I have a dear friend who is dying.
In and of itself it’s not really anything out of the ordinary, however what brings some irony to the situation is that my friend once wrote a book about dying, and how to lose one’s fear of it. And she is not approaching her death as she herself has counseled so many others to do.
Back in a time when generous book advances were more common than today, she’d made a pretty penny from her work even before it had hit the presses. The book was written a few years after she had begun what was to become her most important gift to the world, the creation of a non-profit organization called ‘God’s Love We Deliver’, an operation which daily delivered fresh-cooked meals to sick and homebound people in metro NYC (in its beginning it delivered several hundred, today it’s upwards of seven thousand a day). Ganga had garnered some major street cred back then from ‘God’s Love’ which no doubt had something to do with the book advance. GL had also caught the eye of some well-known folks who had either chosen to sit on the board or give the gift of their time, money and visibility: comedienne Joan Rivers, socialite and philanthropist Blaine Trump (yes, that Trump family – by a former marriage – yet I personally believe her to be cut of a far different cloth), designers Calvin Klein and Michael Kors, among many others. When Ganga began to teach classes to men dying of AIDS on how to approach the end of life, it raised her profile in the culture of death awareness. She was a guru of sorts on the subject. Her teachings on acceptance of death were a perfect compliment to her mission to assist the victims of the AIDS epidemic with home-delivered, high-quality food, delivered with love. She advocated for both a loving approach to a person’s final days, as well as a practical approach to the death that was to follow. In fact, she encouraged people to lose their fear of death and accept it as a potentially wonderful experience.
She and I met late one night in line for the pharmacy at CVS some six years ago. It was her adorable Maltese dog named Bobby McGee who pulled me into her orbit, (she used to waitress at Max’s Kansas City in Manhattan back in the day, where Janis Joplin was a customer of hers, hence her dog’s name) but it was the conversation about death which we stumbled upon so organically which called me to her friendship. I told her I had wished there was a book that addressed death in a simple, pragmatic way – and she told me that there was; she herself had written just such a book! I recognized in her a fellow human of similar energy and drive, so when she told me, I didn’t doubt her for a moment, and I eagerly awaited the story that was to follow. And so it was that she gave me the thumbnail of her life’s work. After hearing about her experiences, I knew that this was a woman I had to know better. How lucky was I that this special woman lived right here in my town?
That night when I got home I ordered her book, and read it cover-to-cover shortly after it arrived. In the wake of my surprise divorce a few years earlier, and in an effort to preserve my sanity and understand how better to make sense of the experience, I had dived deep into the study of things philosophical, spiritual and metaphysical, and so the main idea which she posited of an existence beyond this physical world was not foreign to me or without serious merit and consideration. I liked what I read, and I was relieved to find someone for whom the topic was so easily discussed (and especially so as it was examined outside of any religious constructs).
Ever since we met, death has been an easy topic of conversation for the two of us to continue. In fact, there has never been a subject we two couldn’t discuss. We always enjoyed deeply candid conversations; it was the main reason we two felt so connected. (I wrote on my kitchen white board something she had said to me this past week: “Your conversation is nourishing”.) But now, whether it’s due to her severe lack of memory or her primal, instinctive fear of the finality, she has come to completely deny that her death is nearing. Actually, it’s not so much that she denies it, for the subject never even arises. She simply carries on as if it were life as usual. She behaves as if her life is now the same as it has ever been, when any other person in the room can plainly see that it is not. And for some reason which I cannot identify, but respect nonetheless, I am uncharacteristically unable to address the subject with her. It just doesn’t feel as if there would be any real benefit from the discussion, and so I leave it be.
