We got in a car wreck last weekend while driving home from a family trip. It was a surprise, of course, as car wrecks are never planned. Thoughts of how it could have been avoided were interwoven with thoughts of gratitude with regard to how lucky we all were…all things considered. The latter was at the forefront of my attention, though, as I continuously found myself grateful that I was paying full attention to the road at that moment. I can’t say the same for the dude three cars back who wasn’t, and ended up slamming into the person in front of him which contributed to—and perhaps even caused—a nine car pileup. We walked away with the usual neck and back pain that can come with being rear-ended, and that was it.
Actually, we drove away. With the help of some sharp tools from the highway patrol, the metal that was bent into the rear tire was cut away and we made it home the following day. But the back door was permanently jammed shut and the trunk was destroyed. I was later told that the car was deemed irreparable- a total loss.
Only a month before, I was considering getting a new car when my hybrid battery expired, because hybrid batteries are crazy expensive. But I found a friend to help me out, which made it cheaper and eliminated the need to get a new car. I was quite fine with the one we had, thank you very much.
While later talking with a good friend about what had happened, she gently reminded me that I sometimes stick with old models when they are “past their expiration date.” She wasn’t just talking about cars- Lovers, friends, clothes, jobs, houses… Ideologies, teachers, behaviors… The list seems endless when I consider those things with which I’ve not wanted to part. Now, I like beginnings. The beginning of beginnings, and the time right after beginnings… But completions and endings? I have learned how to bring a lot of conscious attention toward them, and yet I still find myself avoiding them.
What makes endings and goodbyes so hard? Is it possible that it comes down to having to feel feelings I’d just rather not feel? The awareness that comes along with facing reality: that things do end (quite often), that death is a constant part of life, and that all things are temporary? Yes, that might just be part of it.
While cleaning out my car, preparing for it to be towed away, I found some old toys of Kathrynn’s, and even a baby picture. I shed tears of nostalgia. I am deeply in love with my daughter and I love all things ‘of her,’ including the two toy horses that she used to play with while in the car, and the picture of her wearing a campy grin as I was changing her diapers at three months old. We’d travelled around the country for the past eleven years in that car together… I was flooded with memories. And more gratitude.
Eleven years is a substantial amount of time to own a car. I’ve personally never owned a car this long in my life, nor has any family member that I’m aware of. It seems quite reasonable in our culture to replace cars frequently, depending on financial resources, of course. Left to my own devices, however—i.e. without culture telling me I should have more! better! new!—I’d just as soon stay with the old. And yet, again, it’s reasonable for this car to now be ‘dead, so I can move on to the next one. I shed my tears, and off went the car. Cars don’t last forever, after all. Endings.
The day that we had our nine car pileup, I got a call from our vet. Our cat Michelangelo had fallen into a diabetic coma with other complications that I still don’t understand. Hundreds of miles from him, we had to make the horrible decision to have him immediately euthanized so as to keep him from future suffering. Unlike with the car accident, never once did I consider how lucky we were as the pain of abruptly losing our cat flooded over us. In this case, gratitude was the furthest thing from my mind. Instead, I was unrelentingly tortured by a slew of thoughts like “How could this have been avoided?” and “How could this have happened?” He had seemed just fine when we left for our trip. I was being blindsided by life, and I simply was not having it. I refused to accept this ending.
Michelangelo was seven. Seven years is a long time, and at the same time it’s hardly the blink of an eye. I could have sworn he was still three. Our last cat Jazmine had died when she was quite old, and it was fine when she died…because she was old. She was so old. She was eighteen and, honestly, we’d expected her to die long before that. Just as we expected Michelangelo to have plenty of years left. Seven is too young for a cat to die.
Michelangelo was years from death, said me. He was supposed to live a long time. Cats live forever, nearly forever! He’d had some issues—kidney failure twice—but he’d recovered and seemed entirely healthy. Still a kitty at heart, really. Running, jumping, very playful and very loving. He was the sweetest cat, my sweet Michelangelo, and after he recovered from kidney failure I felt immense gratitude that he’d lived through it. Not taking it for granted, I routinely gave thanks for his existence. I really loved his energy, his spirit, and especially his sweetness. He was the epitome of joy.
