Taboo: On Mixing Life and Death

Fog shrouds the night. I am driving alone on a country road. The drifting miasma intermittently envelopes my car. Peering through the front window, I see the road clearly, then it disappears in the meandering mist. Abruptly, it is totally dark, as if theater curtains close on the final scene. Nothing visible. I hear the sound of steel bending. I know immediately that I smashed into a lamppost although I cannot see anything. I feel myself being lifted in the air, above the driver’s seat, even though my safety belt is fastened securely. I am not frightened. I am watching myself in awe. Then, to my amazement, I plunk down with the car upright. I turn the engine off, take the key out of the ignition, open the car door, and get out. When the police arrive, they say the car flipped over. When my daughter arrives, she wants to know if my life had flashed before my eyes.

The presence of Death cloaks me in darkness with more and more persistence. Like a child on Halloween, Death comes to my door again and again, each time with a different mask—increasingly demanding to be let in. I slam the door in its face. Before my car “accident,” people I knew had died, including close family—my parents, my aunts, my uncles, my grandparents—and my beloved partner. Now I am the eldest of my living siblings and cousins. Yet Death continues to roll off me like water off a seal. I am impervious. Somehow, I will survive. I will not die. Then the darkness grabs me, holding me above my own life. 

Above: Breaking Up the Darkness With Light by Chelsea Rushton

Death has always terrified me. One of my most vivid childhood memories is a recurring nightmare. I am being buried alive. My hand is frantically pushing against a brick being shoved into the last opening in a newly constructed basement wall. I wake up, filled with panic. As I write this, I remember other dreams. I am not riding the frightening demon mare of the night. Instead, I am flying with pleasure, away from the suffocating present, riding a guardian stallion, my daimon who calls me to my destiny.

Both dreams are me. In response, slowly emerging, I begin to experience myself not as evil spirit or as free spirit, nor as the mare of the night nor the racing stallion of the day. But as a divided “spirit”— longing for the “instinctual to be re-membered with the reasoned, the intuitive with the studied, the indeterminate with the measurable, the generative with the dead,” the mare of the night united with the freely moving stallion of the day.

Today the horse is my totem–braided horsehair is the band on my hat. In the sky, aligned with the date of my birth, is a horse — the comet Chiron, named after the centaur of Greek mythology. According to the Greek poet Ovid, Chiron’s mother was a water nymph — Philyra. His father — the God Cronos — changed Philyra into a mare and himself into a stallion when his wife Rhea caught them mating. Their child was the half-man, half-horse — Chiron. His parents promptly abandoned their unwanted child. Chiron transformed his sorrow into his strength, becoming a Wounded Healer. His periodic, constellated effect on my nervous system rouses me to claim what I have kept at bay in the shadows. I have long felt just beyond my waking awareness the constant dreaming presence of unspeakable, frightening forces of abandonment and death. Paralyzed, I have not acknowledged their claim on me.

Since childhood, horses also attended my daydreams. They are my escape. Stranded during winters in the suburbs of the midwestern prairie, like a female Harry Potter, their stories sustained me: Black Beauty and The Black Stallionseries come to mind with vivid descriptions of secret valleys where wild horses run freely, approachable through dark, forbidding caves. In the summers during elementary and on into junior and senior high school, I spent many glorious months, actually riding my way on horseback along mountain trails in the Rockies from Montana to Arizona. My mother sought out these enchanted places for me. They opened worlds I immediately felt were my home. Years later I dreamt that my mother was leading a group of children through what felt like an underground marsh. Crying, saying she could not go on, she turned the children over to me, telling me I must lead them. But where?

My childhood summers on horseback — half-girl, half-horse — initiated me into places where I am learning to answer my mother’s plea to go into the darkness of the underworld — the cursed darkness that my ancestors experienced but I have shut my eyes to.

