Tag Archives: grief

Keeping me awake at night

Graphic: Human nervous system via Wikipedia
Human nervous system

I’ve known that I had peripheral neuropathy since early 2010 when I checked in with a podiatrist about other issues. I saw my personal doctor and he took a full battery of blood tests to determine if there was anything obvious. The results ruled out any of the “bad things” (diabetes, HIV/AIDS, etc.). He did detect a vitamin D deficiency so he had me taking mega dosages of vitamin D. Because the supplement would not have immediate effect, I did not get back to him right away and then forgot about the problem.

However, this year, I’ve noted a worsening of the symptoms (pin pricks and numbness on my feet, especially the left foot) to the point that it was keeping me from falling to sleep. Symptoms seemed to flare up about 1:00 or 2:00 am. My home medicine consisted of Aleve, restorative poses on my mat, using a tennis ball to stretch the sole of my foot, and applying ice to the foot. I tried to do some of these things before going to bed. Results were inconsistent, and I would usually dose off when I was completely exhausted. Sometimes, I could pull myself together to go to work. During the day, I would not notice the pin pricks because my shoes and socks applied a uniform pressure that tended to lessen my sensitivity.

Since my father’s death in January and accelerated by my mother’s death in April, I’ve been living off reserves (don’t ask me to explain; I’m searching for a concept that doesn’t sound too “New Age-ish”). I attended yoga class in fits and starts, I did not make to the gym either, and each new beginning seemed to start from a more degraded status. Because I had to prioritize my time and energy to take of my job responsibilities and the settling of my parents’ estate, I have not been taking care of myself as well as I should.

This summer, I could feel that things were catching up with me: just run together a string of nights with just 4-5 hours sleep each, and anyone’s performance suffers; and pain medication and sleeping pills did not seem to have an effect. I finally went to my doctor again and we did another round of blood work, which revealed that I was in otherwise good health.

The next step was to see a neurologist, who confirmed the original diagnosis — the condition of idiopathic peripheral neuropathy — the “idiopathic” means that the doctors don’t know what the cause is, and the “peripheral” means that the condition is outside the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). The neurologist did not find any impairment (grip, balance, coordination, etc.) aside from the pain, and because I can remember the pin prick sensation as far back as 12 years, it’s not something of recent onset. He then ordered up an electromyography and nerve conduction test — basically electrocuting my feet, legs and arms for two hours and measuring the speed of the peripheral nerves. The results showed that the nerve circuits in my feet and legs had a degraded capacity, but no clear cause was identified.  I was given a prescription of Gabapentin (a generic drug to treat epilepsy, but also effective for neuropathic pain) and told to ramp up the dosage until it relieved my pain.

Conclusion: After a three-week blitz, Western medicine has determined that whatever the cause, the only option is to treat the symptoms by helping me manage the pain and to monitor my condition to see if it got worse. I could probably consult some more specialists or look for some obscure disease (does Dr. House receive patients from DC?). I’ve consulted with my acupuncturist and he said that he could help with the pain and, perhaps, slow the neuropathy, but did not hold out much hope for reversing it. I am going to have to take ownership of my pain and body, and learn to manage both, which is a trial-and-error process.

Smith Center expanded facilities to have open house

I was approached by the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts to share with my readers an invitation to attend their open house on September 24. I am not going to make it that day because I have a prior commitment, but I encourage any one willing to test their hearts in the face of compassion to stop by the Smith Center at 1632 U Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009 (3 blocks from the U Street Metro):

From 11 am to 4 pm on Saturday, September 24, Smith Center for Healing and the Arts will open the doors of our newly expanded and renovated U Street community center for an open house event–giving the community the opportunity to tour the new state-of-the-art teaching kitchen, program space, and tranquil rooftop terrace, and expanded Joan Hisaoka Art Gallery. Attendees will also be invited to take part in sample workshops and classes, view an art exhibit, and enjoy music and entertainment, refreshments, cooking demonstrations, and giveaways throughout the day.

