Wrestling with Angels

It has been over five months since my last blog. During this time I decided that I did not have enough video to create a documentary film based on Nancy’s life. Instead, I created a written remembrance, THE MUSIC OF LIFE, A Remembrance of Nancy Wicklund Gray, and it is available at Amazon Books. During the time I was writing the remembrance, I received a note of condolence from a woman, Susan Scott, who I had met through my world of oral storytelling. Her husband had died in the past year and she was suggesting a book to read that might help me better understand the experience of grief.

Susan reminded me that we were both graduates of the M.Div. program at Princeton Theological Seminary. Out of curiosity, I did a Google search and discovered that she had recently published (Upper Room Books) a book on her work as a chaplain for elderly people in nursing homes–STILL PRAYING, After All These Years. I also found recordings on-line of her sermons at a variety of churches in the area where she lives south of the city of Philadelphia. These resources gave me a way of engaging her by letters and emails to discuss a variety of spiritual subjects. The result was that I found myself feeling a strong attraction to Susan while I was still writing a remembrance of Nancy who had died just six months ago!

How do you rationalize a possible new love so soon after losing someone you deeply loved? Well, if you are a storyteller, you try to write a story about the experience. The following story attempts an exploration of this subject.

WRESTLING WITH ANGELS

Jerrold Winston Davis was his God-given name, but he was known as Jerry Davis. Jerry loved to tell the story that his first name came from his uncle and his middle name from Winston Churchill because he was born in the middle of the Second World War–this was the idea of a mother who had high expectations for her son. Jerry himself preferred the name–Jerry Davis– because it sounded less pretentious. He never felt the need to fulfill the expectations of others for his life.

We all have to decide how we want to respond to the expectations of others. For most of us this response is unconscious. When we are young and full of potential, we respond to the talents that the world identifies in us. Jerry was good looking, verbally gifted and attracted to religious expressions. His family was deeply committed to the Presbyterian Church and he grew up imbued with the teachings of the Church. It seemed natural–according to his mother–he should become a Presbyterian minister.

This bright and shinning prediction for Jerrold Winston Davis was tarnished–and one might say balanced–by another of God’s gifts to him. He was dyslexic and from an early age he developed skepticism in regards to the estimations and expectations of other for him. Because of his difficulty reading, teachers underestimated his intelligence; he learned at an early age to not accept their expectations for him. Jerry decided that he had to find his own path in life. After a brush with the ministry by receiving a degree in theology, he finally made the decision to become a teacher in a private school. He taught creative writing and led the school’s theatre department. This academic setting afforded him the freedom to explore his own artistic talents; but more important, it allowed him to encourage his student to discover their own talents free of adult expectations.

But this story is not about Jerry’s teaching career–no, our story is about Jerry as an old man. Ah, I know what you are thinking: ‘I’m not interested in stories of old people! Their lives are over. Who cares about them? What can they teach me about the life I am living?’ I will say that you are right and you are wrong. Yes, you are right that old people have either succeeded or failed at fulfilling their expectations in life–the path in life has been traveled most of the way, no exciting discoveries are still to be made. And yes, life has lost the excitement of the “hero quest”, that journey of discovery that we all need to make in our lives. On the other hand, if that old person has truly made the journey, they may have some worthwhile advice as you search out your path in life. They may share some experiences you will eventually have to face. Let’s see what we find when we slip in and do a little eavesdropping on the world of Jerrold Winston Davis–maybe he has some advice for your journey through life.

Death is part of our journey through life. Most of us brush against it more than once as we grow up. Jerry had had his share of brushes–grandparents, uncles, aunts and even his father–though he was not present when his father died. Jerry had a closer experience of his mother’s death. He sat with her and sang to her as she departed her path in life. None of these experiences prepared him for his wife’s death. Mary received the diagnosis of esophageal cancer, stage four, at the age of seventy-four. For more than a year she struggled with the disease. Mary did not like the warrior metaphor for one who lives with a disease. She did not talk about her illness and she continued to plan for the future until her body could not muster the strength for independent living. Finally, one day, Jerry had to rush Mary to the hospital where they stabilized her and she came back home to die.

Jerry and Mary–as a friend liked to say: “sounds like a marriage made in heaven”– and they were a well matched couple who met in middle age. For twenty-two years they lived a happy and uneventful life together. Mary’s cancer diagnosis was the first and only bump in the path of life they shared together.

It was Mary decision to spend her last days in her study with the books she loved and the pictures that reflected the academic life she had enjoyed for over forty years. Her first day back home, she was able to exclaim, “Jerry, did you see the beautiful sunrise this morning!” In a few days this enjoyment of the natural world was taken away from Mary. Her level of pain required increased dosages of medicine. Soon her communications with Jerry became more and more intermittent. Jerry felt that Mary was withdrawing from the life they had so happily shared together.

