One whose Name is unutterable except in Love incarnate... the Name we all share through the imagination and work of the Spirit, in concert with the One who spoke Love in the very beginning..."

She woke to greet each person, to smile, to hold her hand over her heart in thanksgiving as I relayed message after message of love to her.

Since then, the changes have continued to accelerate, and the Hospice staff say that she may die sometime today, definitely not more than a day or two.

Another friend, Carol Bower Foote, wrote a fairytale for her, a story in which Kirstin had always secretly wanted to be a butterfly.  Holding up the longing to God, God replied, "Your choice." And, in the end, when her soul got weary, and her shoes almost too heavy to kick off into the grass, she chose...

"She surrendered into the rich, silken luxury of this pool of color and let herself sink.  From deep within the sea of shifting hues, she felt herself begin to rise, floating and becoming lighter as she rose.  She broke the surface with barely a ripple, nearly blinded by the bright summer light.  Then, to her amazement, lighter than air, she continued to rise, above the grasses, the wildflowers, the trees.  She became aware of herself at the center of an almost sacred rhythm, surrounded by the brilliant, translucent color of butterfly wings.  She was whole!  She was herself!  She was totally free!

She felt as if her wings filled the sky…but gossamer light…the breeze teasing and tickling her bare toes.  Suddenly, the sky was filled with other colorful creatures inviting her to dance.  From within the joy which overwhelmed her, she felt rising from deep within her being, the unmistakeable light bell-like peel of laughter."

The time of turning is at hand.  Join with me in praying her into Joy.
--Andee Zetterbaum

Friday, June 24, 2011

Trying things on

I started this last night, writing through the sound of an oxygen compressor. It was exceptionally hard to concentrate, but I wanted to stay with the thought. Writing remains easier than speaking, in any event. I have, many times, blanked on a word in the middle of what was intended to be a fluently spoken sentence. Not hard words either—last night it was “frozen mac and cheese.” (Incidentally, we had a much better dinner.) 

I’ve had company steadily all week. My friend Kat came from Arizona on Monday night, and stayed until yesterday evening. Another friend came for a morning while she was here. As Kat left, another friend visited before Andee got home. (Heavens to Betsy, why keep to an alias? All of you know who she is.) Andrea and I had about two hours together. She rubbed my back with the goo that Margaret gave me the recipe to, and we talked. (I can’t be left alone longer than a quick errand run, for my physical safety.)

I’ve had lots of people to think and feel things through with. It’s been good for all of us. I said something last night—can’t remember why—about how I wouldn’t do anything differently, over the last three years of my life. I think I’ve lived as openly, as consciously, and with as much intention as I could have. I’ve done a lot of things I’ve loved. But before that? If you ask me for regrets, oh hell yes. I was a scared kid, frightened of everything, decades beyond where fear remotely served me. I didn’t try things, mostly because I think I was afraid of disapproval. When I threw that off—the catalyst was my first diagnosis—my world opened up. I found the call to homeless ministry that I thought I would do for life.

Andrea and I were seminary friends. She is one in the category of friends for life. She was rubbing my back (where the bulk of my large soft-tissue tumors are), and I was, when not completely blissing out into it, talking about call. If I could go back to my normal life, would I pick up the same call again? I know I’d explore hospital chaplaincy on the way. Which would draw me closest? Would I end up engaged in something I’ve never yet imagined? Would I do something completely random, akin to selling lizards on the street?

I still love my homeless guys. So I don’t know. But the point is, if I had time to try other things, what would I do? I don’t have time to pick something and perfect it. I can’t need that, or allow myself even to want it intensely. It won’t be mine. I’m making space, I think, to think of myself as a person who tries things on, even if I spend the bulk of my time on the bed or in the dining room, and never leave the house. There’s no reason I can’t define myself any way I like, even now. And dying is certainly “trying something new.”

I always want to live with intention. For the last three years, I have. I intend to die that way too: not at my own hand, but in the way that brings the most integrity to the openness in which I have wanted to live.