One summer I “worked” with several other teenage girls on a ranch in northern Arizona. We learned what the hired cowhands spent their days doing: ride herd, lasso cattle, brand them, hunt bears. The ranch owner, a woman, was an honorary member of the nearby matrilineal Hopi Nation. These “children of the Earth” invited us to their First Mesa to witness the Tribe’s secret harvest rituals. We slept on cots under the stars. We watched young Braves race up the cliffsides, carrying rattlesnakes in their bare hands. One night, as darkness set in, standing in the sky on the mesa ridge, I watched the “rising” full moon come into view in the east. I was speechless. The moon was orange. Turning round to the west, I saw the sun, across the endless expanse of silent desert, disappearing below the horizon. Moon and Sun were twins. The Sun’s searing light colored the Moon orange. I felt embraced. They were cradling the Earth between them, with me in their arms.

Another night I was unexpectedly awakened and taken in a pick-up truck to a ritual healing fire in a lonely Hogan on nearby Navajo land. I still hear the chanted, rhythmic sounds of the medicine man, smell the smoke and feel the heat of concern rising from closely seated tribal members. Near me was an ancient native woman with long extended earlobes. Much later I learned that Buddhists believe long earlobes symbolize “a conscious rejection of the material world in favor of spiritual enlightenment.” But at the time of the healing fire, I knew nothing about long earlobes, Buddha, or the shamanic ritual I was experiencing. Since then I have learned I was participating in a Navajo Blessing Way Ceremony — a ritual to transform illness into health by balancing instinct with reason, the intuitive with the studied,the indeterminate with the measurable, the generative with the dead, the mare of the night with the freely moving stallion of the day. 

Smoke from another ritual fire again stirred every cell of my being years later. I was sitting in an evening sweat lodge in the Adirondack Mountains. Earlier that day, I had again been buried alive — this time along the Appalachian Trail in a leaf shelter built as part of survival exercises. Trackers, for whom living in wilderness is a way of life, were teaching me to walk quietly over twigs and dried leaves so I would not disturb the creatures living there. They showed me how to move slowly through the forest so its elemental spirits could recognize my presence. They taught me how to carve a “fire bow” and then to start a fire by rubbing the two carved sticks together until a spark burst forth. They also left me, blindfolded and alone in the night forest, to find my way to their campfire. How? I followed distant drum beats — what the Trackers called the heartbeats of the Earth. 

We also built shelters out of branches, leaves, and other detritus naturally occurring in the forest. Then after covering ourselves with mud, twigs, and other plant material as camouflage, the Trackers showed us how to hide, unseen, in the nooks and crannies among near-by trees and boulders. But they chose to bury me instead in the wall of one of the debris shelters. Lying covered with leaves, immersed in the smells, tastes, feels, and sounds present in the morning stillness, I eased into the welcoming softness of the arms of the Earth. I felt my body begin to attune to slight stirrings of other life forms. A small toad hopped about in our shared niche, insects buzzed, leaves spoke to each other in crinkly tones. I smelled decaying leaves — a long-forgotten yet heart-opening fragrance from many childhood years of forest wanderings. The fear of death gripping me began to ebb away. Tight muscles opened, bones yawned, my neck elongated. I breathed more deeply. An unfamiliar exuberance surged through me. I was buried not in a pile of dead leaves but permeated by life.

The ritual smoke of the sweat lodge later that day filled my lungs with the curing power of white sage and cedar. Steaming water dripped off my face. As the waters of my body flowed, a memory floated up. With family and friends in a freezing cold Pisces March wind, we had released my partner’s ashes into his beloved Hudson River whose tidal waters flow two ways. We were marking his birth, seventy years earlier and his passing, three months before. We stood silent, watching his physical remains join the waters of the Earth. Was Mnemosyne, Greek Goddess of Memory and Mother of the Muses, welcoming him? Did she wash off his deeds to store them in her upstream spring? Will future poets, seeking out the spring’s wisdom, listen to its bubbling energies, hear his life rhythms, and sing his deeds to yet-to-come generations?

