Mon Pere Speaks! Hospice in his own words.

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

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

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

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

Without further ado I give you Mon Pere.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

The other posts:

Elders and the strange gravitational effect of final mystery.

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

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

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

 

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Guinea Pig Rescue and the (Historic) War On Women

Meet Hashbrown and E. Benedict.

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

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

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

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

I think I can see it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(24 hours later…)

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

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

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

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

(Photo credit of American Memory)

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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

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

copyright 2012 Dia Osborn

We All Have To Face Our Own Kobayashi Maru

USS Enterprise (NCC-1701)

Trekkies will probably know where I’m going with this.

For everyone else, the Kobayashi Maru comes from the original Star Trek movie series, and is a Star Fleet cadet training exercise that first showed up in the movie The Wrath of KhanIt involves a computer simulation where any Star Fleet cadet aspiring to command a starship winds up confronting the ultimate no-win scenario; a confrontation with an enemy that culminates in the destruction of the ship they’re commanding as well as the death of everyone on board, including the cadet.

In one of my favorite plot twists, a determined James Kirk (image from Wikipedia) manages to sneak in and rewrite the computer program before he takes the test as a way to win the confrontation, but the program was designed as a battle to be lost.  That was the whole point; to determine the true character of a cadet by seeing how they responded to certain death.  After all, as Kirk himself later said when defending the test to a disgruntled cadet, how one deals with death is as important as how one deals with life.

Personally, I don’t think you can separate the two because, for the most part people tend to die the same way they live.  Fighters go out fighting, those with a good sense of humor find something to laugh at, controllers try to control the whole process, co-dependents worry about everybody else, and graceful people surrender with a level of dignity that humbles and awes the rest of us.  Trust me on this one…ALL of the virtues and flaws we cultivate in ourselves through our years of living are going to show up in spades when the dying time arrives.

Working with hospice was like watching people take the Kobayashi Maru, only in real life.  I found myself in the extraordinary position of watching person after person confront the certainty of their own death, and it was…well…it was a thousand things.  It was amazing, curious, humbling, horrible, surprising, heartbreaking, staggering, frightening, illuminating, and inspiring.

Getting the chance to witness and learn from so many different people facing this last and greatest test was a rare, rare! and priceless opportunity.  (…a fact that somehow, almost nobody seems to grasp.  So strange…)  And while everything I learned will unquestionably help me face my own death with greater equanimity, courage, and grace when the time comes, far more importantly it’s helping me to also LIVE MY LIFE with much greater equanimity, courage, and grace until then.

Next to giving birth, working with the dying was…hands down…the most life-affirming, life-nourishing, and life-celebrating thing I’ve ever done.  I could never thank or speak highly enough of the people who allowed me to be with them, there at the end.  It was truly an honor, a privilege, and a gift.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

When Something More Important Than The Parachute Failed

image from Wikipedia

While I was browsing around yesterday researching skydiving and back-up parachutes, I came across a news story from February 2009.

It told the tale of a skydiving instructor, George Steele, who died of a heart attack mid-jump. Now, that piece of information alone would have made me sit up and keep reading because, even though I naturally link skydiving and the possibility of death in my mind, I don’t usually think of it as happening due to a heart attack.  But the story actually gets far more interesting from there.

It turns out this skydiving instructor was not alone when he died.  He was doing a tandem jump and had a novice strapped to his chest.  Now this piece of information electrified me.  Like a lot people out there, I’ve considered doing a tandem jump (someday) as a bucket list kind of thing.  But of all the risks I ever thought might be involved, the instructor strapped to my back having a heart attack was never one of them.

By now I’m on the edge of my seat.  I want to know more.  I have to know more.

Turns out the newbie, Daniel Pharr, was a 25-year old soldier trained how to respond in a life-threatening situation.  His instincts proved up to the task.

The two were the last of the group to jump out of the plane.  After a minute or so of free fall Steele pulled the chute.  Everything became very quiet, which Pharr commented on, and Steele replied to.  And it was shortly after this that Steele’s heart quietly failed.  Pharr soon realized Steele had become non-responsive so, going off of what he’d seen on TV (and our mother’s told us TV would just rot our brains) he grabbed the right steering toggle and guided them safely to the ground about a third of a mile away from the designated landing site.

This was turning into such great story!  Double surprise twist with a happy ending.  Dia, I told myself.  It doesn’t get much better than this.

But wait! she answered.  It does!

Turns out Daniel Pharr’s first thought, when he recognized the danger he was in, was , “So at that point I realized I was just going to have to do what I had to do to get down to the ground and try to help him.”

