Into The Light

 

by Barbara Straus Lodge

 

My father died first.

When he tripped and fell in a parking lot, I figured he needed new shoes, so we got black Reeboks with extra tread. He wore them to work daily with his grey pinstriped suits, white button down shirts, and black knit ties. “Trend setting” he would say, “stylish and comfortable.”  He proceeded to buy them by the dozens to give to friends and family.

Two months later while wearing his new black Reeboks with that extra tread, he fell again. This time he suffered lacerations on his face warranting dozens of stitches.

Several doctor appointments later he was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. There was no cure. Victims usually died of respiratory failure within 2 years.  Paralyzed.  Unable to eat, speak, or move.

Soon after his diagnosis, he invited me to breakfast; I loved having breakfast with my father. We sat on the same metal chairs with the same lemon needlepoint pillows, at the same Formica table, in the same sunny yellow breakfast room that we had my entire life.   It was a Saturday morning, my mother was out playing bridge at the club, and he was wearing his navy wool robe, flannel pajamas and leather slippers.  Usually so dapper, on this day he looked disheveled.  As we ate our eggs he said, “I’ve been thinking. My work here is done.”  I had to breathe and stay steady and calm so I took his hand. Muscle spasms bumped up under his skin; tiny electric shocks signaling nothing good. His nerves were firing at random intervals; similar to the engine of a car sputtering before it wears out.

He’d made up his mind.

“Where I’m going is a happy place,” he said.

“No.” I said.

He assured me he was unafraid and his mother would be waiting for him.

My father was the exhale to my inhale and taught me that anything, anything, was possible.  So, before this disease stole his body and left his brilliant mind trapped in a paralyzed shell, he was going to shut it down and move on.  I had no say.

When he was 45, he was pronounced dead during surgery. He described the blinding white light and his deceased mother standing in front of it, her loving arms outstretched.

I had to believe him.

Lying in bed two weeks later, he announced to me and my mother “tomorrow will be the big day.”  My mother was appalled and would have “none of this ridiculousness!” She stormed out of the room and called all three of his treating physicians (who’d become personal friends) asking them to come over, which they did, that afternoon. When the cardiologist, internist, and neurologist completed their batteries of tests, including a mobile EKG, their joint conclusion was, “You’re not going anywhere anytime soon.” As he left the bedroom, one doctor said, “I’m going to see my sick patients now.” My mother walked them to the door, wearing her patented “I told you so” grin.

My father winked at me.

That evening, he asked me to go to Tower Records and buy a Barbra Streisand CD containing the song “Memories.”  I felt OK despite the situation and the fact I’d had no idea he liked Barbra Streisand.  I didn’t care whether the source of my composure was osmosis or psychosis.  This was the beginning of something big.

“Ok, Daddy! Wait.  Hold on. Just breathe!” I quickly gathered my purse and made for the door, no questions asked.

“Stop! You are going nowhere of the sort!” My mother snapped. “Don’t you know the kind of people who go to Tower Records on the Sunset Strip at 11pm?”

I ignored her reproach.  Apparently, I was the kind of person who goes to Tower Records on the Sunset Strip at 11pm. My father’s body was about to give birth to his soul.

When I returned with the CD, mother was fuming in the other room, and my dad was still very much alive, serene and comfortable in bed wearing his yellow flannel pajamas.  We played and replayed and replayed and replayed the song “Memories”, until even when it was not playing, we could still hear it.

He lay on his back with his eyes closed, me curled up next to him, hoping he’d both succeed and fail. When his breathing became almost imperceptible, after about the 53rd run-through of the song, I leaned over and whispered, “Are you dead yet, Daddy?” He opened one eye, looked around the room, and said “No.”

We exploded into hysterics; our laughter cutting through all things death and dying and returning us to the simplest form of one another.  We held hands and laughed off and on for hours.  He pressed me to go home to my sleeping children just after 2:00am. I didn’t want to, but acquiesced, only after he promised not to stop his heart until I’d finished carpool.

