Mon Pere Speaks! Hospice in his own words.

I’ve written about my father-in-law’s surprising, tricky, and wonderful journey with prostate cancer and hospice in several posts now. (I’ll have links to them at the bottom for anyone interested.)

Well, Mon Pere’s experiences with hospice have been so good that he’s become quite the convert and unbeknownst to anyone in the family, he went off and did an interview with the Idaho Quality of Life Coalition in order to try and help alleviate some of the persistent confusion that exists around hospice care.  Afterwards the video was posted on Youtube!  (Which is all kinds of ironic since Mon Pere doesn’t own, want, or even like computers very much.  I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know what Youtube is.)

Anyway, my brother-in-law just stumbled across it by chance today and emailed the link to the rest of us.  I thought I’d put it up here, too, both to help Mon Pere with his awareness raising efforts as well as introduce him to you all in person.  (The interview is about six minutes long.)

He’s really trying to behave himself but his ribald sense of humor sneaks in towards the end with his little joke about dancing (the unabridged version suggests a more carnal activity.)  We’ve all heard the joke…and others like it…more times than I can count but he laughs like it’s the first time, every single time he tells it.  He’s such a character.

Without further ado I give you Mon Pere.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

The other posts:

Elders and the strange gravitational effect of final mystery.

I’m still here. Updates on wildfire smoke, a hospice patient in the family, and garden things.

“I hope you don’t mind but I’ve never died before, so I have some questions.”

Massachusetts and Question 2: Should doctors be allowed to prescribe lethal doses?

 

Advertisements

When odd ducks finally find each other.

Wedding - 125

Well, I don’t even know how long it’s been since my last post.  My daughter got married this month and, while life at the wedding-zoo was fun and magical and fascinating and celebratory and emotional and very, very important, I was still relieved to take the last guest to the airport at the end of it all and return to an empty home.

Silence cannot…I repeat cannot…be overrated.

A few of my favorite highlights:

1) Daughter is a costume maker and she and old friend Bombshell Bridesmaid dressed up one night in an authentic can-can dress and 17th century French court dress to go to a local, Idaho bar.  When I asked her she grinned and said nobody paid much attention because “they all know me by now.”

2) All the girls wore crowns. Daughter loves crowns and feels everyone should have them.  She sometimes wears one on bike rides.

Wedding - 184

3) Daughter loves a production and enrolled the weather gods to help.  After a heat wave that lasted weeks the wedding day dawned overcast and chilly with breezes.  Black storm clouds rolled in during the garden ceremony (with the wind occasionally blowing over the microphone to sound like thunder…pure genius) but nary a drop of rain ever fell.  Shortly before sunset the light broke through to make a rainbow that lasted close to half an hour for photo ops.  I mean really.  Bravo you guys.

t874HM-kPfYP_UYG5ZalMxvCE2_LBPGP6uUEQT0fYe0,T76slxT9qlalPlZYssExNLznPE2E9QgR7ZuGvyoIZqU

4) The original wedding cake (a bass drum in honor of the drummer groom-now-son) slid off onto the baker’s garage floor during transport.  This was the back-up cake.  Note protective box.

20130621_203355

The baker deserves a medal for this.  I mean, really.  Stunning.

5) The stylist for the girls was a no-show.  Enter, Son’s Bay Area girlfriend who just happened to have all the make-up and styling equipment necessary to prep five women for a wedding.  She swooped in and made them all gorgeous then zipped off to whip together her own exquisite coiffe.  (Who was that masked woman?!!)

Wedding - 271

7) Daughter and New Son just laughed, drank champagne, and waved every setback off.  They were totally in it for the ride.

8) Daughter included the promise to obey in her vows!  Naturally, nobody believed it but the dramatic effect was magnificent.

6) My aunt who’s a quilt maker pulled an unfinished quilt out of mothballs that my great grandmother started close to seventy years ago.  Originally pieced together from old pajamas, shirts, and house dresses but never backed, quilted, or edged, it passed first to my grandmother then my aunt fifty years ago.  Aunt decided it was high time to finish the thing in honor of great-great granddaughter’s marriage and I can’t be certain but it felt like the full lineage of matriarchs was present for the opening of the gift.  (Great group of old broads btw.  They were no doubt cracking bawdy jokes about the wedding night.)

On a serious note, I feel very, very fortunate that my daughter chose a good, kind, unflappable man with a huge heart and a quick brain, and that the two of them are SO well matched: eccentric, artistic, and profoundly laid back.  She can happily dance to his drumming for hours and he genuinely enjoys the weird and wonderful way she so often dresses.  Really, it’s kind of heartening that two such odd ducks could even find each other in a huge world full of trillions of people  like this, and even more surprising that they actually got married since I thought they’d just live together happily ever after.  Life is a mysterious, generous, magical thing sometimes.  It truly is.

To my daughter and new son: With all my heart I wish you a long and beautiful life together full of love, courage, willingness, and continued trust and faith in one another.  May the storm clouds forever mass on your horizons for dramatic effect, never actually break, and delight you afterwards with enduring rainbows.

I do so love you both,

Mom

p.s. I’ll cover Random Hot Tip About Dying #5 in my next post.  It seemed a little incongruous to add it here, even to me.

Random Hot Tip About Dying #3

(And now that the Modo Adventure has come to it’s happy conclusion I return to the Random Tips About Dying series.  This post is continued from Random Hot Tip About Dying #2.)

The third tip goes something like this:

3) Learn about dying from people who are familiar and comfortable with it.  The terrified can’t teach you much you don’t already know.

One evening I went to a restaurant with a convivial group of people to hang out after a community meeting.  There were about nine of us, all adults except for one young adolescent girl who accompanied her mom.

During the free-for-all discussion that rolled around the table over dessert the young girl, a devoted animal lover, shared with shining eyes that she wanted to start volunteering with the local Humane Society.  But before she could even finish the sentence her mother torpedoed the idea by telling her, “But honey you don’t understand.  They put animals down there.”

800px-Puppy_near_Coltani_-_17_apr_2010

I listened to the murmur of assent rising from everyone else at the table and watched the girl’s shining eyes grow stormy as one person after another tried to explain (in the kindest way) that she didn’t know what she was getting into and that, really, she wanted to stay as far away from that kind of thing as possible.

She tried to argue but no one would listen. As a group they were convinced that their deep aversion was in fact the wise and correct response.  In the meantime I was sitting there having vivid flashbacks of the same kind of reaction I received from people when I first shared that I wanted to work with hospice.

Initially, the girl was just frustrated but then I saw a kind of helplessness start to settle in as she felt the door closing on her dream of caring for vulnerable animals.  We could all see that she felt a calling deep down in that place where we get those kinds of messages, but nonetheless every set of arms present was trying to hold her back from answering it. Her shoulders finally sagged as she fell into angry silence.

I heard somebody explaining that the animals are just going to die anyway, and then there was a momentary lull as everyone nodded their heads and gazed at the girl in sympathy.

