This is a post I wrote while we were in Monterey. I’ve been sitting on it because it’s not my usual Little Cunning Plan fare, but I feel like publishing it now. It’s a true story. Every bit of it.
We’re sitting here at anchor in Monterey, my favorite place we’ve been so far. The weather is perfect. We’re anchored off a sandy beach where seals, sea lions, and sea otters live in the kelp forest below the surface. Our friends Kevin and Cressie Baerg from Gig Harbor are here on their Cal 2-46, S/V Blue, and yesterday we spent the entire day visiting the incredible Monterey Bay Aquarium. To be sure, I’ve never seen a place this close to humanity where there is such a sheer abundance of wildlife. Standing on the observation deck at the aquarium, we watched a humpback whale feed in the kelp forest below. Sea lions. Birds. Sea Otters. Betty would have been in heaven. She adored otters. She was crazy about them.
Betty was a special client of mine for about 15 years off and on, and I’d like to tell you a little bit about her. It’s hard to put the complexity of a human spirit in just a few paragraphs. But Betty’s been on my mind a lot, anchored here in Monterey watching the otters swim. She would have been over the moon with happiness. She loved otters so much that during our summer cruises I would take photos of river otters and, in 2015 Sea Otters off the west coast of Vancouver Island, and when I returned, our first session would be a double session so we could spend the first hour looking over photos of the trip, and especially the otters.
Betty was very excited about this long term cruising thing we’re doing. She followed the blog and left lots of comments, some of them in the form of poetry. She had been in the Navy just after the big war and was ‘crazy’ about the ocean and ships, lighthouses, pretty much anything connected to the sea. Betty’s emotions were big and loud and full of life. When she liked something she liked it in a big way.
I met Betty just after her husband had been given his death sentence in the form of a diagnosis of Asbestosis. He and Betty had met just after WWII when they both served in the Navy. He had been exposed to asbestos during his military service. Now he would die of it. She wanted to prepare herself as best she could. Thus I began a long and interesting relationship with this most unusual woman.
What to say about Betty? She was a big, strong woman with powerful, broad hands. Her voice, low, loud, and gravelly, was a little bit Lauren Bacall, a little bit Frank Morgan. For a woman whose mother wished she had been a boy, Betty refused to be relegated to the shadows. She called attention to herself by her sheer force of personality. She never met a stranger, gave money to people too willingly, got devastated by their ultimate betrayal of her, and never let those disappointments change her open nature.
As quick as she was to love, her temper was hot and mercurial at home. It was her one biggest regret, that temper. She often wondered how it had affected her children, if it had caused some of the considerable problems her son had in life. A parent’s guilt over past behavior is a hard thing.
I saw Betty through her husband’s death and then she came back to learn how to grieve in her own way. Betty took umbrage with society’s rules about grieving widows and how they should act. People kept insisting that she needed ‘something to do’, that she should ‘get out of the house’, ‘go volunteer somewhere’. She was having none of it. I didn’t blame her. She had been bossed around by a controlling mother who never thought she was adequately feminine, had been in the military, had raised her kids, had worked for the school system. She had taken care of a terminally ill spouse. And I guess she was tired of being told what to do. Betty didn’t want the loss of her husband to suck all the joy of living out of her life but she also knew her own mind. I admired her for that. I used to tell Betty, ‘You’ve lived a long and productive life. You can grant yourself permission to do whatever the hell you want. ‘. Betty and I talked that way to one another.
Betty was not a religious person. Very likely there are too many rules in religion to have suited her. But she had a firm belief in God as the organizing and creative force of the universe, and she had a strong belief in the afterlife. She wasn’t exactly sure how it worked, but she knew there was SOMETHING after death. She lived as she said she believed. She felt her husband, Bill, was still with her, feeling that connection still there. Exploring her spiritual beliefs and developing that self awareness was a real focus for her, as it should have been at her age of 80+ years. Dreams, the unconscious mind, and the afterlife. It’s what our sessions were made of.
Betty used to dream about factories. She’d be walking through a big factory, busy with manufacturing one thing or another. Over the years it came to symbolize her own life force. If the factory was humming along, things were going ok. If she was wandering around aimlessly in the factory, it meant she needed to focus on something. Sometimes these dreams were reassuring to her, other times they gave her a heads up that she needed to change something; a sleep habit usually. Betty was a terrible sleeper.
Betty outlived her husband and her son. She was no stranger to death. Over the years Betty and I came to an agreement about death. We figured the odds were she would die before I did, being that much older than me. We agreed that whoever died first would find a way to come and tell the other one that all was well, that we were fine and moving on to the next grand adventure, whatever that was. Although the conversations were light hearted in nature, perhaps there was more to them than just humorous banter.
