Charlotte’s 100th Birthday

On April 4, 2001 Charlotte Selver turned 100 years old.  For a long time, Charlotte vacillated about what to do on her birthday.  She knew it was a momentous occasion and at the same time it seemed to be overwhelming and too important to everyone.  It was after all simply another day in her life. Finally, she agreed to let us have a small dinner party with some close friends.  Earlier in the day she drove up to Hope Cottage for lunch.  Hope Cottage is a small stone cottage at the top of one of the hills above Green Gulch.  It was built by George Wheelwright as a retreat for his wife, Hope. It overlooks the wide Green Gulch Valley and faces the ocean.  The view is expansive and stunning.  The drive up is very steep and rugged, but from what I hear, Charlotte enjoyed the journey and the visit.

At around 7:00 p.m. Charlotte arrived at Sara Gordon’s house where about 20 friends were gathered.  Many old time friends were there, including four of us from Charlotte’s first nine-month Study Group in 1972-1973, Seymour Carter, Kate Skinner, Connie Smith and myself.  Charlotte said back then that this was going to be her first and last Study Group.  There has probably been one almost every year since then.

People drank champagne and had individual moments with Charlotte.  We ate a lovely potluck dinner, and then we gathered in a circle to speak with Charlotte so that she could hear us, and we would all be concentrated in one conversation.  She put on her hearing equipment and we passed the microphone around for people to share special moments with Charlotte.  Charlotte wanted to know how we met her, or came to the work.  There were some funny and loving stories as usual.  As we were all gathered around, I presented Charlotte with her special “Birthday Cake” of letters from the Guild and friends.  They were in a beautiful round box with raised letters wishing Charlotte a Happy 100th Birthday.  The box itself was beautiful, and inside were many moments of how the work has touched people.  Charlotte asked me to read some of them and I did.  It was just “her dish” as Charlotte likes to say.  It means a lot to her to know about how the work, works in people.  I would say that is one of the most important and interesting things in her life.  She did not want to make such a personal big deal out of herself and her birthday…but hearing about the work and how it touches people, that is very rich.   After a number of stories from people and Charlotte, and the sharing of her paper birthday cake….we brought in a huge strawberry shortcake covered with 101 sparkling candles.  All the lights were turned off and it was quite magical to see the moving flames of so many candles representing each year of Charlotte’s life.  When I told her there were 101 candles, one for good luck…she smiled and with a twinkle in her eyes, said, “You haven’t given up on me!”  With a little help from her friends, she blew out all of the candles and all on her own she ate a huge piece of cake.

Being with everyone and being at this event, asked a lot of Charlotte.  She turned herself over to it and rallied her energy and then she was ready to go home.  Quick good byes were said and Charlotte almost flew out the door walking intently with her two canes.  It was a lovely event and it was enough.

About one month later, at the end of the first week of the Study Group, Charlotte got pneumonia.  She became very ill and many of us thought that Charlotte was dying.  Charlotte began to say very lucid and heartfelt good byes to people.  She was very clear and also very calm.  I was grateful to see her so peaceful and so accepting of her life and of her perhaps arriving death.  She seemed to be quite interested and open for what was going to happen.  On Monday night about six of Charlotte’s closest nearby friends were gathered together in a vigil, to be there with her and for her in whatever happened.  We were all fully present and open to be there with Charlotte, as she seemed to be on her way to dying.  She was hardly eating or drinking anything and she was very weak.  At one point she looked at me and said, “I don’t think I am going to die tonight”.  A very lovely doctor who lives at Muir Beach came up to the house many times to check on Charlotte and to help her understand what she could do if she wanted to die (not drink or eat) and what she could do if she wanted to live (drink and eat).  Her lungs were quite congested.

I decided to stay there with Charlotte at the house and just be there for whatever was going to happen.  I had been with people before as they were dying and it seemed as though Charlotte already had one foot on the road out of this life.  A few days later, after many discussions about death and also Charlotte’s good bye instructions for me, Charlotte looked over at me and said, “I don’t want to disappoint you.  What will you do if I don’t die now?” I responded that I would celebrate!  For a few weeks, Charlotte seemed to straddle the fence between staying or leaving, and then one day she was back. Both feet were planted here in this life for whatever was next and possible. Her energy changed and she was engaged again in a different way.  She was extremely present and gentle and open as she was sick and feeling her way into living or dying.  She was living that time fully and living each of those moments and connections…and yet when she came back, her interest and energy expanded. Two weeks later she was packed and getting ready to leave for Europe.  It was overwhelming and somewhat stunning to be leaving her home in Muir Beach and heading off to so many new places.  Just before she left for the airport, she called her doctor to say goodbye and to tell him she was leaving for Europe.  If she came back in the fall she would look forward to seeing him.  I stood there shaking my head inside myself….amazed at the journeys of the past few weeks and smiling at Charlotte’s message to the doctor.  I would never have imagined that conversation three weeks before.  I am smiling still as I think of it.  I stood outside Charlotte’s house waving goodbye as she, Jill and Peter drove off to the airport.  Waving until she was out of sight, and seeing her hand still waving as she headed off down the driveway.  A few days later I received an e-mail dictated to Stefan from his parents garden where Charlotte was sitting, experimenting:

“We are sitting in the garden of Stefan’s parent and I am trying to raise one knee after the other into the air, so that the foot could come to hanging but my feet are not as permissive as they should be. So I have to wait in the air a little until the feet come to more hanging. It’s wishful thinking! They are still very reluctant. Here is beautiful sunshine and the earth and the grass are so warm, much warmer than my feet. But still it is very nice to meet the earth and the grass and become a little more hanging and giving with my feet. Tomorrow the great weekend will start where I will speak about my experience with Elsa Gindler and with my own stubborn organism.

PS: The grass is also green here and the sun warm. I thought I would come to no man’ s land but there is always something familiar around.”

I have heard that Charlotte’s talk about Elsa Gindler and the work went very well, and now she continues on her journey to new workshops and new moments.   And we each continue to live with the many moments that Charlotte has offered and continues to offer us through her presence and the work she has shared.

We are very lucky, I think.