I finally spoke up.

“But, you guys,” I looked around the table as every head swung my way.  “They still need love before they die. Even more so.”

I watched as each face registered first surprise, then a dawning thoughtfulness as they considered this other perspective.  In the meantime, the girl looked like a wilting flower that had just been watered.

She sat back up, smiled, and said, “Yeah. YEAH!  That’s what I mean, that’s what I wanna do! I’m not afraid of them dying.”

She waxed on with renewed enthusiasm for about a minute as everybody else sat and digested the idea.  Then one of the men turned towards me with a puzzled smile and said, “I never thought of it like that but it’s really true. Why didn’t I think of that before?”

Which leads me back to tip #3.  This story is a prime example of what a closed loop looks like.  Everyone sitting at that table believed the same thing: that dying was something repugnant and horrible to be avoided at all costs, even if it meant abandoning a group of vulnerable animals and thwarting a young girl’s dream in the process. And because they all believed it, all they could do is reinforce and confirm each other’s belief.

Please understand, it’s not that they didn’t care about all those dogs and cats at the shelter.  They did, a lot. Boise is a powerful animal advocacy town and the adoption rates are actually higher here than most of the country.  We love our four-footed friends around here, we really do.

But in this case, the group’s fear of dying outweighed their love for animals for the simple reason that they’d never been presented with a different perspective from someone who didn’t believe that dying is repugnant and horrible and to be avoided at all costs.  Granted people like that are a minority in the population right now, but there are more of us than you’d think and the numbers are growing.  Finding someone who’s familiar and comfortable with dying isn’t nearly as hard as it used to be.

I should add that this story is a prime example of something else that bears noting: There’s a pernicious subconscious assumption permeating our cultural view that anything dying is already as good as dead.  This one drives me nuts.  It’s not true.  NOT TRUE.

NOT. TRUE. AT. ALL.

Dying animals and people are still very, very, very much alive and, more than almost any other time of life, they need to be gathered in, supported, nourished, and loved…NOT abandoned.  (That is, of course, unless they want to crawl off into the bushes and die alone in which case I’m all for respecting their wishes.  But that’s different than abandoning them.)

In a future post I’d like to publish a list of links to posts, articles, and other resources that  provide a view of dying that’s more holistic than the current, entrenched one. It’s a view that acknowledges the hardships involved but also reveals the moving and luminous beauty that involved in life at it’s last.  But that will take some time to assemble so not today.

Next post should be about Random Tip #4: A “good death” is good for everyone.  A “bad death” is bad for everyone.  As a group we need to be shooting for a lot more good deaths than we are.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

P.S. The photo of the adorable Doberman puppy above is from a Wikipedia article about dogs and can be found here.

P.P.S. Here are the previous posts in this series:

Five Randomly Useful Hot Tips About Dying

Random Hot Tip About Dying #1 and Follow Through

Random Hot Tip About Dying #2

Random Hot Tip About Dying #2

This post is a continuation (well done, me!) from the last one: Important Writing Skill: Follow Through.

Random Hot Tip About Dying #2 went something like this:

“Accepting dying might not always make it easier when it comes, but being horrified is guaranteed to make it worse.”

Once upon a time on a flight from Denver to St. Louis I found myself seated next to a late-boarding, extremely chatty, middle-aged woman from New Jersey who kept up a non-stop flow of conversation with everyone who would listen from the minute she first came through the front door till I got off the plane in Missouri.  I’m fairly friendly when I travel but this woman put me to shame.

I was on the aisle, she was in the middle, and a handsome thirty-ish man sat next to the window on her left.  Predictably, she engaged Mr. Handsome first and they conversed for close to half an hour before she finally turned towards me, smiled brightly, and commenced her interrogation.  We got through where are you coming from? and where are you headed? in less than a minute after which she asked me the question I’d been waiting for: So what do you do?

I smiled and said, “I work with hospice,” then sat back to watch the show.

She didn’t fail me.  In fact, she was magnificent, it was hands down the best display I’ve ever seen.  She froze at the word hospice and went pale, eyes widening and mouth forming itself into a mute little “o” as if she’d just discovered she was sitting next to the grim reaper.  She stared into my eyes for probably ten full seconds (which is a very long time to just sit there and stare at a complete stranger without saying a word…go ahead, time it) and then turned her back on me and engaged Mr. Handsome in forced conversation for the rest of the flight.

I chuckled and went back to my book.

Paul_Gustave_Dore_Raven1

Illustration of Edgar Allan Poe’s Raven by Gustave Dore (1832-1883)

Her reaction was extreme but hardly unusual.  I’d guess somewhere around ninety to ninety-five percent of the people I told over the years fell somewhere along this squirming-to-bugeyed spectrum when they learned that I worked with the dying.  Only a handful were open and willing to talk about it, which tells you something about us.

Needless to say I never chuckled when I saw this kind of horror in a person who was currently dying, or someone who loved that person who was dying, mainly because it’s so. not. funny. in real-time.  It’s tragic.  In the person who’s dying it can produce varying degrees of self-loathing and bitterness, while in a loved one it either keeps them away or, if they do force themselves to swing by and stand uneasily near the bedside for a half hour, it can make the dying person feel so bad that they wish they hadn’t come.

Look.  Dying is challenging, even for those who are ready for it.  I’d be lying to you if I told you otherwise. Physiologically, it’s full of graphic processes that are uncomfortable, undignified, and unlovely.  Emotionally, saying good-bye to everything you’ve ever known and loved is a bitch.  And existentially, everyone has to face that this is it and decide what kind of afterwards they’re looking at and deal with that if necessary.

It’s a lot of work, but just like any other kind of work, how you approach it makes a world of difference.  During my years in hospice I saw a lot of people die well, with dignity and humor and sorrow and regret and suffering and love and acceptance all bundled together in a final package of overall grace.  Without exception, these were people who eventually accepted that they were dying and found something in their life to care about to the last anyway.

And BTW, they didn’t do it alone.  They did it with a lot of help and support from those who loved them, as well as the hospice team who was working like crazy to make it happen for them.

I should mention here that everyone is a little bit horror/little bit grace when it comes to dying. That’s part of being human, to encompass the full range, and if you find you’re currently coming down hard on the horror side of things, don’t worry.  It’s perfectly normal for the shift to acceptance to be gradual and erratic and to some degree it keeps happening all the way to the end.

But it does take effort which is why accepting dying is a good goal to set your sights on now, wherever you are in your life.  It can not only improve the quality of your dying time when it comes, it can also improve the quality of your life long before then.  Not to mention that it also improves the quality of life for everyone else you know who’ll be dying before you do.  Dying is a social activity that affects the entire community so ideally we’d all be pitching in to support and include whoever’s turn it is more than we do.

