On November 5, my 91 year old father died from Congestive Heart Failure and Pulmonary Fibrosis after 36 hard hours struggling for breath. The first calls that he was taking a bad turn came on Sunday morning. After talking with the hospice nurse, I decided to fly out on Tuesday morning to be with him. He died Monday night. I felt guilty and more than sad to miss my usual role in vigil, but was surprised by new ways I cared for him after death. I explore these in this blog and the next, as well as the help they gave me.

There are many silent experiences around death. This blog, based on journal entries, recounts one of them: a spiritual experience just after his death. In it, my father appears during meditation and we engage. This may seem preposterous to you, but I hope you will read with an open mind, leave a comment and stay tuned for the third and final installment.

Jeanne Denney

November 5, 2012

Dad told Leici yesterday that he only had 4 more days. He said the time was near. I will fly out tomorrow a.m. Yesterday, crying in Nick’s arms, knowing he is really going now. Last night at the end of group, Iris Dement randomly comes on the Ipod from shuffle singing “After you’ve gone” (a song she wrote to her dying father). I sob and the group holds me. It’s good for everyone that we do this.

November 6, 2012 – On the airplane to PDX

Last night around 9 or 9:30 Dad died at home in his bedroom that overlooks Portland. Mary, Ken and Betty were with him. I wasn’t. Instead, I did three unusual sessions, then drove home to pack for the morning flight.

I felt Dad all day. I knew he was dying. At home around 9 p.m. I stop packing with an urgent feeling that I should focus and pray for him, then that I should call and have someone put the phone to his ear just to tell him I love him. My call comes at the moment of his last breath. Mary, crying when she picks up the phone, saying “Oh Jeanne…he just…he just. Just as you called…” Betty had told him that she loved him. Ken and Mary were in the room. I notice that I didn’t feel sad for him, he was so well honored, well attended and surrounded with love, complete. I selfishly felt disappointed for me. This wasn’t how I had pictured it. I know better than this crazy thought, but I have it anyway. I should have gone yesterday, I should have gone today. My inner picture of me as self-appointed death guardian crumbles and an ill-defined promise to help seems broken. Was it broken? I should have known. Etc.

There is the flush of exhilaration that accompanies a new death. Later I ache like a mother who misses their child’s graduation or first day of school because of business. I do what anyone in this situation does, I give opinions and suggestions by phone. I ask Mary to keep his body as still as possible for as long as possible. “The morticians can wait”, I say. “Ask them if they can embalm him after I get there”. Thankfully, no resistance to my strange requests.

That night, sleeping is different. I feel newly skinless, unprotected. New world without father or mother. Nick feels this too. Things between us are distant and difficult for weeks, but now we cry and sleep together, admittedly little. At 5:30 a.m. we leave for the airport. Yesterday, the very day that Dad died, Teddy started to take down the old maple that’s been dying in the front yard for 10 years. How apt. Dad was nothing if not a man of trees, a nurseryman. Four trees worth of debris from Hurricane Sandy lay in the yard, war fallen, broadcasting mourning. Pulling out of the driveway. Dull light. Raw world. New treeless land without skin.

“Fancy finding you here”

Settled into my airplane seat after take-off I decide to meditate, the first chance to center  I have had.

I have practiced “finding” people who are dying or in comatose states for years in hospice work, occasionally people who have died. Finding them means seeing them in my mind’s eye. I don’t know how I do this.

When I close my eyes I quickly try to find Dad.  It takes no effort. I immediately see his face without a body floating in the black void midair to the left in my visual field. I rarely have a face so aggressively near. I am startled by it. It is a younger face, puzzled and blank, staring as if seeing me for the first time, which perhaps he is. I don’t expect this or know how to engage with it. I feel uncomfortable, weirdly afraid to look in his eyes.

For a few minutes I open my physical eyes and get busy with the world around me, ipod, notebook, shoes. I may be trying to make it go away. When I close them again it is still there, hovering in a black void. I see his eyes again, looking deeper. There is something kind of stultified, clutching and afraid in them. Is this my father newly dead? I hardly know how to meet him or whether to take this experience seriously, after all I am in an airplane. Something is called for, but what? Finally I do what I would do for any hospice patient. I place myself in the picture with him, put my arms around this face, talk to it, thank it, and reassure it. He gets smaller and seems to grow a body. Suddenly we are standing together in this black void, the same size. This is all something like Alice in Wonderland.

