Wednesday, July 22, 2009

An Abundant New Life Begins, at 65!

Yesterday I began my trip north to Pacific Yearly Meeting annual session, where I am to help present several minutes on behalf of the Peace and Social Order Committee.

When I drive the Coast route, I usually travel with Kathleen. This is one of the few times that I drove this route alone. I decided to stop off at places that were special to us and have times of remembrance. I brought with me her urn and ashes.

I began my trip by meditating at the Self-Realization Temple near the Lake Shrine. Then I drove along Pacific Coast Highway through Mailbu. Passing the Pepperdine campus, I remembered how I taught there when I first came to Los Angeles. I commuted from Torrance to Malibu three times a week. Pepperdine is a very conservative school, both politically and theologically, and I was a liberal Quaker doing Soviet-American reconciliation. When I had to go to Moscow for a meeting, I was nervous about asking my dept. chair for permission to take time off from my classes. But he turned out to be very supportive. He told me that the Chancellor of Pepperdine, Norvell Young, was working with Norman Cousins on a Soviet-American writers’ project. I was advised to meet with Norvell, who was very excited about the Quaker book project I was working on. He in turn introduced me to Norman Cousins, who became involved in our Quaker book project.

Kathleen and I were invited to have breakfast with Norman and his wife. This left an indelible impression on Kathleen, who mentioned it in her autobiography.

As I drove further along the highway, I remembered that as I was finished up my novel “Relics of America,” I imagined that my next novel would be about a man whose wife had died, and who travels to places along the California coast where he and she had spent time. Was this a coincidence, or did I have a premonition of Kathleen’s death back in 2006?

At Point Magu, I stopped at the Sycamore Grove campground—a place that Kathleen “discovered” when she drove alone along this route a couple of years ago. She wanted for us to camp there, and we scoped it out last fall on one of our trips, but she was unable to go camping because of her chemo treatment.

I stopped at this lovely campground by the beach under a little grove of dwarf trees. I sat her urn on a picnic table and meditated. Then I scattered some of her ashes in the ocean and among the roots of a tree.

I then drove up to Santa Barbara and visited Gene Hoffman at the Alamar Altzheimer facility. Gene was one of the pioneers of Compassionate Listening, and my friend and mentor for many years. Kathleen and I often visited her and we became very close. Gene was always so full of energy and enthusiasm.

When I saw her, she smiled and took my hands and began stroking them. I got down on my knees and looked up into her blue eyes. Her whole face radiated love and happiness. I spoke to her but she didn’t respond in words. She just smiled and rubbed my hands and I felt waves of warmth flow out from her.

This encounter lasted about fifteen minutes. An attendant came to take Gene to lunch. Gene resisted, and then went reluctantly. She clearly preferred to sit and commune with me. But I had to go, and so did she.

I later spoke to Sue, one of her caregivers, and learned that Gene has entered a new phase of her Altzheimer’s journey. She is turning inward, finding the inner peace that she sought all her life. A peace without words. Dear God, may she experience Your pure love and peace forever.

After leaving Gene, I felt led to go to the Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens, which Kathleen and I explored for the first time during our last visit in March. I wanted to go there to scatter some of Kathleen’s ashes.

Our trip in March was rather poignant. While we were in the redwood grove, we received a cell phone call from Kathleen’s oncologist Eric McGary telling us that the rice chemo had not knocked out all the cancer, as he had hoped. As a result, he was recommended that Kathleen undergo a more drastic form of stem cell transplant—the allo rather than the auto. This was somber news, but we meditated together and then looked for the bright side. We had been told that the allo had a better rate of cure, and that’s what we both wanted.

The Botanical Garden looked very different in August than it did in March. The whole place was radiant with sun and blooming with flowers—monkeyflowers, live for evers, and California poppies. I also saw evidence of the big fire that almost destroyed the garden. Whole hillsides were scorched and only the blackened skeletons of trees remained. Fortunately, the redwood grove was spared, and all of the buildings are intact, and the core of the garden remains as lovely as ever.

As I walked through the garden, I recalled a phrase Kathleen often used: “Gardens are my life.” She was echoing what the 85-year-old Eileen Slusher, the organist at Walteria UMC, once said in desperation after her stroke, when it seemed as if she’d never be able to play the piano again: “Music is my life.” Kathleen felt some of that desperation when she was told by her oncology nurse that she must avoid gardening while on chemo because of the mold and bacteria found in soil. Kathleen tried to be philosophical, but the idea of life without gardens was painful.