The article had been great up to that point but this part totally knocked my socks off.  I was inspired.  I was in awe.  I couldn’t help but compare what my own response would have been because…well…it just wouldn’t have been as good.  I’m self aware.  I know my own mettle.  I’ve been in enough emergency situations to realize that I’m primarily driven by self-interest.  Oh sure.  If my kids were involved I’d be a little more noble (as long as they hurried) but otherwise I’d be swelling the herd stampeding for the door.  I probably would have been cursing the poor guy for having a heart attack.  But not Daniel.  Oh no.   Daniel was thinking just as much, if not more, of his partner than he was of himself.

Pharr’s evolution from victim to survivor to hero was like food for the secret, emaciated Better Person languishing inside of me.  He gave me hope, a guiding star.  I fell in love with Daniel Pharr on the spot and wished him, wherever he was and whatever he was doing, continued good fortune and everything blessed and best in life.

But having spent all this time telling you the rest of this stuff, here’s the aspect of the whole story that I really wanted to highlight:

It looks to me like, as deaths go, George Steele got to die a really good one.  Yes, he was only 49-years old and sure, he probably didn’t want to die and most likely wasn’t prepared for it.  But having said all that, clearly he got to do it doing something he loved.  In his relatively short life he’d already done over 8000 jumps.  He’s already taken numerous people out for tandem jumps, sharing in the thrill, exuberance, joy, and rush of all those he introduced to his passion for the first time.  And even though at the end he was doing a tandem jump, he was lucky enough to be doing it with someone experienced and savvy enough to survive the dangers his sudden death created.

But even with as great as all that is, this is what really got me: George Steele didn’t die alone.  When he took his last breath, he got to do it with another warm, pulsing, vibrant, strong, caring, enthusiastic companion strapped to his chest, someone sharing in the same sense of wonder, excitement, and joy that he was feeling himself.  Here’s how Pharr describes what turned out to be Steele’s last moments, floating up there in the sky:

“He pulled the chute,” Pharr said. “It got super quiet. It’s eerily quiet up there. I made the comment to him, ‘It’s surprising how quiet it is.’ And he’s like: ‘Welcome to my world.'”

Welcome to my world. Those were the last words he ever spoke.  I only hope mine will be so great.

I’m not happy for George Steele that he died.  At all.  But I am very happy for him that when he did, he died well.

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

P.S.  By the way, when asked Daniel Pharr mentioned he’d be willing to jump again himself, but his family put the kabosh on it.  What a guy.


My New Idol

Okay.  You have to see this.

For those who haven’t yet, here’s a photo of one little five-year old’s fantastic Halloween costume along with his mom’s commentary about what he was subjected to for choosing to wear it this year.  It’ll make you both gnash your teeth and cheer.  This cop’s wife at Nerdy Apple Bottom is my new idol, my hero, my role model for everything honorable, loving, and courageous.

And I adore her son.  He totally, totally rocks.

The story she tells is particularly insightful for the fact that she’s identifying and naming bullying at it’s very earliest stages.  And…surprise!  As always, it starts with the adults.  In her words:

“But it also was heartbreaking to me that my sweet, kind-hearted five year old was right to be worried. He knew that there were people like A, B, and C. [Editor’s note:  A, B, and C are other mothers at the preschool.]  And he, at 5, was concerned about how they would perceive him and what would happen to him.

Just as it was heartbreaking to those parents that have lost their children recently due to bullying. IT IS NOT OK TO BULLY. Even if you wrap it up in a bow and call it ‘concern.’  Those women were trying to bully me. And my son. MY son.”

I think this is what the source…the spring, the headwaters…of bullying looks like, how it appears right as it first starts seeping up out of the ground.  It’s well worth studying because it’s so much easier to stop it at this stage than it is after the kids pick it up.

And bravo Nerdy Apple Bottom!!  As you can tell by now, most of us out here are far more eager to celebrate your son than judge him in any way but the best.  I have no doubt that, with a mom like you behind him, the man he eventually grows into will be outstanding and a gift to us all.  Thanks for this!

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

Facing the Coward Within

Bullying: Image from Wikipedia

I was raised military.  My father was a career warrior, my mother was a career warrior’s wife and, in our house, adherence to a code of honor was required.  The code went basically like this:  honorable people practice courage.  They stand up for what’s just and try to protect those who are more vulnerable than them.  It’s what my father was fighting to do for us every time he went off to risk his life, and it’s what we were expected to do back home while he was gone.