He started manifesting his plan the next morning as I was dropping my kids at school. I sensed the shift and sped to his bedside. While holding him in my arms, I felt a rush of energy sweep out of his body and I knew there would never ever be any separation between us. Death may have ended his life, but it didn’t end our relationship.  For days, even weeks after his passing, I saw and felt miraculous life-affirming energy in all aspects of nature.  My father had taken residency in the gentle breeze that rustled the pine trees and the pink and orange clouds that streaked across the sunset sky. He was nowhere and everywhere. He was home.

My therapist suggested that such experiences of mystical wonderment, even ecstasy, were nothing more than dissociative denial that my father was actually gone.  He said, “You haven’t grieved his death and are trying to ignore the emptiness of your loss.”  I fired him even before I had a chance to go to the cemetery and tell my dad.

 

*****

 

I was good at this death thing and considered it my newly awakened life’s mission to shepherd dying loved ones into the Light.  Whether they were open to the possibility or not, I was going to help. Nancy Davenport and I became friends the day I saw her fall off the curb into the gutter. I wrapped my arms around her, lifted her back up to standing, and then introduced myself, recognizing her from my UCLA writing class.  The crumpling motion her legs made when she fell reminded me of something all too familiar.

After a few weeks in class she mentioned she’d been to a doctor because of weakness and difficulty swallowing.

Three weeks later she announced her diagnosis. “I have a disease called ALS.”

Instead of feeling averse to being around another victim of the cruelest disease I’d ever known, I drew in closer, invited her to lunches or dinners, and offered to have “writing days” outside of class. I was determined to work my way into her life and begin my tenure as fearless shepherd into the Light.  The essays she read in class were smart, eloquent, and insightful--a sign she might be open to the idea.

As it turned out, Nancy, a stubborn card-carrying atheist, wasn’t. Death was death was death. Death offered no White Light, no angels, no waiting family members, no envelopment in Universal Love.  No nothing.  Despite or because of that complication, my resolve to help her was unwavering. She was terrified of dying and I didn’t want to be.  I mean, I didn’t want her to be. We spent as much time together as possible.

I gave her a picture of my dad taken a few years before as he was skipping down a cobblestone street.  He’d been waving his arms like wings and the photo captured the precise moment when neither of his feet touched the ground. His smile was wide and real and free. Unadulterated joy of the sort found in heaven.

Nancy loved the picture and asked me to station it on the coffee table directly in her line of vision. We included him in our conversations and I told her about his life of abundance and hard work, how he built an empire between tennis games, and how once diagnosed with ALS he focus shifted Upwards. I explained that she was going to a happy place and family members whom she loved would be waiting for her in heaven.

“Now you’ve gone too far. There’s no one up there.” She struggled to stand and pushed her walker out of the room.

My certainty was so “entertaining,” however, she chose to keep me around as a curiosity.

 

During one of our precious Surf ‘n Turf dinners, tastes she savored since her feeding tube days were near, I presented my very own version of If-Then Quantum Physics:

“Listen Nancy.  I want you to understand this. Energy beats our heart.”

She brought a bite of lobster dripping with butter to her mouth, “One of the foods I’ll miss most is buttery lobster.”

“Nancy, I know.  But listen. Since energy beats our heart, and since energy never dies –”

“Did your father like lobster, Barbara?”

“Stop interrupting me! No, he didn’t. Energy beats our heart and energy never dies. Are you with me?”

My words were rapid-fire urgent. “It logically follows, then, that when our bodies die, the stuff that beats our heart, our energy, our soul, our consciousness, our spirit, lives on in a different form.  This is important Nancy.  Death is not the end.  Energy never dies. Do you understand?!”

 I ordered myself a cosmopolitan martini briefly questioning which one of us I was trying to convince.

“You’re wrong” she said, sipping her Grey Goose on the rocks.  “No one listens to our prayers. All that’s ‘out there’ is empty darkness.”

 “Make it a double,” I said.

Once she became homebound, feeding-tubed, and unable to care for herself or pay for help, her doctor called The Servants of Mary, nuns from a local convent who minister to the sick and dying.

My people, I thought.

The first time I met Sister Alicia, her physical appearance stunned me. I’d never met a real nun before, no less one who was over 6 feet tall and covered head to toe in a bright white habit and coronet.  When Sister Alicia’s looming presence entered the room, I swear to God, the entire space was bathed in a warm golden light. Sunbeams surrounded her, even at night. Sister Alicia radiated Love.