Kathleen loved to garden, and came to love it even more than I do. I just now realized that gardening was one of my gifts to her. When we first began living together in Torrance, I made a garden with a little pond in our backyard. Up to then, Kathleen had been to busy pastoring to do any gardening. From then on, everywhere we lived, we planted flowers and vegetables. One of my fondest memories of Kathleen is of her quietly singing to herself as she worked in our garden in Walteria.

Whenever I walk through a garden, I think of Kathleen and feel her presence. Isn’t there an old Methodist hymn about walking through a garden and feeling the presence of the Lord? I’ll have to google the words. If Kathleen were around, I could have just asked her. She had practically memorized the Methodist hymnal!

I found a quiet spot at the Botanical Garden where Kathleen and I meditated during our last visit. I sat on a bench under a live oak near some boulders and scattered some of her ashes. While I was meditating, I looked up and saw a picture of her smiling face peering out of a bag I brought along. A beam of sunlight breaking through this shady spot fell upon her face and made it even more radiant.

My next stop was the beach, where Kathleen and I often went for walks. I scattered some of her ashes in the water near the inlet where the pelicans and other water fowl like to gather. It was a beautiful day, bright and sunny with a cool sea breeze freshening the air.

Then I drove up to Morro Bay to visit Joe Morris, a retired psychology professor who taught for 30 years at Cal State Northridge. Joe was very kind to us when he learned Kathleen had cancer and we stayed in his condo in Santa Monica for a week or so. I just now learned that he is a survivor of prostrate cancer (and is doing very well since his surgery five years ago).

Joe has moved into a lovely apartment in Morro Bay, with a view of the bay. He is very happy in his new digs and his new life. For much of his life, he has lived in crowded LA, and now he lives in a place he considers close to nature. He can look out from the balcony of his apartment and see the bay with its gulls and pelicans and cormorants. The sounds of the sea—the foghorns and the cries of the gulls—feed his soul. He is close to hiking trails that he knows and has come to love.

He has been leading Sierra hikes (he prefers to call him “strolls” or “santers”) for the past 25 years, and the first one he led was here at Morro Bay. Since retiring, he has become one of the leading environmentalists among Quakers on the West Coast.

Joe took me a brief tour of Morro Bay and showed me the “rookery” where egrets, cormorants and heron nest. He shared with me fascinating stories about this and other sites. I can see why he is such an excellent teacher and sought after guide.

It is wonderful to see how Joe has embarked on a new life since retiring three years ago. He loves where he is living, and what he is doing, and that love is contagious.

He is also becoming a leader in the local chapter of the Sierra Club. In the evening he took me to a Sierra Club meeting at the Steinberg Gallery in San Luis Opisbo.

Bill and Phyllis Davies were giving a slide show (yes, a slide show) presentation about a 2600 mile hike he took along the Pacific Crest in 2000. The presentation turned out to be quite fascinating in part because of the people who gave it.

Bill was 67 years old when he did this trek and had virtually no experience in hiking. Yet he not only persisted and did the entire hike, he has since gone on to hike the Appalachian trail, the Pyrenees trail, etc. At age 74, he is an enthusiastic and committed hiker who radiates love for what he does.

It was also inspiring to see how this husband-and-wife team worked together. As Bill hiked the trail, his wife Phyllis drove an RV to trailheads to bring him supplies. Altogether she drove 12,000 miles to provide him with supplies, while he walked only 2600 miles. Hers was obviously a labor of love.

I later learned that Phyllis is a member of Central Coast Quaker Meeting and has traveled to 62 countries doing humanitarian projects. She has even visited Cuba and Iran and come home to dispel stereotypes about our “enemies.” She often stands in solidarity with the Women in Black, an Israeli/Palestinian peace group.

I was amazed by her energy since she is also “retired.” She told me that a year or so ago she went to 16 countries!

“When I came back, I was really tired,” she said. “I think I’m going to stay home for a while.”

God bless you, Phyllis! You and your husband have definitely inspired me, and no doubt many others. It is encouraging to realize that a new and abundant life can begin at 65!

1 comment:

  1. LA Quaker, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading about your memory trip and the homage you have paid to Kathleen. The way you have scattered her ashes is a tribute to what she meant to you. For your information, I have just read your message here in Bogotá, Colombia. I am a 65 year old Colombian who has lived most of his life in the USA. Now I am on a special assignment from my company. I am based in Bogotá, but travel through South America. Soon I will retire and I am trying to plan for those days ahead.