Life, Death, Zen, and the Art of Household Maintenance

Tuesday 06 April 2004 at 09:40

For seven months Sarah and I lived in my one-bedroom condo without our dog, Ellie. We had been in a fairly expensive lease on a two-bedroom apartment. After I was laid off we were unable to get out of the lease but moved into my condo as soon as it expired. That cut our housing expenses in half but meant Ellie had to stay somewhere else -- the homeowner's association forbids dogs and refused my request for an exception.

We saved quite a bit of money. When I found a steady contract with the City and County of Denver we considered buying a house. We started looking for one after I was hired by bivio. To our delight, we closed on a house in North Boulder on Tuesday morning, March 30. We were especially excited to have a yard suitable for Ellie.

That afternoon we learned she has cancer. The wind poured out of our sails.

As the week progressed we learned progressively worse news about Ellie's condition. She has either leukemia or lymphoma. The cancer is in her bone marrow, liver, spleen, and lymphatic system. The oncologists wouldn't get specific but she may live only another month or so. The timing feels especially painful -- this wasn't how we'd planned it.

We packed most of our stuff Friday. Mom packed our clothes and plants on Saturday while Sarah and several of my friends moved us out of the condo and moved the rest of our stuff out of storage. Saturday night and Sunday we unpacked the bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen. Last night we pushed the stuff piled in the living room to the edges making the space usable. We don't have phone service yet and I won't know if my DSL can be transferred until the line is lit up. This afternoon Sarah is picking Ellie up.

I've been emotionally divided. I really like our new place. It felt good to scrub the cupboards and cut shelf liners to fit them. In the right state of mind housework can be spiritually purifying. I learned this trick from Aikido. Someone once described cleaning the dojo as sacred practice of maintaining what is fundamentally a sacred space. Part of Aikido is a spiritual practice and therefore the dojo is also our sanctuary.

Cynic: how disingenuous and manipulative!

Optimist: what magic to transform the mundane into the sacred!

While I cleansed the shelves, I worked some of the house into my muscles. Meanwhile I carried the weight of Ellie's condition. I felt hurried with little time to spare. I argued with myself. The past seven months were lost and wasted. But we wouldn't have this house had we not saved so much money. If I could place a value on the time with Ellie, would the money we've saved be worth it? If it were possible, would I trade this house to heal Ellie? I would have chosen differently had I known. But I didn't know and those choices are locked in the past. What now?

On Friday I met a woman who hopes to establish a counseling practice in Boulder targeting elderly people and adult children with elderly parents. In a brief conversation about my Dad (another story) she shared an idea that has been mixing into the cleansing and argument. She thinks we overlook the privilege of assisting our parents through their aging. It is a sacred blessing in life, like giving birth to children and raising them. What a radical departure from the prevailing sense of burden and fear in aging and death.

Cynic: what a nasty guilt trip! Between the lines she shames you for feeling burdened.

Optimist: what magic to transform a burden into something sacred!

As I write, a sense of purpose emerges from the mixture. Our cleansing and preparations are making this house into a home -- a sacred place for Ellie to enjoy in her final fleeting moments in this life. I expect painful but precious time ahead. What we learn from Ellie will also prepare us for our parents' journey to their deaths and perhaps better prepare us for our own.