After my heart had broken a million times over, after I resisted letting go of my sweet boy with every thought I could muster, after I was done arguing and debating with reality, after I was able to sit with the deep pain of loss…my mind stopped having those “how could this have been avoided” kinds of thoughts. Finally gratitude found me. Gratitude that he didn’t suffer, of course, but mostly gratitude that we were gifted seven years of love and joy with this delightful sweetheart. I was grateful for his sweet meows, his mothering of our younger cat Pearl, his roly poly belly, and so so so much more.
My dad died last year, right around this time. He, too, left us too soon. Having lived an already fulfilling and meaning-filled life, he still had plenty of years in him. The week before his stroke he helped me move into my new house. He’d been on the elliptical at the gym the day before. But as he lay helpless in his hospital bed, the nurses had no idea that only 24 hours prior this had been a very active 75-year-old. For some, ‘active’ and ‘75’ might not go well together, but my dad was indeed active, with no end in sight. My dad was supposed to live forever. Well, at least into his nineties. Right?
He’d had his stroke while sitting down, and I was immediately told how grateful I should be that he didn’t have it while driving my mom home from church. And I was grateful for that. His carotid artery had been 99% clogged, and I was grateful that he was alive at all. But my dad was on a hospital bed, in critical care—and we all knew somewhere deep inside of us that his life would never be the same. I felt much despair, grief, pain, and burning anger.
My dad lived for about a year after his stroke, and during that year my emotions traversed a range of depth I never knew existed. From great joy over the smallest yet most profound improvement in his health, to the lowest of lows as he’d have another setback. I found myself dancing in immense gratitude one moment and plunging into the depths of sorrow the next. I always knew the hug I gave him before getting into my car to go home could be the last. Beginnings and endings constantly being shoved in my face, sometimes accepted and other times fiercely denied. While my father was living, dying, living and dying, I was in an intimate relationship that was also constantly hovering around Death’s door, and I was unable to walk through it. I feel it’s no coincidence that, after my dad finally did die, the relationship died not long after. I tried with all my might to keep that relationship alive, while modern medicine did all they could to keep my father alive. But both were past due, and we were trying to avoid the inevitable. Deals with God, deals with one’s self, deals with the inner narrative…these never go well. The denial of endings and the refusal to let go only create more dissonance and suffering. Eventually the pain of loss has to be met, and for me it was debilitating as my heart felt ripped open and torn to shreds.
The heart is a mysterious organ and, despite anything I’ve just written, I don’t actually think our hearts are truly breakable. But they do seem to break apart, and in the healing they become stronger… bigger. Over the last years my heart seems to have stretched to capacities I never knew existed, and this expansion seems nowhere near its end. In that expansion there seems to be room for everything- pain, joy, anger, and even fear. How paradoxical is it that when I live from my heart fear can be included, but when I live from fear most of life is excluded?
A teacher once told me, “Do whatever it takes to make your heart break.” As counterintuitive as it may sound, I grok this wisdom because I know deep inside that, when my heart is breaking, it’s getting wider, deeper, larger… growing as she simultaneously expands. That doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes attempt to shrink and protect and defend when pain reaches a certain amount, but I continuously invite myself back toward my heart, meeting whatever is there—pain or joy—again and again. And as I do, I find that my heart never really shrinks. She just pauses in her expansions.
Maybe it’s like when we were kids- we can’t grow all at once, right? Growing happens, along with some growing pains. Then it pauses for a while. And then we grow some more. Maybe our hearts are the same. Growing, growing pains, pausing, more growing pains, more growing- if we’re lucky.
After we made the decision to euthanize Michelangelo, and after experiencing a nine car pileup, I was weary. Having been consumed briefly by a wave of fear earlier that day, and knowing there is another way to live, I made a conscious commitment to myself: Stay turned toward your heart, no matter what.
