Hospice Patients Declared Business Assets By National Hospice Chain

A national, for-profit hospice chain has just sent its lawyers into court to fight over who gets the patients of a non-profit hospice that’s going bankrupt.

In their filing, Gentiva Health Services Inc. objects to the plans the failing San Diego Hospice has made to transition all willing patients to another local provider in a way that can keep patients, some existing employees, and hospice facilities together as much as possible, thereby causing the least disruption for those dying in their care.

Instead, they want the bankruptcy judge to break up the parts and, in essence, sell off the patients (referred to as the “business” in legalese) separately from the real estate. They’ve made a $1 million bid for the “business” and their filing language basically reduces these 450 rare, luminous, and achingly vulnerable human beings to the status of “valuable assets.”

This is a hospice.  Referring coldly and deliberately to dying people as so much business property. You’d think that was bad enough. It’s not.

They did it in open court.  A public forum with media coverage.  They either didn’t realize or didn’t care how these patients might feel to read a news article and hear themselves described in such demeaning and dehumanizing terms.

From the article Creditors decry Scripps hospice deal:

Gentiva Health Services Inc., the Atlanta-based company that made the $1 million offer, objects…saying that doing so amounts to handing over the hospice’s business for free, a move that would not maximize value for creditors who want to get paid.

In court papers, Gentiva states that San Diego Hospice’s “relationship with its 450 patients”** is a “valuable asset” of its estate.

(**see note below)

“Gentiva is ready, willing and able to pay Debtor the sum of $1 million for an orderly transition of the hospice business,” the filing states.

How in the world can people who run a hospice talk about dying people like that?

Look, I think we all understand that there’s a business dimension to hospice care.  Nobody can keep the doors open for long if they’re not financially responsible enough to obey the laws and pay their bills.

But that should never be construed to mean that profit can be shamelessly embraced as the bottom line like this. The mission of the hospice movement has always been to serve the dying, not monetize them. Whoever doesn’t understand that difference really shouldn’t be working in the field.

** Obviously, no one can legally buy, sell, or award patients themselves to any hospice company.  Theoretically, patients are always free to choose whomever they want, including the freedom to change hospices at any time, for any reason.  Any of these 450 people, if they so chose, could go back to the drawing board, start the process all over again, and interview as many hospices as they wanted.

Theoretically.

In reality though, that almost never happens.  The vast majority of patients never interview hospices at all.  Neither do they themselves choose one.  They’re almost always referred to the specific hospice favored by their personal doctor or the hospital they’re using and then they stay with that hospice for the duration of their life.  

Furthermore, as a patient’s condition deteriorates and they get closer to death, the risks of disruption of care associated with a change in hospice provider rise geometrically and it usually becomes unwise to change, even if they still had the energy to do so.  

So even though theoretically these 450 patients get to choose whichever hospice they’d like next, realistically speaking almost all of them will go to whichever one their records are legally transferred to.  They’ll probably be informed in some obscure way that they don’t HAVE to go with that hospice, but they either won’t understand or they won’t care.  They’ll be far too overwhelmed with the daily tasks of dying to deal with it and they’ll just want to know who’s going to take care of them next.

When Gentiva says it wants to buy “San Diego Hospice’s relationship with it’s 450 patients”, what they’re saying is they want to buy access to patient records, contact information, and most importantly, patients’ expectations that Gentiva will be the hospice assuming their care going forward.

So even though theoretically dying people can’t actually be bought and sold, for all practical purposes they most certainly can.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

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The Myth Of “Saving” Lives

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.”

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.)

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copyright (especially the award) Dia Osborn 2013

 

When A Comment’s Better Than The Original Post

“Without love, a decent world does not exist.”

Well, amen.  Doesn’t that just say it all?

This gem came out of a comment left on a recent post and I’ll tell you what…a good commenter is worth their weight in gold.  Comments in general are great and deeply appreciated but, still, every once in a while something comes along that really grabs my heart and wrings it.  A couple more recent examples:

From Alice in the Cities:

“Oh, and he did speak just before he died. He saw his brother in the doorway twice and said happily that he was waiting for him.”

From Cindy’s Cancers:

 “I was very afraid of dying but after being inpatient at hospice I saw that they can and will make sure that I don’t suffer. Now I can continue to enjoy what time I have left.”

And lastly, here’s one more from the same guy mentioned above, Robert Brownbridge*:

“Immortality is optimally reached if and when we have loved fully and well.”

(*Robert Brownbridge is a poet and the author of a memoir about the Korean war called Into War With An Empty Gun.)

There have been more along the way.  Comments that were beautiful or honest or simple or insightful or thought provoking or surprising or just plain fun.  Maybe from now on I’ll try and throw them up like this whenever they come along.  Or maybe put up a page specifically for them called Comments Better Than The Post.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

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

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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

Respect Can See Through Walls

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(Photo from an interesting blog post on the possible development of real magic glasses–or Google glasses as they’re currently known.)

There’s a skill required in hospice work–the ability to hang one’s own opinions and views on a hook outside the door, the better to help the dying person and their loved one anchor into their own values and beliefs.

The name of this skill is respect.

When I began working with hospice I didn’t have it.  Did. Not. Have it.  In fact, I had its antithesis…a big, fat mouth.  I’ve always loved my own opinions a lot, so leaving them hanging on a hook outside the door was kind of painful for me.  And scary.  And hard.

A couple of transgressions was all it took though.  There’s nothing like watching the stupid, pointless harm an unwanted opinion inflicts on a person who’s already vulnerable and reeling, to make one try just a wee bit harder the next time.

Fortunately, it turned out I love not feeling like shit more than I love my own opinions.

(Barely.)

Then I noticed something unexpected happening each time I managed a modicum of genuine respect– whenever I stuck my arm down through the muck, grabbed my better self, and dragged her up for air.

It changed my eyes somehow, like I’d slipped on x-ray glasses and could see through things.  The person I was looking at would transform.

There’s a common misconception that dying people become “not themselves anymore.”  That just because they can no longer wipe or feed themselves, they turn into something that nobody should remember.  Or if they grow confused and forgetful then their very self–the person they became over an entire lifetime of becoming–ceases to exist.

