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

Readers, forgive me for I have sinned.  It’s been two and a half weeks since my last blog post…which is a first.  Maybe it’s a sign that my life really has been just as busy as it feels but still, excuses are boring so I’ll just leave it at this:

Hello and I’m glad to be back.

Updates:

Mon Pere: I wrote a blog post about my father-in-law’s unique dance with aging a while back (see Elders and the Strange Gravitational Effect of Final Mystery) and since then his spiral has tightened.  He was admitted into hospice care a couple of weeks ago and, as so often happens, his symptoms have greatly improved since then.  Finally…relief.

It was interesting watching him work his way through all the many and powerful misunderstandings that still exist about hospice in the minds of most people.  He was very reluctant to take the step because, as he said, “I just don’t feel like I’m dying yet.”

And rightly so.  He’s not.  He’s still very much alive…and he will be until those final days or hours when his body begins it’s final, dramatic shut-down sequence.  Until then, he will not…I repeat NOT…be dying.  He’ll be living with a terminal illness which is not only a completely different thing from dying, it’s where hospice care really shines.

So far the hospice staff (along with family members) have managed to get his escalating pain…previously managed separately and inefficiently by three unrelated doctors in three different far-flung offices…back under control.  His medications have been consolidated, coordinated, and increased enough to actually do the job.  A nurse visits him regularly at home so he no longer has to make an appointment (then wait a week with out-of-control pain before having to drag himself down to whichever doctors’ office is involved.)

After months of debilitating pain he’s been able to finally return to his normal cheerfulness…to doing the kinds of things that he loves.  It’s a transformation we’re all profoundly grateful for.

The hospice he’s with also brought equipment and aid into the house that’s making things a lot easier for him…from getting out of bed, to going to the bathroom, to getting around the house and farther, to taking showers comfortably and safely.  He’s looked at me a couple of times in wide-eyed wonder and mentioned what a gift it is–that it’s all paid for through Medicare.

“It’s free,” he whispers, not quite believing that this help he’s needed so desperately–that’s allowed him to finally stop thinking grim and drastic thoughts and happily return to everything he still loves and longs for–is his for the asking.

I think it’s hard for all of us to believe right now, that there exists this one small part of our tortured healthcare system that’s actually delivering what we all want it to; relief and a better life.  And saving money to boot.

I just wish everyone understood that more.

The Wildfire Smoke:  It’s awful.  It’s like hell.  Brimstone shit.  I got up the other morning, looked out the front door, and this is what the sun looked like:

Seriously.  No photo shopping.  Everyone is a smoker these days.

Air quality has been in the dangerous zone for a couple of days here but it’s far worse up in the mountains near the fires.  On an air-quality scale from green to red, the town of Salmon, Idaho’s air is rated purple…beyond red.  The mayor just had surgical masks handed out to everyone in town and yet still…the fires are likely to rage until the snows come to put them out sometime in late fall.

Prayers for early snow in the Northwest this year are currently being solicited.  You can just send them up into the air where hopefully the jet stream will blow them into a smoke plume.

And last but not least…

The Garden: Harvesting mode.  Roughly forty jars of pickles canned so far (halfway through), twenty quarts of frozen green beans, a shitload of grated zucchini both frozen and dried, pickled peaches, sun dried tomatoes, a lot of blanched and frozen turnip greens, and dehydrated elderberries coming out our ears.  (Everyone is getting elderberry brandy for the holidays this year.  Good flu fighter.)  Oh yeah.  And winter squash.  Lots of winter squash.  And tomatoes, basil, corn, potatoes, peppers, beets, and eggplants waiting in the wings.

It’s been a good year in the backyard.  Gratitude all around.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

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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

I’m more afraid of being overtreated for dying than I am of dying from it.

I’m still plugging away at completing the old advance directive I started way back in February.  I know a lot of people say just do it….  

Just.  Sometimes I hate that word.

Although frankly, I didn’t think it would be that big a deal when I started either.  But clearly, my inertia is telling a different story.  The hubster and I actually filled out the forms months ago and, as expected, that part really wasn’t a big deal.  We educated ourselves, we weighed our choices, we made our decisions, and we wrote it all down.

Check.

It’s the next step that’s killing me.  All the follow-up conversations I’m supposed to have with loved ones, alternate medical proxies, and anyone else who’s likely to get involved if I ever hit the point where I can’t make medical decisions for myself.

Fear is a powerful, powerful thing.

But finally, last week I sat down with the friend I’ve asked to be my medical proxy in case the hubster can’t do it and we started feeling our way through the labyrinth together.  It was a fascinating conversation and helped me to really boil things down to my own bottom line.  After some initial flailing and panic while trying to explain, there were a couple of important realizations I came to that helped settle me back down.

A FEW BASIC TRUTHS ABOUT MYSELF:

1)  What happens to the hubster and kids during that kind of crisis is as important to me as whatever is happening to me.  I love them and I don’t want their needs or wishes disrespected or ignored anymore than mine.  Even though it’s not my first choice, I’m absolutely willing to go through some additional suffering and linger for a while longer if they need the extra time.

2)  Money is a very big issue for me.  I do not…DO NOT…want a massive wealth transfer happening at the very end so that nothing’s left afterwards for the hubster and kids.  So don’t anybody feel guilty about considering the financial consequences of any decision.  In fact, feel guilty if you don’t.

3)  Control is an illusion.  All I can do is try and communicate now the best I can.  In the end though, whatever is going to happen, will.  I need to try and remember that, breathe, and surrender again. (And again and again and again.)

4)  The one, single, most important, overriding principle I need everyone to remember and steer by is this:  I’m more afraid of being overtreated for dying than I am of dying from it.

So in a choice between erring on the side of choosing too little intervention or choosing too much, always, always, always err on the side of too little.  I’ve lived a huge and magical, unexpected life full of wonder, surprises, love, companionship, adventure, learning, and near constant amazement.  From a distance, I haven’t really minded the pain all that much.  If I was to go tomorrow, I’m so very, very, very good and grateful with it all.

So the bottom line is you don’t have to worry about cutting me short.  You can’t.  It’s impossible.  Honestly?  I kind of can’t believe I made it this long.  You guys just take whatever time you need…(just again, sometimes I love that word)…to get your hearts wrapped around the whole thing and say your good-byes, and then let me go.

