A Change of Worlds

February 25th, 20102:30 pm @ Angela Odom


Chief Seattle: There is no death, only a change of worlds.

The other day I received some sad news about a young girl who lost her battle with lupus. Like me, she too had lupus nephritis. For the past few days I have been asking myself why it is that me, the old fart, is still around when so many younger than I are not.

My guess is the question is not an uncommon one for those of us who are the ones left behind. That question and more are asked and never answered. We wonder, we grope with meaningless words and there is the descending shock that says we will never see or talk with that person again. The phone will not ring, you will not hear their familiar jokes or witty expressions, a familiar silence falls upon you that says the journey you shared is over.

Always I am reminded of the famous speech by Chief Seattle in 1854 (you can read it here). The last words of his speech are: “Dead, did I say? There is no death, only a change of worlds.”

I don’t remember how I came across this speech or where I first heard the words, I only remember how struck I was by them. Having lost my father at a young age, I think I found the words comforting as it related to him. Afterward, I found the words comforting in knowing that beyond this life there is another and we must live each day as if it were our last.

As I lay in a hospital bed — for seven whole days — in 2005, I was the last person to suspect I was in serious trouble. I have since discovered a few friends of mine and my mother thought I would not make it through the weekend. I had some suspicion I might have been in trouble when one of my doctors came to visit me on a Sunday to tell me he was glad I did whatever it was I did to get myself into the hospital. His conversation fell short of saying “it probably saved your life.”

It was not until my release from the hospital, while in my yard being miraculously buzzed by hummingbirds, that I realized the precious gift of life. I stood there, crying copious tears, talking to the hummingbirds saying “I missed you too.” It was an emotional scene primarily because I felt the presence of God and felt He brought the birds to me not only for comfort, but to also let me know He is always here. I’ve not experienced a scene like the above with the hummingbirds since. Miracles happen every day. In order to experience them we must be open to them and believe they can and will happen.

I believe I took Chief Seattle’s words to heart when I first heard or saw them. I have no fear of death and thus, if it comes, it comes. I have noticed something about myself since my diagnosis though and that is I have become fearless.

My partner, who died in 2002 from breast cancer, was also a fearless woman. At first I thought her ways a bit too harsh and there were times I thought her too mean. As I got to know her I realized I was seeing the words of Audre Lorde played out though her and those words are: “Once you have faced that death which can come from cancer you can give full rein to your rage and your love and become fearless.” Cancer aside, I believe once you are diagnosed with any life threatening illness you feel compelled to “give full rein to your rage and your love and become fearless.”

I have noticed this fearlessness in friends of mine who are cancer survivors, those who have suffered and survived heart attacks, and those living with potentially life threatening illnesses. They are fearless women and men and more importantly, they are living each day to the fullest.

Why did I come to this on this day? It is not due solely to my hearing of the young girl who lost her life. It is due in large part to a conversation I had Saturday evening with some of my friends, all of whom face life altering or life threatening illnesses. We have all come to the belief that death is merely a change of worlds and as a result, death is not something we fear. Second, we have all given full rein to our rage and our love and this became the topic of conversation.

Though this may be hard for some to hear, the death of the young girl not only brought meaning to me but to others as well. Her death taught me to take nothing for granted. I may feel blessed and lucky to be here today but next year this time, maybe not.

With that, particularly after Saturday’s conversation, I have learned something very important. Though the cross I bear is something I would prefer not having, it has brought wealth to my life. My diagnosis with lupus has brought a different death to my life and a change of worlds. There was a time in my life when you could find me anywhere but at home. I was always out doing something. Now, I talk with my mother every day. We spend a lot of quality time together. I spend quality time with friends and less time (if any) with folks I call psychic vampires — negative folks who steal your energy.

I have also given full rein to my loves and my rage. I am no longer a push-over, I now push back. I have also found I have no patience for pettiness, folks who want to blah, blah on about nonsense, people who whine about someone owing them something when no one owes you a thing, and other superfluous nonsense that makes no sense to me whatsoever. The grim reaper and I may have a high tea date sooner than later, I don’t wish to spend any of my precious time listening to a lot of hot air. The urgency will be heard in my voice as I shut you and your nonsense down. I have no patience for it. This was not always the case with me. My intolerance began after my diagnosis and release from the hospital.