Recently she broke her left hip (she’d managed to get somewhat better and at least ambulatory after she broke the right one plus a kneecap two years ago), but after this second surgery she has simply gone downhill. And at this point, all the signs are there; she weights a mere seventy-six pounds, and hasn’t the strength to move her legs or adjust her position in the bed. She can’t even put food on her own fork, and beyond that just getting the food to her mouth has become a challenge. And tonight as I was tucking her in and trying to get her comfortable (this is hard to do at this point as she’s so very skinny and pressure on her bones hurts), we both noticed how purple the tips of her fingers had turned, and how cold they were to the touch. She assured me that they didn’t feel cold. Another sign…
Yet somehow she can’t even see this for herself. The past few days she’s rationalized that her current condition is the exception to the norm; today she is unusually tired, or she ate enough at the previous meal, or maybe it’s that she’d rather enjoy my company that waste our visit by eating. A few days ago I brought a chopped liver sandwich (her father made chopped liver and she often waxes nostalgic about it) and she ate with enthusiasm and delight – but a mere three bites. That was all she could take. All the logic in the world couldn’t convince her that this was hardly enough caloric intake to maintain her health, let alone make up for the twenty-plus pounds she’d lost since she’d her surgery.
The hospice nurse and social worker (the latter is truly an absolute bitch, how or why she came to this career choice is beyond my comprehension) arrived while I was visiting a few days ago, and I was asked to please leave the room. I waited outside while they told my friend of the change in her care from rehab to hospice. It didn’t seem that my friend understood. When I was invited back in, something had changed. It seemed that Ganga had made the case for my being family of sorts; she wanted me there to hear the information. The women gave their spiel again. I interpreted it for my friend in the gentlest way I could. “Oh no, I don’t want hospice!” she said adamantly. I explained that if she gained weight, if she showed an increase in strength and if she made some overall progress, that her status as a hospice patient would be changed back to that of a rehab patient. This new change in care was just a measure of relief for her; she wouldn’t be made to adhere to a strict diet (she always complained about choices being made for her), and she wouldn’t be made to endure physical therapy (through which she screamed in fear and pain the whole time). She could enjoy the break she so often asked for. Still, it didn’t seem to matter. The word hospice is loaded, and as lacking as my friend may be in memory and physical abilities, this was not lost on her.
I realize that it’s not important that she be completely aware of her patient status. And anyway, having her truly understand the situation is not really possible; her lack of short term memory prevents any new information from sticking. And whether she knows that her death is coming before long or not – it doesn’t change a thing. What does matter is that I try, as her friend, to maintain a certain level of joy, satisfaction and physical comfort in her remaining experience here. I will continue to bring her her favorite foods, whether she takes one bite or not. I will play the chants of Muktananda from her days in the ashram in India, and I’ll hang his picture on her wall. I will bring her my favorite down pillow and comforter from home. I will do everything short of burn her favorite incense (I’ve already been spotted as a rule-breaker on the floor, no need to tempt complete banishment from the place) in order to keep her as content and happy as possible. We will simply have to live each moment to the best of our ability. From here on in I will do my best to keep her life worth living.
I too might have to employ this approach with respect to my own life these days. We’ve lost fourteen birds – some dearly beloved and deeply important to us – over the past six weeks. My mother is eighty-six now and her health and strength wain visibly as the months go by. My own body has continued to change in unpleasant ways that break my vain heart daily, and behind all of this is the knowledge that my son and only life companion will be leaving me forever in just a few months, sooner even, when one considers he will pass much of the summer with his dad. How I will manage, as a single person in the world with very few friends? This I do not yet know. I will simply have to continue to witness the joy and beauty in my life as it appears. I can do no more, and I realize that it won’t serve me to do any less.
I understand that everything is transitory. I have worked for years on getting this knowledge to live inside of me. Yeah, I get it – and yet I don’t. There is the intellectual aspect of me which is well-informed and trusting, but then there is the deeper, more animalistic feeling that I just can’t shake. Yes, I do believe it to be true, as my old family friend Martha always used to say, that ultimately “everything always works out”. My head believes it, but on some level my gut doesn’t quite trust it to be so. Elihu will often defend Ganga’s seemingly strange behavior these days by reminding me that we are physiologically wired to stay alive, and that that drive is strong. Primal. Instinct wins over intellect here, he tells me. Must be what’s going on in Ganga’s experience. She knows it’ll all work out. And yet she can’t quite bring herself to accept it. Understandable, because the next thing on her to-do list is to die. Easy to rationalize when it’s someone else’s experience I guess. I certainly can’t know for sure that I myself won’t behave in the very same way when my own death shows itself to be coming soon.
