Practicing for Death

It’s been 10 days since I arrived in Germany to companion my friend as she receives treatment for metastatic breast cancer. Originally, we were to fly her home to Florida this Sunday — three days from now. As it is, the doctor requested that she stay for another round of hyperthermia and chemo before she returns home. So, we will return home two weeks from today.

It feels both strange and right on time to have been here this long already, knowing I have such an open expanse of time remaining. As I recall from my days accompanying my mom when she was hospitalized twice over the past five years, time disappears in this setting. Although where we are is about as far as you can get from your typical hospital environment. Even still, the rhythm of our days are dictated largely by Laura’s treatment schedule, infusions, and then breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Fill any gaps with luxurious conversation together and with other inpatients and staff, a little Facebook surfing, writing, checking in at home by time delay (Germany is 7 hours ahead of Minnesota, which shifts the schedule some), strolling through the park, stopping for the occasional ice cream, an episode or two of Grace & Frankie before bed, and there’s more or less our days.

As I reflect on it here, our time sounds full. It is certainly rich with connection and life giving experiences and interactions. And yet it becomes clear to me as I write, that on some level I have expected something different. Not from this place or its people, or this adventure…but from myself.

And so I stop and breathe that in.

In making the choice to take this journey, I let go of an incredibly full schedule — most were things I wanted to do, but were easily let go of given the circumstances. And some were things that I was surprisingly grateful to release. Which makes me curious about why I might have said yes to them in the first place.

A lesson I’m mindful of and believe I’m meant to carry with me beyond this time away.

When the opportunity arose to come to Germany in the first place, I thought to myself, of course I can clear my schedule for two weeks. In theory, it was easy. In practice, it presented a challenge — surrender isn’t exactly my strong suit. But I did it gratefully, and I think fairly well. In fact, I think I was even a little proud of myself how well it came together.

But then, once the schedule here with Laura at the clinic shifted and the opportunity was presented to stay two weeks longer, I hesitated. Sure, I cleared my schedule once — but could I do it again? Surely there are things that are too important and can’t be set aside. Aren’t there?

Could I really clear two more weeks? 

Ah…another layer of surrender.

There’s something uncomfortable and unsettling in realizing how easy it is to let go, how easy it is to clear a busy schedule full of things we’re attached to, how easy it is to say yes to something that requires releasing everything else. There’s loss in it — sometimes profound loss in the surrender — walking right alongside the joy and satisfaction of choosing what we want, even if it seems at odds with other important things. Accepting and owning and being mindful of our power of choice is a practice of softness, of discernment, of presence, and of heart-following in committing to stay close to what is important and essential.

Kind of like the practice of engaging the challenges and possibilities of normal, everyday life. And of our inevitable death.

It reminds me that as we experience small losses like this every day in the choices we make, as we commit to choosing what is most important and meaningful in the moment even if it feels uncomfortable, these daily surrenders, big and small, create a playground for the ultimate surrender of end of life. If we can practice being mindful of the things we choose to fill our life with, recognizing the impermanence of what we hold tightly to, it just might make our ability to life fully — even as we move into death — a little easier.

So, I didn’t say yes right away to staying. I sat with it, wrangled with it, wrote about it, talked to my husband about it. I let the rawness and discomfort of surrender inform me about loss and grief, as well as gratitude and joy. I allowed myself to not know, creating space for my internal process until I knew. And then I allowed myself to choose from my heart, to continue clearing my schedule from a place of purpose and discernment, finding grace in saying a wholehearted yes without worry or fear, trusting that in listening and allowing, I am being guided. And that all is well.

Since then, something has eased in me. My earlier attachment to routine and time, and to how it is being filled — whether I’m “doing” enough — has shifted. I’ve begun exploring and taking long solitary walks through the village and into the next town, because it feels right. Yoga and meditation, and other things I need for my own self-care and sense of balance, have moved effortlessly into the rhythm of these days as well. I might even read a book for fun…(ha!)

I recognize that this second opportunity to practice surrendering was just what I needed to truly show up here — for me, for Laura, for our families, for this sacred time together, for this unique experience. I trust that our time will continue to unfold as it will — exactly as it has from the moment I arrived, though part of me had resisted it — free from agenda and expectation, according to the pace of this glorious Spring that surrounds us, and the renewal, aliveness, and healing nature of this place, nestled as we are into a tiny hamlet in Germany.

It is so unlikely, this place I find myself — both physically and spiritually — discovering the strength and power of my own organic presence in relationship to whatever calls. And yet here I am, in essence, practicing for death.

Overflowing with gratitude, and birdsong.

And peace.//


To learn more about Laura’s story and journey towards vibrant health beyond cancer, please visit her YouCaring site.