April 9, 2012 — If I wait long enough to write this chapter, I will die and have to reincarnate to finish it. Am I unconsciously conducting an experiment here to see if we actually do come back after death?
In the process of arranging for Emma’s memorial service, I am selecting music and sorting through old photos. Our aide Daphne will arrange them on the bulletin board, also create a photo CD. She loves photography and working with photos. It seems that my family and Emma’s friends reincarnate as I sort through these hundreds of photos selecting ones where Emma looks beautiful – of those there are many – and those which best document prominent events in her life. I get these photos out and our loved ones are all around me. I remember them, feel them with me, like they’ve come for Sunday dinner; I laugh at their jokes, relive our fun times together. Are they really here with me, or have they gone on to new lives? Maybe their particles are just scattered out there, bits becoming parts of this and that, like dust in the wind. Maybe I dust them off my furniture. What about their souls, their spirits?
Members of my family, independent of one another have told me that I am a reincarnation of my great-grandmother, my father’s father’s mother, born in the 1850s. It wouldn’t surprise me. I have many of her characteristics and experience memory flashes, like photographic slides, of living in the latter half of the 19th century and early 20th century. I have a vivid imagination. Too, I have that Victorian mentality. Victorians, my grandparents, born in the 1880s, raised me. I used to listen to my grandparents discussing the Civil War as if it occurred yesterday, events as told to them by their parents, who lived through it. My friend R insists that I was performing in Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was shot. He ought to know if he was there, too. His point, though, isn’t that I have reincarnated but that I am old.
Or maybe it’s not reincarnation but atavistic memory stored in one’s genes. My great-grandmother’s experiences are stored in the genes I inherited from her. I draw a complete blank, though, in knowing anything about my great-great grandparents. When I asked my father and my uncle about our ancestors, they laughed and said, “Be careful what you ask. You may find someone who was chased out of England.” I wouldn’t be surprised, the way I get chased out of supermarkets, pharmacies and liquor stores around here. Even Emma tried to chase me away as caregiver: “I’ll have you fired! You’re not cut out for this! No one asked you to do this!” OK.
In the PBS series “Finding Your Roots,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. traced actor Kevin Bacon’s ancestry back to England’s King Edward I. Kevin Bacon’s family and mine are both Philadelphian, going back centuries; maybe we’re related. It would be just my luck that if I got Henry Louis Gates to research my genealogy, he’d discover I am related to Hitler. My great-grandmother, from whom I may be reincarnated, was of German ancestry, as were others on both sides of my family.
Beliefs on reincarnation are many and varied. Sometimes I believe we reincarnate and sometimes I think when we’re done, we’re done, like going to sleep. We live many lifetimes in this lifetime, related to our disparate experiences – first I was a secretary, then I became a hair designer, then a caterer, then a caregiver – like that. Sometimes, happily, I’ll reconnect with a friend from one of those eras, as if meeting again in another lifetime. And haven’t we all met someone we know so well from the start that we swear we’ve known in another lifetime?
I have witnessed Emma smiling at or speaking to someone, usually a long-deceased relative, in her demented state. Sometimes she’d ask me if I have seen them. No. But I may sense a presence. Many Hospice and nursing home nurses have told me that it is quite common for their patients to see those long-deceased loved ones, and these nurses believe that the visitors are actually there.
Children seem to be most receptive to seeing specters of the deceased. The specters visit the children dressed in clothes they wore in life, clothes that the children had never seen them wearing, but that the children’s parents recall and may have photos of their loved ones wearing.
But are we reborn on this earth? I have heard we choose our parents. (If so, a few among us may wonder, “What was I thinking?”) Some religious beliefs say when you die, you don’t come back to earth, but go to heaven or hell. The former place I think is a little airy-fairy, floating around on clouds playing harps all day; the latter frightens me, given all the mistakes I make. I opt for the Take Two theory. I think as we venture through this lifetime, we are given second chances and more, until we reach perfection or near perfection, like being promoted to the next higher grade in school. Citing my years of ballet classes as one example, I know reaching farther, standing taller, jumping higher, perfecting that presentation of the foot, and still, with all the corrections, there is more. You may reach near perfection one day and the next resemble a mushroom. (My daughter’s and my ballet teacher, by the way, said that pointe shoes were invented by the Marquis de Sade. I tend to agree. The tears welling in a dancer’s eyes while gliding across the floor in pas de bourrées do not arise of ethereality, but of pinching pointe shoes.)
One caregiver said that she believes the dead are more alive than we, because they are no longer inhibited by this tough material world. And many of us like to believe that our parents, grandparents, children and siblings are romping around in another world, whole again, doing what they loved. My family and I believe my father is in trolley car heaven; he so loved trolley cars. Often, family members truly believe the deceased contact them. Although I have not seen the specter of our neighborhood Woman in White in my house, I do sense a presence, and possibly that of my deceased relatives. Often, just as I am thinking of a friend that friend phones me or I receive a letter or note from them. So, why not? “The spirit comes in amazing ways,” said one woman in my Linkedin “Women Writing for (a) Change” caregivers discussion group.
Another attributed our not believing in reincarnation to our conditioning to believe in the beginning and the end of creation – in guilt, fear, and the like – there’s that either/or heaven vs. hell thing again. Most believe that the soul and spirit go on after the body dies. And some have learned to listen, to pay attention to one’s surroundings and watch for signs, and then to implement the wisdom given them by these spirit contacts.
So, as I plan for Emma’s memorial service I find myself weirdly juxtaposed in party planning mode. While she is downstairs in her hospital bed sleeping, slowly slipping away, I am upstairs selecting photos, preparing a music soundtrack and sketching the order of her service. It is an odd, mixed-feelings zone. I suppose she would say, “I did it for my parents and my aunt; now it is your turn” – ever the teacher.
I do wonder where her soul or spirit go in this final stage of dementia. Sometimes I actually sense her hovering around – usually her former bright and cheerful self getting up in the morning, yellow sunshine streaming through her bedroom windows, and having things to attend to around the house, her toy poodles to feed, or clothes to choose and lay out to wear for a gathering with her friends, or telling me something. It’s as if she gets up out of her body and comes around every now and then. And this I have experienced only recently. Maybe, too, it is my letting go, a clearing.
Emma loved music and loved to dance; so, while some of the music will be of a spiritual, serious nature, I want some of it to be upbeat, to reflect the joy she derived from her life – like including “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” which will reflect her love of parties and friends, dancing, and her involvement with fashion and modeling, dressing up in heels and hat to go to the country club for luncheon with friends.