The last day on the path of life for Mary was quiet and contemplative for Jerry. He sat for long periods by Mary’s bedside, holding her hand. There was no communication, but there was also no sign of suffering. Periodically Mary spoke words that Jerry could barely hear. He felt a strong sense that she was withdrawing, prepared for a journey, a new path that they could not share together.

It was early evening of a late summer day when Jerry decided to leave Mary’s side to fix something to eat. “Mary, I’m going out to the kitchen to find something to eat.” Jerry hesitated, waiting for a response. When Mary did not respond, he got up from the chair beside the hospital bed, paused a moment, and then went out to the kitchen to warm a bowl of soup.

Twenty minutes later Jerry returned to Mary’s bedside. He took hold of her hand again and bent down to kiss her cheek. A foot from her cheek, he sensed a change in his wife. He looked at her eyes; they were closed as if she was asleep. He waited for her to take a breath of air as she had labored to do for several days. There was no sign of breathing. Now Jerry felt with his other hand to find a pulse in Mary’s wrist. There was no sign of life. Mary was dead.

Jerry thought about calling an ambulance, but he did not do it. Instead, he turned and pulled the bedside chair up close to his wife. He took her hand again and spoke aloud an uncertain prayer for Mary’s soul to find a new path away from this human body. After a period of prayerful contemplation: Jerrold Winston Davis called hospice on the phone. He asked the nurse to come to the house and confirm Mary’s decision to leave this life.

For several weeks after Mary’s death, Jerry tended to the details of honoring the dead. He chose to attend the cremation of her body–a shocking industrial-like experience. He organized the memorial service accented with the music that Mary loved and the community that loved her. Finally, he carried her ashes to the cemetery and enterred her in the ground where one day they both would find their final resting place for the remains of the body.

After the honoring of his wife, the days turned to weeks and on to months. During this time Jerry Davis sought ways to deal with the grieving, the loss of his partner in life. Several nights he went to the room where Mary had died. He felt he might encounter her soul still lingering there. Jerry did not feel a connection to the ethereal Mary MacPherson-Davis. Finally, he set a pattern of going to her grave to say a prayer and share a report on his well-being.

Death is never far afield. The nightly newspaper has a section for death notices. Our family albums are full of pictures of those who”have gone before use” as the phrase is often repeated. Those who like to go for an evening walk often find the town cemetery a pleasant place for an evening stroll: and there is a whole industry built around disposing of the dead–the undertakers who own the funeral homes in every town. My point is that we live with death all around us, but we do our best to ignore it. Jerry Davis decided that he wanted to confront death; he was ready to wrestle with the Angel of Death and discover new expectations for an old man–or at least, a new perspective on the end of life.

How do you–or can you– create an encounter with the Unconscious? Jerry imagined that he might find a river bank and camp there until the Angel of God showed up to wrestle with him–as in the story of Jacob from the book of Genesis. Another time he imagined a journey to the Rocky Mountains where he might camp and wait–like Moses–for an encounter with the Divine. Never did he imagine the setting for his encounter with the Angel of Death.

That fall and winter, after Mary’s death, Jerry allowed for time to mourn the loss of his partner in life. One day he went to her study and there he found journals that Mary had created from the time she was ten years old until her death. Exploring these journals Jerry found drawings that Mary created at about the age of ten. These drawings illustrated her favorite poems.  He found essays from Mary’s high school years. One essay argued for a woman’s right to be herself and not allow society to dictate a path in life. This, and much more in Mary’s journals, informed Jerry about the woman he loved and helped him to create a remembrance of her time on this earth. This creative project in turn facilitated the mourning process and the beginning of Jerry’s contemplation of his own Death. He pondered; Might I confront my own fear of death and begin to search out a path after I leave this human body?

Spring is the time when we clean up the detritus from last summer’s ending–or death if you choose to think about it that way. One day Jerry finally convinced himself to go out to the gardens that Mary had loved and cared for–working in the garden was not a spiritual exercise for Jerry as it was for Mary….at least he did not think it was. The sun was shining brightly and temperature was a perfect fifty degrees for working outside. As he raked the leaves from last fall, Jerry saw the peonies were just emerging from the ground while the snow drops were almost finished blooming.

Jerry stopped his work and knelt down to consider this cycle of life. We see life’s cycles come and go with the seasons of the year, but most of us tend to not think about our human connection to these cycles of life and death in nature. For just a minute, Jerry pondered how human life might be like the flowers and trees–they live, die and come back to life in the spring of the year. Might humans follow the same pattern–life, death and rebirth? This spiritual experience in the garden was a fleeting moment for Jerry. He paused and then returned to the task before him–supporting the rebirth of Mary’s beloved garden. He worked for three hours until he had expended the energy in his seventy-seven year old body–time to rest and enjoy a meal. When he stopped working, he sensed that he was leaving Mary’s spirit in the garden.

