Little Hilltop Shrine Stories

A while back I posted about a little roadside memorial shrine the hubster and I stumbled over in the Sawtooth Mountains, one which I found unusually moving. Well, we found another one last month that grabbed my heart, only this time it was up on a mountain peak overlooking a section of Hells Canyon and the Snake River.

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20160508_164719I think part of the reason this one hit me the way it did was because it was still fresh…the flowers, the grief, the love, the remembering. But it also felt personal because there was something we shared with these people; an obvious love for the place we were in.

It got me thinking about how often we do this, those of us who have lost a loved one, instinctively turn to a physical place like a mountain peak, a gravesite, a body of water, a steam engine (more on that little gem below.) As though, with their bodies gone from us, we need to find something else…something still here…to center around instead. I know for me, when my mother died, finding a place satisfied an illogical but still aching and very real physical need, especially in the early days after her loss. It was where where I could locate her, where I could head when I wanted to be near her, or talk to her, or just remember her afterwards.

(Of course these places can also be the spot people avoid when they want to forget somebody, or desecrate when they need to punish…think urinating on a grave or dumping somebody’s ashes down a latrine. It’s always important to remember and respect that not every relationship lost is a good one. However, for the sake of clarity, it’s the loving relationships I’m writing about today.)

After my mother died in Nevada my brother took most of her ashes home with him to scatter over Waimea Bay per her request but I needed something more than that. For all the tangled, aching, complex reasons that shape every journey through grief I wound up also placing her in the Ely cemetery with my grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, second cousins, and a twice great uncle whose grave I have yet to find but am still hellbent on trying. It’s actually the place where I eventually want my ashes to go, too. (Or most of them anyway. I’m totally okay with my kids using whatever they need for their own grief journeys just like I did with my mom’s.)

Interestingly, I also find her in the full moon (which, frankly, even I don’t understand but am happy to go with whenever I’m out and about that time of the month.)

It’s curious, now that I think about it, that I actually find her in multiple places; Waimea Bay, the Ely Cemetery, and the full moon. Here’s an article written by another woman who’s linking her husband to multiple places by scattering his ashes all over the world; The 9 Things No One Tells You About Scattering AshesIt’s a great read…not too long, moving, funny, with some truly useful information to boot. If you’ve been afraid of talking (or thinking) about the topic of grief rituals Tré Miller Rodríguez’s column is a worthy place to start.

Anyway.

There’s one particular ash-scattering story that’s a favorite of mine. Ely, Nevada, besides holding the remains of much of my family, is also home to one of the few still-up-and-running steam-engine powered trains. It’s called the Ely Ghost Train and is something of a mecca for steam train enthusiasts who come from all over the world for a chance just to drive the thing.

A staff member once told me the story of a mother and son who showed up at the train asking to ride up in the engine compartment in memory of the steam-engine loving husband and father they’d recently lost. This being Ely they were of course welcomed aboard after which, about halfway through the ride, they revealed to the engineer the real reason they were there. They pulled out a bag of ashes and proceeded to beg permission…according to the wishes of the deceased…to empty them into the firebox where the coal was currently burning. I’m happy to say that the engineer perfectly understood and instantly agreed.

I love this story for two reasons. On the one hand it’s just a great story (and classically Ely BTW. They don’t do anything by the book there.) However, it’s also tender and poignant for me because it reveals that primal instinct again…the way that mother and son traveled to a place where they could anchor into the enduring spirit of the man they loved while, at the same time, surrender their final claim to the warm, beautiful body that had held them, spoke to them, kissed them, gazed at them, and touched them in the thousand ways that only a body can. That’s a lot to finally and irrevocably let go of.

I don’t know. Good-byes just don’t get any bigger than that for me, they don’t, which is probably why these little, wild shrines speak to me the way they do. They remind me of all the final good-byes I watched unfold during my hospice years and how sacred each one was, the times when I stood completely forgotten by a bedside witnessing the final exchange of intimacies so private and pure and searing that they seemed to fill up the room with a pulsing grace that erased everything…everything…but the love of that moment.

They completely changed me over time, those moments. How could they not? So that now, when I come across memorials like this so full of that caliber of love, I can feel the grace swirling around me again.  And while my heart definitely breaks a little each time, these places also remind me of the Big Thing the dying helped me see…that I have to keep loving as much as I can, as long as I can, with whoever or whatever will let me because over time, really, that’s the only thing that’s ever made me truly, completely happy.

