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Oriah Mountain Dreamer, Author of The Invitation, says this about Julie’s work:

In the ceremonial medicine I have studied, we talk about death as the ally — which implies learning to access the wisdom that comes when we remain mindful of our own mortality. Julie Interrante shows us just how powerful this wisdom can be and how ordinary people like ourselves can access deep insight and joy by allowing the pain of loss to break our hearts open.

Life Is Not What We Think

When we allow our hearts to break open in response to the experiences of life, we see with new eyes—the eyes of the heart. I first learned about the heart’s vision from a Vietnam veteran named Al.

The day I met Al, it was rainy and cold, and I was lost. After several phone calls for directions, I finally located his trailer home. By the time I parked and walked the two blocks to the front door, I was wet and a little cranky.

“So you’re the chaplain?” Al asked when I entered. “I expected a holy-type person. This kind of messes with my head,” he added as he took a swallow from his glass, which I would later discover contained a supply of rum and Coke to wet his whistle.

Al was a fifty-two-year-old who had flown gunboats at the height of the Vietnam War. As a young army man, he had been fit, cocky, and self-assured, as reflected in the photos he showed me. He had been shot down three times, the last time losing his most beloved companion, a German shepherd.

His eyes filled with tears as he told me how hard he had cried the day he and his dog had been shot out of the sky. He had been captured, eventually spending three months as a prisoner of war in a bamboo cage in a swamp. Now he was dying of liver disease.

Al was impatient, rough, and made no apologies for it. He knew he drank too much and yelled too often at his wife of twenty-five years, who loved him nevertheless. Al used the “F” word so many times in our first thirty minutes together that I finally responded with, “Isn’t that f-ing amazing?” in response to a story about his four Chihuahuas. He laughed so loud he scared them into the bedroom before telling me, “You’re okay.”

At the end of our first visit, he confessed, “I like you. You can come back.”

I got up to leave, and all four Chihuahuas barked me out the door as Al’s raspy voice reprimanded his furry pals.

I visited Al often, having fallen for him in a most tender way. It was as if he and I had known each other before. Or perhaps I admired the way he expressed his coarse, angry parts without apology, as I’d been masking mine most of my life. Even though he sometimes felt bad about his behavior, he didn’t really want to change, and his wife and children loved him just that way.

During later visits, Al began to ask questions about God and heaven, at times wondering if he was good enough to be in “God’s favor.” “It bothers me that I killed people,” he said, “especially innocent people. I didn’t want to or even mean to sometimes, but I did. I wonder if I can be forgiven for that.”

“However God works, I don’t think there is judgment in death,” I replied.

“Really?” Al asked, sounding hopeful.

“Here’s how I think about it. You know how much you love your children? Like they could never do anything that would cause you to stop loving them?” I asked.

“I might be plenty pissed at them, but I’d love them always,” he replied in earnest.

“Well,” what makes us think we could ever do anything that would cause God to stop loving us?” I added.

“I never thought about it like that. Maybe God knows how hard the war was and how sorry I am about having killed people,” he said, his lip quivering. He steadied himself with a few swallows of his cocktail and then hollered to his wife, “Ruth, bring me some more.”

Ruth was already on her way with a fresh rum and Coke. “You can stay in here and talk with us,” Al offered. Ruth declined, saying she was fine in the kitchen. I could tell by her red eyes and nose that she could hear plenty well from there.

“I lost a daughter last year,” Al said. “Seven months ago she ran off the road down the levy and drowned. She was such a good person. I love her a lot. A couple of nights ago, I saw her real clear in a dream. I was certain she was alive.”

“I’m really sorry, Al,” I replied.

“You’re a good woman,” he responded.

He and I sat side by side on the couch during every visit. Sometimes he would fall asleep during our conversations and end up with his head on my shoulder.

Al continued to teach me how to view things in ways I never expected, while I subtly encouraged him to break open his heart. One day he insisted that we watch his favorite comedy video, which was about four men dressed in flannel shirts who fished, swore, and degraded women. Al howled at their jokes, while I kept saying, “This is disgusting.” He responded by telling me to lighten up. Clearly, Al and I did not have the same sense of humor, but his total enjoyment of the video made it enjoyable for me.

