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Journal

Through a Wider Lens

Through a Wider Lens

What an enriching and joyful process it’s been going through pictures spanning my dad’s whole life and reading the cards and online condolences through which people described him based on the context within which they knew him best. Over the past two weeks, this process has helped me to see him in a much greater context above and beyond the particular relationship I had with him—which also differed from the relationship either of my siblings had with him.

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Every relationship is unique, and every life is composed of different relationships and chapters through which we express ourselves in different ways, much like a multifaceted crystal that is held to the light and turned to see the different angles from which the light shines through it. And yet, there are some qualities that remain more or less consistent at the core.

With my dad, some core descriptions that came up repeatedly included:

  • Kind
  • True gentleman
  • Smiling face
  • Incredibly sweet
  • Gentle
  • Helpful
  • Great athlete
  • Warm and friendly
  • Funny

I remember being at his USAirways retirement celebration about 15 years ago, which provided me with my first glimpse of who he was in a broader context, beyond just “my dad.” When it was his turn to speak, he was quite a storyteller. And funny! I’d never experienced that side of him before! Those were some of the traits that endeared him to so many.

He also could be stubborn, and that’s a side I saw a lot.  As he was in the hospital on what would be his deathbed, I commented to my son about how stubborn he was being as we left ICU one day. His “stubbornness” seemed to frustrate me more than anyone else and usually had something to do with him not being receptive to my ideas and how I was trying to help him. Holding tightly to previously established preferences and opinions. But my son suggested that he was dignified, rather than stubborn. My dad was determined to do things his way. A true Taurus!

He loved his hot dogs and ice cream and refused to follow a diabetic diet. He refused to have a fistula put in his arm in preparation for the increasingly likely event of kidney failure and a regimen of dialysis to keep him alive. He wanted nothing to do with a life without hot dogs or a life centered around time-consuming dialysis treatments and not being able to go to the YMCA to exercise and socialize. This summer, whenever he told me he had a hot dog for dinner or that friends brought him one or two when they visited him, my heart smiled because I understood my dad was an old dog who wasn’t about to learn new tricks and that he was choosing quality of life over longevity. His quality of life took a great blow when my mom died, and wherever he could find moments of happiness and comfort…was good, in my opinion.

One day back in February 2013, he was exercising at the YMCA and went into cardiac arrest. When I was on my way to the hospital with my mom, all we knew was that they used the defibrillator to get his heart started again, but it was very shaky. We didn’t know if we would arrive at the hospital to find him alive or dead. When we arrived, he was in the care of one of my best childhood friends, and we were able to talk to him. He was about to be transported to another hospital, and again, we didn’t know if he would survive the ambulance ride. But when we arrived at Albany Medical Center, he was alive and in good hands. He ended up surviving quadruple bypass surgery. Our family is so grateful for the YMCA staff, who gave us an extra 3 ½ years with him. For some reason, it wasn’t his time then.

In his novel, Illusions, Richard Bach wrote:

“Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you’re alive, it isn’t.”

Always one to look for meaning, I often contemplated why my dad didn’t die that day. What was he still here on earth to learn, experience, or do?

At the time of my dad’s cardiac episode, we had no idea that my mom had pancreatic cancer. She was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer by the end of the year and passed away within six months of being diagnosed. But in between my dad’s cardiac episode and my mom’s death, they were able to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary together at Disney World.

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Losing his wife of 50 years – his best friend and soulmate – was so hard on my dad, and I’m sure that was obvious to everyone who knew him. His life would never be the same. Yet, I believe she needed to leave when she did so he could experience some things and grow in ways he wouldn’t have been able to grow otherwise. For example, he had a more direct relationship with my siblings and me when our extroverted mom wasn’t in the picture doing most of the communicating. And I think that was really important for him and for us. We had nearly 2 ½ years to do that. During that time, he was able to meet his first great-grandchild (my granddaughter) and see his grandson (my son) graduate from high school.

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Two weeks before my dad finally went to the doctor for foot pain that kept getting worse this summer, a friend contacted me late at night to tell me that he walked past a particular music venue and saw my dad sitting in there alone. I reminded him that’s where my parents used to go to listen to music and added that my mom is probably there with him in spirit. My friend replied that my dad looked really sad, and I said it’s because he doesn’t realize she’s there with him. Understanding how difficult and painful it was for my dad to walk, I was surprised he went through the trouble of finding parking in downtown Saratoga Springs during the busy, summer tourist season and walking to the venue. He must have had a strong purpose or longing to go there.

