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Lions Roar : July 2013
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2013 48 book proposal wasn’t pleasant, it was manageable since my life didn’t revolve around writing. But the stakes were entirely dif- ferent when I would momentarily forget where I was because of the sleep disorder or exhaustion from the cancer treatments. Without asking me for permission, my body and mind had changed the rules for how I lived. I appeased them by no longer going into the wilderness alone and relying on my iPhone for remembering even long-standing, reoccurring appointments. Unfortunately, my cancer and sleep deprivation decided to be cute and began stripping away other components of my iden- tity that I’d hoped were untouchable. Over the fifteen years I’ve lived with the sleep disorder and eleven years with cancer, I’ve learned that progressive illnesses are open-ended and dynam- ic. Just when you’ve accepted one change, another one occurs, then another, and on and on. It’s natural for those of us who are ill to add guilt to our load when we believe (or hear others say) that it’s possible to isolate our thoughts from the physical effects of the illness through meditation and other techniques. Despite practice, I’ve found it difficult getting beyond the effects. “Trying harder” hasn’t made it easier to remember an appointment or play a better game of handball. Maybe committed lifetime practitioners or someone with an occasional headache can send the effects of their illness to the back room of their consciousness. But for others, life isn’t that simple. Illnesses change identities. As mine progresses, I ask myself, Am I the person today I was yesterday? And who will I be- come tomorrow? It doesn’t help hearing or reading that the “core” of my being is unchangeable. I interact with the world dressed in a history of experiences that’s as thick as a winter coat. I am what I do and believe. That’s my identity. It’s an amalgam of val- ues, embarrassments, unskillful behaviors, defenses, triumphs, defeats, etc. Together it’s as complicated as a Texas chili. Eventually, I realized I wasn’t doing to die, at least not soon, and my memory losses didn’t foreshadow Alzheimer’s. I thought I had two choices: graciously accept the loss of my abilities as just another part of living or remain miserable without them. It took me years to realize there was a third way: adaptation. Trying to find a direct substitute for the abilities or experiences that I could no longer enjoy wasn’t usually success- ful. For example, going to a nature preserve did not diminish my longing for wilderness. The thing is, I wasn’t grieving the loss of a specific activity but rather the feelings certain activi- ties created. I discovered that if I could pinpoint the emotion a lost activity had generated, I could often recreate it in a to- tally different way. The feeling of serenity from being alone in the wilderness, for instance, was almost replicated by playing the shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute. Similarly, although unscripted presentations were no longer possible, the use of PowerPoint was effective for conveying useful information. I adapted to each loss as it occurred. My life is different now than it was before I became ill, and this reminds me a little of the Buddha’s experience. Within the confines of his father’s compound, he thought the world out- side the walls was similar to what he experienced in the pala- tial estate. But when he left, he found that it was a very differ- ent place. Those of us who move from relatively good health to living with chronic or progressive illnesses gain a similar awareness. Living with an illness is very different than what we thought it would be. STAN GOLDBERG is the author of Lessons for the Living: Stories of Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Courage at the End of Life and Leaning into Sharp Points: Practical Guidance and Nurturing Support for Caregivers. By Brenda Feuerstein EVERY MORNING we had a little ritual of going for a coffee and a muffin at our friend’s café, but as the summer went by it became more and more difficult for Georg to prepare him- self for our daily excursion. Then, on August 16, 2012, our life took a major shift, and, deep down, we both knew it was our last time going for coffee together. As we pulled up to the café on that warm sunny morn- ing, my senses were acute. The sky looked so blue and the air smelled damp with greenness. I went around the car to help Georg out, but his body seemed heavier than usual. A friend of ours was sitting outside and came over to help me get Georg to a chair. The silence of that moment was deafening to me and I cried silently; my lover was beginning the journey that would separate our physical bodies forever. Georg couldn’t finish his coffee and the muffin sat uneaten as we watched a small bee touch down on it. I took his hand, and we looked into each other’s eyes for what seemed like life- times until I saw a small tear roll down his cheek. We sat in the silence of deep love, then made our way home. Later that afternoon I helped Georg to his desk so he could work on the novel he was writing and respond to a few stu- dents and friends. It felt odd to see someone make the con- scious decision to work to a specific time and then decide it was time to prepare to let go of his physical body. I guess in some way the office work was part of that preparation, but at the time it seemed so unimportant to me. I wondered what I would do if I knew my time was drawing near. The day came to an end and I helped Georg to his bed in the transition room I’d prepared. I placed our teacher’s pictures on