I remembered once just after a heart surgery at 85 Dad told of waking in ICU from what sounded to me like a scarier type of Near Death Experience (NDE). “I couldn’t see light or hear sound, I called but no one answered. I thought that I had died but no one was there.” he said, tearing up. I could see him asking “Is that what death is going to be like?”. No wonder he didn’t want to talk about dying. The place I found Dad now was much like this. He seemed lost in a void. Not an evil void, just an empty, dark one as if stuck or disoriented in a tunnel he could not get through.

To say that Dad wasn’t much for the metaphysical is an understatement. He was a fiercely pragmatic Methodist. Church made my mother happy and was “a good social institution”. He served on budget committees, flirted at the coffee hour, went to the men’s breakfast’s and sang in baritone but was not quite a believer. Something in the spiritual stuff irritated him. If he had a prayer life other than the perfunctory family dinner prayer or the care he gave plants in the garden I never knew about it. He was a man of business with many friends in body, not so many in spirit. Dad’s views on the other side?: “A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush”. This void was not his terrain. So when I showed up….well, let’s just say it was possible (if you believe any of this) that I was a sight for sore eyes. He clung to me with kind of a “What took you so long?” look.

Dear reader if this seems a bit unhinged from your reality, I understand, but consider that there are many ways of seeing and knowing. Death challenges us to use new ones. I learned this way sitting with non-communicative hospice patients with closed eyes. I did not know what they were aware of or if they wanted me to be there, but searched for clues for how to engage or comfort. As I did this images arose in my visual field. I just watched them. This one sitting in a field of daisies, picking them. That one struggling hard to get up a steep hill in concrete shoes. Another standing before the ocean gazing outward. Another looking hard for something in a field of grass. They were symbolic and highly specific. I most often saw myself interacting and finding ways to help.

In sum, I’ve had enough strange experiences and confirming coincidences to respect these pictures. I interact with them in interesting ways; at the same time they have a trajectory and movement of their own. In other words I don’t create them with my mind. I am observer and participant, not creator. I learned that if I look, there is almost always a source of light, a destination, or something to turn toward. If there isn’t, there is a process being intently focused on. I am usually there to help in some way….chiseling off the concrete shoes, for example, or pointing them in a different direction. I might have a conversation, bring encouragement, give new ideas, listen. I am a companion.

Where two worlds meet

There were two immediate problems with finding Dad here. First, I wasn’t used to a father having a spiritual form. I carefully hid spirituality from my family, and suffered the angst of them not understanding this weird, black sheep part of me. Not only didn’t Dad understand my spiritual explorations, he didn’t get my profession as therapist, my research, writing or interest in death (“what is it that you do again?” “And people pay you for that?” “But what do you actually DO?” “What is this Hospice thing again?” etc). He tried. You have to give him credit. I had fantasized that by supporting his dying he would finally get it. This wasn’t what I imagined.

When I got through first minutes of discomfort, I got that he needed help, which brought about the second problem. He was disoriented. I naturally tried to turn him toward the point of light in the distance which I could see but apparently he could not. However, his eyes were so rigidly fixed on me I could not convince him to look away. I needed help. Remembering Dad was a social animal I finally said…”Dad, it is time you met my friends…” I am not hugely social in ordinary life, but in places like this it is different. I invited a troupe of spiritual benefactors to come and come they did, big beautiful, radiant beings. “Welcome to my world Dad. Let me introduce you …”

There was a wonderfully surreal and comical aspect to this vision. Dad was a party thrower into his 90’s. In life, I would have loved Dad to be at my parties (supposing I threw them) or to introduce him to impressive friends (if I had any) because my life would become visible and worthy of his interest. I would appear on his map. I was a loved part of his life but he was strangely absent in mine. I knew his friends, he didn’t know mine. Not being visible or having parents actually in my life felt normal, but was a long-suppressed sorrow. Here it was as if I was introducing him to Ronald Reagan, Bing Crosby, Betty Grable, Babe Ruth and Hank Williams all at once as friends. His shock of new understanding. My embarrassment. I saw myself negotiating his care, “Give him anything he needs and charge it to my account” (my account?! what account? I am thinking). They dressed him in a new gold robe, placed something crown-like on his head and off he went with them. He looked beautiful, relieved, excited, grateful as he started off toward the point of light on the horizon. Tired from the concentration, I took a break, stumbled over the lady next to me to get to the airplane bathroom.

