Last week, my dear friend Jeanne Tessier died. Her death was not unexpected. She had cancer that had come back many times, and after several years of treating it, she finally decided to let the cancer run its course and to accept death and approach it with bravery and boldness.
Her journey toward death was inspirational, awe-inspiring, and shocking. She approached her mortality with grace, trusting that what was to come was just another part of the marvelous story of her creation.
In the months after she decided to stop her cancer treatments, Jeanne made small changes in her life. She took care of many of her post-mortem tasks so that her children didn’t have to, categorizing her possessions and settling up many of her temporal matters. She also periodically reflected on all of the steps she was taking as she walked toward the afterlife. She titled these reflections “This Dying Business” and periodically posted them on her Facebook page.
I found her reflections to be sources of sincere inspiration and beauty. As someone who just dealt with the death of a loved one (my mother died in December of 2015), I found myself revisiting the final days of my mothers life. Though it was emotional reading Jeanne’s reflections, it was also comforting, providing succor for my emotional wounds after my mother’s death.
A few months before she died, I visited her one last time. She was staying in a friend’s vacant house, though it was fully furnished and had all of the comforts she would need to live. It was an amazingly loving gesture from a dear friend of hers. When I visited her, I thanked her for her bravery and for her honesty in the reflections she had been sharing. She had touched my life by reflecting on the fragility and beauty of her own life. I told her I hoped to share these things with others, hoping that her words may bring others hope and inspiration, filling them with courage, in the face of their own death, or the coming death of a loved one.
And so, below I share her posts, which she titled “This [Living Into] Dying Business”. My prayer is that you might also find beauty and inspiration in her honest and heartfelt words.
THIS DYING BUSINESS: Packing to Move January 14, 2017
I’m packing to move. I can’t count how many times I’ve packed to move in my life, including in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Now I’m preparing to move again, but this time is different. This time there are more layers of meanings to unpacking from cupboards and closets and packing into boxes for transport. This time the interior work — feeling, imagining, deciding, detaching — is thoughtful and exhausting, and the work proceeds much more slowly, one considered object at a time.
I’m preparing to move into the home of a kind and generous and beloved friend. I’m also moving for what I expect will be the last time in this lifetime. So this time I’m preparing to move my body and belongings, but I’m also preparing to die, and doing my best to be ready for it, to approach it clear-eyed and to spare my beloved children the tasks of sorting through all the stuff that gets left behind when someone dies.
For example, I have countless art-making supplies of every imaginable kind — not just paints, pencils, pastels, printmaking tools, beads, paper and canvases, but found or scrounged objects of many kinds — slabs of wood, odd drawer handles, boxes of every size and shape, broken eyeglasses, an old belt buckle, bits of mirror and broken glass. You get the idea. I once moved an entire suitcase of broken glass, much to the amusement of the men who helped me unpack at that destination some years ago. (Eventually, much of that glass became part of “Shattered,” the best sculpture I ever made.) This time, preparing to move, I look at all these things and think, “Who am I kidding? How can I possibly make use of all this stuff in what remains of my lifetime? Yet: making art is the thing that centers and fulfills me more than any other; it is my truest creative expression and prayer. It is also my hope.
So I examine all these objects and weigh the likelihood that I will be able to put them to use. I pull out some things to give my granddaughters — a tiny tea set, some little funnels, a few Japanese fans, some chopsticks, a bag of dice. I pack some materials and tools I’m not likely to have the strength to make art with anymore into a box to give to the Habitat Re-Store. I empty and part with some wonderful old suitcases I used to carry these things around in. And I pack up a lot of it, still, to go with me in hope to my next home, where I hope to make art until I die.
As I sort and pitch and ponder, I put little bits of my history and story — prints, posters, writings, and a few photographs — into a suitcase marked “FOR MY CHILDREN.” When my mother died, I wished I had known more about her and that she had left more clues and evidence behind. I don’t know if my children will wish that or not, but I want them — if they want them– to have some glimpses of who I was and what I created while I was here. They, of course, are my proudest accomplishment. As I pack, I take certain beloved objects of mine and write their names on the bottoms or backs of different ones, wanting to share with each of them some of the beautiful objects I have cherished and loved. I will enjoy these objects awhile longer and then, maybe, they will do the same.
THIS DYING BUSINESS 2: Abundant Life – February 10, 2017
I plowed through the business of moving more exhausted than ever before and yet forging ahead with the clear goal of living each day deliberately, consciously, and with love. For me, this goal includes searching through accumulated scraps of a lifetime, seeking words and images to share, seeking ways to serve even in this dying time. I want to offer gifts of some kind and maybe some perspective to those who walk at my side. I find myself simultaneously immersed in the physicality of my life — changing patterns of sleep, energy, mobility and pain –and also swimming through a wide range and depth of emotions, including sweet nostalgia, a desperate sense of urgency, and tidal waves of grief, both for what has been and what lies ahead. I want to name and give meaning to my experience of dying, to be open to what unfolds (or unravels), watching and waiting, reading my body’s energy and sensations, seeking some clues as to what I will and won’t be able to do. Yet no one knows, exactly, because cancer affects each of us who have it differently.
