There is a difference between pain and suffering. Pain is what the world does to you; suffering is what you do to yourself. Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. This is a concept or a truth that I first encountered during an eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class in 2005. I was still grieving the death of my husband Bill and was in the second year of a lengthy illness. The atypical TB (called MAI) that caused the endless coughing, malaise, and lack of energy was treated for eighteen months with three drugs, all of which had side effects. In the face of my skepticism about the optional nature of suffering, the MBSR teacher advised me to take the program on faith, read the suggested books, and establish a mindfulness meditation practice along with the yoga postures and relaxation techniques I had been learning in the classes. I did so and gradually learned how to let go of much of the suffering in my life; I continue to follow the program even though I sometimes drop back into old habits.
Two weeks ago Robin and I flew to Philadelphia to attend the celebration of the marriage of my nephew Gregory Guy and Paula Schwartz. This romantic couple, both in their sixties, had opted for a very private wedding during a Christmas vacation in Hawaii. Six months later in the lovely old Yellow Springs Inn outside Philadelphia about eighty friends and family sipped champagne and ate sumptuous hors d’oeuvres before gathering around Greg and Paula for a recap of their vows and touching tributes by siblings and friends of the couple. That sweet ceremony was followed by dinner, toasts and cake-cutting. Their union was once again publicly declared and enthusiastically endorsed.
|Dorothy, David and Donna Jean|
This event provided an opportunity for me to be together with my remaining siblings. My brother David and I are the youngest of four children. Don, born in 1920, died in 1995. Our sister Dorothy (mother of the groom) is in good physical shape at age 91, and although her cognition is limited by severe short-term memory loss, she still remembers much of her past. The three of us had not been together for about fifteen years, and David and I hoped we might have fun reminiscing with her. All thirty-one members of Gregory’s family (including the offspring and in-laws) were there plus eight members of his and my extended family. The party was perfect and provided the opportunity for visiting with all these loved ones and to meet some of Paula’s family. The entire weekend, including an afterglow gathering at the home of Dorothy’s daughter Shannon, was joyful, exciting, and nurturing for me. I fully expected to write about it, probably emphasizing the importance of siblings.
It was not possible to have that hoped-for three-way chat about our childhood because Dorothy was obviously traumatized by seeing us there. She told us she didn’t understand what the event was about. It was clear that she was glad to see David, but was somewhat distressed to see me. Although I was saddened by my encounters with Dorothy during the party, it was heartwarming to see her playing with her great-grandchildren and to observe the loving kindness and attention she received from all her family. When I said good-bye to her, we had a tender moment as she told me that she saw my face often during the party as I moved about greeting people. Each time she thought it was her own face and couldn’t figure it out. She told me it was distressing, but finally she knew the face was mine. I had tried several times to sit and talk with her, but always felt that agitation. When she was able to tell me about seeing her face in mine, I told her this story from thirty years ago. “I was in Gimbel’s store in Philadelphia, and a stranger came up to me and said ‘Aren’t you Shannon’s mother?’ I replied that I was her aunt and my sister was her mother. The woman smiled and said that we sure did look alike.” Dorothy laughed, and for a moment she was whole. I realized that I had dropped into a little sister mode with hurt feelings when I first saw her and could tell she was distressed. It was time to let go of that hurt and make room for compassion.
Three days after the party, my brother arrived to visit me, bringing his wife Anne who is six years into her journey with Alzheimer’s. During the wedding event, she had stayed behind in Oberlin, in the care of her children. David wanted to spend time in Celo before returning home to Wisconsin. At first, I found the immutable march of Anne’s dementia—plus the stress it brings to both of them—draining because I was still working through the pain of my sister’s problems. David has had a lifelong tendency toward getting absorbed in his own little world, but as Anne has expressed feelings of being “broken” and he has recognized that she can no longer retain new information, he has learned to be patient and to anticipate her needs. When he said good-bye, David told me that they agreed it had been a very good visit, and Anne nodded her assent. Remembering Anne holding my great-grandchild Ginger, taking digital pictures in my garden, or enthusiastically eating her meals, I concurred.
|Anne gets a smile from Ginger|
After they left, I went to the computer to write, but I couldn’t do anything with the planned essay that sat in my brain like a box of jigsaw puzzle pieces. I had noticed that the foxgloves were blooming and decided to take a break and pick some to bring in the house. The day was muggy, and I saw clusters of little bugs in the air. As I bent over to cut the flowers, I suddenly felt a stinging pain in the corner of my right eye and I wiped out a little black gnat with my finger.
I quickly took the flowers and headed for the bathroom to tend to my eye, which was already red and swelling. Ever since my bout with MAI, I have autoimmune reactions to bites. In no time at all, my eyelids and cheek ballooned. I went through my first aid routines and at bedtime took a Benadryl, but for the next two days I could not read or use the computer, and work on my essay stopped. That is when the optional suffering ballooned as fast as my eye.
Falling into that trap of “people are depending me to write” I felt an unwarranted sense of obligation to write something. Then I began to build my misery heap, throwing in the sadness over dementia, the doubt of my ability to keep on writing, and other physical and emotional concerns— a veritable laundry list of silly miseries. Suddenly I remembered that I had another choice. I started with a quiet time as I focused on my breathing. Next I took a long walk, did some yoga, and then had a long sit on my deck while I literally talked to my soul and let go of all the unnecessary (albeit real) suffering. In that moment I decided to share this experience with you, the readers of my blog.
I have thought a lot about Dorothy and Anne and how the dementia is not the person. In my mind I bathed them with compassion and praised their indomitable spirits. I’m renewing my commitment to opt out of unwanted and unnecessary suffering and to cultivate my acceptance of the pain. I’m grateful that one of the Schleppers reminded us at our last meeting that aging with grace depends on our ability to adapt to change.