And remember…I love you.  I’ve always loved you and I always will.  There are some things that can’t be killed.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

A New Standard of Absurd

I sent leftover pizza to work with the hubster today, forgetting that he has a company lunch to attend.  He just called and when I mentioned it, he laughed and said, Oh don’t worry about it.  The pizza will keep.  It’ll last for months.  Years.  It has a shelf life of a thousand years…no…ten thousand years.  The stuff is like radioactive waste. And then we laughed because the thought was just so absurd.

The hubster’s sense of humor is always escalating like that.   His jokes climb stairs, scale cliffs, then sprout wings and fly.  He loves stretching farther and higher for the most ridiculous comparison he can find and, I admit, the more ludicrous it gets the harder I laugh.

Then, out of the blue, I remembered all the photographs I’ve seen on the internet recording the daily decomposition (or lack thereof) of a McDonald’s hamburger.

And all of a sudden I wondered:  Will McDonald’s hamburgers eventually take over from radioactive waste as the new comic standard against which all decomp-resistant materials can be measured?  Instead of It has the shelf life of radioactive waste will we say: It has the shelf life of a McDonald’s hamburger?

(Evidently fifteen years and counting on this one.)

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

A Little Interview With Mr. Will To Live

(This beautiful guy is Hotei, the god of happiness.)

Since I’ve gotten serious about finishing the book I’m spending a lot less time in Blogland so first, I’d like to offer my sincerest apologies to anyone living solely for my next post.  How some people whip out well-researched, erudite, interesting posts a few times a week (or even…gasp…daily) while simultaneously self-publishing multiple books and promoting them is beyond me.  I can’t even type that fast.

Where the book is concerned, I’m currently taking a tip from that wildest of writers, Jack London, to heart.  He claims:

You can’t wait for inspiration.  You have to go after it with a club.

Accordingly, first thing each morning I get out of bed, pick up my club, give it a swing or two for warm up, then sit down at the laptop and dutifully beat on it for an hour.  I figure this way if inspiration ever strikes at my house, at least it won’t be hitting an empty chair.

But my blog-attention has clearly suffered as a result and just in case anyone 1) noticed or 2) cared, I thought I should at least offer an explanation.

And there you have it.  Now on to today’s topic of the will to live.

Lately during club hours I’ve been having some long, thoughtful conversations with an on-again/off-again companion of mine called Mr. Will To-Live.

Mr. Will has mentioned that he’s enjoying our talks enormously as most of the time people seem to take him for granted.  Well not so, me.  I’ve always found him fascinating in the most elusive of ways.

He tells me that, depending on a variety of factors, he shows up a little differently for each person; sometimes strong and pulsing, sometimes erratic, sometimes frail and tenuous, and in a handful of hardship cases like mine, fractured to the point of being almost useless at times.

I asked Mr. Will what factors determine the quality of a person’s will to live and he cocked his head to one side and thought about it for a moment, then ran through this quick sampling:

1)  the will to live has both nature and nurture components to it.  Everyone is born with some degree of a will to live, but no matter how weak or strong it is starting out, it can always change.  (In other words, don’t get too cocky on the one hand or lose hope on the other.)

2)  the will to live puts down most of its root system in childhood so it needs to be fed lots of good, yummy stuff during that period.  A few things that the will to live loves are:

     a)  safety (this lets a child know that they are very, very worth protecting)

     b)  kindness (this allows a child to unfurl all of their amazing, tender, new shoots)

     c)  encouragement (this tells the child that it’s perfectly okay to want things, even a lot)

     d)  freedom to explore (this confirms that the world really is a curious, interesting, worthwhile place to be)

     e)  tolerance for mistakes (this lets a child know that of course they can keep trying)

     f)  a lap and strong arms when things go wrong (this teaches a child that help is a good thing.)

3)  However, if a person reaches adulthood with a gimp sort-of will to live like mine, there are still things that can strengthen it.   A few of them are:

     a) finding someone or something to love (we can continue to stay alive for others even when we’ve lost all desire for ourselves)

     b)  finding a purpose (having something meaningful to accomplish will up anybody’s endurance levels by multiples of ten)

     c)  finding something to fight against or spite (hate and anger can provide powerful reasons to live but have seriously debilitating side-effects. Use with caution.)

     d)  and lastly…service of just about any kind (bringing joy, comfort, aid, companionship or meaning to others in need can nourish not only their will to live but, mysteriously, one’s own.  A marvelous trick, no?)

Service has the additional benefit of inviting Ms. Longing For Life into the room…the wind-beneath-the-wings and beautiful close cousin of Mr. Will To Live.   Hopefully, I’ll be able to secure an interview with her for a future post.

In the meantime I’d like to thank Mr. Will To Live for his time and valuable insights and encourage everyone to try nourishing him with one of his favorite foods once a day.  (Children aren’t the only ones who thrive with a little extra safety, kindness, encouragement, etc.)  It can at least bring a little lift to someone’s day and at best totally turn things around.

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

Your Early Exposure to Death: Was It Scary Or Curious?

“Children do not respond to death as adults do. Their normal reactions are much more natural, curious and varied, until that is changed by the adult world”.  From Children and Pet Loss.

(This post follows Five Major Influences that help Shape Our Acceptance Or Fear of Dying and Death.)

Before I start, I want to say that every person is unique, so of course the relationship they forge with death over time will be unique, too.

It’s like a lifelong dance we do; each successive loss is a new partner that whirls us about the floor for however long it lasts, then drops us in our chair by the wall again.  Every encounter is different and our perspective on dying evolves with each one.  As John Gray over at Going Gently wisely reminds me from time to time, there is no right or wrong way to look at dying.  Each person’s experience just is what it is, and that makes it absolutely true for them and deserving of respect.

Having said all that, it’s also important to remember that both trauma and beauty are inherent in the dying process.  And with increased, gentle awareness, it’s possible to help ease the first and strengthen the latter.  (That’s actually one of the main goals of hospice and palliative care.)  In practice though, this shift happens a lot faster with a person who’s already open to the good.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that, while there really is no right or wrong way to look at dying, there are some perspectives that might be more helpful than others.  (Of course, anyone currently reeling with a loss is sacred and off-limits.  Period.  I’m not talking about you trying to change anything right now.  You have enough on your plate.)  But for the rest of us, it wouldn’t hurt to consider at least trying to tweak our view of dying before our next up on the dance floor.  It could make a difference.

So what shapes any given perspective?

Well, early impressions sure pack a punch and go a long way towards forming our view of dying thereafter.  There are a number of variables that feed into whether our first brush with death leans toward the strengthening or scary side, but the top three would probably include, 1) how big the loss is, 2) how the people around us respond, and 3) the manner of the death.