But that’s so not true, something my new x-ray eyes revealed.

Respecting them helped my eyes see through all the things I used to identify as who a person is…their ability to think and accomplish, to choose and control.  Through their magically shrinking bodies and even their poop and pee (which was no small feat for me)…to where they still existed, underneath it all.

I discovered that even when they’d lost just about everything else the fighters kept on fighting, the controllers still tried to micro-manage, the takers were still demanding, and the dignified kept hitting walls because so much of the dying process just isn’t.

Generous people were still mostly concerned about those being left behind, grateful people were a real pleasure to work with because they could find value in just about anything (double-ditto for the humble) and I once watched a woman of deep faith continue to sing little songs about Jesus past the point when she could remember her own name.

It finally hit me that while we can and will lose control over everything…EVERYTHING…else, none of us ever stops being who we are.  We can’t.  Anymore than water can stop being wet.

And then, as my respecting skill improved, I started seeing something else that appeared to be deeper still.

There were these odd little moments when I’d glance up from adjusting a pillow or changing a diaper or wiping a chin to find this unraveling human being gazing into my eyes with a receptive stillness, a grace, that made me feel like I was like looking into…I don’t even know what.  Another dimension?  A place so tender and vulnerable and luminous it made me ache.

The funny thing is these moments could happen with any patient–fighter, controller, taker, generous, grateful, or humble.  It really didn’t matter.  While there were more of those moments with some than others, after a while even the most difficult people I worked with let their shields peel back to reveal that shining, beautiful place inside them.

Over time I learned that the more of my opinions I could leave outside the door, the more of these moments I experienced, and I suspect the reasons for this were two-fold.  First, because I just learned what to look for.  And second, the more respectful I was, the safer they felt revealing it to me.

Now I know what you must be thinking…did she transfer this skill to her life outside of hospice, too?

The answer is not so much.  I’ve found it’s harder to do in the regular world because it’s not practical to leave my opinions and attitudes, my values and beliefs, hanging on a hook outside my entire life.  That’s like cutting the rudder off my ship.  I need those things to navigate all the choices life presents.

I assume there must be another level to this skill that I don’t get yet, one where I can be fully present as me while still supporting others to be fully present as themselves.  A way to respect and harness both at the same time no matter how different they are.

I’m pretty sure if I could master that level I’d walk around in a state of wonder every day.

I’d love input.  Has anyone else ever experienced this kind of x-ray vision or…even better…gone to the next level?  If so what does it look like and how does it work?  I’m really curious.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

The Unmistakeable Parallels Between Birthing and Dying

800px-Modelo-de-quadril

(Photo from Wikipedia: Model of pelvis used in the beginning of the 19th century to teach technical procedures for a successful childbirth. Museum of the History of Medicine, Porto AlegreBrazil.  Fascinating, no?)

I’ve been going back through my hospice journals while working on the rough draft and came across the following entry from 2005.  It has to do with the similarities between giving birth and dying, similarities that are widely recognized by everyone working in end-of-life care.

I thought I’d throw it up here since most of my writing energy is going into the book these days.  And for any of you still following in spite of the current paucity of posts…my deepest thanks, as always.

“I think part of what the three years working with hospice has taught me so far is that, with as huge and scary as the whole process intrinsically is, it’s still something I can prepare for.

It’s far less frightening to me when I have some kind of plan to deal with what’s going to happen—some kind of idea of what to expect–rather than going into it feeling totally helpless and ignorant.

This idea of having to squeeze back out of my body again reminds me so much of when I was preparing to give birth.

Of course I was scared as I looked down at my stomach-the-size-of-a-pig and realized oh my god, this thing has to come OUT.  Through a pea-sized hole.  And I was even more scared with the second birth because after the first time I had details.

But both times I was as prepared as I could get.  I’d taken my supplements, done my kegel exercises, gone to my check-ups, attended birthing classes and learned how to breathe.

I’d read books, asked questions, talked to other women who’d been through it and knew pretty much what to expect.

I knew it would be painful…I knew just how painful the second time…and I knew it would get more painful the farther into it we got.  I knew there were dangers involved.  I knew what position they were both in when labor started.  I knew what my red blood cell count was.

I had my team assembled.

I’d done everything I could to get ready and after that…well, it was just up to the birthing gods.  All I could reasonably do was offer up a prayer…please guide us, protect us, and give us safe passage…take a deep breath, and dive in.

I think of dying like that now.  I’m doing my best to prepare.  While working with hospice I’ve watched a variety of different approaches to dying and seen which of them work and which of them really, really don’t.

I’ve thought a lot about what decisions I’d make under a host of different circumstances…ceasing to eat at the last being a central possibility in terms of attempting to control the process from the outside.

But there’s another, even more important level of preparation to be made, and that has to do with developing my inner strength.  Gathering the ancient tools that have proved over time to be the most effective when dealing with dying.

Like courage.  Like endurance.  Like generosity.  Like grace.

Like surrender…that most difficult of all possible tools for a control maniac like me.”

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

The differing legacies of good deaths and bad ones, and an extra bonus of grace.

Good deaths have a ripple effect that go out for a long, long way, for a long, long time and, unfortunately, so do bad deaths.

I just stumbled across a blog post titled rapture? (not what you think) on Wild Celtic Rose where she describes a personal experience with each kind of death, and she manages to convey the lasting legacy of each far more eloquently than I’ve ever been able to do.  I highly recommend a read if you get a couple free minutes sometime.  (It’s not that long and you may cry from the beauty at the end.  I sure did.)

She also brushes lightly over a couple of other interesting (and loaded) topics.

The first involves the subject of respecting another person’s right to die the way they choose (and one possible cost of not respecting said right.)

The second involves the legal right we all have to forego any treatment and die if that’s what we prefer.

And the third involves that elusive, fragile, and exquisite grace that usually surfaces when faith is respected across a divide in beliefs.  She captures the spirit of this so beautifully when she says (talking about the good death):

“Sometimes we look at other beliefs with skepticism at best.

I can say that the honest, giving, loving, non-judgmental way in which Craig and Nina lived their lives is as “Christ like” as I have ever seen.

I honestly don’t know if there is a heaven or not.