A few days before he went to the doctor, my husband dreamed my parents were dancing together. It was one of those dreams that felt more real than real, if you know what I mean. My mom was in full, vivid color, looking so happy and vibrant as she danced. Although she was dancing with my dad, he was in black and white and didn’t seem to realize she was there dancing with him. Surprised to see my mom, Jack exclaimed, “You’re not supposed to be here!” And my mom replied, “Well, I am! And I always have been.”

*   *   *   *

Things aren’t always what they seem. Sometimes what seems to be a cruel twist of fate is merciful. We just can’t see the whole picture from where we stand.

A diabetic with significant cardiac history, my dad had a rough summer that included six-hour bypass surgery to correct a circulation issue in his leg. That was followed by a recovery period, and in the midst of recovering, he ended up back in the hospital for a sore on his foot that resulted in his little toe being amputated and another recovery period. After being discharged from the hospital, he spent a couple of weeks at a rehab center and in less than a week after being discharged from the rehab center came down with the pneumonia that claimed his life. 

During the last few weeks of his life, I worried about how my siblings (one local, one not) and I would care for our dad when he got out of rehab and was being his stubborn or willful or dignified self. Like when my dad and I came back inside after our first wheelchair excursion outside of the rehab center on a beautiful day, I dashed into the restroom for about 15 seconds, only to find him wheeling himself down the hallway toward the main entrance when I reemerged. A custodian witnessed it and had a look of combined shock and amusement on her face. I felt like the parent of a toddler, who must be ever-vigilant. It was a strange feeling to have in relation to my dad.

I became anxious about how he would fare living on his own in his split-level house with stairs all over the place. On the way home from rehab, I reminded him that there was a walker on each level of the house that he was supposed to use, and he exclaimed that he wasn’t going to use any walkers and then took off like a racehorse when we arrived home. Again, I felt like an anxious parent trying to get him to follow doctor’s orders that he claimed he never remembered hearing. How could I help him when he wouldn’t do what he was supposed to do?

I wondered how long this would go on, how long he would need a caregiver at the house, and whether he would need to go into a long-term care facility at some point. But throughout this time, I kept hearing my mom’s voice in my head assuring me: Don’t worry. This isn’t going to take long. I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, but two days before he died, when he was back in the hospital being treated for pneumonia and congestive heart failure, I found a dead cardinal in my driveway. I’d never seen a dead cardinal before, and my dad loved cardinals. When I saw the cardinal, I had a sinking feeling that he was not going to make it this time. And although my mortal heart was breaking, my intuition assured me that it’s okay because it’s his time.

My dad would not have wanted to live a life in which his freedom was restricted. In the end, it seems his swift death was merciful. He didn’t have to languish in a nursing home or undergo dialysis. He didn’t have to observe another wedding anniversary without his beloved wife and passed on in time to spend their October 19th anniversary together in spirit.

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As much as I will miss my dad, I realize that losing our parents is part of the natural course of human life. In recent years, some of my friends have had to face the tragedy of losing a child, and a couple of my kindergarten students suffered the sudden loss of a parent. I have not lost a child, and I am not a child who has lost a parent. What I am experiencing is within the natural cycle of life. It is to be expected.

My parents loved each other so much, and although he kept going the best he could, my dad’s life would never be the same again after losing my mom. With a love like that, it’s not unusual for the surviving spouse to follow close behind. So I really feel it was my dad’s time to go. In the end, pneumonia wasn’t a thief that came along and stole him from us before his time. It was a swift, merciful ride to the other side that saved him from declining health, a restricted lifestyle, and continued mourning. That he was able to avoid that kind of pain and suffering brings me peace.

© 2016 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York. 

Sitting by the Fire

Sitting by the Fire

It is with sadness that I write about my dad’s passing eight days ago. He succumbed to pneumonia Legionnaire’s Disease (we learned later) after being in ICU for five days. He died less than two-and-a-half years after my mom died of pancreatic cancer, which isn’t unusual for couples who love each other greatly. As difficult as it is to lose my dad, for many reasons (that I will share in a separate post), I feel it was his time, and that certainty brings me peace.

We had his calling hours and memorial service yesterday at his church – the culmination of a week of tremendous activity. There were many meetings and lots of work involved in creating a video slideshow for the church events and working around numerous, unprecedented technical glitches that arose. I went through boxes of my parents’ photos to assemble photo collages to display in large frames on easels. Wrote a eulogy. Found a new, loving home for his cat. Visited with my two adult children and nine-month-old granddaughter, who traveled from out-of-town.