I’ll leave you with the final view this departed Veteran was left with. Who wouldn’t love to hang around this place forever?

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Of Storms and Stars, Whales and Grief

“People gonna be okay, storms never come to stay, they just show us how bad we need each other…how bad we need each other.”

— Mark Scibilia

I’ve been at something of a loss for words over the last few months with the successive hits that mine and the hubster’s families have been taking. Two suicide attempts by young members (one successful and one thus far not) as well as the dignified and loving departure of a beloved elder seem to have taken their toll on even my desire to talk about dying.

Who would have thought?

But this morning I came across an old Yuletide letter I wrote back in 2002 and the tender perspective expressed in it helped me remember the rich beauty and wonder I once found in the rooms of the dying, sprinkled in among all the horrors. Reading it again reminded me that what I saw back then is still true today…the dying world really does contain profound and graceful gifts…even if I can’t currently see any of them in the aftermath of recent events.

suppose this is where some faith helps. I needed reminding that the stars still hang up there in the depths of the night sky and that they’re just as luminous and lovely as ever. Certainly once this storm has spent all its fury and the clouds have finally cleared I’ll be able to find them again.

In the meantime, I can always read my old stories. 

I thought I’d go ahead and paste in the old Yuletide letter here, just in case anyone else is slogging through heavy weather and hoping for a break. Maybe it can help.

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Dear everyone that we hold with deepest affection:

 Cal and I (and all unbeknownst to them—the kids) send our warmest greetings in this season of silence, celebration and relentless Christmas catalog barrage.  Here in Idaho’s banana belt we’re experiencing an inversion—a meteorological event where the warmer air at higher elevations traps the colder and dirtier air at lower elevations and those of us down under reap the harvest of all our months of collected carbon emissions in the form of smog.  A ban on wood burning is currently in effect in the valley so the cord of wood we just split stands leaning precariously by the garage while the fireplace waits cold and patient.  Cal’s primal and eager impulse to poke around in a nest of flaming materials is temporarily thwarted so for his sake I hope a low-pressure system returns to the area soon.

 This year seems to have flown by faster than any year before (a trend we’ve been noticing of late) and I suspect that it speaks to the fact of our aging.  When I think about it, it seems logical enough.  Between the two of us Cal and I now have almost 94 years of collected living to our names with all the learning and memories, laughter and heartbreak, wisdom and foolishness that that much life of necessity contains.  Think about it for a second.  When held up and compared to such an accumulation of time how long can a single year really take to pass after all?  Sometimes I think of an old-growth redwood or an ancient mountain peak or a star and I wonder what a year seems like to them.  I imagine it would be like a breath or a blink.

 A solitary heartbeat lost in aeons of warm and pulsing rhythms.

 Two great things happened this year for us.  One was a cruise to Alaska—a generous gift from Cal’s dad up one of the most magnificent coastlines I could ever imagine—and the other was the work I began with hospice.  Somehow the two are closely entwined although I’m not entirely sure how. 

The cruise was something of an enigma for me.  It was our first time and in preparing for the trip I found myself conflicted around issues of the seemingly decadent opulence of American spending and a very real anticipation of fully immersing ourselves in it. 

The food was everything I’d ever heard it would be.  We ate lobster and shrimp and French dishes and baked confections in lush dining rooms with scores of people waiting on us hand and foot.  All we had to do was ask (frequently we didn’t have to ask at all) and nothing was denied us.  There was even one climactic moment when we were sitting with our aperitifs at a linen-covered table, gazing out a huge window at the dark and choppy waters we sailed through when suddenly, Cal said, “There’s a whale!”  And when I turned to where he pointed a giant humpback suddenly breached about twenty-five feet off the side of the ship, surging up into the air with a mass and drive that staggered the imagination.  As it rose it gracefully spiraled 180 degrees, arching its body back and outwards as it twirled in a movement that looked like some kind of liquid ecstasy, before plunging back into a whitened maelstrom of water to disappear again beneath the surface.

 I felt overwhelmed by the wealth of it all—both the riches of human civilization and the priceless treasures of the wild.  Cal and I tended to forego the lure of bingo and Broadway shows, naturally gravitating toward the decks and railings of the ship where we spent our time watching the mountains and islands and vast tracks of forest gliding by.  During one shore-leave we hiked on a mountain in Juneau, climbing up beyond the hordes of camera-snapping, cruise-line tourists (no doubt attempting to elevate our own camera-snapping activities to a higher moral plane) and on into the mist and muffled silence at the top where I sang to occasional marmots and ptarmigans who tipped their heads in curiosity. 