Even though we are of different faiths, I thoroughly believe that if there is one, that Craig is there and he will be joined by Nina and the rest of his family.”

A beautiful expression of how we can still love and be moved by another’s faith without necessarily sharing their beliefs.

I really, really hope you have a rapturous, awakening, living-it-like-it-was your-last kind of moment sometime this week.  We should all be that lucky.

Love,

Dia

Spontaneous Hospice Appears For A Pod of Pilot Whales

(Photo of Ed Lippisch by Eric Hasert/TCPalm.com September 2, 2012)

When working with hospice I often had people tell me, “Oh, I could never do that,” and I was never quite sure how to answer them.  Because while on the one hand I could see they were sincere, on the other I knew they were wrong.

Of course they could help care for someone who’s dying.  Bathing and toileting are not rocket science.

A more compelling reason is the fact that compassion, empathy, and the desire to alleviate each other’s suffering is an essential part of human nature.  Sure, you don’t think you can, you don’t want to, you’re scared of it, and you may even feel nauseous at the thought.  But then in the blink of an eye…boom…it’s your loved one who’s lying there so achingly vulnerable and suddenly, not only can you do it, you find doing it totally transforms you.

Never underestimate the power of your own heart.

Here’s a great example of a lot of people discovering over the course of a single day that dying is simply no barrier to loving and caring.  A pod of twenty-two pilot whales beached themselves yesterday along the south Florida coastline and, except for five babies young enough to transport and rehabilitate, the rest wound up dying there.

No one knows why they beached really, it was one of those mysterious whale things, but evidently hundreds of people showed up to help.  From the article on Foxnews.com:

“TCPalm.com reports that hundreds of residents came to the beach to assist with the rescue, helping the animals turn upright so they could breathe better. Volunteers covered the whales with moist towels and poured water over them. Red Cross volunteers helped ensure that volunteers stayed hydrated in the hot sun.

“I think that people want to help animals,” said Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisth, a Harbor Branch volunteer who worked with others to tend to juveniles in a shaded inflatable pool. “Especially whales and dolphins, because they are our counterparts in the seas. They’re mammals, they’re intelligent, they’re social. They’re a lot like us.”

Still, there was a sad undercurrent to the efforts, with rescuers aware that most of the whales were dying.”

I’m willing to bet that, if they’d been asked beforehand, most of the people on the beach that day would have also claimed that working with hospice was something they could never do.  And yet there they were anyway, tending to a pod of strangers whom they knew full well were dying and yet couldn’t bear to leave to do it alone.

Of course we can all do that kind of work.  In fact sometimes, it can be a lot harder not to.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Prejudice Sometimes Has To Die Off With The Generations Carrying It

Jacob’s Ladder by William Blake

In an article today in the L.A. Times, GOP divide deepens on abortion, immigration, gay rights, Paul West touches on a dynamic I once observed during my hospice work.  Some areas of deep and lasting social change can’t happen until the generations carrying the old prejudices die off.

The difference between some of the social values of the GOP and a majority of the upcoming generation of new voters is just one example.  From the article: 

Polling of voters ages 18 to 29 has shown that a majority hold views that run counter to the GOP stance on same-sex marriage and abortion rights…The younger generation is the most diverse in American history and thinks of itself as very tolerant and pro-diversity…

To be fair, I think the Democrats have their own set of deep prejudices which they’re equally blind to.  (Like against religious conservatives.  And for those thinking “but that’s not prejudice, that’s just right” you might want to take a look.  The reason prejudice works at all is because it feels so true.)  But today I wanted to explore the embedded racial prejudice I saw in an elderly patient I once worked with.

As I’m sure everyone is aware, back in the early 1900’s in the deep south, racial bigotry wasn’t bigotry…it was law.  It was language.  It was culture and custom.  It was so deeply entrenched in the psyches and world view of the time that the majority of people carrying it didn’t even know.  Like I mentioned above, for them it wasn’t prejudice, it was the truth.

It went so deep in fact that the passage of almost a century ultimately couldn’t wipe it out of the psyche of an elderly woman I helped care for.

She was a person who actually prided herself on the fact that she was racially tolerant.  She was raised in the south before and during the Depression but claimed to be descended from a great man who fought to emancipate the slaves, and she clearly admired and longed to emulate him.  She told me story after glowing story about all the acts of tolerance in her own life, and yet when she temporarily descended into some profound disorientation as a result of a bad fall, a broken hip, and an unfortunate reaction to pain medication, her mind unconsciously reverted to the social mores that were dominant in her childhood.

The language that started coming out of that sweet old lady’s mouth was shocking, ugly, and unbelievably hurtful.  What made matters far worse was that, before anyone realized this was going to be a problem, she’d been placed in the home of a temporary caregiver who was African American and the verbal abuse this poor woman sustained before she finally insisted that the patient be moved somewhere else was horrifying.  The whole situation was beyond awful.  It was tragic, graphic and, frankly, a little frightening to see what’s lurking just below our society’s surface, polished veneer.

But it also provided me with a fascinating insight.  Her temporary dementia gave me a glimpse into a past that I’d only read about in the history books.  A couple of times, while watching her flailing and fighting with the demons still lurking deep in her mind, I felt like I’d stepped into a time machine and gone back with her to the 1930’s Jim Crow deep south, to stand on a dusty street for myself and listen first hand.

Beyond the ugliness it felt like a privilege, too, like I’d been allowed to witness something important and rare.  While on the one hand it was chilling and left me with a heavy sense of responsibility to live every day with more integrity and respect for everyone I come into contact with (which, let’s face it, is a lot of work) on the other hand it was reassuring to see that, with as far as we still have to go…still…we have come a long way since then.

That patient came from what I think of as an earlier, transitional generation, one that shows at least some initial signs of change–a sometimes willing/sometimes reluctant resignation to move in a new direction–but is bound to some extent by the unconscious world view they inherited in childhood.

And then I look at myself, the next generation, and how I’m bound by something else, by a prejudice against prejudice itself.  I was raised to look for, identify, and challenge the old, established prejudices, to try and change them, in myself and in the world around me.  But in the end I, too, will always be bound to some degree by the fact that I can’t help but see things in terms of their differences as a result.

