It is a cool, still night at Michele Moser’s house under the redwoods outside of Guerneville, Calif. I like to think of it as Michele’s magic grove. I wish it were a no-dying zone.
Michele greets visitors from the hospital bed that a hospice worker brought, and this night it’s covered with people.
At Michele’s feet sit her daughter, Toni and her baby granddaughter, Robin. Jan, a woman from the mortuary, squeezes in between them and Michele to get her signature on a cremation release.
Standing behind Michele is Jerri, a Reiki master, who is gently touching Michele’s forehead and chest. Jerri is coordinator of the Natural Death Care Project and has been helping Michele plan her own funeral.
Brad, Michele’s husband and the lone male in the house, is serving peppermint tea and figuring out the final bill for the cremation. At one point Michele’s visitors dive into their purses looking for coins so Jan can give Brad exact change.
Michele would have it no other way.
Annie, the photographer, and I met Michele five months ago to do a story on how baby boomers are altering the American dying ritual. Michele, who has inoperable cancer, is planning to die at home, then lie in state in her living room in a box that is lined with purple silk and half decorated with messages from friends.
She is staying as involved as she can, even grilling Jan from the crematorium on how they make sure “the furnace is clean.” She doesn’t want to be co-mingled with any other ashes. Jan assures her that anything left from another body is “no more than a thimbleful.”
Annie and I asked Michele if we can do another story when she dies to see how a self-directed funeral works. She said yes. But Annie and I find ourselves wanting to just hang around.
The truth is we are both smitten by Michele and in awe of her incredible openness about a subject that most would rather deny.
I remember a long-ago discussion with a friend on how one of the worst things about a terminal disease would be if your friends treated you differently. It would be so lonely if people were suddenly afraid to be normal toward you.
Michele says, “Some people are not sure how to be around me. Some are shocked by the changes in my appearance. I did lose 50 pounds. It’s a shock to me, too, to see my bones and ribs. I think I look gaunt.
“It scares people. Death scares people.”
But they come around. “We have the best time we can. We cry. We talk about old times.”
She is not cavalier about dying. At times she says she is looking forward to being free of the pain. “I’ll be on my journey,” she says. But she also fears the pain taking over.
We ask her what it feels like. She says it burns and radiates from her stomach. It goes all through her.
Annie asks, “Into your toes and hands, too?”
Michele nods and says, “and it ends up here,” pointing to her head.
She smokes marijuana for the pain. She takes morphine for the pain. And gets another kind of pain medication through skin patches.
How does she stay so clear?
“I’ve always had a stronger mind than body.”
The marijuana calms her mind. It doesn’t take away the pain but it keeps down the panic. “Sometimes you get so tense you forget to breathe.”
It’s nice in her room. On another visit, there is sun coming through her lace curtains. Pink sheets on the bed. Tulips in a vase. Michele in purple yoga slippers, black tights and top and flowered skirt.
A friend has carved her a miniature wooden barge, with tiny purple cushions. It’s the vessel of passage according to the ancient Egyptian religion which Michele follows.
“This is how I will ride to summerland,” she says, explaining the place where the dead go to rest and recuperate.
“Where there is no pain and I’ll be free and new again.”
Friends visit her all the time. From Iowa, Tennessee, Los Angeles. “My planner is busy,” she says.
I can see why. It is a privilege to be part of her circle. Nothing is held back. When you talk about death with a person getting ready to die there is no time for veiled allusions. It’s straight talk or none. If there is a teacher for being in the moment it is Michele.
“People ask me how I can be so accepting. They’re asking for themselves, I know. I ask them how would you have me be? What would you be doing?”
She makes us feel centered, a very California under-the-redwoods way to feel. We just want to sit in her cabin with the red door and talk. About dreams and mothers and children and the lilies of the valley outside her window and her new Mary Kay grape colored nail polish.
The next time we visit she asks if we could bring cheeseburgers. From McDonalds, the plain, flat greasy kind, with none of the extras. It’s a new craving. So, we’ll bring cheeseburgers.
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