Gifts from Norman Reis
Norman Reis, 92 years old, a few days before passing.
I feel so honored to have witnessed during the past year the biggest and most graceful letting go ever imaginable: witnessing my father-in-law Norman Reis let go of his life on earth.
He had already let go of so much — his wife of 69 years who passed two years before, most of his possessions after moving into assisted-living, and walking with a walker five steps made him short of breath, as well as his ability to fully take care of his basic needs, to name a few.
Can you imagine suddenly needing to use a walker to get around? The week he needed it, Norman didn’t even blink an eye and went right on with life for three years with the walker as he did with many of the changes growing old can bring.
But then when a year ago he broke his thigh bone in five places, the letting go of major and basic things happened weekly in rapid succession. It was an amazing and unusual gift for both himself and for his family and friends that he was fully conscious and aware the entire year since most often the end of life can be very murky with meds or the mind fading.
How is it that one can let go of the ability to walk or move on one’s own? Who is ever ready to let go the functioning of the body and mind, surrendering to what comes next? Norman kept rolling with it. Only occasionally was irritable. Many times he was was just plain bored. Other times he suffered physical pains.
But most often he was smiling, happy to see me, joyful to talk or to be quiet, simply grateful to have company and connection. He liked to crack jokes about the changes his body was going through. He didn’t take any of it personally and he didn’t dwell. He surrendered — this is life now. He was happy to be alive. “It is what it is” he said over and over again as he would briefly plateau at lower and lower levels of health, ability and mobility and increased dependence.
One of the biggest fears for human beings is death and not knowing what’s coming next. This is called abinivesha in Sanskrit and according to yoga tradition is one of the five kleshas or causes of human suffering. Somehow Norman could sit in these huge transitory moments, even arriving at death’s door and coming back a few times when his breathing stopped and he was found completely blue in his bed.
Incredibly, he let neither the emotions arising nor the experience itself, tear him up. He seemed to be fearless! The bravest person I’ve ever known. He knew what yogi’s strive to do with emotions: not repressing them but also not letting them mean anything but passing currents of weather — he dropped the emotion when it didn’t serve any use!
Letting emotions go seems to me to be the primary key to his long, buoyant life and how he was able to bounce back from so many chapters of adversity, such as soldiering in World War II, being a caregiver to his wife who had a severe brain injury for over 20 years, surviving cancer twice, open heart and back surgery and more. Many times I’d wondered how anyone could live through all of that… and on the other end of it all be so kind, gentle, loving, understanding and sweet as he was.
In his last year, Norman smiled more than usual, and began chuckling and laughing in a new way that was contagious. He offered wise words of powerful advice to son, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He became an animated storyteller and told us touching stories of World War II, where he had walked with the infantry across all of Europe in the coldest of winters, and had hugged and stayed a night trying to stay warm and alive with an enemy, even though he had never been interested to talk about the war before.
On a few occasions, even though he is self-proclaimed introvert, he became the most hilarious, witty and clever comedian I have ever seen! He kept three generations of family members in complete stitches of laughter for over an hour and loved having the largest crowd of family to entertain.
The most amazing thing to me is that he continued to grow and to evolve. His heart transformed in ways that touched me deeply. His heart opened and he fell in love with caregivers and family to new depths, and us with him. Nobody wanted him to go. I realized if he had wanted to leave at some point that partially he couldn’t because we were keeping him alive, including the caregivers — aren’t they supposed to help us let go? I was glad they didn’t. And so was Norman after they had to revive him more than once.
I fell in love with Norman, and he with me. And he would tell me over and over just how he fell in love with me. It was a big love-fest for the last year for all of us with him. Even as we all went through the roller-coaster ride back and forth to the hospital with numerous health issues and our lives on hold. We all held on to his life, I knew I was guilty of that. But when his doctor explained the end was near, he let go within the week, so representative of how he did things. His life completed with such sweetness and trust in his heart and mine.
Now I face perhaps the biggest letting go I’ve ever been asked to do. I continue to learn from Norman’s gifts daily. He’s still present in me and certainly in his son, my husband Michael, who’s somehow more and more like him every day in all the best ways.
May we all face the unknown with such grace and joy and with a continued sense of renewal and evolving until the very last days.
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