And then I look at my children and their friends, at how, because of our efforts before them, they’ve turned out to be so much more truly and honestly blind to differences at all.  They’re used to seeing people of every color in the media.  They’ve grown up drawing their friends and heroes from both genders, from among the able and disabled, from those of different sexual orientations, from those who come from different nations and religions or no religion at all.  They can navigate the growing diversity in the same way they can the new technologies; intuitively and unconsciously.  For them, differences aren’t that big a deal and they’re tired of hearing us harp about it.

I admit, sometimes their blindness scares me.  I don’t know if they appreciate it enough…how far we’ve come or how fragile the changes are.  I don’t know if they’ll safeguard them adequately, push for more, and ensure that we don’t get lazy and slip back again into the older, uglier cultural norms.  But then again I come from a generation of fear.

In the end, it’s their torch to bear, not mine.  I realize that.  I have to trust them…and their children and their children…to take our collective human spirit into a future that’s beyond my ability to envision or dream.  And I have to accept that eventually I, too, am going to have to die to let them do it.

I do take faith in the fact that, looking back over history, the spiral seems to move in an upward direction over time.  As our numbers have grown and we’ve been pushed into ever closer contact with one another, it does seem like the overall trend has been up.  That’s we’re seeing less of the differences and more of the similarities, and while the older powers-that-be have been tearing everything apart in panic, the upcoming generation has been relentlessly weaving it back together only in a completely different way.

There’s a quote from Ann Frank that I love:

“It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality.  It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical.  Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.

It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death.  I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness.  I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too.  I feel the suffering of millions.  And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.  In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals.  Perhaps the day will come when I’ll be able to realize them!”     July 15, 1944

I draw my hope from both the older generation that’s now passing and taking its old, open wounds with it, as well as our children who are pouring their new vision into the world in a flood of sweeping change.  Taken together like that they don’t seem as much like they’re in opposition; they seem more like successive steps on a ladder heading upward.

I guess I too believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Guinea Pig Rescue and the (Historic) War On Women

Meet Hashbrown and E. Benedict.

These are the newest additions to the family of Foxed In and, believe it or not, both their little lives have already been touched by tragedy.  Little Hashbrown, pictured on the left, was recently purchased from a well-known chain of pet stores along with poor little Nacho who is not pictured because he died suddenly and horribly a scant three days later.  I’ll let you go over to Foxed In yourself for a hint of the sad, bad news about pet mill horror that exists in the retail world.

But in the meantime, being left with a bewildered and lonely little piglet (guinea pigs are evidently “super social animals and pretty much need to be in pairs”) Foxed In then located E. Benedict, pictured on the right, with the help of an absolutely fabulous (wait for it, wait for it…) guinea pig rescue/adoption group that the vet who did the (wait for it, wait for it…) autopsy on Nacho recommended.  Seriously.  Foxed In requested an autopsy.

I find that sort of humbling actually.  Evidently, this is a woman who doesn’t discount life simply for the sake of size.  Perhaps something for us all to consider.

On a humorous little side note, Foxed In calls E. Benedict a “walking toupee.”

I think I can see it.

On another topic, I began my hospice work as a volunteer but quickly realized that it was the nurse’s aids who got to spend the most time with patients.  (i.e. my own ulterior motive.)  I therefore dutifully trotted down to the university and enrolled in a class to get my certification and become a C.N.A.

The evening classes were held at the old Idaho State Penitentiary, which is now shut down and maintained as an historical monument. I took a tour of the place once, which was pretty fascinating in a horrible kind of way, but I noticed that it entirely ignored the history of the women prisoners who were also once incarcerated there.

The Idaho women’s prison is a small building constructed outside the walls of the men’s prison and, while it’s not a part of the formal tour, there is an exhibit in the main hall explaining some of the criminal history of Idaho’s gentler sex.

Strolling around the room I was initially surprised to learn just how many women were locked up for killing their husbands. (For those interested, poison was the method of choice by a clear majority.) But it all started to make more sense as I read about some of the laws governing women back in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s.

To varying extents depending on the decade, women were not allowed to own property and had no legal right to either their children or any wages they might earn.  Everything they “owned” legally belonged to their husbands.  This complicated the divorce option for a woman whose husband chose to contest it.  If she wanted to leave the marriage he could keep everything she owned as well as prevent her from seeing her own children, not to mention confiscate her wages until the divorce was finalized, making savings impossible.  So unless a woman had a family or friends to turn to, the likeliest outcome was that she would wind up on the street, probably forced into prostitution.

Evidently, this law was not as binding for women from the upper class who retained some property rights under specific circumstances.  But for women from the middle and lower classes, the law in effect made them the property of their husbands with rights equivalent to…say…a chest of drawers..

Add to this the law commonly known as the “rule of thumb”…which defined the acceptable size of a stick that a man could legally use to beat his wife and children with as being no bigger than his thumb…and perhaps these guilty women might be forgiven for believing that murder was their only alternative.

Clearly, the underlying purpose of these laws was to bind a woman to her husband in a way that would establish his dominance and prevent her from leaving him.  (It might be wise for other men with this agenda to note that the plan backfired significantly in some cases.)

I wonder what happened to all the other Idaho women trapped in the kind of abusive marriages that laws like these actually helped to create? How many others wound up poisoning their husbands and getting away with it?  How many decided instead to escape with nothing, only to wind up in prostitution or starving or dead?  And how many simply gave up and stayed in the marriage, dying a slower, black and blue kind of stick-death?

I look at what the Idaho legislature is doing these days where its laws governing women are concerned, and I can’t help but notice a similarity between today’s governing mindset and the one at work during this earlier, abysmal period of our state history.  Yesterday’s elected officials were finally forced to abandon their sticks only to have today’s politicians embracing  some of the stick’s newer, high-tech equivalents like ultrasound machines and health care exclusions.  Laws concerning almost every aspect of a woman’s reproductive capacity are multiplying at an alarming rate (it’s amazing how obsessed our predominantly male legislature is with the subject.)…

(24 hours later…)

Blah, blah, blah.  Believe it or not I wasted three precious hours of my life yesterday on a following rant about Idaho politics.  It was such useless kvetching that finally even I couldn’t stand it anymore.