Ironically, the day that Ganga died I had successfully made my online reservation for a visit at the rehab facility, and even had the screen shot to prove it (the online system didn’t always print out the time I reserved, so this time I thought I’d beat the system). Elihu and I went to visit Grandma after school, and after that I was going to go make my visit (feeling certain it would be my last). As I was getting in the car to leave, I received a call from her sister. Ganga has died peacefully at 4 pm, less than an hour earlier.
In my mind I played back last night’s visit. A dear friend with whom she’d started God’s Love We Deliver and her husband had made the long drive from Maryland to hold Ganga’s hand and be there with her in the time that remained. I remember seeing all three of them there in the gentle light of the small table lamp, her friend reading poems to her, holding her hand… I remember thinking it would merely be selfish if I were to interrupt the vibe by wishing to hold Ganga’s hand once more, or to kiss her on the head… I had only ever kissed her once, a few days earlier. I had been so conflicted about doing so (it still felt awkward to offer such a tender gesture for a woman who, like me, spoke her mind and swore like a sailor), but I made myself do it, and for this I’m now very relieved. So as I took in the scene, and before I pulled closed the curtain between us, I simply said “I love you Ganga, I’ll see you tomorrow”.
I last saw Ganga on Tuesday night, the first of June. She died the following day at 4 p.m.
It is Friday night now, and tomorrow morning I will make the drive, early morning, to witness my friend’s cremation. Naturally, I had to take some action in order to learn where and when it was to happen. It still amazes me that our culture is just fine with the idea of a loved one’s body being whisked away in the night and returning a few weeks later in a small five pound box, no questions asked. Seriously, no one is sentimental? Curious? In need of closure? Sigh.
As I write this, my friend’s body still exists. Ganga still exists in corporeal form. But in a matter of hours, she won’t. And this doesn’t matter at all, really. I can hear her in my head saying “Oh Elizabeth it’s bullshit. Don’t think for a moment that the body means anything.” At least I think so. That’s been kinda eating at me the last two days. I used to think I knew exactly what she would have said. But now I start to doubt…
It’s now Saturday morning. In two hours’ time I will watch the smoke rise from the wide-bore metal smokestack, carrying with it a portion of Ganga’s body upward and into the ether. Then I will pray, I will chant, I will wish her a loving and peaceful transition. I will probably cry too. And then her form as I knew it, the form which made me smile with its familiarity, the form that once served her so well and which later let her down so deeply, that crazy mass of now-decrepit cells will be nothing but bones and ashes, and smoke in the air. That which was.
It’s still super early. I didn’t wake up in a good place in my sleep cycle, so now I’m desperately groggy and trying on many excuses to see if I can allow myself to sleep in and simply miss the whole affair. But how often does one get this sort of chance to witness the final departure of a dear friend? With a mixture of sorrow, anticipation and a tiny bit of dread, I’m going to pack my bag and head off now.
I arrived at Albany Rural Cemetery a bit before 8 am, (as I’d been told that Ganga would go in first thing in the morning) and the kind woman I’d spoken to on the phone was there in the office. They were a bit backed up; Ganga’s cremation had first been moved from Friday afternoon to early on Saturday, and now it seemed as if they wouldn’t get to her until noon or later. It was time to elicit some more information to see if I might not nudge things a bit in my favor; I did my ‘thing’ and expanded the conversation as much as I felt her to be comfortable with (ok, I probably went a bit beyond that). She told me the guy who was working the crematorium’s name was Damien. “You’ll know who he is. He’s got a lot of tattoos.”