Nancy had lost the ability to speak, swallow, and walk on her own, and her descent into hopelessness matched my own into helplessness.  Sister Alicia’s presence was, indeed, a gift to both of us.

When she arrived every evening, Sister Alicia immediately cradled Nancy’s hands and said a silent prayer which Nancy admitted was “comforting.” She would then routinely remove Nancy’s shoes, retrieve a bottle of lotion from her traveling bag, and start massaging her feet with such tender reverence that awe replaced whatever sadness had wrapped around my heart.

One evening our new top-of-the-line computer speech software malfunctioned and Nancy’s only hope of communicating was by pen and paper. Her hands failed her and I couldn’t decipher what she needed. The confident swoops and curls of her once perfect penmanship had devolved into thin, shaky chicken-scratch. Our mounting frustration gave way to her angry tears and impossible-to-understand moaning and grunting, and such a scene was definitely not alright with me.  Emboldened by the memory of my father, and our purifying laughter the night before he died, I tried to lighten things up.

Nothing caused a rise, not even a reenactment of the time her wheelchair caught air bumping down Westwood Boulevard.  Next, I opened a book of her original essays and the more I read aloud, the more captivated she became. My confidence grew.

“Yes,” I thought, “I am good at this.”

Sister Alicia was in the kitchen and I had an idea. I tiptoed into Nancy’s bedroom, opened the 2nd drawer of her filing cabinet, and took the bottle of Grey Goose Vodka we’d hidden there months before.   In the living room I pulled it out from under my shirt whispering “TAA DAA!”

I didn’t have time to ponder exactly what kind of sin I was about to commit because

I was simply doing my job.  Sneaking vodka into a dying woman’s feeding tube with a nun doing dishes in the next room was bound to lighten things up.  I snuggled close to Nancy on the couch and held the open bottle under her nose. Like two Catholic school girls, we got the giggles. Sister Alicia, humming a church hymn, was preoccupied and I had to act fast.

I uncorked Nancy’s feeding tube.  My hands trembled.

Noticing a sterilized urine testing cup on the coffee table, I grabbed it, opened it, and poured in the equivalent of about 3 shots of holy water.  Sister Alicia emerged from the kitchen looking perplexed as I sloshed the urine collection cup behind my back and Nancy and I tried to stifle our laughter. We became hysterical, rolling on the couch and gasping for air so that she really started to struggle and we had to turn her oxygen up. I leaned over to reach the machine, clear liquid delight dripping from my hand, and revealed a half-full bottle of Grey Goose bobbling on the cushion behind me. I closed my eyes, hoping that whatever I couldn’t see couldn’t see me back.  Nancy snorted.  Sister Alicia started laughing so hard the wings of her cornet jiggled.  In plain sight of God, Sister Alicia, and our ancestors watching from heaven, I pulled a generous gulp of Grey Goose up into the syringe and shot it directly into her feeding tube.  Probably a little too fast.  But still.

We three, an unlikely congregation, continued crying and laughing and Nancy was getting tipsy and loose and free without even tasting the stuff.  Her clear eyes and wide smile, the rasping sounds of glee (and Goose) coming from her nose, throat and mouth, and the tears pouring down our faces affirmed, once again, that we were inextricably connected to each other and something much greater.

                                                   

In the hospital a couple weeks later, Nancy had moved to the brink of death.  And I still hadn’t gotten anywhere near convincing her she was headed to heaven. When we were alone in the room, which was most of the time, her ice blue eyes communicated frozen dread. If anything Nancy seemed more afraid of dying than when we started our odyssey towards the Light.

Days passed and I carried her impending death in my bones. I could see it, smell it, and hear it in her shallow breathing. I needed backup so put the photo of my dad on her bedside table.  By then her eyes had partially closed, leaving mucus filled cloudy slits, but I believed she knew it was there.

Wedging myself next to her on the hospital bed and stroking her hair I promised “You are not alone, Nancy. You are loved beyond measure.” She groaned. “There’s nothing to fear, Nancy.”  She squeezed my hand and didn’t let go. “You’re moving towards the Light, Nancy. Angels, like Sister Alicia, will guide you. Once you’re there, my dad’s going to take your hand and ask for the first dance.”