How do you spell d-e-l-e-t-e?

Let me just finish by saying this.  Women?  Respect yourself, remember how much less we once had and, if all else fails, poison the fucker.  (Kidding!!@#!!!)  Call your elected representatives and picket Congress for a century.  That’s what our foremothers did and they got us property rights and freedom from sticks.  Let’s learn by example and not drop the torch.

A brief tribute for two women to whom we owe much: Elizabeth Cady-Stanton and Susan B. Anthony 

(Photo credit of American Memory)

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

So.  Rather than ranting about politics, I’d rather spend my last paragraph observing that the above-mentioned guinea pig rescue/adoption people believe in the dignity and beauty of life so much that they’re willing to fight for it even in the most ridiculous of little pet-creatures.  And that gives me more hope than just about anything.

I think one of these kind of people is worth a thousand…no…a million politicians.

copyright 2012 Dia Osborn

Someone Else Wrote My Book. What Now?

I’ve been working on a book about my time with hospice for about five years now–or rather working on it for two years and then procrastinating for three.  On the advice of an agent, I originally started this blog to build an author platform and then got hijacked.  Publishing blog posts is a lot more fun and immediate than slogging away for years on a book that may or may not ever see the light of day.

But while I was thusly blog-distracted, some upstart hospice nurse back east snuck under the police tape and wrote my book before I could finish.  It’s called Transitions by Becki Hawkins and, while I haven’t read the book yet, I did read the press release:

For the most part modern western culture has distanced itself from the celebratory and positive aspects of the dying process, instead either ignoring it, or focusing on only the negative aspects of death…Becki felt there was another more joyous and beautiful side that she was learning from her patients that she wanted to share with others.

That’s exactly what I was going to say.  Shit.

Now don’t get me wrong here.  There does lurk an altruistic/decent person inside me who says thank god and good on her for getting the word out when I was too lazy and undisciplined to get it done.  Ms. Hawkins’s accomplishment is everything good and noble and generous, and Transitions is a wonderful boon to the world and thank you a million times over for writing it.  There.

But I’d be lying if I said there isn’t also a poisonous/jealous writer in a dark corner of my soul, nursing a double and hissing a pox on her for stealing my idea.  (Inner writers are all neurotic, not just mine. Hold the stones please.)

So what now?  Do I shoot my languishing book in the head and put it out of its misery once and for all?  Or do I buck up and take the immortal words (and graphics) of Chuck Wendig over at Terrible Minds to heart?

Well, I’m either a writer or a masochist because I printed this puppy off and taped it up on half the cupboards and all the mirrors in the house.  Guess I’m still in.

The other voice haunting me belongs to the ever wise and balanced Linda over at Rangewriter, and in its own way, is both finer and more compelling.  After being informed that my book was already written, she thought about it for a second then gently asked:

“Do you think one book on this topic is really enough?”

That sobered me.  I looked up from my whiskey and suddenly recalled this one basic truth I heard about writing once that I’d somehow forgotten:

Everything under the sun has already been written about before.  There is no…NO…such thing as a new topic.  Ever.  There are only new voices to express them in different ways, and each one of those voices is important because there’s at least one reader waiting out there that only that voice can reach.

So, do I really think that one book about the joyous and beautiful side of dying is enough?  That Ms. Hawkins and Transitions can (or should) carry the entire burden alone from here?  That all the mindless terror of dying out there in the world has now been forever eased?

Probably not.

But truly, even if her book WAS enough–even if that one truth I know about writing turned out to be sheer self-delusion and there wasn’t really a lonely reader waiting anywhere out there for my unique voice to reach –I could still fall back on this completely selfish reason and finish my book anyway.  It’s from Mr. Wendig again, from his post 25 Things I Want To Say To So-Called “Aspiring” Writersand comes in at #24:

“As a writer, the world you create is yours and yours alone. Someone will always be there to tell you what you can’t do, but they’re nearly always wrong. You’re a writer. You can make anything up that you want. It may not be lucrative. It may not pay your mortgage. But we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about what’s going on between you and the blank page before you. It’s just you and the story. If you love it and you want to write it, then wire your trap shut and write it. And write it well. Expect nothing beyond this — expect no reward, expect no victory parade — but embrace the satisfaction it gives you to do your thing.”

Amen to that Chuck.  Back to the keyboard.

copyright 2012 Dia Osborn

My Son Is Too Old To Colonize Mars

Just when you think you know somebody, they can still surprise you.

I was chatting with my twenty-nine year old son on the phone the other night and discovered two things about him that I didn’t know before.

1)  He’s leaning towards atheism. (Which is both disconcerting and kind of cool.  We don’t have one of those in the family yet.)  And

2)  If he had the chance to be among the first to colonize Mars, he’d jump.  No questions asked.

Of course, as his mother, I went straight to neediness when he confided the latter piece of information. “But…what if you could never come back to earth? Would you still want to go?”  My fear of abandonment in old age was showing.

He didn’t hesitate.  “You bet.”

I clutched at my heart for a second then sighed.  I suppose it’s my own fault for teaching him to be truthful.

In case anyone is thinking that this is a ridiculous conversation, it’s really not.  There are actually a number of plans on the table for colonizing Mars.  In a brief article on The Norwegian Space Centre website (for the government agency under the Ministry of Trade and Industry) it says that the earliest date mentioned for moving to Mars in official papers is 2019.

In another article on The Daily Galaxy, the author sites evidence of Mars colonization becoming an imperative of the new U.S. space strategy taking shape under Obama.

And Stephen Hawking, the renowned British physicist and author of A Brief History of Time (among many, many other books), is a strong supporter of space colonization in general.  In fact he believes that, with the poor resource management so far displayed on Earth, human life simply won’t exist long-term without it.

 “Life on Earth,” Hawking has said, “is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers … I think the human race has no future if it doesn’t go into space.”

But keep in mind he also said, while talking about the possibility of other intelligent life in the universe:

“Personally, I favour the second possibility – that primitive life is relatively common, but that intelligent life is very rare…Some would say it has yet to occur on Earth.”

Which kind of begs the question of why save us at all, but I guess there’s no explaining species loyalty, which is an instinct-thing.  (Which then loops us back to the question of intelligence, which is a mental hamster-wheel thing.)

