Down to the Sea

(As my friend Nora’s dying process extends longer than we ever thought it would, with days becoming weeks and flowing into months, those of us close to her are feeling both the grace and the strain. And how can we not consider our own mortality? She is only 54 years old. She has so much more to offer, and to experience. Here are a few of my ponderings from the last week or so.)

They say grief comes in waves.

If so, I’ve been caught in a storm the last few days, and emerged onto the beach battered and bruised.

I lay there most of the weekend, soaking in the healing rays of the sun and listening to the sound of gentle waves lapping at the shore (metaphorically speaking). After a storm, the beach stones tumbling with the waves makes such a comforting sound. Mama Ocean, Mama Ocean, all is well. 

None of us really knows how we will meet our own death — with faith, with peace, or with fear.

We have our mythologies and our sacred stories. We honor the cycle of nature that teaches us that all things are born, flourish, die, and re-emerge again. We have the stories of those who have returned from the edge with tales of tunnels, ancestors, and white light. We have our beliefs. We have our faith. We offer comfort to those who are bereaved, and to those who are dying, by telling them it isn’t the end. But none of us really knows for certain what happens when we die. None of us knows if we will meet our own death with grace or with fear, or with a little of both, until it happens to us.

I heard a story, a long long time ago. I can’t even remember now where I heard it. In a certain Native American culture, they taught the practice of a death song. It is a song you would sing throughout your whole life, so that it would naturally come to mind when your death approached. It would carry you through your experience of dying.

For a long time, that song for me was “River is flowing, flowing and growing, flowing and growing, down to the sea. Mother, carry me, your child I will always be. Mother, carry me, down to the sea.”

And now it is Jennifer Berezan’s “She Carries Me.”  She carries me, to the other side. 

When I was 34 years old, I was in the hospital off and on for six months. It was the third out of four episodes of blood clots in my lungs, and it was the worst episode. I remember exhaustion, and weariness, and a soft gray fuzziness that seemed to permeate everything. I remember thinking that I didn’t even have the energy to be spiritual. At one point, the nurses brought my kids in to say goodbye to me. They were very small and I’m sure they didn’t understand what was happening. I remember writing a long letter to my dad, and telling him he was the best father anyone could ever hope to have.

I remember a vision, of sorts. Whether it came through my imagination or from an outer source, I don’t know. I experienced myself in a position similar to the tarot Fool, high on the edge of a cliff, arms flung out wide. Below me was the void, the black abyss, spotted with scattered stars.

And I breathed to the holy darkness:  “I’m ready. Let’s go.”

Then came the anticlimax. No white light, no tunnel, no ancestors waiting for me, no flights of angels singing me to my rest.

I just . . . got better, little by little. I returned from the edge.

That was 27 years ago.

I’ve loved a lot of people in those 27 years. Lost a lot of them, too. Made a lot of art, wrote a lot of words, sang a lot of songs. Gathered up a whole lot of beach glass.

And now my beloved mermaid sister is standing on that precipice.

How I wish she wasn’t.

Mother, carry me, your child I will always be.
Mother, carry me, down to the sea.

11 thoughts on “Down to the Sea

  1. Breathing with you… you are loved… you are held… this work is unsung… and yet somehow I hear songs on the breeze…
    Love you sweet mermaid splash sister of the northwest waters

  2. Oh such exquisite writing, Joanna! This journey with Nora is clearly informing your life in a way that is permeating the words you offer to us. I keep seeing this metaphor of the beach glass that we love so much… tossed and turned and polished and worn down to a smooth patina… the rough edges worn away by every wave. Such surrendering and gracefulness and beauty…

  3. ” For whatever we lose, like a you or a me / it’s always ourselves we find in the sea…”
    ee cummings.

    I grew up in a big city by the sea. I could ride my bicycle down to the bay anytime I wanted, a little farther to the Atlantic. I moved to Indiana 20 years ago. I live in a small city by a river now. I miss the sea. We’ll all get back there eventually I think.
    Beautiful post.

  4. Thank you, Joanna, for sharing your feelings and the song. You may remember it is one of my favourites as well and my heart is aching for you and Nora and me and the loved ones I sat with while they died.
    It’s tough and sad and beautiful all at the same time.

  5. Our love, dear sister Joanna, let it be like a shawl. Feel it over your shoulders. When the time is right, pass the shawl to her.

  6. Wow! So deeply touching! I have been struggling to reconnect to my own spiritual self lately, especially now around Mayday. Your words gave me courage to embrace life as well as death in a season where both is cerainly all around us! Blessed Be!

  7. Thank you so much for continuing to share, I can’t tell you how much it means to be able to listen to your experience and hear updates of Nora. Thank you for being with her, and as I light my candles daily for Nora, I will also think of you.

  8. My Dear Joanna,
    I wanted to share a message with you I was given back in 1971 when I was killed in a car accident. I had a vision of something happening. I told my Father to tell “them” when he got the call to put me on the sustaining life. I was dead by all practical medical evaluations. That was 42 years ago.

    I was told during my time of being out of body and with my “Soul” that I could do all things. My life would end when it was time and not before. There were many experiences to still be traveled. My abilities of vision in mind and beyond became more present after this accident of short lived death. These gifts I have treasured and shared where possible.

    Love your friend, prepare your heart and then just live! Miracles happen every day. Let us not question when but marvel at the infinite passing time and joy of sharing our souls with those we love.

    Blessings to you and Nora.

  9. I was thinking about you lately because of Mt. Baker being depicted in The Gaian Tarot (which I don’t own.) My Dad has gone into a nursing home and we sold his house, which was in Canada but you could see Mt. Baker from his living room. He will never be coming home to see Mt. Baker again.

    I was always delighted with you drawing that mountain and also the heron on the Death card, as I well remember being anchored off one of the Gulf Islands and watching a heron at 6 a.m. while visiting my Dad on a summer holiday. The way you capture the light in your artwork reminds me of that morning.

    These transitions are very hard. I don’t believe we get over the death of people we love. The pain of grief lessens but we always feel the loss of the unique people in our lives. It’s hard to be the one left behind.

    The beach glass reminds me of Gummy Bears, almost as if the sea was comforting you, like a parent gives a sweet to a child to bring comfort.

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