Ricky's Riffs:

Random thoughts on Travel, Education, Health, and the World in General

Mortality and Healing: A Meditation and Tribute to a Friend

It seems to be a season of dying. It’s probably my age—almost 60—and the age of many of my friends. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that mortality is in the air.

It’s not that I haven’t experienced death before. My father at 69, my old friend Sigrid at 36, my sister-in-law at 40. Cancer got them all. Now cancer is getting my good friend Marilyn.

Marilyn has late stage ovarian cancer. She just turned 60. She had two rounds of chemotherapy, and the doctors thought they had things at bay. But the cancer came back fiercely. There is no more treatment for her; just digging in at home with the comfort of friends, the right pain meds and medical marijuana. Palliative care.

A meeting

Marilyn called our old group of friends together. Many of us had met during our freshman year of college, in 1972. Most had migrated, one by one, from New York to the Bay Area. Now we were hanging out in Marilyn’s living room, drinking wine, nervously milling around, knowing that we were there to say goodbye.

When the time seemed right (the afternoon unfolded as though it had its own internal rhythm), we arranged ourselves in a circle. We waited for Marilyn to speak. Tearfully she read a piece she had prepared. She described the state of her health, how long she had left to live (two months or less most likely), which medicines she was taking. She talked about her fears (“not paralyzing”) and her sadness–not so much of dying, but for those she was leaving behind who would be left grieving, especially her mother.

Talking Dopey

Marilyn was always enamored of “Dopey,” that most lovable of Snow White’s dwarves. Her home was filled with Dopeys of all sizes, in a variety of Dopey expressions. She pulled one off a bookshelf and designated him as our talking stick; our “talking Dopey.” (Marilyn and her partner Jim had gone through a “shamanism period,” so this ritual adaptation was very natural!)

When a person held the “talking Dopey” it was their turn to speak, to say whatever they needed to say. So around the circle Dopey went, from hand to hand.

There were tears and laughs. There were expressions of love and affection and of long held guilt, for actions taken and opportunities missed. And a feeling of deep connection; not only to Marilyn, but also amongst this group of friends who had known each other for so many years, friends who had been close and then were not, who had fought, separated and were now together again.

Sitting on the precipice

Sitting with one who is straddling the line between life and death has its own feeling state. There is always sadness of course. But there can be more. Being with Marilyn that afternoon I also had a sense of wonder; of being in the company of an adventurer about to strike out into the unknown, her gaze fixed on something beyond the room, one foot already on the path.

She had changed a lot physically in the last few months, shedding a great deal of weight. But there was something else, something ethereal. It felt like she was energetically unwinding; as if the molecules of which she was composed were reconfiguring, altering their state in preparation for a scattering back into the great cosmic sea.

The power of intention

And Dopey kept moving around the circle. With each pass and each story told, the boundaries of personality that separated each of us seemed to dissolve. On some level, the group merged into one. The feeling that arose could only be described as love.

I looked around the circle and saw tears, and I felt my own. I wasn’t crying just for Marilyn, who would soon be passing on. But also for myself; for realizing how much of my precious time had been wasted on petty squabbles. There was one friend I had not spoken to for five years. We had fallen out, somehow; and I could not even remember why. In a few brief moments my harsh, negative feelings dissipated into thin air.

How could things that had felt so real, so solid, that had held me for so many years just evaporate? It seemed to be some kind of healing. And if it was healing, what was the mechanism of that healing? And if I experienced this, in this circle with Marilyn at its center, did others as well? Did Marilyn?

Can one who is dying be healed? And what would that even mean?

Death and healing

In my education, both formal and cultural, death has always felt like a kind of defeat: a failure. Death and healing seemed incongruous, oxymoronic.

Now I’m not so sure.

What I saw and felt in that circle was the deep power of presence, and the healing power of love. Marilyn was not being defeated by death. She was dying into whatever was coming next. She was affirming the life she had lived and the one we had all shared. That was her gift to us that afternoon. And in that giving, we all (including Marilyn) were lifted.