A friend of the hubster’s came for a visit a couple years ago, and when we ventured onto the topic of my work with hospice and my perspective about the beautiful side of dying, he disagreed that there was anything beautiful about it.  He related the story of his first experience with death and, truly, it was not a good one.  He lost his father to illness when he was in his teens, a time when he was particularly vulnerable and unprepared, and he was still, some forty odd years later, carrying a burden from that loss.  In his experience, dying really had been something bleak and terrible; there wasn’t anything good involved to help counter the pain.  Dying was a force that stripped him of the father he still desperately needed and then left him struggling alone in the vast hole it ripped in his life.

So when I spoke about the beautiful side of dying I encountered in my work, he looked at me like I was speaking Swahili.  Because beauty had played no part in his primary encounter with death, it was difficult for him to even consider it as a possibility.

My aunt had a similar devastating encounter with death when her husband died in his forties of colon cancer back in the eighties.  The battle for a cure beforehand had involved five years of grueling, toxic, and unproductive treatment and then, on top of it all, towards the end of the fight his pain was poorly managed (as happened more often than not, back then.)  His death was not pretty and the scars it left for my aunt were profound.   So when my grandmother, her mother, died a peaceful, easy death a little while later, my aunt declined to be in the room when she passed because her prior experience made her believe that dying, by nature, is gruesome and harsh.

I always wondered (privately of course, I never said anything to her) if being present at my grandmother’s benign death might have helped heal some of the earlier trauma but, of course, there was no way to know.

But then my mother, her sister and best friend, died a few years ago and my aunt wound up accidentally being in the room when she passed in spite of her intention not to.  The moment was profoundly beautiful for all of us assembled, a final gift of grace from a woman whose life had been all about love, and it provided me with a means of finally learning the answer to my question.  When I asked my aunt about it later she answered that, yes, witnessing my mother’s good death really did help ease the burden of horror she’d been carrying for so many years.  She felt a little more peaceful with it now.

It was a revelation for me…the realization that our initial perspective on death isn’t written in stone.  That, if the luck of the draw brought us a difficult first death, we’re not helplessly doomed to tremble at the thought forever after.  It is possible to ease some of the fear of dying and create a measure of peace.

Of course first brushes with death don’t always involve a primary relationship, in fact they usually don’t, and these milder, less threatening experiences can provide an opportunity to get one’s toes wet a little at a time.  One of the most common ways that children get a first look at death is through the loss of a family pet or other animal, and these encounters provide a golden opportunity for teaching them how to navigate the dying world with courage and strength.  Children take their cues on how to respond to death (and everything else for that matter) from the adults around them so it’s important what we model for them.

I found the following story on a forum where people were discussing the potential value or harm, for children, of holding funerals for a pet.  I thought I’d include it here because it’s such a great example of how a parent’s response can so profoundly shape a child’s perspective of not only death, but the value of life:

“My parents’ dog died at home when I was two and a half — they hadn’t wanted to put him down at the vet’s. I recall him quite vividly lying there on the kitchen floor on some sheets of newspaper, and I also remember the questions I asked my mom and dad as I grappled with what had happened. I asked if I could pet him, and they said that would be okay. They were quite attached to the dog, which they’d gotten before they were married and had been a fellow-traveler with them in their journey together, and so they both cried a little. I remember trying to comfort my mom, telling her it’d be okay. Later, I watched my dad dig a large hole out in the woods, carry Jonathan out in a fuzzy red blanket, bury him and mark the spot with a large piece of white quartz.

I was very clear on what was happening, for the most part, even at two and a half. I think your daughter would be fine with it at six.

Those events left a very strong impression on me, evidently: they’re my very first memories. Though sort of melancholy, they’re by no means bad memories. My dad still lives in the same house. Occasionally, when I go back home to visit, I notice that piece of quartz a little way out in the woods, half-buried in leaf litter. I think: that rock is a testament to a life not taken for granted.”posted by killdevil at 11:39 PM on May 24, 2007 [28 favorites]

For anyone looking to learn more about how to guide children through the loss of a pet (or anyone struggling with the loss of a pet themselves) The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement has a really terrific website.  A lot of people deny that the loss of an animal relationship can be just as devastating as the loss of a human one.  Whoever runs this website is not one of them.

So our early exposure to death goes a long way towards shaping and sizing our lifetime fear of it, but that still doesn’t mean it can’t change.  I’d love to hear some accounts of other people’s first exposure to dying or death.  Did it influence you more towards acceptance or fear?  (Or no influence at all?)

In the next post I’d like to talk about the influence of the attitude of those who teach us about death.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

The Little Kayak That Could

Did I mention we’ve taken up kayaking?

(Kidding.  That’s not either of us.)

It began as a New Years thing (as in I’m really going to do it this time…) and, as hobbies go, is pretty easy to pick up around here since lake and river-rich Idaho is a major hub for paddling sports of all kinds.  (Except sea kayaking.  Obviously.)

We started by renting a couple of twelve foot yaks to paddle around a pond next to the river (from Idaho River Sports for anyone local and interested.  GREAT store.  GREAT people who work there.  Friendly and laid back.  They all LOVE paddling and LOVE sharing their love of paddling.  All you have to do is walk in the door and you’re their friend.)  We figured we’d rent for the summer, try out a few different kinds of kayaks, raise some money, raise some more money, then raise a wee bit more, until maybe we’d have enough to buy our own boats later in the fall or next spring.

But then we got a call.  They said that a couple of used ones had come up for sale (cheap!!…CHEAP!!) and the next thing you know, we were pulling back into the driveway with a couple of kayaks on the car.

(BTW, that’s not the hubster standing there with my arm around him.  He’s standing behind the cell phone camera.  That’s actually B. Daughter who had just dropped by to say hi.)

And then, abandoning all of our careful plans for gradual safety equipment accumulation (actually that should read “my” plans…the hubster, being a strong advocate for spontaneity and adventure, doesn’t have much use for safety planning,) we grabbed the wetsuits and life vests we’d (I’d) obtained so far and bolted up to Arrowrock reservoir on Sunday for a trial run.

Clearly, we survived, as you must have guessed by now since your’re reading this.  And even though we paddled across a fairly large body of very cold water twice, neither the rising afternoon winds nor the wakes from various power boats overturned us after all, thereafter requiring a long, weakening, futile swim into hypothermia, eventual unconsciousness, and drowning before we could ever reach shore again.  (Again, this type of mental scenario is strictly my territory.  I was made for disaster planning.  The hubster’s mind runs along far more optimistic lines and, indeed, is my saving grace.  Without it, by the time I got through envisioning all the bleak possible futures out there, I’d never leave the fricking house.)

