THE PATH OF LIFE…understanding it

It is six years since the completion of my memoir: GRANDPA JUNG’S LESSONS, for a slow reader. I am still a slow reader, but life continues to balance this negative by giving me creative ideas into my eightieth year! I give thanks for this time to continue to explore the path of life; I will make use of this time to reflect and try to share my understanding of the common life we share together.

There have been two major events along my path of life in these past six years. First, my wife, Nancy Wicklund Gray, was diagnosed to have esophageal cancer three plus years ago. She lived just over a year with the disease. During the last month of her life I cared for her in our home on Clemens Road in Doylestown. She died on September 2, 2019 in her study with her art on the walls, books on the shelves and desk where she did her writing. The other major event on my path of life is that I was married to Susan Scott on October 16 of 2021! Now Susan works in the same study of our home on Clemens Road…and she has her own art, books and desk to do her writing! So again I will suggest that life has balanced the loss of a wife I deeply loved by giving me a new mate to share my last years on the path of life.

Hold up there old man! You seem to have stumbled on to an important understanding about the path of life. Our lives are always filled with both positive and negative events; the gift is to find a way to balance the negative and positive in it. I recognize that this balance of negative and positive is not always possible–some live and die in times of great conflict such as war. Nevertheless, when we are given time after a negative event in our lives, there is always a way to return, to shift back to the positive path of life if we are open to change.

This positive change is not always easy to find after a time of negative experiences. This was true for me when my first marriage, that created my two children, ended in divorce. There was a period of three to four years when I lived alone and struggled financially. This type of experience is shared in one of my stories called, Monkeyshines and Miracles. The story is found in my memoir both in written form and the video recording of a live performance. This story depicts the pain that a man feels when his wife dies–my wife did not die, but for me, it felt like a death when the marriage ended.

Recently I watched the video of this story with Susan and I felt the tears welling up in me. So many of the feelings shared in the story came to actually be when Nancy died. I will suggest now that the negative experience of my divorce turned out to be a positive support for facing the death of Nancy later in my life. This brings to front and center the subject of “death” in our lives: Can we balance the experience, the energy, of death in our lives?  Let’s talk first about death as it relates to loved ones in our lives; and then I will offer observations about my own death.

Before I share these experiences of death, I want to speak briefly about the concept of “presence” in our lives. For me, presence is a gift from the eternal to live both the positive and negative in our lives and find a balance that helps us to move forward on the path of life. Sometimes this balance, this presence, is consciously pursued, but often we pursue it unconsciously and it is only later that we reflect back and see the decisions made to move forward on the path of life.

Let me share my gift of presence in dealing with the grief of losing my wife, Nancy. Because Nancy was under hospice home care when she died, I was invited to join a group of grieving spouses run by the hospice organization that supported me in caring for Nancy. I attended only two meetings of this therapy group. I could not find solace in listening to the negative experience of others living with grief. I had to find my own way of being present to my grief over her death.

When I went through Nancy’s work files at that time, I found she had gathered a series of journals kept from the age of ten until near the time when she died. They were nicely collected together for me to find. I imagined these journals as a positive stimulus created by Nancy to help her husband deal with his grief. Immediately I started to think about a remembrance that would be either a documentary film or a book.  After considering the sources provide for me, I decided that the book was a better creative project than a film.

The book, THE MUSIC OF LIFE, A Remembrance of Nancy Wicklund Gray, took five months to create. During this time I focused most of my energy on this creative process. The book is only fifty-one pages and it is illustrated with many visuals from Nancy’s time of this earth. For me, the creator, there were many times of tears shed in the process, but the book was my form of positive grieving…my best way to be present to the pain of loss. I will share just a bit of the writing:

Beginning:

The creative idea for this remembrance grew out of a dream Ray had shortly after Nancy’s death. In the dream he found himself listening to a musical performance with Nancy. Afterwards, she said to him, “Turn this music into a story.” When Ray woke up, he immediately thought of either a documentary film or a written remembrance–with the title: THE MUSIC OF LIFE. The resources for this creative work were mostly journals and photos, not video, so the written remembrance was created.

Ending:

“This remembrance is part of a husband’s grieving process for the loss of his mate in life. It has served this purpose well. I have learned many things about my Nancy that either I did not know or did not take the time to think about when we were sharing our lives.

I have tried to tell Nancy’s story as honestly as I can. For me it is the story of a strong, clear thinking woman who was capable of great love. She faced much adversity in her life, but this adversity did not deter her passion to love and to be loved in the time she was given on this earth. She has taught me much about the gift of love–how to love and be loved.