Winding down

I have visited Marilyn weekly since that gathering. I sit by her bed, sometimes alone, sometimes with other friends. We talk, reminisce and laugh, gossip and cry a bit. She has lost more weight. It is as if she is lightening her load for the journey ahead; sifting out what is no longer essential, including those people who are not able to add to the life force she wants and needs right now. In these last weeks, what she desires most has been laughter: energy that will float her, provide healthy distraction and not drag her down into self pity. The nonsense of life is fading into a vague static back drop.

The grim reality

But as the process moves forward in time, the awful face of this terrible disease makes itself more fully known: a scourge that swallows our bodies, that consumes us. Those beautiful gifts of love and healing become harder to find under the oppressive weight of the cancer. The world narrows and becomes little more than the pain and suffering of a loved one, tempered by meds, the “comfort pack” delivered by hospice nurses. The light dims.

I became angry. “Fuck cancer and its lessons,” I said to myself. “What has it really done but take my family and friends?” But cancer tells a story that will eventually become our own.

The great inevitability

We all have loved ones who have died. And we know our time will come as well. We may try to push it away and spend big chunks of our lives dedicated to its denial, as if accumulating enough material wealth will produce a gravitational force strong enough to keep us attached to this world forever. But deep down we all know that resistance is futile.

A thank you

And so, Marilyn I want to thank you for being my friend. For reminding me of those difficult lessons that it is best to learn sooner, as they will surely be faced later. For being a brave pioneer, and shining a light on the path we will all soon tread. And for teaching me that even when facing death, the greatest unknown, one can still open their heart to love and healing.

Dr. Ricky Fishman has been a San Francisco based chiropractor since 1986. In addition to the treatment of back pain and other musculoskeletal injuries, he works as a consultant in the field of health and wellness with companies dedicated to re-visioning health care for the 21st century.

Copyright 2015 Ricky Fishman

15 thoughts on “Mortality and Healing: A Meditation and Tribute to a Friend

  1. Well said.

    Thank You,

    Dr. Laura Nunno RN, DC, DICCP

    Holistic Health Center 75 Berlin Road, Suite 114 Cromwell, CT 06416 T: 860-635-6913 F: 860-635-0169 http://www.DrLauraNunno.com


  2. lorriholt says:

    Beautiful, Ricky…..I will be thinking of Marilyn, and lighting candles for her peaceful passage. Thank you, Lorri

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Rhonda t says:

    Hi Ricky your writing touched my heart greatly. Thank you!

  4. Jack says:

    Dear Ricky,

    Wishing love, peace and ease to you, Marilyn and your dear circle of friends. May the powers-that-be kindly and gently guide her through this most important passage of her life’s journey. Om, Shanti, Shanti, Shanti……Jack

  5. Joyce Skora says:

    This is Marilyn’s sister Joyce. This is most beautifully written.
    There is much to learn from her as she approaches her passing with both strength and grace She truly is a “brave pioneer” as you said. She always loves your visits because you make her laugh. Thank you for sharing this.

    1. Ricky Fishman says:

      Dear Joyce, I am so glad you enjoyed the piece. For me it has been a pleasure and an honor to spend these days with Marilyn (and Jim). She is truly an inspiration and if I can give her some joy at this time, I am happy to do it. Love to you and your mom.

  6. Ann Spanko says:

    So beautiful and well put. It captured my feeling at and following the circle.

  7. Jerry Dekker says:

    Dear Ricky,

    Again your words are beautiful, powerful and full of spirit! I was particularly moved by your words “as if the molecules of which she was composed were reconfiguring, altering their state in preparation for a scattering back into the great cosmic sea.” Absolutely wonderful, indeed!

    Take care, Jerry

  8. Andrew Keehn says:

    Thank you for writing this beautiful piece. We are deeply moved by your words. Peace to all those in Marilyn’s circle, and especially to Marilyn. Bonnie and Andy