Instead, I chose to do only those things I wish to do. Those things that were once important to me are no longer important. I am no longer interested in fancy cars, fancy clothes, being seen, heard or smelled. It has no bearing on who I am and they don’t define me. Lupus has brought me to a death of selfish thinking. No longer to I look at the world and watch how people react to me. Instead, I am now looking at myself and paying close attention to how I relate to others. It is a change of worlds.

My conversation with friends this weekend was an enlightening one. One friend who has severe arthritis told us how her debilitating disease has helped her accept gifts from strangers. The once self sufficient woman who did not allow anyone to help her now enjoys random acts of kindness from strangers who offer to help her onto an escalator, hold doors for her, or help her with her groceries. She says she has helped a lot of angels get their wings. A change of worlds.

Another friend who suffered a massive heart attack some years ago told us how he was once so into his body and strength he failed to impress those closest to him, his wife and children. It has taken him a few years to repair the damage caused by his mental and psychological absence but he made it as important to him as bench pressing hundreds of pounds to “look good for my age.” He now wants to look good for his wife and children and spend quality time with them. A change of worlds.

A very beautiful friend of mine has alopecia. As a young girl, she defined herself by her — I’m going there folks — light skin and “good hair” until it began falling out. Before long, those long beautiful locks were gone, along with her eyebrows and eyelashes. She went from “fine to the brunt of jokes.” She fell into depression, alcoholism, drug abuse and finally self acceptance. She now teaches young girls that beauty truly is skin deep but real beauty comes from within. She turned her life around and took a look inward to become a very beautiful woman with a radiant spirit. I just love being around her. A change of worlds.

An illness — even one that is life threatening — does not mean the end of the world. If we look we might find the blessing. Are we to teach? Could we use our lives and our illnesses as an example for others? Is there a lesson we must learn or something we need to give up in order to move to a different or higher spiritual plane? Depression is fine but it is not productive. Instead, we need to turn it around. Instead of seeing the negative, look for the positive.

Sure, I would love to have the energy I once had to hike up a mountain trail and photograph the valley below but I cannot. Instead of wasting precious time kicking myself, pitying myself, or drinking myself into oblivion with memories of what I used to do, I have now begun exploring the world of macro photography. Yep, the one thing I once thought was oh so boring is now oh so exciting.

My young friend wanted the world. I called her “Ms. Why” because she always asked why. Why this, why that, why, why, why. For me, that’s always a good sign in young people. Always ask why and take nothing at face value. Loved that about her. She did not like the steroids, how it blew her face up and the laughter she received at school from peers. It was hard on her but, in time, she overcame. She learned to fight back and as Audre Lorde said, she gave full rein to her rage and her love and became fearless. I was proud of her.

Her death came as a shock to everyone including me. I thought she would make it. I have since heard one of her school mates told her brother she didn’t know anyone could die from lupus. Now they know. Actually, the kids are so curious they want to pinpoint exactly what it was that caused her death. Apparently, the kids are talking about raising funds for lupus research and even participating in a walk for lupus in her honor. A change of worlds.

Death is not always physical. It could be the death of your old life and the change of worlds is becoming a different person or seeing in a different way. Like the death card in the Tarot, it does not always mean a physical death. Death is inevitable, it will come. Until then you have to ask yourself what now? This is what I have had to ask myself. What now? What can I do? Is there something I need to see?

So, to all of my lupus sorors, those with debilitating illnesses, and survivors, on those bad days give very little time to “how sad I am.” Instead, think about what you can do. The writer, the author, may be screaming deep within. Let that voice be heard by being silent and listen. You may think you have no talent to draw but you may be very surprised to find you can. Music soothes you, perhaps there is a song you need to sing. As you experience the death of your old self, wait for the change of worlds and you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.

Give yourself over fully to your rage, to your love and become fearless. Soon you will see a change of worlds, embrace it. Don’t fear it. You can take that however you wish.