It almost makes me laugh. What would I try, now? A new recipe. And I’m not a cook, but I’ve enjoyed it with friends. The last time we made granola, I read the recipe (which I almost have memorized) to Andee, and she did everything but the mixing and pouring because it hurts her hands. It was fun. I thought, what could I try? My mind brushed over “a new spiritual practice.” But I’m not the “pray in ten minutes a day” kind of person. Writing is the practice I’ve committed to, over the long term of my entire life. I don’t blog daily or weekly, but as long as I’m here, you will know that I am. Sharing myself in this way has become bedrock to me. I’m worried that I may have mets in my upper right arm, because I’m having pain there. I have an appointment for radiation on Tuesday, which if it works as well as on my knee, will control the pain. I want to communicate for as long as “I” can exist here.

I tried daily prayer. I did it for... maybe a month? The length of my brain radiation, and change. Yet I know that God is with me. It would be pretentious to say that my relationship with God is more imaginative than a daily discipline. I get that one has to stick with it to stay close. But rigid disciplines don’t work for me at all, and they never have. (If I could do Eucharist daily, would I? Damn near. But that’s more than praying words; it’s holy food.)

Andee and I love our friends and want the company. But when they leave, we look at each other, sigh, and re-collect ourselves. I realized yesterday, Yervoy is an every-three-week infusion. I could, if I wanted to, get back on the bus. I mentioned that last night, cautioning first that I didn’t want to anyway. She still looked horrified. We had the moment with the ER doc that we needed. We made the choice. Rather, we allowed her eyes to confirm it in our own. We know it was right. I’ve thought, I want time to try things. Am I being asked to try more treatments? Could I do more, if I tried against even this to stay here? But there’s very little doubt in me. I know the answer is, choose a gentle death. Go. You will be embraced, by that which loves you more than you’ve dared to imagine.

For me, my relationship with God has felt like that—not cerebral, but imaginative. My heart has caught on eventually. It’s been alarming to think of that embrace being as emotionally enveloping as it also must be. But I need to stop fighting myself, to turn. My physical breathing is constricted, but I still have the capacity, and workarounds to make it less uncomfortable. It isn’t time to die yet. But it is time, to begin giving over. I am so grateful for the people who walk with me most closely in that, and who teach me that even if I have scary times contemplating all of this, God is already holding me that closely, has always been, and will always be. I’m not going into the arms of a stranger. I’m held in the arms of the one who created me exactly as I am.

Oh, and if you’re on Facebook? Realize, when you tag me, that you’re talking about me in the third person. And if you comment on a tagged post, I will see it. If you know me, then you already know me, and you treat me as a friend. “Hi and I love yous” are more than fine; I love seeing them. If you comment, and you call me “beautiful and tragic,” I am not. I’m a human being learning how to die. I’m putting way more pressure on my housemate than I’d like to. (She has to not only coordinate who comes to visit and when, but get all my daily meds together before she leaves for work—and get up at night when I need to use the bathroom. And yes, she’s even gracious about it at 3 and 4 and 5 a.m.) There is love and courage in us and in our circle. There’s absolutely nothing to romance about it. We’re going about this as best as we possibly can. And we’re very real human beings.

Thank you for the notes and gifts, blog comments and Facebook drive-bys. Know that what is not reciprocated in print, is very much appreciated in our hearts. We’re touched by all you’re doing, and we love all of you.

Shoutout to St. Aidan’s people: I want to make sure the desire came across clearly. Please let D know if you would make the trip to see me—but it was never intended as a group thing. I want you, and we want to invite you—in ones, twos, and at max threes, and not a steady stream. I only asked her to see who would drive the two hours east—it was never intended as a caravan. I remember Rob’s vigil, though I was at the Ranch and didn’t come—and that’s not what I’m asking for; just love when you can give it. I don’t have the endurance for more. Thank you!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The right decision...

at the right time.

A and I went to the ER on Monday because I was breathing heavily; we were afraid the increasing difficulty might be due to a common, and dangerous, side-effect of Yervoy. They ran lots of tests for breathing (which of course was better while we were there), and found nothing. They also gave IV morphine for knee pain. (I have a pathologically fractured left tibia—meaning that mets are weakening my bones. I was also using an inadequate brace.) The morphine had worn off by the time we got home, but no one had taken any new films of the injury.