A tale to stir the imagination of today’s children, a fanciful belief of the ancient Greeks, but not a “truth”? Or does Mnemosyne embody an inspired expression of water’s capacity to remember? Recently, I discovered that water’s unusual ability to move between three physical states — gas, liquid, and solid — led scientists to probe beyond its solely chemical explanation as H2O. Their research reveals that water has memory and even interacts with our consciousness. Born with Pisces configuring his nervous system, my partner created videos focused on water. In a time of increasing forgetfulness of water’s central dynamic in forming life on earth, his art reciprocated her gift. He showed us her mystery.

As I write about water and my partner’s death, I want to tell you about how his long illness and passing took me deeply into that dark underworld so much of my life has avoided. The night he left us suspended time. The years of his illness as he flowed toward this moment were over and my grieving yet to come. December’s Wolf Moon was nearly full. I was not alone. Its beacon light cast branching shadows on the fresh snow outside our bedroom windows, alerting me to the living presence of the trees. Immersive recorded sounds of Durga, Vedic Mother of the Universe, filled the quiet as he lay sleeping next to me. Durga’s rhythms guided his breathing and steadied mine.

As the primeval soundings of Durga returned us to their source, a profound stillness arose. I felt the Universe opening her arms to my partner. My throat caught. My breath stopped. I listened. Was he breathing? My heart raced. I felt for his pulse. Had his life force passed out of his body? I wanted confirmation. I called my son-in-law. He arrived within minutes from across the drive. His finger on Paul’s throat pulse registered no movement. Only an inert body remained. My partner’s consciousness had left. Unexpectedly, I felt relief flood my over-wrought body. His excruciating suffering was over.

Moving quickly as is my habit to keep uncertainty and fear at bay, I phoned two nearby friends who awaited my call. For many long months, they had given us compassionate support and more. When they arrived, softly climbing the barn loft stairs where we lived, I felt two ancient spirits entering the room. The three of us, joined by my loving daughter, sat on the floor around our bed where my partner’s body lay. A soft chant arose, filling the room, assisting my partner’s consciousness to pass safely into the next phase of his life. The sounds synchronized us all to the presence of this transformative moment. No one touched the body for three hours so his spirit could move easily into its next phase.

Then, within days, on the Winter Solstice, family and close friends came from across the country and down the road to celebrate my partner’s life. We gathered at our favorite spot along the Delaware River shore where he and I often went to watch its tidal waters flow. Before the moment of the sun’s rebirth, we sounded tambourines, drums, cymbals to help bring back the light. Just then a gaggle of geese joined us, honking overhead as they flew above the river waters.

But despite the persistent presence of death in my life, I was unprepared for the reality of my partner’s death as well as my grieving. Is it only me who has not accepted death as part of life? Especially mid-westerners, like myself, whose birthright, at least in my family from our pioneer days, is a stoic, stiff-upper-lip idealism, and determination to keep going.

Or is it our volatile, often distracted, ever-present cultural restlessness that represses our deeply embedded fear that death will annihilate us? Is that what I was not seeing?

Instead of listening to my grief, tension guided me in my sorrow. My neck seemed to lower between my shoulders, cramping my breathing. My muscles tightened, my bones stiffened. My energy dissipated. Months went by unnoticed. Then, the summer after my partner’s passing, I was shocked to discover that I had Lyme disease and an accompanying pathogen that antibiotics could not treat. My doctor described how ten people walk the same wooded path at the same time but the Lyme-pathogen-infested tick only bites one of them — me. He emphasized that, although I had accompanied my partner to death’s door, following him beyond death’s threshold was not my next step.

My journey to this crossroads, guarded ominously by Hecate, Greek Communicator with the Dead, started three years before my partner passed. At that time, he received his diagnosis of metastasized prostate cancer. Horrified, we listened to the Doctor almost gleefully detail how, previously, to save the life of a prostate cancer patient, the patient’s penis was cut off. Now, the Doctor told us, drug treatments, as well as chemotherapy and even radiation, might prolong his life, but death was inevitable.

We both immediately told each other the death sentence was not an absolute given. With our hearts in our throats, we assured each other that, after a few months of treatment, health would return. Weren’t cancer and other harbingers of death now treatable diseases that modern medicine could cure? With his eyes on the future, my partner tripled his focus on participating in dOCUMENTA 13, a once-every-five-year invitational, international art exhibition in Kassel, Germany, where he longed to participate. And he did exhibit in 2012 Threeing, a relational practice he originated and evolved for most of his creative life. 

