Lillian’s Adventures of Dying – India Supera
In this heartfelt and poignant essay, Feathered Pipe Founder India Supera recalls the many moments of tears, laughter, support, and abiding connection among the circle of friends and family as they walked through the months leading up to the recent passing of dear, longtime friend, Lillian Michalsky.
The warm and loving ties between India and the close circle of friends around Lillian – many of whom, like Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen, have gathered in circle at the Ranch for many years – formed the foundation of strength and passion, underpinning these women’s tireless work advocating a potential 5th United Nations World Conference on Women (5WCW).
Lillian participated this past summer at the Feathered Pipe Ranch in the annual gathering with Jean, India, and the circle of women that have gathered for many years. India’s recollection of the months leading up to Lillian’s passing is testimony to the ineffable power of their big circle and the ongoing-ness of love.
As Jane Wieland so aptly put it, Lillian’s passing was like running a marathon in which the finish line kept moving. We were all very grateful to have the spring together and watch every flower bloom. And this summer, which included two very important things for Lillian – our women’s circle and the trip on the river. She had driven out, having gathered her kayaks for all of us to play on. Life-fulfilling moments for all of us, but for Lillian in particular.
The beginning of this story: I was in India and got a letter from Lillian telling me she had stage 4 pancreatic cancer and possibly only a month to live. I wrote her immediately to see if she wanted me to come back and she wrote back ‘yes.’ So I was back in Montana by the 13th of February, expecting a passage sometime in March or at the latest, April.
In March Lillian endured many near-psychotic events due to the medications. She decided it was very important to die with a clear mind, which was what she was given in her life – a great, analytical mind. The drugs really messed her up. So, as soon as she started to feel a little better, the pain went away for some miraculous reason, and she was able to start to come off all the drugs that they had her on. By the time she died, she was on no assistance at all, from morphine or things to help her stomach, or anything – she was off everything. Which is, of course, how she wanted to leave.
It was a slow process in the end because she had to starve herself to death. She quit eating about six weeks before she died and stopped taking water about seven days before she died. She just couldn’t take anything in. But we did have our sweat lodge ceremonies, which was held during the last full moon and was the last of a full hundred rounds. Lillian led her last sweat lodge and then her last feast, which we had all prepared with spirit and love. And she went home and began the process of leaving her body.
The last six weeks were very hard. We were staying over. About a week and a half before she died, she had a fall which was the beginning of the end. After she fell, I didn’t lift her up because I wanted to make sure nothing was broken. We called hospice and they called the EMTs. In the meanwhile, we had a lot of laughs – we talked about writing a book called “Adventures in Dying.” We decided that the actual adventure starts on the day you’re born.
It brought up stories about life as well as death in our fabulous couple of hours lying on the floor in the hallway. How she had even moved to get out of bed was amazing. I felt spirit called her, but she said she thought I was outside with the dog and had locked myself out. She somehow got up out of bed, walked almost to the door before she fell and collapsed onto the floor. It was a wonderful, sleepless night with a lot of laughter and tears.
The next day she moved into the back bedroom onto a hospital bed. Those in our prayer group, which was formed from one of our circles, took care of her in the last week. It was an amazing process in which hospice called the end at least three times, where we stopped everything we were doing, ran over to the house, and were present when Lillian, of course, retrieved herself.
I think the reason she was able to do this had to do with her years of practice within the spiritual world. Even though she had started to completely remove herself from our world, she was able to watch and control her breath. Where most people get into that very shallow breathing and end up leaving their body, Lillian still had time to work on the things she wanted to work on in her life which seemed to me were forgiveness, understanding, love and harmony at every level. Of course, she had quit talking, so I don’t know exactly what she felt she was working on.
Strange as it is, having been there so many hours over the last 6 months, I actually missed her passing by seconds because as I walked into the house, I got a cell phone call and was on the porch talking. All the people there said “Oh, no, you were there for the last breath,” but I really know that I wasn’t.
It’s strange that neither Jane nor I were there for the moment of passing. It somehow seemed appropriate because we had become so much a part of her life, and living, and grieving, and feeling better. It seemed fitting that it was her family, her aunt on her mother’s side, her cousins, and Alex’s lifelong friend Nancy Owens who were there.
A week later I went into the house and it was the strangest thing to be there in the empty house with all of her things there. Her house was like a ceremonial space. She had her feathers, her prayer objects, and all of those things. Lorna McMurray, the woman who is getting her ceremonial pipe, was with Lillian at the end too.
It was probably the most conscious death I’ve ever witnessed. It was like when someone decides to have birth without drugs. She birthed herself into the other world. It was very much similar to a birthing experience.
I’ve always planned to use a lot of morphine around my dying, but Lillian really wanted to go into that long, deep other side, with the full experience of it. She had talked about it in our “Adventures of Dying” discussions. People asked her to “take a little morphine and relax.” She didn’t want to be relaxed, she wanted her consciousness. She really knew where she was going.
At the end, she shared a lot with Jane and me about astral travel. She would travel out of her body and go to the Oregon coast. She felt it was how she was getting her water and moisture – absorbing it from the sea air. She also would go all the way to the Irish coast where her family was from.
In the end, it was an analogy where she was in a boat and all of us were on the shore and she couldn’t turn the boat away from us – couldn’t turn the boat to the unknown horizon. About a day before she died she told us that she had turned the boat around. So that was a very interesting analogy. She died very shortly after that looking into the horizon.
The best thing was that we had a phone at her house that never worked. It was a Skype phone that only worked off her computer — the most complicated thing I have seen in this modern day of technology, but she liked it that way for some reason.
On the last day, somebody called. We don’t know who it was, but they called, and the phone that never worked actually rang! Then the outgoing voice message, which usually didn’t play (you just saw a light on the computer), came on saying, “Hi, this is Lillian. We’re not at home right now, leave a message.” That was right as she took her last breath. We were all amazed.
It could have been anyone calling, we’ll never know because the phone doesn’t actually work. All of us are very, very happy that we never have to deal with that phone again in this lifetime. That was spectacular. All in all, death is really a spectacular thing.
In our discussions of Adventures of Dying, we said that some of us die earlier to guide the rest over. Lillian committed that from the other side she’d be with us through prayers, be with the 5WCW efforts, and that her energy will always be part of the circles and sweats that she had for so long led and participated in.
Having said that, the last known spiritual site that Lillian made was the circle of last year’s prayer flags at the Ranch, right outside the main lodge near the labyrinth. She had Josh build a little bridge. She had us hang them in a particular circle. We want to make an art installation there during our June 2016 program with Jean. It will be part of the work we do during the week, and we will install it ourselves.
I’m hoping that everybody will come to the Ranch in June and work on it with us. We will have some ideas beforehand. In the meantime, I’ll see about getting some water there to make it a beautiful garden space.
I am looking forward to all of us coming together again and honoring Lillian in the way she would feel fitting. The depth of our love for her and for each other will shine through.