In other words, I attended to the usual tasks that fall on the closest relatives immediately after someone dies. But I also did something not so common in our culture: On Tuesday, I drove to Bennington, Vermont to be present for my dad’s cremation, as I did when my mom passed away. And that might sound morbid, but it wasn’t. It was transcendent.

I was not with my dad when he passed away. I couldn’t make it to the hospital in time but was able to say goodbye to him over the phone. I told him that I love him and thanked him for being such a great dad. I encouraged him to let go and assured him that everything is going to be fine. We are going to be fine, and so is he, for he is about to go on a wondrous journey. I told him I’m so happy for him because he will soon be with my mom, his beloved wife of 50 years. His last words to me were: I love you, too.

I couldn’t be there when he died, but I was able to show up for his cremation, which felt like another part of the process to witness with love, light, and presence.

When my mom died, I pushed her cardboard coffin into the crematory retort and then retreated to my car to meditate for a while before walking around Bennington for a few hours until her cremains were ready to be picked up. But with my dad, it was different. The funeral director invited me to come and go as I pleased. He left the crematory door unlocked and placed a chair next to the retort for me, along with two bottles of water.

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I sat next to the crematory retort for an hour and a half meditating on my relationship with my dad. I remembered good times and reflected on all the ways in which he expressed his love. The small but meaningful gestures, such as vacuuming my car, filling my gas tank, and taking us out for dinner. And larger gestures, such as when he helped me out financially when I needed an implant for my front tooth and when I was getting divorced. How he and my mom made it possible for me to attend the private college I felt so drawn to, without having to take on much student debt. The family vacations that usually involved amusement parks, such as Disney World. How he always had my back and conducted himself in such a kind and dignified manner, which made me proud to call him my dad.

I also visualized any sadness, grudges, regrets, and human weaknesses and impurities burning away until only love and light remained. Until only spirit remained, released from any human shortcomings – his or my own. That included any negative feelings or resentments I harbored because, at the personality level, my dad and I were so different, and I challenged and disappointed him in many ways. He was a traditionalist with a worldview that was much more conservative and black-and-white than my own, and through the years I came to accept that rather than try to change him or get him to understand my worldview and choices. For instance, when I got married, I wouldn’t let my dad give me away because I did not consider myself an object to be transferred from one man to another. I’m sure that all the explaining in the world couldn’t help him understand that because, with my dad, you didn’t question tradition. You just followed it. So I let all that burn away until only love and forgiveness (for him and for myself) remained.

I sat there and told him everything I wasn’t able to express when he was alive. Sometimes we don’t recognize the different ways in which people express love in the best way they know how. We might not realize that the questions and comments that seem so judgmental on the surface arise from a spirit of deep love and concern. Our communications pass through our human filters and so often get misinterpreted. And we build walls to protect our fragile egos. And we build histories, stories, and communication patterns that are often so hard to rise above. And we don’t say what is in our heart because the patterns are so entrenched. That’s what I got in touch with in the crematory and allowed to burn away. I bathed all that in love, and it transformed into nothing but love.

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I recalled the scared look in my dad’s eyes during the last few days of his life because he sensed something was different this time. How he absolutely refused to engage in a conversation I initiated about hospice care, and it felt like just another example of him rejecting what I had to offer based on my knowledge, experience, values, and sincere caring. How I couldn’t be there when he died because I needed some distance from a situation that arose, in order to maintain my strength and sanity. How I felt I could support him better from a distance that last day of his life, not knowing it would be his last day. I let all that burn away until only love, forgiveness, and an appreciative sense of humor remained.

I essentially composed his eulogy (which I will share in a separate post) while sitting in the crematory. The tears I cried were mostly tears of appreciation and gratitude for all the ways in which he expressed his love and continued to love and care for me, despite our differences. I appreciated what a steadfast provider he was for our family and for having such a stable, secure childhood. I appreciated the ways in which his traditional worldview was challenged to the core by some curveballs life threw his way and how he responded with love every single time. I appreciated how much he and my mom loved each other.

As my dad’s body burned in the crematory retort next to me, I reflected on all the ways in which he expressed love for us, acknowledged our relationship and humanness, and honored the spirit that unites us. The spirit of love and kindness. It was a powerful process, though not one that many in our culture choose to experience or even realize is possible. By the time I left the crematorium, I felt so light and filled with love and light and appreciation for my father. I felt his light shining so brightly.