The opening event will highlight Smith Center’s legacy of offering time-tested integrative care programs and resources for people with cancer, and introduce a variety of exciting new health and wellness programs and classes for the local community at large. Attendees will get a sneak peak into some of our newest programs, including nutrition and cooking classes, creativity workshops, health and wholeness lectures, yoga and stress reduction classes, and more.

I lost my brother to lung cancer three years ago and my mother to the sequela of breast cancer in April so I need no prodding to back the Center’s work of cancer support, creativity and community building.

Taking stock of the grieving process

At my work, things have been pretty hectic all year, with meetings, reports, resolutions, funding proposals, assorted urgent matters, political negotiations and bureaucratic routines, and it’s been hard handling everything while trying to process my parents’ deaths. Those losses bring personal pain. But this season has also offered openings for caring and consideration from relatives, friends and community. I’ve been blessed to have a compassionate group of colleagues at my workplace. They sent beautiful floral arrangements to both memorial services and a surprising number showed up for the services, even though they were in the middle of the work week. Others could not break away from work to get to the services, but there were always pesames y abrazos that went beyond mere formalities or courtesy: you can tell when people are really sincere.

I also received messages from readers of this blog who also extended their condolences, and I appreciate their concern.

In a way, the feverish pace of work meant that I didn’t spend a lot of time ruminating on how much I miss my parents, the impermanence of life or human suffering. The clear goals and tasks gave me precise priorities and milestones. I actually surprised myself with how well I performed over past six months.

Shortly after my parents’ interment, I underwent an emotional shift as the work pace slacked off, my wife visited her aging mother in Peru, and I had to grapple with the dense details of wrapping up my parents’ estate. It was time to grieve. It takes a while to recognize that change, and that’s when yoga, pranayama, mediation and mindfulness come in hand. It also helps to have family and friends to turn to.

My parents’ interment

Photo: wedding portrait of Lynn and Lorraine Smith - 1947
June 8 1947 - Wedding portrait

Today happens to be my parents’ wedding anniversary, June 8, 1947. For the next six decades, they were inseparable, soul mates (the over-used cliche that’s appropriate in their case). My dad’s biggest concern in his final years was that he would last long enough to take care of her to the end. With his final words to us, he extracted a promise from my sister Judy and me that we could take care of Mom. My mother’s biggest concern was that she did not want to be a burden to us and she longed to be reunited with her husband. Well, she died three months later, resolving that oath.


In a simple wooden case, their ashes are surprisingly heavy, as is my sorrow. I’ve kept the case here at home for the past two months. Today I will be relieved of having to care for them. My family will lay their ashes to rest together in the garden of the Rockville United Church in a private ceremony. A small plaque will commemorate their resting place, among the flowers, evergreens and shade trees.

First yoga class in April

I finally went to a yoga class at Thrive Yoga. I had been planning to go, but I really resisted pulling out my mat and driving to the studio. I felt that I did not deserve to reward myself with a class. I was also concerned about meeting friends for the first time since my mother’s death and going through the condolences routine. I have my evening restorative/nidra yoga practice, but that does not do the same job as a full hatha or vinyasa practice.

I could feel all the weakened parts of the body as we advanced through the class, a deliberate hatha sequence focusing on twists — the stiffness in my wrists when I went up into wheel, the quick fatigue in my thighs, the tightness in my shoulders. The list could go on.

I just hope that I can follow this up wth a few more classes during the week before departing for Suriname for a week.

I’m a 60-year-old orphan

On Tuesday, the family and friends of Lorraine Smith celebrated her life at a 3:00 pm memorial service at Rockville United Church. It took much less effort that the preparations following my dad’s passing because we did our learning in January. Now we know the routine, the choices and the timing so it went down really smoothly.