Nancy slowly tipped her head in the direction of the photo, and smiled.

*****

Soon thereafter, my 94-year-old friend Marcy began her own journey towards the Light.  I told myself another dying loved one provided another opportunity for me to do my life’s work. I was tired, though, and maybe a little scared, so I decided to call the Servants of Mary and request their services for her as well.

Mother Superior summarily rejected my pleas explaining why Marcy was disqualified from eligibility.  I begged.  I offered to donate my Land Cruiser in return.  I went to their convent, admitted I was Jewish, and prayed for their help.  No way. There were too many others in line who were completely alone, and Marcy was not.

She had a live-in care giver by the name of Jocelyn whom I’d hired a year earlier to help with marketing and cleaning. Marcy never wanted to be taken to a nursing home.  She was also a stickler for a spotless home. After 30 years of servitude to my parents I figured I owed her, at least, those things.

Marcy had done our cooking, laundry, and babysitting from the time I was 2 until I got married. I can’t remember a day when she didn’t love and tend to me, my cats, and my dogs as if we were her own.  She was the most honest person I’d ever known, not hesitating to tell me when I was acting “spoiled” or “messy.”  I appreciated her.  I loved her. When home-grown chaos ensued, Marcy was always in the next room dusting furniture.  Or cleaning windows.  Bringing order.  Bearing witness.

When she retired at age 85 assisted by a generous parting gift from my father, Marcy settled comfortably into her studio apartment, filling it with new Ethan Allen furniture and covering the walls and table tops with dozens of framed photographs of me depicting every milestone from my 3rd birthday through my wedding and children’s births. Every square inch of her floral couch displayed a needlepoint pillow designed from photos of my childhood pets: Fluffy the cat, Lady the silky terrier, Anastasia the husky.  Whenever I entered her apartment, I was warmly greeted by the ivory soap smell of Marcy and the parts of me she held for safekeeping.

Marcy was finally able to live a life of complete independence, which she did with relish.  This diminutive 85 year old rock of a woman took weekly busses to either Santa Anita, or Hollywood Park, or Del Mar.  She loved to watch the horses. In her free time, she’d study the odds, knit a sweater, needlepoint a pet pillow, or do crossword puzzles with a ferocity only matched by her cleaning and laundry skills.