 I will close this by sharing one of the last conscious communications between the two of us. Nancy said: “I want you to be happy.” I understand that to mean that she wants me to go on with my life and not live in a perpetual state of grief and loss. She wants me to explore new relationships and be open to finding a new mate; or find happiness in being alone through my last years of life. I say a prayer of thanks for the opportunity to share a part of my time on this earth with this beautiful and wise woman“

This remembrance is available on Amazon:

Through my eighty years of life I have had one other intimate experience of a loved one’s death. This experience came about because of a family decision to have my mother, Ruby Bessie Fink Gray live to the end of life with Nancy and myself. The end of this experience, Ruby’s death, is described in my journal and shared in my memoir:

October 31, 2011 (Halloween)

            Ruby died this evening.

The day started with a visit to the funeral home that now holds her remains. I went to make the arrangements for her death, but I had no idea that they would be needed on this day. After the funeral home, I went to the bank to look for an insurance policy that I thought might be in our safe deposit box. While I was rummaging through savings bonds, jewelry, wills and old coins I had a call from Neshaminy Manor where Ruby lived. It was the afternoon shift nurse. He wanted to know if I had been updated on Ruby’s condition. I said, “Yes, I talked with the hospice nurse this morning. I will come tomorrow to visit with Ruby.” He suggested: “You might want to consider coming today.” It was then about four in the afternoon. I decided to go home and eat before I went to visit with her, thinking that it might be my only chance to get a meal. I went home and ate leftover wonton soup and a scrap of good sourdough bread with butter. On the drive to the nursing home I put on a CD, a Bach cello suite, sensing I needed to collect myself for my work ahead.

When I arrived on the floor where Ruby lived, I looked up Ralph, the nurse who had called me. He said he was concerned because Ruby was under hospice care, but there were no orders to keep her at Neshaminy Manor. A nurse could decide that she needed more care than they could provide and therefore call for an ambulance. I said that I did not want her taken to the hospital. He said that was fine, but if I went home and another nurse came on duty, that nurse might decide to send her. I said I would call hospice to make sure that my wishes were followed.

I put in a call to Donna, the hospice nurse. Meanwhile, a supervising nurse came to the room and checked Ruby. She said she was going to order morphine to slow Ruby’s breathing, which by this time was like a runner’s after a ten mile-run. I wondered at her ninety-seven year old heart. How long could it work so hard? The morphine was given and I noticed a slight relaxing of her breathing. Sitting beside her, I started to get sleepy myself. I was looking at the family pictures on the wall. I looked at a young and beautiful Ruby in one picture. I guessed that it was a picture from her brother Raymond’s wedding.

By this time it was nearly five-thirty. I started to think about my brother, Cecil, who was scheduled to leave the next day for a family vacation in Hawaii. Should I call and warn him that Mother might be dying? I decided that I would; I could let him decide if he wanted to change his plans before getting on the plane to the islands. When I finally talked with Cecil, he said he would think about changing his plans overnight and call me in the morning. We left it there and I went back to Ruby.

When I looked at her in bed, she seemed a little more settled. The hospice nurse returned my call and confirmed Ralph’s observation. There was no order to keep Ruby at the nursing home; the family was expected to make the decision. This was the very thing I hoped hospice would help me to do, to allow Ruby to die without medical intervention. I decided I would stay there as long as I could–overnight if necessary. I asked Ralph if it was all right for me to sleep in the chair. He said that it was no problem.

It was now close to seven in the evening. One of the aides came in to check on Ruby, to see if she needed her diaper changed. We talked about turning Ruby on her side to help her breathe easier. While the aide worked to make Ruby more comfortable, I went out to call my sister, Gloria. We talked briefly. I suggested that, if she wanted to see her mother alive, she might want to come to Philadelphia. We agreed to talk again in the morning. I still did not suspect that Ruby’s end was so near.

I went back to the room. The aide was gone. Ruby was propped up higher in the bed. Her eyes were open. Her breathing was quieter. I thought she was looking at me. I started to talk, saying that I was her son, Ray, come to visit her. There was no expression on her face. I started to watch her chest to see if she was breathing. For the first time I thought she might be dying. No, she was still breathing; each breath was shallow and taken after a long interval. I started to sing to her. I do not know what I sang, but most likely they were hymns. After singing for a while, I started to talk to her. I was direct. I encouraged her to go, to leave this life–it was almost like a chant. I sang out, “Go, go, it is all right to go; go, go, it is all right to leave this world.”           

Now I knew she was going. She was dying. At one point I thought she was dead, and then there came another breath, and another. I do not know how long this went on. I stroked her head. I sang to her. I encouraged her to go, to find her way. Finally, I was fairly certain she was gone. I put my hand on her chest to see if I could feel a heartbeat. I thought about a story I was working on. In the story a man, in his human vanity, tries to bring another man back to life by breathing into his mouth. I thought about breathing into Ruby’s mouth to bring her back to life.  I did once try to resuscitate a young man who was injured and dying. I did not try it with Ruby. It was her time to leave this world. I went back to encouraging her to find her way to the next world. I sang more hymns. I said several prayers for her release; then I witnessed the last function of her body. As she expired, a tear was formed in her right eye. We both shed a tear as we said our silent goodbye.