A note here on what it means to see and communicate in this void space. It is not exactly like you hear words. You just receive thoughts in download. I see and watch the “me” in these pictures with detachment and curiosity as if watching TV.

I have no idea how time works in this place, but back in my seat I check back in and see him still walking away with the radiant others. This seems wrong so I jump back in to catch up with them. As we walk we chat. “Dad, your obit turned out really well.” (he had been worried about that), “We’ll have a good party for you, don’t worry.” “Remember how much love you have left behind. We are so grateful.” We walked toward the doorway growing ever larger and brighter. I made a quick proposal: “Dad, maybe we could work together more now, kind of business partners of spirit like you and Ken.” (Dad and my brother were business partners. I thought he would like this idea). At the rim of the opening: his parents, my Mom and her parents, Aunt Bernice and others peering out. Radiant. He seems amazed.

Reunion.

Our tearful parting there lasted awhile. I said that I had to go back, but we would be together and find ways to be in touch. I told him that he would probably have things to do, but when he was done to find me in my dreams. I can’t say how I knew to say these things. “We can be in touch that way or we can talk through the trees.” I seemed to be explaining things of both my life and this world to him, things even I could not understand. I could only tell that he was elated, understanding me in the dawn of new respect. I encouraged him to not be afraid of spirit, to walk into this new/old world just as he walked into a new spring season after winter. I returned then, but not before a few tears with them. How hard to return.

Then it was dark and complete behind my eyelids. Dad was gone.

Post Script

Was this wish fulfillment, Psychosis, projection, fantasy? Hallucination, delusions of grandeur, dissociation, menopausal ungluing? I can hear the voices of psychoanalysis saying that my psyche made this up to defend against guilt for not being with him at death. I can’t know. There is little confirmation for these experiences in normal awareness, but occasionally some. For example, once  I “found” a patient on a ferryboat clutching a pier so that it could not depart, this after weeks of helping her “walk up a steep hill” in a series of hospice visits. I handed her a bouquet of flowers so she could let go. Moments later she took her last breath. There are other stories like this.  In the case of Dad I had only three pieces of evidence: the story from the ICU, my tears and the fact that I felt different, happier even elated, stronger and more resolved. I felt I had helped Dad just as significantly as if I were by his bedside, maybe moreso. I lightened. I didn’t regret not being with him as much and could appreciate that my siblings had had new experiences that were right for them. They might have avoided these if I had been there.

Where do these images come from? It is hard to know. People “see” the unseen in unique ways. My job is simply to report that shamanic sight experiences like these occur. And, in this case, allowing it helped me feel I had fulfilled a holy compact, healed an old sorrow, been known, even finally celebrated somehow. I felt more myself and had less pain. Would Dad have found his way without me? Most likely (Experts report that 1-15% of NDE’s are of this type but usually resolve in time to a more typical NDE). It just might have been a lonelier, scarier trip.

As the plane landed through the morning fog I remembered that it was election day. An enduring legacy of Dad’s death is that it kept me from voting for Obama’s second term while he managed to vote against him before he died. “Very clever Dad! You won that one.” I’m chuckling. The last of our little jokes.  For now.

So we begin inventing all the new ways of finding, helping and knowing each other.

Jeanne Denney is a therapist, hospice worker and death educator in the Greater New York area. Her website is http://www.jeannedenney.com and email is jeannedenney@gmail.com.

The Kairos Network Blog was nearly dormant in 2012. The reason? Well, my own father’s decline and death in November. The entire year for me was one of endings and closure. As my father declined, my children approached the rim of a much more empty nest, my marriage began to permanently change, I went through some depression, menopause wrote its final chapters in my body: my hair grew more grey, my eyesight dwindled and I got the first hints of a double chin. It was nearly impossible to distinguish these events in lived experience. Our inner lives and processes get intertwined with our parent’s physical death. How do we make meaning within the totality of our still unfolding lives? In support of that question I share highlights from my recent journals in the next three blogs. Part 1 below. Last two to follow. Check them out too if you dare.

Part 1: Journal notes from my last visit with Dad and return home.

Part 2: My post-death meditation encounters with my father.

Part 3: An account of dressing my father’s body at the funeral home and burial.

