To this day, I can feel the unconditional, pure form of embodied love Dale gave me when I was eight. This unconditional Love is a mysterious field of Presence that I’ve come to recognize in many faces but first felt in her arms. The Presence of Love that moved through Dale called my soul home to itself. It motivated me to find a way through my ongoing unspeakable situation. This love transfusion changed not only my nature, but my way of relating to and seeing the world. I suddenly belonged in life. When Dale wrapped her arms around my small trembling, sobbing eight-year-old body, she opened in me lines of kinship that I suddenly felt EVERYWHERE: earth and stars, human and animal.
I longed for death. It fascinated me. I was eight years old, and Saturday after Saturday, I snuck into local churches to sit in the back of funeral services. My obsession grew, and after a week of spying into the windows of a local funeral home, I snuck inside, hoping to see a dead body. My risk was rewarded. A large room was filled with flowers and a casket with a body. Alone, I slowly crept up to the casket. Looking down in awe at the woman in the coffin, I gently touched her arm and then her face. In a flash I knew that nothing was there except this empty shell the woman had once lived in. It reminded me of the loud cicadas that had been everywhere the summer before. Walking down the street had been frightening because you never knew if you were stepping on an empty shell or one that would startle you by taking flight. I felt like I’d seen what I was looking for. Weeks later, I took two bottle of aspirin and lay down to die.
I lived to return to my bleak existence, deprived of love and protection from a mother who didn’t want me, and who made me available to her drunken johns. From the time I was three, she had blamed me for my uncle’s suicide. She and I were both present when he shot himself in the head. I found myself frequently reliving this event as I planned my own demise, trying to come up with the perfect solution after my failed, shameful attempt with the aspirin.
On hot, muggy early summer nights when she was out with her men, I waited to hear her returning footsteps, my emotions swinging from rage to terror. When angry, I fantasized about finally shouting my nearly nine-years-worth of anger at her. When frightened, I saw myself clinging to her legs as she tried to kick me away, or wandering alone forever in the narrow confines of our apartment. These night terrors were fueled by her uncontrollable mood swings during the day, when she’d threaten, “I ought to just leave you and never come back.”
One Saturday morning, after one of these anxiety-ridden nights alone, I wandered outside to sit on the front steps and watch for her to return. Some neighborhood kids began to tease me, and I got up to go inside. I’d momentarily mistaken their attentions for friendship and let them know that I was home alone, waiting for my mother. As I jumped up to move toward the door, they ran past me into the apartment and slammed the door in my face. Blindly, frantically, I pushed to get in. Five of them held the door closed from within laughing at my ineffective effort to push the door open. Suddenly, the energy of fear and anger coalesced, giving me the strength to push harder. My hands and arms broke through the upper glass in the door. Only the sudden explosion of broken glass and blood stopped me.
The kids scattered except for one, a girl named Barbara who dragged me up the block to a small free- standing weekend emergency room repeating, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” as though she was praying the rosary. Several hundred stitches closed torn flesh while my anxiety mounted about my mother returning. Barbara said goodbye and ran off. Overwhelming dread and misery engulfed me as step-by-step I neared the apartment. With bandaged arms and hands, a beating seemed certain for the mess, the broken window and the bill from the emergency room stuffed in my pocket.
I paused as I approached the entryway; I had seen movement inside and stiffened, anticipating the blows my mother would rain down upon me. To my surprise, the kind face of the upstairs neighbor greeted me. The hall was cleaned up and he’d almost finished installing a new window. “Hi, are you okay? My wife, Dale, came down and looked for you after we heard the glass break and all the commotion. She cleaned things up a bit and sent me to the hardware store. I’ll be finished here in a little while.” I couldn’t speak. “Your mother doesn’t seem to be home yet. Dale’s making lunch and said to send you up when you got back. Why don’t you go on upstairs now?” My mother didn’t return again that night. They invited me to sleep on their couch. I shook my head no but smiled and clutched the “just in case you change your mind” key tight in my closed fist. Dale told me to keep the key just in case there was another time. I was both intrigued and frightened by their kindness, which didn’t seem to want anything in return.