Lyrics from India Arie’s song, “I Am Light” came to mind:

I am not the pieces of the brokenness inside…I am light.

I am not the mistakes that I have made or any of the things that caused me pain…I am light.

I am not the color of my eyes, I am not the skin on the outside…My soul inside is all light.

While waiting to hear that my dad’s cremains were ready to be picked up, I drove around and decided to take a walk before dark. I ended up in Old Bennington and couldn’t resist parking near an old church with an adjacent cemetery. It seemed like a perfect place to walk with my camera.

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Not knowing anything about the history or looking for anything in particular, my intuition led me through the cemetery, and I came upon poet Robert Frost’s grave.

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How perfect, I thought, for that day I took the road less traveled, and it made all the difference.

There are many cultures in which funeral rituals, including cremation, are not performed by professionals out of sight of grieving family and friends. The image of open cremations on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, India comes to mind. Families gathered around the funeral pyre watching the body burn, coming to terms with mortality and relationships. What do we gain by keeping the care of our dead at arm’s length? What do we lose?

Being present for my dad’s cremation was such a positive, healing experience for me. I wish it were more commonplace in our culture…even as I see my dad in my mind, bristling and shaking his head, wondering how on earth I could think that way. Knowing he’ll never be able to understand me but loving me just the same.

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© 2016 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this blog post, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York. 

Getting Unstuck: The Magical Morning Power Hour

Getting Unstuck: The Magical Morning Power Hour

This year, I’m using a unique and engaging day planner. It’s colorful and spirited, and what I love most about it is that there’s room at the beginning of each month to set intentions and goals and to list the kinds of practical resources and support you’ll need to make them happen. At the end of the month, there are pages to reflect on:

  • What dreams and goals came true?
  • What sucked? What do you need to rant about to feel better?
  • What lessons did you learn?
  • Who/what are you grateful for?

I look forward to filling out the reflection pages at the end of each month because I know that, no matter what transpired over the course of the month, it’s an opportunity to: get a better understanding of where my energy went, forgive myself, and start fresh with setting intentions for the upcoming month.

At the beginning of the year, I used a companion workbook to brainstorm goals and create a list of “100 Things to Do in 2016“, which I use to set monthly goals in my planner. As the year progressed, new goals replaced some of the goals that were originally on my list, so I’ve been keeping it fresh and staying fairly focused and on track.

Until – BOOM! – August hit.

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August and September left me feeling derailed. Off track. Distracted. Frazzled. My dad needed sudden, major surgery and hospitalization followed by a second surgery, hospitalization, and rehab, which required me to significantly alter my schedule and redirect where I put my energy. In the middle of all that, I got my son off to film school (which made me an official empty nester) and prepared for having my first vendor booth at a festival in September, which was a heck of a lot of work the first time around! It’s also senior portrait season, so I’ve been focusing on drumming up some portrait work. And I began the process of applying for an artist grant to publish my first book and both started a part-time job and returned to subbing at a private school to stay afloat while building my photography business…after feeling I haven’t made much progress in that department over the past two months despite my best intentions.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not someone who glorifies being busy. It’s just that, for whatever reasons, I’ve had a little extra on my plate lately. The bottom line is that sleep, exercise, meal prep, meditation, and writing – the activities that keep me sane and balanced – fell largely by the wayside, and I got thrown out of whack from trying to fit in so much. I became overtired and felt I had gotten quite off course and wasn’t making satisfactory progress toward my goals.

Then I realized that I am not alone. (Are we ever?) In September, “getting unstuck” (stopping a downward cycle, getting out of a funk, etc.) was a common theme amongst virtually every blogger and spiritual teacher I follow. Some of their advice included:

  • Acknowledge where you are
  • Don’t blame yourself
  • Cultivate gratitude for what you DO have and for being motivated to have/do more
  • Declutter your house, schedule, and mind to make space for what you want to attract
  • Take a step out of your comfort zone, and do something you’ve wanted to do, however small
  • Make a small commitment to refocus every day
  • Cut yourself off from negativity by replacing negative thoughts and stories with more positive, productive ones

With the exception of decluttering (which is a work in progress), I’ve done all of the above, and to gear up for a strong final quarter of 2016, I also gave my workbook and planner a fabulous makeover by covering them with my own painted papers.

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In addition, I’ve been experimenting with a practice that works wonders for me: Starting the day with what I call a MAGICAL MORNING POWER HOUR!

