I hope you all are well and enjoying the beginnings of 2016!!
Below is a piece I wrote regarding my recent journey to support my twin sister as she cares for her partner dying of cancer. While this blog doesn’t relate directly to China or one of our upcoming Little Po treks, it delves into some of the fundamental experiences of being human,… the power of love, of family, and dying. I also share how my outdoor qigong practice and connection with the land is a vital core routine and provides a foundation of nourishment for me, my family and for all I do. Thank you for receiving this story and journey….
I am moved to share with you my recent journey to support my twin sister as she takes on providing end-of-life care for her dear friend and partner of many years, Kamal.Diagnosed with gallbladder cancer in July 2015, Kamal is now on hospice, and agreed earlier this month to move from his home in Virginia and come live with my sister Lynn in her warm home in Salem, Massachusetts.
The two of them share a most beautiful love. I am moved by the depth of Lynn’s devotion, the way she holds him throughout sleepless nights, the gentleness with which she offers tea and sips of soup, the way they look into each other’s eyes – such beauty, so raw and real and here right now.
Through my words I aim to offer an experience of the preciousness of their love and our time together, the preciousness of nourishment and connecting with the land, and the preciousness of dying wise.
A Special and not-so-usual Love
Kamal, the only one in his large family to leave his village in India, came to the states as a young man to pursue his education and passion for science. Earning a PhD in Biophysics he later came to work at the National Science Foundation where he has become a great leader and done so much to generously and selflessly shape and contribute to the growth and evolution of this field. He has helped many young scientists have a chance to grow, establish themselves and contribute to this field as well. My sister worked at NSF shortly after graduating from Mt. Holyoke College and that is were they both met. Since then they have kindled and grown a most beautiful connection and love. Lynn went on to complete her graduate studies at Cornell and teach at Salem State University, as Kamal continued his contributions through NSF – and although they’ve lived apart, their love has grown, blossomed and deepened so beautifully over the years.
Dying….and the Gift of Giving & Receiving
Dying….what an important time of life. I feel the immensity of responsibility and challenge Lynn has taken on. My first night here in Salem, Lynn was up every 30-45 minutes at any noise or cough she heard from Kamal and would run to his side to help him. From the time she had the idea of offering Kamal to come live with her through his transition, I could feel the fullness and sincerity of her complete YES and honor in doing this. As challenging as it is, I know there is also nowhere else she’d rather be. And I sense how in this great challenge, there is and will be a tremendous gift … for them both. In giving, one receives 10-100 fold. Such is the law of Life. I am so happy Kamal chose to come here. As soon as he arrived, he said he felt at home. He can relax and find peace here.
And Lynn does have a beautiful home!! It is a small, humble, warm and cozy love-filled home (and also home to Lynn’s most adorable cat, Aster! 🙂 – also a big contributor to the loving and healing space here)! It’s been 1.5 years since I’ve been here and I love seeing how she has slowly come to decorate it in a way that radiates Lynn and her own beloved beauty and life expression and relations. I love seeing the pics of our Dad, Mom, and other family, meaningful items from her own travels and scrolls from China, elephant carvings from Africa, books from her beloved mentor and graduate advisor, Tom Eisner, and framed pictures of moth and butterfly scales and wings – (you know, the normal things you hang on walls! 😀 haha! …For those of you who don’t know, my sister is a biologist with an immense love of insects! :))
When I was looking into the timing of coming to Salem to be with Lynn, I consulted the Book of Changes, the I-Ching, for wisdom. I received the character for Nourishment. Wow. It resonated very deeply and indeed this has been/is a very nourishing trip — for me in supporting and loving my dear sister and Kamal…and feeling/receiving the nourishment in all being together.
More & More Love Showing Up at Lynn’s Door
Beauty is also profoundly nourishing and I marvel in the beauty of so many new and loving people coming into Lynn’s home to help. The word of Lynn’s commitment and task with Kamal spread in her community and help is showing up in various ways. On my first day there, a nurse from Salem State who heard of Lynn came on her own time for an assessment, and to offer comfort and words of wisdom and support. With a bit of searching online for in-home care support, Lynn found Sophie, a beautiful woman from Uganda who is strong and gorgeous inside and out. She is brilliant, compassionate and very effective. She knows what she’s doing, and when she came to Lynn’s home for an assessment, she immediately helped with Kamal in such a loving, respectful way. She served as a hospice caregiver herself for many years and then, committed to this field and making a difference, she started her own business, Care for Care. Many of her certified nurse assistants are also amazing, strong and beautiful women from Uganda. Sophie also studied at a university in India so she spoke to Kamal some about her experience there.