Trust me, whether you’re dying yourself or visiting someone else so engaged, compassion and acceptance will do far more good than revulsion and dread ever could.  Dying is hard enough work without piling that on top of it, too.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

Random Hot Tip About Dying #1 and Follow Through

Finish

(This photo is borrowed from an excellent post on the blog Prof KRG dealing with the same challenge from a different angle.  Useful stuff, here.)  

There are two things I’d like to cover in this post:

1)  Finishing (or not) what I start.

2) Explaining Hot Tip #1 About Dying from my last post as I (hinted suggested prevaricated half-promised wiggled and sleazed) mentioned I might.

Finishing what I start.

Follow through, where writing is concerned, is not my strong point.  I know it.  My writer’s group knows it.  Anyone who’s seen the three-year old I gotta copyright it for the book, man… notice in my sidebar and yet can find nothing else about the book anywhere on this blog has probably figured it out by now.  I’m in serious danger of turning into a writer’s cautionary tale, an Aesop’s fable about what happens when you never actually finish any of the writing you start.  (Hint: You eventually turn into a fattening, graying dilettante who spends the rest of her life writing flashy first chapters and then basking in the dwindling number of wows she gets from the dwindling number of readers who have a dwindling tolerance level for that kind of tease.)

I’m not there yet although my fear of it is rising exponentially because I’ve just launched my fourth major assault in six years on this book I’m trying to write.  It’s morphed from non-fiction into creative non-fiction into fiction.  From a kind of helpful guide into a memoir into an imaginary story.  It looks nothing…nothing…like any previous version and deep down I’m now terrified that I’m just swimming around in circles but consoling myself that at least I’m covering a lot of miles.

There are only two possibilities left:  Either it’s a structural/voice problem as I keep telling myself, or it’s a basic discipline/courage problem.

And actually, as I was writing the above I realized it’s both.  But the second problem is bigger.

It’s not that I don’t spend hours writing everyday, I do.  My butt time is duly noted and logged every morning just like it’s supposed to be.  No.  The problem is that I spend those hours writing, then rewriting, then micro-rewriting the same sentence/paragraph/page over and over again because I’m absolutely terrified of writing something that will make me look stupid/bad/inept/untalented, and because it’s a whole lot less risky to edit than create.  (Like right now I’m thinking of shelving this post because it’s already too long and who cares about my writing process anyway you narcissist and why can’t I just distill it into the heart and soul of the thing instead of using three million fucking words for a blog post and I’ve now reread/tweaked this paragraph seven times because I’m too scared to keep going…you get the picture.)

This has got to change.  Today I’ll take a stab at it with a baby step.  I’ll follow through on something I wanted to do after my last blog post, which brings me to my second object with this post:

Explaining Random Hot Tip About Dying #1 from my last post.  For those who don’t remember, the tip goes something like this:

“Dying is as much a gift as it is a punishment.  Pick which view to invest in carefully as it will affect your entire life.”

The gift-part can be a little difficult to see, especially if you’re not that familiar with dying. But there are actually a lot of gifts and they tend to be profound.

(Like, for instance, if I never finish my book at least I’ll eventually die and be done with it.)

I’m kidding…kind of…but it’s still true.  For me, as a long-time depressive, the knowledge that none of the dark periods I cycle through can last forever has lent me endurance more times than I can count, and actually saved my life on the two hardest days when I finally lost hope.

The dying people I worked with gave me another gift I’ll never be able to repay. It was while I was with them, listening to all the stories about living from those facing certain death, that I finally learned the secret of  how to long for my own life.

They also taught me about how dying can be a final act of generosity, a way of saying I’ve loved this life so dearly but have taken enough for myself. It’s someone else’s turn now, to come into the world and stand where I’ve stood, to love what I’ve loved. Thank you.

And in allowing me to watch the way their beautiful, tender, wasting bodies were unravelling and vanishing they taught me about the difference between life and Life.  How biological existence is one kind of luminous miracle, how the consciousness rising within it is a second, and how the love those two things wind up generating between them is the third and greatest miracle that transcends and outlasts them both.

But I’m getting mystical again…which, honestly, I can’t really help but need to at least try and curb a little.

In any case, these are just a handful of the gifts that I discovered about dying.  There are more, lots more, but in the end each person has to delve in and discover their own, and they’ll be different for everyone.  It’s worth the effort because it can help to change the lifelong prospect of dying from something horrible, unnecessary, miserable, and bleak to something that’s a little more helpful, even nourishing, to the life we get to live until then.

So that’s it.  I’ve actually finished follow-up baby step #1!  My confidence is building.

Next up: A post explaining Random Hot Tip About Dying #2 which goes something like this:

“Accepting dying might not always make it easier when it comes, but being horrified is guaranteed to make it worse.”  

Now if I can just press the publish button I’ll be in business.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

Five Randomly Useful Hot Tips About Dying

(Quick note: These tips refer to dying, not death. I don’t have any hot tips for death yet. For those confused on the difference, dying is that thing we do at the end while we’re still very much alive.  –Editor)

1) Dying is as much a gift as it is a punishment.  Pick which view to invest in carefully as it will affect your entire life.

2) Accepting dying might not always make it easier when it comes, but being horrified is guaranteed to make it worse.  (Trust me on this one.)

3) Learn about dying from people who are familiar and comfortable with it.  The terrified can’t teach you much you don’t already know.

4) A “good death” is good for everyone.  A “bad death” is bad for everyone.  As a group we need to be shooting for a lot more good deaths than we are.

5) There’s some version of an afterlife/afterwards for everyone.  Pick yours and start making it work for you now.

If I don’t get distracted by another idea (a big if these days) I’ll try and elaborate on these tips in upcoming posts.  I imagine they probably need it.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

Life’s glorious illusion

Zan_Zig_performing_with_rabbit_and_roses,_magician_poster,_1899-2

It’s something, to watch a person die.  It truly is.  It’s amazing to watch them being born, too, which I’ve also done, the way that one moment there are three or four people in the room and then the next there’s a fifth only nobody came through the door.  It’s like magic.  Like watching someone pull a rabbit out of a hat, only a gooey one, with no fur and a weird shaped head.

Watching a person die is like magic, too, only rather than someone appearing out of nowhere it’s more like watching them climb in a box and get sawed in half.  One moment they’re all in one piece and waving at you and then the next they’re split in two, a body on one side of the box and the life it used to contain on the other, and for all you’re worth, you can’t figure out how it was done.

I was shocked, the first time I saw it. Maybe the second and third time, too, or longer even, but sooner or later I started to get the hang of it and the shock wore off.  I stopped being offended by the indignities involved, which then made it easier to notice some of the other details.

Like the fact that afterwards, there’s this beautiful leftover body lying on the bed which, it suddenly becomes crystal clear, really, truly is just a body, a big bag of physical stuff that all by itself, God bless its little heart, can’t do a whole lot.  I always knew that’s what it was of course but still, I didn’t really.  I kept forgetting because it was wearing this delightful, shimmering life disguise, kind of like puffed-up peacock plumage full of rainbows and a million eyes, and it made that body look like it was more, a lot more, than just a physical bag of stuff.