Diner time was the most difficult part of day for Jerry Davis. He so missed sharing a meal and a glass, or two, of wine with his partner in life. Many nights he assuaged his feelings of loss by watching television instead of eating alone at the dinner table. This night he felt a special connection to Mary after working in the garden. He took his meal to the living room where he and Mary always sat after dinner by the big picture window. There he ate slowly, sipped a little wine and looked out on the gardens where he had just been working. He thought how, for twenty plus years, his expectations had been fulfilled by a happy marriage.

Caught up in revelry of the spirit, Jerry ate and then enjoyed a second glass of wine by the big window until the shadows of the spring night started to obscure the scene before him. Whether it was the second glass of wine and the labors of the day, Jerry would never declare, but that night as he sat comfortably on the couch, he closed his eyes and a visitor appeared beside him. This apparition of the unconscious did not offer a Jacob-like combat; instead, they sat side by side and found commonality between them as they contemplated the coming night.

The Angel of the Unconscious (Aou, as Jerry called Him) spoke first: “You summon my presence?”                                                

Jerry responded: “I seek your command regarding my path to the end of life….and the strength to follow it.”                                                                                                                                                                

“Your words are received and a response will be given“ ,returned Aou, “but first you must share your heart’s passion. What do you expect from yourself in these days you have left on this earth?”                                                                                                                                                               

Jerry considered this request. He had spent much of his life reacting to the expectations of others. Had he considered his own expectations? Jerry Davis sat starring out the big window as Mary’s resurrected gardens disappeared into the dark of night.  

Finally, Jerry turned to confront his antagonist. He expected to see a young winged combatant like often depicted in paintings of the Jacob story; instead his apparition appeared as an old man–much like himself–graying hair, a generous mid-width and dressed casually in jeans and plaid shirt. This apparition bolstered Jerry’s self and he responded with heart-inspired words: “I am not sure what to expect. I know that I feel alone without Mary in my life. I think about staying alone, perhaps discovering something that will help me complete my life’s journey….but, but I also think about finding a new mate, someone who will share the days left to me in this life…wanting to share love is human…but maybe love ends when the human in us dies? I don’t know which of these expectations to pursue.”   

The dark of night now obscured the world outside the big picture window. For a long time
Jerrold Winston Davis stared into the void. Finally he turned to his Aou and spoke with a sense of conviction: “My heart’s passion is to find a new love, a woman I can love as I loved Mary. Some people may reach out to explore the divine; I was put on this earth to look inside to explore the divine in the human…and, for me, this exploration happens when the Divine couples male with female, sexually and spiritually, so that one supports and builds energy in the other!” 

Human expectations whether personal, familial or societal are sometimes hard to measure and describe in a story. This was not the case in this story about the life of Jerry Davis. The next day, after his visit with the Angel of the Unconscious, Jerry received a card in the mail. It was a condolence from a woman who said she had taught English in the same private school where he taught for many years. She offered words of sympathy and recommended a book that supported her when her husband died. She signed the card, Anne Marie Maldonado. Jerry vaguely remembered this name from his teaching days, so his curiosity was peaked. That night he did a Google search on the name of “Anne Marie Maldonado”. He found one who had recently published a book of poetry. When he read her curricula vitae, he was sure this was the woman who had sent the card of condolence. So he ordered her book that night and began to imagine how they might explore the possibility for love near the end of the path of life!

Wresting with expectations is something we all need to do in life. Others will try to influence actions in our life. And, we cannot always count on an Angel of the Unconscious to challenge us to take action at just the right times in life. We are not always as lucky as Jerry in our story to have an Aou that shows up at just the right moment in life.

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THE THREADS OF A LIFE

Yesterday, because I knew that I was having visitors to my house, I decided to do some house cleaning–actually I am fairly regular about this activity–but I had not visited Nancy’s bedside stand since her death. There I found two books and each had a page marker where she had stopped reading. The books were Loren Eiseley’s essays, “The Immense Journey”, and Italo Calvino’s novel, “The Baron in the Trees”. I said to myself–this is an opportunity to connect with Nancy’s imagination and thinking processes as she neared the end of her journey in this life!

I beg you to accept that I am a storyteller who sees all of life as a narrative waiting to be expressed. And, I can imagine Nancy rolling her eyes as she reads this particular narrative. I understand if you chose to stop right here……but, if you enjoy exploring rabbit holes–as Nancy did– please continue down this one with me.

Calvino’s novel is the story of a young Italian nobleman who finds himself in conflict with his family and chooses to express his independence from his family by living in a tree! I pick up where Nancy was reading–obviously I cannot say where on the two pages–but I will choose a small quote from the two pages to give a feel for what she was imagining:

“Cosimo (the hero of the story) despite that escapade of his, which had upset us all so much, lived almost as closely with us as he had before. He was a solitary, who did not avoid people. In a way, indeed he seemed to like them more than anything else. He would squat above places where peasants were digging, turning manure, and call out polite greetings…at first they were confused by his position in the tree….but then they got into the habit of chatting with him about their work or the weather, and seemed to find the game he was playing up there no better or worse than so many other games they had seen the gentry play.”