But the indomitable hubster still managed to find an adventure for himself, in spite of all my best efforts to avoid one.  We had just pulled the car down next to the water in order to load the kayaks for departure, when a camping fisherman from the next site over wandered by with his dogs for a chat.  But barely had he arrived when he glanced out across the water to discover his power boat…which he realized with some chagrin he hadn’t moored securely enough…had come loose and was floating away down the lake.  It’s canopy was catching the afternoon wind, moving it along at a fair clip.

Then, to my horror, the fisherman casually mentioned that it looked like he was going for a swim.  A swim?  My disaster radar started beeping.  He was going to swim after his boat??

“You can’t!” I blurted out in alarm.  “You can’t swim that far in water this cold!  You’d never make it.  Hypothermia would set in before you could get there.”

At which point the hubster stepped bravely forward, ripped back his wetsuit revealing the large letter H on his chest, and said in a deep, booming voice, “I can get it for you.”

Well, needless to say the fisherman wasn’t turning down an offer like that.  The hubster quickly zipped up his life vest, grabbed his paddle, and launched his kayak again in the direction of the boat.  At first I thought (in resignation) that I’d just wait at the car since my arms had already fallen halfway off my shoulders from the earlier four hours of paddling.  But it didn’t take long (seconds!) for my mind to generate a surprising variety of different capsizing possibilities so the next thing I knew, I, too, was back in the water, paddling furiously after the love of my life, determined to save him from himself if necessary, or at least drown beside him in the ultimate worst case scenario.

In the end, neither were necessary.  Super H reached the boat, tied the dangling mooring line around his waist, and commenced paddling into the wind to try and cover the approximately quarter mile of water that now lay between the boat and the beach.  The fisherman’s girlfriend, sensing the uniqueness of the moment, wisely grabbed her boyfriend’s cell phone and started taking pictures.  This is what it looked like:

The wind eventually proved too strong for the hubster to return it to the beach.  He had to take it into a less convenient part of the shoreline but, all in all (since neither of us died and the fisherman was grateful to land it anywhere) it was tremendous fun.  A great maiden voyage for our new-used, spunky, little kayaks.  We were wondering what we should name them at the start of the day but the fisherman graciously took care of at least one of them for us.  As a parting gift he christened the hubster’s kayak Tug Boat.  In the future we’ll be calling it Tug for short.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

SOBERING UPDATE:  My sister-in-law in Spokane read this post and then forwarded me a link to an article in the Spokesman Review concerning a novice kayaker who died of hypothermia in early April after his boat capsized in wind-driven waves out on a lake up there.  They were exactly the kind of conditions I worried about for us.  I’ll definitely be picking up a couple of tow ropes and a pump before we go out again.  And I’ll have the hubster watch this excellent video on the effects of cold water immersion, too, just so we’re on the same page. 

It’s Still Wilderness Without The Crowds

Okay.  Time to post, no matter what.  I’m being distracted by travel, spring gardening, a writing project, a new hobby, the intense gurgling coming from our dog’s stomach, lint on my pajamas, insecurity…you name it.  I published a post last week, left it up for about four hours, then took it private again because of my old friend, the obsession about Will it offend somebody?  I can handle obsessing about the quality of my writing, I’ve got some protocols in place to keep that one on leash.  But my fear of offending some unsuspecting, trusting reader out there is a lot more savage and last week it leapt out of nowhere and just mauled me.

Which makes it about two weeks without a post, so this…my friends…is gonna be it.  (And probably safe and bland as well.)  Here we go.

We escaped to the Sawtooth mountains again last weekend for some long, gruelling snowshoes through the shitty conditions that always exist up there in April.  It was like seasonal dawn…a transition between stable states.  It wasn’t exactly winter anymore but not full spring yet either.  There was a lot of major snowpack melting down at the rate of a foot a day with all the resulting soft snow and slush, puddles and rivulets, marsh and mud.

This is what it looked like on the first day:

And this is what it looked like two days later:

Who knew snow could melt that fast?  We were amazed.

The great thing about that much mess though, is that nobody else wants to be up there.  The snow is worthless for snowmobiling or cross country skiing, and the area is still too wet and cold for the hikers, backpackers, and river-runners that turn up in droves during summer.  Hunters can’t hunt, ranchers can’t graze their cows yet, and no one can drive off the pavement and not get stuck in the mud, no matter how good their four-wheel drive is.

Actually, I take that back…the Fishing People were already in the valley, which surprised me.  They’re apparently even crazier than we are when it comes to non-deterrence from muddy, boot-sucking conditions and we saw a few of their camping caravans set up in places where the river bends up near the highway.  I wondered at it considering that the Salmon River is swollen, turbulent, and loud with all the snowmelt right now.  I’m not expert but are those really decent fishing conditions?  Or were the Fishing People just fed up with winter and willing to pretend for a while…just to tide them over until the fish really do show up?

Perhaps they were just practicing becoming one with the river.  I’ve heard that’s a big part of fishing, too.

In any case, we had the entire mesa to ourselves, although a neighboring, palatial home owned by a rich doctor from Wisconsin had left a light on again…which drives me absolutely nuts.  I mean, a security light?  Really?  Like…what?  Robbers are going to strap on their snowshoes and trudge two miles uphill to carry off their big screen TV in a backpack?

I really struggle with things like this.

There’s an interesting dynamic going on in the valley where the family cabin has sat for decades.  The Stanley Valley (webcam link) is a relatively poor region mainly populated by ranchers, forest service employees, and a few scrappy souls who eke a living out of the brief but intense summer recreational tourist trade.

It also lies one easy mountain pass away from the extraordinarily wealthy town of Sun Valley, part-time home to Hollywood celebrities, a smattering of billionaires, and an internationally reknowned ski resort.  Over the last decade or so, a lot of that money started pouring over the hill into the Stanley valley, mainly in the form of real estate purchases and second homes/mansions.  This has driven local property values way up creating a serious problem for the less financially-fortunate natives watching their property taxes climb into the rarified air of pretty-much-unaffordable.

With this as our backdrop, now imagine a large mesa perched about halfway down the  valley where the humble family cabin sat in relative isolation for decades.  It served as home base for the hubster’s mother, one of the first nurse practitioners in the state of Idaho who founded and then ran the small, rural medical clinic in Stanley for twenty-five years.  She was a tough old bird even when she was young, on call 24/7, snowmobiling up and down the hill in an area known for some of the most frigid winters in the continental U.S., hiking the two miles up and down in the mud season when neither car nor snowmobile would work, and deeply beloved by those in the region who wouldn’t have had easy access to medical care otherwise.

