Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein



If you know me, you know I don’t like to be in photos. It’s the residue of years of arguments when my dad tried to take “act natural” photos that always translated into awkward, posed images of nuclear family, albeit an eccentric one.

My dad’s dead now. Some two and a half years gone. After what were some of the worst nine months of my life, and no question, the worst nine months of his. He caught West Nile, a disease swept in on the wings of the massive human-made climate catastrophe and tiny mosquitoes.

I should have granted him mercy far sooner, using the truth I saw from the start and the power of attorney he’d trusted me with years prior, alongside his living will. But such is the intelligence of hindsight.

Because I’d not yet had the experience of “acting naturally” as a death doula, I awkwardly hesitated. My dad suffered inexorably, tied by “life support” to nonlife. He suffered, with only eyes to speak the pain, until the hospitality offered by hospice and a good, dignified death. Indeed, his last conscious day on this earth was one of the best twenty-four hours of his life. He finally got to hear, without the caveats or ambivalence of past relations, what he’d meant to many people. He took in love, abundant love, for day. Then he lived for eight more days, in a dreamy state, edging toward the unknown journey of death, on May 16, 2013.

Today would have been his day, but one that we often overlooked, coming on the back end of too many holidays. January 7: his birthday. His eighty-sixth. It’s something I likely won’t ever overlook again. There goes that intelligence of hindsight rearing its ugly head.

Somehow this birthday of his seems all the harder, like a bad bookend.

On December 7, 2015, just a month ago, yet what feels like aeons past, my second (chosen) mom and friend, Mary, suffered a massive stroke and minor heart attack. “A devastating stroke,” they said at the hospital, which I’d rushed to that same day, from Philly to Lansing. Devastating.

On December 7, I boarded a plane at the same PHL gate that I’ve arrived at only two days earlier from visiting Mary in Michigan. On December 3 or 4, I spent my last evening with her, with Mary sitting in her favorite chair and me on her long-deceased mother’s couch, next to a cat the size of an opossum.

When I finally said good-bye, she grabbed my hand, with fingers that felt more like bones, and held my hand tight. We kissed on the cheek. Then kissed again. My bio mom used to do that, too, with equally bony fingers, when she was living at the same independent living home as Mary. That was a little over two years ago. The two had been best friends for forty years. Serendipity brought them together, living side by side, for the last thirteen months of my mom’s dying and death from cancer. And I fell in love with them both. Deeply, truly, in a way I never would have otherwise.

On that December 3 or 4, after I’d let go of Mary’s hand, after we’d said how much we loved each other several times over, after I’d walked across the room to leave, her sparkling blue eyes met my brown ones. She blew me a kiss, and I blew one back, shutting her door behind me with what, given hindsight’s wisdom, was a finality.

I flew to Philly the next morning, after a month of travel filled with warmth, friendship, and love that took me to both coasts, but ended up in East Lansing, Michigan, with Mary. I began what I thought was going to be three months of a lovely sublet, and I began by doing something I never do.

I took a photo of myself. My self.

I did it because I felt this rare, ephemeral, fragile tickle of satisfaction with life. With the mutuality of love that I’ve worked hard to cultivate—a “work” still in process—ever since the pitch-black darkness of all doors shutting that followed my second good, dignified death: my mom’s on October 3, 2013, also using hospice and with me even more naturally playing the part of death doula.

Such a moment, I knew, wouldn’t last. But I felt like I’d somehow turned a critical bend, reaching some sort of balance—in this life that inevitability involves death—that had eluded me for the past three or four years, until the moment of this picture. I didn’t so much want to capture me; I wanted to grasp a snapshot of an equilibrium that holds suffering, loss, and grief as poignant partners to all the marvelous meaning we humans can discover when we have each other. When we share ourselves, in the bonds of love that we work hard at continually nurturing, as life doulas, to become so much more caring together.

I took this photo as gift for Mary, and texted it to her via her daughter, who in turn took photos of her and her mom that same day, and texted them back to me. It was the last picture of Mary as Mary, before the devastation of stroke and heart attack, and my third good, dignified death thanks to hospice.

This photo looks awkward to me now. It’s a self that isn’t there anymore. Being death doula is both the most profoundly intimate of honors and most shape-shifting of portals. You don’t come out the same. You shouldn’t.

If grief goes well—that molasses-pace maze that one is flung into, willy-nilly—you come out better. Or more precisely, you come out more able to be something far more interconnected, far more humble and giving, than a self.


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This entry was posted on January 7, 2016 by in Dispatches from Life, Uncategorized.
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