Dedicated to my father: Hugh Robert Denney

by Jeanne Denney

October 15

Dad is sleepy and non-communicative most of the day. In another world. Not so interested in things or news. Meanwhile I have a day of sadness and depression, weeping in contrived trips to the bathrooms or bedroom. From here my life looks small, failed and illogical. I become aware of the difficulty of it and how I look to them. We manage to go to Apple tasting for an hour with the wheelchair (this is an event at the family retail nursery). I breathe with effort trying not to remember home.

Later I shop and cook dinner for Dad and Betty. I simply enjoy them with clear knowledge that it is ending. Dad comes to the fully set dinner table to eat his soup. He moves with greater difficulty than my last visit and ceremonially slow in his jeans with the pressed crease. He focuses hard to get the noodles in his mouth so that he can barely listen to the talk, while Betty with round shoulders politely asks questions about work and children. Folded napkins, butter and salt. Everything just as it should be. The touching and implicit pride in this. It is if we are laboring not to break impossibly thin porcelain tea cups. While we eat my feelings range wildly: I can’t possibly live this way and I wish I could live this way. I am ashamed of my crazy, chaotic life and I am proud of it. I hate New York and the East, and I can’t wait to get back to it. Two things always true. Which means, as usual, that my heart is both open and closed. That I am afraid to feel all that is here to be felt. How much I want it to stay just as it is in this moment.

October 16

Dad sleeps all morning. He asks no questions until tonight when he just asks: “Things going ok for you?“ I say “Well enough”. Unlike any other visit of my life, that is all he asks and all I say. We collude to avoid the deeper questions. Don’t ask, don’t tell. What he doesn’t want to know and I don’t want to say?: That I am suffering with depression and lost in life. My marriage is coming to an ill-defined ending and no one can see the future. That he is dying.

Dad in his chair gazes behind me at the window. “What are you thinking Dad?” “Nothing”, he says like a zen sage, “Absolutely nothing”. What a relief.

October 17, 2012

Much progress today. We work on estate stuff. I arrange for a bath aide to help with dressing and showers. Cooking, shopping, lists of things like insurance policies, the lifeline replacement. Later respite in my father’s garden after the storm and wind. Small stems broken on the large heads of dahlias full of water, sunken to the ground. The candidates debate as I make bouquets out of dahlias and roses. Then the blaring Fox news spin. Dad for the first time is disinterested. The President looks old, not like someone who is going to confidently win, like someone just out of a foxhole. Like Lincoln in the middle of the civil war, heart heavy. Heartbroken. The sorrow of being human swallows me as I arrange the wet, broken flowers. I put them everywhere, on tables, counters, on either side of the TV.

Dad dozes next to me. He still gets up for the bathroom but has been having accidents on his way for several days. We aren’t sure when to challenge his independence. Later I ask him again what he is thinking as he gazes out the window again. “Oh?….(long pause) Life is good.” He says. “Life is very good.”

October 18, 2012

On plane at the end of another hard day. Long. Today the men of businesscame: the accountant and the lawyer, my brother. We cornered him in his recliner. He is declining faster now and the checks needed to be written. The obvious and unspoken reason is that he is dying. It is time. He was confused at times. He understood, but it took time. He knew he wanted to do this some day but kept forgetting. He wrote them for the wrong amount at first. His hand trembled. He was so proud of his money. He struggled to keep the pen in his hand. But in the end just said graciously “It is no problem. I don’t need it.” As he let it go he lightened. We took our checks and said thanks. It felt like an accomplishment, but somehow a weird, not so proud one.

Betty drives me to the airport for the red eye east. Dad gets up from his chair to hug me goodbye. The goodbye is poignant but not remarkable. It is just like it always is. I don’t think “Oh…the last goodbye.” I just think: “This is the father who has always loved me, who has always hugged me and told me this”. This love, this staple of my life…I notice that I don’t think it is going anywhere.

October 19
It was wonderful to be met by Nick at the airport. I am startled seeing him standing outside of security in a suit at 5:30 a.m., touched that he parked the car. We tear seeing each other like long separated siblings or neighbors after a hurricane, the eruption of gratitude can’t be explained. What do I do with this old and real love? Yet it has to change, is changing, is partly over. He sometimes blames himself as if the workaholism that has plagued our union could have been different. We talk and joke all the way to his office, sharing war stories before I drop him off and he disappears into the revolving doors of the office building on Park Avenue.