Fast forward a few years and now multi-million dollar homes have cropped up all around the cabin, making for some interesting neighborhood dynamics.  Don’t get me wrong, everyone who owns up there is united in their deep and abiding love for the entire valley.  We’re all drawn to the place for the beauty of the mountain wilderness, and every neighbor I’ve met is generous, willing to help, and friendly.

But there are natural differences, too, created by the politics of money, the politics of natives versus second-homers, and the politics of environmental concerns versus property and commercial development.

As I’ve watched the building take place over the years it’s gradually sunk in how strange it is…that these days we human beings love our wilderness so much it makes us want to build our homes and communities right in the middle of it, which then, of course, makes it not really wilderness anymore.  We want to be near wild animals so much that we build on the land they need to survive, or we long for the pristine woodland glade so much that we blast a road through the rest of the virgin forest to get there.

It seems so irrational and yet so deeply human, too, to love something so much that we’ll actually harm it to have it.  Like small children hugging a puppy to death, our deep, instinctual need for the beauty, silence, and healing of true wilderness is leading us to damage and even destroy it when that’s the last thing in the world we want to do.

I don’t know what the answer is.  And I have to be careful, too.  Clearly, where the Stanley Valley is concerned, any lofty observations I make about human encroachment are laced with a built-in conflict of interest.  I remember once hearing my eldest brother, a successful real-estate developer around the Pacific Rim, make some acid remarks about how often the first people to move into an area then cite environmental protection as a reason to keep everyone else out.   There’s a lot of truth in that and I feel the sting of it here.  It’s very easy for me, with legacy access, to point fingers at the newbies who only want to do the same thing that we did, only first.

So these days I just try and go up when it still feels most like wilderness to me; i.e. when nobody else is around.  When the silence is still deep enough to catch the faint sound of the river rising up from the valley below, or when the night is still dark enough to see the stars twinkling and shooting outside the window as I lie there in bed for hours staring, unable to go to sleep for the wonder of it all.

That’s why the hubster and I both actually love the shitty April conditions, and why it’s totally worth it for us, hauling a forty pound pack on our backs, uphill, in the dark, through slushy snow and mud to get there.  Just because nobody else is nuts enough to do it.

Except for those Fishing People, but that’s okay.  They’ll never leave the river.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Dead Bodies Need Love, Too

…only I think more for our sake than theirs. 

In the last week I had two different friends tell me stories about the death of a close family member and the extraordinary experience they had with the body afterwards.  In both cases the body was handled in a way that’s unusual by American standards, yet both women told me (with deep conviction) that it made all the difference in helping them cope with the loss.

The first is a friend who’s older brother died last year of a sudden heart attack in his early sixties.  He lived and died in a different kind of community in the midwest where a lot of people practice a spiritual discipline with deep roots in the Indian Vedic tradition. Naturally, his cremation was attended with some of the chanting and ritual derived from that part of the world.  It involved an open casket viewing in a small room within the crematorium following the funeral itself.

The ceremony was beautiful, heart wrenching, and mesmerizing to watch.  My friend had a small video that was given to family members, and she shared it with me.

Only the most intimate friends and family members were allowed to attend.  Once everyone was seated a woman, who’d evidently spent a number of years in India learning how to do it, gave a brief explanation of the ceremony and then began singing what had to be one of the most beautiful, soothing, dynamic songs I’ve ever heard.  The words were in Sanskrit so I couldn’t understand any of it, but the melody, repetition, and deep resonance of the woman’s voice was like being cradled in strong arms.

All of the (many, many, many) flowers from the funeral had been brought into the room and two women were busy in a corner stripping all the petals and placing them into a basket near the head of the casket.  As the main woman sang that unearthly song, everyone in the room stood up and began to file past the body in a circle, picking up a handful of petals out of the basket each time they passed and sprinkling them over him as they whispered their final good-byes.  

At first I was just struck by the surprising beauty of the whole idea.  But then, as I watched his white face…his entire body…. vanishing beneath the deepening layers of soft, tender flower petals, I got it.  How much kinder and gentler this was, how much truer to both the profound love and profound loss of the people in that room, to bury him in flowers rather than dirt.  It took my breath away.

His mother nearly collapsed her first time around, under the unbearable weight of her grief.  But it seemed to get easier for her after that.  My friend told me that more than anyone else, the ceremony helped her mother come to grips with the loss.  Neither Friend nor any of her other family members actually lived in that community.  They’d all dropped their lives to travel from across the country, stunned and stricken.  Friend confided that initially she, herself, was reluctant to view his body, to see him like that.  She wanted to remember him as he was.  But then somehow as she watched him disappear beneath the flowers, the pain and shock of his death was transformed into something else.  Something more manageable.  Closure, she said, and her eyes looked unutterably grateful and sad.

Eventually, they all went down to the furnace and, together, rolled his body in.  But by then they were ready to let him go…which I realized was the ceremony’s intended gift.

My other friend’s loss happened at the other extreme.  She lost her elderly mother after a decade of slow, horrendous decline.  In fact, her slide had taken so long that when she finally…finally!…began actively dying it was hard to get her doctor to believe it.  In the end she was only transferred over to hospice care a scant three days before she died and this made my other friend sad.  She would have liked the extra time necessary for everyone to gather and say their good-byes, to turn their familial head downward toward the birthing canal, preparing for their transition into the next world without her.

Then she told me how they didn’t call the funeral home right away, to come and collect her mother’s body afterwards.  Instead they kept her at home for a night so she and her daughter could sleep beside the bed, one on each side, loving it through the first long, dark hours of its new state.  They called in the morning and watched her taken away in the brighter light of day.  My friend shared that, by then, she was ready to let her go and I recognized that closure thing again.  That elusive, emotional line we all have to track down inside ourselves and cross before we get to begin our ascent back up the other side.

In both these stories I was struck by the double loss we experience with the death of a loved one…how we lose both their them-ness AND their body…and how important it can be to separate the two and honor them both.  Not only as a final gesture of respect for our departed, but for our own healing as well.

first photograph: Cherry Blossom at Washington Memorial by porbital

second photograph: A Study in Pink by Maggie Smith

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Part IX: Out Of Town And Back Again (With Advance Directives In Tow)

(Continued from Part VIII: Advance Directives: Dying Inside Our Big, Hairy Healthcare System)

The hubster and I just spent five glorious day up in the Sawtooth Mountains.