Now, as I settle in to this lovely space, I am grateful for Amy who has made this home available to me, for all who helped me pack and move and unpack, for being close once again to a favorite dog-walking park, for being close here to my sister Jan and her Donald, for wonderful neighbors David, Karen and Delora, and for feeling welcomed and at home. My friend Brian, who came last weekend to help create a guest room out of chaos and hung all my pictures, is returning this weekend to make a video of making art and talking together, something I can share with loved ones down the road. Awhile back, my daughter Shelley asked if I’d make a recording of myself reading Dylan Thomas’ story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” the reading aloud of which was a Christmas Eve tradition years ago, so Brian is going to help with that as well.
I have a long list of names and contact information of people — generous and kind — who have offered to help with everything from Soul-walking to food and other things. I am grateful to all of you for your willingness and I expect that, before too long, I will be needing assistance in a number of ways and will begin to call. In the meantime, I am grateful for your prayers and good vibes and waves of energy sent my way. I believe these things have real power to lift me up and carry me along on this journey and I am buoyed by knowing so many kind souls hold me in their hearts and minds.
Yesterday was kind of a bleak day for me — I was tired and sore and could not seem to get warm. Today the sun is shining and, after 12-plus hours of sleep, I feel rested and bathed in light. Time to take my dear beastie for a walk. Thank you all.
THIS DYING BUSINESS : UNEXPECTED GIFTS/HOW GOD WORKS – March 12, 2017
Yesterday morning , I awoke in a dark frame of mind that hung around. Around lunchtime, I went out with my Soul dog for a walk and on the way back stopped at the mailbox and there found a letter. The walk hadn’t lifted my mind, heart or view.
I came inside and opened the letter. It was from a person with whom I used to share a spiritual community and a couple of small group experiences some years ago, someone I’d never known well, but whose presence and company I had enjoyed in the years our paths intersected. Her brief, kind letter was pure gift and all the richer for being utterly unexpected.
The writer had learned that my cancer is back and so took time to write and tell me about all the times she thought of me when at the community gatherings I no longer attend, about things she remembers about my life and how I tried to live, my presence and demeanor, my beloved dog Spirit… in short, her memories of me. She ended her note with words of thanks for having mentored her in some ways, unknowingly, by how I lived my life.
What an unexpected gift and remarkable treasure, especially on a day when my own light was dim. None of us ever really know whose lives we touch or in what ways, but, oh, what a gift we receive when someone tells us and affirms thereby that our lives have made a difference in their own.
THIS DYING BUSINESS 4: Getting Real Now – March 8, 2017
[Please know before reading the poem below that this is not a request for help but part of my continuing effort to share this experience with you. So many of you have offered to help and that time is coming but not here yet. When it comes nearer, I’ll be asking for help of various kinds from all who have offered. For now, though, this is just my attempt to give words to the “getting real now” of my journey.]
noun: the two sub-layers of the earth’s crust… that move, float, and sometimes fracture and whose interaction causes continental drift, earthquakes, volcanoes, mountains, and oceanic trenches (Dictionary.com)
“And who is your caregiver?”
the hospice nurse asks. “When
the time comes, who will care
for you?” The question stuns,
and not just because I have no one
person, partner, sibling or child
who would be free to come in
my dying time to care for me.
(Anymore, who does? The lives
of nearly everyone I know are
wild with busyness.)
The question stuns, even though
I’ve heard and asked it of myself
(when it was still theoretical).
It stuns because I am, and for most
of my life have been, my own.
I am my caregiver. (Not that I’ve
been a good one, having neglected
my care in so many ways on so
many days.) Nonetheless, I’m it.
What stuns is the realization, swift
and sudden, that before too long,
I will have to let that go. I will
have to surrender my life to others’
care. I do my best (and fail) to give
my life to The Beloved every day.
But to other human beings? Having
been harmed so early by those who
first were given to care for me? To now
seek care from those I’ve tried
so hard (if badly) to care for in my life?
Ground shakes; the walls won’t hold.
Jeanne Tessier 3-18-17
THIS DYING BUSINESS 5: Living the Gift of Days – April 28, 2017
I have so many people praying for my well-being. I take good care of myself – eating well, taking vitamins, making and regularly consuming fudge full of turmeric, reputed to be effective at slowing cancer’s course (the turmeric, not the fudge, although who knows?). I regularly engage in visual meditation, envisioning
the colors of the chakras enveloping, penetrating and bringing healing to my body. I practice a little reiki on myself, and I pray to have all the time I need to accomplish what I still hope to accomplish in my life.