Throughout the seven days we saw harbor seals whelping, bald eagles flocking, glaciers calving, and ice so old and compressed that it had turned a luminous color of blue.  At the peak of the cruise we sailed up a fjord (I felt such a smug sense of satisfaction to finally experience the thing that carries such an exotic name) and on that morning I stood alone out on the deck for hours, shivering in the drizzling rain and cold breezes, held spellbound by the sheer, green cliffs rising up from icy waters—their towering heads hidden by clouds, their sides split time and again with plunging waterfalls fed by spring-melting snows—and in the cold, wet, wildness of it all a silence of great age, of vastness, weighed upon me, somehow aging me, too.  Lending me a temporary grace that I suspect only comes enduringly with advancing years.

 And I recognize the same vast silence I felt that morning each time I sit by the bedside of someone dying.  It’s such a paradox to me, the moments that exist—tucked in among the bathing and dressing and care of wounds, among the laughter, overwhelm and expressions of tremendous sorrow and tenderness, among the changing of oxygen tanks and long hours of just listening and listening and listening—when I feel that same great weight of grace I felt in the fjord pressing down upon me again.  Whispering to me of an indescribable beauty of great depths and muffled echoes and mist.  And in spite of the moments of horror and heartbreak, I feel strangely uplifted. 

I’ve come to wonder if much of the difficulty in dying lies in the necessity of having to give back all the many and deeply treasured gifts we’ve been loaned for the process of living.  There’s so much to love in a lifetime be it brief or long, so much to wonder at and remember and touch with trembling fingers one last time. There are all those whom we love and our many achievements, the mountains and moonlight and extraordinary beauty of the world, the gifts of walking and laughter and being able to feed ourselves and go to the bathroom alone, and in our last moments the necessity of returning even the gifts of sight and touch and breath.

But in the end, while the gifts themselves must be returned, somehow the deep love and gratitude that they forge within us remains, growing ever more quiet and measureless upon being freed.

 I remember again the brief instant of that breaching whale.  The suddenness of it and surprise, the delight and the awe, the twisting, the power, and the arc of it’s body that seemed to express not so much purpose or deep import as a simple moment of sheer and unbridled joy.  A moment of irrepressible delight, driving it to rise high and higher for an instant of unforgettable and breathtaking splendor.  And so I’m coming to think of life.  Something so brief and unpredictable and extraordinary surging up from invisible worlds, rising within us with such drive and vitality and joy—learning through us, loving through us, touching and being touched for what amounts to only a fleeting heartbeat in the vast rhythms of creation—before ultimately returning once again to the deep and gentle mystery of the waters that are its source.

With our newly graying hair and sagging bodies we wish for you all, this year and always, that each moment of the great wounding and joy of Life will be just such an arc of unforgettable beauty.

With all our love,

Cal and Dia

A very hard week.

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Hey everybody. I was working on a different post for this week but it was sidelined when our family got hit with a devastating event.  The hubster’s nephew, an extraordinary, loving, and gifted young man, took his own life Sunday night and everything since then has been aftermath.  His parent’s did everything conceivable to get him help and prevent this from happening but in the end his illness overpowered all the rest.  My mind is whirling with all the things that could and should be said about what’s happened…the desperate need for people to be more aware of how profound a danger this is to our children, the desperate need for everyone to be more willing to talk about suicide instead of hiding from it, the desperate need for better funding for our hotlines and mental health infrastructure and suicide education for the school staff who often serve as first line of defense, and the desperate need to break down the current stigmas associated with mental illness…but for today I’m still too heartbroken.

Here’s a link to Cam’s obituary that just came out today. If you’d like you can take a moment to read it and, in your heart, celebrate the beautiful life of someone who did tremendous good and helped a lot of other kids during the short time he was here, and perhaps say a prayer for him and all those who loved him, it would be more deeply appreciated than you know.  His parents felt very strongly that his cause of death should not be hidden or spun in this notice of his death as they know…better than most now…just how critical it is for all of us to start talking about this more openly.  This from the obit:

“But through all the laughter, Cam suffered from depression. He tried to disguise his pain and put to use the deep empathy, love, and compassion generated from his own life’s survival experiences to help as many other people as he could. In the end, he took his own life but he would have wanted everyone to know it was not the outcome he longed for.” 