I parked in the shade just past the chapel, crematorium and mausoleum, all of which were housed in the same terra cotta-colored stone building. I walked around the perimeter once, and noticed that there was a large hall on the lower level with a door that was unlocked. It was a mausoleum, its towering walls made of smooth marble squares, some occupied, some yet awaiting their tenants. There was a table with a vase of plastic flowers and a guest book on it by the doorway. I stopped to read the entries. They were all family members come to visit parents and grandparents. Not a one of the messages was terribly interesting, and they all seemed to be desperate with loss and sorrow. I looked for something more personal or unique, but nothing stood out. We miss you Grandma, we love you Papi… Does it all just end like this? Not a lot of hope for closure or transition on those pages.
I decided I would leave a message of my own for Ganga. I sat down on the cool stone stairs, held the book in my lap, thought for a few moments, and then filled in a page. I took a pic, then returned the book to the table and stood back for a moment to regard the setting. All at once a bald man in a gas mask came running down the stairs at top speed, stopping short at seeing me – I believe I remember him even putting a hand to his heart, because it was clear that I’d scared the shit out of him. We both paused for a moment and I saw that his head was covered in vividly-colored tattoos. “Hi, are you Damien?” I asked, but he didn’t answer, he just offered a muffled “Oh I’m sorry!” from behind the mask and made a sort of slight bow of apology, and then ran back up the flight of stairs. It seemed as if he couldn’t hear me with the headgear on. I remained in the hall for a few more minutes, noting the fact that, as Sarah had told me, that because they were so backed up, the place wasn’t presentable to the public at the moment. Cardboard body boxes were stacked up in the common area, and a very industrial-looking apparatus used for holding caskets was parked in an adjacent hallway. At the end of the day, it’s a physical world, and there are physical jobs that need to be done.
Within a minute or two the bald man came back down the staircase, this time sans gas mask. Again he apologized, and of course I did too. Why should he ever expect a stranger to be here at 8 a.m. on a Saturday? I saw that he was indeed heavily tattooed (plus he had a thrice-pierced lip). Oh what a kind man he was; I told him why I was there, that it was important for me to be here when my friend was cremated. He said Sarah was right, they were a bit backed up, and it would probably be around noon by the time he could get to her. That was ok, I answered. I’d tour the cemetery and bide my time ’til then. So Damien left to get back to his job. But then a few minutes later he came down the stairs again. “I can get your friend in at 9” he offered. “You shouldn’t have to hang around here for so long”. I thanked him, this time I was the one offering a slight bow of gratitude. “I’ll get things going.” Damien offered. “And I’ll have your friend in at 9”. “Um… so which stack will she be in?” I asked, referring to the pair of metal chimneys. Without hesitation he answered “The one on the left”. I nodded. “Ok, thanks”. He turned to leave. I felt a slight rise in my adrenaline. “Wait!” I called out, and he stopped. In my mind I considered the things I might do as a symbol of our connection in this final moment – perhaps he could retrieve a lock of her hair? Perhaps he could take the flowers in my hand and have them burned along with her? In a flash I realized all of the legal and logistical problems that even a tiny request might create, and quickly said “Never mind”. No, there was nothing left to be done. He nodded, smiled kindly, turned and left.
I found a spot under a deliciously-scented flowering mock orange bush just twenty feet outside of the furnace portion of the building. I pulled out my phone to check that I had the chant correct. Om Namah Shivaya. I pulled out Ganga’s book, and then her small bible. I had brought a cushion to sit on, and was wearing her red beaded necklace from India. I tried to imagine that now tiny body, that white-haired dynamo of a woman, lying just behind that vent, behind that brick wall. That body was in lousy shape when she left it, and certainly it was less than that now. But being the deeply sentimental person I am, I couldn’t help but try to picture her in my mind’s eye. I could imagine her laying there, a mere shell of the woman she once was, and with that image fixed in my head, I said my own quiet inner farewell to that familiar form.