The opposite of honorable people, we were taught, were bullies because they target the vulnerable instead of protecting them.  An act of bullying was cowardly and dishonorable because it didn’t offer any kind of meaningful challenge.  It was weak, a sign that they didn’t think they could face somebody their own size.  That’s why men never hit women or children, women were the protectors of children, older kids didn’t lead younger kids into trouble, and nobody targeted old people, disadvantaged people, or animals.

It’s was okay to fight with equals though.  That’s how we honed our skills.

In the last month or so the disturbing number of boys and young men committing suicide because of bullying has finally hit the headlines.  The recent cases were all targeted because they were gay or perceived as gay and the bullying grew so vicious and sustained that it finally became unbearable.   This is hardly a new phenomenon.  Our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender children have always been among our most vulnerable,  but far from receiving the additional support and understanding every vulnerable child needs, they’ve traditionally been scapegoated.  And they’re not the only children being driven to these kinds of extremes.  While those who seem different are always at highest risk, with the anonymity that cyberbullying provides, any child can now be targeted and potentially destroyed.   We’ll probably never know just how many of our children we’ve lost to the pain and despair this kind of treatment inspires, but the rates seem to be rising and I’m deeply grateful the issue is finally getting mainstream attention.

It’s not easy to manage the intense rage these incidents can invoke.  However I know that, while justice is necessary, we can’t just turn around and scapegoat right back in a blaze of self-righteous smiting.  Even though that provides a measure of relief in the short-term, in the long run it won’t change the dynamics of the bullying going on.  It’ll reinforce them.   Bullying the bullies is not a strategy for lasting change.

Like any kind of deep and meaningful change, it has to happen on the individual level first before the society as a whole can change.  We each have to look in the mirror and find the bully that’s lurking within.  Then we have to own it and challenge it, whenever and however it shows up.  We all have issues of cowardice and dishonor hiding down there.  It’s part of being human.

Look.  If we, as a society, genuinely valued honor and courage the way we claim to, this level of bullying would never have gotten a toehold.  But we haven’t valued those things.  We’ve valued their opposite.

Not only have we tolerated escalating levels of bullying for years, we’ve encouraged and rewarded it.  We’ve laughed at the comedians and gossips (conservative and liberal) whose jokes are harmful and belittling.  We’ve tuned into radio stations and analysts (conservative and liberal) that blast, rant, spew, and demean.  We’ve allowed ourselves to be swayed by the politicians (conservative and liberal) who turn us against one another.  We’ve divided our very communities, neighborhoods, and schools into those who are like us and those who are not, and then shunned, mistrusted, belittled, or even targeted, the latter.  We have all done these things to varying degrees.

And now we’re reaping the whirlwind that we’ve sown.

These shining, beautiful boys who are now lost belonged to every last one of us, and we’re all to blame for the fact that they took their own lives in order to escape the society that we created for them.  The gifts they carried and contained for the rest of us– their joy, determination, promise, insights, creativity, solutions, strength, courage, sacrifice, and love–is now gone.  Lost.  Forever.  We’ve not only flagrantly and stupidly wasted the greatest treasure that any nation has, its children, but we’ve also invited an epidemic of suicide into our midst.   While there were specific individuals involved in each case, that in no way absolves the rest of us from the thousand, thousand little ways we each helped to establish a culture of bullying in the first place.  Nor does it relieve us of the responsibility to do whatever is necessary to change it now.

Here’s a role model that’s helped me.  I’d like to leave this post with one of the most inspiring examples of courage and selflessness I’ve seen come out of all this.  If anyone is wondering what the kind of honor I’m talking about looks like in practice, please take the time to watch this.    It’s a video (about thirteen minutes long) of a city councilman in Fort Worth, Texas who is risking his career in order to reach out to those who might also be considering harming themselves.  He’s speaking specifically to gay children but the message goes far beyond that.

It’s one of endurance, love, and faith, and speaks to anyone who’s ever experienced the kind of despair that can lead to a journey down the dark road.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

The $3,399.28 Cat

I’m home again.  Finally.  Two weeks is a long time to be away, even when I’m away somewhere that I love.

We traveled all day yesterday to get back here.  Up at 4:00 a.m., long drive down to St. Louis, long wait at the airport, long flight with two stops in Denver and Salt Lake City, then home sweet home at 8:00 at night.  I was frazzled, exhausted, and shutting down hard.  My cell phone went dead around 2:00 in the afternoon, so I didn’t pick up the two frantic voice mails left on it until after recharging around 9:30 p.m.