I can’t begin to tell you how unbelievably brave his parents have been or how, even in the midst of their own devastation, their concern for the many, many other kids reeling from this loss has been uppermost in their minds.  There was a prayer vigil the other night that Cam’s dad helped organize where four or five hundred kids and parents showed up to grieve and sing and tell stories and also talk openly about suicide and the things we can do to watch and help one another to prevent this from happening again.  Everyone in that hall wanted to know.  Everyone there wanted to hear it discussed openly.  The kids especially needed the evening to help them understand and try to come to grips with what’s happened, and the way they came together and were holding and supporting and loving one another through their grief was one of the most extraordinary and moving things I’ve ever witnessed.  They’re so much stronger and courageous and wise, our children, than we tend to believe.  We grown-ups owe it to them to face into our own terrors and finally stop hiding from this.

But enough.  Today I just wanted to say I love you all, even if I don’t know you, and I can’t tell you how glad and grateful I am that you’re out there right now and still alive.  Because that one simple thing gives me more hope than you can possibly imagine. Really love one another today and reach out to someone nearby just because you still can, and do something kind or make someone smile because thats how Cam used to live every single day and why, even with all the turbulence right now, the most lasting legacy of his life will ultimately be one of laughter, love, compassion, and song.

Important links for those considering suicide or those who know someone having suicidal thoughts:

NAMI (National Alliance On Mental Illness)

List of National Suicide Hotlines (Scroll down a few inches to list)

 

Odd Thing About Dying #2: We’d like some destiny with our death please.

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Atropos of the Morai (One of the Sisters of Fate)

In the previous post Odd Thing About Dying #1: They’ve blocked most of the exits I talked about how challenging it is to die these days because the modern medical system has evolved to prevent it wherever possible, even when a person reaches the end of their natural life and is more than ready to go.  And so far hospice (along with the growing palliative care specialty which often goes hand in hand) provides the only officially sanctioned exit where people are allowed to leave the system without a fight.

Now, that being the case you’d think that everyone who didn’t want extraordinary measures taken to extend their lives would be fighting to get enrolled in hospice as early as possible, yes?

Well, no.  Far from it.  Hospice care is one of the most misunderstood and underutilized services out there while, where palliative care is concerned, the majority of people haven’t even heard of it yet. There are a number of reasons for this (including the fact that most people don’t WANT to understand them because it involves talking about dying) but there’s one reason in particular I’d like to discuss here and it essentially boils down to this:

Most people feel to some degree that, if they enroll in hospice, then they’re choosing to die.

This isn’t true for a couple of reasons:

1) When a person enrolls early enough, hospice is about deciding to LIVE WELL UNTIL one dies.  It’s about life, not death.

2) Dying isn’t really a choice to begin with, it’s a destiny. Choice implies we could decide not to die if we didn’t feel like it which of course we can’t.

People aren’t entirely wrong however. Due to some brilliant medical and public health advances we don’t usually “just die” anymore, we have to choose when; when to stop seeking treatment, when to forego that surgery, when to surrender to that infection, when to decline that CPR, or when to remove that ventilator.  Either we or our loved ones have to huddle with our doctors, weigh all the options, and then consciously decide whether to fight for the possibility of extra time or to let it go.

Of course at first we hailed these advances as unqualified blessings but over time it’s turned out that all the new choices can create something of a burden, and sometimes a curse.

You see, there really isn’t a clear point anymore where a doctor has to tell a patient, “I’m sorry but there’s nothing more we can do.” There’s always something more they can do, which means that until a person get decisive and say, “No, that’s it, I’m through. Please stop now,” chances are the doctors will keep suggesting something else.

Just so you know, this is a sea change in the way we humans face death.  It’s historic.  As far as I know, never before in human history has there been a point where the majority of people had to consciously choose when to die, or have a loved one choose for them. This development is an unintended consequence of all our new medical possibilities and, along with the miraculous blessings it bestows, it also requires that we now stand up and assume a level of responsibility for our own death that was unimaginable just a few decades ago.

Only we don’t really want that kind of responsibility.  Turns out one of the things we actually liked about the old way of dying was that we didn’t have a choice.  Destiny used to shoulder that burden for us, which we thought we hated at the time but are now starting to realize was maybe not as bad as we thought.

