My friend Mary died Saturday at midnight.
She’d asked that there be, what I think she would call, an untraditional Shiva - three nights of gathering in her home, friends & family, everyone welcome, to share food & drink, stories, poems & songs. And I am so sincerely glad I made it to the first of those gatherings, the day after the midnight of her death.
I brought a bowl of oranges with me. I shared a story about sitting with Mary only a month ago, in the very room we all gathered; I shared how we ate oranges together, talking about healing & creativity & the work of being alive. I told them that I brought the oranges for everyone because of a story Mary told me about a meditative practice she’d done at Spirit Rock – to sit & eat an orange for an entire hour. The way Mary spoke, you were compelled to listen, totally… & her sharing a simple story about eating an orange seemed to me a meditative practice in itself. To sit & eat your orange ever so slowly, with the greatest of patient presence, one bite at a time, one chew at a time, one swallow at a time, to make that orange last a whole hour & to completely relish every part, while it ever so slowly disappears. And now, especially now, I won’t ever eat an orange again without thinking of Mary.
And the bowl I brought the oranges in was cracked with a small hole. I told them it’s a bowl a dear friend gave my wife & I as a wedding gift over ten years ago. Instead of bringing the oranges in a grocery bag, I wanted to bring them in a bowl, so I brought them in that handmade pottery, the bowl I broke that needed fixing. A bowl I could only finally let go of now, when a friend of mine, who’d fought this cancer through countless surgeries & treatments, through all the cracks & holes that cancer put through her body, after being given four months to live, survived, LIVED, twenty years, until last night at midnight when she finally let go of her bowl.
She’d been moved by these women from Stanford’s ICU, within hours of accepting she was ready, after Mary herself told them: “I want to go home to die.” And these women got her there. And within 5 hours she died. This is how Mary readied herself for death: by knowing it could happen, knowing what she wanted & how she wanted it to go, & setting up the community to follow through with her wishes.
So there we were, less than 24 hours later, by Mary’s wish, huddled in the warmth of her living room, a room in which I’d sat with her only a month before. I cried in the corner, listening to her community, mostly women, share her story powerfully & unabashedly, tenderly holding one another with touch & presence & listening. Her community doing right by their friend, in the face of so much that can make it so difficult or seemingly impossible, during one of the hardest times of life, they did as Mary asked of them. It is their offering to all of us, however hard it is, that it can be done how we need it done – just use your life to do the work & create the community who can do it with you.
I feel responsible to share Mary’s story. Actually, I feel seriously compelled to, particularly because of the woman who yelled out at Mary’s Shiva, waving her arm about the room in command, “You writers out there, write about this! Share this story! People need to hear it!” It’s a story of determination & creation & layers of transformation; it’s about the power of life in the face of death, an existence of healing, beginning to end, dependent on a precious balance between holding on & letting go.
After my wedding over ten years ago, my dad sent me a letter warning me to protect myself, to be careful because I’d be hurt letting people in, that the result of being vulnerable & open to others is pain. And it dawned on me years later that I agree with him. He’s right. It’s true. We will be hurt & heartbroken. And because of this fact, I think as a culture we may even have an unconscious tendency to keep our lives small, our communities closed, only a few reserved spots for family & close friends... if that. And so then… Less heartbreak? Less to lose? Less at stake? But the difference between my dad & I is that I choose life knowing it will hurt, accepting that pain is a part of wholly loving it. If I hadn’t made that choice, if I’d taken his advice, if I’d shut down emotionally after my mom died & refused to go through such loss ever again, I wouldn’t have the life I have now. I would’ve never started doing this work in death & dying, never started showing up to do art with cancer patients at their bedside, & so most definitely I would have never met Miss Mary Isham.
Before I left Mary’s Shiva, I saw a little piece of artwork out of the corner of my eye: a tiny metal tree, mostly flattened against the wall, but layered three-dimensionally, a wire sculpture, it’s branches leafless & barren, but for one red robin sitting upon one lone branch. Life amidst death. In the wake of this loss today, I can’t help but feel a layer of how meaningless & heartbreaking life can often seem... but looking at that tree, gathered in that room filled with grief & love, laughter & life, I also can’t deny how beautiful it all is. So incredibly, mesmerizingly beautiful. And so worthwhile.
My friend Mary died Saturday at midnight,
at home, at peace, surrounded by loving friends,
just like she wanted…
STARLINGS IN WINTER
Chunky & noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,
dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
becomes for a moment fragmented,
then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine
how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,
this wheel of many parts, that can rise & spin
over & over again,
full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want
to think again of dangerous & noble things.
I want to be light & frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful & afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.
– Mary Oliver