“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries.
Without them, humanity cannot survive.”
— Dalai Lama XIV, The Art of Happiness
I met this week’s guest-blogger, Cassy Soden, at Elk Plain Elementary School–when I was eight years old. Though it wasn’t until after college we grew close, we had worked together on Bravetalk, the high school newspaper. We played basketball on the same team at Bethel Junior High. Tomorrow is Cassy’s birthday! Though I’d love to be up in Seattle eating sushi with her at her celebration, publishing her story on L.I.T. is the next best.
Cassy Soden is a multimedia producer, writer, and story strategist. A story maven and student of the art of storytelling, her focus is to document and tell stories that reflect people’s inspiring passions. She seeks to make known stories that create learning opportunities, encourage positive change, and deepen cultural understanding.
I hope you will enjoy the personal and powerful post and poetry she has written for us. You will find an invitation, too–in her conclusion. I appreciate so much that she has offered to share this experience with us, an experience that will certainly touch many lives.
March stirs with rain, wind, and glimpses of the sun. It is a time when the wet Northwest blooms and vibrant colors pop against gray skies. It is against this backdrop that for many years my dad and I celebrated our birthdays with a communal cake. I remember wishing him a happy half-century birthday. Now, on the dawn of this same age, it is so strange to be here myself, my father’s life a lesson carved into my heart.
Two years ago instead of a birthday celebration we held a memorial service for my dad, Terry. In attendance was a special person, Penny, who knew my dad for only a short time but had become an important lifeline and ally in the final years of his life.
Penny, the writings of Henry David Thoreau, and my father’s memory loss collided in 2009, creating my own personal supernova. These became the constants, all jumbled together, as life as I knew it unraveled.
In each new place we found for my dad to live, our family tried to help him feel at home. We would place next to the recliner his anthology of Henry David Thoreau. For as long as I can remember, this anthology sat next to my dad’s recliner, where he would read and often fall asleep. The simplicity of Walden Pond attracted my Dad. He loved to talk about living a simple life. Ironically, his life would enter into its own simplicity as a result of Alzheimer’s.
It is in this world of fading memories where I met Penny. She is the owner of and caregiver in an adult family home with residents who often have some form of dementia. When my dad met her he said, “Don’t I know you?” She and I took this as a great sign that he might settle in.
My dad, his recliner, and the Thoreau anthology moved into Penny’s place. While I don’t believe my father was convinced this was “home” he did eventually settle in. We found a chaotic rhythm of life – a chaotic rhythm that started me on an engaging dialogue with Penny. She would remind me that the mind can’t always do what the spirit or soul intends.
My father’s philosophical view of science and spirituality taught me to wonder, to be curious. This fascination with the unknown and the nugget of wisdom Penny had shared carried me through the final years of my dad’s life and introduced me to a way of being I now call, the Zen of Forgetting.
When my dad asked me, “Where is Cassy?” I thought, “Here I am today. You must be looking for the Cassy from her teens, 20’s or 30’s. She’s not here but here I am today.” And, the truth was, here he was today and not the father of my teens, 20’s or 30’s.
I sat with him wondering, “If we are not our memories what are we?” The answer life with my dad during those years gave me was, “Perhaps we just are.”
It is in this simple place I found myself with my dad: While he no longer could associate the word daughter with me, he nonetheless held my hand with trust and love.
While my dad’s memories faded, his sweet spirit shined. The past no longer really mattered, so I let go of it with him. I would squeeze his hand, he would smile and I could live in that moment of one soul being with another soul. Here is the Zen of Forgetting.
What lingers with me still is my father’s sweetness during those years and Penny’s unyielding compassion. This compassion allowed me to honor and navigate my father’s wishes to live simply–not quite in a one-room cabin in the woods, but with dignity and to die in his own bed.
As other families brace to watch the person they know disappear in the fog of Alzheimer’s, all I can say to them is there can be a simple peace in letting go of the past and accepting today. I found every day during those years an exercise in remembering, accepting, forgetting. Be here now.
In truth, as we age, aren’t we all doing this? As I enter my 50’s I thank my dad for this difficult but truthful life lesson.
Penny and I have started a dialogue with each other and other families we have met along the way. We plan to create a virtual support group. I share my story as an invitation to other families to share their stories of navigating through life and living with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s.
In the months ahead we will share these stories on the L.I.T. blog and on the work in progress Zen of Forgetting website.
One Step Further, Silence
Toe by toe into the dark water
reflecting light lifts the heart
Water ripples on rocks
ears rush to hear
Snap. Tree branch falls.
Leaves whisper, “One step further. Now.”
O nature I do not aspire
To be the highest in they quire,
To be a meteor in the sky
Or comet that may range on high,
Only a zephyr that may blow
Among the reeds by the river low.
Give me thy most privy place
Where to run my airy race.
In some withdrawn unpublic mead
Let me sigh upon the reed,
Or in the woods with leafy din
Whisper the still evening in,
For I had rather be thy child
And pupil in the forest wild
Than be the king of men elsewhere
And most sovereign slave of care
To have one moment of thy dawn
Then share the city’s year forlorn.
Some still work give me to do
Only be it near to you.
–Henry David Thoreau