At that moment, the phone rang and it was my wife, Nancy; I told her that Ruby had died. She said she was coming to be with me. I said that was fine and hung up. I sang and prayed for a while longer, and then I went out to find a nurse to declare Ruby officially dead. When I approached one and told her that I thought that my mother was dead, she looked shocked. She called for Ralph and they both came into the room with me. The female nurse used her stethoscope to listen for Ruby’s heartbeat, and then shook her head to agree with my assessment that Ruby was indeed dead.

When the nurses left the room, I continued to sing for some time, until the supervising nurse for the evening shift came into the room. She smiled and told me that I was so fortunate to be here when Ruby died, that most people deal with death without experiencing it. She shared that her cat had died today and that she was so happy to be there when it did. I agreed that I was happy to be part of Ruby’s end. I said, “She helped me to come into this world and I was here to help her to leave this world.” We both cried.

The floor nurse came back into the room and asked about Ruby’s clothes. I said, “Give them to whoever needs them.” She suggested that I call the funeral home to come for the body. I called and a woman answered the telephone; she said the funeral director would call me back. For a while I was again alone with Ruby until Nancy came into the room. We hugged and talked. The funeral director called and said that he would be there within half an hour. It was time for our last goodbye. Nancy and I both kissed Ruby one last time and left the hospital.

We drove home silently. I had a big piece of apple cake with vanilla ice cream, followed by two glasses of Irish Mist. I tried to go to bed at about ten-thirty, but I could not sleep. I have been writing for an hour and a half.  Maybe I can sleep now.”

In one way my experience of Ruby’s death was more intimate than my experience of Nancy’s death. I feel that Nancy chose to die when I was not in the room with her. She literally died when I went out to the kitchen to fix a meal for myself. As the above description shares I was there to see Ruby’s last breath of air; nevertheless both experiences were intimately connected with the death of a loved one…and in both experiences I felt very honored to accompany a loved one to threshold of death.

So yes, I have been present for an intimate experience of death– I will share that I found both experiences very positive–what many might find a negative experience in life, I found for myself, a balance, a positive that grows out of being willing to be present for a difficult time in life. Many talk about dealing with death as a battle–“she fought bravely her battle against cancer”. You might have said that about Nancy, but she did not choose those words for her experience. It was simply a negative in life that she had to deal with, to be present for the experience and find the positive where you can in it. After Nancy’s death I have felt her presence several times in my life.

This brings me to a couple of thoughts about my own death: How will I be present for this last act of a long life? First, I will say I don’t agree with a storytelling friend who said: “Just keep on keeping on!” She suggested that you continue to live your life as always and ignore that your time on this earth is nearing its end. I want to think about my end and prepare myself to be as present to the event as I have tried to be in living my life.

You could argue that Raymond talks out of both sides of his mouth when it comes to presence about the subject of death. It was about three months after Nancy’s death that I received a sympathy letter from Susan Carol Scott. She shared that we had met at one of my storytelling performances and talked about the fact that were are both graduates of Princeton Theological Seminary. Like me, her mate had died in the past year–so we were both foot-loose and fancy free! At that time I was working on the remembrance of Nancy: and as I have shared here, Nancy said to me just before she died: “I want you to be happy.”

 I wrote in the remembrance: “I understand that to mean that she wants me to go on with my life and not live in a perpetual state of grief and loss. She wants me to explore new relationships and be open to finding a new mate or happiness in being alone through my last years of life.

I will share that I did think about living alone for the rest of my life–and I could have managed it–but I soon decided that I missed having a mate sleeping beside me in bed at 68 Clemens Road! It was soon after I published Nancy’s remembrance that Susan and I agreed with one of Nancy’s boyfriends who said: “I think our bodies like each other!” I had found that quote in one of Nancy journals and published it in her remembrance. So in some sense I agree with my storytelling friend who suggested that “you just keep on keepin’ on” in your life: I also think at the age of eighty you cannot ignore the closeness of death and I want to think about being present in the time I have left on this earth and how I will be present for my end of life.

It was in the spring 2020 that I created a story– A Conversation with Death. I shared the story with Susan and we talked about it. Susan has worked as a hospice chaplain, so she is not uncomfortable talking about the subject of death. She even made some comments that helped me to refine the story and finally she agreed to help me to create a video recording of my telling the story. I will share this little story and our recording of me telling it–Susan was the camera person!

A CONVERSATION WITH DEATH

I often talk to myself, Raymond Lowell Gray—don’t we all to a more or lesser degree? I may be a little different in that I earned a modest living as an oral storyteller; that involved creating characters and inhabiting them to share a story.