It’s a helluva trick.

But still, in the end, it is what it is and has to revert to form.  I watched my first person die, my grandmother, and was stunned when her amazing, beautiful body went limp on the bed like it did.  It looked so helpless and vulnerable and smaller somehow, lying there all by itself, and I got confused. It was like someone had just pulled a big, velvet curtain back to expose the little man standing behind it with nary a wizard to be seen.  Huh-oh, I thought, and then couldn’t stop staring because it just looked so wrong. 

But that was the first time, when I was inexperienced and didn’t know any better.  Eventually though, when I got more used to it, the whole idea of a body without a life inside it turned out to be more okay than I thought.  Left to their own devices bodies, like exposed wizard imposters, are actually kind of endearing in their own fragile, comical kind of way, and when I stopped expecting them to be great and all-powerful it was a lot easier to see their smaller body-specific joys and relax.  To laugh a little and enjoy the illusion.

I was lucky to have the opportunity to see it again and again like I did…how a body and the life it contains whisper their lingering farewells and then go their separate ways.  It gave me a chance to get over the first shock and discover the mistake I’d been making, that a body really, truly is just a body and that I can still love it anyway.  Wildly and more than ever.

It would have been such a bummer to only see someone die once and then be left forever afterwards, stuck in the shock and confusion.  I wish more people could be as fortunate as me.

I wonder if it would help others be less afraid of being there for those who are dying?  Maybe even help them recover more quickly afterwards with at least one of the traumas involved lightened a little.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

Weddings and Funerals and Hospice, Oh My!

Required: Emotional Flexibility to handle wide swings.

There’s a lot going on these days.  First: A news headline.

Beloved daughter and longtime boyfriend get engaged on Valentine’s Day, set date for June.  Mother surprises herself and approves.

Why the surprise? Well, partly because I’m not a big fan of weddings.  In my teens, I used to have nightmares about being a bride trapped in a church ceremony from which there was no escape and I’d wake up every time with my heart pounding, scared to go back to sleep.  These dreams left an impression.  In waking life, I actually ran away during my wedding to the hubster and he had to head me off before I made it into the woods, then carry me back.  (He’s both quick and strategic, thank God.  But that’s a story for another post.)

And then, of course, there are all the other things to worry about where the post-wedding marriage is concerned, especially when entered into by a couple of novices who are all dazed and happy and oblivious to that circle of glowing eyes waiting just beyond the twinkle-lit garden.

But in spite of my entrenched dread of weddings and general worrying nature, when Beloved Daughter and Soon To Be Son-In-Law (SIL) sat us down and told us the news, my first response was enthusiastic and joyful and even…god help me but it’s true…optimistic.  You could have knocked me over with a feather.  I was actually happy for them which, I should mention, is an excellent sign since my initial, gut level reaction to things is usually pretty accurate.

So, reality #1: I’m in happy wedding mode.

Then there’s the other thing happening.

The hubster’s whole family is still in hospice mode, circling the wagons around Mon Pere as he cheerfully and busily packs as much as possible into the shining, beloved life that still remains to him.  I haven’t posted any updates in a while but he continues to amaze in his approach to the whole thing.

He’s slowed down considerably and is sleeping more and more, but even so he still goes out to attend classes at the local university, voraciously reads and replenishes a stack of books that would choke a pig, gets together with family and friends for every occasion possible, and has thrown himself into a cause that would be of enormous benefit to the safety of our entire community.

He’s extraordinary.  Really.  When I think of how much earlier we probably would have lost him if he hadn’t gone on hospice and started receiving good palliative care, I shudder.  There are too many lives being worsened or cut short these days because of overly aggressive treatment or uncoordinated care late in life, and I’m profoundly grateful…every single day…that Mon Pere managed to steer clear of those treacherous shoals.

He’s a wily old fish, that one.

So, reality #2: I’m also in emotional, unpredictable hospice mode.

Then there was this third thing that happened last week.

The hubster’s oldest and best friend lost his 90+ year old mother a week and a half ago and the family held the funeral Thursday evening.  The hubster and I attended, as did Mon Pere since he’s also close to Best Friend.

In fact, Best Friend asked Mon Pere (who is an excellent public speaker) to stand up for him and read a brief vignette he’d written about his mother during the funeral, since he knew he’d break down and sob uncontrollably if he tried to read it himself.  Mon Pere was happy to help out in any way he could.

What happened next was moving and astonishing to me.

In a curious turn of events, the hospice that cared for Best Friend’s mother is the same hospice currently caring for Mon Pere, and since the chaplain presiding over the funeral proceedings was the chaplain for this hospice, Mon Pere knew her quite well.

So before he started reading the vignette, he took a moment to express his appreciation for the chaplain specifically and the kind of work that hospice people do in general, and then things became startlingly poignant when he shared that the reason he knew her was because he was currently in hospice himself with prostate cancer.

I heard the woman sitting behind us gasp when he said it, and there was a brief, electric rustle that went through the room before things settled back down again.  It was only a few sentences spoken simply and sincerely, as though he was sharing that he and the deceased had an old school friend in common, and then he bent his head to read Best Friend’s story.  And that was that.

It was a brief moment, startling and fragile and honest and moving, but everything afterwards was made a little bit more beautiful and real and immediate for it. It was like he’d taken a needle and innocently woven an additional, luminous thread into the tapestry of all of us assembled there, and suddenly life was no longer just a two-dimensional kind of us and them thing anymore—those who are alive and those who are dead.

For a heartbeat he stood there, simple and shining, as a reminder that life isn’t so much a table that we fall off and disappear from as it is a perpetually flowing river, something that’s sweeping us all from upstream to downstream to a final spill out into a big ocean that was always waiting there to receive us.  Best Friend’s mother washed into that sea a week and a half ago while Mon Pere’s pace is picking up in a final, quickening rush to get there, but that doesn’t mean either of them will ever be gone.  They can’t be gone because no matter how far ahead they and their peers get, it’s still the same water carrying us all.

So.  In my third and final reality these days I am:

Wedding-happy, hospice-reeling, funeral-touched, and bobbing somewhere along the length of a winding, luminous river filled from headwaters to ocean with dearly beloved companions.

Which makes today another very, very good day.  Shakespeare (as usual) says it best:

Image

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

The Myth Of “Saving” Lives

491px-Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_015

The Raising of Lazarus by Rembrandt

This post has been sitting in my drafts folder (i.e. the tomb) for months because I worked on it too long the first day, evening caught me unawares, and the basic idea suddenly turned stupid.  (My posts are like vampire victims.  Sunset frees my inner critic to suck the blood out of ’em.)

But then a few days ago I came across the following article, Faulty Rhetoric: ‘Save a Life’, written by a real doctor and voila!  My idea sat up in its coffin.  The blood is back, my friends.

Let’s see if I can finish before nightfall this time.  EDITOR

The myth that modern medicine can “save” lives is a primal myth, an archetypal one.