Actually, it was my new moon intention last month, but throughout the course of the month, I became sidetracked by events both within and beyond my control, so I’m recommitting to my Magical Morning Power Hour once again during this new lunar cycle because it makes such a positive difference in the quality of my day – so much that I realize the importance of putting a NO TRESPASSING sign around that time, so to speak. It is sacred time not to be intruded upon by anyone or anything else. It’s my way of staying focused, true to myself, and on track.

My Magical Morning Power Hour is something I look forward to each morning, and it inspires me to get to sleep early enough so I won’t end up sleeping through it. It is time for me. And despite what we have been socialized to believe by a culture that glorifies being busy, taking time for yourself is neither selfish nor lazy because when your energy is in a good place, you’re able to be more fully and effectively present to others. As an introvert, I consider it an absolute necessity for healthy functioning. But introvert or not, when you take time to tune in and nourish yourself, you set a positive ripple of energy into motion.

Some people discipline themselves to do a certain practice every day, but you don’t have to. Having a consistent, daily practice is like photographing the sunrise from the same location every morning. You get to know a place intimately and experience it differently than if you keep moving around. You notice the nuances that can only be perceived when you know a place (which could be a physical location or your own, inner space) so well. But there’s also value in letting intuition guide you toward what you need on a particular day. You can check in with your energy, and consider whether you feel drawn to movement or stillness. Or perhaps you could commit to a regular practice (one small thing) and supplement it with what feels right on a given day.

Although I like the sound of Magical Morning Power HOUR, you need not set aside a full hour! Some mornings, looking at my vision board before getting out of bed and drinking warm lemon water from a very special teacup is all I have time for and is enough to reinforce my intention to nourish and honor my deeper self, set a positive and mindful tone for the day, and refocus my energy. Other mornings, I am able to stretch it out to more than an hour. Many mornings, I’m motivated to do more activities than I realistically can fit in, and I have to reign myself back in and remember it’s not necessary to do so much. It’s like being tempted to fill your plate too many times at a buffet of delicious, nutritious food. More is not necessarily better! Better to savor and taste fully what you are eating rather than rush to consume more. Quality over quantity. What I can fit into the allotted time is enough. It’s really about mindfulness and intention and not just jumping into the day on autopilot.

To give you some ideas, here are some of the activities I include during my Magical Morning Power Hour:

  • Body scan meditation while still lying in bed
  • Sip warm lemon water with cayenne
  • Tea meditation
  • Chakra tune-up (I use Jonathan Goldman’s Chakra Tuner app)
  • Mindfulness meditation (Insight Timer app is a great resource)
  • White light visualization
  • Yoga (I love Yoga with Adriene on YouTube)  
  • Walk in nature with mindfulness of beauty and possibly a camera
  • Watch the sun rise
  • Look at my vision board 
  • Read out loud the affirmations I wrote to accompany my vision board
  • Walk a labyrinth
  • Pull an oracle card (I use Universal Cards and Angel Tarot Cards)
  • Breath practice
  • “Filling the holes” practice (given to me by my spiritual director)
  • Tapping/EFT (Brad Yates on YouTube)
  • Take my kayak on the river
  • Hand and/or foot massage
  • Listen to inspired, meditative music or spiritual content while preparing food
  • Watch an inspiring video
  • Read a poem (I love Mary Oliver) or few pages from an inspirational book
  • Spend a few moments with the current month’s edition of Sister Joan Chittister’s The Monastic Way pamphlet
  • Balance rocks

If you feel you’ve gotten off track or have fallen into a downward spiral, no worries: You CAN push the reset button! It’s never too late! It might be worthwhile to reflect on how you got sidetracked, but don’t indulge in negative self-talk or blame yourself for not doing better. That, my friend, is counterproductive – a waste of time and energy better spent putting your best foot forward in the direction you want to go. The beginning of a new month, season, or lunar cycle is a wonderful time to clear the slate and set fresh intentions. But really, ANY day is a day you can return home to yourself and accept the invitation to follow the pull from your core and live the life that feels like yours to live – beginning with how you set the tone for your day.

For me, life still feels a little too full for comfort, but as I work on decluttering, my Magical Morning Power Hour is not up for reconsideration. It is a keeper! It helps me to have greater clarity about everything else – what is truly important and what I can let go of. And on mornings when I wake up feeling anxious about (well, name a category!), it is where I source my strength, serenity, and sense of security. Like starting the day with a nourishing breakfast, it is how I power my body, mind, and spirit with high quality fuel at the beginning of each day.

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© 2016 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this blog post, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York. 

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