One afternoon Al gifted me with two cartoons he had drawn. One was a caricature of himself as the Spam Carving King. He had won the contest eight years in a row. “Spam carving is an art,” he said, “and I’m the best! I’m just sorry I’ll miss this year’s contest. I don’t think I’ll be here for it,” he confessed.

He died quietly two days later, surrounded by his dogs, family, and friends.

I learned from Al that I could care deeply about someone who viewed life very differently from me. I also learned that even a defended person has moments of tenderness when they can be transformed. Although Al appeared to act tough and suppress his feelings, he allowed the pain of dying to break open his heart, making him feel safe enough to cry, laugh, connect with others, and let go.

Like Al, many people approaching death lose their desire to be defensive and instead willingly let their hearts break open for the sake of connecting with people. We can, however, let our hearts break open all the time so we feel greater bonds with others and a stronger link to our authentic selves, especially if we keep our mortality in mind. Tibetans say there are two truths in life: one is that we will die, and the other is that we don’t know when. Even though we don’t know when we will die, realizing that we will die someday helps us live life more fully in the present.

We don’t have to wait until we’re told we’re dying to let life break open our hearts because the truth is we are already dying. From the moment we are born, the natural cycle of life moves us toward our death. Even if we live to be ninety-five, we are here for only a short time.

I recall hearing Buddhist author Jack Kornfield say, “the trouble is you think you have time.” Believing we have time encourages us to remain unconscious of our impermanence—and thus live superficially. A decision to live in our vulnerability, however, changes our experience of life. Therefore, it is important to allow our hearts to break open so we become more conscious of the impermanence of everything, including ourselves, gain a broader perspective on life, and become continuously transformed by our experiences.

The Broken-Open Heart Of Joy

I sat at my desk wondering how I was going to make it through the afternoon as my energy was low. The enormous need at the hospital where I worked felt overwhelming; unable to tell if anything I was doing made a difference, I felt like my efforts were futile. Suddenly, I was jolted out of my looming despair by the sound of the telephone.

“Hello,” I answered.

“Hi, I’m glad I found you,” a gentleman replied cheerfully.

“Who is this?” I asked.

“Ma’am, this is Archie Baldwin. I’m in room 604 and I’m going home today, but I need a little help before I leave. I want to make a thank-you card for the nurses, but I became blind on Christ- mas. Do you think you can help me? “

“Sure,” I answered, my heart swelling on hearing this man with such delightful energy. “Perhaps he is the miracle I needed to convince myself to show up one more day in this pit of a hospital,” I thought. Armed with paper, pens, tape, and a little chocolate from the stash on my desk, I arrived at room 604 to find Archie laying in his bed, knees up, his gown having fallen off them, revealing his diminishing buttocks and scrotum.

“Hi, Archie, I’m Julie, the person you talked with a few minutes ago,” I announced. His expo- sure made me wonder if I should tell him his family jewels were on display or just let it be.

“Thank you for coming,” he said. “I really want to make this card. I’ve received such good care, and I am very grateful. “

“How long have you been here?” I asked.

“Since Christmas—that’s when I became blind. I was born with one bad eye, but on Christmas I had an aneurysm and now the other one’s gone. Even so, I see some things, like the red dots on the ceiling.”

I looked at the white ceiling, hoping to see red dots. “Archie, there are no red dots on the ceiling,” I replied.

“Well, I see them,” he chuckled. “I also saw squirrels playing in the trees this morning. They were chasing each other and having so much fun. I know you can’t see them, but I’m quite an outdoorsman. I think that’s why I’m seeing squirrels and trees. It’s my brain showing me things. I can see things I couldn’t see before because my eyes were in the way.”

My heart leapt toward this person, who, despite his condition, had a wonderful perspective on life.

“Archie,” I confided, “I’ve often wondered, if I had to lose one of my senses would I choose sight. I have suspected it would keep me from making a lot of judgments I base on appearances.”

Archie continued, “Yeah. I used to be shy— until Christmas, when I couldn’t hold back because of what people looked like. The loss of my sight has made me feel how people are by how they behave, not how they look.”

