Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Saying Goodbye to Tamar

Sadly, I have another eulogy today. Long-time Dancing Rabbit member Tamar Friedner died Sunday, losing her battle with liver and pancreatic cancer. She was 32.

It was right at a year ago that we learned of Tamar's grim diagnosis [see my blog Bad News at Home of Sept 17, 2009]. With pluck and determination she had rallied from grave debilitation (she was severely jaundiced at one point and surgery was needed to clear an abdominal obstruction), and enjoyed several good months in the spring when her cancer was in remission. The thing that seemed to help most was a vibrational healing system called Tong Ren, developed by Boston acupuncturist Tom Tam.

While the hope of spring proved false, it was great to see the more vital Tamar once again after the shocking initial diagnosis. It seemed a miracle that her health could be restored so completely, but it was a mirage. The tumors eventually returned and she went into a decline from which she never recovered. She died in Massachusetts, near her family. Various DR members visited her there and Nathan Brown in particular did heroic service in support during the final weeks, including sending her friends much-appreciated updates on her status. One of the beauties of community living is that it is often possible for people to free up their lives to answer the call like this, and I'm sure it meant a lot to Tamar.

Tamar maintained a blog during the last year, and it's an amazing chronicle of her experience. She called it simply, The Journey. One of the things that touches me most about community living is that it often inspires the best in people
, not the least of which is heart-rending vulnerability. While there are paths that we can only walk alone—as Tamar has so clearly demonstratedwe are nonetheless in this life together and there is incredible power and solace in the companionship. Tamar let us all peek behind the curtain of her solitary journey toward death and we are all the richer for her courage and eloquence. It is, after all, a journey that we will all take eventually.

Our Last Exchange
My last communication with Tamar occurred less than two weeks ago. Aug 29 she had written:

Do you know how Geoph (Kozeny) knew when he was on the path to death? Do you think he knew before he got there? What did he do in relation to the illness after he got diagnosed? Did he do Western medicine? Alternative?

Did you know when Geoph was definitely on the path to death? How did you know?

I know these are intense questions. I hope that is okay with you. Sorry if you are not in the space to think about these things.
I responded:

It's certainly OK, and I'm happy to offer what I can.

I'll try to cover your questions with a narrative...

Geoph learned about having inoperable pancreatic cancer in late June 2007, and he died four months later.

Geoph was a highly optimistic person, and idealistic to the point of being unrealistic at times. Because I also am highly optimistic (though somewhat more pragmatic), this didn't bother me about him. Naturally enough, given his core nature, Geoph immediately set upon a path to recover his health through alternative treatments (since allopathic treatments had been ruled out as expensive and ineffective).

While he struggled to make sense of an avalanche of information, some of which was contradictory, he ultimately settled on a course of dietary changes and enzyme supplements (in particular, some product by Mannatech). His mood was generally good, even though he had to navigate a fair amount of pain associated with digestion problems.

My understanding is that he nearly died within a month of the diagnosis due to intestinal blockage, but then this cleared and he was able to enjoy about 10 weeks of relatively pain free living with decent energy and focus. Prudently, he chose to emphasize connecting with as many friends as possible, and essentially stopped working on projects. Fortunately, he had enough good days left to accomplish almost all of what he wanted to in that way.

I was in close contact with Geoph during his final four months, including three visits to the Bay Area. One of my roles was help him make arrangements in case he died, which included disposition of his assets and completion of his video. Given that these things would not have been needed if he survived the cancer, he was having conversations with me that he was not having with others. At the same time, Geoph almost never talked about death with me; it was more like he was preparing for the worst while still hoping for a miracle. As I believe in the power of faith, I was happy to adopt this view myself.

Still, after a brief period of cautious optimism associated with the flurry of experimentation with diet changes and supplements, I had the definite sense that Geoph was dying by August. He was not able to stop losing weight, and his energy was constantly drained (though his mood was often good and he was fully present). I had no sense how long he would live, but I knew he was not going to recover.

During the final two months it was hard to tell how much Geoph might have been in denial about his condition, versus how much he was simply working with what he had, to be open to the mystery of dying. Toward the end he became increasingly interested in spiritual questions and the meaning of life. Increasingly, he would be "somewhere else" when others were in the room.

I saw him for the last time only two days before he died, when it was crystal clear that his body was shutting down. I absolutely knew I was saying good-bye for the last time. But even then, Geoph wasn't interested in talking about dying, except indirectly by speaking regretfully about how he was learning so many interesting things with so little time to enjoy working with them.

While I was never clear about how much Geoph consciously looked at death, I had the definite sense that he met it at peace.

Tamar replied Sept 1:

Thank you Laird. Something that I resonate a lot with and have been saying is.... what a waste it would be if I died now that I have learned so much and my life in health would be more full and joyous.

What a great way to go out, still in wonder and curiosity!

We Build the Ritual as We Travel
Per her wishes, Tamar will be buried at Dancing Rabbit this Friday. It will be the first burial among the tri-communities (Sandhill, DR, and Red Earth) and it's a solemn occasion. Communities are good with ritual and this is a potent time. I'm confident that it will go well. Grieving is a highly individualized and non-linear process, so there will be lots of room for people to touch the third rail of grief in their own way, singly or in groups.
This afternoon, before our regular Tuesday potluck, there will be a ritual to start digging the grave. For me, it helps to have something to do, and I'm looking forward to grieving with a shovel in my hands, just as I'm grieving now at the keyboard.

Ma'ikwe is part of the group that's planning the burial ceremony, and she's taken on the concierge role, helping out with travel and lodging logistics for people coming from out of town for the funeral. There are supporting tasks for all who want one, to be pallbearers figuratively, if not literally.

As death is not something we tend to dwell on before it arrives, awkward things can surface when it knocks on the door (who, after all, is ever fully prepared?). One of those moments occurred for Sandhill yesterday when DR asked us if we'd store Tamar's body in our walk-in cooler between its arrival from Massachusetts Wednesday and the burial Friday. Because it will be a natural burial—very much aligned with the community's and Tamar's values—the body has not been embalmed. There are health regulations governing this and refrigeration is required. Dancing Rabbit is off the grid and doesn't have a refrigerated space large enough to handle this. We do.

On the one hand, this is a way we can help, and several of us felt honored to do this. On the other, this is the harvest season and we're moving food in and out of the walk-in daily. Some members feel queasy about this commingling of life and death and may avoid using the walk-in for the two days that Tamar will be in temporary residence. There is no right or wrong here; it's just one tender example of how death stirs things up, and not the same things for everyone. Breathing through the swirl of emotional responses, we came to a settled place about saying "yes." This was a request we never anticipated facing, but here we are.

Death Be Not Proud
This marks the fourth friend I've lost in less than seven weeks, the last three just in Sept: Al Andersen in July, then Margo Adair, Fred Lanphear, and Tamar in rapid succession. Yikes! Why are so many leaving at the same time? Are there more right around the corner?

While it's hard saying goodbye, it would be much worse if I didn't have the chance, or didn't make the time.

So long, Tamar, thanks for being my friend.

1 comment:

Alline said...

Thanks Laird, for your words to Tamar when she needed them most. Kurt & I wondered often how she was really dealing with what was happening; it is comforting to get this glimpse. Thanks also to all of Sandhill for the use of your cooler. It cannot be easy, and yet we are so, so grateful for the loan and all of your continued love and support.