My mother didn’t return for several days. Dale sought me out, bringing food and friendship. She always asked if I wanted to change my mind and sleep on the couch. I knew I’d be in trouble with my mother if I did, so said no each time, letting her caring and the key be more than enough.
Dale was stunningly beautiful, with the raven-haired, porcelain- skinned beauty that made young Elizabeth Taylor a star. And she was kind to me. I was enchanted.
For the next several months, Dale warmed me with grown-up attention. She noticed if I was cleaner, or happier or sadder. She often made cookies to share, and I’d pretend she’d made them just for me.
I had lived in a realm of shadows and dead expectation for so long that until the day when Dale and her husband were to move away, I hadn’t realized how I had come to cherish and depend on those small crumbs of attention from her. “She’s just got to be my friend,” I mumbled as I made the slow and painful climb up the stairs to say goodbye. I hoped she wouldn’t see my legs and arms, left bruised by Oscar, one of my mother’s regulars, when he pounded me into the bed down to the springs the night before, giving her enough money for her beer and cigarettes for several days. I tried to focus on the flowers I’d picked from the courthouse lawn as a surprise. But the grief and terror of Dale’s departure overtook me. I choked back tears, my panic mounting with each step.
Limping into her apartment, I took one look at her soft, beautiful face, and fell apart, my body wracked with sobs. Dale reached for me, pulling me to her, and held me close. “I love you. I love you, shush now, there, there. I love you,” she murmured over and over. “I want you to know that and believe it.” She held me, rocking me close for what seemed like hours. I wanted to melt into her body and never leave its soft, warm contours. As she cradled my head, gently patting my matted, greasy hair, I momentarily cringed from embarrassment. She seemed not to notice. I sobbed as I begged her not to leave me.
She gently sat me up and held me by the shoulders, looking straight into my eyes. I looked down and away. She tenderly lifted my chin as she said, “This is very important, look at me as I tell you, I want you to remember it. I love you. I wish you were my little girl so that I could take you with me, but I can’t because you’re not mine. You must learn to take better care of yourself, because your mother is sick and can’t take good care of you. I love you and I’ll always keep you in my heart.” She pointed to her heart. “Right here.”
Tears spilled onto her cheeks. I was speechless. Tentatively, I touched a tear, bringing it up to my lips and kissing it—the most precious thing I had ever been given. We cried together as she cradled me again. She smelled fresh and clean, her soft voice comforted me. “You have to reach out and trust others like me.” She made me promise that I would. “It will be okay. You’ll be okay.” Something deep inside unfurled and came alive, filling me to overflowing. Love. It permeated every starving and hurt cell, organ, and muscle in my body. It held the smell of her violet rose-scented neck; her voice and her loving touch woke something so deep in me, I knew I would never be the same. Dale gently kissed my forehead and cheek as we said our last goodbyes. I looked into her eyes and again promised that I would never forget. With the tentativeness of an infant taking her first steps I whispered, “I love you, Dale. I’ll always keep you here, too,” as I pointed to my own heart.
I learned in those moments that love, this pure, unconditional state, was as essential to life as food and shelter. It filled me with purpose and energy. It felt holy. For the first time in my life, I felt I not only deserved to be alive, I knew why I was alive. For this: To accept, feel and learn to receive love and learn how to give it.
That night I lay in bed, energized and restless with newly born sensations and feelings. It didn’t matter that my mother was gone another night. In my mind, Dale sat on the edge of the bed and tenderly tucked me in. I thought of the story of Sleeping Beauty and suddenly understood how a kiss by someone who loved you could wake you up. Looking out the window at the rising full moon, I noticed for the first time how beautiful it was. I felt connected to it, feeling that it hung in the sky that night just for me. A tree brushed the side of the house, and I felt its life force. I repeatedly touched my cheek where Dale had kissed me, replaying every word, gesture, and look that had passed between us. As the moon wrapped me in its mantle of light, I fell into my first peaceful sleep, snug in the embrace of love.