If there was ever a contest to pick the One Medical Myth To Rule Them All, I’d put my money on this puppy because its seductive, prolific, tenacious little tentacles reach into almost every corner of medicine.  The belief that we can save lives is arguably the basis of our entire modern health care system and therefore the majority share of our economy, too.

And yet it’s not true.  (Hence, the myth part.)  It’s based on…well, denial of course.  But also a verbal trick so simple that you’ll laugh when you hear it…or cry, or dismiss it as stupid and irrelevant…but here’s the gig:

To create this myth all you have to do is substitute the phrase “we can save lives” for the phrase “we can extend lives” and poof!  Instant, just-add-water myth. One tiny word change and we humans now wield power over death itself instead of just (some, a little, not very much) power over time.  We don our godhood.

Pretty nifty, no?

The truth is, of course, that nobody can save any life from death.  No one survives permanently.  All we can ever do is…maybe, hopefully…buy ourselves some extra time.

(And I am NOT knocking time here.  If you have something meaningful to do with it every second is sweet, not to mention that occasionally the amount of time purchased is substantial, like years or decades or even, in the case of children, an entire life’s worth.  No.  All I’m saying is that, in the end, a “saved” life dies just like an unsaved one does.  Death is never defeated, just delayed.)

Well…so fucking what? you may be asking and thank you if you are.  That’s a very important question.

The problem doesn’t lie on the individual level.  It’s not inherently bad for a person to hope for delivery from death.  In fact, in the short-term it can help.  Denial is a powerful and effective coping mechanism applied wisely.  It really, truly is.

The harm comes in when our collective, societal focus (and the lion’s share of our national resources) shift en masse from managing time wisely to trying to “save lives” and defeat death completely.  Chaos and tragedy are bound to ensue.  It’s like a bunch of people flying in a plane who yell screw the landing strip, Henry! and cheer the pilot on as he tries to stay aloft indefinitely.

Get where I’m going?  Anyone else having visions of an airliner full of screaming people plunging out of the sky to explode in a gigantic ball of fire when it hits?  Anyone else worried about what it might fall on?  (Anyone see parallels with our current healthcare system?)

In life, as in flight, it’s absolutely critical to always keep one’s final destination in mind because ultimately, most people don’t want to live just for the sake of being alive anymore than they want to fly just for the sake of being up in the air.  They want to use both to experience something more…companionship, family, travel, learning, laughing, growing, adventuring, building, loving one another…something.

So what is most likely to provide the highest quality time (rather than escape from death)?

Would it be to walk into a doctor’s office and beg, Save me Doc!  Save me!  I don’t want to die!

Or would it be to sit down and calmly, realistically say, Okay Doc. Before we talk treatments, you need to know a couple things.  1) How I’d like to live whatever time I have left and, 2) how I’d ultimately like to die…peaceful, complete, surrounded, and loved.  Not strapped to a gurney, blue, and bankrupt with my loved ones traumatized for life.  Now.  Is there a treatment ticket I can purchase that will buy me some meaningful time but still eventually wind up on THAT landing strip?

Of course for conversation that to happen, we each have to first figure out how we’d most like to live and die, because that’s something no doctor…however good, however wise…can tell us.  But figuring that out is also how we finally start to grow up in this new medical paradigm we’ve all created together.   And it’s the only way any of us will ever learn to navigate its labyrinth successfully, harnessing the miraculous benefits it offers while avoiding the substantial harms it can inflict.

And (looks at the watch quick) I’m…done!  With five hours of light still left.  Well done, me.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

 

How Trees Treat Their Dead (Among Other Things)

Tree anthropologists everywhere have wet dreams about this kind of luck.  Last weekend I received a coveted invitation to visit a little known tree community in the White Clouds mountain range of central Idaho and, needless to say, jumped at the chance.  The day was a perfect storm of ideal conditions…calm weather, crystal clear skies, total solitude, and unprecedented access.  The following is the photo/documentary report I’ve submitted to The Boston Journal Of Arborealogy.

My primary focus as a tree anthropologist has been the study of funereal practices among high altitude trees of the North American mountain west and while, admittedly, most of the tall timber rites I’ve observed wouldn’t translate well for human adoption, there are a few elements that might help inform our primarily human-centric views on death and dying.

ARBOREAL RESPECT FOR THE DEAD

The first and most obvious difference between tree and human treatment of the dead is that trees make no effort whatsoever to hide theirs.  It’s truly striking.  For instance take a look at this photo of a recently deceased elder who clearly held great stature among the local community.

20130203_153626

Even more surprising is the fact that, during the rapid years of its pine beetle fueled decline, this giant was apparently not only allowed but encouraged to display that, too, for the entire community.  (Note the willow shrubs and young Ponderosa pines posted to stand guard in the foreground…one of the many indicators that this tree was highly regarded in life and remains so in death.  Immediately below is a photo of another highly regarded dead tree with posted willow shrub guards.  Note the surviving spouse standing alongside in this example.)

20130203_154131

INTERMARRIAGE

Next, I was given a brief introduction to the following “Jack Spratt could eat no fat, His wife could eat no lean” looking couple but was not allowed to ask questions.  I believe the loss was still fresh.  Jack’s wife seemed to be fairly distraught, entangling her lower branches with his now bare and drooping ones.

20130203_153515

Evidently, there’s some sensitivity surrounding the fact that this was an interspecies marriage but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why.  While intermarriage between a variety of evergreen species is widely accepted, intermarriage between evergreens and deciduous species is less so.  (Obviously this places Aspen, as the only deciduous trees in the area, at a decided disadvantage.)  I couldn’t discern whether this taboo arises from the lack of any possibility for cross pollination or from the wide difference in life expectancies.  Individual Aspen don’t live nearly as long as, for instance, Douglas Fir or Lodgepole Pine, so the tragic outcome displayed above is inevitable.

ARBOREAL PLAY

Moving on.  As an interesting and little known aside, I wanted to mention that trees can also be surprisingly playful.  When the ones in the picture below saw me angling for a photograph of the mountain range behind them, they began mischievously crowding together to block the shot in a well-known tree version of the game “Peek-a-boo.”

20130203_155636

At first it was just irritating, but that was before I noticed the unconscious, aesthetic instinct that appears to be common among high altitude trees.  I was amazed to discover that no matter how they blocked the view, this little gang o’ green left just enough of the mountain range exposed behind them to reveal a scene of subtle but unmistakable beauty and, once I let go of my preconceived notions of the shot, we had a lot of fun.  Trees are natural hams and will usually hold a pose for as long as you need.  Here’s another group of adolescents playing the same game:

20130203_154752

It’s a strange fact that even dead trees sometimes enjoy a good game of “Peek-a-boo”, only their ability to effectively block whatever’s behind them is understandably compromised.  I’m happy to announce however, that their innate aesthetic sense is not.  Please note the two examples below:

20130203_153736

20130203_154552

I was amused to find some of the native shrubs in the area attempting to mimic the game, but of course they lack the necessary height for effective play.  Thus, I finally managed to capture the original mountain photograph I was after here:

20130203_154923

ARBOREAL PARENTING AND PROGENY

High altitude trees of the mountain west are widely recognized as devoted parents and the ones in this region are no different.  Here’s a photo of one of their young taken while visiting a community daycare center.