That was when I learned that Dane the mangy, rescue mutt, oh mighty predator of predators, attacked the neighbor’s sixteen year old cat Tinkerbell in the afternoon and mauled her pretty badly.

The first voice mail was from our daughter (voice trembling uncontrollably) telling me that the attack took place but everything seemed to be okay.  Daughter was house-, dog-, and garden-sitting for us while we were gone.  Daughter was overwhelmed by those additional duties on top of the five course load she’s carrying this semester at college and the thirty hour week she works as a waitress.  Daughter couldn’t manage Dane’s afternoon walk so she called Sweet and Helpful Neighbor Lady across the street who cheerfully offered to help.  But Daughter didn’t realize that Neighbor Lady had cats and made the mistake of taking Dane Cat-Hater over to her house off-leash.  The rest, as they say, is now history.

The second voice mail was left about four hours after the first.  It was from Neighbor Lady (voice also trembling uncontrollably) letting me know they were at the vet where they’d discovered that Tinkerbell was not okay at all.  In fact, Tinkerbell had multiple broken ribs and a punctured lung, and surgery on her was going to cost about $3,000.  She was sobbing into the voice messaging center that they couldn’t afford it and, if we didn’t pay for it, they were going to have to put her down.  I about shit.  Then I told the hubster.  He about shit, too.

Which is when I first noticed the interesting little voices piping up in my head, having a spirited referendum in there.  The first voice (naturally) was Guilt.

I told you!  I told you a thousand times.  We should have made it a rule that he’s always on leash when he’s out of the house!

The next voice was Blame.

It’s the hubster!  The hubster hates leashes!  He refuses leashes! And how in the hell could Daughter not know that Neighbor Lady didn’t have cats? We’ve been neighbors for thirteen years for godsakes!

Then Wheedle and Cheat chimed in.

Y’knooooow…mentioned Wheedle.  It must be close to an hour and a half since Neighbor Lady called.

Yeaaaaah, that’s right…seconded Cheat.  I wonder…what-oh-what could have happened since then?

Do you think they may have already put her down? continued Wheedle.  It would be so sad…

so sad…echoed Cheat.

But it wouldn’t cost us nearly as much…suggested Wheedle.

It would save us a fortune! chimed Cheat.

It would put the cat out of its suffering, too…said Wheedle.

It would be a kindness, Cheat nodded his head emphatically.

Maybe…Wheedle tilted his head to one side and gazed up at the ceiling…we should just say we didn’t get the message and call in the morning?

How compassionate! Cheat agreed.

Compassionate? said Guilt much struck.

Can we really do that? said Blame perking up.

It was only after this exchange that Tattered Shred of Decency finally spoke up.

Oh, come on you guys, her voice was gentle but firm.  Couldn’t you hear the anguish in Neighbor Lady’s voice?  Tinkerbell is like her child.  We can’t dump this off on her.

But we don’t even like cats, muttered Cheat.

Remember how Tinkerbell used to come in our backyard and shit in the pea gravel pathways? reminded Blame.

And y’knoooow…Wheedle slithered back into the conversation.  Tinkerbell is a very, very old cat…

There was a significant pause here.  It was a hurdle even for Tattered Shred but she powered up and managed to clear it.

Doesn’t matter, she finally crossed her arms over her chest.  Neighbor Lady loves her and can’t bear the thought of losing her.  Not like this.  Don’t you remember all the times Neighbor Lady helped us when we were in a tight spot?

Nobody answered.

Has she ever, ever done anything to hurt us?  Or anybody else for that matter?

Silence.

And is the pain she’s in right now any fault of her own?

Four heads hung down in shame and wagged slowly back and forth.

So the hubster and I called her back.  Neighbor Lady and Neighbor Hubster were still at the vet and Tinkerbell was still alive.  Only somehow, during that hour and a half delay, the surgery’s cost had grown from $3,000 to $4,000.  And by the time I actually talked to the front desk person to give her our credit card number, the upper estimate had mysteriously mushroomed to $5,000.  I wasn’t sure what was going on but at that point I thought it wisest to let the clinic know we were capping the amount we’d pay at $4,000.  Privately, the hubster, Tattered Shred, and I remained flexible about covering more, but we didn’t want the emergency clinic thinking we were patsies.

The final amount topped out at $3399.28 and we considered ourselves lucky.  (Could that be what the clinic was trying to accomplish by raising the upper end?)