Which of these things are of God? All of them, prayer most certainly. Which of these things have secured for me this period of health and well-being in which I currently am delighting? All of them, perhaps, and God most certainly. I feel strong. I have no pain and only a little discomfort. I have energy. Soul and I are taking long, wonderful walks. The lump that appeared where my second tumor was removed a few months ago seems to have disappeared and as of yet there are no markers to suggest that the cancer has taken up lodgings elsewhere in my body. How long will this season of wellness last? I have no idea, but I’m going to ride this wave.
Marc Cohn, one of my favorite singer/songwriters, recorded a song a few years ago after recovering from being shot in the head; the song is called “Live Out the String.” It is a wonderful song and has been playing in my head for days. It contains these words: “Maybe life is curious to see what you would do with the gift of being left alive.” Maybe. Most certainly, in this and so many other things and ways, I am blessed beyond all reason. This is what I know for sure: I am glad to be alive and grateful beyond measure and I’m going to ride this wave until it ends.
Jeanne Tessier 4-28-17
THIS LIVING INTO DYING BUSINESS : June 9, 17
I had CT scans of my head and torso on Tuesday in order to learn where the cancer might be in my body. I learned the results yesterday: there is a tumor inside my left chest wall near where a tumor was surgically removed several months ago. The area of my chest near where my left breast was removed 3 years ago has a number of lymph nodes that are enlarged with cancer. And there are some dark spots on my left lung, most likely cancer as well.
The good news:
The CTs of my head are clear and there is no evidence of cancer in any of my digestive organs.
Most of the time, I feel great. I have very little pain. I had a few days of occasional dizziness recently, but that subsided.
I continue to walk my Soul dog 4-5 times a day and would guess that we’ve logged 400-500 miles since the beginning of February,
I continue to look for beauty in the world every day (Soul looks for squirrels).
Since the beginning of February, I have completed 25 paintings, have taken a couple hundred pictures, have framed about another 20 pieces completed earlier, and have plans for many more.
I’ve had visits from and time with many family members and friends.
I get to hang out with my granddaughters who delight me on a regular basis.
Thanks to my friend Amy, I have a beautiful home in which to live.
My sister Jan lives a block away and comes over to play Scrabble and share meals often.
I have received so many kindnesses and blessings from so many people.
I am glad to be alive and, at the same time, I am not afraid of going Home when that time comes.
Living and dying are threads of the same tapestry, and I’m still busy weaving as best I can.
THIS DYING BUSINESS 7: September 19, 2017
For over a year after learning my cancer was back, I’ve had a pretty good run. Up until quite recently, despite the presence of cancer within, I’ve had good health and energy. I’ve been able to spend rich and healing time with family members and friends from far and near. I’ve had time to make art for two little exhibits here locally. Until recently, I could still comfortably walk my Soul dog 4-5 times a day. I’ve had time to sort through possessions to share with my family now or when I’m gone. I’ve gathered together writings, photos, and memorabilia for my beloved grown children, planned the basic structure of my funeral, arranged for my cremation, reconnected with a beloved friend from our undergraduate years who is on a brave and noble cancer journey of her own, done a bit of writing and a great deal of life review, reveling for some part of most days in the beauty of the world. Of course, I have also wondered, worried, grieved, and prayed.
Lately, life inside my physical body has become harder: pain, fatigue, loss of energy, weakness and so on, to the point at which it recently became important to let my beloved Soul dog go begin the next phase of his earthly life wrapped in the love, energy and care of my niece Mary and her wonderful family. His adjustment to his new life is going well and I know he is going to revel in the love he finds there. As for me, I’m sleeping a bit better since I’m not sharing sleeping space with him, I’m greatly missing his presence, and I am grateful and relieved to know that he has the loving family he needs. I pray he will give Mary and Glenn and Joey and Tessa and even Grandpa Joe, who will also be a part of his life in Illinois, much love and laughter.
Now I’m hoping to do a bit more writing about this “long, strange trip” I’m on, to learn some hard lessons about surrender, to read and maybe make a bit more art, to visit (more briefly) with family and friends, and to (hopefully) find some combination of gentle medicines that will ease pain and leave my mind more or less intact. I am praying I don’t linger too long, and I would welcome your joining me in that prayer. I’ve had a rich, full and difficult life (as most of us do) and I know Love awaits because that is who God is. I look forward to being welcomed into that Love and, I hope, as well, to being reunited with people I’ve loved here in my lifetime and with some animals, too, especially a big black Spirit dog who left this plane a year ago. For those who have doubts about the souls of animals continuing into eternity, I assure you that Spirit was my truest and most faithful spiritual teacher, even though I’ve had many wonderful human teachers as well.
I welcome your responses to my sharing, but please know it’s not required. I just hope, that if you read what I write, you will find some value there. Thank you all for being my family and friends.