I can see the appeal of this story for Nancy. She was the young woman who at the age of nineteen left her home in Minnesota and came to Westminster Choir College to pursue her music career. Her ambition for what she wanted out of life set her apart from her world of birth. She had a strong sense of independence, yet she did not break her relationship with her family. In fact, her family felt such a strong tie to her that they drove all the way from Minnesota for the service that honored her life a couple of weeks ago!

Eiseley’s set of essays, “The Immense Journey”, is harder for me to find some connection. First, I have never enjoyed his style of writing and his scientific approach to the mysteries of our world has never appealed to me…nevertheless I will quote a concept from the page where Nancy was reading. This is a description of life coming from the ocean to live on the land–part of the process of evolution and the beginning of our great myth:

“Salt and sun and moisture were accessible without great mechanical elaboration. It was the reaching out that changed this pattern, the reaching out that forced the cells to bring the sea ashore with them, to elaborate in their own bodies the very miniature of that all-embracing sea from which they came.”

Loren Eiseley at one point in the essay suggests that he is creating the story of life in the mythic language of science as opposed to the mythic language of religion. I do not feel the need for this kind of myth, but I can understand that Nancy did find Eiseley’s way of telling the story attractive. I know when she got her diagnosis of stage-four esophageal cancer she approached this reality with a very practical plan to live as long as she could possibly live. She was capable of great emotion and spiritual expression in life, but rational evaluations were never far from the surface in her decision making process.

It was Nancy’s mix of strong rational intellect with emotional depth that I found very supportive for my own life. As I continue to think about a documentary film about her life I will try to bring to the surface the stories I want to tell about her.

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TIME TO REFLECT

Yesterday I took a walk through Doylestown. I happen to pass the home of one of the families whose children created drawings to illustrate my story, “Ice Cream Mud”. The mother was out raking leaves and the children were riding bicycles and playing with friends. I stopped to say hello and listen as she described her busy life with husband, children and work. We had a neighborly exchange and I continued on my way.

Walks are a good time for reflections. As I headed up the hill toward the heart of Doylestown, I started to reflect back to the time in my life when I had two young children, a wife and the beginning of my work as an oral storyteller. Life was filled with early morning risings, juggling childcare with work schedules and chores around the house.

As I topped the hill and headed into the center of Doylestown my reflection turned to thoughts about life when my children left home to start their own lives separate from their parents. It was during this time that my first marriage ended and I found myself living alone. It was a difficult experience, but I was still busy with my storytelling programs in schools.

This time lasted nearly four years until I met Nancy. We bought the house on Clemens Road and soon were married. Life with Nancy was not as hectic as my first marriage. There were no children in the house and, as the years passed, my life slowed down when I stopped presenting school assembly programs.

By the time I had started back down the hill past the Mercer Museum, I had moved my reflection to thoughts about being alone again. I asked myself: Are there advantages to living alone at the age of seventy-seven? Three nights ago I woke up at 3:00 A.M. I turned on the bedroom light and read for half an hour without disturbing my mate’s sleep. I fix and eat my meals when I am hungry. I don’t have to consider the wishes of another. It would be easy to become very self-absorbed. I don’t know that is a good way to live.

I could now see the roof of my house on Clemens Road through the fall foliage along Green Street. My last reflection for my walk considered the subject of prayer. In particular, I reflected on the idea of “The Jesus Prayer”––that is a repetitive phrase, silently expressed throughout the day. My prayer is: “Lord Jesus have mercy on my soul, open my heart to others, and lift my soul to thee”. I think I learned about this practice by reading the Philokalia many years ago, but the practice is not unique to the Christian tradition. I have not always been disciplined in the practice of this prayer. Being old and less distracted by relationships, work and success, I can hope to further explore this practice. So ended a forty minute walk through Doylestown and the reflections that occurred along the way. What do you think about when you go for a walk?

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THE LAST THIRD OF LIFE

Thirteen years ago, at the age of sixty-four, I decided to stop promoting my stories for children and start to work on stories for the last third of life. Out of that decision grew the Jung performances, a memoir (E-book) and a long fantasy story (paperback book) about a family of mill mice. During those years I also supported my mother to the end of her life. An unpublished journal–shared only with friends and family–was the creative result from that life experience. It has been a busy time in my life, full of performances, travel, gatherings at the Clemens Road house and all shared with my mate for life.

Nancy and I did not meet until we were in our mid-fifties–old enough to rationally evaluate a mate, but young enough to be amazed by the sexual energy generated by our coming together. We both kept journals during that time, so it is possible for me to go back and find the backing for these declarations. But perhaps more than the rational or emotional common ground, we immediately identified a passion for good conversation and sharing our lives with others. So for twenty-two years we enjoyed and gave thanks for having found a mate for the last third of life!

