Suffering Is The New Joy

“Can you walk, sweetheart?”

I say these words to our dog Stella who is dying.   It’s time for breakfast and if she walks from our bed to the kitchen, maybe that will be a sign.  Maybe she will be alright. So I ask her again, “Can you walk?”

As I ask, I remember eleven years of sleeping twisted like a pretzel so the dog could get a good night’s sleep.   I remember mornings, how she rose at dawn and stomped her Pointer’s feet on the mattress to get me up, to flush me out of the brush of sleep as she would a wild quail. Now it’s nine a.m. and she sighs at the foot of the bed, eyes alert and breathing rapidly.

I get a piece of hamburger and hold it under her nose. I lure her off the bed and down the hall to the kitchen where I encourage her to eat the white rice and ground beef I cooked for her, Stella’s last supper.   I watch her as she sniffs, eats a few bites, then stares at the kitchen door contemplating the effort required to go outside and pee.

“Can you walk?”

I ask it loudly, sweetly and sincerely and I don’t care who hears me. Hugh, private in his grief, staring at his computer, concerned about me.   Will he try and fix it if he hears?   And the neighbors next door who once yelled at Stella for barking. They will know. They will know she is weak now. They will know I’m not that smart-ass who yelled back, and how I’m about to be hurt. I don’t care. I don’t care who knows how much I love and how much this love will cost me. I am bold in my devotion, steadfast in my vulnerability.

“Can you walk?”

I know the answer but I ask anyway.   I ask to affirm my willingness. I will do whatever it takes to keep Stella comfortable. I will be beside her no matter what. I am ready to love her completely, her failing body and undying heart.

“Can you walk?”

Mom, graduation

Emily Hess, circa 1941 – 16 years old, High School Graduation

When my mother was dying, I didn’t ask that question. I didn’t ask any question. I didn’t want to know the answer because the answer would change everything. We didn’t talk about the cancer – how it was devouring my mother’s bones and internal organs, how it was planning to steal my favorite person.   We didn’t talk about love and loss, or her longing to see me find a life that would blossom.   We didn’t mention how death would assassinate that joy for her or how death would rob me of the pleasure of coming home from college for Thanksgiving break and seeing her face at the kitchen window, eager to hear every detail of my life.   Death would kill that. So we didn’t talk about it.

I was immobilized. Together in our once safe home in Briarcliff that last morning my mother couldn’t speak. She wanted something from me. She wanted my help. I was seventeen and I didn’t know what to do.   Something bad was in the room. I was too scared to show my fear. I wanted to fix it. I didn’t know what to do.

So I held her hand, tears without sobs pouring down my cheeks, bewildered in the face of unspeakable death. She looked at me and said “Thank you.” Thirty-six hours later, she died. Those were the last words she ever said to me.

“Can you walk?”

Somehow, through the years of living, ministry, dying loved ones, lost pets and lost loves, I’m learning to ask “Can you walk?” I’m learning to ask the other hard questions and be still and present with the answers.   I am learning how to suffer.

I took my first cautious steps toward suffering in Shadowlands, the Broadway production where by fluke and connections, I was cast as an understudy for eight weeks. The play is about C.S. Lewis’s transition from intellect to experience. When Lewis was a child, his mother died. He never cried, never allowed himself to feel the loss.   Late in life, when Lewis was a crusty bachelor professor, he met his true love Joy Gresham. Shortly after they met and married she got cancer and died.   When Joy died, he allowed the devastation to overtake him.

He said, The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering.” (Shadowlands).

Eight shows a week, sitting backstage listening to the monitors, I hear those words: The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering.

And now, every day, I make the choice between safety and suffering. Will I have the courage to face what happens and keep my heart in the room?

Because I don’t know if I can walk. I don’t know if I can stand. There are days I stagger about this stage called earth, confronted with the sorrows of being human – the loss, the death, the indignity of perpetual change.

And there’s the infernal, internal drama. There is so much I want to do with my life, so many dreams I want to accomplish. I yearn for the bold person I hope to be.   But I am afraid to suffer the risk of trying. I want to hide under our rusty wheelbarrow and suffocate my hope. So I choose safety, turning to tasks and television, an epic to-do list of mundane activities and a stream of Orange is the New Black. There I remain safe in a women’s prison, mired in other people’s problems, hypnotized by girl-on-girl sex and two dimensional living, a flat screen for a flat existence.   I dare not suffer the scandal of boldness, the audacity of showing up in all my flaws and wonder.

