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What Pema Chodron Said

It’s February in the Hudson Valley. Last week was Fake Spring. The temperature was fifty something fahrenheit and everyone bobbed about agreeing that the groundhog didn’t see his shadow or did see it and hooray, winter is nearly over. This week was the season that comes immediately after Fake Spring, affectionately known as I Can’t Feel My Face.

I have learned that when you move from a warm place with no snow to a cold place with lots of snow, it is probably best to just do things the way the locals do. But I have learned this lesson slowly because I also like trying to do things my own way. My thinking is: maybe nobody has ever thought of my way before, and soon everyone will be doing it that way and expressing surprise and gratitude?

Like why does nobody drape their car in a bedsheet before a snowstorm? Then when your car is covered in a foot of snow, you just whip the bedsheet off, like Jack Nicholson and the tablecloth in Five Easy Pieces.

There is a good reason why you don’t see lots of cars covered in bedsheets as you drive around snowy places right before snow. But I am going to let you try it for yourself because experience is a great teacher.

Secondly: when you have a steep driveway that you don’t want to pay anyone to plow, why can’t you just power your four-wheel drive up the top of the driveway and park outside your house like you do when there’s no snow? During our first winter here, after a few days of parking down at the road and trudging up my icy hill with bags of groceries, I tried the powering up the driveway thing. It worked great. Out of the car, into the house. Ha!

Next morning, the car had slid on the packed snow halfway down the drive and was at an angle to our steep hill. This was very bad to see. As Pema Chodron once said, things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing.

Locals pay to have their driveways plowed. But they also pay to blacktop them. We have opted to stick with gravel, due to the unruly amounts of money people charge to blacktop long steep driveways. So as I trudge up our deeply ravined gravel drive with bags of groceries, I channel Pema Chodron and reason that things falling apart (my life in snow) is a kind of testing (my life in snow) and also a kind of healing (what, what is the healing bit, I’m just freezing my ass off here climbing my driveway in the dark).

I have adapted to my new life in the Hudson Valley in several other ways. I drive a lot for my job so I had to learn to dictate my texts because there isn’t time to pull over every time you want to send a text, and because doing so firmly marks you as a person born before humans stepped on the moon. I have also learned to have Siri read out my Maps directions. Unfortunately the two things sometimes merge. The other day, my husband got a text that read Thanks for being there for me this morning in a quarter mile slight right on Fashion Avenue.

I rely on Siri for almost every driving experience. But when I am with my husband, he encourages me to rely on The Force instead. This is not because he is a guy and doesn’t like to ask for directions, but because he is trusting and likes to use The Force as a means of navigating about the planet. I do too. It’s just that I have zero sense of direction, and so foregoing Maps has predictable results.

Take last weekend. We were driving around Red Hook looking for an antique store to frequent. I was in favor of the Antique Stores Near Me method, but my husband was in favor of The Force.

 I was driving. We drove around for a bit with me relying on The Force and my husband loving that I was doing so. I loved it too, but a little bit less every minute. I knew of an antique store and I felt that we were heading in its general direction, but how to get there was a bit woolly to me. I was also concerned that my husband would soon begin to deduct that The Force was not my strong point. Luckily he is a generous soul and after a while he helpfully suggested that I scrap The Force and pull over to use Maps.

Now that I’ve been driving around between patients for three years though, I’ve begun to be able to use The Force. I can sometimes get from A to really far away B without any help from my phone and this feels great to me. I feel a bit like a local. Also like someone with a superpower. I also know all the good coffee spots and where to get the cheapest gas and some great hiking trails that I could hike upon if I had that mythical half hour of free time between visits.

The intensity of my workload is offset by the instructive nature of my work. Again, Pema Chodron said it well: things don’t really get solved, they come together for a time, then they fall back apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that.

That’s my work with the dying! In a nutshell! I wish that I could have that printed on my business card and given it to every family member of every new patient. Instead I have We are all walking each other home. Also a nutshell, but glosses over the mayhem a bit.

People like to talk about the peaceful death. And sometimes it is peaceful. We accompany someone on their journey for a while and then they quietly slip off and we stand sorrowfully waving goodbye. But more often, we’re walking them home and we are tripping over rocks and falling into holes and there is yelling and squabbling.

Recently I had a patient who took a very long time to die. While she was taking her time, her family kept asking me how long she had left. And why she was up talking and eating one day and looking like she was at death’s door the next. I should have just referred them to Pema Chodron. Instead, I tried to explain it all to them and to give them some kind of idea of whether they should get on a plane to come see her or not, and when, and how often, and whether it was worth bringing the new great grandchild to lie in her arms, since she might recognize him or she might not but it would be a great photo op but she might also be dead by the time they got him there.

All of this took place against the backdrop of terminal agitation. This is a state the body sometimes gets into when it is dying. It is a kind of agitation that cannot be reasoned with because it is due to the chaos of the brain shutting down. So we often use medication to calm the person because otherwise they can hurt themselves trying to get out of bed when they have no strength left. It can be difficult to give the right amount of medication. You want to calm the person but not sedate them. And the right amount of medication one day may not be the right amount the next.

And yet when I am asked by distant family members was it peaceful? I sometimes just say yes, because it is simpler, and because in the end, everyone looks peaceful when their life is done. But maybe I should be more truthful. Maybe I should say well, to be honest...what Pema said.

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