Friday, December 21, 2007

Loose ends

Ahhh, so much to share.

First, thank you all for your recent comments.
I haven't had the energy or focus to answer them in the timely manner to which I'm accustomed. I just haven't been at the computer much these past few days.

I'm not going to try to describe all of the recent events and feelings in perfect chronological order.
It has been a mishmash of emotions, and I suppose this post will reflect that ...

On Thursday, I met with one of my surgeons -- my first surgeon, actually. We were discussing palliative care as my illness enters its final stages. He joined in consensus with my other surgeons and doctors that I have just months at this point.

I have been experiencing excruciating pain recently in both legs, from just below the knees down to the ankles. The pain, tolerable during the day for the most part, hurt so much that I had been unable to sleep for several nights and was suffering for it. The surgeon on Thursday prescribed Percoset, which helps a lot but sometimes takes longer than I would like to take effect. I don't think I would be able to cope without it.

The painkiller prescription brought me face to face with an issue I had been reluctant to confront. I want to preserve my natural state of mind, such as it is, to the greatest extent possible. That is, I want to be aware of what's going on around me and inside me. I was worried that narcotic painkillers would dull this awareness, and this nearly lifelong fear was keeping me from doing the right thing. But I don't want to be in pain, and I need my sleep. So, I'm taking Percoset without hesitation.

A dear friend in Kyoto admonished me during a visit there four years ago that I should let flexibility become my most important weapon. She said it would help me confront this illness and adapt to it, rather than become mentally, spiritually and physically rigid to the breaking point. I see that she is right.

Given that toxic levels of calcium in the bloodstream can have far-reaching effects on a person's brain chemistry, I consider myself pretty blessed to have my faculties at this point. So, I think I should try to enjoy them pain-free.
As my aches and pains increase, it's amazing how quickly stoicism flees my body.
There are no brownie points in being a martyr.

I'm finding it difficult to live on my own now -- coping with the stairway to my apartment while carrying laundry or groceries, trying to keep the place clean and so on. My doctors are imploring me to be careful because a fall could be catastrophic.

Soon, I'll be moving in with my brother in New York. I'll have my own room, the tremendous help and comfort that he'll provide, a visiting hospice service, an instant circle of new friends (my brother has lots) and a simplified lifestyle.

He graciously is allowing me to bring my two cats with me. I've declined the offer and instead have found a new home for them. My brother isn't a cat person. And frankly, it's time for me to let go. If I wouldn't be seeing to the cats' future now, then it would have to be done for me soon enough and the timing won't be the same.

I'm going through my possessions now -- books, to start -- and am earmarking things for family and friends. The trash and treasures I have accumulated over a lifetime have given me much joy, and I want to share that joy now. I think it would be a great emotional burden on my family to try to distribute things the way they think I would've liked.
I am taking indescribable pleasure in this process of giving. Truly, I want for nothing.

On Wednesday, I called my karate teacher to tell him that I can no longer study my beloved martial art. I told a friend of my decision. "Sure, you need to stop if you're no longer getting anything out of it," she said. I corrected her: It's not that I'm no longer getting anything out of it. It's just that I can't bring any more into it. Classes were leaving me feeling as if I were coming apart at the seams.

I visited the dojo Saturday with bags of books for my teacher. The morning's class had just ended and most of the students had gone home.

Sensei invited me out onto the floor. "Just follow me as I do these moves," he said. "We'll do them slowly. Don't do what you can't."

He led me in very slow, measured, gentle steps through three kata. I knew these were advanced, black-belt-level kata but I can't recall seeing them performed in the dojo and I'm not even sure of their names. I am a brown belt. Were I to continue studying karate, I wouldn't have been taught these kata for several years to come.

I was overcome with emotion at the profound emotional and spiritual meaning of his gesture of symbolic instruction.
Words won't work.

Thursday, I visited my mom.
Of course it was great to see her, but I was arriving just two days after my eldest sister and her husband told her of my medical situation. I'm sure my physical appearance when I walked in the door provided all the details she needed to know.

The lighting in my apartment is very forgiving, very flattering. Facial shadows and lines are softened. Harsh angles are mitigated.
It's photographer's light.
The lighting in my mom's house is bright, all-revealing, unsparing. When I undressed to shower, I saw myself in the bathroom mirror as if for the first time. I was shocked. Frightened.
My ribs are painfully well-defined.
There's very little meat on my bones.
Muscle tone is nearly vanished.
I weighed about 155 pounds when my fight with this illness began six years ago.
I'm 116 now.

But, the day before I went to my mom's, I had a massage of my legs, neck and shoulders, which really helps with the pain, at least while the massage is being done.
I asked the masseur -- a genius of intuition and healing -- if my energy level felt as low to him as it does to me.
"No," he said. "It's actually quite strong."
He went on to relate a story about one of his clients, a woman in the final throes of lung cancer. "It made me want to cry," he said, "because when I placed my hands on her body I felt nothing. No energy. It was as if she was hollow inside."
So, I suppose I'm luckier than I think.

And finally, I have learned that my blog has been linked to the Tricycle magazine editors' blog. In the brief blurb about me, I'm described as a Zen practitioner. How ironic: A Zen practitioner without a sitting practice to speak of. I don't know whether to laugh or cry and, in fact, I did both.
I'm not sure what the hell I am anymore.
And I want to work on accepting that.