My heart was aching, tender, and it took a lot of conscious willingness to turn toward her and not tighten, defend, or shut down. Breath by breath, over and over, I turned toward her. As I did, I felt my system widen…and deepen…and loosen. The habit of closing up in the face of pain returned quickly and often, but each time that I felt this protective closing I reminded myself to open back toward my heart. I was on a conscious journey of choosing my heart over fear, and over and over I chose my heart. I practiced with each breath until I no longer had to remind myself because, even though it was still not easy, turning toward my heart had become the kindest and most beautiful action I could enact, especially when compared to how it felt to go toward fear.
As I went to sleep that night, I felt peace, but I woke up in the still of the night. In that quietness my mind kicked back on and fear returned. The “what could I have done to prevented this” thoughts returned to try to cover up what was being revealed quite loudly to me: Life is fragile, life is temporary, and worst of all, I am not in control. Half in and half out of sleep, I saw visions of car accidents and bad things happening to my daughter. I replayed the events of the past week time and again, looking for a way that things could have gone differently, so as to have an alive Michelangelo instead of a dead one. I was mentally fighting against not being in control, as my mind kept trying to understand what had happened—how my sweet cat was suddenly gone. I was fervently resisting endings—both current and possible future ones. I was afraid, and even in terror at some moments. Eventually I calmed myself and I fell back to sleep. As I got out of bed early the next morning I reminded myself once again: Move toward your heart. Even though it hurt to feel the deep pain in my heart, the alternative hurt more. As I felt the truth of how fragile life is, how everything is temporary, and how I am not in control, it once again felt like my heart was being ripped open. Endings loomed everywhere.
But something curiously exquisite happened. The more I leaned in toward my heart and the pain there, the more I felt connected to life and safe within it. It took a while, but breath by breath life stopped being scary and started being beautiful and mysterious again. In that ripped-open state, nothing was excluded, and all of life—including its inherent transient nature—was allowed. Bit by bit, my existential angst turned into existential sacredness. I knew that as long as I picked my heart over fear everything would be okay, and that as long as I didn’t shrink into a protective and defensive space I’d be safe. I knew that life was safe, even thought it was comprised of constant endings.
Life really is a mystery. Life itself doesn’t care if I’m grateful for it or bemoaning and resisting it. Life doesn’t care if I’m open or if I’m closed, if I’m turning toward fear or turning to love. Life has its own ‘plan,’ and doesn’t seem to take into consideration my ideas of what’s suitable or correct. Life doesn’t seem to follow my (or anyone else’s) rules or follow a particular timeline. (In fact, the idea of ‘timely’ with regard to Life makes me giggle a bit.) Life doesn’t seem to know what is appropriate or inappropriate, and doesn’t seem to subscribe to the concepts of right and wrong, good and bad. Life doesn’t ask me what I would like it to do before doing it. And lastly, Life knows nothing of ‘making sense,’ and refuses to be figured out.
Life itself may not care, but residing in love, turning toward my heart, and being present yields an experience of life that feels kind, gentle, and simple. That day I drove eight hours back home, and throughout the drive I continued to turn toward my heart- my sweet, tender, courageous, blossoming heart. Whenever I felt fear approach, I felt the hardness that comes with a sense of the self trying to protect itself. This visceral sense was a quick reminder to return to the softness of love that resides in my heart, where everything is truly allowed.
I felt immense gratitude during that drive, a gratitude which continues to live on. Gratitude for being reminded of the fragility of life, and of life’s truly exquisite nature. Gratitude for what it feels like to be in the experience of heart presence, as opposed to being in a state of fear. And gratitude at being in awe of the mystery of life, as opposed to being scared of it. Death and endings may never feel ‘good’ in the traditional sense, and sometimes new beginnings can be scary, too, but when approached and met from the present heart, everything seems manageable and ok. Perhaps it is only when coming from a self who thinks it will live forever that the need to defend, protect, and resist arises. When we can truly remember that everything is temporary, including the self that is experiencing that awareness, it becomes apparent that our only sane option is to constantly turn towards the heart, no matter what.