But it was not easy. I am feeling physically ground down, as if I had gone through a mauling. I find it hard to sleep at night, and it would be worse if I did not have my evening restorative yoga routine that allows me to wind down. But my sleep is really light and I wake up multiple times. I’ve been unable to go to any yoga classes. Work has ratcheted up the pressure because I’ve missed three days this past week, and deadlines are not being adjusted accordingly. In 10 days, I leave for a week in Suriname. Today was my wife’s birthday, and I bought her roses on the way home as a way of apologizing for not being in party mode.

I am sure that there’s a lot that I will have to process over the coming months. I’ve lost both my parents in the brief span of three months, and that’s a major milestone in anyone’s life. You’ll excuse me if I don’t want to record all of it in this blog.

Grieving mindfully

Grieving has been on my mind the past few weeks, so I naturally noticed the e-mail that came through my Inbox. Operating out of Frederick, Heather Whittington provides yoga therapy for grief. Her site Mindful Grief provides information on her workshops and groups that help deal with grief and other human suffering. She also offers private sessions. I will be spending more time with her online materials over the coming weeks.

Farewell to her last breath

Photo: Lorraine Smith smiling at her grandson's wedding
Mom was at Judy's son's wedding in 2009

My mother passed away at 8:05 am on Wednesday, April 13, at Casey House, Montgomery Hospice. She took her time in transitioning from the back-broken 91-year-old to the freed spirit that joined my father and brother in the hereafter. She fell on April 2, was admitted to the hospice on April 4, stopped eating on April 8 and said her last words (“I am sorry.”) Sunday noon. I was surprised that she hung on so long without food or water. Her last great grandchild visited her on Tuesday to say good-bye so she kept up her end of the bargain.

During those last evenings, I thought that I could still communicate with her even though she was unresponsive. I thought I detected a twinkle of awareness in her glazed, half-closed eyes, but I may have been deluding myself. I kept reading to her from the Scriptures, telling her stories from my life in Peru that I had never told her and remembering the most precious moments of childhood. It was one-way communication, but just sitting around in the room seemed even more irrational.

The last two evenings, her breathing took on an eerie quality, like raspy ujajai breathing, something from yoga that she would have never understood. She took four or five deep, hungry breaths into her chest, then the breath would become gradually shallower and fade to nothing. She would remain immobile for 20-40 seconds; sometimes, it seemed even longer. On a few occasions, I thought she had actually had passed away in front of me. But then she’d take another ravenous, noisy sequence of deep breaths. I spoke softly to her, “Mom, I did not think that prank was very funny.” On the last evening, the gaps in the breathing cycle got longer.

When I left the room that last evening, I turned around and look back at my mother’s still form on the bed for a long while. I followed the up and down movements of her chest. After a silent lapse, I heard the hiss of the air through her dry throat again. Even though her body was broken and her soul longed to escape, the prana, the life force flowed through her.

Brother’s obit does not do justice to him

My brother’s obituary as it appeared in the Dallas Morning News on October 25 (only viewable for 30 days after publication):

Richard Elliott Smith passed away Oct. 23, 2009 after fighting a 3-year battle with lung cancer. He was born Jan. 12, 1953 in Anderson, Indiana to parents Lynn and Lorraine Smith. He graduated from Anderson University and Dallas Baptist University. He held 2 Master’s degrees.

Richard’s special joy was being a special education teacher. He recently worked at Highland Park High School in the Special Ed department. He was featured in the May 1st edition of “The Bagpipe” in which he spoke of his cancer battle. His favorite shirt to wear to school was a T-shirt with the phrase from “Spamalot”, “I’m not dead yet”. The saying was from a spoof on the 14th century black plague. He also loved telling his doctors and nurses “I’m alive and well and kicking” when asked the question “how are you doing?”