I was amazed that he could see positive aspects of his condition and how these had caused him to let go of old ways. “Do you remember Walnettos?” he added, smiling.

“Of course I do,” I answered, recalling the chewy candies of my youth and the feelings of comfort and joy associated with eating them. The word flooded me with memories of walking to our neighborhood grocery to buy the penny candy.

 “Well, I have a whole bag of them over there on the dresser. Get them.”

“Just a minute, Archie. Do you like chocolate? “

“Yes, I love it!” he exclaimed.

“Well, I’ve got some for you in my bag,” I told him, glad that I had followed my intuition to bring chocolate along so I had something to share with him. After he had unwrapped the shiny gold foil from the midnight chocolate, Archie said,

“I play the harmonica. It’s here somewhere on the bed.” I spotted a black case and handed it to him. “I haven’t played for thirty years,” he said, “but here goes.”

As he played, I envisioned myself clogging— western tap dancing—but thought better of it after wondering if my blind friend might be startled. Instead, I applauded, and Archie bowed his thanks.

“You really can play,” I said admiringly.

“I’m a little rusty, but they used to pay two hundred and forty dollars for me to play!” he explained, smiling at the memory of bygone days.

“So what would you like the card to say?” I asked, bringing us back to the task at hand.

“I just want them to know how good they— and you—have made me feel. It’s like I’ve made new friends for life,” he mumbled.

“I think you’re wonderful, Archie,” I replied.

“Are you a certain religion?” he questioned. “Not really,” I answered. “I like parts of all kinds of traditions. “

“I was raised Episcopalian but hated the dogma,” he confessed.

“Yeah, dogma is bullshit,” I replied.

“You’re more beautiful than I thought,” he said, laughing and shaking his head back and forth.

We finished the card together, with me drawing purple hearts and writing in red letters a message to all those who had been so kind to him.

“If you’ll help me walk to the front desk, I can deliver this myself,” he then suggested.

“I’m game if you are, Archie,” I agreed. A nurse at the station frowned at our two- person caravan and asked, “What are you doing? “

“We’re delivering a card,” I chirped.

“No, with that,” she grumbled pointing to the floor. I turned and saw Archie’s catheter bag dragging along behind us and told Archie about her objection.

“Oh, well, think of it as just a little gift for everyone,” he said as we laughed.

After we had delivered the card and giggled our way back to his room, I said, “I play the flute. Would you like to hear it? “

“Oh, yes!” he answered. As I played, Archie’s heart broke open and he sobbed.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been touched that deeply,” he whispered.

I hugged him and said, “Thank you, Archie, for inviting me to come today. “

“Thank you,” he replied. “You saved me today.”

As I left the room, I thought to myself, “No, you saved me.” Upon reflection, I realized it was my despair that had allowed me to fully experience Archie, while his blindness had been the catalyst for him to really see me. As a result, each of our hearts had broken open spontaneously, moment to moment, in sadness and in joy. Our interaction had led to a joining of souls. I had ceased feeling futile as I helped him express gratitude to others. Imagining what the world would be like if I stopped using my eyes to make judgments, and instead assessed people and situations with only my heart, had dissipated my despondency. For both of us it had been like discovering an oasis in the middle of a desert, a place of hope for him in his blindness and for me in my despair. Because of this, I understood that a broken-open heart is not only about sadness but also about vulnerability, gratitude, and joy.

Let Your Heart Break Open

Many people approaching death lose their desire to be defensive and instead willingly let their hearts break open for the sake of connecting with people. We can, however, let our hearts break open all the time so we feel greater bonds with others and a stronger link to our authentic selves, especially if we keep our mortality in mind. Tibetans say there are two truths in life: one is that we will die, and the other is that we don’t know when. Even though we don’t know when we will die,
realizing that we will die someday helps us live life more fully in the present. We don’t have to wait until we’re told we’re dying to let life break open our hearts because the truth is we are already dying. From the moment we are born, the natural cycle of life moves us toward our death. Even if we live to be ninety-five, we are here for only a short time.