After Marcy became too unsteady to navigate the city on her own I’d visit every few weeks, often bringing my kids.  Over cheeseburger happy meals and diet cokes, with Lifetime movies blaring in the background, we’d pore over the stacks of photos I’d brought, removing the old ones from her corkboard, and replacing them with the new. My daughter, Alex would then sit on the floor and lean against Marcy’s legs so Marcy could brush and brush and brush her messy brown hair into smooth flowing strands of golden silk, just as she’d done to mine when I was Alex’s age.

~~~~~

The series of mini strokes arrived one afternoon while we were eating Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Marcy’s head slumped forward, a drop of saliva ran down her chin.  More mini strokes followed, finally landing Marcy permanently in her hospital bed. She maintained her weight from Ensure, popsicles, ice cream, and the infrequent French fry. She had become prone to singing “ok Ok ok ok ok ok OK” in response to virtually any comment I made or question I asked.  How are you feeling Marcy? “Ok OK ok ok ok ok OK.”  Do you want to look at pictures, or see a movie? “Ok OK ok ok ok ok OK.”   I interpreted her mantra as a constant assurance that she really, really was “ok”-- willing and able to make the move into the next dimension.

Her doctor suggested we contact hospice when she stopped eating and drinking altogether.   Marcy was moving in and out of consciousness, and according to Hospice, was actively dying of old age. Every day a different Hospice volunteer told me she had hours, if not minutes, left to live. They consistently checked whether I had the emergency morphine at the ready to put under her tongue if she experienced any pain or suffering. I threw myself into shepherding Marcy, wanting and needing to be there for her.

Days passed.

Then more.

Weeks passed.

Then a month.

“Marcy?  Are you in pain? Do you need morphine?” asked a volunteer, knowing full well its hastening effects.

Her eyes stayed shut, bony fingers stroking the satin edge of her blanket, “No!”

Each Hospice volunteer was more surprised than the last to see her still alive. With my prodding, she finally agreed to utilize the Hospice Chaplain as she never ignored a great deal and his services were included in the total Hospice package. “Ok OK OK ok ok ok ok OK!”  Every Friday evening, I was on the last fiber of my last nerve and waited for Solomon in the hall, meeting him with tears, frustration, and the question, “how much longer?”

I started wondering if she were related to Giri Bala, the Bengali yogi who gave up eating and drinking and existed on sunlight alone for 56 years.  I took home the sunlight lamp I’d given her for Christmas.

The only person who seemed to be benefitting from Marcy’s slow, active demise was Jocelyn, whom I’d given a handsome raise when I thought the end was near.

On no particular Friday, deep within the 2nd month of her “imminent” death, Solomon and I decided to offer Marcy a “White Light Meditation.” We were going to create an aura of calm and tranquility to help her relax into her transition and usher her with a tad more uumph.   The three of us joined hands although Marcy might have been sleeping.

Solomon’s velvety voice transported us to a beach where vast oceans of love lapped at the shores of our consciousness.  The moon shone full and bright, creating a broad shimmering reflection of the path her spirit would take as it floated into the Light.

“It’s nowwww tiiiime to go towards the Lighttt, Marcy.”  Solomon whispered.

“Yessss, Marcy, you can go towards the Lightttttt.”  I chimed in. “Your mother is waiting for you. My dad’s there too. Go ahead, Marcy, you have nothing to fear.”

“Wait. Marcy? Do you see any angels?”  Solomon frowned at me, disappointed in my timing.

As we drifted in the gentle sea, I sensed the presence of something infinite, beautiful, and just beyond my capacity to understand.

Marcy smacked her dry lips, and I offered her a sip of water, which, to my surprise, she accepted.  Her eyes, now wide-open windows to her soul, looked directly at me.

“Oh Marcy!  I love you, I’m here” I spoke into her ear, excited we’d arrived at the pre-death-energy-burst. “You’re not alone. Just let go and move towards the Light.”

She turned her head in my direction and stared. With a voice as clear and huge as the starry midnight sky, she said, “You go towards the Light!”

Then she closed her eyes and sang the most melodic “Ok OK ok ok ok ok OK ok ok ok ok ok ok ok…..” I’d ever heard.

Solomon smiled, packed his bag and made for the door, saying “I’ll see you next week.” Jocelyn brought out her rosary and worked it hard. I kissed Marcy on the forehead and went home for the night, her voice trailing after me, “See you later, alligator. Ok ok ok.”

She died the next week, on a chance afternoon I’d left her side to take my kids to a movie.   Jocelyn said she went “quietly.” That night I tossed and turned and cried and wondered what, exactly, I’d been doing for the past two years and how her transition was without me.

Per her instructions, Marcy’s body was cremated.  I chose a rosewood urn because it was sturdy and premium, just like she was.  I kept the urn in my closet however seeing it peek out from behind my clothes was unsettling.  I moved it to the downstairs coat closet but she deserved better.

One summer afternoon I drove up the coast with Marcy’s remains to a valley I knew and loved.  Although she’d never been there, she would appreciate the green grass, horses, orange groves and long shadows. We hiked up a hill and found the perfect place where there were no people and the air smelled of orange blossoms.

“Goodbye Marcy.  I love you. Thank you for taking such good care of me and my pets.”

I opened the urn, and flung its contents off the hill. A sudden wind blew, and this disturbing version of Marcy came right back at me sticking between my toes and leaving a chalky film on my legs.  She even got on my teeth. That was not the inseparability I was hoping for.  I used my black sweater to wipe Marcy off of me, but I created an even more creepy excruciating mess. And the one thing Marcy hated was a mess. I had to get out of there.

I stared at the ashes on my toenails as I cried my way down the steep trail.  I couldn’t remember feeling more alone.

“Up.  Look up,” I heard, or thought I heard. And when I did, I saw what I’d been missing.  The mountains were awash with pinks, blues, and purples and a single beam of sunlight stretched out from behind a hill, spreading across the entire valley of orange groves.

Ok ok Ok ok ok OK.