What is it like to live without a head?

  • "This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad," Vickie would say each day. But there is no past for her to replay now, or future to ever fear. There are only the cherry trees with their pink blossoms turning white and floating down, turning the grass into Easter colors. (Unsplash/Redd Angelo)
 |  Soul Seeing

Vickie has advanced Alzheimer's and has regressed, or progressed, to the age of a little child (Matthew 18:3). She stands at the top of the stairs, held from behind by Maria, our caregiver who bathes her, rubs her in lotion that smells like lavender, and dresses her in the mornings.

I hear their footsteps from our kitchen and say, "Is that my girl? Is that my girl?" I go to the bottom of the stairs and look up. There she is, an angel in white linen pants and a white blouse under an open white sweater with pink and blue sailboats floating up and down her arms. She sees me and busts open a smile as if she's just getting off a ship after a long voyage and there I am at the bottom of the gangplank, the one she expects but is still a wonderful surprise.

"Angel of beauty," I say to her, "come to meeeee." She stretches her right arm toward me, just like Christine in "The Phantom of the Opera." Maria wraps Vickie's other hand around the bannister and guides her down the stairs, one step at a time, until she reaches the bottom where I hug her for a long time. Vickie pats my back, not like I am the Phantom but her favorite pet.

"Would you like to see the world, sweetheart?" I wrap my arm around her shoulders and lead her to the front room windows. "Look, sweetheart, this is the day the Lord has made." The sun is shining all over everything.

"Mmmm," she says. A locked door in her brain holds the memory of her always saying, each morning, "This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad" (Psalm 118:24). But there is no past for her to replay now, or future to ever fear. There are only the cherry trees with their pink blossoms turning white and floating down, turning the grass into Easter colors. Soon they will become seeds again, like we all will, to be made new all over again.

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Vickie is what she sees, here, now. I used to tell her things like, "See the house across the street? A nice young couple from Utah just moved in. They're real nice, just like Donnie and Marie." Or, "See the house over there with the brown shingles? Bernie and Terri used to live there. They're dead now."

Dead, alive, Mormon, Catholic: sounds that no longer signify anything. What Vickie knows is a tall young man in the yard across the street holding his toddler's hand and coming over to our mailbox where the child gazes in fascination at the purple "Alzheimer's awareness" pinwheel that spins in the breeze. Little Todd can just look at it, and appreciate it, for a long time. So can Vickie.

It's like this book I'm reading: On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious by D.E. Harding. It's an underground classic from 1961. Harding had a mystical experience while walking in the Himalayas. It was "the best day of my life," he begins his story, the day "when I found I had no head."

Harding was 33 years old and had been struggling with the question, "What's it all about?" for months. For just a moment, he stopped thinking. "Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. I forgot my name, my humanness, my thingness, all that could be called me or mine. Past and future dropped away. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, that present moment and what was clearly given in it. To look was enough." He could not see, or even know, that he might have a head above his khaki shirt.

To live without a head is to live without ego, without judgment, guilt, comparison, competitiveness, calculation, greed, envy, vanity, manipulation, self-affirmation, and all the other natural born killers that flesh is heir to.

"Behead yourself," wrote the poet Rumi. "Dissolve your whole body into Vision: become seeing, seeing, seeing!"

Alzheimer's is no picnic when you get lost in a supermarket or break your hip or choke on your food. But on ordinary days, and most days are for all of us nothing but ordinary, you feel your arms and legs caressed by healing hands each morning, stand at the top of the stairs wrapped in arms of safety, with love, surprising and steadfast, waiting for you at the bottom.

Together, you go to the window, and like a child, or an adult without a head, watch a pinwheel spin under the sun according to a wind that blows where it will.

[Michael Leach initiated NCR's Soul Seeing column in November 2011 and has shepherded it since.]

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June 16-29, 2017

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