I recall hearing Buddhist author Jack Kornfield say, “the trouble is you think you have time.” Believing we have time encourages us to remain unconscious of our impermanence—and thus live superficially. A decision to live in our vulnerability, however, changes our experience of life. Therefore, it is important to allow our hearts to break open so we become more conscious of the impermanence of everything, including ourselves, gain a broader perspective on life, and become continuously transformed by our experiences.

Breaking Open

The natural cycle of life necessitates that as we physically grow we let go of childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and, eventually, life as we know it. Life experiences, such as leaving home, getting jobs, having families, and following the desires of the heart, keep us actively participating in the cycle of life. As such, every time we must let go of something or someone we love, we have the opportunity to embrace pain, rather than run from it, and thus allow it to transform us. Just as an acorn has to break open for an oak tree to grow and spread its magnificent canopy, we, too, must break open so the brilliance of our hearts may be shared. Even when life catches us unprepared with unexpected change, if we allow our hearts to break open we can appreciate life for what it brings rather than for what it is asking us to release. The experience of a broken-open heart brings vulnerability but also perspective and joy,

Transformed Through The Broken-Open Heart

If the broken-open heart can transform us, why do we resist the experience of pain and heartbreak? I believe it is because we have convinced ourselves that pain means something is wrong. Indeed, we have made an unconscious agreement to avoid pain at all cost. We have created a culture bent on numbing it—through substance abuse, eating, and shopping, for instance—rather than experiencing it and allowing it to transform us.

Being transformed through the broken-open heart is a natural part of the human experience. In
fact, it is our initial experience of life. From the time we are conceived, we are nurtured in the comfort of a dark, warm womb connected to the rhythm of our mother’s heartbeat. And yet, at some point, the forward movement of life urges us out of the womb, bringing discomfort and finally emergence into the cold, light, noisy environment of the world. If at this time a newborn could talk, she might say, “Something’s going wrong here! I was warm, comfortable, and fed. Now I’m squished, cold, and afraid. What is happening to me?” Yet once we’re born we fall in love with being here. This place becomes our home, and we do not want to leave it. So, if tomorrow someone came to us from the other side of the veil and said, “Come on, we love you and we’re ready for you,” most of us would say, “No thank you. I’m warm. I’m comfortable. I’m fed. I love it here. Not now.”

Each of us has survived the birth process and thus the pain of a broken-open heart, and eventually each of us will have to face death, which, like birth, requires that we release how we have known ourselves. In fact, our entire life is a series of transitions that have the potential to break open our hearts.

It’s Time To Talk About Death

During my years as a hospital and hospice chaplain, I was amazed at how many people felt caught off guard when they realized they were dying. I believe this is because most people have not consciously walked through the many changes in their lives that are the practice ground for the transition of dying. Similarly, during the many memorial services I have led, I have often heard people comment on the unexpected nature of death and lament the deceased person’s short time on earth. What is regrettable for many people facing death, however, is not so much the lack of time they have on earth but the lack of quality time. If we can embrace the fact that we will die some- day, we will live more fully in the present.

I understand the resistance to facing death when there is so much living to be done, but the truth is it is on our minds nevertheless, even if un- consciously. Fear of death is the basis of all other fears. Every time we fear losing money or losing someone we love, any time we become resistant to something or controlling, we are actually experiencing the fear of dying. As Buddhists maintain, we can use life events to practice for the moment of death, allowing experiences to remind us that nothing is permanent and that even in impermanence everything is perfect.

Working with the dying has shown me that it is time to talk about dying. By remaining quiet about it, we are allowing ourselves, our culture, and our world to act out our fear—to fight and hurt and kill in an attempt to convince ourselves that we have control over death. Accepting, and even embracing, the idea that we are impermanent beings brings a freedom to live more from our hearts and gives us the courage to take risks in order to live a full, unapologetic life. When we consciously observe our transitions and accept that everything changes, we have greater peace of mind and presence of heart to live life with more awareness and joy.

Benefits of Surrender

Working with people who are sick and dying has given me the opportunity to witness the benefits of surrender and see that suffering can catalyze personal transformation. Sometimes their transformation has come through actually dying, while other times it has come through sorrow that has permitted them to connect with family, friends, and themselves in a new way.