Snowshoeing.  With heavy packs.  Uphill.  Both ways.

Kidding.

It sure seemed like it though.  The snowshoe into the family cabin at the beginning of any trip is always a bitch and this was no exception–a two mile trek from the highway to the cabin, uphill with fully loaded packs, after a four and a half hour drive to get there. The bad news was that the trail wasn’t groomed like we were expecting so Dane the Mangy Rescue Mutt (with bad knee and brace) started really struggling in the deeper powder.  (He made it though, and we’re more confident about his knee now than we have been in a while.)

The good news was that we got a late start leaving home so we didn’t actually strap the snowshoes on and start up the hill until about 8:00 pm.  It was already dark and the stars that night…the stars my friends…were outrageous.  It was one of the clearest nights we’ve ever seen and that’s saying a lot.  We rarely use flashlights because 1) you really don’t need them once your eyes adjust and 2) the electric light is so bright it dims the night sky.

As you may have heard, there was a spectacular crescent Moon/Venus/Jupiter conjunction going on last weekend and, sure enough, that trinity was hanging just over the silhouette of snow capped mountains as we got started.   However, the moon set after only twenty minutes so we had to content ourselves with a radiant swathe of Milky Way arcing over our heads from horizon to horizon while thousands of other constellations and stars filled the rest of the sky bowl curving down to the ground on either side of it.  (We made do.)  Meanwhile, the snow reflected all that diffuse light back into the air so that after a while it felt almost like we were trudging through a softly glowing snow globe.  I couldn’t get enough of it.  I just couldn’t.  I’m sure my face would have gotten frostbite from staring up through the bitter wind for almost two hours, except that my skin was too hot to freeze.  The heavy exertion was making me huff and puff and sweat like a pig.  (The hubster loved the stars too but was more preoccupied with trying to recall what were the exact symptoms of a heart attack.)

(Photo courtesy of Steve Jurvetson)

We’re getting older.  There’s no denying it.  And we’re not sure how many more times we’ll get to have these kinds of adventures.  Physical limits are getting harder to ignore.  But so far we’ve pushed on anyway because when you think about it, there are far worse ways to die than collapsing cradled in the wild beauty of high mountains while gazing up into pure, celestial wonder for the last time.

But not until we’ve finished our advance directives of course.

We packed these documents in along with everything else and spent one of our days at the cabin, pens in hand with a snowstorm raging outside, finally filling the things out.  It was surprisingly emotional.  We found it was one thing to sit and diligently read through them over the course of a few weekends, and something else entirely to actually write in our various notations, initial the desired boxes, and sign on the dotted line with each other as witnesses.

Everything suddenly got very final and real, and I kept hearing a heavy door swing shut with a key turning in the lock.  At first I struggled with the feeling that, by signing the thing, I was somehow giving up all my rights and instinctively, I started backing away and questioning the wisdom of the whole project.  I was surprised at how powerful…how primal…the wave of fear was.

But then I remembered something we’d read earlier, that if worst ever comes to worst and I’m finally lying unconscious and helpless and vulnerable somewhere, Somebody is going to step in and start making decisions for me. Whether I’ve filled out an advance directive or not.  Whether I’ve picked them to be the person or not.  Whether they know what I want or not.  And I suddenly got it…on a deep, gut level…that my advance directive is not the thing that will strip me of control and make me silent and helpless, it’s the thing that will help protect me in case I ever am.

That helped my resolve firm again and I was able to continue.

The hubster told me later that the fear he faced arose from a sudden and overwhelming realization that he will, absolutely, someday just cease to exist.  Poof.  Evidently, it was a huge moment for him but I never would have guessed it.  He didn’t look like he was sitting there reeling from the blinding, existential awareness of total, inescapable, physical annihilation to come.  From the outside he just looked absorbed.  Studying the paper in his hands, reading glasses perched on the end of his nose.  It’s not that he was trying to hide his fear from me, that’s just the way he is.  His courage is so unconscious most of the time that he usually doesn’t even realize that’s what’s going on.

We read and scribbled and talked about things for hours.  Sometimes we laughed, I cried some, but mostly we took turns trying to explain what we were afraid of, what we longed for, and how much we loved.  The process flushed out things that had been hidden and dormant for a long time.  Tenuous hopes and secret dreads, things to be examined, cradled in tender hands, and then placed into each others’ keeping in a final gesture of deep trust.

I’ve been really surprised throughout this whole process at the huge relationship component involved in filling out these forms.  Maybe because it was also a research project for me and we took so much time with it, maybe because we did it together as partners, I don’t really know but I tell you, it’s added a whole new level of meaning to Till death do us part. Overall it’s been a healing journey full of deepening intimacy for the hubster and I.  We’ve shared things we didn’t know we hadn’t shared, and revealed things we didn’t even know ourselves until now.

I guess if there was any advice I could give out of everything we’ve learned so far it would be this:

Do your advance directives together.  Find someone else who hasn’t done their’s yet, or who hasn’t looked at it in a long time if they have, and hold hands as you walk through it.  The person you pick doesn’t have to be the same person who will be your medical proxy.  (Although, if experience is any guide, you may want them to be by the time you’re done.)  And it doesn’t have to be only one other person either.  It could be a group…if you could find that many people brave enough.  I strongly suspect that this is one area of life where the maxim There’s strength in numbers holds especially true.  If you can possibly help it, don’t try to take this journey alone.

And take your time with it.  Break the process down over a few days or weeks.  If you let yourself sit with the questions for a while, you may be surprised by some of the answers that come up.  I know we were.

Y’know, it’s kind of funny.  In walking through our advance directives, it almost felt like an opportunity to practice for the real thing…for dying…from a safe distance. Emotionally speaking I mean.  In our imaginations the hubster and I got to slip on the experience of profound vulnerability and dependence that goes with dying temporarily, while we’re still healthy and vital and strong.  It was scary in some ways, but far less so than what I’d imagine it would be like facing it for the very first time in extremis.

And we got the chance to start honing a couple of the emotional skills that are essential to have during dying…things like the ability to surrender to the inevitable, to be openly vulnerable and reveal our needs to one another, to gratefully accept the help that’s offered and to be dependent gracefully.  Things that, in our culture anyway, we tend to think of as weaknesses or failings, and yet they’re not.  Those are things that actually require tremendous courage and strength.  I didn’t realize how much before.  To openly accept the willingness of another human being to step up and care for us isn’t easy, and accepting it with dignity is rare.  (Especially for somebody as controlling as I am.)  And yet the hubster confided a couple days ago that, during this whole process, he’s felt increasingly overwhelmed and touched by the depth of my trust.  Our willingness to open up and be vulnerable with each other turned out to be, not a burden, but a gift.