For a while everyone thought that of course our doctors would take over from destiny and let us know when “our time” had come.  But it turns out they don’t want that responsibility either and, honestly, who can blame them? The burden of telling someone they’re going to die is extraordinary, even when a person wants to know.  And if they don’t?  Well, that can be a lawsuit.

So doctors try and sidestep any kind of straightforward prognosis and hand us the research and statistics instead, from which we then have to try and divine the tea leaves for ourselves.  In addition, the majority of doctors still tend to encourage us to pursue aggressive treatment, often far past the point where they would themselves, with the stated goal of preserving hope but really for the purposes of distraction.  While they often have a good idea when a treatment will be futile, they also know that even a futile treatment can offer us temporary shelter from our terror of dying, which on the one hand is genuinely kind and deeply human, but on the other is a lot like that old bear attack joke:

Question: What are you supposed to do when you’re being attacked by a bear?

Answer: Run like hell.  It can’t save you but it’ll give you something to do for the last thirty seconds of your life.

Only dying is now taking a lot, lot longer than thirty seconds and people are starting to feel like there are better things to do with that time.  But our instincts work against us.  Seeking further treatment still feels like the most right and natural thing to do, and besides everyone else is seeking further treatment, and on top of that there’s major disagreement about when it’s wisest to stop because it’s completely different in every case.

So to recap, while destiny is still in charge as far as death itself is concerned…we all still die…our medical advances have allowed us to seize more control around the timing issue.  Only that means somebody now has to decide when to treat and when to stop, and while we’d mostly prefer that our doctors made the decision since they know so much more than we do, they’re proving reluctant.  Which leaves us to make the choice ourselves, only 1) we don’t know enough to make an informed decision, and 2) we’re unwilling to educate ourselves because that would mean actually talking about dying and we don’t want to do that either.

The whole situation reminds me of a teenager who wanted nothing more than to move out of the house and call all the shots, only to discover the new freedom requires getting a job to pay the bills.  Well, it looks like our new miracles also demand that we assume more responsibility. We’ve created a bewildering array of new choices around the question of when we actually have to die and our new job is to figure out what, among all those choices, constitutes a wise one.

Next up, I’d like to explore some of the reasons why the current choices we’re making aren’t working out so well.  I’m curious to see if breaking them down and examining them more closely might suggest better options.  And, as always, If anyone else has some thoughts on this subject I’d be eager and curious to hear them.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

Related articles:

A Better Way To Die

Odd Thing About Dying #1: They’ve blocked most of the exits.

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Oh, those Swedes.

I was thinking the other day about important things I learned while working with hospice (and by “important” I mean things like what surprised me to the happy upsideand what do I need to know to make a graceful exit when it’s my turn?) and a few things came up.

The first is a piece of information that falls under the Graceful Exit category and is, I think, pretty important. Perhaps even critical in the same way that knowing where the emergency exit doors are located on a plane can be critical. It goes something like this:

If the current medical system was a building that we’re supposed to enter at birth and leave at death, then there’s a serious flow problem because they’ve blocked most of the exits.  

There’s basically only one official door left where people trying to get out are allowed to leave the building without a fight. (More on that below.)

No doubt about it, we’re living in an unusual age.  Dying has become very hard to accomplish, which is weirdly wonderful until it’s actually time to die and then it totally, totally sucks.  It wasn’t always like this.  For roughly the last thousand years of Western civilization, people used to die according to a fairly simple formula:

a) They lived for a time.

b) They got really sick or severely injured.

c) They realized they’d never get better.

d) They summoned, reconciled, forgave, received forgiveness, and bequeathed.

e) Then they went ahead and died.

(Except for those who died suddenly and went straight from A to E.  It’s interesting to note that while nowadays many feel that’s an ideal way to go, historically it was frowned upon.  Dante for instance, relegated some of the souls that died unexpectedly to the lowest circle of hell which, I don’t know, seems a bit harsh. I’d be curious to know his thinking on that one, although he looks like a scary guy to argue with.)

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This by Sandro Botticelli.

Due to some of our pretty extraordinary medical advances however, that ancient formula isn’t working so well anymore and while we’re still following the first two steps…

a) We live for a while.

b) Then we get really sick or severely injured.