Kim is another caregiver Lynn found. She has a great passion and huge heart in this hospice work, as she lost both of her parents to cancer. She loves her clients and already loves Kamal. She said she cared for one client for 15 years who lived to be 104! That woman was like a grandmother to her.
The mornings all together are particularly lively with caregivers arriving, sometimes a hospice nurse, or a Meals on Wheels rep, a social worker…or sometimes everyone all at once! Kamal is set up in a bed of plush pillows and soft blankets in the hearth of Lynn’s home and I love the moments when Kamal’s eyes light up and he smiles. The other day in such a moment, Kim exclaimed, “Your smile lights up the whole room!!” It’s so true!! We are all so excited when Kamal’s eyes become bright, he smiles, and/or he surprises us with standing up, sipping tea, eating porridge, or walking a whole circle through the house!
As I mentioned, my main job here is to be Nourishment and I’ve loved taking it on fully! My sister gives SO MUCH!!! She is so busy and also just started teaching a full load at Salem State University (she’s a biology professor) this week. She does so much to take care of others and always has ever since we were very young. I remember times when Lynn was thinking of ways to help out Mom, suggesting we cook her dinner or do the laundry…when all I was thinking of was wanting to go outside and pretend I was a cat, exploring under trees and bushes and jumping over fences! Lynn also started writing letters to save wild open spaces and wildlife, promote recycling and the banning of styrofoam at age 9! (Again while I was into pretending I was a wild horse or mermaid twirling around outside!)
Persistent Porridge and Sister Love
So one form of nourishment is yummy food! And I’ve greatly enjoyed making lots of yummy foods for us to eat. We pretty much like the same things…but somehow Lynn exclaimed, “It just tastes better when you make it!” 🙂 I love seeing my sister eat well…yet I’ve found she often takes a couple bites of the porridge or soup I just made, puts it down and goes on to the next caretaking task at hand. One day when meeting with Sophie and 2 of Kamal’s new caregivers, Nabirah and Viviane, I kept following Lynn around from room to room with her bowl of porridge to make sure she ate it all! The caregivers were all laughing saying it’s good to have a sister making sure she eats! Also I love making gluten-free yum-yum brownies, smoothies, soups, doing qigong together next to Kamal’s bed, hugging Lynn LOTS and enjoying so many twin sister cuddles and giggles at night. Our time together is all so precious and nourishing. I love being with Lynn!!!
Nourishment & Connecting with the Land
Nourishment also means connecting with the Land and being outside. One of my core routines is practicing qigong outside each day. The Earth gives so much and helps me. She also draws out my prayers, fills up my cup to be Nourishment for my family – to let Nourishment flow through me to all I love. Yesterday I bundled up and walked again across the street to the cemetery park. It had just snowed about 3-4 inches night before and was a windy, partially sunny day. The snow was so fluffy!!! 🙂
To some it may seem odd to spend so much time in a cemetery BUT these trees are so beautiful!!! Many tall, big and wide-branched maple trees, some Northern White Cedars and many other kinds I humbly know as “beautiful trees!” 🙂 I feel I’ve already found and made some dear tree friends in Salem. My first day here I stayed close to entrance of the cemetery and practiced bagua under 2 beautiful deciduous trees…each time I pass them now or approach them, I feel their shining, happy presence…as if they are saying their greetings of hello! 🙂
At one of the ponds, I have been practicing Big Tree standing meditation…which again may seem like an odd thing to do – to stand and be like a tree when it’s 23 degrees out wind chill of 7!! But, somehow this urge to practice in the snow has arisen each time I’ve come to these clusters of cedars by the large pond. At a Tree and Qi class my dear fiancé Nate taught last week at Wilderness Awareness School, he mentioned that trees like our wiggly, playful energy and movements. They are very good at cultivating and being strength and stillness and have so much to teach us, and we have much good flow energy we can share with them. Humans and trees have such a mutually beneficial relationship in so many ways, so many layers – that’s why it’s fun to teach a whole course just on Trees and Qi! (and I could talk and write volumes just on this!! I’ll leave that for another time, though ;-))
When You Feel the Urge, Practice ~ the Earth is Always Teaching
So back to my practice with the cedar trees…I like to practice when the natural urge arrives. Qigong offers tools for connecting, receiving and giving with Nature on deeply nourishing and transformational levels and layers. My qigong grandmaster Xu Mingtang has always encouraged us to practice when we feel the urge…whether we’re traveling, high on a mountain top, in an old growth forest, in a city park, in our own backyard or at a Daoist temple in the mountains surrounding Shaolin Monastery…where ever we feel the urge, it is good to practice. He says when we feel this urge, there is a teaching, information, and a potent exchange about to happen. When we feel these subtle draws, yearnings, nudges, it’s good to follow them.