So anyway, these are just a couple of the things we discovered while filling out our advance directives.  It’s been a beautiful, frightening, surprising, hard, uplifting, sorrowful, strengthening, sobering, illuminating and profoundly intimate journey for us both.

And it’s still not over!  Next, we’ve set up an evening to meet with the people whom we’ve selected as our alternative medical proxies, to get their consent and share our advance directives with them. Then we need to get the forms notarized, witnessed, copied, distributed and filed. (Note: Because Idaho’s laws place unusually high hurdles to a simple, low intervention dying process, we’re taking precautionary legal steps with our advance directives that wouldn’t be necessary in most other states.  It’s extra insurance against something that probably won’t happen but still…better safe than sorry.)

And then, after we get ours taken care of, I’ve got the kids in my sights for theirs.

To wind this up, here are a series of photographs taken of some icicles hanging outside the cabin window during our recent stay.  The changes they went through over the days we were there feel similar to the changes the hubster and I have gone through on this whole journey with advance directives.

Stage One:  Glowing and happy from the previous night’s starlit adventure.  Delicate, sparkly and naive:

Stage 2.  Advance Directives Day–blasted by the elements, bewildered, and storm bent.  Not so sparkly anymore, but still…multiplying and stronger:

 Stage 3.  Skies are clearing, brunt of the work is done.  The amount of growth that happened during the storm is kind of surprising.  Thicker, longer, and a lot more:

Stage 4.  Older, calmer, wiser, stronger.  Not so much sparkling as glowing. We’re a lot more confident now that we can weather the storm. 

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Part VI: Advance Directives: Mine

(Continued from Part V: Advance Directives: Best To Wish Carefully With A Genie)

In this post I wanted to share a smattering of specific thoughts and choices coming up for me as I fill out my own advance directive.  I wanted to do this just in case 1) someone might benefit from an example, and 2) anyone reading this may somehow, someday be involved in my care.

Just kidding.

(Not really.)

But before I start down that road I want to remind everyone that whatever I say here is a personal thing.  It’s a reflection of me and what I’d like to see happen with my care.  It’s not what I think anybody else should do.

When I was working with hospice my first job in any home was to find out what the people who lived there valued, believed in, stood for, and loved…and then work to support them from that foundation.  I did this because the dying journey is pretty turbulent and, for the most part, people need to harness the emotional and spiritual strength they’ve already established, not try and develop something new.  It’s almost always a bad idea to change boats in the middle of rough water.

Jared Alexander on Hazard Creek in Idaho

Any boat is better than being dumped out and beaten against the rocks for the duration of the journey.  That’s why I always tried, as best I could, to hang my own beliefs and personal preferences on a hook outside the door.

This post is only about the things hanging on my hook.

And now, specifics.

Here’s one of the most valuable directions we’ve come across so far:  Fill this thing out based on what choices we’d want made for us right now.  I’ve always thought of an advance directive as something that would come into play…oh…years and years from now.  Like when I’m eighty-three and dying of skin cancer from all the second-degree sunburns I sustained during my haole childhood years in Hawaii, for instance.

But no.  Turns out I need to think more immediately.  Like for the next five years (after which I’ll review and update my directive for the following five years, and so on.) Which leaves me facing the question:  If my life was threatened right now, at fifty-three years old, would I want more life sustaining treatment than I would want at a terminally ill eighty-three?  In other words, do I want more aggressive medical intervention?  Will I accept more risk?

I suspect the majority of people would say yes at my age, however for me it’s a little more complicated.  Because I’ve already been fighting the good fight to survive depression for two decades, my troops are on the depleted side and I’m a little battle-weary.  My basic will to live has taken a considerable beating and I don’t have the reserves I once did.   Just the idea of having to mount yet another massive resistance in a brand new war is exhausting.

It’s not that I want to die.  I really don’t.  I haven’t been in that phase of the illness for a long, long time now.   But depression years are like dog years…you live more of them in the same period of time…so fifty-three years probably seems longer to me than it would to the average, healthy person my age.  To me, I’ve already lived a really long, great, adventurous life.  Everything from here is just icing on the cake.

So what does this mean?  Well, as of today (of course things can always change which is why I’ll continue to review and update this thing regularly) but as of today, if I was mortally injured or ill and teetering on the brink of infinity, and if a possible recovery was going to mean a long, hard slog just to get back to a state of health equal to or less than what I have right now, then I’d rather take a pass on any life sustaining measures.

Please kiss me and let me go, my darlings.

Of course I’m not sure if the medical personnel involved would either agree or cooperate with that at my age…at least right away.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that in an emergency situation I’d still wind up on life support temporarily.  But then that’s exactly why I’m filling out this document right?  So that the hubster and/or the kids would be able to explain to them first, that I’m completely sincere about not wanting to be “saved no matter what,” and second, why I’m sincere, and that way eventually…gently and with everyone on board…they could remove me from life support.

Like I said, this stuff winds up being totally unique for each person doing it.  I suppose the main dictum for filling out an advance directive is, Filler Outer: Know Thyself.

A couple of other scale-tippers I discovered so far concern the issues of being a burden and/or a catastrophic financial cost.  I saw some tragic examples in hospice of how the drawn-out dying process of one spouse can not only bankrupt the surviving other, it can cripple their bodies and/or minds as well.  Occasionally, that’s just the luck of the draw and in those cases…oh well.  I can always stop eating if I feel that strongly about it (and can still think.)  But at other times it happens because of medical intervention and in that case…I don’t want to do that to him.  I DO NOT want to.  It would suck all the meaning and happiness right out of any additional life I gained if it stripped or destroyed the hubster in the process.

At this point I should mention that the advance directives we’re working with don’t offer assisted suicide as an option.  They can’t.  It’s not legal here in Idaho.  (I wonder if advance directives in Oregon and Washington include something along those lines?)  Locally, we’re only talking abut whether we want to accept or refuse “life-sustaining treatment” in extremis (from CPR to major surgeries to artificial nutrition and hydration to kidney dialysis and breathing machines…all of which can be big contributors to the election campaign of financial catastrophe BTW.)  So…no.  Not really.  Thank you.

Pass.

