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.
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
PRISCILLA 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.