But sometimes suffering is not suffering…

Those last days with Stella, I would gladly suffer again.   It was an honor to hold herstick-7 014 (3) as she let go. It was a joy to put her needs first. It was a joy to ask, “Can you walk?” and be in love with whatever was true.   It was joy to cherish her, to understand that love is love and it doesn’t matter if she’s just a dog, and that death can never kill a love like that. Suffering is not suffering. Suffering is the new joy.

Yes. Stella’s journey will become a touchstone for the days when I’m suffering from uncertainty, mediocrity or doubt, when I think I can’t walk, when I’m paralyzed with the anxiety of transitions, when it feels like trying to be present costs too much.

“Can you walk, sweetheart?” I will ask myself.

Somehow, through this inquiry, somehow I will get a glimpse of what it would be like to fall in love completely; to delight in my abilities and inabilities; to bless life’s strengths and frailties as part of the crazy-quilt of Existence.   Somehow, through one slow question at a time, I will arrive at an instant destination where I welcome all living and dying. Here I find that not only can I walk; I can fall – fall in love with a foreign homeland, where I am held as tenderly as a mother, a dog, or a beloved friend.

48 thoughts on “Suffering Is The New Joy

  1. Jen

    Absolutely beautiful post, Bonnie. I can feel your vulnerability, and I honor it. Thank you for your authenticity. Love you!

    Reply
  2. Mary

    That was beautiful Bonnie! I am teary-eyed but thankful that we are not suffering alone. We have our friends, our families and our pets to help us through. We can fall but get back up..we can walk.

    Reply
  3. Auntie D

    Awwwww, man. You’re not supposed to make a person cry while sitting at the computer.
    I melt with the wisdom of your writing and consciousness. I melt at the marriage of theatre and spirit in one flawless essay. And I melt in fond remembrance of Stella (albeit only a few nights of pretzeldom sleeping when we doggy sat years ago) who took umbrage when Don and I tired to embrace or kiss.

    Thank you.
    Love, Duchess
    dba Auntie D

    Reply
    1. bystarlight123 Post author

      LOL – yes, I remember that visit where Stella dominated you and Don. Thanks for your kind words and memories. Love, Bonnie

      Reply
  4. Suebob

    Beautiful. I was just thinking about Stella this morning. Your stories have brought her so much to life that I feel like I knew her.

    Reply
  5. rick white

    Thank you for your insight into suffering and it’s micro-view into our life’s perspective. I have always known that Orange is the New Black is a valuable tool for understanding life, I just didn’t know how to use until now!
    Ricardo Blanco

    Reply
    1. bystarlight123 Post author

      Ha ha – yes, that great title has many applications…Ricardo Blanco is the New Rick White…And so it is. xo

      Reply
  6. Karen

    Bonnie, thank you so much for sharing your heart,sorrows,and joy with us. I could barely read through my tears but as the tears flowed my heart filled with love and understanding of how much those words meant and mean. I will forever have them within my spiritual toolbox. Thank you and much love. Always.

    Reply
  7. Trish Webb

    Oh my, Bonnie, you write and feel so eloquently. Thank you for this beautiful piece. I knew your mom only as a young girl knows the mother of a good friend (your dear big sis, Nancy), but I always felt happy in the quiet calm of her presence. Her smile was a blessing.
    I’m so sorry for the loss of your beloved Stella, Bonnie dear. Sending much love and bountiful blessings your way, Trish

    Reply
    1. bystarlight123 Post author

      Thanks Trish! It’s meaningful for someone who knew my mom to read this. Stella passed a couple of years ago. I still miss both – but wouldn’t have missed out on the love for anything.

      Reply
  8. Miyuki Harley

    Bonnie, I lost my mom at 15 and a group of people died around me in my teen years ! I came upon your writings today not by mistake, we have many things in common , I lived in Westchester county and drove to Briarcliff, quite often and the public pool comes to mind it’s beautiful there , I can still feel it ! I am now doing deeper work that I know is related to when I was 15 so young without a voice , never got to bring my Mama home but brought my Dad home and cried all the way home on the PCH not knowing why till I thought about it ! As I surrender to the love and life inviting me into the present I am HOME ! I have precious memories of victorious days with you ,so glad to have worked with you on this Journey !! Love you sister ! I miss my teenagers and had to give up my Doggies who saved our lives by their Unconditional Love!!

    Another Beautiful Blessed Day !!