Threeing balances the dynamics between three people. But now in the shadows, and uncalled, the Grim Reaper had become our third. The endless round of doctors’ appointments kept our attention on combating the cancer but, unless we asked, no doctor spoke of when death might enter. Yet, even in the face of maneuvering the anonymous, overloaded, uncaring hospital system, my partner kept his equanimity and welcoming spirit. He engaged doctors and nurses alike with his keen sense of humor and curiosity. He continually probed the doctors to reveal: Who are you beyond your professional presence? Do you think Cancer is the Emperor of all Maladies?

During this time, for several grueling months, large sections of the hospital’s cancer treatment floor, where the Doctor had his office, were being renovated. There were few available reception areas. Waiting for Paul’s appointments, we often stayed in rooms overflowing with invalids whose good humor had long since left them. Sometimes I sat nearby on hallway floors while construction workers rumbled by, pushing debris-laden demolition carts onto waiting elevators. Wanting to leave the life-draining noise and confinement of Manhattan for woods and fields, we went to my daughter’s farm in the countryside. Instead of the chaos of the city hospital, we found a cancer specialist in a sunlit facility designed and built, not for machines, but for people.

Once midst woods and fields, my partner began to breathe more deeply and to live in two worlds — that of his suffering body and another of an expanded reality. The boundary between what is visible for most of us and the invisible dissolved for him. He described scenes resembling Italian film director Federico Fellini’s fantasies or marvels a child sees — people dancing on the light-filled edge of the darkened woods beyond our windows, soldiers hiding in the evening shadows in the garden.

At times, my partner became a child again. A friend who specialized in movement practices began working with him soon after we arrived in the country. She intuitively realized his need to embrace habits from his childhood. She taught him how to get down on all fours and safely crawl when he felt dizzy. He gleefully became a “four-legged” creature again, joining my two-and-half-year-old grandson in the joys of seeing the world from the ground up.

In my imagination these two worlds Paul inhabited became the kernel for the Threeing Reality TV series he had hoped to create. Now the show’s purpose was to support others who are terminally ill and their caregivers. People, like us, whose lives were thrust into unknown territories by what is culturally dreaded as a deadly intruder. Its material would be the events from our everyday life as we were living intimately with the unwanted trespasser. 

Near the end of his time here, desperate for sleep, I hired a night nurse to come in occasionally. One morning this Caribbean-island beauty announced that during the night my partner had offered her diamonds to take him to New York City. Then he recanted. He decided she was too expensive for him. I listened and marveled, laughed and cried at the two worlds he moved between. I wondered: are these two worlds really one? Was he able to perceive a reality closed to us when we ignore death? Had he glimpsed dimensions of our existence beyond death? I recall my mother as she grew near her passing. She had seen both her long-passed sister and her mother near her bed. As we approach the end of our physical embodiment, are we able to join others who have left their bodies before us? One day we all will know the answer. 

As his prognosis, when we asked, continued to be death, we explored the possibility of Hospice care. We were both stunned to learn that in the Hospice system, death is not treated as a medical condition. It is a natural event in life’s unfolding, just as birth is. Hospice focuses on caring, not curing. We were told, with relief, that his passing could occur, not in a hospital, but at home.

My partner entered the humane Hospice system that aligns with Earth cycles. In Hospice, his treatments stopped. To his great relief, no more side effects from medical procedures intended to “cure” him. No hopes dashed when the cancer persisted. No more increasingly, physically difficult trips to hospitals or doctors’ offices for grueling testing and new drug treatments. No more often painful and debilitating getting into, being in, and getting out of our car and into and through revolving doors and elevators. No sitting endlessly in hospital waiting rooms. Instead, a nurse came regularly to our barn loft and was always available by phone. She was of Irish heritage, as was my partner. Nearby, with her husband, she cultivated organic vegetables for a local farmers’ market and for restaurants. Both her lineage and her farming brought my partner great pleasure. Her presence supported him in being more than a patient. He was a full human being with interests matching hers. They discussed their mutual cultural legacy and their desires for a world where what we eat was understood as more healing than drugs. 

