Posted in Creative Nonfiction, Essay, find yourself, memoir, Mortality, Priscilla Galasso

Claiming Rites of Passage

St. Luke's columbarium
St. Luke’s columbarium

A few years ago, I went to an exhibit on mummies at the Milwaukee Public Museum.  It was fascinating.  Listening to the whispered comments and questions of other patrons was fascinating as well.  We have a very scattered cultural approach to death, with so many various ways of marking the rite of passage, including not really marking it at all.

American culture, as a whole, has been dominated by technology to the point that important parts of our lives are relegated to “experts” and taken out of our hands completely.   My mother fought against this trend in the late 50s when she insisted on breastfeeding her babies instead of allowing the “experts” to convince her that artificial formula on an artificial schedule was better for them.

Birth experiences have become sterilized, institutionalized, and anesthetized as well in the mainstream. My 4 were all born in a hospital under the HMO system (but not under any pain killers!) because in my 20s, I wasn’t brave enough to seek more creative options.   However, my sister birthed one of her children at home, and I once assisted a friend who had a home birth.  It’s not impossible to choose to take full responsibility in this event.

Death is another part of life that more and more people deal with by proxy. The hospice movement is a wonderful example of the purposeful effort to maintain the grace and dignity of this stage of life by bringing it back into the home, away from institutions.  I recently watched an Ingmar Bergman movie set at the turn of the century, called Cries & Whispers (well, it’s actually called something in Swedish, but that’s the English title).  This intense family drama deals with the death of a spinster sister from cancer.  The action all takes place at home, in this case an elegant manor.  The doctor’s largest role is in an affair with one of the sisters, in flashback.  When I think of the family drama of my husband’s death, experts and technology played a huge part.  Unfortunately, that became a distraction from entering into the rite of passage, from experiencing the more intimate aspects of the dynamics that were changing my family.  What I mean to say is that it enabled denial.

The last photo taken of me & my husband
The last photo taken of my husband: 11 days before he died at home.

What does it mean to choose to take responsibility for my life?  Not to delegate the more painful or complicated bits to an “expert”, not to live by proxy or by representative?  In which situations do I most often abdicate my ability to decide a course of action?  Are they likely to be mostly financial, political, medical, social, spiritual, emotional or physical?  I am only beginning to wake up and ask myself these questions.  Steve often puts it to me this way: in every situation, you have at least 3 options:  1) Run away or hide  2) Try to change the situation  3) Change yourself.

This is a good time for me to think about aging, about how I want to live and address the changes that are happening now and will continue to happen.  What do I want?  I want to experience life in a more authentic way, not behind a duck blind or a proxy, not behind a curtain of denial or dogma, not by avoiding discomfort or hard work.  I want to make decisions about who I am and how to live proactively.  How do I embody this?  At this point, I am still figuring out who I am and want to be and recognizing places where that has been dictated and I have responded without looking deeper.   My father and my husband took great care of me.  I want to learn to do that myself.   I often dream about Jim returning as if he’d never died.

Last night, I had a powerful dream about him, set in the house I sold, with my young children around.  My consciousness struggled with it; I knew that the house was emptied and I’d moved.  I couldn’t understand why the furniture was back and the place looked so “lived in”.  I couldn’t understand why Jim was there.  He told me he was going out to work because he wanted to support me and the kids.  In a choked whisper, I closed the door behind him and said, “Don’t come back.”  I woke up crying.  Talking about this dream with Steve, I realized that I do want him to come back and float through my subconscious and consciousness without confusing me, without affirming me or correcting me, just visiting.  I suppose when I gain the confidence to affirm and care for myself, my dreams will change and Jim’s place in them as well.  Then we will both move beyond this Bardo and into a different sphere.

—- Priscilla Galasso

© 2013, essay and photograph, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

004PRISCILLA GALASSO ~  started her blog at scillagrace.com to mark the beginning of her fiftieth year. Born to summer and given a name that means ‘ancient’, her travel through seasons of time and landscape has inspired her to create visual and verbal souvenirs of her journey.

Currently living in Wisconsin, she considers herself a lifelong learner and educator. She gives private voice lessons, is employed by two different museums and runs a business (Scholar & Poet Books, via eBay and ABE Books) with her partner, Steve.

Author:

I began this blog when I entered my 50th year of life. I have always enjoyed writing and taking photographs. My sister did a profound personal photo project the year she was turning 50, so once again, I followed in her footsteps, taking her idea and doing it my way. My life has changed dramatically in recent years, and I have changed with it. My husband died, my kids moved out, I sold our home and moved in with a tall, dark Scorpio. I suppose I have a lot to process, and I'm sure there will be more.

