He wasn’t leaving. Always a man who lived by his own rules and always a warrior, he had been thumbing his nose at death for almost four years. It seemed that he was not about to change his modus operandi now, even though he was nearing the end of the dying process.
But he was more shell than human at this point and all I could do was attend to his needs . . . and love him. I had promised no ambulances and no hospitals, and I had, thus far, fulfilled that promise. He was at home, where he wanted to be, and I was happy for both of us that he was. And now it was a death watch.
I’d called my sister in Illinois two days earlier saying, “I give up. Come on out.” She had offered to come to help and was able to do so because the month of December was a slow time for her business as a lobbyist. Until then, I’d managed to carry on with a little help from hospice and a little help from Antonio, the shaman I had once been apprenticed to, who also happened to be a nurse. But after calling hospice for help on Christmas night and after finally surrendering to having a hospital bed—something Howard had refused but which could not be avoided now that he was barely conscious—I surrendered a bit further and asked my sister for help. I was pretty sure she had no idea what she was in for, even though I’d warned her. She was on her way and would arrive within hours.
Antonio had awakened that morning thinking, I have to go to Melanie’s house. There was a sense of urgency to it. He packed up his shamanic tools of the trade, called me to make sure it was okay for him to come, and drove over. His wife Helena was with him and it was a relief to see both of them.
During the long days and nights of what I knew would be Howard’s final moments on Earth, I’d just kept doing what needed to be done, seldom thinking about the fact that I was managing alone. Hospice had been coming every few days for the past month and I was extremely thankful for that, but apart from those visits, I’d been managing on my own. Except for the emergencies. I’d called Antonio more than once when Howard had gotten himself into a fix he couldn’t get himself out of because he kept insisting on doing things he could no longer do, like walk from one room to another.
Now, just having their calm strength with me, I realized that I was more than just a little frayed around the edges. I was beginning to unravel a bit. It hadn’t occurred to me to do shamanic ceremony because Howard shared neither my beliefs nor practices when it came to shamanism. But Antonio had come to do ceremony and not only did it feel fitting and respectful of Howard in that moment, I slowly grasped the fact that my spirit was calling out to me to do ceremony.
Because of Antonio’s support during emergencies, Howard had become comfortable with his presence. In fact, he had come to trust Antonio’s professional assistance more than anyone else’s. But he wasn’t used to having Helena see him so vulnerable and even though he was only marginally conscious, I wanted to honor that, so I asked Helena to wait in the living room while Antonio went in to see Howard. Antonio set up a small altar on the guest room bed that had been abandoned for the past couple of days because Howard had been moved to a hospital bed. I asked him not to use smudge—something that would ordinarily be a part of any ceremony either of us did—because Howard had never been fond of it. So Antonio moved the energy around my husband using only his intent and his feather fan.
Standing at the doorway, I watched as Antonio went to Howard, bent over him, and spoke words that only another man—and only another warrior—could say with any authority. He told Howard that there was a time for fighting and a time to put down one’s arms. He said that Howard could stop fighting now and come to rest. There would be new causes to take up on the other side. I came closer, but Antonio asked for some time alone with Howard and I deferred to him.
I joined Helena in the living room, saw Howard’s Native American flute on the bookshelf, and decided, rather spontaneously, to give it to Helena. Helena played the Native American flute and was, in fact, the only person close to me who did. She was the appropriate person to have it and I knew that Howard would approve. For some reason, it seemed important for her to have it now, not after Howard was gone, so I presented it to her.
And then I realized that Helena was meant to take part in the ceremony. When I returned to the bedroom, I discovered that Antonio had come to the same conclusion at the same time. We called Helena to join us. No ceremony had been planned and there was no real discussion now about what we would do—apart from my new staff playing a role.
I had given Antonio the staff almost two years earlier because I had been told, in meditation, that this was to be the staff I would use in my sixties and that I should give it to Antonio to paint or carve. Time had passed and I had feared I would never see the staff again. Unbeknownst to me, Antonio had, of late, felt compelled to finish the work on it. Only now did he understand why. He’d brought it with him and handed it to me saying that I was to use it for the first time in this ceremony for Howard. I’d had little time to even examine it, but could see that he had painted three small dragons on it, had embedded some stones in the wood, and had decorated it with feathers. It was a beautiful and suitable tool.
I brought the staff with me into the room and felt called to stand at Howard’s head. I set the staff against the wall behind me and could feel it grounding my energy. Antonio stood at Howard’s feet and Helena was to his left. She began to play the flute softly as I bent over my husband, placing one hand on his third eye and the other on his crown chakra. I closed my eyes and . . .
I was immediately in an altered state of consciousness. I found myself on a path, walking with Howard. “You have to go into the light,” I said to him, “and I can’t go with you.” He said nothing as we continued down the path. Then, in front of us, I saw it. Light. A wall of light. A portal comprised of pure, bright light. I pointed to it and told him, “There. There’s the light. That is where you must go.” We came to a stop in front of the light portal and he turned to me. I looked up at him and encouraged him to step into the light, and as I did, he transformed into the man I had known twenty-five years earlier. He was vital and full of life. He swept me up, embraced me, kissed me soundly, and put me back down. “I’m sorry, I can’t go with you,” I said and turned to walk away.
He kept his eyes on me, instead of on the wall of light, and I didn’t get far before stopping because I realized that we still had many, many cords between us, connecting us. They all collapsed in my arms the moment I touched one. An armful of energy, no longer linking us. I tossed them to the side of the path on my left, lifted a hand over them, and watched them burst into flames. Howard looked from me to the burning cords and back again.
With love for him spilling from me—but purer and clearer than it had ever been, now that the cords were gone—I returned his gaze and said, “Don’t they make a beautiful fire?” And with those words came a rush of compassion. For him. For me. For everyone who had ever lived. For everyone who had ever loved.
I turned from him, not wanting to, but knowing that we now had separate paths. I walked back down the path and found myself back in my body. I opened my eyes, looked up at Antonio and Helena, and looked back down at my husband. The self that had walked that path with Howard had known what the self back in the room had not: Howard wasn’t going to leave until I personally walked him to the light . . . and left him there. It had never occurred to me that this would the case. My husband was strong and independent. He didn’t need me to help him leave this life . . . or, perhaps, he did.
Later, after I told Antonio and Helena what I had experienced, Helena gave her own accounting of events.
“After so many years, I’ve come to realize that when you guys [shamans] are doing ceremony, I need to pay careful attention. There’s no telling what might happen. So I watched Antonio, I watched you, and I watched Howard. At one point, when you were bent over him with your eyes closed, his feet began to move. Not just restless moving. They were moving . . . as if he were walking.”
Of course. He’d been with me, walking down that path.
Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall