How I made peace with death - My tribute to Deb Hubsmith

DEB AND I (2009 & 2005)

DEB AND I (2009 & 2005)

The path of death beckons me vividly to sit by her side, learn her mysteries and steep in her silent, elusive magic.

I write this story in tribute to my beloved friend Deb Hubsmith in honor of her 47th birthday on June 5. In her short life she accomplished feats that were only possible through her profound sense of service and love for this world. While her focus was bicycle/pedestrian advocacy primarily, she was an advocate for health, safety and the well being of our communities, especially our children.   She helped to bring over $1.1 billion to create safe pathways, bike lanes and programs that have positively impacted hundreds of thousands of Americans in all 50 states.  The organization she founded and directed ‘Safe Routes to School National Partnership’ was an inspiration to many.  If you go to Marin County you will find dedications to her at the Cal Park Hill Tunnel and the pedestrian bridge south of the tunnel both of which would not be open for cyclists and pedestrians if it were not for her inspired and committed work and vision. There is also a beautiful bench dedicated to her in front of the ‘Good Earth’ health food store in Fairfax. Her body is gone but her spirit lives on in all of us who loved her so dearly!

True to Gemini form, it was not common knowledge that Deb had two personas: the Washington DC powerhouse activist who moved mountains and convinced the staunchest politicians to support her bicycle/pedestrian activism. The Deb who wore suits, met Michelle Obama, knew powerful politicians, challenged the mainstream and fiercely succeeded with every cause she pursued. Then there was the side I knew: the wild and free dancer, nature lover, yogini, tarot card reader, lover of artistic clothes, sun worshiper and fun, playful friend with an infectious laugh. One of her realizations during her Leukemia journey was she needed to unite the two Debs and the two worlds she beautifully straddled. Sadly she died before she could do so and after her death, many people were surprised to learn about both aspects of our amorphous Deb.

Deb with Michele Obama

Deb dancing on the beach

We were like twins in the way that we would often meet one another wearing the same exact clothes or color schemes without planning beforehand. She called me her ‘secret keeper’ and for nineteen years straight, even while she was in the depth of her sickness she was present for me like no other.

Being with Deb through her illness and death was a tremendous heart-breaking gift of immense proportion. From the moment she was diagnosed on October 17, 2013 with Acute Myeloid Leukemia to the moment of her death on August 18, 2015, her skinny body curled up on her bed, I was transformed through intimately meeting death.

Of course I would never have chosen to see my most precious girlfriend of nineteen years be slowly extinguished by blood cancer but I am actively choosing to be grateful for the gifts the experience brought to me. In learning to embrace death one inherently learns to embody life in a fuller fashion. In the face of witnessing death, life becomes magnified to the point of understanding how fragile and precious it is.

In the twenty-two months of Deb’s illness there were various stages of realizing that my petite firecracker friend might ultimately not survive her Leukemia journey.  I didn’t want to acknowledge it at first for it terrified me to my core that she might die; therefore I did everything in my power to try to save her. I loved her so much, how could I not?

Two years before Deb’s diagnosis, another young 39-year old friend of mine had died from cancer. I learned from that experience that life is impermanent and no one gets out alive. It was due to this lesson that I knew I had to be present for Deb.

I was fortunate that I was able to be one of her main caregivers for the majority of her leukemia journey. I dropped everything to be by her side, delayed a major move and transported my horse 130 miles away. I visited her daily in the hospital, helped her shop for wigs after she lost her hair, gave her rides for blood transfusions, helped to figure out how to best get her the vegan, gluten-free, nut free, dairy and corn free food she needed in a corporate hospital system, and created a fundraiser for her which raised $50,000 to cover the costs of her not working. I showed up the BEST I could for her as she always did the same for me.

LOVE is meant to be shared. We cannot hold onto love, it is like an amorphous butterfly that can change shape innumerable times. I learned that quite often the greatest gift is to give from our heart, when we have the ability to give. Through the experience of giving to Deb I now understand the true meaning of LOVE.

I loved Deb fiercely but in the end the greatest lesson was to say to her, “I love you and I will let you go.”

