“Courage emerges from Love.” ~ Priscilla Bernard Wieden
Last week Amber and I entered a temple of creativity made holy on that night by courage, love, and honest talk about mortality.
Host David Rae expertly cradled the evening with introductions that were concise, precise, and full of heart. The night was possible, he said, because Priscilla Bernard Wieden had said Yes, let’s do this. She would speak publicly for the first time about the death of her husband Dan Wieden 16 months earlier.
Our first speaker was John Waller, diagnosed in 2020, in his mid-40s, with stage IV colorectal cancer. I won’t be able to share the talks with you (Salon talks are not taped for circulation the way TEDx events are) but here’s how John previewed his in a post:
“What would you do if you only had a year to live? That 8760 hours is your currency…how are you going to spend it? Are you going to say, ‘fuck that,’ and spend your time visiting experts and hospitals, enduring treatments and side effects, and scrolling through Google in search of a way to maybe….maybe…earn more time? Do you say ‘fuck it,’ throw off the shackles of fear and obligation and expectation, and fling yourself into your bucket of lists? Or do you spend that time preparing to die, so that others aren’t left to clean up your mess?”
It was a talk both polished and very real, very raw. In the lead-up to the event John wrote, “how the fuck am I gonna distill all this down into a 15 minute talk!?… I applaud the initiative to normalize conversations about death and dying…because guess what, we ALL get to share in that experience…and you never know when that 8760 hour countdown begins for you.”
I encourage you to check out John’s work: Finding Portland, the love letter to this city that closed the evening’s Salon; Finding Oregon, the short film that brought John to TEDxPortland’s attention; and the TEDxPortland talk John and his creative partner gave about making these works.
Next up was Beth Cavenaugh, a hospice nurse known to many as an angel embodied. Get her book, Some Light at the End, to share with those who find themselves at the ending of their days, and their loved ones, now caregivers in uncharted territory.
Before hearing from Priscilla we were treated to an animated spoken word piece chosen by John, a surprise performance by the Portland State Chamber Choir, hidden in the upper rafters of the building, and a set by Redray Frazier.
When Priscilla took the stage she brought us into the intimacy of the time following Dan’s death at home, where he laid in honor for three days, surrounded by flowers grown in their garden, before his green burial, which was attended by grandchildren, earthworms, and stuffed animals.
Priscilla shared that she had known Dan’s wishes from a workshop they’d attended on natural burial and family-led death care that I’d presented at RiverView Cemetery some years ago. As Dan approached his final days, she reached out to me to verify their rights. In preparing to speak about what they’d done, she double-checked how to respond to the common misconceptions that prevent many families from providing more hands-on care after their loved one’s final exhale, so she could help break down these barriers.
The coda to Priscilla’s talk was an exquisite performance of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah by the Portland State Choir.
I was deeply honored to assist Priscilla, having benefitted from Wieden+Kennedy’s brilliant and generous pro-bono support of several of the advocacy efforts I’d organized in the 1990s. I’m grateful to her for testifying so beautifully to her experience after Dan’s death.
“Courage emerges from Love” was the simple but profound refrain of Priscilla’s talk.
I’m so privileged to witness that every day in my work. It’s my prayer to cultivate that capacity in myself, facing the sources of grief in my own life.
I confess it was Finding Portland that released the tears that had been gathering behind my eyes all night; my grief for this city that’s been my home for 44 years now is deep without much outlet.
P.S. Don’t miss what TEDxPortland is doing next… April 27: Alchemy.