I’m not sure why it’s so much harder to be a good human being when large sums of money are involved, but it is.  Thousands of dollars just hurts.  Ow.  However, the fact that Neighbor Lady is such a genuinely good and loving person made it a whole lot easier for me to step up to the plate and do the right thing.

Is goodness contagious then?

(Shittiness certainly is.  I admit if the cat had belonged to the lady who lives behind us, the one who wanted to chop down our apple tree to keep a few apples from falling in her yard, the referendum in my head would have been longer and the outcome uncertain.)

It’s the old Golden Rule I guess.  Be unto others as you would have them be unto you.

Only you know what?  Neighbor Lady doesn’t have any strings attached where her be-unto is concerned.  She’s not kind and decent because that’s how she wants to be treated in return.  It’s just who she is.  She’s a naturally stellar human being.  Frankly, I don’t think I’ll ever be that good a person but at least her influence helped raise me a little higher this time around.  Maybe if I put a little effort into it there could be some kind of trickle down effect from all this.  Next time I’m dealing with Apple Tree Hater, maybe I’ll strive to be a little more understanding and forgiving, too.

Maybe this incident could even morph into something that winds up improving our little part of the world.  I owe it to Tinkerbell to at least try.

This morning, the hubster and I drove past a dead cat flung to the side of the road that had been hit and killed by a car.  I felt the twinge of regret I always feel with roadkill and then heard the hubster mutter, That better not be our three thousand dollar cat. We looked at each other and started laughing as we realized that for the first time, for whatever time she has left, we’re now heavily invested in the welfare of a feline.

Could it get any stranger than that?

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

The Burden of Miraculous Choices

One of the strangest side effects of my years working with hospice was the collapse of my sense of belonging.  I had no idea beforehand, how much of my identity was tied up with the various beliefs I held and the different groups I identified with because of them.  National, ethnic, familial, political, economic, spiritual, you name it, I had come to define most of who I am by the ideals I held.

But then, as I entered homes filled with beautiful, vulnerable, dying people…who it just so happened believed in a wide variety of  things that were frequently different, even opposite, from my own…I made the unwelcome discovery that many of my ideals were actually fed by lurking, unconscious prejudices that lay, seeping and contaminated, just underneath.

I was naturally horrified.

One of my biggest prejudices was against the medical/industrial complex and especially the pharmaceutical branch.  (Please understand, my admission of a prejudice is not to say there isn’t a problem.  I’m not alone in my concerns about our over-prescription, over-use, and over-reliance on drugs.  A lot of thoughtful people, both in and out of the medical field, are worried about it.)

But for complex reasons, including a couple of personal encounters with disrespectful (and in one case unethical) doctors, I went beyond simple concern into deep prejudice.  I began to think badly of medical, pharmaceutical, and health insurance people as a whole.  I came to question not only their motives but their basic humanity.

I secretly began to suspect they were monsters.

But then one day I had this irresistible urge to work with the dying and as a result, actually entered into the medical/industrial complex as a participating member.  I joined a hospice, took a class, and became a nursing assistant.  I did my clinical hours in a nursing home.  Visited patients in hospitals.  Worked closely with nurses and doctors and even filled prescriptions at pharmacies, delivering them to the people I helped care for.  And lo and behold!  Somewhere along the line, in the gentle, surprising way that grace frequently delivers its gifts, I rediscovered the value, relief, and miracle that modern technological advances have to offer.

I discovered there aren’t really any monsters after all, just an odd amalgamation of deeply caring, deeply flawed human beings.

As a result of this journey, modern medical technology has taken on a slightly different cast for me.  Not so much a cold, uncaring, manipulative, disrespectful power that takes over our bodies and ignores our humanity, but an offering of something extraordinary, a possibility of the truly miraculous.

I had a patient once.  Maggie–dear, beautiful, polio stricken Maggie Full Of Grace–who wrote a little book about her sixty year journey with the disease and it’s after effects.   I read it after she died and in it I found the answer to a question I’d always wondered but never found the courage to ask her.  How did she feel to be one of the last to ever contract polio?  The vaccine was introduced two years later and the disease, for all intents and purposes, was eradicated.  Did she ever feel cheated?  Did she ever think Why me?  Why wasn’t it discovered two years sooner?

I found the answer in her book.  First, she described the terror she and her husband initially experienced in those earliest days, not for her but for their three small children, the fear that they might also contract the virus.  She’d been nursing her five-week old baby at onset so he was particularly exposed.  That description was then followed by this passage:

“One of the greatest blessings I would later thank God for is the presence of the vaccine, the fact that our children and grandchildren will never get polio.”