As Deb was dying, I heard Andy (Deb’s husband) and Mary Lou (her mom) tell Deb, “We love you, and you can leave now.” Although each of our hearts broke to let her brilliant spirit go it was necessary to release her out of the realm of suffering her earthly body was in.

April, 2014: Andy, Deb, Mary Lou & I after Deb's bone Marrow transplant at Stanford

This is true love.

Our love for our children, partners, family and friends – nothing can be held onto. The only constant in life is change and to grip onto what is continuously changing form will only cause suffering. So is life. We are all on our way out and in every moment edging towards death.  One day, we will all be either ashes or dust. Hopefully acknowledging this truth will urge us to seize the reigns of life and embrace this precious gift we’ve been given.

Life is death and death is life.

It is a continuous cycle and once we truly accept the fact that ALL of us are going to be welcomed into the arms of death at one point we can embrace all the wonders of life.

In this spectacular truth I encourage you to take the opportunity to fully embody the life you’ve been given. For months Deb struggled with the reality that she might die. She dearly wanted to live, she had bold visions for her life, she loved her husband, her family and friends and tried as hard as she could to survive. In the end she had to accept the truth that she was given forty-six brilliant, short years upon this Earth. In the end this was her fate.

Now you are given a choice. Each and everyday, every breath, every moment is a choice. What are you going to do with this moment?

In Deb’s journey with Leukemia I saw her spirit come to life. With the proclamation of her illness she realized how passionately she wanted to live. She would tell us often how much she loved us and continuously rose to the challenge of each new physical discomfort. In the eight months she spent in the hospital she bravely rallied her wishes for her medical care and alternative diet at the hospital. Even while sick, she refused to take “No” for an answer. As her beautiful 110 lb. frame slowly diminished to 65 lbs, her spiritual wisdom became radiantly bright. Her eyes would sparkle and shine as she divulged the knowledge she had earned through her painful and powerful journey.

July 2013: Deb months before she was diagnosed with leukemia

Life is a journey.

We all make mistakes and stumble. It is what we choose to do with these mistakes that shows the true nature of our soul. Can we humbly say, “I’m sorry,” to those we’ve hurt? Can we be brave and speak from our heart? Can we show our soft vulnerable side to those whom we love? Can we say ‘YES’ to life and in doing so allow ourselves to truly be seen? Can we open ourselves up to all possibilities of seen and unseen gifts that life bestows upon us and be grateful?

These are the lessons of life, some that I’ve learned from this tender dance with death.

Witnessing death is truly transformational. It rips your heart out and if you have the courage to look into its hollow eyes it will change you. Life is forever altered. It can be difficult to relate to people in the same way as before the loss occurred; sometimes you feel like a stranger in a strange land and simple conversations can feel like speaking Egyptian.  This is the territory of grief where nothing feels ‘normal’ anymore. Abnormal becomes the new normal. If you have the tenacity to feel your grief you will mine the treasures of loss, but it is certainly not an easy process.

Ten months after her death, I still miss her dearly. The person who was closest to me for 19 years of my life is now gone. From the age of 26 to 45, Deb was my rock, closest confidante, dancing partner and best friend. We would share clothes, shoes, jewelry, secrets, and so much more. Boyfriends and husbands would come and go, but our friendship was solid and dependable.   In special moments I feel her spirit but the reality of not being able to reach out to her physical form cuts like a knife.  Her radiant presence is gone. It is the most painful transition I have ever experienced and the tremors of grief still tear me apart at times

Through out the pain of loss, I am grateful for the lessons I learned as the experience has brought me to my destiny of assisting others with their grief process. The heart-breaking incident of losing Deb has caused me to devote my life to this work. I now offer ‘Grief Rituals ‘ on a 10-acre ranch in Northern California with my four horses and am honored to hold space for others in their grief journey.  I ultimately learned that our pain is our greatest gift for true transformation of the soul. To turn our trauma into our dharma is embracing the magical power of alchemical metamorphosis.

“Every loss we experience in our lifetime has the capacity to deepen us, to widen the channel of soul life flowing into us.” - Francis Weller

Click here for more information about Grief Rituals. For more information about Death & Grief click here.

September 2015: Scattering deb's ashes at Limantour beach