Death is in the Room
I write this on the eve of our 13th Summer Long Dance in what has been a challenging time for us as a family. As any of you who have been following Susannah’s very deep sharings about her process of living with her dying papa will know, for us, death is in the room.
I thought it might be helpful to write briefly about my experiences as the partner of someone whose parent is dying and the son-in-law of that parent. Before I share that, some context may be helpful.
Firstly, we could not be living in a better situation – though we have worked very hard for that and still do, we are very blessed. When we moved onto our land a decade ago, it felt like a huge risk. For 13 years before this move, we lived in a small house with a garden in Dartington, and I had thought that this would be the place we would live and die. I had no ambition to move. I’d gone through the whole ‘gotta get a bigger this, that or the other’ nonsense and left it in the grave in a burial ceremony I did in the garden. What’s a burial ceremony? It’s a visceral way of meeting death whilst we’re still in good health, seeing our lives from the point of view of being ‘dead in our grave,’ acknowledging regrets and celebrations, and then making a commitment to live with ‘death as an ally.’ For the first time in my life, I’d broken through the myth of our times of ‘never enough’ and started to taste the sweet nectar of contentment.
But we were told in separate pieces of guidance, first Susannah, and then me, that for our offering to grow, we needed to be connected to land that we owned. Our friend Arkan Lushwala told us that owning land for him and his people, means being in deep relationship with and looking after it in a responsible way. We were struggling to manage our little garden, so I was both resistant and worried about taking on something bigger. But we’ve learned to listen and follow the kind of guidance we’d both received and so, we started to think about a land project and what that could mean for us.
Although, like so many people we knew, we’d always casually dreamt of the perfect eco house with a view, this new feeling of contentment I mentioned was much too sweet to want to disturb. But nevertheless, with no real conscious intention, we started to look at eco projects with land for sale in the area we lived. When Susannah found an advert for exactly that, complete with very enticing imagery of horses, old oak trees and a stream, our interest was piqued. On a freezing cold February morning, with absolutely no intention of purchasing the property, we went to see it. It was way out of what we thought we could afford and besides, we had no time in our packed calendar for a house move.
And then we arrived. And we walked into this house which was warmed by ground source heating powered by a hydro-electric scheme the owner had spent three years installing. And without a second of hesitation, I knew immediately that I was home. I’m writing this in our living room. And I remember the burst of emotion I felt when I first walked into this room more than a decade ago. The oak floor was warm, and I knew that no fossil fuels were being burned or pollution being caused to create that warmth. Embarrassingly, tears spilled out of the corner of my eyes. Meanwhile, Susannah was having her own experience of home. My mind was doing somersaults trying to work out the discrepancy between the emotion I was feeling and the practical reality that the price of the property was so far removed from what we felt to be possible. The land itself, nestled into the skirts of Dartmoor hills and ancient sites, felt very strong. Not least because it had been polluted through its use as the gas works for the Victorian mental hospital land that the house sits on. The owner, a gorgeously eccentric English fella with a great sense of humour and a ‘get up and do it’ kind of attitude, had spent a lot of time, money, and effort to clean up the land and extend the little gas works house by following his own dream to create an eco-project.
The central symbol of our work is the Phoenix, an invocation that reminds us that given enough resource and support, all human beings and all life, have the capacity to rise from the ashes of suffering and create a new story. And here it was, in the form of land and a home.
Before we made any commitment, we asked the owner if we could spend a night on the land in ceremony so we could make a connection with the land itself, introduce ourselves, and feel into if there was a match between us as people and the land itself. We drummed, danced, said hello in the best way we knew how and listened. The responses we received were different and complimentary. We both felt we’d received a welcome, felt a huge yes – and now, all we had to do was to find a way to make the impossible possible,
And, as is sometimes the case, miracles started to unfold. We recognised this as the chance of a lifetime, and we kept finding help at crucial moments of the process that enabled us to find a way. We found some wonderful humans, who happened to work for an old-fashioned and quietly ethical bank, who were willing to get behind our dream and lend us the money. We had no idea if we’d manage but, as we always have, we were following that guidance and the whole thing felt lie a choice-less choice.
And so, on June 5th, 2013, we moved in. It took me three years to feel that we were going to be able to be good and responsible landowners. I had to change my internal self-image for that to be so. And why tell you all this? – it’s how we came to be in the position to offer Susannah’s 87-year-old father a place to live for his last chapter. He’d lived alone during the pandemic and his health was suffering. And we had a garage and Reuben, our son, had given us the idea that we could convert it into a ‘grandad flat’ for him. This came in response to Richard’s request to come and live with us.
There are many moments in life when decisions are made that we sense to be life-changing without having any idea what that’s going to mean. This was one of them. There was no doubt for either of us that this was the right thing to do. And when we saw how frail Susannah’s father had become, we recognised that this had to be a now thing. His doctor had already told him to sort things out for his last chapter whilst he was still well enough and we all decided that he should come and live in the house with us whilst the work to convert the garage was going on.
