Love the Life You Lead. Fall 2013
DAY EIGHT. Camille Dohrn
The first time death came along and knocked me to my knees, I was 28. My father died suddenly while I was far away, on a bicycle in France. Life as I knew it seemed to swirl around me, all the familiar patterns morphing and changing until I didn’t recognize it any more. It was still there, but it seemed unfamiliar. I didn’t know my place in it anymore. I felt like I was outside, looking in, wondering what the rules of the game were. It didn’t occur to me that it was me who had changed, and that because I had changed, I needed to find a new way to engage. I couldn’t simply get back on the merry go round in the place I had left vacant.
It took a while, but I slowly picked myself up. Sunshine and ripening fruit caught my attention. I made hundreds of jars of jam and preserves and ran miles and miles in the sunshine remembering runs with my father. This was the beginning of finding my way back into life.
A little over four years ago, I took my oldest daughter to college. As I grappled with this good-bye, I was plunged back into the conversation death had begun with me, 20 years earlier, after my dad died.
Next, my best friend from college died, a young cousin, my first boss after college, who had been a father figure, my uncle, who had been my mentor and teacher, then my stepfather and a college roommate and two more dear friends. Each loss sent me reeling.
In the middle of all this, I sent my son off to college and helped him move in. I thought I’d be ok. I’d done this college thing before, but ok was not to be. I grieved his departure no less than I had his sister’s.
Last winter I was in a traumatic car accident that could easily have been fatal. Again, I found myself flattened. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t just pick up where I left off. Life was asking something different of me.
After each of these losses, I found myself in the swirl, feeling like I’d been hit and not sure how to get back on my feet and re-engage. Each time, I somehow did, but from a new place.
Three weeks ago, my dog Cody, my dearest companion on countless hiking and wilderness adventures, died suddenly and unexpectedly. Near me, as I type this, a candle is burning next to a photo of him, framed with a lock of his curly white hair.
This time I didn’t fight it. I abandoned myself to the swirling. I didn’t tell myself to be strong or that I shouldn’t be so devastated because he was only a dog. I had nothing left to fight with. I yelled at death. I told him (yes, it’s a him) that it wasn’t fair, and that he couldn’t have Cody. I told him that I’d had enough and that he wasn’t allowed to touch my life for a while. I was furious, and then I collapsed. Losing Cody knocked me down harder than any loss since my father.
This time however, I see the pattern. I didn’t at first. It was the usual spinning and losing my orientation feeling. Its now familiar because its happened so many times. What I am finally recognizing is that this period of being “knocked down”, when I feel like I’ve been taken out of the flow of life, is the time that my whole being is reorganizing and gathering resources to re-engage, that it comes in waves, and that it can’t be rushed.
Fully embracing the depth of this last loss, of allowing it to rock me, has, instead of sinking me deeper, actually accelerated the regrouping process. The composting of my old life is spawning new growth almost faster than I’m ready for it. The period of creativity that usually comes on the heels of the grieving seems to be overlapping with it. I’m still sad. I still miss him all the time. But I still miss my dad too… and its been 24 years. It doesn’t end, it gets incorporated into the new.
The cycles of nature, of death, decay and rebirth, are familiar to all of us. We live with them all around us, yet our culture does not have a comfortable conversation with death. Over the last several years, I’ve had to develop that conversation. I’m not happy when death arrives in my life, but the very fact of his arrival lends context to everything that comes after. I only have whatever time I’m granted, and I have no way of knowing how long that might be. It felt good to embrace the loss this time, to let go and fall into it. And it feels good to let something new grow from that. It honors the cycle.
I’m not qualified to tell anyone how to be open to the learning that comes through grieving the losses that punctuate life, but as I’ve felt the accompanying pain wash over me, I’ve gained courage by reading and rereading a certain poem by David Whyte:
The Well of Grief:
Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief
turning downward through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe
will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,
nor find in the darkness glimmering
the small round coins
thrown by those who wished for something else.
By David Whyte – Where Many Rivers Meet