20130203_163539

Tree youth are granted considerably more freedom than their human counterparts, largely because saplings are more sedentary.  Not that the dangers they face are any less, but at least they can’t wander off looking for trouble.

Tree seeds, on the other hand, are wildly mobile.  Seedhood is well known as the most unpredictable phase of all tree life, with the popular-but-dangerous game “Grow Where You Fall” observed worldwide and across most tree species.  Every mature, seed-bearing tree in this region has grisly stories to tell of tiny seeds leaping from their branches to be swept away by wind gusts, and indeed the infant mortality rate among emerging seedlings is upwards of 99%.

Staggering, I know.  How tree parents bear those kinds of losses is beyond me.  Perhaps it’s their longer perspective, the same thing that anchors and steadies them through the cyclic punishment of winter storms and icy nights.  I often wonder if their epic suffering is what ultimately helps them exude the sense of serenity that mountain trees are so famous for.  There’s no way to know of course, but I myself have learned a great deal about endurance by hanging around under their branches.

THE “SHORT DEATH”

Unlike humans, trees experience both what is known as a “short” death and a “long death.”  Short death is actually just a hibernation of sorts and can be triggered by failing light, winter cold, or drought.  It’s most familiar display happens among deciduous trees whom, at the first sign of winter, drop all their leaves and fall asleep where they stand in a kind of narcoleptic response to the stress.

Needless to say leaves everywhere hate the practice and in some regions have attempted to unionize to prevent it, but so far without success.  The unfortunate little fellow pictured below managed to cling to his twig longer than most but I’m afraid February finally claimed even him.

20130203_162813

ASPEN

Now…throwing all scientific objectivity aside for a moment…I must say I found the Aspen in the area to be a delight beyond anything even I had hoped for.  As a succession species their position in the larger community is not enviable, and yet somehow, despite widespread marginalization, they still maintain a childlike openness.  Like everyone else, I was raised on charming tales of the mysterious attraction Aspen trees so often display for humans but still, the actual experience of having a circle of these white-barked beauties gather to peer down at me in unabashed curiosity was a thrill I will never forget.

20130203_162455

20130203_162628

ASPEN “PEEK-A-BOO”

Of course Aspen love to play “Peek-a-boo” as much as other species, but they’ve learned how to model a unique, winter “slow death” style that’s become quite a draw for photographers.  I’ve included two of my own modest examples below:

20130203_162402

20130203_162213

But if you want to see a couple of spectacular photographs that draw from the lesser known but even more beautiful “Block the Peek Completely” style, try here and here.

A RARE LACK OF INHIBITION

While Aspen are universally friendly, individually they’re quite shy preferring to cluster in groups.  This is due in large part to the fact that each copse, however large, shares a single root system.  However, you can still occasionally find a rare exhibitionist such as the nubile example below:

20130203_163453

Breathtaking.

SOME PHENOMENA RARELY CAPTURED ON FILM

The existence of animales non evidens (or Invisible Ones) is a subject hotly debated among arborealogists and not likely to be settled anytime soon.  Much like Big Foot and the Spanish chupacabra, most reports originate from sightings of their tracks, but unlike their larger counterparts, animales non evidens themselves are truly indiscernible to the naked eye.  In addition, their tracks can only be seen in winter as their body mass is apparently too insubstantial to imprint on anything heavier than snow, making them that much harder to detect.

High altitude tree communities universally report a close and symbiotic relationship with non evidens and in fact assign them an almost revered status.  Indeed, Invisible Ones are said to play an important role in all arboreal funeral rites as they are essential to the slow decomposition process that breaks down a dead tree to its original elements…a final state that is the closest approximation trees have to an afterlife.  I was assured by several of the Aspen I spoke with that the tiny tracks in the photograph below were indeed left by non evidens.  I submit them here for review and discussion.

20130203_161914

I was understandably excited by the find and immediately commenced a search for more tracks.  At first I thought I’d hit the jackpot when I discovered those shown below, but the Aspen just chuckled and told me they were from a rabbit.

20130203_164633

Unlike human grieving, the stage of arboreal death where loss is experienced most keenly is not when a tree initially dies, but when its desiccated trunk finally falls to the ground.  In a forest situation it’s not uncommon for surrounding trees to actually catch a swaying companion in their branches and hold them there for months…sometimes years…before allowing their final collapse.

This practice is called suspension and is particularly important to high altitude Aspen since 1) they invariably grow in close copses and 2) they’re subject to such a brief lifespan.  There’s an esoteric but widely held belief in this region that suspension somehow extends an Aspen’s life and indeed, it’s considered a “bad death” if any tree makes its final fall without the lingering support of community.  One copse of Aspen allowed me to take the photo below and I cannot overstate the generosity of their permission.  As you can see, these trees were devastated by grief, the two on the left even going so far as to experience a “sympathy death.”

20130203_162105

ARBOREAL BELIEF SYSTEMS

The spiritual meaning that high altitude trees assign to dying and death are notoriously difficult to translate but perhaps the easiest explanation is that death is regarded more in the light of an act of generosity than in the human sense of tragic loss.  I suspect much of this comes from the paucity of local resources and the corresponding limit to the number of trees the region can support.

Seen in this context the death of a tree holds a double gift: Not only does it free up the resources it would otherwise consume, but it also eventually contributes the nutrients contained in its own structure back to the surrounding community through slow composting.  For this reason dying is considered to be an honored…even sacred…act, which is perhaps why they make no effort to disguise or hide it.

All the trees I spoke with seemed confused by the human concepts of “God” and “heaven,” primarily because they can’t seem to distinguish between “this” and “other” worlds.   However, there is a transcendental element to their beliefs.  They actually have three words for “life” (all of which are lovely, melodious sounds made by wind moving through leaves or needles.)

1) The first word roughly translates to mean biological life.

2) The second is closer to the human idea of energy, while

3) The third simply has no equivalent.  Trees describe it as a sound they can all make…even dead trees…in response to a feeling of supreme content.  It’s inaudible to the human ear but is often felt on a tactile level, like the rumbling of a distant waterfall, or the ground vibration of a running herd, or the distant growl of an airliner flying at 30,000 feet.  Predictably, the larger the tree, the stronger the sound/vibration they emit.

When humans do report an experience of this arboreal call, it’s usually described in terms of beauty rather than sound.  Who hasn’t seen a person standing and staring, bemused and mouth agape, at some spreading tree specimen the beauty of which temporarily incapacitates them?  Indeed, I’ve occasionally seen entire groups held spellbound by the same effect. (Nature photographers seem to be particularly susceptible.)

