Written by Laura Culberg
Last night I finished reading The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. It's a rare occasion for me to persevere through a book that I don't initially LOVE. I've been reading it on and off for a few months and ended up really getting into it. It is a memoir of the author's care-taking and final few years with his mother who has pancreatic cancer. Both avid readers, mother and son spend hours waiting for doctors appointments and sitting through chemotherapy, reading specially chosen books and discussing them. Through it all, the tender, mutually respectful, incredibly loving relationship emerges and we get to know both mother and son through their reading preferences, philosophies and opinions.
My father died close to twenty years ago, also of cancer. While he was battling cancer, I lived here (in Seattle) and he was in Chicago. His illness was prolonged and I went back frequently, first just to visit, and towards the end of his life, to care take and say goodbye. A few times I accompanied my father to chemo. He'd be attached to an IV in a big lounge chair with several other people also receiving their chemo rounds. My dad was very funny, very friendly, and wonderfully silly. I remember him making jokes to the other patients, jokes only someone who has cancer can make to someone else who has cancer. Maybe this is why I became progressively more engrossed in The End of Your Life Book Club. The author's mother (Maryanne) shared an open-ness, community connection that I felt my dad always had. And both Maryanne and my dad seemed to grow even more connected, more open, through their bouts with cancer, the disease they both succumbed to in the end.
In The End of Your Life Book Club, there are several references to Jon Kabat-Zinn's book Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness. In one section of Schwalbe's book, he writes about Kabat-Zinn's perspective on interrupting. Shwalbe says, "we all know it's wrong to interrupt each other. And yet we constantly interrupt ourselves." We split our energies, sometimes to the point that there is really no value, no quality to any of our interactions. But at the end of life, there is a different kind of knowing; an understanding that each interaction is meaningful, an opportunity to be alive. And, while it is sad and often tragic to accompany someone through their last days, it is also a blessing, an opportunity to be present in the way they are present because they are in their last days.
Since I read that piece about interrupting ourselves, I have been thinking a lot about moments where I can start to form an interruption-free discipline that I can build on and expand. It is, of course, in my Yoga practice. During Savasana when I am practicing being physically still, mentally quiet, I still interrupt myself. I think about how I've gained three pounds and my shirt feels tighter. I think about how Lucia really doesn't need all the Christmas gifts I got her and how the abundance sends the wrong message. But what if I was practicing Savasana in my last days? Maybe I would notice how my skin around my hips feels after wind-removing pose. I might feel my heart beating in my finger tips. I get teary thinking about my dad in the big lounge chair receiving his chemo. I miss him. But I also feel joyful, thinking about how he was living, really living in his last days.