Self-Reflection: Conversations with Oneself


There are times when the best person to talk with is the one in the mirror. At a deep level, if we’re willing to be honest with ourselves and to ask for guidance, I believe that we can intuit exactly what we’re up against, even in the face of great uncertainty. Then our innate wisdom can point the way. With patience and compassion, the practice of self-reflection can be both liberating and empowering. A footnote: If at first your inner critic shows up, ask instead to speak with your better angels.

Sandy White 

Sandy’s renowned brain surgeon at UCSF Medical Center met with me briefly after a lifesaving eight-hour operation. Without my having to ask, he said, “David, this will give her about eighteen months.” He appeared tired and had a right to be. He had successfully removed all he could of a spidery glioblastoma while preserving my ex-wife’s ability to walk and talk, at least for now.

I swallowed hard and struggled to find the words to thank him. We shook hands and he turned to go. “She’ll be out of recovery in about an hour, and you can see her,” he said, turning back.

I wandered outside the hospital, dazed, and found a nearby restaurant to get a bowl of soup. Sitting in a quiet corner, I imagined how the next year or so might go. When the waitress delivered the check, it came with a handwritten note that said, “I’m sorry. I hope things get better.” I hadn’t said anything about the hospital. We hadn’t even talked. As I left, I thanked her for her kindness.

Two weeks after surgery, prior to beginning radiation, with no hair and a handmade wool hat to cover the startling line of sutures around her skull, Sandy announced, “This will be the best year of my life!” That’s how she was.

A few weeks later, she headed off with friends to hike in Yosemite, while I stayed with our son Freeman. He shared his mother’s optimism, and it wasn’t for me, at least yet, to take away his hope.

The differences between Sandy and me that once seemed insurmountable melted away in the face of her prognosis. She needed me and I needed to be there. It did turn out to be a remarkable year of seizing each day, one after another.

I remember our last Christmas together and driving to a local nursery to find a live tree. We had loved our visits to the giant redwoods over the years, so when the owner suggested a baby sequoia, we brought it home to the living room and decorated it to the hilt.

Sandy was a force to be reckoned with. She had fifteen good months before the tumor regrew. The next three months were terrible for those of us who loved her. Yet, strangely enough, the truth of what was unfolding did not seem available to Sandy. We all knew the score, except for her. It was surreal. She wasn’t in denial, per se, but she displayed a lack of capacity to grasp what was so evident to the rest of us. And that’s how it went until the end.

Like an embryo, terminal cancer begins in a single cell. It replicates and grows, undetectably small for a time, then becomes apparent and runs its malicious course. Finally, the body has no more room to spare, and the life force surrenders.

As Sandy’s vital brain functions succumbed in the final months; adult capabilities gave way to childlike simplicity. Ultimately, she returned to an infancy, no longer walking, or speaking, no longer reasoning—simply being. Her wide eyes were like windows, open to the beyond.

Sandy’s choice to die at home allowed us significant freedom in contrast to a hospital setting. This autonomy gave us a precious measure of control and privacy. The pace was hers to set, the caregivers ours to choose. Each stage and process appeared to unfold naturally, as opposed to being treated as a medical procedure. The care and guidance from our local hospice were invaluable.

One Friday, eighteen months after her surgery, Sandy’s breathing turned rapid and shallow. Death was at our door patiently waiting its due and the door was open. Freeman was at school, which seemed like the right place for him.

I sat at bedside, quietly reading aloud from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, one of Sandy’s favorites. Our sister-in-law, Aleen, sat at the foot of the bed in prayer. An intravenous pump of morphine confined Sandy’s pain to a remote corner of her being, allowing a tranquil spaciousness, albeit grievous, to fill the room.

As death stepped forward, Sandy’s breathing bore an uncanny resemblance to when she gave birth. On both occasions, her personality was usurped by a more compelling force. Each time I felt that we were on hallowed ground. Each time came the awe of witnessing one of life’s most powerful and mysterious passages.

It felt comforting to continue to read to her, now from Gibran’s chapter “On Death,”

“And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?”

The intervals between breaths lengthened. They were now just small sips of air. I kept reading aloud, now from the closing chapter, “The Farewell,”

“And you shall see. And you shall hear… For in that day, you shall know the hidden purposes of all things, and you shall bless darkness as you bless light… Patient, over patient, is the captain of my ship. The wind blows, and restless are the sails; even the rudder begs direction; yet quietly my captain awaits my silence… I am ready. The stream has reached the sea, and once more the great mother holds her daughter against her breast.”

And with those very words, I looked up to see Sandy take her last breath.

In the stillness, Aleen and I listened, spellbound, to the audible sound of wings flapping as Sandy’s spirit took flight. I can still hear them in my inner ear.

Eventually, the front door opened. Freeman called “I’m home!” and set his heavy backpack down. He walked in quietly and stopped near the door. He knew in a moment that his mother was gone. Sandy’s head was propped up with an extra pillow. Freeman came closer and tentatively touched her skin.

“She feels cold,” he said. “But it looks like she’s smiling. She’s not hurting anymore, is she?”

“It’s true,” Aleen answered.

“Dad, my friends walked home with me from school. Can I go out and play?” We held each other tightly for a moment, but I knew he needed to go. He went out and played with his friends for what felt like hours.

Aleen and I reverently cleaned and dressed Sandy’s body and prepared for the undertaker to arrive.

A week or so later, on Easter Sunday, family and friends gathered in a local wooded park to celebrate Sandy’s life and to say goodbye. Perhaps you’ve already imagined what became of the baby sequoia. With a portion of Sandy’s cremains at its roots, a towering redwood stands there as a sentinel to this day.

Journaling: Approaching the Truth that Lies Beneath

As Sandy recovered from life-saving surgery, she began to write again. Over the next fifteen months she found great comfort in reflecting on her life and used her writing as a therapeutic tool for self-discovery. The process allowed her to search for and find meaning while inching toward acceptance.

Even as the tumor regrew, bringing severe headaches, when asked how she was, Sandy would smile and say “fine.” She meant it. As her personality succumbed, her spirit expressed itself with a clarity that defies description. For me, and others in her inner circle, she became a shining presence, a channel of innocence and a window of light.

If you’re familiar with journaling, Sandy’s experience likely makes sense to you. If you’re not familiar with the practice, I encourage you to experiment. One key is to remember that the writing is for your eyes only. A popular exercise to bypass the mind’s normal “editor” is to commit to a series of ten-minute writing sessions, each without stopping. Just keep the pen (or keys) moving for ten minutes.

It doesn’t have to look good, sound good, or even make sense. It’s a way to access deeper layers of both personal and universal truth. Give it a try and see what comes up.

Next Week: Peeking Through the Veil

A Medical Advice Disclaimer 

The content of this blog is for informational and educational purposes only. No aspect of its contents is intended to substitute for professional medical advice, consultation, diagnosis, or treatment. The author is a spiritual care provider, not a doctor. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it based on something you have read here.

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Until next week, ‘Safe Journeys,