This brings me back to the subject of stories from this time in life. For the past thirteen years I have created and told stories about the process of ageing and finding meaning in a time of life when my energy for innovation and bringing new projects to life is waning. It is more a time to reflect and preserve the work of the past. Much of the past thirteen years has been spent thinking, talking and writing about Grandpa Jung’s idea of individuation–that is, the idea that one’s life is about becoming who we are meant to be, not who others in our family or society want us to be. Here there is a strong sense that we all have gifts–I might say God-given- and life is about discovering these gifts and the path in life where they lead us. For me it was a life telling stories to children. With a fair amount of angst I found my way and followed my path in life.

There is another part of this journey through these last years of life. This is the eventual meeting with Death. We all have brief encounters with Death throughout our lives. For me it was the deaths of relatives, the most moving being the death of my mother, Ruby, that I mentioned above. I sat by her side and experience her last breath of life. But the sting of death then was ameliorated by having Nancy in my life. I could go home and talk with her about the experience.

Today I have no one to share my feelings about Nancy’s death, or maybe it is that I cannot talk with anyone about the experience I am having. For this reason, I will write about it and hope to find a measure of solace in the act of telling the story. This event in Nancy and my life began in June of 2018 when she received a diagnosis of stage four esophageal cancer. We immediately cancelled a planned trip to Scotland and a backyard storytelling performance set for that early summer. Nancy started a year of multiple chemotherapy treatments and one of radiation. Because of the growth in her esophagus Nancy struggled to find ways to swallow her food. Doctors talked about a feeding tube, but she preferred to be creative in finding ways to eat regularly–egg drop soup from the local Chinese restaurant was one of her eating solutions. Her doctors were amazed at her ability to keep herself strong and continue to live a fairly normal life. This struggle–Nancy did not like warrior language to describe her dealing with cancer–lasted for about fourteen months. It was during the first week in August of 2019 that she became dehydrated and weak from not being able drink or eat normally. Finally she made the decision to go to the hospital for care.

Nancy was in Doylestown Hospital for ten days. They began intravenous feeding and liquids to hydrate and nourish her body again. She gained some strength, but nothing like the normal Nancy. She was dizzy, had headaches and felt unsure on her feet. Finally, they decided to do an MRI of her brain and they discovered a tumor on it. Now there was talk about an operation, radiation and again the feeding tube. Nancy rejected the operation and radiation, but accepted the feeding tube and asked to go home.

During ten days in the hospital, I visited with Nancy three times a day. As the days passed, communication between us became more and more difficult. Nancy was agitated by the other patient in her room, an elderly woman who was hard of hearing. When her family came to visit, they talked loudly and long. I don’t think they were bad people, just a family like us trying to get through a difficult time in their lives. Nancy withdrew and seemed to not want to communicate with me. When she did talk, it was often something that I had forgotten to do or done wrong. This was so unlike Nancy, I knew I had to get her out of the hospital as soon as possible.

Finally the decision was made that she could go home under hospice care. Several hospice agencies would not accept her as a patient because of the feeding tube. Finally, Doylestown Hospital Hospice accepted her and I brought her home to 68 Clemens Road on August 15, 2019. The whole process took about six hours. It was a difficult day, but at the end Nancy was settled on a hospital bed in her study with her books and pictures all around her. Most important, it was quiet, with no roommate and family carrying on inane conversations.

So began two and a half weeks of caring for Nancy in our home. I could have hired extra nursing care to supplement the hospice people who came four to five times a week for half-hour visits. I chose to do the major part of Nancy’s care myself. Why did I make that decision? I felt that it was what Nancy wanted–though I do not think that we discussed it. Also, I do not like standing around and watching others do what I think I can do myself.

How can I describe the last two and a half weeks of Nancy Jo Anderson’s life? First, I will say that I can only describe it from the perspective of the one who loved and cared for her in this end time of life. Coming home did have a positive effect on Nancy’s disposition. For the first days she was more content. I remember her commenting on the beauty of the clear sky outside her window. I asked if she wanted to listen to any particular music or have visits from friends. Her response was not strongly negative, but she made it clear that she was content to be alone in a quiet environment. I limited the visits and started the practice of music on a player in the living room. This way I could enjoy the music and she could ignore my music as she often did during the twenty-two years that we lived together.

My challenge during this time was to learn some basic nursing skills on the fly. I thank the hospice nurses who were patient in teaching me. My first task was to learn how to measure the meds and get them into the feeding tube. This was a continuous process, every three to four hours around the clock. Because the feeding tube continuously pumped nutrients into Nancy, I had to learn how to control the pump to change from nutrients to meds and back again. The process was often complicated by the nutrients getting clogged in the tube and I had to flush the tube before and after the meds.