…once we get to Step C things fall apart at the seams.  Our bodies can now be kept alive almost indefinitely which has made it a lot harder, sometimes impossible, for people to either slip out without any fuss or at least figure out when it’s time to let go.  I’m not exaggerating here.  The bottleneck of bewildered, milling, hospital gowned people trailing IV poles and looking for a definitive answer has grown so massive that it’s threatening not only our healthcare system but our entire economy.

So why is this happening?  Well there are actually a lot of reasons but I’m only going to address two of them here.  The first is that, while modern medicine has a variety of goals, there’s a kind of One Goal To Rule Them All.  Our current healthcare system has evolved around the central purpose of keeping everyone alive for as long as possible which, for the vast majority of our lives, is a good, noble, sacred thing, and one which I think we’re all pretty grateful for.

The problem arises when someone realizes that oh, it’s my time, so they gather their things and head for the nearest exit (these are the doors with signs overhead like Heart Attack, Pneumonia, Sepsis, Aneurysm, Dehydration, Flu, Respiratory Failure etc.)  But there are guards on all these doors who turn them back with shock paddles, intubation, or offers of antibiotics, vaccinations, IVs, etc., sometimes over and over and over again.  People trying to leave the building often have to spend a lot of time and money frantically going from door to door until they’re finally so frustrated that they just overpower the guards and escape anyway.

I read a recent story of an elderly gentleman with a heart condition who decided he’d lived a long enough/good enough life and was now ready to go.  After much deliberation he decided to decline any further interventions and treatments, filled out an advance directive, got his wife and doctors all on board with his decision, and even signed a Do Not Resuscitate order.

Then he went golfing where he had a major heart attack somewhere around the seventh hole.  Panicked bystanders called 911 which, unfortunately, activated the guards standing next to that particular door.  The EMT’s sprang into action and once they arrived on the scene nothing could really stop them.  (Please keep in mind that emergency responders are bound by some strict legal codes to preserve life and deliver it to the hospital.)  Evidently, even the man’s advance-directive-bearing-wife couldn’t get them to stop (I wonder where the DNR was and if it would have made a difference?) and so our elderly gentleman had to endure the overwhelming pain and multiple broken ribs of CPR along with many other uncomfortable resuscitative efforts in both the ambulance and the emergency room before he finally died from his heart attack anyway, just far more broken, disheveled, and black and blue than if he’d been allowed to die back on the green. (And then his wife got the bill.)

Needless to say this was not how he wanted to exit the building.  At all.  Most people don’t want to leave this way.  Nevertheless, this kind of situation happens over and over again because right now there’s still a sizable disconnect between emergency medical services and end of life care.  (And preventive services and end of life care.  And routine care and end of life care.  And…well, pretty much the entire medical system and end of life care.) This kind of thing happens in nursing homes and assisted living facilities and hospitals, too, and everyone knows it’s a big problem. The good news is that solutions are currently being sought.  The bad news is a lot of the problem is structural and hard to change.  Even so I’m confident we’ll figure something out eventually.

So in the meantime, what’s a person who’s ready to go and wants to avoid extraordinary medical measures to do?

Well, this is where that One Official Exit I mentioned earlier comes in.  You’ve probably already guessed by now but the sign over this door reads HOSPICE (and to a growing extent the up and coming PALLIATIVE CARE.)  Just so you know, people who queue up at this door are hands down the most likely to have their passports stamped and passed right on through in a graceful, peaceful, unmolested way.

Sounds simple enough, no?  I thought so too, but in reality this particular door, even though it’s the one that everyone respects and agrees on, is still the most misunderstood and underutilized exit of them all.  Why?

Well, that brings me to the second reason why people tend to bottleneck in end-of-life care these days, but I don’t have room for it here so I’ll have to cover it in the next post:

Odd Thing About Dying #2: We’d like some destiny with our death please.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

Related articles:

“Maybe we need to redefine “Palliative Care.”

“Hospice Misunderstood by Patients, Providers Alike”

“Why MOST doctors like me would rather DIE than endure the pain of treatment we inflict on others for terminal diseases.”

How to talk with someone who’s dying.

There’s an extraordinary video blog I’ve been following for a while which chronicles the cancer adventures of a man named David and it’s been heartening to me, watching someone talk so freely and openly about what it’s like to face the realities of catastrophic illness and the possibility of impending death.  David is very engaging.

I was a little late to his most recent post (posted back in June) but it appears that after a glorious period of remission his cancer is back, with a vengeance, and the prospect of impending death has now turned into the certainty of it.  This video addresses the various thoughts coming up for him around the sudden turn of events.

