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It was 1880, the hardest year in the life of Ivan Ilyich, the protagonist in The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), a novella written by Leo Tolstoy. Its depiction of illness morphing into the shock of death has become a classic. Its dynamics find resonance in today’s experience of dying/death, my own, as well.

An injury from a fall and the persistent foul taste in his mouth compel Ivan to seek medical help, but none of the three specialists concur on the cause of his symptoms. Instead, they prescribe ineffective tonics that exacerbate his obsessive thoughts and worsen his pain.

Months pass with Ivan’s body wasting atop his sofa, his face to its back. Slowly, the specter of his death surfaces, and with it, more obsessing for the life he once had: Chief Magistrate of the High Court, bridge player, husband and father, in name only. From isolation and loneliness spur even more painful questions, all unanswered.

Mercifully, two hours before his passing, Ivan hears a different voice from his psyche questioning his fear of death. In its place, there is light. “So that’s what it is! What joy!” exclaims Ivan Ilyich. “Death is finished. It is no more.” Thus he passes.

Within Ivan’s experience, I saw my obsessive thinking, until grounded within the discipline of CPA’s Twelve Steps. His search for a fix for his symptoms recalled my own doctoring and disappointments for years. His depression, self-pity, loneliness, fears, sleepless nights, also mirrored my own, prior to my signing on to hospice eight months ago.

Unlike Ian Ilyich, however, contentment supports the waiting for my true home from whence I came, over eighty-four years ago. Yet, I’ve still much to learn … if allotted the time.

 

I still remember last spring’s epiphany. It was bone silent, mysterious. Outside my opened window, night’s remnants slicked the fresh-leaved redbud tree with Van- Gogh-like brush strokes.

A solitary chirp nudged the stillness. It was beginning. More chirps swelled the darkness, intermingled by piercing trills; then warbles; then whistles; then pipes; then chucks; then full-throated songs colored the tracings of light in the sky. The chorus became unbearable until it subsided into isolated sighs. Then, stillness returned like a brooding mother upon her clutch.

With the stillness came the imprint of having been touched, deeply; in its wake, an impetus to prayer, in any expression: contemplation, dance, words, or painting—Whatever it took to honor the experience and share it with others before being lost in busyness: anathema to the spiritual.

In other centuries, birds were revered for their supernatural powers as co-creators and messengers of the gods. The Raven was one of these; it was venerated by natives along the Pacific Northwest for bringing light to humans, lost in impenetrable darkness. Closer to our time, the Brothers Grimm’s discovery of two folk tales, “The Raven,” and “The Seven Ravens,” nuanced the folklorists’ imaginative handling of this image as it evolved through time.

The seasonal presence of birds, especially at dawn, speaks of a Divine order at work, now as well as in the past. We have only to be still and listen and allow their color-sounds to swell us with hope.

 

 

At 2 A.M., I awoke with this dream as soft rains streaked my window with limpid fingers:

With others, I help care for newborn babies and toddlers somewhere in the Orient.

 This dream reveals soundness in my psychic depths and confirmation of my daily routine, despite fatigue and shortness of breath and neuropathy.

With others suggests my willingness to accept the support of my network of helpers, both for personal needs and for the upkeep of my home. This also includes weekly visits from the hospice team and the chiropractor. And phone contacts from my sister Martha put finishing touches on each day. Never could I have imagined surrounding myself with such spirited women as I move through my end time. All is gift that continues enriching this process and preparing me for what is coming.

I help care suggests my deepening relationship with Creator God, empowering me to care for others in need, critical for existence. Eros or connectedness energizes such healing, a process that deepens my compassion and expands gratitude for my humanness.

The next image, newborn babies and toddlers, suggests manifestations of the Divine Child, born into a dangerous world and needing exceptional interventions to survive. Their presence attests to new spiritual growth in my psyche, awaiting further refinement and actualization.

And the Orient suggests the East, the rising sun, hope. It also refers to distant lands, unknown to me, at this time. Yet in my psyche I’m already there and engaged in a specific task. No signs of unwellness, or fatigue dispirit me.

Such dreams hearten me. Without them, I falter.

 

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