So, these are just a couple of examples of what we’re considering as we move through the documents.  It’s a lot more than just checking off box #1, #2, or #3.  And while I realize it might sounds pretty grim, in reality it feels surprisingly freeing to just face it.  Like these are big, unknown fears lurking just under the surface anyway, unconsciously sapping our focus and creating unease, so why not just haul them up out of the water where we can finally get a good look at them?  So far we’re finding that under the bright light of day, talking about these things isn’t horrible or morbid at all.  On the contrary, it’s a relief.  While it’s definitely emotional, it’s emotional in a kinder, braver way.  Not bad, really.

Well, this post has gotten too long.  The hubster and I are having our second go with the advance directives this weekend so I’ll try and post more about how it’s going next week.

(Next: Part VII: Advance Directives: Ours)

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Part V: Advance Directives: Best To Wish Carefully With A Genie

From The Arabian Nights by Maxfield Parrish

(This post is the fifth in a series on advance directives.  The last post was Part IV: Advance Directives: Will They Be There When We Need ‘Em?)

February is here!  After eleven years of procrastination, our self-declared Advance Directives Month has arrived and the hubster and I are finally tackling the forms. It’s going a lot better than we expected.  A LOT.  Like finally-easing-that-horrible-fear better.  Here are a few things we’ve learned so far.

1)  NOT ALL FORMS ARE CREATED EQUAL.

In an earlier post I mentioned that I was planning to use our state advance directive forms.  But after downloading and looking them over I changed my mind because, unfortunately, they made me feel even more confused, uneasy, and out of control about the future than I already did.  I realized a big part of my procrastination was because I’m afraid of signing something legal that I don’t fully understand, and with the state forms?  That’s pretty much guaranteed.

I needed a form that would not only list the basic legal choices but actually explain them.  I wanted some context.

In Part III: Advance Directives: Forms and Where To Find Them I researched a variety of other options, and there were two I ultimately considered as alternatives.  The first was the Lifecare Advance Health Care Directive and the second was MyDirectives.com because they both offered the strong educational/support element I was looking for.  We eventually decided to go with Lifecare for a variety of reasons.  It was just a better fit for us.  However, a person looking for something shorter and simpler might prefer MyDirectives.com.  I’d urge everyone to check out all the options before making their own choice.

2) THESE FORMS ARE ULTIMATELY REVEALING OUR MOST FUNDAMENTAL BELIEFS ABOUT THE VALUE OF LIFE.

And I thought they were just about how to die.  Silly me. 

Far from making us uncomfortable, so far the process of filling out these forms is kind of freeing.  It’s easing that vague, horrible dread that tends to linger out around the edges. (Dare I use the word…empowering?)  It’s helping us both define the basic, essential, and worthwhile elements of life, the ones that make it worth living for us, and there’s this funny kind of anchoring feeling that happens each time either of us hits one on the head.  It’s an aha!  Like getting a shot of strength in the arm that instantly settles the butterflies and clears the eyes.  And what’s really amazing is how much that sense of anchoring lessons all the other clamoring fears like What if get hooked up anyway?  What if I lose my mind and can’t even remember what I want? What if I lose ALL CONTROL!?

That last one is the biggie of course, but it’s extraordinary how just sitting and talking about it together is helping to ease it. Which leads me to the third insight we’ve had so far:

3)  IF POSSIBLE, IT’S BETTER TO TACKLE THESE FORMS TOGETHER.

I’ve been saying all along that, no matter how good, complete, and legal the forms are, the chances of them doing much good without having conversations with the other people involved are a lot smaller.

But now I’m discovering there’s an additional…and even more profound…benefit to the hubster’s and my conversations: They’re improving the quality of our life and relationship right now.  I’m not kidding.  We’ve been together for twenty-three years and we’re learning things about one another we never knew before.  Plus, each of us is coming up with unique questions…and insights…and fears…and strengths…that the other gets to learn from, too.  The sense of alliance and trust we already had is getting deeper as we go.

We totally have each other’s backs.

4)  IT’S BETTER TO TAKE OUR TIME WITH IT.

Since the Lifecare Advance Health Care Directive is a long form with a lot of supporting information we decided to break it up over a few weeks.  We’re giving it the hour on Saturday mornings that we already committed to emergency and long-term planning (a new project that we’ve both resisted but is turning out to be remarkably productive) and we had our first sit down with the form last week.  The hubster read from the advance directive while I read from the supplemental Guide (the guide isn’t absolutely necessary but it’s VERY helpful)…and the information is, surprisingly, kind of fascinating.

It covers a lot of history, different legal and medical cases that have shaped thinking over time, medical and legal boundaries that define what we can actually ask for, definitions of what all the different terms mean, and how to bridge the gap between what lay-people tend to want and what medical people can actually do. The overall learning curve is steep but the Lifecare directive is providing a much larger context to help us understand what we’re doing and why, and this leads me to the last important point:

5)  WE DIDN’T KNOW JUST HOW MUCH WE DIDN’T KNOW.

Today’s medical technology is complex, changing, overwhelming, and often totally incomprehensible.  Even so, the hubster and I HAVE to figure out how to navigate it.  (Either that or find a cave somewhere out of ambulance-reach.)  I think most of us want the miracles modern medicine has to offer, but we’d just as soon do without the extra burden and responsibility that goes along with having them.

Unfortunately, that’s not possible.

At it’s core, modern medical technology is basically another genie in a bottle and, like any genie worth its salt, the wishes it grants us are subject to all kinds of unforeseen consequences. It’s pretty easy to wind up with a result that doesn’t look anything like what we thought we’d asked for.

The shrewd Bottle-Wishers among us (generally those with a lot of exposure to the system) have seen firsthand how unpredictable wishes can be, so they tend to think theirs through very carefully beforehand.  They ask, they learn, they craft, they plan…then they write it down.

Newbie wishers, on the other hand, mistakenly believe the genie will somehow understand what they mean however garbled or incomplete.  This, of course, makes them the ones more likely to wind up with something they didn’t bargain for.  (Tubes, drool, and paddles, my friends.)

The hubster and I would prefer to sit with the shrewdies, no matter how steep the learning curve.

I didn’t understand when I first started this project how genuinely glad I was going to be that I did.  Or how much more I’d wind up getting out of it than I’m putting in.  On the one hand, it’s taken a lot more time and energy than I’d anticipated, but it’s already paying off in some handsome and totally unexpected, dividends.

So far, so good.

Next post I’ll start talking specifics about my own choices.

(Next: Part VI: Advance Directives: Mine)

copyright Dia Osborn 2011