October 20
Back from Portland I find myself at home in a garden so unlike my father’s. Mine in midlife ironically an essay on failures, his garden at 91 a burgeoning collection of abundance, color and grace. Largeness and bounty. Roses still overwhelm his front walks reaching up to the eaves of the house to bloom their last. Large tea roses mainly in pinks, oranges, whites and yellows. It reminds me of my mother’s house after she died which had so much residual order that it stayed in place for years after. My father’s gardens astound me with his love and perfection, administered through high quality soil, chemicals and the old horticulturist’s expertise with roots honed over 80 years of gardening. Wherever he lived there were gardens, his places of prayer and respite. Him coming in from the garden whistling or singing with armloads of broccoli, kohlrabi or flowers saying “Look Mother, here. For you.” She greeted them with delight or dismay. Late in life more dismay, more mess in her perfect house. She would have to can, freeze, arrange or clean up after them.

This season Dad directed the gardener from his command post at the recliner, pointing with his cane and giving orders in bad Spanish. In the front of his house in October were still rows of copious peppers, red and green. Huge red and orange begonias burgeoning out of their planter boxes. The things he throws in the compost as dead would look good in my garden. In my yard: things hanging by a thread.

Writing this evokes deep sorrow. My failures as a caregiver swarm like a pestilence of flies. What was not received in the family: that is where I staked my flag. I therefore suffered. And suffer we have this summer and fall. The marriage cannot go forward, it can’t seem to end and it cannot return. We are crawling to the finish line of parenting bloodied and raw as war buddies. You will not be reminded of my parent’s well tended house and gardens here. We are in pestilence and drought of spirit.

As if to help make this completely clear, the deer ate every flower that bloomed this year. Black mildews and white mildews erupted variously. There are gangly arms of petunia without flowers and overgrown butterfly bushes, a garden full of weeds, beds full of weeds, a long row of hostas mowed to nubs by deer, dry vertical stalks everywhere, signs of our undoing. I read them all as signposts of the failure to thrive. When I returned home from my last trip to Portland there was an invasion of every kind of fruit flies, black flies, all circling themselves the kitchen. Garbage overflowing. Cats fighting, stressed and peeing everywhere including the bathtubs sensing Paradise lost. This cacophony sets an alarm of anxiety through my system. It is still muffled, rhythmically moaning as if under a pile of laundry waiting to be discovered. It says “Things are not well”.

I remember this poem by Machado that Bly talks about all the time…

The wind, one brilliant day, called
to my soul with an odor of jasmine.

“In return for the odor of my jasmine,
I’d like all the odor of your roses.”

“I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead.”

“Well then, I’ll take the withered petals
and the yellow leaves and the waters of the fountain.”

The wind left. And I wept. And I said
“What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you ?”

______________

Where did my embarrassing disarray or my parent’s intense order come from? Theirs wasn’t healthy, but it was something. My life isn’t healthy either, just 5/8″ closer to a weird truth of being human. Still… who wants to live here? My marriage is failing, or…maybe it isn’t. Maybe it is blossoming into its own beautiful death, that death a process full of embarrassment and riches.

Dad has numerous accidents in the bathroom a day now and forgets what everything you just told him five times. Still, he looks more peaceful than he ever has. He is no longer cursing Obama or interested in the election. He is not attached to his money or the judgments of people he had all his life. He is blithe and grateful. He takes in the sun saying “It is so nice to have you here.” He reaches for my hand. How the mess and the release from all that we don’t need any more go together. Uncoupling things is a wild metamorphosis bringing you to the root of being, the place of pens and hives and bees. The place of honey and ink.

Dear father fading. You have taken your turn into the land of the white birds, your turn toward Canaan. He is in a boat now heading to sea relatively happy. If he is sad, he is not expressing it. Who would have thought this liberation, coming as it does with its dropped spoons and soiled clothes, would be so complete? Yesterday he was reading grocery store fliers. A month ago he would have been too proud, now he isn’t. Which opens the door to me owning my gardens, overgrown, gangly, dry, weedstricken, and poor. Poor gardens still hold something dying but real. Something waking. Something bringing its essence forward to fail in exuberance but to succeed in heart, in humble trying.

Here in this sunlight of failure I put my flag, hoping one day for tall, tall roses and the delights of wealth and the deeper order that falls from the skies and rises from the earth naturally.

Jeanne Denney is a therapist, hospice worker and death educator in the Greater New York area. Her website is http://www.jeannedenney.com and email is jeannedenney@gmail.com.

If you are a friend of Jeanne, don’t worry, the depression described here passed. It is presented as just part of the elaborate dance of death.