Open closed open. Before we are born, everything is open
in the universe without us. For as long as we live, everything is closed
within us. And when we die, everything is open again.
Open closed open. That’s all we are.
I love this piece of poetry and I think about it all the time—the way before our existence we are part of the limitless pulse of energy, and how we are returned to it after the short parenthesis that is our individual bounded life. In this vision, death is like a new breath, a universal exhale, a release back into the all.
Lenore Lefer taught me how to die. Which is to say, she taught me and twelve other young women with cancer how to live while dying—which is what we’re all doing, by the way, cancer or no. I met her at a weekend retreat at Commonweal, an extraordinary organization right here in Bolinas, that runs Cancer Support Retreats, which integrate the best comprehensive knowledge on healing, from cutting-edge medical research to supportive nutrition and techniques for stress reduction. The center does advocacy work on the links to carcinogens in the environment. But when one is there for a retreat, their work is utterly different: to coax you out of your shell of grief and shock, to appeal to what you most want your life to be about, and by helping you envision it, to bring it in to being, for whatever time you have.
It’s potent stuff, I tell you. I drove up the long dirt driveway to their perch in an old radio building on the bluffs above the beach in my long blonde wig, only days out of my final chemo session in September 2012. I was looking forward to the yoga, to the time with women I knew well and not so well, to being cooked for and taken care of for the weekend. I thought I was feeling and doing pretty well “holding it together.” The kids were just back in school after our family had taken a wonderful road trip up the West Coast to Vancouver in August. I was ready to turn the page.
This, despite the fact that I knew that the chemo had only been partially successful. There were still recalcitrant tumors in my liver that had only hunkered down and ridden out the storm. And this was a secret to most. Not yet ready to be public with the fact that my cancer would not be curable, I was putting on a “yes-it’s-great-that-it’s-over” face, not knowing any other way to protect myself, too vulnerable to let myself be seen as a tragic figure.
Michael Lerner is one of the founders of Commonweal, and he led one of the initial group sessions where we each told a piece of our story. He had a profound calm that you could tell came from penetrating study of all aspects of this question of how to heal, how to live, how to face the end. But our session with Lenore was something else entirely. She did something I’ve never seen any therapist do: she let down with us; she let us into her own pain.
She had white hair, wide compassionate eyes, and the mouth of a lipstick model. Her beauty, in her 70s, reminded me of both of my grandmothers, now passed, who never sought to eliminate their wrinkles, but saw them only ever as laugh lines and sparkled always all the more for deeply inhabiting the experience written on their faces. She spoke with an East Coast accent, having grown up Jewish in New York, but one moderated by many years in California, with a throaty softness. She came, she said from a “cancer family,” and the scourge in its many forms had claimed many members of it. She also told us about losing her youngest son as a teenager when he drowned at Big Sur. Even though it had happened decades before, and even though she surely had shared that information with other groups, she was choked up in the telling. The grief never recedes.
The topic of our discussion that day has not only stayed with me, but is something I carry constantly with me, and remove from my pocket like a worry rock or a talisman, something to bring to mind on a regular basis. What is your soul calling you to do? What is the mission, the meaning, only you can fulfill? Where have you hidden away your most profound desires and aspirations? Can you unearth them? Most importantly, how are you actively thwarting their accomplishment? Yes, that is the challenge—figuring out all the ways we work against ourselves.
Lenore gave an example of a time in her career, twenty years earlier, when no one was teaching or discussing the profound implications for sexuality after cancer treatment. Many treatments can leave both men and women infertile or impotent, or with life-long challenges for physical intimacy. No one at the time was talking about it. Lenore had done so much therapeutic work with people on the topic, and had researched everything she could get her hands on, and she knew that she was being “called” to teach on this topic. But she was standing in her own way. Because she had a terrible fear of public speaking. Either she had to abandon this soul mandate, or she had to find a way to break through her own blockage, her own terrible apprehensions.