You know, my blog posts these days add increasing levels of doom and gloom.
It reminds me of a Daffy Duck cartoon that I particularly enjoy.
Bugs Bunny and Daffy are in the circus and are pitting their talents against each other.
Bugs, the consummate showman, repeatedly towers above Daffy's attempts to outdo him.
Daffy gets desperate.
He devises an act he's sure will outshine Bugs'.
He begins swallowing every explosive, every flammable substance he can lay his hands on.
Then he lights a match, swallows it and is blown to smithereens.
"You were excellent!" raves Bugs Bunny. "That was great! They want an encore!"
As Daffy's spirit ascends to heaven, he says ruefully, "Sorry, but I can only do that trick once."


Dogo said...

A wonderful blog. I've just mentioned it on mine. Thank you for your words and pictures.

A deep bow,


wenders said...

Dear Michael,
Thank you for telling us what this process of dying is like for you. Of course, it is very easy to say that something sounds fraudulent--you're not an expert, and neither, I would guess, is any of us. If the fraudo-meter were running near me and my tapestry of delusions, it would be stuck--no pinned--all the way to the right, in the red, and if it could make noise, it would be emitting persistent electronicus.
I am very happy that you will be with your brother, whom you love and trust, so you might relax a little, and experience what is happening to you in as much detail as you want. In a very important way, it is about love now. Being loved, and loving yourself. Loving yourself by letting go. Notice maybe that there is nothing there. That there is nothing to love and, especially, nothing not to love. Nothing to let go of and nothing to hold on to. Dying seems a pretty abrupt way to notice this, but a great opportunity, too.
A bit of encouragement: if you want to receive jukai, and you feel you can't make your rakusu, by all means ask for help with it, from somebody in your sangha, or from someone who has made one who lives nearby. Even if you can only do two stitches and then have to hand it back to the person who is helping you, chanting the verse of the kesa, and hearing it chanted, will powerfully deepen your practice. It will reduce your pain, and put holes in your perception of suffering. And if you feel you're not going to make it to the February ceremony, ask your sangha and sensei to come to your brother's place and do the ceremony there. The Three Treasures are very great treasures indeed. Taking refuge is a wonderful experience, and you should definitely do it while you can in circumstances you can manage.
And as long as you can, please let us know how you are, what you are feeling. What you have done and whatever you may continue to do for those of us who read your work, and who have appreciated your extraordinary photographs, are great gifts, and I, for one, am very grateful to you.
Gassho, Michael, from your friend and Dharma sister,

Michael said...

Michael, I feel like I'm saying goodbye to a friend. How strange and wonderful this dendritic world of blogging, an intangible sangha. I can do nothing to lessen your suffering except think of you when I sit -- and when I don't.

In gassho,
Michael in Alberta

Marie Rex said...

I linked here from a post in LJ by Barry Graham.

Hospice service is a great blessing and they will work with you to control pain and keep you as awake as you wish. I worked closely with them in 2001 when my grandfather died. They also will care for your family after.

You are on a hard journey, but it is the same journey we all are taking. You have the gift of knowing and accepting before. So you can settle your life.

I bow to you in respect. I wish you good journey. I will whisper prayers to the winds that will carry you.

Your life is a gift and a miracle. I am grateful to be touched by it.

RaBadBoy said...

Hi! Came here from Barry Graham's blog. I'll be back! Hotboy

Mungo said...

Hello Michael,

Hope you are doing okay - scribbled a little about your blog and 'borrowed' a poem (attributed to you). Hope that's okay!

Take care,

Mungo (Simon)

Mall said...

I've learned much from the things you've shared with us. It is good that you have family and friends to be with you. I haven't commented in a while, but I do read and take time to allow the things you've written for contemplation. I've discovered that there are so many more things to "hear" in silence (in my case). May you have continued tranquility and peace in your journey Michael. Gassho.

gniz said...


Long-time lurker. Your posts are very interesting and emotional for me to suggestion.
Take ten or fifteen minutes to do some meditation each day, not necessarily in lotus, not necessarily even sitting meditation.
I think it might be nice and hopefully not a burden.


Michael said...

Thanks, Aaron. Yes, that's good advice, indeed.

Mike Cross said...

I echo the exhortations of another fraud who knows she is a fraud called Wenders. I had thought of saying something to you along the same lines about sewing even one stitch of one stripe, or chanting even one word in praise of the kesa, but she has already said it better, from, I sense, a more openly loving heart.

If I add a word of my own:

Cheerfully giving away material things is a great example. Cheerfully giving up an old idea that is the cause of suffering might be an even greater example.

Good for you, o-henro-san, and thank you for all your honest reflections of deluded and enlightened behaviour.

Michael said...

"Good for you, o-henro-san, and thank you for all your honest reflections of deluded and enlightened behaviour."

Mike, you make me sound like a specimen in a display case. As if I could be apart from you or anyone else.

Mike Cross said...

But your days Michael (Exhibit A) are numbered, whereas mine are... whoops!

Michael said...


Thank you, Mike. You bedevil me and comfort me at the same time. I'm glad you're my friend.

Anonymous said...

I've always felt that your blog is one of the best around. This post brought me to tears. You are in my thoughts and prayers.

Bill Conroy said...

You are a true Bushido.
I was honored to be part of your Brown Belt test.
That afternoon you taught me what Kokoro and Zanchin meant.
Bill Conroy
your fellow Karateka