My days had been defined by thousands of ways a child can hurt. Now, I was defined by the memories of softness and the contours of warmth. Where I had previously felt disconnected and unmoored from everyone and everything, I now felt connected to everything and everyone, to the earth itself.
Dale’s act of kindness saved my life and changed its course. I worked hard now to be kind, carrying groceries home for people who needed help. I went to church. I loved to sit in the stairway of the choir loft on Saturday afternoons and listen to the music, which transported me to a place of love and connection just like my time with Dale. I brought home flowers and small trinkets for my mother, who was either angry or didn’t notice. I ignored her response, driven in my mission to be the love I had so generously received.
Like a mantra, I repeated Dale’s message to take better care of myself because my mother was too sick to care for me. I started to feel sad for my mother. I noticed how tired and confused she often was. An average day for her consisted of 5-10 men, 4-6 six-packs, shots of whiskey when it was available, some unrecognizable pills 2-3 times a day, a Lucky Strike or Camel continuously burning in an ashtray, and some feel-good music from the radio on the days men came to the house. I began to feel the smallness of her life as mine began to expand. A third grade substitute teacher helped me gain the confidence to learn to read. I discovered I could take out unlimited books from the library and I did. I also reached out to others who were kind and to neighborhood cats and dogs. They, along with Dale, the trees, the moon and flowers, became my family.
Thirty-eight years later, I had a successful and inspiring career helping others. As part of my ongoing healing I had started to write about some of my history. I found myself increasingly thinking of Dale, longing to find the woman who had made such a difference in my life. After months of searching, I found her living in a small blue-collar town south of Chicago. I dialed the number, shaking with excitement and also worry that she might have forgotten. She picked up on the third ring. I recognized her voice immediately and told her who I was. She didn’t seem surprised. She said that I had always been her “heart child” and “of course I never forgot you.”
Two weeks later, I flew to see her. I had carried her image, her voice, her words and touch for thirty-eight years. Her striking, simple beauty and sense of presence again moved me. It was as though all those years of longing and separation fell away. I was no longer a child wearing a face immobilized by fear but she recognized me. And I recognized the directness of her gaze, and the love that poured forth from her. Once again, her presence enveloped me. We cried off and on in each other’s arms over the next several days.
After Dale moved away, I imagined her living in a big house, surrounded by loving children of her own. Over the years, I fantasized I would drop in and visit. But Dale had suffered through abuse and a divorce. She had given birth to one child, a troubled alcoholic son. She told me she had barely graduated from eighth grade and had always had difficulty learning. She was very poor; she lived in an economically depressed neighborhood, hardly making ends meet on a maid’s salary. In spite of all this, she had a deep serenity. Our first visit turned into another and another, along with weekly phone calls. It became increasingly clear that Dale needed me in her life as much as I had once needed her.
About six months after our first visit, it became apparent that Dale was sick. She had a racking cough that didn’t stop. When I asked her about seeing a doctor, she confessed that she didn’t have any insurance or money for medical care. After seeing to it that Dale got to a doctor, I was heartsick to receive the news that she had metastasized lung cancer and only a short time to live. I knew from years of professional experience and from my mother’s and friends’ deaths that Dale was in the early stages of dying. I was concerned about her lack of support and wanted to help in any way that I could.
Deeply saddened, I went for another visit. I took her out to lunch. Dale sat across from me, pale and barely eating. I began to cry. “Dale, I feel so bad that I didn’t find you years earlier. We’ve missed so many years together. I just found you again; I don’t want to lose you.” “But you did find me”, she said. She sighed, and reached across the table to pat my hand. “It’s okay, I’m not afraid to die now. I know now that I did at least one good thing in my life. Just look at you.” We sat in loving stillness gazing at each other.
Several moments later she continued, “I hardly went to school and you went to college and kept going. It’s like a ripple that keeps going out. I helped you and now you are helping so many more. It’s okay,” She squeezed my hand, tears sparkling at the corners of her eyes. As I had done as a child, I reached out and brought one of those precious tears to my lips.