So yesterday on a 23 degree snowy blustery day, I felt the urge arise to connect with these cedars. As I stood next to one and began my Big Tree meditation, the sun came out, and shined strong on me, this tree and illuminated the icy pond, snowy fields and groves of trees and brush throughout the park. Everything started to twinkle and I felt a relaxing into being here…the miracle beauty of Now.
“The Stare” Practice 🙂
As I stood, the tree showed me how to fill my trunk (body) with yin energy from the earth and yang energy from the sky, and I held my eyes open in a soft gaze. Many practitioners from my qigong lineage (ZY Qigong – or Zhong Yuan Qigong) close their eyes in Big Tree, but I have found I LOVE to have my eyes open, especially when practicing outside! I remember having a wonderful conversation with my dear friend and mentor Mick Dodge about this. We have both struggled over time with the whole concept and practice of closed eye meditations, especially when practicing in such beautiful outdoor places. He has tried many more traditional forms of meditation and meditation classes, yet in footing his path he’s found his own practice, “the stare”. Haha! Mick laughed and shared now when people tell him he should really try meditation, he shares of this “stare” practice…and most people aren’t quite sure what to make of it! BUT! When he told me this, I burst out laughing because I too am a fellow “stare practice” devotee! 🙂
As I do my forest and mountain wanders, I often pause and enter into this “stare practice” – this is part of the entrance into the gateway of enchantment and awe! I have found that one way we absorb and exchange love and Qi is through our eyes! 🙂 (And yes, I do also teach and enjoy some seated and silent eyes-closed meditations indoors…though a bulk of my practice is outside with my eyes open. I find this is a potent and powerful way to drink in Qi and Beauty and pour out Love).
As I did my practice, filling with yin and yang Qi and standing with, being with this tree and becoming a tree, I witnessed so much magic. The tree helped me become still, cultivate stillness like itself and to see and receive. Snow drifts, sailing, gliding, sliding, twirling across the frozen water. Snowy, sparkly waves of vapor rise up as if from nowhere gliding, dancing, spinning with such grace and speed. I could watch it go all the way from one end of the pond to the other. I stood still yet my jaw dropped and my eyes widened with wonder! All different configurations of sparkly vapor faeries – creating a performance of magnificence! There was no audience yet this spontaneously happened on a weekday afternoon. The sun danced, shining out from behind the clouds, and instant shadows immerged of the big trees across the frozen water. So much love, information, insight can be received in instant of images. Nature and connecting with nature are all conduits for Qi, love, information, wisdom, and the nourishment of life to flow and grow.
I am so grateful for Life’s journey, for Love, for my Family and for the blessings of the depth of love, peace, nourishment at the end of life. Kamal is a beautiful being full of love, light and humble, bright wisdom. He is demonstrating grace as he navigates the final terrains of his life journey. I feel so blessed to hold his warm hand, look into his dark bright eyes and be bathed in his smile. And the gift and honor of being Nourishment, especially for my dear sister as she takes on this immense challenge, opportunity and commitment of being with Kamal through to the very completion of his transition. I am moved to tears as I write this by the beauty of Lynn and Kamal’s love, the beauty and strength of Lynn’s commitment and the awesomeness of Love and the Mystery of Life. I love my dear sister so and honor her and the purity, strength and beauty of her Heart and Soul.
Thank You for witnessing and partaking in our shared human journey and for reading this story. I send so much love and blessings to you all!!!
Karen Joy Fletcher, MPH