The project that got my son dreaming about all this in the first place involves a Dutch start-up called Mars One that’s planning to fund the first colony on Mars in 2023 with the proceeds from a reality show documenting the whole thing.  Before you laugh (which was admittedly my first reaction when he brought it up) check out their website.  A realistic Mars shot is evidently a lot closer than I understood.

Luckily, before I donned the black veil and started throwing ashes on my head, my son sadly explained that he was already too old to participate in any of these projects.  Turns out that, while he may be as scary smart, technologically astute, and space visionary as the best of them, it’s not enough.  Thankfully nubile youth is also required.  Which means it will be some other unfortunate mother standing at the dock in 2023 waving her crumpled little handkerchief good-bye.

My son will be stranded to die right here on Earth with me.

Oh for godsakes…what a horrible thing to write.  (In case anyone was wondering where he gets his deplorable truthfulness from.)

On a brighter note, evidently Virgin Galactic (that Richard Branson, I tell ya…) is actually booking seats for space flights now and my son feels that this is an adventure within his reach. I have to admit, if I had a spare $200,000 sitting around I’d be tempted to join him and book a flight myself.

Now, for the record, I adore, a-d-o-r-e, this planet and would never, ever leave her, even if a gigantic asteroid was about to annihilate us all and I was offered the last remaining seat on the only spaceship out of here.

I’m really not kidding when I say I want to die at home.

But to be able to go up and just orbit around her a few times?  To see with my very own eyes the Blue Planet, this exquisitely beautiful, miraculous place that we all get to share in, live on, suckle from, contribute to, and be a part of for however long it lasts?

Now that would be something.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

The Little Gosling That Couldn’t and How The Kayak Got Her Name

This one falls under the heading of “strange and magical things experienced while kayaking.”  My twin interests of paddling and dying paired up for a brief dance last weekend.

On Saturday we strapped the kayaks to the car and drove out to a canyon area that…long, long ago and far, far away…had a creek running along the bottom of it.  But one day the Army Corps of Engineers came along and built Lucky Peak dam and, lo and behold, the canyon became a long finger of the resulting reservoir instead.  (A change that unquestionably sucked for everything that lived down there at the time, but turned out to be a boon for municipal water storage and boating of all kinds.)

We got up at 5:30 to beat the power boats and water skiers and were rewarded with the stillness and solitude that only goes to the early risers. (Which I normally am not.)  We started at the tip of the long finger and paddled along for an hour and a half, gazing up at basalt cliffs and the clouds of wheeling, flitting birds that make their homes there.  Later we discovered a small but breathtaking cove with lichen covered cliffs rising straight from the water and a couple of tinkling, tiered waterfalls cooling the already hot day.

And then, as we finally neared the end of the narrow canyon and prepared to enter the main body of the reservoir itself, we sighted a pair of Canadian geese shepherding twenty-three, brand new goslings in a tight bunch between them (count them! twenty-three!!) and we immediately swung the kayaks out into deeper water, giving them as wide a berth as possible out of concern for those unpredictable, wide-eyed, bits of fluff.

By that time the power boat traffic had picked up in the main reservoir and a few of them were turning into the canyon, roaring and dragging their bouncing, scooting loads back up what we’d just paddled silently down.  The clash of water-recreational cultures had begun and it was now time to share.

The hubster and I had gotten separated somewhere along the line, with him paddling along one side of the widening channel heading for the main marina, while I followed the line of cliffs on the other side, gazing up and studying the geology.  Deep down I knew I was going to have to cross eventually, to join him, and navigate the boat traffic in the process.

But I didn’t want to….I just didn’t…and some deep, stubborn thing inside me dug in and grabbed on with it’s toes.  I didn’t want to go to the marina.  I didn’t want to deal with the boats.  I didn’t want anything to do with the human world at all because I knew it would break the spell I’d fallen under earlier in the canyon…of water and wings, rhythm and rock.

So I ignored his lead and kept to my own side until, just up ahead, I was distracted by something strange floating on the water.  It wasn’t the occasional driftwood or flotsam or jetsam bumping past my boat.  It was soft brown and upright and I soon realized that 1) it was a lone gosling drifting perilously close to the wakes from the main boat lane and, 2) that it belonged to the gaggle of other goslings we’d passed earlier, back up the canyon, but had somehow gotten separated.

I never really decided to do it.  On the contrary.  It happened with no reflection whatsoever and entirely without my consent.  My arms simply paddled the kayak around behind the gosling, turned the bow back up the canyon, and started to patiently, relentlessly herd him along the base of the cliffs after his family.  Just like that.

Looking back now it’s amazing to me, how my perception could change that much in a single breath.  How a world as populated and noisy as the reservoir was, could suddenly telescope down to a single, tiny, bobbing life like that.  My vision went tunneled and everything else ceased to exist…the power boats, the hubster, time.  It’s funny.  Over the years and on into menopause, I’d forgotten what a fierce thing the maternal instinct can be and what odd things can invoke it.  But in an instant there she was again, up on her hind legs with claws spread, just like old times.

It’s nice to know the hormones still work.

The spell deepened.  As I paddled slowly…s-l-o-w-l-y…along, nudging, urging, heading off, backing up, turning, resting, then urging the little gosling on again, I started to feel a strange kinship with all the Canadian goose mothers I’ve watched over the years as they guided their own babies along.  It was like there was a second, phantom world gradually superimposing over the first, one where the yak was turning into a plump, feathered body and the paddle, a long, stretching neck.  It was an odd sensation, that tactile feeling of goose-ness settling over me, but I welcomed it anyway for the additional skill and information it lent me.

The gosling wasn’t doing well…at all…and I soon realized why he had been abandoned.  He was weak and getting weaker.  The effort required for him to swim ahead of my kayak was clearly a lot and he also suffered occasional spasms of some kind of palsy.  I wondered if he was born with neurological damage or if he’d been caught in the wake of a boat right out of the egg, maybe dashed against some rocks or injured in some other way.