Richard is survived by his wife of 4 years, Susan Peterson-Smith. Also survived by his parents, sister Judy Zack and brother-in-law Sam, brother Michael Smith and sister-in-law Terri, sister and brother-in-law Anne and Mike Hahn, sister and brother-in-law, Christa and Floyd Stanley, nephews Stephen, Jonathan and Benjamin Zack, Matthew Smith, nieces, Stephanie Smith, Gretchen and Delaney Hahn, Emily Stanley and nephew Samuel Stanley and mother-in-law Anne Peterson. Richard was loved by his furry children, Harry Potter, Narnia, Clarrie and Liaku.

Special thanks to Dr. Gupta, Dr. Samsula, Dr. Engleman and Dr. Cheek. Also to the wonderful staff at Texas Oncology Plano Baylor special thanks. A big thank you to Baylor Regional Plano Hospital and their staff for the care they gave to Richard throughout his illness.

Funeral services will be at The Church of the Incarnation on Oct. 30th, 2009 at 3:00 p.m., followed by inurnment at the Church of the Incarnation Memorial Garden, The Reverend Father Matthew Oliver, presiding and The Right Reverend Anthony Burton, assisting. Memorials to be given to the Church of the Incarnation Foundation, Granger Fund.

Photo: Portrait of Richard Smith, five months before death
Richar liked to look death straight in the eye

I know that Susan had to undertake the task of putting this together, which really sucks. In the middle of mourning, you’re supposed to write a life story that sums up 55 years on earth. I wish she had asked me to do it, but I know only a small portion of his time in Dallas and certainly not enough about his last three years.

I was telling my daughter before I flew to Dallas that Richard really should have felt fulfilled at this stage of his life: he had a meaningful career, teaching special ed, after decades of seeking a profession that was rewarding; he had met the girl of his dreams, Susan, after decades of seeking a soul mate, and both of them had purchased a beautiful house in the suburbs of Dallas. It just a bitch that once he had all these things in hand, he had to share them with the cancer monster.

He was a seeker all his life, and it took him all the way down to Texas. He ended up having two Master’s degrees and probably enough extra credits to qualify for another degree. He could have made a fortune at accounting if he had bothered to get certified as a CPA, and indeed his skill with numbers and spreadsheets served him well.

Photo: Richard Smith working with his power tools
Richard sought to be productive even while his body weakened.

I spent six days with him in June. That was the most time that I’ve had with him since I left for Mexico and Peru in 1973, and he was going to be a sophomore at Anderson College. Even as kids, we were separated by four years, which meant that I was over high school when he started, and graduated from college when he was freshman. When you’re young, you think that four years of age difference create huge barriers, but today I look back and think how trivial those differences seem.

Since then, we spent little time together. He made a short visit to Peru in 1976 (he broke his leg just before the Tri-S trip and wore a cast in the Peruvian rain forest, doing service work in Pucallpa). We spoke on the phone, wrote a few letters, had a few family reunions together, but never more than a few hours. When I came back to the States in 1990, he had left my folks’ place to work in Texas. More short encounters until his marriage in October 2005 and then the illness.

I wish I had sought out more opportunities to be a big brother to him. Over the past 30-some months, we’ve spoken on the phone more than we ever did, but it always seemed that he could never hold a conversation for more than 10-15 minutes before getting fatigued, especially in the evening. Plus, at the end, the treatments had stolen 80 percent of his hearing so carrying on a phone conversation was a burden. He hated his hearing aid.

Post Script: Susan has put up a commemorative site with lots of photographs of Richard, some that I had never seen before.

Richard, you put up the good fight

Photo: Portrait of Richard Smith, five months before death
Richard liked to look death straight in the eye

My brother Richard died early this morning at Baylor Regional Medical Center in Plano, Texas. His wife,Susan, was at his side. For 32 months, he fought against lung cancer, beating the original estimate of life expectancy. Now he can rest in peace and shine in the pure essence into which his courage, perseverance and faith distilled his life, loves and dreams.

The quote on my brother’s T-shirt (on the right) is from the movie, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail:” He loved to wear it to let people know he could still laugh at himself.