Two days into the hospice care we started to have problems with a leak at the point where the feeding tube interred Nancy’s body. This meant that we had to change the dressing around the portal several times a day. Here I will claim some credit for my own ingenuity. The dressings used by the nurses had limited ability to absorb the leaking fluids; I started to substitute a dressing created by cutting up a Depend disposable underwear. It was thicker and could absorb more of the leaking fluid. When one of the nurses saw what I had created, she said, “great idea!”

The nursing chore that I feared most was helping Nancy to go to the bathroom–particularly cleaning her after a bowel movement. Because Nancy had not eaten solid foods for more than two weeks when I brought her home, bowel movements were rare, but still important for the functioning of her body. For the first week of home care, Nancy was able to use a walker with my support to go to the bathroom and she did have one bowel movement. By the second week she was too weak to use the walker and we started to use a portable potty. Let us say that I was able to put aside my fears of helping Nancy to go to the bathroom. It was also during the second week that the decision was made to stop using the feeding tube and going to the bathroom was soon not an issue.

Nancy’s last days were made difficult for me the caregiver because she had a drive-the only way I can describe it–to sit up and get out of bed. One time I found her sitting at the side of the bed with her hands on the walker that I had place there. Eventually she did not have the strength to sit up, but she continued to reach out and try to sit up in the bed. The nurse described this as a form of anxiety and recommended an increase in medication for the behavior. For me, this behavior seemed an exhibit of Nancy’s will to live. It was about four days before she died, she whispered one of the last thoughts she shared with me: “I will die in two days.” The words were softly spoken and without an expression of fear or anxiety.

Nancy died on September 2, 2019 at about 5:30 P.M. That last day of body and soul as one, Nancy was calm though her breathing was labored. The nurse said that it was a collection of fluids in her chest and she recommended a pill that I could put under her tongue to help reduce the fluids in her upper respiratory tract. It was near supper time that I decided to try the nurse’s recommended medication. I tried to put the pill under Nancy’s tongue, but her tongue was not flat in her mouth. I tried spritzing a little water on the pill to melt it and then I went out to the kitchen to fix some food for supper. When I came back in fifteen minutes, I could still see the pill in her mouth but it had begun to dissolve; and more important, Nancy was breathing easier. So I went back to eat my supper.

It was fifteen to twenty minutes later that I came back to Nancy’s study. She was peaceful with her eyes closed, but her mouth was open. I looked into her mouth to see if the pill was dissolved. It was then that I realized that she was not breathing. I checked for a pulse in her wrist, but did not find one. For some time I sat quietly by Nancy’s side. You might say that I prayed, though I have no memory of particular words expressed at the time. You might say that I gave thanks for a peaceful beginning of her soul’s journey forward. After my quiet time, I called the hospice nurse and she recommended that I contact the funeral home I had pre-arranged to help care for Nancy’s body. Both the nurse and the funeral people soon came to the house and completed their duties.

Later that night, I went back into Nancy’s study and sat alone where the bed had been standing. I thought about stories that the soul lingers near the place of death after the physical body has been taken away. I encouraged Nancy’s soul to communicate with me. For fifteen to twenty minutes I sat quietly and waited. I had no sense of her presence in the room and went to bed.

Two days later, on September 4th, they cremated Nancy’s physical body. I chose to be present for this act of cremation. I took with me a journal to write in and a CD player with a recording of monastic chant–Nancy had heard this chant many mornings when she was waking up because it was part of my morning ritual. I did not realize the industrial nature of the cremation process. It was difficult to hear the chant over the sound of the furnace. Nevertheless, I said a prayer over her body before it entered the furnace, and then I sat and wrote down a list of happy times in our marriage. Again, I wanted to be aware of the separation of the soul from the physical body. For this reason I have placed Nancy’s ashes next to our bed and they will stay there until I inter them at Doylestown Cemetery after the celebration of life service on October 5, 2019.

Dreams have always had a strong influence on the decisions I make in this world. On September 14th I had a dream where Nancy and I were listening to music. She said to me in the dream, “turn this music into a story”. When I woke up I immediately thought of creating a documentary film about Nancy’s life. I wrote down in my journal this title: “The Music of Life”.

As I ponder this idea for a film about Nancy’s life, I think how her creativity was very much tied to musical communities–most importantly to Westminster Choir College where she worked for over forty years. She also was a member of the Episcopal Church and worked as an organist for several churches over the years. She was a member the American Guild of Organist. She held an office in the Hymn Society for several years and she sang most recently with the Bucks County Choral Society–in addition she did research and provided access to music for these organizations. I am sure that I have not covered all the musical groups she was related to during her lifetime. Nancy was gifted at working in communities. I am sure I will find more about this life of music when I create a film about it. If you have a story about Nancy–which you think I might not know–please share it with me. I want this documentary film to tell the story of how Nancy discovered who she was meant to be in the time she was given on this earth!