I started to cry when I read it.  It was as though she was still there whispering to me.  Still trying to answer the secret question, the real question, I so desperately needed to ask her.  She’d been powerless to stave off infection from the polio virus itself, but somehow she’d successfully fought off the bitterness and regret that so often follows in the wake of such trauma.  How?  In the face of decades of the resulting hardship and suffering,  how in the world did she protect her heart from that kind of collapse?

And somehow there the answer was, miraculously written down for me in her book.  Her love for her children and gratitude that they were spared served as her vaccine.   The power of those two emotions filled her heart with a kind of immunity that no bitterness, however real, however justified, could overcome.   It was something I’d always heard but somehow never really understood before, the simple difference between looking at a glass as half full rather than half empty.  Both realities are always true.  Both have an impact that must be absorbed and coped with.  But the choice of which one to cleave to is always ours, which one we’ll ultimately allow to fill our vision and heart.

I’d never understood before, how often I fill my own with emptiness.  No wonder I’ve struggled with so much sadness.

It was the people I met like Maggie Full Of Grace who started anchoring me back into an older place inside myself, turning me into a person far more tolerant and oblivious than I’d been before.  Over time things like politics and religious differences, economic backgrounds and cultural beliefs, all the myriad and ever-multiplying array of opinions that seemed to matter so freaking much beforehand just didn’t anymore.  Over time I became freer and happier and better and more loving…and increasingly confused by the change.

It was like climbing up to the peak of the very highest mountain in the middle of a vast wilderness where I could finally see forever and ever… but then the wind sucked the map out of my hands and blew it away.  The views were spectacular in a way that knocked me to my knees, sure, but how the hell was I ever gonna find my way back out?

(Don’t delete this photo again dammit…it’s my picture!)

How was I supposed to navigate without the instinctive bearings my prejudices gave me?  I’m still, five years later, struggling to figure that one out.

Maggie came forward in time sixty years to instruct me on the brutal, harsh reality of how it really was back then.  Watching her struggle every single day within her twisted, paralyzed body, hearing her stories of those long, painful, uncertain months in the polio hospital, of how many husbands abandoned their wives, how many crippled children were left behind and forgotten, all these things brought that world to life for me.  I finally got it, why the word, polio, used to strike such terror into the hearts of all who heard it.  Why Jonas Salk was such a hero and how the vaccine really was a miracle of deliverance.

Life before penicillin, immunizations, knowledge of basic hygiene, and the vast array of other developments and discoveries we have today was often cruel.  What we were forced to rely on instead back then was Adaptation with all its tools—the human qualities of creativity, determination, strength, patience, fortitude, and grace.  And now, today, we sit at the junction of these two ages, emerging from a period of helpless vulnerability when we were forced to cultivate our deepest, inner humanity just to cope and survive, and entering into an age of blossoming outer powers where we no longer have to simply grit our teeth, accept, and endure.

We’ve discovered a will, an intelligence, and an imagination within ourselves that can generate miracles…and the breakthrough is heady.  It’s created an insatiable hunger within us for more power, more knowledge, more salvation.  We now dream wild and intoxicating dreams of freedom from all disease, all aging, all pain, all suffering.

Even, perhaps, from death.

But I’ve watched a strange and disturbing thing happening as our outer powers increase.  It seems that our inner powers, the long-cultivated wisdom of our deepest humanity, seem to be diminishing as they lay, forgotten and misplaced in the hallways just outside of research labs and insurance offices and fear-filled waiting rooms.  The ancient tools that served us for thousands of years—things like courage, sacrifice, endurance, surrender, the ability to recognize and be grateful for all that we still have—are threatening to atrophy with a current wave of under-use.  And in their place things like fear, anger, blame, grasping, desperation, and bitterness frequently rise instead.

I have hope though.  I don’t think the current trends will last.  I suspect that we’re simply in the first flush of wild discovery and have yet to understand the limits, comprehend the costs, of pure, unbridled dreaming.  After eons of helpless suffering the pendulum is swinging wildly to the other extreme , but pendulums always swing back.   Someday we’ll remember that we can’t just eradicate things like suffering and death because to do so would also eradicate the great arc of wounding and joy that is life.

No.  I think we’ll eventually settle down, find some equilibrium, and begin the practical task of roping in our miracles, tethering and training them, instead of letting them stampede through our lives, trampling the older, extraordinary knowledge we’ve already developed.

Here’s hoping for a divine marriage between the two someday soon.  A day when our modern technology becomes firmly anchored in our ancient humanity, and when our collected wisdom is further deepened by the discoveries and miracles of today.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

So What Happened to David?