One day Betty arrived for her session carrying a big bottle of water. She said her doctor had found a small issue with her kidneys and wanted her to drink a lot of water. It was just a small thing, not to worry. Her dreams told a different story. She had not had a healthy ‘factory’ dream in months. The last few she had reported had her wandering in a factory that wasn’t producing anything, confused about why she was there and what she was supposed to be doing. I was on the alert that I was witnessing the beginning of the end of Betty’s life on earth, even though she didn’t know it.
And so it came to pass. Big, strong Betty contracted some kind of virus that was making the rounds that year and she lost consciousness at home. She was taken to the hospital, where her kidneys began to shut down. I went to visit her, although she was unconscious; not even breathing on her own. I offered what comfort I could to the stunned family, who had not predicted this would be her last few days. I held Betty’s hand and said goodbye to her.
That’s a another hard thing; when you know that a person is dying, but the family cannot come to terms with it yet. They were not quite ready to let her go. And so she stayed and rallied a bit, as is so often the case. She began breathing on her own, her kidney functions improved. I’ll say one thing for Betty: she had a strong will.
She was moved to a nursing facility, which she hated. She wanted to go home but her kidney functions continued to decline and she began to swell alarmingly. The nursing facility needed her to go to the emergency room so they could give her intravenous medications to get some of the water out of her body. Betty had refused to go. I was called to the room to have a talk with her.
And so we talked while she lay in the bed and tried to get comfortable in her swollen skin. We talked about how she was afraid to go to the Emergency Room. She expressed she was afraid to go because she knew that if she went she would never come back. And she was afraid of what that meant. We talked about the fact that staying in the nursing facility meant that she would certainly die, no matter what, because they didn’t have the tools there to do what was necessary. I was just frank with her, as she expected me to be. I’m kind of a straight shooter anyhow, but with Betty, well, she expected no less of me. And yet, to tell someone they are going to die, well, that’s a little too straight, know what I mean? Words are powerful and come with a great deal of responsibility. She had to come to that realization on her own.
I will never forget the moment when Betty realized that she was really and truly going to die. That this was it, the end of her road on the planet. She gave a great sigh and looked me straight in the eye. Then suddenly she said, ‘Ok. I’ll go.’ We agreed that whatever happened, live or die, she would be OK. ‘Don’t forget our deal, Betty. I’ll see you later.’, I said. I gave her a hug. Betty was big on hugs. The nurses wasted no time getting Betty ready to be transported. They couldn’t believe she was going willingly.
Later that day I got a call from Betty’s housekeeper. Betty had lost consciousness between the nursing facility and the ER, which was right across the parking lot. Medical personnel were going through all the heroic and invasive procedures that hospitals are required to do to save a person, even one who is finished living in their body. The family was coming to terms with it now. They had let her know they would be ok if she went now. I went to the hospital to offer what comfort I could and tell Betty goodbye again. This time, I felt sure she would go.
The last time I saw Betty she was strapped to a gurney and the nurses were chatting amiably to one another as they started a pic line on her. They knew it was a wasted effort. I could have felt sorry for Betty having to go through that, but I knew Betty didn’t care. She was already gone. That’s how Betty operated. Once she made up her mind about something, it was as good as done. She might take forever to make a decision, but when it was done, so be it.
I stood and looked at her for awhile, letting it sink in that what I was seeing was not my long term client and friend. It was her remains. I was glad that in the end, she had gone willingly and with some grace. It needed to be on her terms.
When I got home Mike was sitting in the chair by the window in the family room; the one that looks out over the little pond in the back yard. It was the middle of the day. ‘How’d it go?’, he asked. I started to answer him, then stopped, open mouthed, the words stuck in my throat. I just stared and pointed. I pointed at the huge otter ambling across our back yard.
“That’s an otter!” Mike cried, almost leaping out of the chair.
And it was. It was a huge river otter casually ambling through the garden and across the grass. It slithered through the little pond, out the other side, under the fence, and was away.
We’d lived in the house 16 years at that point. We are not next to a lake or river. We had never had an otter in our yard, and we’ve never had one since then. Both of us were too shocked to even get the camera. Struck dumb, we were.
You know what? I didn’t even make the connection right then. We were too stunned by the appearance of this animal to do anything but just shake our heads. It wasn’t until that night, as I lay falling asleep that it suddenly came to me.
“Oh my God! Betty!”, I said out loud. She had kept her end of the deal.
For several days I felt Betty’s presence. It was like she was talking to me, but in my head; the oddest thing I’ve ever experienced like that. I mean, Betty was a talker. But for maybe 3 days, I could not get her voice to be quiet. Then, just like the otter, she was gone. I couldn’t feel her there anymore, could not hear her voice in my head even if I tried. And I did try! Because it was just so weird, I had to try to create it myself. But I could not.
Now, as I visit this incredible place where there are these magnificent animals all around, I cannot help but think of Betty. Sometimes I think maybe she is with me. I listen carefully, putting out feelers as it were, but then I realize no, she is not. It’s just me, remembering her and hoping that wherever she is, there are otters to enjoy.