    Luv you

    Miyuki

    Reply
    1. bystarlight123 Post author

      So nice to hear from you Miyuki. I had forgotten about the Briarcliff/Pleasantville connection that we share. How sweet to remember that, and to hear the story of your mom, dad, pups, and music. With Love – Bonnie

      Reply
  9. Julie Cohen

    Oh, Bonnie! So eloquent! So beautifully written! I used to think that, as time passed, my grief would lighten … But it hasn’t. My mother was MY favorite person and there are still times when I catch myself thinking (as odd as it may be), that there’s been a terrible mistake – she wasn’t meant to ever die – that the world without her in it just doesn’t make sense like it did before. There were a couple of questions that I also dared not ask during her last days. But asking them just never felt right. It was as if I’d be giving up on the hope (for her and for myself) that she would, once again, prevail over her current illness. After all, she had done so successfully many times before. And I was all about being her advocate, asking questions of her doctors, reminding the nurses if a lab test was overdue, etc. I was hyper-focussed on the goal of her return to health. But there was a little old lady (I believe she was 95 years old) named Fanny, who shared the hospital room with my mom. Fanny was very clear about her own situation. She told me in a very matter-of-fact manner one evening (pretty much just after having said “hello” to me), “You know, I’m dying!” It wasn’t that she was complaining or expressing anger, but merely stating a fact! I was struck by her nonchalance and apparent willingness to get on with it … whenever was meant to happen. I didn’t realize until this moment now, as I write to you, that Fanny was also speaking for my mom, who was too ill to speak at that point. That was the same evening that I suddenly found myself singing to my mom. The song was, “‘The Rainbow Connection” by Paul Williams (an Oscar-nominated ditty he wrote for The Muppet Movie). It’s terribly corny, but for some strange reason, it came to me to sing it to her as I held her close that night. I don’t know who was more comforted by that song, my mom or myself. But I truly felt it was divinely guided. I experienced a shift in my understanding and in my willingness to let go FOR my mom’s sake. Everything came together in that moment to aide me in making that shift in awareness and acceptance of what was happening… Fanny’s words, the song, and especially my mom’s pushing down on my arm repeatedly as I sang, something she’d not been able to do for the previous few days. The next morning I made the decision to take the medical advice we’d been given in a meeting a couple of days before that – advice that everyone in the family but me had come to accept. I called the Livingston Nurses to make arrangements for hospice care in my mother’s home. When I called my mom’s nurse at the hospital, the doctor got on the phone to tell me that my mom had just passed away. I felt such a calm certainty, my mountainous grief notwithstanding, knowing that the truth of my immense love for my mother could not be better expressed than by my letting go with her! The grief still shows itself, as I mentioned before, but I almost welcome it, as it is one of many opportunities to experience the love for my dear, sweet mother that will never die.

    (Wow, Bonnie, that was much longer than I’d originally intended.
    I am so thankful that you were able to come to the Celebration of my mom’s life and to speak so beautifully to everyone who loved her!)

    Reply
    1. bystarlight123 Post author

      Thank you Julie, for your heart felt words. I didn’t know your mother well, but I knew who she was – a beautiful spirit of joy and love. I hope you share the story that you shared above with others. It is very pure of heart. Love, Bonnie

      Reply
    1. bystarlight123 Post author

      Ah Kit, me too – that picture so beautifully shows her spirit. And of course, you are right. Puppy breathe DOES transcend time!! Love, Bonnie

      Reply
    1. bystarlight123 Post author

      Thank you Renee! Yes, every moment is so precious…With Love to you, Tony, and Roxy – Bonnie

      Reply
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  11. michael tomblinson

    Thank you for expressing my own feelings so eloquently and accurately. I lost both my Mom and Sister in 2004, and one of my dogs is dying after a lifetime of love. I recall at the time of my family’s deaths that my heart felt broken open and that I wanted it to remain open. It has but it can be difficult at times. Thank you again.

    Reply
    1. bystarlight123 Post author

      Thank you too, Michael. I appreciate your heart-felt words and send you and your dog much love. – Bonnie

      Reply
  12. Jessica

    I’m always amazed by writers who can take thoughts out of my head and put them beautifully on paper and speak them for me. I lost my grandma to cancer years ago and I sat quietly with her once a week while she was dying and I couldn’t keep my heart in the room. I was young and so afraid. Now I regret that immensely. And now I choose suffering- for every being. I have to remind myself to continue to open myself up to suffering even though it’s terrifying because it’s also the way to love.

    Reply
    1. bystarlight123 Post author

      Thank you Jessica. Bless you on your journey. I trust that the love will outweigh the loss. Warmly, Bonnie

      Reply
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