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PLAYING WITH THE NORMS OF LIFE

Early this summer I shared plans to engage neighborhood children in an art project to draw pictures for one of my stories–Ice Cream Mud. It will be self-published as a picture book using Kindle Direct as I did the mouse story two years ago. Well, our young artists have been at it for more than a month and we are getting wonderful results. My partner for this project is Pat Achilles, a professional illustrator. She has helped the kids to establish a set of general characteristics–or norms– for the three animals in our story. It is a bit tricky to involve nine imaginations to tell one story. So far it seems to be working.

When I conceived this project I said that I wanted to reengage with that ten year old Raymond Lowell Gray by engaging with ten year olds today. I don’t know that it has happened yet, but I have appreciated being part of an experience where creative imaginations have been freed to express themselves as they please. For example: One line in the story says “The sun was high in a clear sky and it really was a hot, hot summer day!” One young artist drew a picture that shows the main character, Donkey, walking down the road and overhead is an orange-red star! I love that this child saw the sun–in truth a star–with five point instead of appearing as a round ball.

We all have imaginations, but sometimes living, growing up and being responsible adults stifles the expression of our imaginations. We are too careful about the norms of expression: the sun is round because the norm tells us this is so. I don’t know what physics has to say about this norm, but I know one ten year old who disagrees!

So have I run into that ten year old Raymond Lowell Gray in this past month? I don’t think so, but I am not sure I would recognize him if I did meet him–many norms of life have been shattered in sixty-seven years. One thing I will comment on is the relationship between play and work with a group of ten year olds. The first session, when we introduce the story to them, was full of play and enthusiasm for the project. The work of drawing the pictures has been more problematic–soccer games and dates at the swimming pool have distracted our young artist–but we have preserved, the work is being done and hopefully more norms will be shattered.

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BEING AND BECOMING

For everything there is a season,
and a time for every purpose under the heavens…..
Ecclesiastes 3:1

I don’t know about you, but I have always treasured stability–the normal in my life–knowing there is someone who loves me and wants to be with me. Also, I need a place to call home, a work that creatively engages my body and soul, and enough material wealth to provide the essentials of daily life. I don’t need the excesses of fame and riches, the abnormal of what I have described above. Some may think this is a recipe for living a boring life, but I think, and feel, that it has provided the base for me to become who I was meant to be in this world–Grandpa Jung’s idea of individuation.

Recently I had lunch with my two grandchildren, one fourteen and the other nineteen. The nineteen year old brought her reusable straw because she wanted to show her concern about plastic waste in our world. She will be a second year student at Temple University this fall and is thinking about a major in public health. She told a story about a woman who spent ten years working as a public health specialist in third world countries before she married and started her own family. My grandson, who will be fifteen in two weeks, has expanded his view of the future past the idea of being an athlete. He spoke about a college major in astronomy. These young people are full of becoming stories.

I like to think today that my interaction with life is a different form of being and becoming. To understand what I mean by “being”, let me first say what it is not. It is not a form of “mindfulness”, that awareness of breath, body and the immediate world around us. I don’t have a problem with that kind of being, but my understanding of being is broader. It has a social context where I explore a relationship to the other people in my world. For example, being is important when I am involved in a conversation with another person. I have to enter intently into listening to what the other says, not thinking about what I want to say. The same is true when I perform as an oral storyteller. I have to be in a relationship with my audience, whether it is five or five hundred. I have to feel their response to my performance and tailor my story to it. This sense of being is also present when I sit down to write a story: the chair where I sit, the keyboard and screen, the music I listen to as I write. These physical contexts, and many more I could describe, come into play when I interact with the world where I choose to be. So, in a real sense, I am no different from my grandchildren, I am still becoming, but in a more nuanced and less obvious way.

There is a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time pluck up what is planted. Ecclesiastes 3:2

This process of becoming and being is central to human life. The development of human consciousness has made us aware of the process. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, it has also made us aware that we will not live forever–at least not in this unique form of physical body and consciousness. We all must die. I appreciate that the Preacher in Ecclesiastes connects death with the idea of planting and harvesting. The creative life is the process of planting seeds, giving birth to something new. Sometimes you see in your lifetime the fruits of your labor, you “pluck up what is planted”. It can equally be true that you will not be the one to harvest the fruits of your labor; you will die before the time is full. When this is the reality, it is important to make sure you have planted well, tended the crop and allowed that it is another’s right to “pluck up what is planted”. This kind of life requires a stronger sense of being than becoming.

