By Andrea Sherman
Artwork by Jayne Feinberg Stuecklen
Right now, as a result of this pandemic crisis, many people are navigating through loss of some kind, whether it be jobs, security, or loved ones. This is a difficult and collective loss, one where we’re mourning the loss of lives and the loss of normalcy. I hope that Mariam’s Playground, which is about the recent death of a dear, dear friend will offer others some measure of solace through their grieving process.
My Friend, Mariam
Mariam was my very good friend for more than forty-five years, who died of metastatic breast cancer. She was actually diagnosed on her birthday five years ago in January and died on my birthday in July of this year. We were very close friends-we watched our children grow up together, and we supported each other through the death of our parents.
She had a remarkable quality of making everyone feel like she was their best friend; she understood the art of friendship from the preciseness of picking out exactly the right gift for someone, to having the hard conversations about loss, loneliness, and love. She had an extraordinary talent for decorating and for placing objects in space, and, building elaborate environmental playgrounds for her grandsons.
Mariam was a child of a Holocaust survivor and her mother had been in the camps and taught Mariam to be resilient, to be strong, to stay alive. She brought those qualities to her almost 5-year struggle with cancer as it escalated, grew, and eventually led to her death. But sadly, though she bounced back many times, with amazing resilience and hope, the cancer spread, and as it did my sadness grew.
Our Spiritual Bond
Mariam and I shared a strong spiritual bond. She was a Jewish mystic and I a Jewish Buddhist. We sometimes sat at the river together and felt the impermanence of life. We shared deep moments together—from the ebb and flow of the river to feeling the uncertainty and yet the continuity of life. The contrast of the changing tide, open sky, warm friendship, and death. We sat together in the possibility of life and the reality of death coming soon. These were poignant, deep moments of sharing friendship and the beauty and impermanence of life.
Mariam and Playgrounds
She had an absolutely radiant smile and adored playgrounds. The playground embodied so many aspects of who she was. It was the perfect metaphor for her life. She played in so many ways, with her friends, family, building elaborate play spaces for her grandsons, and bringing her playfulness to her life. Her favorite pieces of outdoor equipment were the monkey bars and the swings, but playing was what she loved to do-outside in open space. Playgrounds offered joy, community, movement, the outdoors and friendship. On the playground, Mariam could be full of energy, fun, athletic creative and happy; with people of all ages and abilities.
She was an indomitable playful spirit. She used to say after her treatments” “I’m not going anywhere soon, I’ll be here for a while, I’ll be playing”. But the playground is empty without her delight, without her swinging across the monkey bars, piled in her heavy winter coat, watching young children on the playground, with the reality of death nearby. We shared moments of understanding and the poignancy of watching young children, knowing that she would be gone, soon, from the playground, where screams, joy, and jubilation were plentiful.
A stunning red cardinal has visited several of us-her friends, and we feel Mariam’s presence perching nearby, at our gatherings and in the loneliness we feel without her. It is a symbol of Mariam’s spirit, it is red, her favorite color and is soaring and gliding through space. When the cardinal perches nearby we feel Mariman’s manifestation, a messenger bringing peace, joy, and striking red beauty.
Mariam loved chocolate and loved to dance. She gleamed when she danced and at her Chanukah party, we women would dance with the candles on the low table, through her house, stepping together, our arms wrapped around each other, missing her this year, dancing without her.
Easing the Transition
I was her Doula-which is an End of Life companion, as well as her friend throughout her illness. And as a doula helped to organize food, transportation, and doctors visits in the city, as well as attending hospice meetings. Some three weeks before her death hospice came into her home with a special bed, lift, toilet, tray, and other necessities. A doula does everything from organizing to providing bedside care and sees the constellation of people around the person who is dying. This included having necessary conversations with family members about who she needed to see again before she could let go and peacefully die.
Early in her illness, we formed a small group of women called “The Ladies’ Lunch”. There were four of us that met regularly but were joined by other women friends. Sometimes we met on a porch, or in a home, or restaurant, and once on the picnic tables at the river. The ladies’ lunch offered certainty, support, laughter, bawdy stories, intimate sharing, and good food. During the last few days of Mariam’s life, we gathered at her bedside; we draped her in red, her favorite color. We moved her limbs, lovingly wiped her forehead, sang You Are My Sunshine, danced her limbs to Marvin Gaye, laughed raucously and loved her so much, as she played on the playground in her bed, smiling luminously. It was so gratifying to meet together at her bedside, to touch, to sing, to laugh, and to love. Ah, the Ladies’ Lunch!
The Weight of Grief
My heart is heavy with grief. Grief lives everywhere in your body, especially in your heart. Loss lives in my bones, my muscles, my connective tissue, as the tears pour down my cheeks, I want to pick up the phone and call my good friend, talk about our children, get a smoothie, but she’s not here. She won’t come back, she is gone, and nothing will bring her back. Her beautiful smile, her rich dark hair, her infectious laugh, and playfulness.
Supports in Letting Go
I am grateful for my meditation practice, which has supported me with steadiness and clarity. The practice of just sitting, and its continuity and simplicity, this grounded me in the wildness of my feelings and Mariman’s illness and death. The practice of present moment awareness from my meditation translated to my caregiving with her, bringing love, compassion, awareness, and gentleness and caring.
I practiced Tonglen, the practice of sending and taking, feeling her pain, its texture, and intensity and sending out to her loving-kindness, healing and golden light for her throughout her illness.
Letting go, to help her on her journey. I let go. Give myself space to grieve. I respect my noble heart. My sore heart. I make friends with myself, take care of myself, and practice kindness towards myself.
When she died, there were Buddhist practices that I did such as placing her photo in a bowl of rice on a stick and keeping it on the shrine table nearby with two of her favorite foods (chocolate of course), holding her in my daily practice, wishing her ease and courage on her journey; and doing these practices for 49 days.
Mariam, you are on the playground in the sky, a dancing spirit. Joyful, gleaming, dancing in space, radiant and smiling. I miss you, my friend. I treasure our deep friendship. You were a compass to so many. the cardinal, the dancer, and the chocolate lover. Your spirit lives on the playground, in the monkey bars. Thank you for your majestic presence, and your love, you are in my spirit forever, always there. At the gleaming river and at the ocean with the blue waves, the vast space, here in my heart, I let go, my friend. I cherish you and hold you.
The Ladies’ Lunch meets without you. We remember you and tell Mariam stories and feel your absence, and feel your presence. I am grateful for the playgrounds we played on together. You are in my heart. You are gone but your spirit is here with me, always.
Andrea Sherman, PhD, is a gerontologist, educator, trainer and End of Life Doula. She is a graduate of the New York Zen Center Foundations in Buddhist Contemplative Care Program, teaches meditation at Westchester Buddhist Center, and studies Vajrayana Buddhism with Phakchok Rinpoche.
Jayne Feinberg Stuecklen is a painter and graphic artist living in Nyack NY. She is a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner and student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Besides her career in art and design she has been a volunteer hospice worker and caregiver.
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