At some point it dawned on me that the little guy wasn’t going to survive, and my mission changed from saving his life to reuniting him with the family so he wouldn’t have to die alone.  By this time the hubster had noticed my preoccupation and come over to check out what I was doing.  As soon as he saw the gosling he joined my efforts without a word and together we urged the tiring baby forward as gently as we could.  But the gosling was so weak…and the going so achingly slow…that eventually the hubster decided to paddle up the shoreline to try and find the family.  To perhaps herd them back down towards us if he could.

I began crooning encouragement to the gosling, who was pausing to rest with increasing frequency, and he seemed to respond to the soft, loving sounds.  He stopped and looked up at me a few times, relaxing a little, and started trying to follow the edge of the bow as I held the careful distance between us that I’d maintained the whole way.

And then something happened that took me entirely off guard.  A spasm of palsy struck the gosling that was so strong his bowels emptied into the water.  And as I sat there waiting for it to pass, watching the small patch of white refuse sink and disperse beneath the surface, the baby suddenly turned towards me…disoriented, overwhelmed, and unable to continue…and swam straight for the hand that I instinctively lowered into the water.

He never hesitated but climbed right in, balancing there among my careful fingers as I lifted him up and nestled him protectively in my lap.  And as he sat there quietly, exhausted, I started paddling in earnest, heading for an inlet about a quarter mile up the canyon where the hubster was signaling that he’d found the rest of the goose family.

I honestly don’t know how to describe the strange mixture of emotions and instincts that had taken possession of me by that time.  I don’t really understand it myself.  There were flashes of stories going through my mind, stories I’d heard of other mothers from other species who had done the same thing I was doing.  There was a female gorilla in a zoo somewhere.  The one that picked up an injured human child who had accidentally fallen into her enclosure and cradled it against her, protecting it from an aggressive male gorilla that could have done further harm.  There was a Labrador Retriever bitch that a friend of mine once owned, who patiently, lovingly nursed a litter of orphaned kittens to term, taking them on as her own when the mother cat had been killed.

There are other stories, too, of this particular phenomenon—of surprising cross-species interactions filled with tenderness and generosity–and these stories tend to both puzzle and delight all of us who hear them.  I wonder if it’s because maybe, each time, they hint that we’re not quite as different from each other as we thought.  Or that we’re not quite as alone as we feared.

What I do know is that sitting there in the kayak that morning with a beautiful, dying gosling across my thighs, I suddenly understood with crystal clarity how those other animal mothers could behave the way they did.  I got it, how an innocent life falling from the sky, however damaged or brief, can instantly become the only thing that matters.  How the kind of terrible vulnerability they present can trigger the most primal of instincts…and what a good and sacred thing that is.

By the time I reached the hubster in the inlet where the family was resting, the gosling was sinking into permanent disorientation.  He was actively dying and, as I cupped him in both hands and placed him back into the water, he kept trying to swim the wrong way.  He didn’t seem to see or hear the other geese as they clacked and shifted uneasily at the end of the inlet, and we weren’t quite sure what to do.  We didn’t want to get any closer out of concern for the other goslings, but at the same time we wanted to guide our own little guy near enough to the others to have a chance to see and join them.

Finally, the two adult geese seemed to notice the gosling swimming near us and one of them raised its wings a little, making alert and angry goose noises and moving aggressively in our direction.  At this our little guy seemed to clear the fog for second and see them and he turned to swim down the inlet in their direction.

For a brief and dazzling moment, I thought everything would be okay.

But it wasn’t.  Everything started going wrong.  Instead of crossing the water towards the family on the right bank, the dying gosling hugged the opposite shore.  His head wobbled with palsy, his swimming grew increasingly erratic and aimless, and with a sigh I recognized all the signs.  He was losing awareness of the physical environment around him as he commenced the final stage of dying.  He was going light…entering that luminous border world around life that has to be crossed on the way out.

I’d also made a classic mistake with the adult geese.  Forgetting everything I know, I’d projected all my human emotions onto them and childishly expected them to welcome the gosling–which they’d already abandoned once–back into the fold.  Far from the joyful reunion I’d imagined, the parents herded the other babies as far away from the injured gosling as possible, actually moving them down the inlet towards us.  I realized they were willing to risk a dangerous level of closeness with humans rather than get anywhere near the dying gosling and, too late, I remembered about that other, harsher instinct that also lurks inside us all.  The one that whispers mistrust of all things sick, misshapen, or dying.

It’s the one that always errs on the side of caution in order to avoid contagion and preserve life.

Strangely, I accepted the unexpected turn of events with no more rational thought than I’d given to anything else that had happened.  That deep, clawed thing inside me simply fell to all fours and ambled off.  Nothing felt wrong or sad to me, still sitting under the spell of primal things as I was.  It just felt done.

I watched for one lingering moment as the blinded gosling bumped his way up the inlet and then, when the hubster suggested we get going, I turned my kayak without a word and followed him.  We needed to get out of the way of the way of the other geese and besides, I couldn’t chase the gosling down to try and cradle him at the last.  It would only have frightened and traumatized him as he died and that wasn’t allowed.

There’s an instinct for that one, too.

I’ve been haunted by that morning ever since, by the image of that strange, breathless moment when a mortally wounded gosling turned and, against every instinct, swam straight into my hand.  The memory of it fills me with both wonder and questions.  I don’t understand why he did it.  I don’t know whether it was a gesture of desperation and disorientation, or a moment of recognition and trust.  And there’s no way I can ever know, because I think there are some things we’re only supposed to ponder, not solve.

But even though I can never know for him, I can know for me…from my side…and I know this much:

That in his brief and tiny time here, the miracle is that I found him at all.  He was so infinitely small floating alone there in that vast body of water, and a later start, a different trajectory or speed, something as simple as a longer gaze up at the cliffs, would have made me miss him completely.  I’ll never know whether the crossing of our paths turned out to be a better thing for him or not, whether my efforts ultimately eased or increased his suffering.  I can only hope that I did more good than harm.

But whatever it was for him, it was most certainly a gift for me, one of the rarest in fact, to be placed in my secret treasure box full of sparkling things.  It was an encounter full of the dizzying reminder that life is beautiful, yes.  Without doubt.  But it’s only in opening up to let all the world’s shadows and all the world’s light pour inside to fill me, that life transforms from the merely beautiful into an enchanted, shimmering place of wonder, seen with ever widening eyes.