Over the next several months, I visited her as often as I could. On the last of those trips she was in the hospital, where she seemed too sick to talk. She reached for me as I stood to leave. “If I really needed you, would you come?” I gulped back tears, “Of course I’d come, Dale.” I held her frail body tightly and kissed her on the cheek before I left.
One night weeks later, I dreamed Dale was calling for me over and over again. I woke around 5:00 a.m. remembering her words, “If I really needed you, would you come?” I reached for the phone and dialed the hospital where she had been undergoing palliative radiation treatment. The nurse informed me that Dale was actively dying and wasn’t likely to make it through the day. “She is expressing a lot of fear of dying alone. Her son wasn’t willing to come and I haven’t been able to find any other family. I’d do a double shift if I could, but am leaving today on a long-awaited family vacation. We’re short staffed and she isn’t likely to get much attention.” “Please tell her I’m coming,” I said, “I’ll catch the next plane.” I booked a seat on the next flight to Chicago.
I arrived at the hospital around noon. Approaching her bed, I said, “Dale, I heard you calling me, I came as fast as I could.” She nodded and weakly squeezed my hand as tears ran down her face. I was overwhelmed with gratitude that she was lucid enough to acknowledge my arrival. No longer capable of speech, Dale indicated her awareness of my presence off and on for the next several hours, occasionally gazing into my eyes to try to gesture her gratitude.
As afternoon passed into evening, I watched the magnificent changing colors and patterns of the sky. Time became measured by each of Dale’s inhalations and exhalations, her life reduced to minutes, seconds, and heartbeats. As her breathing became increasingly labored, for a few moments my chest felt so full and tight that I could hardly breathe myself. I moved between grief and gratitude until they co-mingled and became one emotion. My heart and breath began to fall into rhythm with Dale’s. I began to savor the intimacy and fullness of each moment; every inhale, every exhale. The air and energy between us became palpable, energized by a loving connection much greater than the two of us.
I felt Dale’s body slowly shutting down, moving upwards from the base of her spine as she began to pull away. At the same time, I felt more solid and anchored in the poignancy of every moment. I was awed at the territory of loving consciousness expanding in front of her and between us as she slowly shed the skin of her body.
Dale was fevered, burning off energy in one area of her body after another. Eventually, the heat focused only in her face and the top of her head. Each breath became shallower and farther apart from the last. I prayed the twenty-third psalm, the Tibetan prayer for the dying, anything and everything to stay focused and keep this bridge between us alive and intact. I breathed with her.
At 2:00 a.m., Dale left her body through the top of her head with a sigh and smile. I had been with her for about 14 hours. I witnessed the opening of her crown center and the birth of her spirit as she burned herself clear. Her face was radiant, and as her body broke open, I was sprinkled with a little bit of that light. After calling the nurse, I slowly bathed her body, putting lotion on her face, hands and feet. I anointed her with rose oil. I meditated. Then I kissed her cheek one last time, and left the hospital.
Outside, I was greeted by the sound of birds singing to the golds and reds of a rising morning sun, as a full moon descended against a backdrop of fall-colored trees.
As a child, I’d learned in a deep sensate way that love is as essential to my life as oxygen, food and water. On this glorious October morning, I was enveloped again in love’s presence, connected to the essence of life and all things holy.
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About the Author
Lora Matz has been a leader in the field of Integrative Medicine for the past eighteen years. She is a psychotherapist, lecturer and writer who works throughout the country in the area of Mind-Body Medicine and Transpersonal Development. She is senior faculty member for the Center for Mind-Body Medicine’s Professional Training Programs. This work has taken her around the world to places such as the Middle East and Haiti. Lora has extensive experience in end-of-life care with both children and adults and teaches Midwifing Conscious Dying workshops in Minnesota. Lora also teaches and works with archetype, myth, and symbol as a bridge to personal and collective spiritual transformation. She is completing a book of short stories about end-of-life care, Fishing for Fallen Light While Living and Dying, and is currently working on her own spiritual autobiography.