When we left him last week, David was dangling from the top of a telephone pole while the wild cat that chased him there clung halfway up the side, ferociously guarding the only escape route.  I, in the meantime, was trying to drive the demon off by wildly throwing rocks into the cattails, the nearby trees, the air, and one that even went a full forty-five degrees down the road to my left.   I was considering trying to shimmy up the pole myself when, for no discernible reason, Wild Cat suddenly decided to call it quits.  It went silent for a few seconds before backing down the pole and disappearing into the surrounding brush and then poof.  It was gone.  That fast.

Initially I was relieved.  Elated.  Jubilant.  But then I looked back up at David still hanging from the crossbar and realized he probably didn’t know how to climb back down.  Of course he hadn’t really known how to climb up either but he’d had the benefit of adrenaline-fueled terror moving in that direction.  Now that it had worn off he was just uncomfortable, limp, and fat.  The thought occurred to me it might be time to see if firemen really do rescue cats from high places.

In the end that wasn’t necessary.  It took close to twenty minutes of cajoling but David finally decided to come down on his own.  He scooched back along the crossbar, transferred to the pole, and worked his way down to the ground backwards.  Once there, no amount of coaxing could lure him back up onto the exposed vulnerability of the road, but he followed me on a parallel path through the brush as I turned and beat a hasty retreat back to the apartment.  At the last he had to break from cover and make a wild dash across the road to the door where he bunched himself into a corner, casting panicked glances over his shoulder for the few seconds it took me to unlock it and let him inside.

Needless to say, David refused to ever step outside the apartment again and I no longer invited him to even accompany me to the door.  We were both pretty shaken up.  Color me superstitious but I found myself wondering if  his agoraphobia might not have been due to some kind of premonition on his part.  What if he actually knew what was waiting for him out there?  Maybe he’d had wild cat nightmares from kitten-hood, warnings sent from the future to Stay!  Stay inside for godsakes! no matter who beckons–no matter how friendly or safe the girl who eventually opens the door might seem.

The good news is that, after things settled back down, as long as he didn’t have to go outside David was the same bloated, happy, affectionate cat he’d always been.  Aside from a new tendency to give the front entryway a wide berth, he seemed basically unchanged by the whole experience.  His world  returned to the small, cramped space it had been before, the one which constricted his geographical range but in no way limited his level of contentment.  That was what particularly struck me.  In spite of his phobia David the Scaredy Cat remained one of the sunniest, most upbeat creatures I have ever, to this day, encountered.

I thought about him a lot, years later, as I spiraled down into the collapsing world of agoraphobia myself.  My first instinct was to fight against the overwhelming tendency to withdraw, to try and force myself to go out anyway and do all the things I’d always done, but it was like trying to swim out of the gravitational pull of a black hole.  I could spend hours in paralyzed terror contemplating the front door, trying to work up the nerve to grab the knob and turn it, but the harder I pushed myself the more extensive my internal collapse became.  Eventually, not only was I unable to go outside the house most of the time, I could barely function inside it either.

So finally, in desperation, I decided to try David’s trick.  I surrendered.  I shaved down my life to the bare essentials, outlining the few critical commitments I had to at least try to meet–getting out of bed in the morning, taking a shower, feeding my family–and then deliberately cut the rope that tied me to all the rest.  I redefined my basic world as the one that existed within the four walls of our home, accepted it, and–surprise, surprise–experienced an immediate rebound.

This is not to say I instantly attained David’s zen-like level of perfect bliss by any means.  Not hardly.  My agoraphobia was only a beginning symptom of something far bigger that would take me years to learn how to navigate.

But the immediate paralysis ebbed somewhat.  As soon as I stopped demanding a full return to my previous, now impossible life schedule, something frozen in me started to thaw again.  It wiggled its fingers and toes.  It drew breath.  It tentatively started to work again on the now drastically scaled down version of my life.

I discovered that–for me–in spite of the fear, in spite of the sluggishness, in spite of the overwhelming sense of heaviness that kept dragging me down towards lethargy and despair, I still somehow retained the capacity to both love and navigate.  That was my miracle during those years, the transcendent thing I could still create even in an incredibly shrinking world.   My territory got a whole lot smaller, yes, but my heart and willingness to explore it didn’t.  And that’s what David’s example taught me.

