Two weeks ago today, Beth’s heart stopped beating. I didn’t learn of it until the following morning, and when I did, my world changed instantly.
Beth was the younger sister of my best friend from high school. I didn’t know her well until we became Facebook friends and then, despite her being in Michigan and me being in North Carolina, I could finally see just how beautiful the light she carried was and how expansive was her love. She was a visual artist, a poet, a jeweler, a caregiver, a logophile who loved to play Scrabble and create puns, and no doubt countless other things of which I have no knowledge. In the last few months, we had been discussing her options for publishing her poems in a book, the guy she loved who didn’t love her the same way, and our mutual attempts to live a healthier lifestyle.
On some level, I was aware that Beth had begun to have medical issues and was on continuous oxygen. But because our relationship was a virtual one and the pictures she posted of herself were always from a Lake Michigan beach and showed her smiling, oxygen tube-free, into the camera, I was able to delude myself that her condition was not as serious as it was. So her death was a sudden shock.
The pathway to this particular shining light was abruptly lost; a door slammed shut at the end of a hallway that will never again open. It seemed incomprehensible that I would never see the little green dot next to her name in the right-hand column of Facebook, letting me know she was online. That I couldn’t just message her and expect a quick and cheerful response. After all, her Facebook page, with the photos of her on those Lake Michigan beaches and her artwork and all of her posts about how amazing it is to be alive, was still there, so how could she be gone? Friends who had heard the news before me had already begun to post their good-bye messages to her. I was alone at work and all I could do was scroll through her page and cry.
I have lost family members before, but never a friend and cohort. Losing someone so young screws with your head in a whole new way. Not only must you attempt to reconcile yourself to the fact that you will never see this person you loved alive again, but you are confronted with your own mortality in a much more immediate way. Death is now something that can happen to anyone at any time, not just something that will happen to you eventually in some far-off, foggy future. Of course, I knew this on a cognitive level, but until I was faced with the blow of Beth’s death, I didn’t know it on such a visceral level.
I am not a religious person and my body remained seated on the crazy, balance ball chair my boss bought me to help improve my posture, but in my mind, I was suddenly on my knees, arms raised over my head, all the energy drained from my body. I was in surrender.
I had lost all my strength to fight. There was nothing left with which to argue about politics, to have expectations, to hold onto disappointments, to strive to be anything other than I was in that moment. I was filled with a full-body ache that longed for nothing but gentleness. There was no space for anything except sadness and love. No anger; no worry; not even guilt – even though those emotions are usually strong enough to muscle their way into even the smallest cracks. My only wish, my only prayer, was that everyone in the world would treat all beings they encountered with kindness.
Of course, this is always my prayer, and it was probably Beth’s prayer, too. But usually that prayer is swimming in a sea of other wishes and desires and obligations and fears and hopes. It is quite an experience to have everything else stripped away and to be left with only that one hope, that one wish, that one desire, that one need.
I have spent the intervening days in uncharted territory, feeling too raw and vulnerable to be able to face much of the news of the world. Unfortunately, despite my wish to make love and kindness my primary mode of being in the world, my brittleness has caused me to slip over into the dark side on occasion and explode in anger at my husband – the only person at whom I can safely explode. My therapist says that she believes that you experience all the stages of loss at the same time, not sequentially as was once suggested, and that these angry outbursts are to be expected. Poor Hans.
And recently, in the last few days, I have forgotten how to breathe.
I have asthma, so perhaps this should not surprise me. But it does. It shows up most often when I’m driving on the freeway. Not a full blown panic attack – I’ve had those, so I know – but an inability to get a full breath. It’s as though I truly have forgotten how to breathe the correct way, deep into my belly and then into my lungs. Suddenly, I’m breathing only shallowly, unable to fill my lungs completely, unable to get air into my belly. Breathing – something that is so automatic – suddenly requires concentration. As a result, I have found myself returning to the breathing exercises I have learned from Andrew Weil, playing with relaxing breaths and balancing breaths until I find whatever works best in whatever situation I find myself. It feels a little ridiculous and I can’t quite explain why it’s happening. Apparently, it’s going to be with me awhile though, and I just have to keep smiling and concentrating and relearning how to breathe until the episodes pass.
Maybe this is just my inner wisdom or some higher power reminding me that I am alive and doing what is necessary to make sure I am fully immersed in the now of any given moment. I’m still struggling with my ability to be okay with who I am today while still having goals for who I want to become, still trying to accept that I am enough just as I am, still trying to figure out what are reasonable expectations for the use of my time and my energy in any given day. And I’m still on my knees in surrender, letting go of all that I can let go of and opening myself to whatever subtle, or not so subtle, messages the Universe has for me.