JANET ADLER: The 20th Marian Chace Foundation Lecture by Cathy Appel

Janet Adler's essay concerning her experience of her Mother's eight day fast into death is now published in an online magazine called Natural Transitions: Conscious, Holistic Approaches to End of Life Volume 3 Issue 3. It can be accessed through The title of the essay is: "Witness to a Conscious Death". There is free access to this full volume if you provide your email and other contact information.

It was with eagerness that I waited for the 20th Annual Marian Chace Foundation Lecture, on Saturday morning, October 10, 2009, at the 44TH ANNUAL ADTA CONFERENCE in Portland, Oregon. The topic, “Witness to a Conscious Death,” had been described briefly in the catalogue:

Dr. Adler will offer her experience of mid-wifing her ninety-year-old mother’s nine-day fast into death. Witnessing this journey creates awe and unshakable commitment, visions and contained despair, and gratitude, indescribable gratitude for such a privilege.

It had been many years since my Authentic Movement training with Janet and ZoĆ« Avstreih in the mid-eighties, and, from the time I had sat alone in a film-viewing room at the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library watching “Looking for Me.” However, the effects of my encounters with Janet and her work were formative and remain a vital part of who I am today. What is Janet going to say in this lecture? I am particularly interested since I had lost my own mother right before Thanksgiving in 2006, two years after spending a 23-day vigil sleeping on the floor of a small hospital hospice unit as I said good-bye to my father. The opportunity to hear Janet’s experience with the death of her mother, who also died during the Thanksgiving season of 2006, feels important to me, especially since I know of Janet’s hospice work.

Sitting in the ballroom of the Hilton Portland, waiting for the lecture, I feel excited and sad as I study the large projection of an old photograph of Janet and her mother to the left of the podium. I remember, as I look at the photo, how Janet’s mother’s name was Posy, and how, during my AM training, I had thought it was the loveliest name a mother could have. I pictured Posy as a radiant flower, an eternal blossom always in bloom for Janet, who had talked about how she and her mother were close. I was intrigued by their loving kinship, by Janet’s openness about her mother’s emotional support and love of dance. Someone must have pushed a “show slideshow button,” because, suddenly, there begins a flow of other photos of Janet, including one of Posy alone – looking not young but not terribly old – and it hits me that I am about to hear Janet speak about a relationship and a person I really know nothing about.

Janet begins her talk in a quiet but always audible voice, first thanking the Marian Chace Foundation and then several people, culminating with thanking her youngest son who is there as her escort. Emotions begin to well up inside me, but I feel compelled to hear what Janet has to say; so I make every effort to focus. It feels as if everyone around me is listening hard, too, as Janet sets out to describe an end-of-life decision that had been made by her mother many years ago. Janet takes a long time to outline the background for the path her mother had chosen. Her subdued voice conveys a complex story of her family’s journey to and through the fast that ended with her mother’s death, and never wavers. I feel Janet attend to every word. Listening is often painful. Tears burn in my eyes. It is work to follow Janet’s story, because questions keep competing with my emotions.

Even though much of the death process is recognizable to me, I soon realize this had been no ordinary decision and no ordinary ending to a ninety-year life. Not surprisingly, Janet does not hurry her talk, which is filled with exquisite details I want to savor the way they did the last morsels of their Thanksgiving leftovers: the beautiful table, the prayer reworked for the occasion by the Rabbi who was both son and grandson, the image of mother and daughter lying on their sides facing each other in bed, and of the neighbor approaching her 100th birthday, who would no longer have Posy across the street. My imagination stirs, my eyes burn, and I push away worries and questions.

I was seated between two friends. The friend on my right had lost her mother very young, and I worry that this talk about an end to life that was “chosen” might be troublesome for her. The friend on my left lives near her 86-year-old mother, with whom she is very close, and I also worry that she might find the talk difficult. Keeping my anxiety at bay, I remain focused on Janet. I notice this is not a clinical talk, and it is not about dance in the traditional sense. Nevertheless, I resist my questions and fight to listen and not become flooded by my personal experiences of death.

When Janet finishes, the room is silent and slowly everyone stands. We stand for what seems like a long time in silence. It does not escape my notice that this is unusual, but I have no impulse to clap or sit back down, or to say anything. I think about Posy being gone from Janet’s daily life, and I feel an excruciating love in Janet’s choice to honor her mother in this way. I also feel the presence of other conference attendees, standing in front, behind and on either side of me. It is as if we are treading water in the sea of the life of Posy and Janet together; as if we are underwater creatures come to the surface as witnesses to what happened after the moment we had seen captured in the projected black and white photo of Janet as a child: Janet wearing big sunglasses sitting in a boat with her legs spread wide apart and smiling at the camera; her mother, also in sunglasses, sitting with her legs toward the water, seeming to be holding a fishing rod.
I feel overcome with the wonder of being a witness, of being part of a community of witnesses, as we hold a deeply felt and complex rendering presented by Janet Adler, a woman whose life has been dedicated to the role of witness. My heart aches and tears fall not for Posy, or even for what Janet endured, but they spill in a wave that wishes for Janet to feel herself witnessed by all of us standing before her, who owe her so much, and, for her to have plenty of time to bask in the light of her own voyage knowing she is not alone.

© 2009 Cathy Appel


viktor-raykin said...
Deeply moving article. Thank you, Cathy.


yogidancer said...
Thank you, Cathy. I feel that it is possible to be a witness via the internet

Roberta said...
Thank you for the sharing. You brought me to my own witness with such beautiful relating of Janet's experience and your many layers of witness are there, especially in these major turns of life? Funny it seems that we should ever think we are alone.

In me, I also felt deeply the connections, past and present between mother-daughter and student-teacher. May they be with you always.