What a year of transformation, transition, grief and joy! Three deaths close to my heart…. my first grandchild’s birth… a new home…. an unsettling election process. Oh, I have been tested and refined by 2016!
During and in its aftermath, questions abound: Can I adapt and go with the flow of even THIS? How can I stay grounded, open-hearted and find joy in the moment when fear, loss and anger swirl in me and around me? How do I use my therapist skills to assist the journey towards one’s first or last breath? Who is nurtured more, me or them, by these weekly days with the new family? By this wiped brow or that spine rocked? What deepens my restoration and furthers my new home as sanctuary? How do I stay focused and effective in my inner and outer work? What right actions and words encourage Unity and dialogue rather than hostility? What can my process add to my inner evolution and to that of my students, clients and colleagues?
It’s that last question that leads me to this and several future blog posts. I frequently write to understand and clear my heart and mind. Also, whenever I offer tidbits of 2016’s challenges and insights, inevitably I hear, “your sharing that is so helpful to me.” And so, with helpful intentions for you and me….
My Children’s Father
The ten years’ distance after divorce almost disappeared during my children’s father’s illness and death. For 15 months, Andy traversed his trail through lung cancer to his death in May. His current wife, step-daughter and our son, daughter and their partners that were rightfully the ones by his side. From my amiable but appropriate distance, I sent encouragement as well as solicited and unsolicited advice. I joined everyone’s delight when 10 months of treatment appeared to make him a poster child for chemotherapy’s best promises of extending his life. I took as priority my role as supporter of our children through this.
When a nagging pain, diagnosed as a hip flexor strain suffered while captaining a sailboat, began curtailing Andy’s gusto for his remaining life, all involved navigated the complexities of his receiving bodywork from me. This was finally assistance that I was eminently qualified to give, despite only basic knowledge in massage for those with cancer. (Thank you, again, Tracy Walton, for your excellent course oh- those- many- years ago!)
Ethics and Healing Touch
Working with Andy required my best in boundary management, scope of practice, relationship dynamics, and focus. I mostly was able to be satisfied with breath and movement improvement rather than to feel heroically responsible for saving my children from the loss of their dad. Fairly consistently, I restrained my urges to advise him about supplements or to nag him about what I would do. Instead I focused on maximizing the myofascial and autonomic benefits of our work. Together we created a remarkable balance between physical familiarity and professional connection. Sometimes I wandered mentally into the what- ifs, fears or memories of our shared history. That’s when I cleared my inner eye, returned to his breath and mine as the moment’s reality and asked his tissue and his Being, “How is this now?” He usually enjoyed some 12-32 hours of pain reduction.
A revised diagnosis of bone metastasis soon explained why the dwindling relief. To say that information devastated everyone is an understatement; however, those precious three sessions were uplifting on many levels. He talked of the relief in feeling treatment hands that were seeking to comfort and to know rather than to prod or eradicate. Brief as they were, he called those post-session hours of less pain “vacations” that tremendously enhanced his remaining time.
For me, serving him in this professional way further refined my practitioner abilities. It also was a soothing salve on old wounds. Those three hours echo in me as shining testimony to the power of touch to bridge inner and outer distance and differences in the name of a Higher Love. It’s what we do with each client, but it’s ironically often too complicated and almost impossible to achieve with someone so close.
Choices and Lessons
When Andy chose to end his life a few short months later, that emotional gulf widened again exponentially, remaining still to be fully crossed. In the immediate aftermath, my inner mother bear roared endlessly. She remains vigilant that her wounded cubs be protected from further harm. She’s sometimes still enraged that she can’t prevent what’s already happened yet determined that his is the only life that Andy has the authority to take. I continue to put my attention on realizing that intention as much as possible.
Every spiritual, philosophical and relationship fundamental I counted on was put into question as I wrestled with suicide’s many facets. For months I was often exhausted, ultra vulnerable, and sometimes slammed around between conflicting feelings. Occasionally I got ambushed into physical sensations and emotional turmoil that I thought I had resolved years ago. Most things took more time and effort. I was on a physical and emotional roller coaster seemingly not of my choosing.
Fortunately there were several months before I had to sustain four days of teaching. Because my usual focused, productive self only occasionally briefly emerged, I would ride those fleeting times like the wind. Then I would maximize my joy while attending to many languishing work commitments and desires and to seeing a few clients. Often it was the meditative focus of doing a session or teaching a workshop that most grounded me to the Eternal realities rather than being swept off my feet in the emotional tides.