I HIGHLY RECOMMEND WATCHING THIS for anyone who’s ever wondered what in the world they’re supposed to say to someone who’s dying.

It’s about ten minutes long and worth every second.  David covers what it feels like to have people tell him that he still looks great, or talk about/plan future events that he’s not likely to share in, or in other ways try to skirt or deny his new dawning reality and place him in a position of having to pretend like everything’s still okay.

Then…and this is the extraordinary part for me…he talks about what it’s really like living in the constant awareness that everything he’s now experiencing is probably for the last time.  How in some moments he experiences great fear of the passage to come and how at other times the world around him is highlighted with an exquisite, poignant beauty that’s both heartbreaking and luminous.

These are the kinds of things that all dying people think about but usually find it difficult to share.  David is brave and articulate enough to step up to the plate and actually tell you about it.  I warmly invite you to take advantage of this rare opportunity and learn from him.  It’ll hopefully help make your next encounter with someone who’s dying more nourishing and comfortable for you both.

UPDATE: The hubster pointed out that, in spite of the promise in this post’s title, neither David nor I gave any explicit instructions about how to talk to someone who’s dying.  (It wasn’t David’s intention in the first place and I…well, I just dropped the ball.)  To remedy the lapse:

In a nutshell, don’t run, don’t deny, don’t deflect.  Instead, listen carefully to what they’re trying to tell you, let it in, then follow their lead….as best you can of course.  There’s always a learning curve so be patient with yourself.

That approach usually opens up whole new worlds.  –Editor

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?

 

Random Hot Tip About Dying #4

(This post is continued from…wait for it…Random Hot Tip About Dying #3.)

Up next:

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

This tip is proving a lot harder to explain than the first three, perhaps because I only came to understand it myself by accident.  The way that each person dies affects FAR more than just the person who’s dying and those immediately around them, but I didn’t really understand that at first even though it seems so obvious now.  I arrived at the insight as a side effect of two other things I was doing:

1) Observing a lot of people die in a variety of ways from an assortment of causes while working with hospice, and

2) Listening to a lot of additional people tell me stories about their exposure to death and dying ranging from war zones, to murder and suicide, to accidents and mistakes, to emergency rooms and ICU’s, to the experiences of a friend during his brief stint working in a slaughter house long, long ago.

(And yes, animals, too, can die both good and bad deaths which yield a lasting influence…something else to think about.)

I’m not a counselor or anything, I’m just interested in people and like to hear their stories…which was usually all the prompting needed.  It was a little disconcerting to learn how many people there are out there who want and need to talk about these events with almost no chance to do so.

On the other hand, it was very heartening to see how much being able to talk about it…even once with a complete stranger…could help them.  It was like watching someone carrying a boulder around on their back finally put it down and rest for a bit.

Anyway, I discovered a trend that’s also been born out in the research (and is actually just common sense.) People who experienced someone dying badly suffered more lasting trauma than people who witnessed someone dying well.  They wound up needing more help themselves to deal with the trauma afterwards, it took them longer to recover and often only partially, they were less productive in their lives than they had been before the experience occurred, and their trauma translated into varying degrees of additional burden for the people who loved them.

And then these other people wound up passing on some of the burden on to their extended world.  And so on.

It’s the ripple effect.  Think of each death as a rock getting dropped into a pond, they all disturb the stillness of the water.  Each time someone dies the fierce energy it creates spreads out into their extended world and a whole lot of people…both loved ones and perfect strangers…wind up getting rocked by it.  Sometimes small rocking, sometimes capsizing.  Depending on how any one person dies it can eventually result in disability, alcoholism or drug abuse, divorce, bankruptcy, dropping out of school, estrangement, broken families, job loss, business failure, phobias, health breakdowns, and on and on.

Dying is an incredibly powerful force.  It just is.  That’s not something we can change.  But we could certainly do a better job of managing that force than we have been.  There are so many things that can be done to minimize the damaging influences and maximize the powerful healing potential that’s also available.

We really do have some control over the size of the rocks going into the pond.

So what’s the difference between a good death and a bad one?

First of all, a good death is not a black and white thing…which probably contributes to a lot of the confusion about what it is.  A good death doesn’t mean that you have to die in old age in your sleep, lying on white linen with hands folded over your breast and a beatific smile on your lips, all your loved ones sitting around the bed waving flowers and joyfully singing hallelujah, take them home.  Far from it.  It can happen in an infinite number of ways.  A good death can even be pulled out of raging carnage at the last minute sometimes.