  9. Helene Yagoda says:

    Ricky, Thank you for writing this piece – you write beautifully and, more importantly, shared some thoughts that I think we all have had as we have watched Marilyn go through this journey. I am not a writer – math and science were my fortes in school – but I will try to capture my thoughts as I sit here 3000 miles away from Marilyn wishing I lived closer and could also visit frequently. Marilyn and I have been friends for over 50 years (since second grade) and in those early years from elementary school through high school, I was often the one “teaching” – helping Marilyn with math homework and studying for math tests. Now she is the one doing the teaching and I don’t think I will ever forget the lessons she has taught me over the past 2 years since her diagnosis. When I visited her on April 21st – her 60th birthday – I knew it was the last time I would see her.  I don’t think I will ever forget those emotional last 5 minutes when I said goodbye to her before leaving for the airport.  I said “take care of yourself” and she said “I’m going to be ok” to which I responded “no you’re not”.  She assured me that she was going to be ok – she would be on painkillers and that this was all part of living – but that she was sad for all the people she would leave behind who would be grieving. She is amazing – the lessons she has taught me through this will stay with me forever.

  10. Judith Barringer says:

    This was beautifully written and such a moving piece. You have been a wonderful friend to Marilyn. Bless you.

  11. Cheryl Kimler says:

    Hi Ricky:
    Marilyn’s cancer gave us our friendship back. What a gift! All the good feelings came racing back. She is still making me laugh. Recently I called her home phone when I had not heard from her. My message which I thought Jim would listen to said ” I know things are not so good….” Within minutes Madsy returned my call and said ” What do you mean not good?” Then went on to tell me about her recent cravings for egg rolls, something she has not eaten since she left Brooklyn! I cherish these conversations and live with her in these moments. And yes. I learned a lesson about friendship and not sweating the small stuff!!

  12. Kathi Gulotta says:

    Ricky, thank you for sharing your thoughts – your heartfelt tribute moved me deeply. Years and distance have separated me from Marilyn, but the time spent with her is still very much present and clear. So lucky to have had her as a generous, supportive friend during the tumultuous years of my youth! Being a person who faces changes with trepidation, I always admired Marilyn’s courage and adventurous spirit, so I am not surprised to learn that she is facing this difficult journey in a brave, purposeful way. I was lifted by the image of the group together again with Dopey presiding (of course!) Sending love to dear Madsy and all her friends/family.

  13. Sharon Spry says:

    Thank you for such a beautiful tribute to Marilyn. Marilyn reached out to me when I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. My children are students at her school. Having cancer forces you to shift your focus from the mundane aspects of life to what is really important. Love of God, yourself and your loved ones. Forgiving those you did you wrong in person or in your heart and forgiving yourself for your mistakes becomes very important. Family and friends are no longer peripheral relationships that you will someday address. They become your lifeline, your port in the storm if you will. It has been my experience that Gods grace continues to be showered upon me by so many people who have touched my life, Marilyn included. I am humbled by the love that freely comes to me due to this tragedy. Not that anyone would wish for cancer, but it does bring with it a heightened realization that we are not alone. We are love. God bless you Marilyn and all of your loved ones. I believe in heaven and know that you are about to embark on the next phase of your journey and it’s going to be wonderful. Thank you for showing your love to me and I pray that you are at peace.

  14. Don Mallonee says:

    Ricky, you did a great job of bringing the reality of your friend’s time left here home to those of us reading this. You don’t come right out and say it but as I read I kept thinking that everything and everyone dies yet it’s not something we discuss much in the overt sense. We certainly don’t spend much of our public life preparing for it or discussing what it is like to prepare for it. And yet it is the defining act of any life. We are moved by those who die heroically, those who die tragically, lives and loves cut short by disease or violence or service to a higher cause. But we rarely if ever talk about being prepared for it.

    I was taken by the following observation: “In my education, both formal and cultural, death has always felt like a kind of defeat: a failure. Death and healing seemed incongruous, oxymoronic. Now I’m not so sure.”

