It has been over three months since my last blog; during this time my life has largely been focused on discernment about a new relationship with Susan Scott. Because of the pandemic related to the Corona-virus we have been limited in the activities we can share together. This week we were supposed to be in North Carolina for a workshop related to Susan’s book, “Still Praying, After All These Years”. Afterwards we had planned to spend a week on the Outer Banks for a vacation. Like much in our lives, these plans have been put on hold until a time when groups of people can gather safely.
Our time has not been wasted. Over the past seven months we have enjoyed many insightful conversations and for the past month we have worked on the video telling of a story: “A Conversation with Death”. The stimulus for this story grows out of my care for my wife Nancy during the last year of her life. It also reflects on my time of mourning and the somewhat serendipitous way that Susan and I met. There actually are three version of the story created over an eight month period, but they all explore the positive results of a conversation with Death and looking past the loss of a deeply loved partner in life.
This was the first time that Susan and I have worked together on a creative project. We filmed the story multiple times using different sets; then we shot accents to help amplify the telling past the simple recording of the storyteller performing. It was Susan’s first experience of the technical side of creating a video. She provided a second set of eyes to help me evaluate the presentation. And I should not fail to mention that she was the connection to a “Death Cafe” in Phoenix, Arizona where the work will be shown in public this summer!
The path of life is continuously changing and our prescience about its direction helps us to follow it. We never get it right; there is always a need for grace and forgiveness of our mistakes along the way. One of the ways I have found to do discernment about the process is to create a story out of my experiences along the path of life. When Nancy was diagnosed with stage four, esophageal cancer we both felt the need to create a positive project to balance the negative coming with this illness. We decided to involve a group of neighborhood children in a project to illustrate one of my stories for children–this happened over the last year of Nancy’s life and was published just before she died.
The same time that we were working on the book project, I started writing a series of stories about a conversation with Death. For me–not the one dealing with the end of my life–death was an imposition, stirring up questions that I had not considered to that point in my life. I imagine Death as a character in a story, one that I could confront about the new direction in my path of life. This One– who lurks about the shadows of my life–I wanted to confront and engage in conversation!
The first conversation with Death story, written five months before Nancy’s death, dealt mostly with my own fear of dying–imagining a world without me, me, me! The third story, the one that I will share now, introduces the idea of a new direction on my path of life. This story was written six months after Nancy’s death. My suggestion is that our stories can help us to see the way forward after a painful loss in our lives.
I will offer a word of caution in sharing this story: it is mean to be shared in spoken form, not on the page, so imagine it as a spoken story.
A CONVERSATION WITH DEATH
Hello, my name is Raymond Lowell Gray and I am seventy-eight years old. For the past few years I’ve been thinking, more and more, about the subject of death. It started one day when I read the obituaries in the newspaper and discovered that a whole lot of people, younger than me, were dead!
For some time I continued to follow the advice of a fellow storyteller who says about death in a story: “Just keep on, keepin’ on–work, exercise, keep your body in shape, travel, enjoy life and don’t think about death”. This attitude about death changed for me two years ago when my wife, Nancy, was diagnosed with stage-four, esophageal cancer and she died last September. Since then, death has been on my mind….but what does it mean for me? I’ve decided to confront my growing fear of death by imagining a conversation with a character called Death. I’ve imagined sitting in my living room by the big picture window that looks out to a Magnolia tree in the backyard. I’ve imagined inviting Death to come sit on the couch in front of the widow with me. I’ve imagined a conversation with the unconscious about this subject of death on a dark night.
Come, let’s join Raymond Lowell as he imagines such a conversation with Death. The boundaries between the conscious and unconscious, like the dark shadows of the night meld together and after a time of meditation, Raymond opens his eyes and he sees a figure beside him on the couch. Though not hard and fast of flesh and sinew, the visitor is not devoid of humanity. Indeed he looks much like Raymond: gray hair, dressed in blue jeans and sport shirt that fits tight around his belly. Slowly he turns to face Raymond; there is warmth to his wrinkled smile that Raymond finds welcoming.
The visitor speaks softly, “Thank you for inviting me into your home this night.”
“I, I, I don’t know what to say”, responds Raymond. “I mean, I imagined something else….like in a Bergman movie, hooded, carrying a scythe, you know full of endings, not beginnings….I can’t think how to begin. What should I call you?”
Death stands up, his face toward the darkened window and says, “I would like to be called teacher; maybe even, friend.”
Now Raymond stands up and looks out the window as he gathers himself to converse with Death. “Now that you say that, I think unconsciously I have thought of death as a kick in the pants to remind me that life is not forever. You need a purpose for life, things you want to do before you die. So I guess, in one way, I do think of you as my teacher.”
“And have you found that purpose?” inquires Death.
Again, without assurance, Raymond responds, “Yes, I think I have. I mean I have not found great material success in life, no fame or wealth, but I have found purpose in my creative work.”
“Your world of story”, says Death.
“Yes, my creative work has been a positive in my life, a balance to the negatives in my life….but I’m growing old and I fear the loss of control in my life….the negatives seem to outweigh the positives: my physical body doesn’t work like it used to, there is the threat of dementia, and being alone without a partner is big also…but maybe most, I find it difficult to imagine a world without me, me, me! I’m exaggerating a bit to make my point.”
With a meaningful nod of head, Death responds, “Yes, me has its place in your human psyche; but the opposite of me is you… and the balance between them is love…I think it says somewhere that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all thing and endures all things. I know Raymond, you have had a great loss in your life, but a new love can help balance that loss…perhaps you may even find a new partner to share a new love with you.”
Outside the big window Raymond now sees a full moon illuminating the shape of the Magnolia tree. Raymond turns to thank Death for sharing these thoughts with him…..but his teacher is gone.
So ends this lesson for one human soul who seeks to balance the conscious and the unconscious, the dark and the light, the human and the divine in us all.
Our path in life is full of twists and turns, the good and bad that presents at every new vista and it is our task to find the balance of opposites as we move forward. The loss of Nancy in my life has been balanced by discovering a potential new partner in Susan. I say potential because we have agreed that we will give ourselves time to discern if we both want to share the same path in life….more about this at a later date.