When a Friend Blows Your Nose
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I am typing these words a day after the passing of a dear friend at nearly 1 a.m on Sunday, December 9, 2018. According to some people who knew and will always love her, Ondreah was a ‘warrior who fought the good fight’. From the outset, her attitude was all about healing. She used language that was life-enhancing, not wanting to buy into the scary medical descriptions. A career nurse, she knew too much about that. Triple Negative Breast Cancer was the diagnosis after she discovered a lump in her breast on Christmas morning 2016. Thus began the journey on what she called the “C-train.’
After a lumpectomy, and the infusions of what she referred to as IV meds (instead of calling it chemo). followed by radiation, her prognosis looked good. Tests showed hopeful news. Like many survivors, she had the lingering, ‘what if it returns?’ fears. In addition to reframing the treatment, whenever she would go in for her sessions, she would tote with her, all manner of spiritual support, that included soothing music, pictures of her teachers and their lineage, prayer beads and books. She would attach affirmations on the tubing that delivered what she intended would be healing and not harmful. Ondreah got involved with several online communities, offering and receiving encouragement.
On the trip, she encountered wonderful healers as well as medical professionals who needed a heads up on what it means to fill that role. As a result, she and I decided to create a class called ‘The Other End of the Stethoscope: Listening to the Heart In Our Care’. As a medical social worker and cardiac patient myself, I could personally and professionally speak to that dynamic as well. It was to be experiential and didactic, offering them another way of viewing the care of patients and their loved ones, since we saw it as a team endeavor. We were not able to complete it before she died, so I will be moving forward with it next year.
A few weeks ago, Ondreah reluctantly entered into hospice care, after cancer did indeed return with intensity and metastasized to her lungs. She had re-engaged in treatment with another round of chemo, and immunotherapy. Her body wasn’t taking it too well, but her mind was focused on a good outcome. She admitted over and over that the anxiety was a constant companion. She repeated, “I never thought it would be like this.” She continued to seek purpose in educating and healing with others; renewing her nurse’s license so she could go back to work, which she hadn’t done in more than a year. When she was still able to get out and about, time with friends, meals, movies, house parties, walks, road trips, music, and spiritual services were part of her activities. Laughter and tears were part of every day.
When the treatment felt overwhelming and per her medical team, was ineffective, she decided to go the hospice route, initially at home for a bit more than a week. Her living room became a pseudo-hospital room with a bed, commode, an oxygen concentrator and spare tanks taking up space. A pharmacopeia of various medications was carefully placed on a table top that those of us who did hands-on care, dispensed and documented. After a few days, it became evident that her pain could not be managed at home, so she entered into an inpatient hospice unit in a nearby hospital. Walking in there felt like being in a peaceful haven. I swear that the feet of the staff didn’t touch the floor, but instead, hovered above as they moved efficiently through the hallways. The room became an ashram where prayers were said and meditation and energy work took place.
I wrote these comments on Facebook before and then immediately following her passing.
“Over the past few months, since Ondreah’s new diagnosis, I have done my typical ‘hold it together’ so I can ‘get shit done’. I do that well, taking after my mother in that regard. She was the rock of the family. In the midst of this journey, I have trickled a few tears. My son called me Friday night to check on me. I was looking out the window of the hospice unit waiting room at the darkened street below, remembering nights 20 years ago when I was staying in the ICU with my husband who was making his transition. Adam said, “Mom, I know you. You’re taking care of everyone else again. You need to take care of you.”
“Two particularly powerful things happened as Ondreah Johson was passing. I had my hands on her leg and arm and could feel a jolt of electricity such that my hands were lifted off her body. As she was taking her leave, I finally had a tearful breakthrough. I had been holding on for a long time. I started snotting so my friend Ernie Oktay grabbed a tissue and blew my nose for me. (like you would blow your child’s nose. I reminded him of the adage: “You can pick your friends. You can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.” He came pretty close) What are friends for? Through my tears, I told him that oughta be a Laughter Yoga exercise! Now to sleep, I hope.
Yesterday I rationalized that my words were my tears and I emoted through my writing. Now my tears are my tears.”
“Feeling wiped every which way imaginable. I also feel deep gratitude for your love and prayers. I have a come clean, though. Many people have said how wonderful I am for taking care of Ondreah and being so present for her. I did what a good friend would do. She would have done the same for me. Her death is not about me and I’m not going to make it about me. I was also not alone in taking care of her. Team Ondreah was comprised of multitudes including her siblings and many friends. We all took shifts in providing hands-on care and healing. Some sent it from a distance.
That being said, I also know that I have a tendency to hold support at arm’s length. I have taken on the role of provider of support, not recipient of it unless I am in dire need. I am asking people in my life to remind me to receive.
Am I going to miss my friend? Terribly. I am already feeling the absence and longing to hear her voice. Do I know that she is at peace? Certainly. Do my spiritual beliefs tell me that her new life is more amazing than I can imagine? For sure. I read to her from my favorite book about death, called The Next Place, by Warren Hanson a few hours before she passed as a reminder to both of us and her family that, ”
“I will cherish all the friendship I was fortunate to find,
All love and all the laughter in the place I leave behind.
All these good things will go with me.
They will make my spirit glow.
And that light will shine forever In the next place that I go.”
When Ondreah passed, her sister, two friends and I were with her and midwifed her into her next place. The serene music of kirtan artists, Deva Premal and Miten, wafted through the air on repeat for hours. At one point, like many, she seemed like she wanted to climb out of bed, reaching and grasping. I asked where she was going and told her that she could leave whenever she was ready, but couldn’t get out of the bed to do it. She had an amazing amount of physical strength in the process. I placed her arm over her shoulder and leaned into the bed with her, as her sister sat on her other side and our friends were at her feet.
I had observed a phenom that I had long believed was so. My take is that when we are close to death, our soul/spirit/animating force gets too big for the body to contain. When she was in the ‘birth canal’, her body seemed smaller and her face contracted and shrunk. By the time she made her exit, as gracefully as could be, it was but a shell. The woman that she was, would now live on in memory. As is said in the Jewish tradition, “May her memory be for a blessing.”
And in her own spiritual tradition; Sufism:
Sufi Invocation (Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan)
“Toward the One, the perfection of Love, Harmony and Beauty, the Only Being, united with all the illuminated souls, who form the embodiment of the Master, the Spirit of Guidance.”
She is now in the presence of all the illuminated souls, of that I am certain.
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Photo credit: Shutterstock
December 16, 2018 at 07:35PM