I returned from my first Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course in Santa Cruz just a week ago. I loved it. The WFR is an 80 hour course that prepares people to assess and treat folks who are injured or ill and located more than an hour from advanced medical care. I expected the course to be mind-numbing, as past CPR/FA trainings and their rote learning style had darkly nudged me to gnaw my arm off and run heedlessly away without even cleaning the wound or applying an appropriate bandage. But this course was amazing and comes highly recommended by many wonderful folks. Here’s my plug: I think you should take it (yeah you bud).
Home now, I notice the little stories told by what I left behind; watering the air plants before leaving and leaving the watering can on the floor, the sheets still crumpled from taking the blanket my mother crocheted off the bed to have with me in Santa Cruz, the random boxes with broken blender parts and gnarled wire that were displaced from my car at 5:30 am on the day this latest adventure began.
It’s amazing how much this kind of knowledge and skill changes the way I am in the world. I notice how differently I respond to information about the human body. Somebody’s talking about pain in their left side, someone is talking about lung cancer. Two men are suffering from testosterone poisoning and picking a fight with each other. I notice the broken glass on the ground, the metal pole one would hit his head on if punched from one side, I consider the MOI (mechanism of injury), and prepare myself for makeshift BSI (body substance isolation). Every time someone complains of something I begin detective work in my mind.
So when Julie died on Friday evening, through my grief and confusion I found myself seeking to understand what exactly had gone wrong in her body.
Julie had had a heart attack on Monday night. I heard about it from my mom and assumed that because she was in surgery, in a hospital, that she would recover and I would hear about her progress soon. But after the surgery she was still in a coma. They ran tests on her brain only to find no neurological activity. Brain death…
The attack had come in the night and who knows for how long before her partner realized it and began to do CPR. I thought of how healthy her body had been, and how unfair it felt that she was gone so quickly. Yet as I listened to the explanation I found myself thinking of ToSTOP (toxins, sugar, temperature, oxygen, and pressure, is the list of causes for decline or cessation of brain function). The lack of oxygen to her brain had gone on for too long. It almost had nothing to do with her body or her health. Had the attack been caught quickly enough she might have survived, but the math for what the brain needs is pretty hard and fast and without oxygen the brain dies. Period. There was nothing strange about this, just the beautiful functioning of a body.
There was something both stark and alarming about these thoughts, and also comforting. Though my heart feels confused about how this could happen, my mind understands perfectly. We don’t have guarantees- and that’s not a bad thing, it’s not anything, it just is. The song “All the way” by MaMuse comes to mind:
“It’s just the way that it is
Nothin’ more, nothin’ less
All these stories, tears, and laughter
No more happy ever after all
What you get is what you make of it
In the end a new beginning
One for life,
A life worth living”
What makes me so sad is how hard this is going to be for my grandparents who not only loved her like a daughter, but depended on her as a neighbor and dear… dear… friend. Relationships like that can’t be replaced. Their loss blows a hole in your universe, and though we move on, love others, and live beautiful lives- some holes are never filled. I worry that this loss at their age will not be as easy for them to recover from… heart break.
And again I think of the heart muscle, the tissue death, her otherwise incredibly healthy body wanting to live, and her brain crying out for oxygen in quiet late night hours while she and her partner slept so near to each other.
On Saturday night I sit in front of a fire all night, trying to keep my eyes open, and trying to keep my back straight. We’re here to pray about family and about choosing to make spirit family relationships with the people who support us in our lives. In the perfectly choreographed chaos of this universe I had planned to attend this tipi gathering six months ago not knowing that it was being held for these specific prayers about family, life and death and of course not knowing that a dear friend, a spirit mom or aunt to me, would pass on the night before. So I sat in front of that fire wondering if she knew how brilliant she was, if she knew how important she was to us, if she knew that she was a spirit relation for us. Did she know how much a part of our family, how much a part of our lives, she was? I didn’t even know she was a member of my family until she was gone. But Julie Elliott was an unfailing support and source of love to my grandparents, my parents, and to me in my life too. As I sit through the evening I keep hearing her laugh and starting to cry, and then the tears dry up and I watch the sparks fly into the dark.
In bursts bright and fluid, universes of sparks float up…Some fly straight up, higher than all the rest, others extinguish just a few inches from the flames- some pattern is borne out, but as I sit watching them I realize I’ll never know how to predict which ones will hit the top of the tipi poles, and which ones will flash out quickly. So it is. These communities of sparks, these generations of light, these soul families. The orange flecks swirl softly and magically.
I keep hearing the lines of this song and feeling comforted by the questions “What star am I circling? What’s circling mean? Am I ebb, am I flow?” Rilke says “Do not seek now the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” These questions, and the glorious not knowing of the answers are in my every cell tonight.
So her friends and family raised a toast to her life and let her body do what it was trying to do, shut down and let go. It’s still too early to know what forever means, but somehow today I feel like the world still makes sense. Like that was when her story was supposed to end. Like her life should be celebrated and not mourned. When I see pictures of Julie I don’t feel sad right now, I feel like it was a joy to know her, and I recognize how much I learned from her, and how beautifully she was herself. What a woman she was! So we all die. This was her death. Among the ways it could happen, this was her own.
There was light filtering through the prisms hanging in the bathroom window this morning and I remember seeing it as though I hadn’t before, wondering how that sparkling and lovely light could be there. I suppose with the death on my mind it seemed incongruous that something should sparkle so lightly- and the thought crossed my mind that light would sparkle brilliantly across the water for some other human to admire on the day after I died as well, and that this is how it should be. How long has that sun shown? Since before there was consciousness to admire it. And how long after we are gone will it shine? The infinite answer humbles and centers me.