A few minutes before nine I heard some machinery begin to operate, and I saw the wavy heat lines of burning fuel rising from the stack (for me it was the one on the right; I was on the opposite side of the wall from Damien). Ok, I thought, it has to get up to speed first… And then, a moment or two after nine, there was one initial blast of sound, and one puff of black smoke… The smoke didn’t last. Within a minute the black smoke returned to the invisible waves of heat, rising, which continued for another hour and forty minutes. (Later I surmised that this initial burst of smoke may have been the easily-burned parts of the package like her hair, her nightgown, the dry skin, the box… the rest of the material was wetter and denser and would just be a low and slow process.) The initial plume stunned me into tears, as I realized the transformation was underway. I reached for her bible, the one with her initials embossed on the cover and which had been given to her at her first communion in St. Louis another lifetime ago, and I turned to a page in which she had once inserted a laminated card with the Saint Francis of Assisi prayer that begins “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace, where there is hate, let me sow love…” I read it aloud, through tears. I took a moment to consider it more deeply, and I read it again. And then I set to chanting. I readily admit that I’m years out of any meditative practice, so the chanting went in spurts – as did my focus. I needed to relieve my joints too, so a few times I stood, I walked, I considered the vapors rising from the stack. I thought of my friend’s physical state by now, and how I was moving beyond my sentiment for it. I stood in the shadow of the wavy heat lines on the pavement, and noted how our forms were casting shadows together. Likely it was far more fuel than body, but still… It was us, together for one last moment here on earth.
My friend had wasted away to a mere seventy-plus pounds at the end of her life, so after about an hour and forty minutes I began to wonder if it wasn’t time. But how to know? Would there be some mystical sign? Did she plan on letting me know? And within seconds of my pondering this, I heard two short sirens go off, and then the engines let down and began to hum a little more quietly. Yeah, I was pretty sure that this had been the timer, and our dear Ganga was finally cooked. It made me laugh.
I got in my car and as I slowly pulled away I saw Damien, leaning against the arched entrance, smoking a cigarette. Passing more time while her remains cooled down before they could be processed. “Man, I bet a lot of this job is just waiting, huh?” I asked, elbow hanging out my open window. That began a ten minute conversation in which we covered a lot of ground; he’d taken the job as grounds keeper originally, as he liked being outdoors, but then the guy working the crematory needed a sub, and pretty soon what Damien had once thought an unthinkable task had now become his new full-time job. He said it was particularly hard seeing the kids and babies that came in. He shared with me that while he’d never seen a ghost, once he had been overwhelmed with the scent of vanilla while mowing the lawn, the summer air around him filled with nothing but dust and grass seed. I mean, it is a cemetery. Certain subjects come up. Ghosts and unexplainable events must be covered at some point I should think. And it’s always nice when you meet another soul who has shared similar experiences, and with whom censorship is not necessary. Natural candor is a beautiful thing. Hey, it’s what I had with Ganga.
Ganga would’ve really liked this nice young tattooed man who reverently loaded her into the furnace of evermore. I’m sure it woulda made her smile. And I’m sure if she could’ve seen everything with the clarity of her former self, she would’ve been pretty happy with the way in which the last few weeks went down. (On some level I’m sure she knew well what was going on; she left after all was resolved.) Ganga had made peace with her long-estranged son, her son’s father, spent time with her daughter and her sister, and saw once again her beloved friend from the old days, who’d journeyed far just to hold her friend’s hand at the end. Ganga asked after Elihu at every one of our visits, and she was deeply satisfied to know where he was going to school, and that he himself was happy with the choice (she was adamantly against him attending an Ivy League for numerous reasons) and the last time Elihu visited with her, he had held her hand for a long time and had told her that he loved her. He sobbed the whole way home, a behavior very uncharacteristic of him. I told her about this the following day, and told her that for reasons he didn’t himself even understand, Elihu loved her so very deeply. “I feel the same way” she answered.
In the end, everything really did work out. And I know that Ganga is doing fine wherever she is now. I know it. I can just feel it in my bones.