When my husband Rick was diagnosed with fatal gastric cancer 14 months ago, I suffered a massive heart break. But since then, my heart has been slowly repairing itself. It still has a way to go, but in time it will heal. You know, having a broken heart is a gift–because it gives you the opportunity to rebuild it, ideally better for having loved well, even if that physical reality is gone. Some folks might choose to shrink their heart when it’s broken, to make it smaller for fear of being hurt again. Native Americans call these folks “small hearts”. But others will choose to build it stronger and larger–more expansive, more forgiving, more compassionate, more loving. This is the type of person Rick was. And it is the type of person I aspire to be–to keep that part of Rick always in my heart’s memory. But this initial reconstruction phase is excruciatingly painful.
"What happens when you die?"
A month ago, when we found out Rick had 2-4 weeks to live, he asked me to call a particularly dear friend of ours–a person we greatly admire and respect. Rick asked this dear friend what he thought happens when you die. Our friend shared that throughout his life he had had too many mysterious and remarkable experiences to believe that this is all there is. He believed that incomprehensible, unseen forces were at work both here on Earth and throughout the universe –and that there is life after death; but in what form, he did not know, and nobody can know, we can only imagine alternative new realities.
Then Rick asked me what I thought. I told him that I believe our true essence is “spirit” - we are eternal and ageless; and that our bodies are worn like clothes. At first–when we are born–they are brand new and lightweight. In time, as we grow and age, we add layer after layer until eventually what we are wearing is heavy, worn out, and sometimes unbearably painful. This process can take a short amount of time or a long time. But in time, when our spirits have learned the lessons we came here to experience, we realize that we don’t need to carry these bodies around anymore and we can shed them, just like old worn clothes.
Rick had a favorite thick, heavy, brown, kind of ratty robe given to him by our kids as a Christmas present years ago. We call it the Papa Bear robe. He had lost more than 40 pounds over the last year, as cancer ravaged his body and made it difficult to impossible to eat solid foods. In recent months he had absolutely no body fat and he was always cold. So he automatically began wearing the Papa Bear robe all the time, day and night. He looked down at it and said to me that maybe dying is, “Just like me taking off this heavy Papa Bear robe.”
Rick’s cancer caused him to suffer unimaginable pain. His physicians kept him as comfortable as possible with heavy-duty prescriptions medications, but his pain never fully abated. Miraculously, the pain and meds didn’t hinder him from going through an incredible transformation. In the last two weeks of his life, all the negative feelings and emotions he had experienced throughout his life–from failures, rejections, missed opportunities, and such–melted away. It was surely as if he were shedding layers of too many clothes–until all that was left was simple, elegant, pure love.
Anyone who has met Rick, or heard him speak, has a relationship with him and that relationship carries on–in our brain and minds through memories, in our senses–when we see something that reminds us of him or hear a phrase like “Plan your work and work your plan”; and most importantly, in our hearts–because our hearts have memories too in the spiritual world.
The night before Rick died our daughter Ella and I were holding vigil. We wanted to stay up all night because we knew he was very close to passing. Just before three in the morning, as we sat side by side at his bedside, a tiny, brilliant white light streaming a tail flew past me–it was like a little shooting star–and it streaked in front of Ella’s face and disappeared. It was coming from Rick’s direction. I have seen some strange things in my life and I thought, “That’s cool–someone’s here.” But I didn’t say anything to Ella because I wasn’t sure she’d seen it. A minute later, Ella asked me if I was seeing anything weird. I said, “Like that tiny white light that streaked past your face like a shooting star?” “Yeah!” she replied excitedly. We talked for a while about what it might have been and realized we had witnessed something awe-inspiring.
A short while later Ella decided to take a nap in Rick’s easy chair while I continued to hold vigil. I was staring at Rick and noticed a golden glow emanating from his face. I whispered to see if Ella was awake and told her about Rick’s glowing face. She acknowledged me, turned over and fell back asleep. As I continued to gaze at Rick, that tiny white light appeared again above his head. It was dancing around, as if saying “Look at me! Look at me!” I got up out of the chair and came closer to Rick to get a better view when it started making a slow circle around the top of Rick’s head. Then it spiraled upwards, moving faster and faster until it shot straight up and disappeared. Was I hallucinating from sleep deprivation? Was my imagination playing tricks on me? Wishful thinking? I don’t think so. It was as real a sight as a child’s making a flashlight’s beam dance on a dark ceiling.
From that point forward, Rick was unresponsive. Although his body struggled for breath and his heart continued to beat for another 12 and a half hours, it was apparent that he had sloughed off the burden of his body when that brilliant white light appeared to Ella and me. And I feel blessed, as does Ella that Rick allowed us to witness what I believe to be his transformation from physical body to eternal light.
Love and cherish
A few days before Rick passed away I asked him if he wanted me to share one last thing with you (our PT blog readers.) His final message to the world outside our Maui family was “Tell them to take every opportunity to help others; to start with themselves by letting go of the negative experiences and thoughts that bring them down and hold them back; to focus on all the positives in their lives–like the beauty that surrounds them; to love and cherish their family and friends; and to make a plan and work towards a brighter future–for themselves, their loved ones, their community and for the world. And tell them I love them.”
I believe that in another place and time, I’ll see Rick again –perhaps in our shared transcendental future.
Rick - Me ke aloha. Aloha oe. Until we meet again.
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See The Time Cure: Overcoming PTSD with the New Psychology of Time Perspective Therapy "http://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/psychotherapy" \o "Psychology Today looks at Psychotherapy" Therapy (Zimbardo, Sword & Sword, 2012, Wiley Publishing); for strategies to reduce stress and improve communication, visit "http://www.timecure.com/" \o "www.timecure.com" \t "_blank" www.timecure.com and "http://www.lifehut.com/" \o "www.lifehut.com" \t "_blank" www.lifehut.com.
Images: Rick Sword, Rose Sword