    On a hot autumn day in 1999 a friend of mine and I drove out to San Gregorio Beach for a long walk and chat. It was a full moon that day/night and as we strolled the surf became increasingly fearsome, dangerous. There was a dual rip current that made for hellish churn. As we walked I thought to myself ‘anyone getting into this surf today is as good as dead.’ We walked several miles and then headed back to my home in Menlo Park for a BBQ with a group of friends. I went to sleep that night around 11:00 PM and fell into restless dreams about walking along the beach and being sucked into the ocean by a wave I could not outrun. I would wake myself up and then fall right back to sleep and into the same dream. Around 1:30 AM my cell phone rang. It was the neighbor of my best friend John Seaver who lived in SF. She and I were friends but to get a call from her, let alone at that hour was beyond normal and I felt a chill go up my spine. Even today it’s still striking to me to recall how I answered the call. I said “Jen, what ‘s wrong?” There was a long pause. I heard her take a couple of deep breaths and then she asked me if John was with me. When I said “no” she asked me when I had seen or heard from him last. I told her He and I had gone out to dinner the night before with friends and talked on the phone earlier that morning but I had not seen him in over 24 hours, that he was supposed to have stopped by a BBQ I had but did not show. There was silence and I could tell she had begun to cry. So I pressed her, asked her to tell me what was going on. She told me that the police had knocked on her door around 10:00 PM and asked if she had seen John. She replied not since around 11:00 AM earlier in the day. She answered all of their questions and then she asked what this was all about. They told her a man they believe was John was seen entering the ocean on Montara Beach around 3:00 PM earlier that day and no one saw him come out. The couple who reported it were right next to him on the beach and had engaged him in conversation during the day. John told them he came out to do some yoga and clear his head and had a BBQ to attend later. Around 4:00 PM they realized they had not seen him come out of the water let alone come back to his towel on the beach so they became concerned. As they prepared to leave they still had not seen him and sensed something was not right so they called it in. The police found his backpack and personal effects on the beach and his truck in the parking lot and were currently treating it as a “missing persons” case.

    By now I’m sure you realize that John was gone, that the Ocean had taken him. As the realization of what had happened dawned on me I entered into a completely alien and previously not experienced emotional state. On the one hand I was horrified and at an utter loss and yet there was another experience, an almost euphoric, out of body state of awareness. It was as if I could sense John and my experience of him was that he was OK with what had happened. As the days went by (John was a practicing Buddhist so we had a 49 day vigil observing his transformation) the horror receded and my sense of amazement and wonder increased. I knew John was having the time of his new life but more importantly I knew that that is exactly how John would chose to embrace his next phase. I became convinced it was my task to gently urge our circle of friends to let him go and wish him well, that he was as fully prepared for death as he was prepared for life and was doing just fine on his journey, that he would not want any of us to be sad or mournful and to take the opportunity of his death to become a deeper, more spiritual person and to double down on fighting the good fight and living the Bene Vida!

    About a month later I spoke at the Christian service his family held for him in his home town. It was a classically Midwestern Christian service complete with weeping people who were praying for him, praying that “God” would save his soul. Decent, well meaning people The preacher gave an awful service that made me squirm the entire time. It had little to do with John and everything to do with the preacher’s theology. I think he was Baptist. As I sat there I began to become righteously angry. I’m a mercurial personality that can go from placid to crackling with energy in a blink but I do not rile to anger easily. It’s not in my makeup and it’s definitely not how I chose to respond to negative energy, especially in public. I’m sitting there asking myself why I feel so cold, angry when I realize the type of anger I’m feeling is how John would likely feel about the “Christian” moment that was being leveraged as a result of his death. So I gave myself over to the anger.

    When it was my turn to address the group I took the podium, turned to the preacher told him he had delivered a properly Christian, Midwestern sermon that had nothing to do with John’s spirituality, nothing to do with John’s belief’s, his love of life and his absolute certainty there was no heaven, no hell, only Becoming . I told him that not once did he bother to mention that John was a devout Buddhist and suggested that he was insecure about his faith, a bad quality in a preacher and that a better man would have focused on John, told the truth. Then I told him that John was that better man and he wants you to know you can and should strive to do better. As soon as I said all of that the anger vanished and I was myself again. I told the group that if they really wanted to honor John they should get some Nag Champa incense and drink a beer while they burned it. I let them know how he lived and loved in California and finished by telling them as forcefully as the moment allowed that for John this transition was not a defeat, not a negative. It was a victory, a reason for rejoicing and wishing him well…. An opportunity to take a look at their own lives and get rid of what isn’t working and grow closer to the things of meaning, that worth cherishing. I told them John would not welcome them being sad for him and to save that sentiment for themselves and other like minded people. I told them that above all else John would want to me to wish all of them well from the bottom of my heart…..and so I did.

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