Older reports all indicate that the sound deepens when emanating from a dead tree…magnified a hundred fold in fact…but, while I’ve often longed to hear it myself, the opportunity to do so is almost nonexistent in areas where human and tree communities overlap.  This is due to the human custom of immediately cutting down any tree that appears to be dying or dead.

However, I’m delighted to announce I finally heard it on this trip.  Twice no less.

It was nearing sunset and I was preparing to take my leave, offering the many slow and formal farewells that are such an integral part of arboreal etiquette.  It was during the last round of “boughing” (a kind of upper limb waving that frankly, looks ridiculous on a human being, but is pure ballet when performed by a tree) that I felt the first sound begin to resonate in my chest.  It happened while “boughing” to the cluster pictured below:

20130203_164134(0)

I have to say, I now understand on a visceral level why trees regard the sound with the reverence they do.  It’s moving, heartbreaking, and deeply disorienting…suggestive of something ancient and vast…and in a strange way it really does evoke an unusually strong impression of life itself, even though it’s emanating from something that has died.  Indeed, the overall effect was one of sensory awareness heightened to an almost ecstatic degree, like the best imaginable blend of heartfelt prayer, smooth opiates, and skinny dipping.

I finally managed to reorient myself with some effort and took my leave, retracing my tracks on the long trudge home.

20130203_163302

The second sound came as I was nearing the top of a ridge and looked up to find this magnificent dead elder standing sentinel there:

20130203_171410

There followed an undetermined lapse of time where I was held, frozen and slack jawed, by the unearthly sound it generated (evidently in response to the coming sunset.  Trees and sunsets share a long, almost legendary history widely chronicled in their mythologies.)  Fortunately, I was finally recalled to myself by the increasing cold and I managed to salvage enough presence of mind to get this one, rare shot before the sun disappeared and the light was entirely lost.

The whole experience was extraordinary, even more so because the vibration continued resonating in my chest for a long time after the original sound itself had faded.  It lasted the entire time it took me to retrace my steps back to the cabin and only ended completely once I stepped inside and closed the door.

The next event I’m scheduled to attend is The Rocky Mountain Clonal Conference (hosted jointly by the Utah Quaking Aspens and Snake River Shrub Sumacs) followed by The Prometheus Scholarship Awards (named for the famous 5,000 year old Bristlecone Pine cut down by a U.S. Forest Service Service graduate in 1964.)  These scholarships are given out every hundred years or so to the most promising crop of young saplings collecting folklore and songs from our oldest surviving trees.  I will of course only be able to attend the opening ceremony as the entire conference lasts about seventeen years.

And lastly, for any readers who actually made it all the way to the end of this silly, fantastical report…you, too, are hereby awarded an honorary Prometheus Award for your extravagant disregard as to the value of human time.  Bravo.  (You have permission to download the following logo and display it prominently on any blog, website, or letterhead you choose.)

20130213_112350

copyright (especially the award) Dia Osborn 2013

 

The Darling Slob

I just served up dinner for Dane the Mangy Rescue Mutt and had to laugh.  He was, as usual, beside himself with anticipation, and even more so because he saw me place the core of the apple I’d just been eating into his bowl before scooping his dog food in on top of it.

Apple cores have become a serious problem in our household, so much so that we can no longer eat an apple at all if Dane is near enough to hear the crunch.  We have to put him in a bedroom, or outside, or in the garage, because he has overactive salivary glands and, when stimulated, they produce enough drool to solve a small municipal water crisis.

And for some reason nothing…I repeat, nothing…stimulates his glands like an apple core.  Go figure.  It’s not so bad with popcorn or miscellaneous kitchen scraps.  He doesn’t do it for chicken skin, carrot ends, squash rinds, browned lettuce (lettuce!) or any of the other produce whittlings that I toss him while cooking.  But an apple core…a fucking apple core…triggers something in his perpetually starving little imagination that sends us into hazmat suits.

So we attempt retraining.  We no longer give him apple cores from our hands, right after the last bite.  No ho.  We take them out to the garage and place them into his out-of-reach dog bowl to be incorporated with his next meal.  We’re determined to teach him the value of delayed gratification no matter how much he dislikes the concept and, even though his dragging body/droop eared/tragic-eyed reproach is disconcerting, I think we’re making progress.

He dines in the garage and only in the garage.  Today’s dinner consisted of said apple core and dry kibbles with a spoonful of digestive enzyme powder dumped in a clump and then a generous drizzle of stinking salmon oil over all.  He gazed at me in adoration as I slopped it all together, prancing around and shaking his head a few times to make sure all the long drool tendrils wrapped firmly around his face and then, once I set the bowl down, offered up a small puddle of slime oblations to the garage floor while waiting for the actual command to eat.

He always does this.  Always.  I don’t know why it struck me as so funny today but it did.  Sometimes I have to shake my head and wonder why we love these ridiculous, slobbering, undignified creatures…who lick themselves and eat each other’s shit no less…so much, but there you have it.  Their disgusting habits even endear them to us…which is so weird I can’t even think about it.

But really, what in the world would I ever do without this guy?

20130208_151008

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

Spiritual Monogamy?

I, personally, am not wired for it.  Not.

That said, unlike a lot of people these days, I love religions.  All of them.  Present and past.  I think religions are important and valuable and necessary and that they do a lot of good.

(Harm, too, of course, but my inner purist is pretty battered at this point.  The wild ride from shining eyes to growling cynic to the mysteries of a hospice bedside was a bitch, but it did leave me with this one kernel of truth: Throwing stones is hard on my hope.)

I don’t currently belong to a religion, although I used to convert a lot back in the day.  In my troubled teens and twenties I was something of a spiritual nomad crossing the vast desert of life and let me just say…when you’re exiled and wandering through the dunes and darkness like that, you can’t afford to be picky about who’s well you will or will not drink out of.  A ladleful of grace is a ladleful of grace and I was glad for every offer.

I found the same kind of life-saving grace at the heart of each religion I fell in with.  Even though the words they used were often different…not to mention their customs, costumes, stories, and songs (and sometimes even their Gods)…still, that rippling, silver grace lying pooled in the bottom of each ladle was the same.

Maybe that’s why I’ve never been able to choose between them…commit to just one and forsake all the others.  Because how could I turn my back on any of these friends who once took me in from the night, bathed and bandaged my feet, and let me rest till I was stronger?  I can’t shake the feeling that that would betray the very grace they once shared with me.  I may not be a Christian or Buddhist or Hindu or Jew or Shinto or Muslim or Taoist or Pagan…or any of the other beautiful, twinkling, mysterious faiths that offer the shelter of tents where we can kneel in safety and drink with both hands…but I still love and believe in them all, in their value, imperfection, and gifts.  In the grace lying veiled and tender at their cores.

Y’know, the thought just occurred to me…maybe I am spiritually monogamous, just not to a religion or a God.  What if it’s that grace I keep finding everywhere that won me over time?