(Seriously, you wouldn’t believe how powerful last words and gestures and other interesting phenomena can be.  They can have an effect that appears damn well miraculous to the naked eye. If we really understood as a society the force that’s available during that little window of time, and everyone started learning how to consciously harness it and put it to good use instead of allowing it to just randomly blow lives up the way we tend to now…well, I don’t know what would happen exactly.

But I suspect the rippling, transformative effect on our communities would be similar to the transformative effect it already has on the individuals directly involved.  Only collectively.  And if I’m right, there’d be a lot more hope, courage, and recovery going on and lot less crippling dread and futile treatment.)

Anyway, here are just a few things that can contribute to a bad death and increased trauma for everyone involved:

Violence, suddenness, youth, futile treatments, isolation, regrets, denial, poor communication, lack of control, abandonment, ignorance of the process, previous experience with bad deaths, in-fighting, lack of cohesion among loved ones, confusion, medical mistakes, insurance problems, uncontrolled symptoms, selfishness, poor quality care, and lack of help and guidance among others.

The list really does go on and on but I personally would put poor communication and lack of help and guidance at the top.  With those two in place it’s far harder for the others to breed and multiply the way they tend to otherwise.

Obviously, some of these things are harder to manage than others.  Accidental and violent deaths tend to cause the most damaging ripples, but a couple of ways these deaths are converted into good deaths is if they at least happen while the person’s doing something they believe in or love, or if some meaningful change can be effected in the world because of their death. It’s when they’re entirely random or pointless that recovery becomes most difficult.

Suicide, of course, is generally held to be the king of bad deaths.

Having said all that though, sudden or very quick death only happens to roughly 10% of the population.  The window in which to work on a good or bad death is going to be longer for the other 90% of us.

So what contributes to a good death?

Good communication, good education about dying, previous experience of good deaths, a long life, acceptance of dying, good relationships, respect of the dying person’s wishes, cohesion among loved ones, palliative and hospice care and adequate insurance for both, caring about the others involved, effective treatment of symptoms, loving care, completion of end-of-life tasks, enough time to get everything done, faith in something, and valuing the life still remaining among many, many others.

Enough!  I’m at about a million words now and have worked on this post for three weeks.  I really need to let this go now.

Next up: Random Hot Tip #5: There’s some version of an afterlife/afterwards for everyone.  Pick yours and start making it work for you now.

 

 

Random Hot Tip About Dying #3

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

The third tip goes something like this:

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

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

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

800px-Puppy_near_Coltani_-_17_apr_2010

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

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

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

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

I finally spoke up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOT. TRUE. AT. ALL.

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

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

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

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

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

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

Five Randomly Useful Hot Tips About Dying

Random Hot Tip About Dying #1 and Follow Through

Random Hot Tip About Dying #2

Random Hot Tip About Dying #2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I chuckled and went back to my book.

Paul_Gustave_Dore_Raven1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

Five Randomly Useful Hot Tips About Dying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

Life’s glorious illusion

Zan_Zig_performing_with_rabbit_and_roses,_magician_poster,_1899-2

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

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

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

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

It’s a helluva trick.

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

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

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

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

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

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

Weddings and Funerals and Hospice, Oh My!

Required: Emotional Flexibility to handle wide swings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there’s the other thing happening.

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

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

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

He’s a wily old fish, that one.

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

Then there was this third thing that happened last week.

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

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

What happened next was moving and astonishing to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

The Myth Of “Saving” Lives

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The Raising of Lazarus by Rembrandt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pretty nifty, no?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

 

How Trees Treat Their Dead (Among Other Things)

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

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

ARBOREAL RESPECT FOR THE DEAD

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

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

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INTERMARRIAGE

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

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

ARBOREAL PLAY

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

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

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

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

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ARBOREAL PARENTING AND PROGENY

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

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

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

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

THE “SHORT DEATH”

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

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

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ASPEN

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

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ASPEN “PEEK-A-BOO”

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

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

A RARE LACK OF INHIBITION

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

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Breathtaking.

SOME PHENOMENA RARELY CAPTURED ON FILM

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

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

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

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

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

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ARBOREAL BELIEF SYSTEMS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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copyright (especially the award) Dia Osborn 2013