Living together was somewhat of a culture shock for us all, most especially Richard, who had left his known life, community, and sense of place behind. Thank god, Richard is an unusual man for his age in as much as he has wanted to go on learning in all areas of his life, including the relational aspects of life. We had quite some challenges to overcome. For me, living with Susannah’s father brought so many unconscious and unexamined assumptions to the surface. Perhaps the main one I had to come to terms with was an internal injunction that I shouldn’t challenge my elders but should accept them and their behaviour. Perhaps this had grown out of a family story that ‘children should be seen but not heard.’ I had to grow up somewhat to be able to have the conversations that were necessary for my sanity and the peace of our household.
Over the 7 months that we shared our home, we got to know each other, came to respect one another, and despite the very real differences between us, came to love one another as men, as father-in-law and son-in-law, and as family.
One of my jobs at that time was to manage the conversion of the garage, paid for by the sale of Richard’s home. We spent a lot of time making sure that we prepared it as a place for an ageing man who would be able to live well there and eventually, when the time came, die well.
And here we are, in that chapter. And just as we had envisioned it, his death bed looks out onto the garden, his birdfeeders a meeting point for a winged village, and the flowers he has planted exploding in their summer colours. Most of this is now disappearing from view as he enters his last chapter and his focus shifts more and more to a world we cannot see. Nevertheless, his capacity to enjoy a mouthful of diluted pineapple juice, a little of his favourite ice-cream or his frozen pineapple juice lolly has not diminished.
And so finally, on the bedrock of that context, how is it for me to live this experience with Susannah, with him, and with the Long Dance that begins tomorrow?
I’ve always been fascinated by death. I like being close to people who are dying – I notice that when death is in the room, the things that don’t matter that much tend to fall away. Of course, this is not true all the time. We heard horror stories from the hospice nurses when Susannah’s mama was dying. People arguing about inheritance over the body of their dying relative. Oh god. How we humans can be!
And yet it’s not all angels and roses here either. I find myself saying often that death is nearly always inconvenient. Like now. Having Susannah’s papa at this stage as we prepare for the Long Dance is more than we bargained for. And feelings do arise. I have found myself irritated at times and needing to give that space in my practice. Acknowledging what’s true doesn’t make it stronger. In fact, I find the opposite happens. I acknowledge my irritation and the difficulty of so much of Susannah’s focus needing to be with her papa – as it needs to be. And simply having it heard takes away the power of it. I don’t have any spiritual ‘shoulds’ about always being kind, always being compassionate etc. I prefer to acknowledge my ordinary humanity. And when I do, then the layer that is always underneath what I am conscious of reveals itself.
I was sat in the sauna praying for all of us and for the Long Dance. Sometimes I like to have a conversation with God. I speak out loud. I just empty out what’s there and sometimes, I hear a response. So I was confessing that I’d been more irritated with normal on that day. Little judgements about Richard ‘always creating the maximum impact possible….’ And so on.
I heard – ‘is this really true?’
‘No! Of course not. He’s simply in his process.’
‘OK, so what are you irritated about then?’
The answer was simple. All my irritation was simply to do with the difficulty of accepting the situation as it is. And I felt this tension that had been in my belly all day start to drain away. Oh wow. As simple as that? Acceptance is such a powerful word. And it’s harder to say than to do. But when the realisation comes, acceptance is the easiest thing in the world and through it, my perception of the situation changed dramatically. I became aware of the fed-up little boy in me that was annoyed that he wasn’t getting what he needed and I remembered that I’m actually approaching 60. And so I picked him up and gave him a hug, and got down to the task of playing my role with a little more creativity, presence and strength.
One way of describing that role is to support Susannah as best as I can in her letting her father go. And I guess by the time you read this, this may already have happened. There is so much more to say. But I will end with two things.
Firstly, I’ve come to love and respect my father-in-law. Despite the fact that him coming to live here has had far more impact than I could have imagined, positive and negative, I will miss him when he’s gone. And I am grateful to him for what he’s given. Us and to the world through a life well lived. And I have to say, that the way he is dying is inspiring. If I had the choice, I’d choose something similar.
Finally, after an evening in which Susannah and I laughed so hard that we cried, finding our own human egos rather sweet and often hilarious, and preparing for the Long Dance in the best way we know how, as I was falling to sleep, I had one more prayer.
‘Dear God, please help me to stay with this feeling of connection I have with you now throughout our Long Dance ceremony.’
And I heard:
‘Of course. I’ll play my role if you play yours. If you want connection, be connected. Become what you are praying for – that‘s your part.’
And what is this voice that I hear? Is that really a something we call God? I don’t know. I really don’t. And nor do I need to. The mystery is what I love. Always have and always will.
YDK June 30 2023