Many of you know that I did a second guided mushroom trip last week, seeking a deeper encounter with death, and wanting to learn how to release my attachment to all I love about life. A tall order to ask of a measly mushroom.
I used a different guide this time. Actually, it was two people, a couple, both musicians. Before they came, they asked me to write down my intentions. I wrote: I want to learn how to detach from all that I love about life and to release any fear I have of death. The couple brought with them golden bowls, drums, tuning forks, and a giant gong whose sound from a single beat could transport a person into the stratosphere. They transformed my bedroom with purple drapes and votives. Before we began, they showed me the mushrooms they would make into a tea which Paul would inject into my feeding tube. They were beautiful: gnarled bluish stems like the trunks of eucalyptus trees, their caps undergirded with a yellowish filigree. Some people have asked me: Why use a guide at all? I don’t have a definitive answer to this because I have not taken psychedelics without a guide, but I think guides play an important role in creating an atmosphere, particularly with music, which helps in maintaining a focus on the traveler’s intention. The experience was exactly what I wanted it to be.
When the mushrooms took hold, I imagined shedding my body, wriggling out of it like a worm offloading a thick skin, then hovering above as I watched myself being carried away. I sailed into outer space, saw a face that morphed from person to person. When asked if I wanted a second dose I first said no, but then I thought Why not, this certainly isn’t an experience I will ever have again. As I flew off once more, I understood I needed to loosen my control on things, including the specific time I would choose to terminate my life. As we were winding down, the couple sang a beautiful song they’d written about death. I don’t know if I have released all my hold on life, but I am definitely closer than I was before, and I feel an overall calm about facing what lies ahead of me. As the writer Annie Lamott would say, I will be taking it bird by bird.
I intended last week to write about the push/pull of my life, the challenge of balancing the many reasons to go with the many reasons to stay. To be or not to be. But I have passed through a portal recently so I’m now in a place in which the pull of staying alive has weakened. Everything I do is difficult to pull off. I need help with the most minor of tasks. My left hand is useless, so I type now with one hand. [A sidebar. There are over 30 muscles in the human hand. They work in concert with the muscles of the wrist and forearm. Every one of those muscles makes a difference. I have learned this as I’ve watched them go. I urge you all to appreciate the complexity and skill of your hands!] I have always been a world class sleeper, but these days even sleep does not provide escape because it’s hard to breathe, and turn over, and my bones, unpadded now from weight loss, hurt. I don’t mean to complain; I am simply describing the reality. People, even those closest to me, have begun to speak to me differently as they pull my arms into sleeves or assist me in the bathroom, and I fully understand that. How do you speak to someone who cannot respond or accomplish the daily tasks of keeping herself alive? I want the release of death, and each morning and night as Paul and I look into each other’s eyes it is with acknowledgment that the end is near.
But we have run into a roadblock of my own making — the “good girl” problem; the problem associated with a lifetime of too much striving. Because I have been performative at my doctors’ visits, mustering as much energy as I can, wanting to be a “good patient,” they still see me as a strong and determined warrior with vigor to last me more than six months. To invoke Death with Dignity, two doctors must sign a form saying you have only six months to live. Now it is my task to show my doctors the underlying truth: I know my body well, and I know it’s giving up. I’m going downhill fast. The thought of having to live for six months or more is unfathomable to me — it would feel like a dreadful sentence.
Yesterday I realized what I had to do. I had to assert myself clearly. I wrote to my doctor, the one who diagnosed me, and who I adore, and who I perform for, and who is always telling me I am strong and have lots of time ahead of me, and I outlined my current condition, telling him how my quality of life has declined dramatically of late and asking him if he would sign off on Death with Dignity. He replied immediately. Sure, he said, I will do anything for you. He gave me permission to die.
One of the reasons I know it’s time to quit is because I have no desire to write more fiction. For my entire life my brain — my whole body — has been in love with words and playing with ideas that might be expressed with words to become poems, or plays, or stories. But now I feel that impulse quieting down. An underdiscussed aspect of writing is that it takes an enormous amount of energy. If your physical body is not in good shape — well-fed, well-rested, exercised — your focus will probably be somewhat fuzzy, and it will be hard to produce good work. When I have printed out — or more accurately, when Paul has printed out — this draft of my new novel, I will be done. I have no doubt I would have written many more novels if I’d had the extra twenty years I expected to have, but that is not to be, and it’s fine. I will now not have to worry about becoming repetitive.
It is now the day before Thanksgiving. My family members — sisters and their children and all their partners, as well as the adored baby — arrived last night and will stay for five or six days. I expect it to be a rollicking good time. Cooking and singing and building fires and admiring baby Radley. One of my nieces has put together an Emmons Family Playlist full of songs we have sung over the years. Many new memories we will be created over the next week.
I have no idea what to say in conclusion. Perhaps just: Stay tuned and HAPPY THANKSGIVING!