We all do this to ourselves. The thing we want most is the thing that carries the greatest risk of failure, the most acute threat to our competence, our OKness. One woman in our group had a passion for photography, but instead of doing her own work, her job was selling the work of other photographers. I related to that one myself; why was I spending my time as an editor, making everyone else’s half-ass writing sound polished instead of being a writer myself? We so assiduously sabotage the very thing that would bring us the most satisfaction: “I can’t now…I’m too busy…It won’t work…I have to…I can’t.”
Each woman in the circle took some time to excavate what that soul calling might be. Having a baby. Reuniting with a lost love. Finishing a degree. Reconciling with a mother. Each one could count the myriad roadblocks they themselves had placed in the path of each of these things.
In an evening session later that day with both Michael and Lenore, they asked us to speak directly about our fears about death. What in it was most fearful—pain? Suffering? Or extinction itself? My composure dissolved on the spot; I started weeping and was unable to stop for the next several hours. My wig was long gone by this point, my hairless head, and eyelash-less eyes making the stream of grief seem all the more unadulterated. Every time I thought of my children it was unbearable; I couldn’t get any air.
Later, in a quieter moment, Lenore approached me to see how I was doing. She put a hand on my shoulder and looked deeply into my eyes; red-rimmed, still watery, I wanted to avert them, but her gaze stayed with me, wouldn’t look away. When I said I was myself shocked at how much had come out, she said, “Just think of all the energy it’s been taking for you to hold that back.”
The next morning’s session, with sun streaming in the windows through the wind-whipped coastal cypresses, and all of us now broken in to each other, sitting closer on the couch now, arms interlaced, hands on others’ thighs, our inwardness of the initial day fallen away, Lenore asked about our anxieties, big and small. I shared that my most immediate anxiety was that in less than ten days, I would have to appear at synagogue in front of thousands of people for the High Holidays and I didn’t feel able to, I felt like it was overwhelming to interact that much socially in the good years, but I felt it would be oppressive when I was in such a vulnerable place. How could I handle it well? Lenore, who seemed to particularly empathize with my position, said, “What would it mean to you not to go?” That simple question was a total revelation; I had simply never considered allowing myself to not attend. I ended up indeed not attending Rosh Hashanah at all, and going to Los Angeles to sit quietly in the back row of my friends’ shul for Yom Kippur, where hardly anyone knew me and I could just focus on what Yom Kippur is always trying to get us to see: our limited time on earth.
Although I only spent time with her over that one weekend, I felt a bond with Lenore that I cannot explain. I can call up her presence as if she were someone I knew deeply. If I were one to believe in past lives, I would say we’d known each other in another dimension; I don’t believe in such things, but such was the power of her soulful presence to me.
After leaving Commonweal, I longed to repeat the experience, or to have someone like Lenore in my life on a regular basis, guiding me to traverse my grief, not shy away from it, encouraging me to shun the voices that say “You can’t” when your soul calls. Finally, I thought, well, maybe Lenore would take me as an individual client. I called to find out.
She would have, but she wasn’t taking individual clients anymore—or any clients—for she had just learned that she herself had inoperable pancreatic cancer. I was stunned; I cried and raged and kicked shit around the house. Lenore chose not to have chemotherapy (which wouldn’t have done much good and would have produced much suffering) and to spend her final months with her family and loved ones.
I know this too, because I got to witness some of it in the form of a documentary called Time of Death that is currently airing on Showtime. It turns out that after a lifetime of counseling people on how to come to terms with death, Lenore made the ultimate generous gift of allowing all of us, anyone, to witness her own.
It was not something I could watch alone; four other women who’d participated in the weekend retreat came over for dinner and then to watch it together. We got to “meet” Mel, Lenore’s husband of 53 years, (despite a blip she’d told us about where they split up for a time, then reunited and were remarried; “That’s not allowed Jewishly, you know!” I joked with her then), and her two sons, and grandchildren. Lenore starts the film so cogent in her motives—“we live in a death-denying culture”—and it begins with her throwing a Farewell Party to begin to say goodbye to the people in her life. But despite her immense, unfathomable courage, it was still painfully difficult to watch her fade in strength, in clarity, becoming restricted to her bed with only her intimates around her. Still, she shone with love. Her final words, lying in her husband’s arms, were “it’s been terrific.”