Epilogue: I’ve been secretly chafing ever since our first kayaking adventure when the hubster bravely towed that fishing boat back to shore and earned his kayak its name–Tug Boat.  I wanted a good name for my kayak, too, but after his naming adventure, everything I came up with sounded made-up and lame.  Unearned.

But there was a moment in the middle of shepherding the gosling, when he was still in the water and my yak and I were jockeying around him, trying to guide and protect him both, when the name came to me out of the blue, like it had been whispered in my ear.  

“Mother Goose.”

And that was how the kayak got her name.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Gosling image above is from Wikipedia

Five Major Influences That Help Determine Our Acceptance Or Fear Of Dying and Death

Vitruvian Macrocosm

Anyone who’s been following this blog for a while knows that I don’t believe dying and death need to look as terrifying, crippling, or hopeless as they’re so often portrayed in American media and culture.  (Dying and death are two completely different things by the way. I wrote about the difference in the post Dying Is Still Alive a while back but it’s important enough to mention again here.)  In the U.S. we live in a profoundly death-averse culture that has not only stripped out most of the beauty, grace, and strength involved, it’s taken the innate sadness, loss, and suffering of the dying process and blown them up a hundred times bigger than they already were.

Which is a common function of denial.

I’m deeply concerned by the pervasiveness of this bloated kind of fear.  Partly because of the driving role it plays in the unsustainable costs of our health care system, but more because of how much harm it does to people in their everyday lives, a harm that a lot of people don’t even realize is there.  Living with the kind of chronic, low grade terror that comes when one doubts they’ll be able to handle dying when it arrives, is very hard on a person’s basic sense of security in life.  It’s like trying to enjoy a journey down a magnificent river when you know there’s a Class 5 rapids up ahead somewhere (nobody knows the exact location) that’s gonna beat the shit out of you when you get there because you lack the knowledge and skills to navigate it successfully.  Under those circumstances who can relax for very long?

Part of what I’ve wanted to do with this blog is to try and counter some of the negative effects of this pervasive, cultural aversion we have.  To try and rebuild…by talking about the particulars of dying in a normal, unafraid kind of way…some awareness of, and confidence in, the native abilities we were all born with that help when the time comes.  It’s never been my intention to try and eliminate the fear of dying completely because, frankly, I don’t think that’s wise.  Some fear of dying is actually helpful and necessary if we plan to survive for very long as a species.

But I do want to try and ease some of the excess, buried terror I so often glimpse in the back of people’s eyes, to see if I can’t offer something that might help shrink that part of it back down to a size they can live with.  Happily.  Safely.  Confidently.  With an abundance of hope and optimism about their own dying time, whenever it comes.

Pipe dream?  I honestly don’t think so.  There are some practical steps people can take to ease their fear, if they ever want to.  What I’d like to do with the next few posts is talk about five of the things that have a big influence on whether a person is more likely to accept or fear dying, and then identify which ones we have some control over, and what we can do to try and change them if need be.

Five Major Influences That Determine Whether We Accept or Fear Dying and Death:

Influence Number One:  The quality of our first exposures to dying and death.  This includes things like, a) How old we were when we first encountered it, b) How old the person dying was when we lost them, c) How close our relationship was with the person dying, and d) The nature and graphic details of the dying and/or deaths that we witnessed.

Influence Number Two: The attitude towards dying and death of those who taught us about it.  If they were afraid of it, we probably learned to fear it, too.  If they couldn’t, wouldn’t, or didn’t know how to talk about it, we probably learned that it’s a taboo topic to be feared and avoided.  If they were unfamiliar with, but curious about it, we were more likely to feel safe thinking about it and exploring it ourselves.  And if they were familiar and at peace with it, then chances are higher that we’d become familiar with it and learn to accept it, too.

Influence Number Three: How much and what kind of knowledge we have about the details of dying and death.  The less we know about it, the greater the likelihood of fear due to the unknown factor.  However, partial knowledge can be even worse. If we know a lot about the difficult aspects of dying but nothing about the beautiful side, there’s likely to be some additional irrational terror on top of our fear of the remaining unknown.  But if we know both the difficult and beautiful details about it, we’re far more likely to harness a courageous view of dying, as well as make a plan for navigating our own when the time comes.

Influence Number Four:  Our level of practical familiarity with dying and death.  I’m talking about hands-on, in-the-room experience here as versus just philosophical knowledge.  An increased familiarity with, and tolerance of, the nitty gritty, physical details involved is usually helpful where easing fear is concerned.  But only as long as the quality of the dying and death being experienced is good.  When the dying process swings the other way and is out of control, hopeless, violent, or otherwise horrible, then it’s more likely to just confirm our worst fears.  A bad death is not a great situation for novices, but of course sometimes that just can’t be helped.  See Number One above.

Influence Number Five:  What meaning we assign to dying and death.  This influence is perhaps the greatest of them all.  The meanings we weave are completely unique to each person and will usually be a product of the accumulated experience from the previous four influences.  It’s important to remember that this one is constantly evolving, and that it can (and probably will) swing back and forth between a negative and positive view over time.  It’s very heavily influenced by the quality of the deaths it’s exposed to (including movie deaths, news stories of deaths, etc.) The greater the frequency of good deaths that we hear about, witness, or participate in, the more positive our meaning about death is likely to become.  And vice versa.  I believe a person’s aggregate exposure to good deaths vs. bad deaths is the strongest indicator of whether a person will view dying and death in a positive or negative light.  I believe this exposure is an even stronger indicator than a person’s religious or philosophical beliefs.

(This is why I feel that striving for a good death might almost be considered a social responsibility.  Not only because it’s absolutely in our own best interests to die a good death, but because the legacy of a bad death is so powerful and lingering that it can sometimes harm, cripple, or even destroy the individual lives left in its wake.  I’ve seen the influence of both good and bad deaths first hand and I assure you, the difference for survivors is profound.)

In the next post I’d like to discuss how our early exposure to dying and death plays a big role in shaping our view (for better or worse), but how a subsequent brush can shift or change it again.  I’ll share a few stories that I think might be interesting.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012