Men have no advantage over beasts; for everything is emptiness. All go to the same place: all came from dust, and to the dust all return……So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should enjoy his work, since that is his lot: who can bring him to see what will be after him?” Ecclesiastes 3:19-22

It was about thirteen years ago that I decided to stop promoting my storytelling programs for children and start to work on stories for the last third of life. I did not make this decision because I had lost my enjoyment of my work with children; I made the decision because I felt there was something special to be discovered about growing old and dying.–the becoming part of this stage of life. Arthur C. Brooks, in a recent Atlantic Magazine article, describes it: “What I need to do, in effect, is stop seeing my life as a canvas to fill, and start seeing it more as a block of marble to chip away at and shape something out of”. For me the chipping away work involved the development of my “Jung stories” and starting a blog where I reflect on these last years of my life. I have volunteered my storytelling skills to various museums and presently I am involved with a group of neighborhood children to create pictures for one of my children’s stories. None of this work has earned money or much notice, but I have enjoyed these years of reflection and sharing with others.

So getting back to my treasured “normal”–or as Nancy’s mother called it, “that happy medium”–I don’t know that the preacher in Ecclesiastes, or Mr. Brooks, would agree with me. Nevertheless, I have tried to live a life that is routine and normal: I get up every morning at 5:30 A.M. to work at my desk. By 11:00 A.M. I am ready for lunch and a short nap. By 5:00 P.M. I stop working, fix a meal, watch the world news on PBS and have my first glass of wine. Dinner is at 6:00 P.M. with my beautiful wife. Often we eat, converse and drink wine until past 8:00 P.M. By 9:30 P.M. I am ready for bed. This normal routine is interrupted by the variety of life, but we are happy and quick to return to our set pattern.

There are other forms this normal routine takes in my life. I like a regular day of the week set aside for house cleaning. As my Pennsylvania German ancestors would say: “Time to read up the place”. For me that means: clean the bathroom, change the bath towels and bed linen, sweep the floors throughout the house and dust the furniture. Special attention is given to the kitchen where I scrub the floor, clean the countertops and stove and get rid of those things in the refrigerator that have been left open too long. And, as I work, I enjoy music on the CD player–often one of Nancy’s recordings of a choir singing Christian hymns.

So, as a human being of seventy-seven years, I have discovered my “being and becoming” in these normal and routine activities of life. I understand that others may find my life boring and uninteresting–I do not–I wake up every day ready to engage the world I find before me and to become who I am meant to be down to the moment when I take my last breath of air!

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STAGES OF LIFE

How can I experience the feelings of childhood at the age of seventy-seven? For many the answer is to spend time with your grandchildren–and I did that–but mine are now high school and college age and they are striving to become adults. That is not bad if you do not forget the lessons of childhood in your rush to grow up. I think life works best when we advance through the stages while retaining the lessons from each time in our lives. This might be one way to define the idea of human consciousness. My point is that, as an old man, I feel the need for a refresher course, a re-connection with the consciousness of a child!

Oral storytelling has been at the center of my adult life. For the twenty years that Nancy and I have lived in Doylestown we have welcomed friends and neighbors to join us in the summer for stories in our backyard. For many years the group that gathered was predominantly adult; then two years ago, we had ten to twelve young children show up in the front row. Several young families had moved into the neighborhood. Luckily, several of our tellers were able to change their stories for that night to appeal to our young audience members. After that evening of storytelling, I became more aware of the sounds of neighborhood children playing outside in the warm seasons of the year.

The gift of play is one of the things we can learn from children. I wrote about this in a previous essay called “The Master’s Pay”. One night last fall, as Nancy and I were enjoying a meal on the patio, we heard the sounds of the neighborhood children still playing as night arrived. This experience led me to the idea of engaging these children in a form of creative play. I have many stories that were told in school assembly programs over the years. These stories all have a written text, and some have audio and video recordings, but they have not been published as books with illustrations.

The idea is to engage the neighborhood children in creating the pictures to illustrate a fable called “Ice Cream Mud”, a story that was created with my own children more than forty years ago! A professional illustrator of children’s books, who lives here in Doylestown, has agreed to help with the project. When we have the finished children’s art works, she will compose the illustrations that will appear in the book.

We have eleven neighborhood children, ages eight to twelve, signed up for our community arts project! The evening of June 17 we will gather in our backyard again. I will tell Ice Cream Mud and talk briefly about fables as a story form. Pat Achilles, our professional illustrator, will talk about materials and guidelines for the pictures the children will create. We will both be available through the summer to interact with the children and their parents as they work on the drawings. Hopefully, by the first week in August, we will meet again to gather the art work and share stories about the process. If all goes well, we will have a completed book for the holiday season in December.

So do I think that I can reengage with the child in me through this community art project? Honestly, I do not know the answer to this question. It has been more than ten years since I regularly engaged children with my stories. Lately, I have been thinking more about growing old and dying as discussed in my last essay, “The Uninvited Guest”. The aches and pains of my seventy-seven year old body stifle my interest to physically engage in much play these days. On the other hand, my intellectual and emotional interests have not diminished with aging. I still have a curious mind and soul. I want to better understand what it means to be a kid today and, if possible, to encounter something of that ten year old boy, Raymond Lowell Gray, who was kicking about in 1952!

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