That’s also why David is, along with Cerebral Palsy Man, one of my biggest heroes.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

More Role Models and Superheroes

Cerebral Palsy Man was not the only role model that helped me see how happiness can prevail in spite of having every reason in the world not to.  There were two others who illustrated the mechanics of this for me–Maggie Full of Grace and David the Scaredy Cat.

Maggie, a victim of one of the final polio epidemics to sweep across the U.S., lived out the following fifty some-odd years from a wheelchair as a near quadriplegic.  Shortly before she died, she shared one of her keys to maintaining freedom in a low-functioning body with me, which I’ll cover in a following post.   But for now I’d like to talk about David.

David was a cat, literally, and an important part of the apartment package I agreed to house-sit for, one summer during college.  I’m not generally a  cat person–god help me I’ve tried but I just don’t understand a creature that blows hot and cold like that.  However, David was one of those strange cats that behave a lot like a dog and was therefore, to me, one of the more engaging members of the species.  He was both affectionate and hugely fat and loved nothing better than curling up in a nice, warm lap to sleep, thereby numbing the attached legs into a kind of appendage coma.

He was also agoraphobic.   I never heard the details of how or when it all began, but evidently once David developed a terror of leaving the apartment he never did so again except for a yearly trip to the vet during which he was heavily sedated.  Years had passed since he’d experienced the outdoors in a conscious state.

I had no problem with this.  David was content to live inside and seemed no worse the wear for his annual drug-induced stupor, so far be it from me to pressure him to change.  But as the summer progressed he and I developed a little game around his condition.  He would accompany me to the door whenever I left to go anywhere.  I would then open the door, pause for a moment and invite him to step outside with me.  He would then carefully consider the invitation, stick his nose over the threshold and take a few sniffs.  But then he’d always pull his head in, step back, and look up at me as if to say, Y’know?  Thanks awfully, but I think I’m gonna pass today.  You go ahead.  Knock your socks off.  Have a great time out there.

We did this every day, every time I left, for two months.  It became our little joke.  He never intended to go and I never expected him to, but we’d pretend like it was a possibility anyway because we both got such a kick out of it.  But then one day, out of the blue, David changed his mind and with no warning at all, stepped through the door and down onto the sidewalk.

I was floored and just stood there staring at him, slack jawed and goggling.  I had no idea what was going on and wasn’t at all sure how to proceed.  But he looked so confident there at my feet, jaunty and gazing around him, surveying his new domain,  that I quelled the scream of excitement rising inside me and tried to assume an equally casual attitude.  I walked forward slowly, testing him, and he kept pace with me step for step, calm and curious.  There wasn’t a trace of fear in him so eventually we strolled off down the street together, nonchalant, as though we did this all the time.  As though we were heading to the club for martinis, arm in arm, top hats tilted at rakish angles.

Eventually, David grew so bold that he even stepped off the street to explore some of the low brush growing alongside.  The road bordered a large pond full of cattails and nesting, red-winged blackbirds who instantly and strenuously objected to his presence.  He ignored their dive bombing (you vulgar birds…we do not notice you) and proceeded to thread his way through the vegetation like a pro.  He looked like such a cat all of a sudden.  Stealthy and smooth, feline and graceful, all signs of the fat and dumpy slug he was at home gone.  I was proud of him.  Happy for him.  Intoxicated with his success.

And then came the wild cat.

It showed up out of nowhere.  No.  Out of  nightmare.  It was tiny in size but mighty in ferocity and it hurtled straight at David, spitting and hissing like some writhing, poisonous, pit creature.  It scared the living shit out of both of us and David immediately panicked, bolting for a telephone pole sticking up out of the brush about fifteen feet away.  The other cat took off after him and  I started chasing them both, waving my arms (threateningly I thought) in the air over my head and shrieking unintelligibly.

There was a brief moment, as David scaled twenty feet of pole in an adrenaline fueled blaze of lightning speed, that the wild cat and I both paused in surprise and grudging respect.  But then he scooched over and hung himself by the armpits from a crossbar, dangling there like some weirdly displaced flour sack, and chaos erupted again.   The wild cat pursued him about halfway up the pole then stopped, clinging and spitting curses there like the demon spawn of hell it was, threatening him with god-only-knows-what kind of cat horrors while sticking all its fur straight out as if it was being electrocuted.  I, in the meantime, was on the ground spitting curses of my own and clumsily throwing rocks, broken glass, and any other debris I could pry out of the dirt at the impossibly small target hanging off the side of the pole.

And here I apologize but I’m going to have to leave you hanging for a while longer with David.  This post has totally gotten away from me and I’ll have to finish it next week.  Stay tuned.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn