One of my failings is a tendency to take the easy way. Many years ago I read the book A Year to Live by Stephen Levine, a true, profound book. At the end of each chapter were exercises to do. Of course, I didn’t do them. Later, someday, I told myself. Then my diagnosis. I realized if I was ever going to do the work – with my prognosis of one year left – this was the year. To keep my feet to the fire, I asked a group of my friends to read the book with me and do the exercises together. What an amazing year it was. We’d start discussing that month’s chapters, we’d do the exercises and just look at each other when the class was over. It was moving and important, true and real. We went places we never expected to go, confronted ourselves in ways we hadn’t expected, learned about ourselves, each other and our death without blinking. I love this group of people. I believe deeply that doing that work in that year gave me my life back. Not only was I shown the love that my friends had for me, but we faced together what we may not have been able to face alone. Erasing the knot of fear that stays in your stomach after this diagnosis was what doing the work of this book gave me. And that in itself is huge; releasing that stress and fear gives life back to the body.
I really hesitate to suggest anything to anyone else with this diagnosis; we are all different and probably need different things. Mostly I offer a wide variety of things that I hope may inspire you or ring a bell, things I found that helped me. But this particular book I would recommend to anyone, it’s was that valuable to me. It helped me calm down, face what needed facing, take control of my healing. I believe it is a universal healing tool. It helped a couple of people in the class come to terms with death, lose their fear of it. And if anything will allow you to stamp your foot on the earth and say with absolute belief, I am here and I have a right to be here, for me it was this book.
Let me give you an example of one of the exercises. For one day, you are to walk in the world as if you are no longer there. I chose to walk in our hospital, because I had spent many hours there, both for me and my husband, thinking about the possibility of death. And I walked in a nearby mall where my Mom and I had gone so often, had so much fun, enjoyed our day so fully. It was strange, walking like that. Never speaking, just walking and watching, realizing as I’d look at a rack of clothes that those racks would still be there when I was gone and people would continue to look through them. Seeing the doctors and visitors in the cafeteria line at the hospital, realizing that they too would be doing the same things without my presence. It’s hard to explain how this makes you feel. But it brings home – like an arrow to the heart – how the world goes on. I sat on benches with all those bored husbands who are waiting for their wives and knew they’d still be there too. But I wouldn’t be. It’s a hollow feeling, it takes you out of your normal world and challenges your perspective. Yes, it can be hard. But it’s also incredibly valuable for your attitude and your soul and to your appreciation of the life you have left.
Stephen Levine has several other books dealing with death and end of life issues that are beautiful, touching and full of important insights. Two of my favorites are Healing Into Life and Death and Guided Meditations, Explorations and Healings. He also has a website where you can purchase many of his writings, CDs and DVDs. He and his wife Ondrea are both in their dying process and send out videos every once in awhile, talking about their process (I expand on this in the entry Song From Iron and Wine in this section). To access these videos, you must pay a monthly fee, so you may pass this by, but they also have a free section called Apologies. It is free to write on this community message board with the apology you want to make. Sometimes we all need to do that. His website is http://levinetalks.com
If you decide to read the book, I would really recommend doing it in a group of loving companions. I would love to hear of your experiences with it. I now live in the Honolulu area and if you would like to read a Year to Live, leave a comment. Maybe we can start up a new group.