So on Tuesday morning, I was back in pain again and we didn’t have any real solutions. A called 911 for my labored breathing and increased pain in my left knee. I’d awakened that morning on the floor, rolling around, trying to get up and go to the bathroom by myself. I clearly wasn’t fully awake; I was screaming in pain, and the brace I was using wouldn’t protect me anymore. (I normally summon her, either by calling out or with the bicycle horn, when I need help getting to the bathroom in the night.) I was stoned on legal painkillers, but not stoned enough. A called the local ambulance, which could have taken me to the local hospital that contracts with Kaiser. But the drivers knew the ER staff had never seen what I had; I remember one saying I would “scare them.” (Not with my degree of disorientation; this is Stockton, CA. But my level of disease would have been a new challenge to them.) So the ambulance drivers helped get me into her car, and she drove me to the Kaiser hospital in Sac.

They took blood samples, and new images of my leg—we were insisting on a solution for the pain. They gave me a new, more stable clamshell cast, which I can remove to bathe. What matters most in my memory, and to my present reality, is the conversation with the ER doc. She came to my bed; A was sitting on the other side of me. I had just taken my first infusion of Yervoy the previous Friday. I’d never felt sure of it. I honestly felt more pressured into it by my doctor, than willing to stay in the fight myself. A and I have always been on the same page. I was afraid it wouldn’t work; I was afraid it would only work a little. I’d take baths and watch the tumors grow; I’d hear my own Darth Vader breathing, and feel some ground slip underneath me.

This doctor, God bless her, gave us both permission to admit that. I must have said something about the pain, frustration, and uncertainty I was in. She answered, “How committed are you to chemo?”

A and I looked at each other, and we both teared up. We knew. And it was okay. I looked back at the doctor. I knew the words were mine to say: “Not in our hearts, really.” She, God bless her, cried with us. And she got us connected with a palliative care doctor, who is working with us until he can get us connected with hospice.

This is the care I need. This is the care I finally had the readiness, and the courage, to ask for. I’ve been fighting for three years. That’s enough. Just saying, “I want hospice,” gives me so much peace. I don’t need to fight to the bitter end. I don’t need to be a warrior anymore. I can let go as my body wants to, into as much comfort as possible.

My warrior friends, and my cheerleader friends, will be sad for me. I’m sorry. And 40 does feel shockingly young. I would have loved to have been cured from this, to come back and live my new life with everything I’ve learned. But when I asked to see my most recent PET image, and it looked like a Jackson Pollack print of my upper body, that was enough. I don’t need to stare steel-eyed against all my invaded organs. I already see a breastplate of tumors when I take off my shirt (seriously! Almost like medallions all along my clavicle); feel them just under sea level when I touch my upper arms and legs. I know what’s inside me, and I know how tenacious it is. My oncologist had told me that Yervoy was basically my last, best hope. I could have exploded when the ER doc said she’d asked him what the realistic chances were and he’d agreed, “two months, best guess.” Yeah, they want to give us hope. But hope isn’t bread. And a “hope” that leaves me in misery because I don’t know how or when to let go (it isn’t “giving up”) is misleading. Reaching for the next straw until the offerer’s hand falls empty is not the way to ease into the awareness that you’re dying. And that it’s okay to die. All bodies do.

Are there things I’d have loved to do, and to keep doing? Of course, yes. But it’s time to ease into peaceful letting go. It’s time to pass the work I was doing, on to others—they already had picked up Safe Ground anyway, and there will be others who will celebrate Eucharist on the street, outside, at the river, until homeless people feel welcome in the churches. The ministry of welcoming all people into the kindom of God will constantly expand, until every soul is taken up into it. What I lose by dying soon, is time I love with friends on earth who love me. We will find that, as one friend says, on this side of the river and the other.

I will want visitors. All who want to see me, who know how to contact us, please do. If you don’t know where we are, just ask. (My e-mail address is in my profile; A's is in the previous post.  We're both on Facebook.)  I don’t have the endurance for long goodbyes, and again I honestly don’t know how much time I have here. Give time if you can; love me and us any way that you can. A and I both know how much you support us. Know that we love you.

We want to keep me at home as long as we can.  We won't move me until we need to.

Meanwhile, I’ll write as I can. What I know about my self-expression right now: Expect memory recall that’s alternately not-me fuzzy and freakishly clear, and expect honest emotions. A will write for us both, when and if I can’t. We both appreciate your friendship more than we can say.