Although not even over time really.  It was love at first contact.  I fell for it hook, line, and sinker the first time I ever experienced it as a small child, long before I entered a church, had any words to describe it, or even knew that grace was a thing.  Honestly?  I have no idea in the grand scheme what that feeling of being enfolded and cradled is all about, where it comes from, or if it comes from anywhere. Whether it’s a sign of something divine, a neurological by-product, or something generated by an as-yet-to-be-discovered energy field like electro-magnetism or gravity.

What I do know is that without its influence over the years, the odds of my surviving to write this blog post were pretty bad and I can hardly bear to think about everything I would have missed.  So yeah, maybe I’m wired to be spiritually monogamous after all.  Who knew?

il_570xN.272868770

(This piece of beauty is called Night Sky Over Desert Dunes and is an acrylic on canvas by artist Kathryn Beals.  8×10 prints are available here for $14.00 USD.  Something of a steal really.)

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

Faecal Transplants Finally Get Some Respect

CBS News reports that a study has just been published in The New England Journal of Medicine which finally confirms what many already knew:

Faecal implants work far better than antibiotics when treating the highly contagious (and rapidly spreading) gastrointestinal infection called C. difficile.  

Hopefully, now that it’s official, it’ll be easier for those who want to have the procedure done to find a doctor willing to do it somewhere near them.  This is great news.  Very great news.

Other posts on faecal transplants:

Fecal Implants? Seriously? (Yup.)

Could Fecal Implants Be A Cure All?

Immortality or Purgatory? What Will Happen To Our Online-Selves When We Die?

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Immortality or Purgatory: What Will Happen To Our Online-Selves When We Die?

gravestone

Photo by R Neil Marshman

I received a comment Sunday morning that shook me up in a way that surprised me.  It was on a post about fecal transplants I wrote a couple of years ago that has continued to get a lot of hits over time, mainly, it seems, from people suffering with the C. difficile epidemic now sweeping the globe.

Some of these people left comments on the post and one was from a man named Jay who shared his battle with C. diff. in some detail.  He’d finally found a doctor willing to do the fecal transplant procedure for him and he promised to come back afterwards and share the results.  That was in May of 2012.

He never returned and, honestly, I never thought about him after that.  Over the years this blog has developed a handful of regular followers with a few more who pop in and out for occasional visits, but mostly I get one time visitors.  I didn’t realize how inured I’d become to this fleeting contact, or how much I’d fallen into thinking about most of my visitors as clicks rather than real people living their fragile and luminous lives out there.

But then I woke up Sunday morning, groped through the usual morning fog for my phone while the coffee was brewing, and saw the fecal transplant post had received another comment.  When I clicked through to read it I discovered it was from one of Jay’s surviving loved ones, Cindy.  She wanted to let me know that Jay never came back to post his results because, even though his transplant procedure had been a brilliant success, he died of complications from another procedure a little while later.

Her comment startled and instantly sobered me.  It knocked me out of my safe, cozy, Sunday morning cocoon into a place with a much larger perspective.  There I sat, looking down at the careful, gracious words of a flesh and blood woman who was actually sitting out there somewhere in the world, bending over her keyboard in great loss and pain, and suddenly, through her, Jay ceased to be just a flat, old blog comment I’d mostly forgotten about.  In that moment his online-self merged with his solid, physical self and made him very real for me.

I’ve run across a few blogs over the years that just stopped with no explanation of why.  I always assumed these bloggers grew bored or busy and just abandoned it, but now I wonder how many of them might have physically died leaving their blog-selves in some weird, digital purgatory.  If there isn’t a surviving loved one like Cindy who’s willing, able, and given all the right passwords and permissions to update our blogs and social media sites after we die, then instead of basking in an honored, online immortality of sorts, our digital selves will probably just be cast into limbo…unfinished, unremarked, and unmourned.

But (to me anyway) what’s even more important is that if we don’t take time to make some kind of plan for our sites before we die, then it could potentially cause a lot of confusion and pain for our surviving loved ones.  A person’s Facebook wall can evidently turn into something of a free-for-all when they die and the internet as a whole is still the wild, wild west where digital afterlife is concerned.  It’s something that bears thinking about.

The truth is if Cindy hadn’t found me and let me know, it wouldn’t have taken anything away from my life.  The sum total of contact between Jay and I consisted of one comment and one reply.  It was at most a mild and civil encounter, like a pleasant exchange with someone at an information desk.

But because she had the grace to follow-up for this man that she loved, my life was unexpectedly enriched.  She and, through her, Jay gave me the opportunity to have a Whoa! moment that knocked me out of my busy, triviality-consumed head for a few moments back into my heart and deeper humanity.  I want that kind of interruption in my life.  I want to be reminded that life is priceless and delicate and brief.  And a comment like Cindy’s also inspires me to strive for the same kind of thoughtfulness and grace so I, too, can pass it forward.  You just never know how that kind of thing might touch or help someone else.

Thank you Jay and Cindy.  Please accept my loving thoughts and deepest condolences in your time of sorrow.

I looked around and found a few links to different articles and online resources that I found insightful and/or helpful.  They all shed light on some of the developing ethics of, and how to prepare for and manage, our digital afterlives.  Like wills and advanced directives, it’s something worth thinking about for those we’ll be leaving behind.

Articles:

Online Life After Death Faces Legal Uncertainty

Death on Facebook Now Common as “Dead Profiles” Create Vast Virtual Cemetery

Guides:

How To Prepare For Your Online Afterlife  A 12-step guide to getting your virtual affairs in order.

The Digital Beyond  A resource for online services designed to help plan for the digital afterlife.

Online Memorials

On Decoration Day

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

When Instincts Lag Behind

800px-Henri_Rousseau_-_Il_sogno

Henri Rousseau The Dream

Our collective, societal instincts about dying haven’t really kept pace with our evolving medical technology.  Which makes sense.  How could they?  Group instinct develops over long periods of time…decades, centuries…while medical technology is changing so fast that even the medical technologists changing it can’t keep up with it all.

Instinctually, the typical knee jerk response is still to cling to life as long as possible and our  group choices…the ones offered by our medical industry…mostly reflect that.  The majority of people don’t understand on a visceral, gut level yet how blindly clinging to life can now take us far past what we want into nightmare territory.  It’s like overshooting a remote landing strip and crashing deep in the jungle on the other side.  You may live a little longer that way but you now face new and different ways to die that you probably won’t like.

I usually find there’s a big divide in understanding between people who have hands-on experience around dying and people who don’t. Experience seems to update one’s instincts to the 21st century.  In a hurry.

I suspect better education about dying would, too.  And it also might help people avoid some of the most popular mistakes being made today.

For anyone interested in the educational option, here’s a link to one of my favorite articles about navigating the dying process in today’s world.  It’s called Letting Go by Atul Gawande and is pretty long.  But it’s also compassionate, wise, and insightful…things that can help when wading into a topic as scary as this one.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013