(Throughout all of this, the needs of my dear friend and housemate who also was walking his own unique journey with metastasized cancer were a similar blessing and trial, but that’s a whole other blog post to come.)
I have coped reasonably well with multiple transitions this year. How? Decades of developing my inner and outer strength, I think, and by recognizing that others endure far more with dignity and effectiveness – by retaining my daily tai chi practice – resuming psychotherapy – regular bodywork and acupuncture – increased walking, dancing, meditation and sleep. Whenever safe to, I yielded to the gradually lessening yet always cleansing waves of crying/screaming/shaking/coughing release. I regularly sought the comfort of my sweetheart’s gentle calmness, my decades-long friends’ listening ears and wisdom and my children’s familiarity. I prioritized their heightened needs; my son’s baby was a few months away from his birth. (third blog post in this series to come), and my daughter was newly engaged. Both of these exquisite delights were also poignant reminders that they miss their father terribly, and always will.
I emerged from Andy’s end of life a humbled and determined single parent. I am more experienced with ethical nuances and maddening impossibilities both professionally and personally. I am a more empathetic, refined therapist. Lessons in letting go, death and self-responsibility have enriched me. I know better the vast distances and infinite closeness between us all.
Writing helps to create resolution for me; you remember that? Maybe not, as this is such a long post; however, since you are still reading this, finally, I want to share a related, profoundly healing piece that mostly I wrote in the month after Andy’s death. I’d like for you to know more of this unique man who fathered my children, accompanied me during some of the most productive and enriching years of my life, and continues to offer lessons in loving far after his last sunset here on earth.
(Remember to check back into this blog in a few weeks for Bearing Witness to Life and Death, Reflection #2)
Andrew Albert Sheets (1948-2016), age 67, set his final sails on May 26, 2016. The hearts of his wife Francine Martinez, his children Josh Sheets, Elizabeth Gladys, and Elizabeth Martinez, his granddaughter Peyton Martinez, and many dear friends and other family will forever harbor his love.
Born and raised in Monroe, Michigan, Andy hunted, ice skated and read his way through childhood to graduate from Jefferson High School. After serving four years in the Navy, primarily off the coast of Vietnam on the USS Enterprise, he made San Diego his new home, finding community with his spiritual brothers and sisters of the Arica Institute.
For work, he pursued electronics, scuba diving, computer engineering, massage therapy, and, finally, sailing, becoming an exuberant captain, instructor and director of education at Seaforth Boat Rentals. His role as a mentor and teacher is one of his legacies; he was diligent, caring, empathetic and flexible in helping them to “find their path” in any given task. On or in the ocean, he relaxed, thrived, and adventured, rejoicing in teaching others with patience and skill. He couldn’t resist seeing what was around the next bend, over the summit of a mountain, at the end of a desert trail, or in a book’s last chapters. He delighted in repurposing and engineering various materials into useful or entertaining creations: a tube to serve as a sword or kitty toy; a portable shower for desert camping; a toddler’s slide or tunnel chamber from a shipping box.
Andy was above all else a family man. As a young man, he met Ann Leahy and was introduced to the love and joy family can bring. For the five Leahy children, he stepped into the role of “that father we always wanted” to many of them. He allowed himself to grow in this father role, readying him for his time with his own children, Josh and Elizabeth (the Elder). Together with their mother, Carole Osborne, he found a love through his children that was real and fulfilling. His reputation with his children’s friends was found in role-playing games or leading hide-in-the-dark tag, his imagination, playfulness, resourcefulness, devotion, tailoring and baking (oh, that bread, those pies, those pecan rolls!).
His presence obviously reached fruition in Josh and Elizabeth’s happy, successful lives, but he still had another child ahead.
Andy found a new love in Francine Martinez, expanding his family as he knew it. A second daughter emerged from that marriage as he and Francine’s daughter, Elizabeth (the Younger), bonded as father-daughter, finding in each other a kindred spirit. With the expanded family, he now became the consummate host, introducing barbecued/smoked meals and spirit exploration, competitive card games and hours of Sunday football filled with laughter and lively banter.
Andy also embraced his role as grandfather. His mischief and playfulness with his granddaughter, Peyton, brought a new light to his eyes and a sparkle that will not be forgotten. His enormous bear hugs, tickles and playfulness he shared with Peyton will be passed on to his future grandchildren with zest and accompanied by stories of “Papa”.
To Andy we say, “Sail on.”