Most recently I’ve been imagining the character–Death. I am interested in the subject of death because I will soon be seventy-nine years old. When I read the morning paper and come to the obituary page, I see a lot of names of people younger than me. The immediacy of death then became particular real last summer when I cared for my wife, Nancy, as she faced death and died. Since her death, I’ve been imagining a conversation with Death that explores the positive in this end of life process.

If you will, come with me to the home where Raymond Lowell Gray lives alone; it is a cool summer night. We find Raymond sitting on the couch in front of the big picture window in his living room. Outside a lite mist partially obscures the branches of a magnolia tree–creating visons of the real and imagined for Raymond to contemplate.

Raymond closes his eyes to encourage his creative process. For a period of time he lingers between the states of sleep and wakefulness, conscious and unconscious, like the misty world outside his living room window.

It is a sense of presence that encourages Raymond to open his eyes again. Slowly he turns– though not hard and fast of flesh and sinew, he sees a night visitor sitting next to him on the couch. This visitor is not devoid of humanity–indeed he is dressed in jeans and flannel shirt much like Raymond often wears. As he turns to face Raymond, there is warmth in his wrinkled smile.

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 Bergmann movie, you know hooded, carrying a scythe, full of endings, not beginnings….what should I call you?”

Death stands up, his face toward the darkened window, “I would like to be called, Teacher, maybe even, Friend.”

Now Raymond stands up next to Death and they both stare out the window for a quiet time. Then Raymond responds: “Since childhood I think I have unconsciously wanted to think of death as a positive. I mean kinda like a kick in the butt to remind me that life is not eternal. We should have a purpose, things we want to do in life. So, I guess in a way I have…unconsciously…thought of you as my teacher.”

“And have you found that purpose?” inquires Death.

Raymond Lowell does not answer immediately. He stands with his new friend and teacher–like two travelers on the bow of ship at sea–they both stare into the misty night outside the big window. Finally 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, but I have found purpose in my creative work.”

“Your world of story”, says Death.

“Yes”, says Raymond, “and in old age, I have developed a fascination for spiritual stories. The Greek write, Nikos Kazantzakis, put this way: “God made us as grubs, by our effort we become butterflies.”

“Ah, God”–Death sighs–“the bane of my existence. The source of all positive and I am left to shepherd the poor soul who face the negative in life. So tell me Raymond Lowell Gray, how have you found in old age a purpose, a way to turn into a butterfly?”

Now it is Raymond’s turn to sigh…”I think it has something to do with the balance of opposites, the god positives and the death negatives maybe…but I am old and my time to die is coming near. I fear the loss of control, control of my life! Every night I close the blinds of this window, I lock the doors. I try to control my life, but I am isolated, alone and …and I can’t imagine a world without me, me, me…I’m exaggerating a bit to make my point.”

Death interrupts, “Yes, this human ‘me’ thing is a point to make, but if we think of your idea of opposites: then the opposite of ‘me’ is ‘you’ and I suggest that the balance between them is ‘love’. Raymond I think you, Old Man, need to find someone to love…love listens to all and endures all!”

These last words from Death seem to soften and float away. Outside the mist has disappeared and a full moon now illuminates the shape of the magnolia tree. Raymond senses a moment of clear-light understanding and turns to thank Death for sharing this time with him…but his teacher and friend has disappeared like the mist on the night air.

Dropbox Link to Recording: https://www.dropbox.com/s/aymzjbghvddsfs1/Death5.mp4?dl=0

So what do I have to say about my own death?

First, I do not have any understandings that come from theology or philosophy about the experience of death. The only thoughts I have to share come from living with death, not experiencing it. As I have shared here, my thoughts and experiences of death have all found a way to balance the negative with a positive response by doing my best to be present for the life experience. As for my own death, I do fear the unknown about it. The best I can do is to be open to being present, being like the new born babe I was eighty years ago when I came into this world!

This presents a question about being: Are we more than the physical body that came out of our mother’s body? Here the intuitive, creative part of me–I will call it the “Self”–declares its existence separate from the body. I think and feel that I know this Self through the creative experiences I have been given in my life. It is not something that I read about in a book, it is part of my life experience discovered in the creative life I have lived. So yes, I believe that I am more than the physical body that came out of my mother’s body…and my Self will live on after my physical body turns to dust.

Like the creative life that I have lived, I do not expect to control my experience of death. I simply have to be open to the experience–to be present– and do the best I can to imagine how it will happen. Here I will use another metaphor to describe the experience. I have often imagined my creative works as the seeds of a plant that are scattered on the wind and land where they will. I do try to spread them, but I do not control where they take hold and come to life again in a new human body. So something of my Self will live on in new life and add to the growth of a new Self…no longer my Self, nevertheless supported by my creative energy!

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