12 thoughts on “Claiming Rites of Passage

  1. Dear Scilla,
    Thanks to Hospice, I was holding my mother’s hand when she died at home and in her own bed, after a long hard struggle with cancer. But both my kids were born in a hospital. Bea’s birth was uncomplicated, and she could’ve been born at home, but my son was born by caesarian section, as he came placenta previa, with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. He would surely have died had I tried to give birth at home.
    It’s interesting that many 18th and 19th century houses have birthing rooms, or birth and death rooms, where these important life events took place. One of my mother’s childhood memories is of her father’s casket being on view in their living room.
    Thank you for sharing your story–it was beautifully expressed.

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    1. Thank you, Naomi, for sharing your experience and your family history. Keeping possibilities in mind helps us make wiser, non-dogmatic decisions. It’s good to hear everyone’s story for that reason. Keep on telling stories, please!!

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  2. As a grateful former hospice nurse ll I can do is second this. Beautifully expressed, Priscilla. I consulted with a group (not hospice, but end-stage cardiac-related) that encouraged their patients to choreograph their death. Most chose to die at home. The only thing I would remind one to do is to execute those Advance Directives for Health Care so that your wishes will be known by family and healthcare providers.

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  3. Priscilla: Thank you so much for this very moving and relevant piece. I was fortunate to be able to hold the hands of my dear beloved Phyllis as she died in her bed last December. Very healing and important for me on many levels. I was not able to be with my mother or my father when they died. Each were important events in my life and I ached for an opportunity to join with them in consciousness as I held Phyllis as she made this important passage into this new dimension. You are absolutely right, we fail ourselves and each other as we put these natural events in life out of sight.

    Thank you Priscella for blessing us with your wisdom.

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    1. You’re very welcome, Robert, and thank you for mentioning your experience, too. This is our common destiny; you’d think it would be common in practice and conversation, but it is shrouded in secrecy. Writers and artists seem to be the only ones letting the secret speak.

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  4. This was a beautiful piece resulting from the purity of your feeling. This piece is a gift to all who read it. Thank you. I am so glad that you shared the photo.

    Dreams are funny things. With mine (and I have been around a very long time) I either awake from a dream knowing precisely what it means or I don’t and in the latter case there is no interpretation for me. I have some very dramatic phantasmagorical dreams, not all, but some.

    I am re & rereading the second part of your last paragraph. Of course, so that I can better understand it. You say:

    “Talking about this dream with Steve, I realized that I do want him to come back and float through my subconscious and consciousness without confusing me, without affirming me or correcting me, just visiting. I suppose when I gain the confidence to affirm and care for myself, my dreams will change and Jim’s place in them as well. Then we will both move beyond this Bardo and into a different sphere.”

    We are taught so many things in life about love and loyalty, then our subconscious mind plays with what we know in the form of dreams and mental conversation. I wonder if Jim’s entry into your dream is quite simply his “love.” For “love” remains. And that Jim’s love is a support. And because you have a partner whom you love today – I wonder did the dream from which you awoke become confused with any sense of guilt or disloyalty to your partner? It should not of course. But societal thought could easily have created that sense – as society says we have one partner at a time. But love never dies. Love is always there even when the loved one has died. And that is a good thing. I think that it is beautiful that you still sense his love. And yes, with time that love will undoubtedly be felt more subtly-differently.

    I was very touched by this piece/peace. I hope that in my talking I have not been at all offensive for it was not my intention.

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    1. No offense at all, Liz. Quite the opposite. I recognize my mind doing a major shift, like wrestling new vision from brand new bifocals. My world has changed; Jim is still in it, but in none of the familiar ways. I don’t want to push him out, but I do want to embrace new reality. It’s an awkward thing because I feel like I have no guidelines. “Emily Post on inviting your dead husband to the dinner table…” So my dreams propose different scenarios and let me work it out.

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  5. It is so odd that in our culture puts the natural things in life out of sight. I’m grateful that my mom died in her own home in her own bed – no monitors pinging, no televisions blairing, no strangers in attendance – just my son and me, the two people who loved her. It was – as it should be – private, sacred, personal and authentic.

    She also floats back to me – still “works” for my good – in dreams that are markers of growth and pointers to needed new direction.

    Another lovely and open piece, Priscilla. Thank you!

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    1. You are, as always, quite welcome, Jamie! I agree with your adjective for a way of life: private, sacred, personal and authentic. Dreams are fascinating, internal, invisible teachers to me, too.

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