Nearing his passing, he became increasingly fearful of retribution. His family and schooling through high school and into his twenties had been Catholic. But as a young man in the 1960’s he walked out of Catholic seminary with two other seminarians. Their reason: they were not allowed to discuss the sacred texts. The young men who stayed behind were ordered not to look at or ever speak to the three dissenters again. But my partner never looked back until death approached.

Above: Kundalini Piercing the Crown Chakra by Chelsea Rushton

Instead, Paul leaped into the crack in the universe the sixties opened—a time when cultural change seemed imminent. His generation opposed the War in Vietnam, feminists spoke out against male bias that left them inferior, and African-Americans organized for equal rights.  With media celebrity Marshall McLuhan as his mentor, Paul led the way. He became a conscious objector to the war and McLuhan’s assistant. McLuhan gave him one of the first video Portapaks. Paul made videos that gave voice to ideas not touched by Broadcast TV. As one of the Founders of the Raindance Video Collective, he worked to create a more socially and ecologically just world. Now, feeling the impermanence of his body, instead of experiencing the peace of entering a natural phase in his life, a raging firestorm of religious vengeance unexpectedly confronted him. He desperately wanted to talk with a sympathetic Catholic priest before passing. I found one, known for his compassion, but my partner left us the night before meeting the priest. Undaunted, the priest came to our loft the morning after Paul passed. He assured me that my partner was not doomed; no punishment for walking out of the seminary awaited him after death. Did my partner hear the priest’s words? Was that his experience after passing?

One of the most painful realities for me in the last weeks of his illness was the effects of the cancer moving into his brain and perhaps also the effects of prescribed pain-killing drugs. At times, he became a stranger, throwing furniture, trying to rush out into a bitter snowstorm without his coat or boots. He would pack his suitcase, planning to join Marshall McLuhan in Montreal for a conference they were organizing. Not hearing when I told him McLuhan had died more than thirty years before. Deeply distressing were times when he forgot who I was, asking “who are you?” Was I a nurse who had come to care for him? Then he would suddenly remember, recognizing me, caring about and loving me.

But the Grim Reaper came out of the shadows earlier than anyone expected. I felt that my partner had called him, indicating that now was the time. The Irish nurse had just ordered a hospital bed with side-railings to be delivered the next day. My partner would no longer be able to get out of bed whenever he wanted. We could no longer sleep together. I felt him saying, “Enough. I am out of here! No one restrains me.”

With his passing, my blinding grief overwhelmed me for months. The poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke became my life raft, especially his Sonnets to Orpheus. Every night I read one of Rilke’s poems to soothe the uncontainable night. Like these ancient bards, Orpheus and Rilke bring us songs that mix,”death into all our seeing, mixes it with everything,” just as the sounds of water, so necessary for life, mix death into life.

Is Orpheus of this world? The vastness of his nature

is born of both realms.

If you know how the willow is shaped underground,

you can see it more clearly above.

We are told not to leave food

on the table overnight: it draws the dead.

But Orpheus, the conjuring one,

mixes death into all our seeing,

mixes it with everything,

The wafting of smoke and incense

is as real to him as the most solid thing.

Nothing can sully what he beholds.

He praises the ring, the bracelet, the pitcher,

whether it comes from a bedroom or a grave.

Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, I, 6

Is the ripping open and continuing destruction of the Earth’s life systems with all its extraordinary, abundant life forms, the price we are paying daily for not mixing death into all our seeing? We think and act as if the Earth is a lifeless resource. We brutalize it as we satisfy greedy ends because we do not recognize that what we call life includes death. They are inseparable — as integral to each other as day is to night. We are blind. We are killing children in their schools, worshippers in their sanctuaries, shoppers in their malls, workers in their offices, fish in their waters, birds in their air, insects in their earth. And now with the Climate Crisis and the Covid-19 Pandemic, death is everywhere. Why? Because we think that we can kill death!