When NOT To Tell Someone They’re Dying

People who work in end-of-life care feel pretty strongly about telling people the truth.  If someone is dying and they want to know, then they damn well deserve to be told.

Why? Because wrapping up a life requires time to tie up the practical details, deliver final messages, bid farewells, and savor all the myriad “last times:”

Last birthday or bike ride, vacation or dance.

Last scent of fresh rain.

Last kiss of a beloved.

Last pang.

Last breath.

These moments are essential.  Validating.  Sacred.  They’re like rare, sparkling jewels scattered through a gathering dusk, and their aching sweetness is life multiplying itself a thousandfold as it picks up speed.

Yes, definitely–receiving the news that we’re going to die is a blow like no other, and trust me, delivering the message sucks, too.  But the alternative…to strip a person of their opportunity to gaze around in final wonder, to direct them instead to keep their head down and keep running, running, running on some exhausting, futile wheel of cure-seeking or worse, allowing them to die bewildered, panicked, or lost…is to strip them of life’s final and greatest miracle.

It’s selfish.

Now.  Having said all that, there’s one situation where it’s advisable not to inform someone they’re dying, even if they say they want to know.  It’s when they’re suffering from short term memory loss.  Whether the damage sources from dementia, brain injury, alcoholism, or pharmaceutical side-effect doesn’t really matter.  The effect is still the same.  Each time they hear it, it’s like hearing it for the first time all over again.

Personally, I think people in this situation should still be told initially, even though they’ll probably forget.  But telling them repeatedly would be kind of cruel.

Nobody needs that.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

(The graphic above is by scottchan and, like many of the photos I use here, I found it on the terrific open source website: FreeDigitalPhotos.net.)

Accidental Photo II

Something happened yesterday around sunset that I hadn’t seen before.  For about one minute:thirty-five, the last rays of the sun peeked out from under tumultuous, massed storm clouds and found a sliver of pathway between the branches of three big trees, around the patio roof, and through a major tangle of wisteria to actually make it in our kitchen window.  The light was golden, dramatic, and lit up two vases sitting in the window like luminaries.  And…in a complete fluke…I had my camera to hand.  I took a dozen shots or so and this was at the peak of the light:

Hardly prize winning but it caught the effect so I was happy.  It also, funnily enough, turned out be another accidental photo.  I was only aiming for the vases but wound up capturing an entire series of worlds that I hadn’t seen when I first snapped the shot.  I mean, look at them all.  There’s…

1) the outside, distant garden,

2) the illuminated, inner world of the vases,

3) the invisible realm of glass separating the two (you can only see it by the ghostly reflections it casts),

4) the world of shadows at the bottom right, where the silhouette person lives, and then

5) the dark abyss just under the shelf.

There are more than five of course, (like the neighbor’s world through those darkened windows in the upper, right hand corner) but you get the gist. Without the camera I only perceived a single world with the vases as its dominant focal point.  All the other unique, fascinating worlds present were reduced to background noise, like visual mall music.  It took the camera to give me the time and mental shift necessary to see the rest.

I realize our brains are designed to take the overwhelming barrage of sensory detail that batters us at every moment, and filter it down to just one or two things that we can actually focus on.  And this ability is a good thing.  I understand that.  Without it we’d all have Asperger’s.

But it also means that this seemingly solid, worthy, dependable world we put so much stock in is actually made up of layers upon layers of different realities, entire alternate worlds in fact, most of which we completely miss, all the time.  Our perception of everything around us isn’t even real.

Or no…it’s real enough taken by itself I guess, but it’s only a teeny tiny sliver of what’s really real.

It’s like what the poor sun had to do to itself to make it all the way inside our kitchen window: Reduce an entire star’s massive energy field–immense enough to warm and light an entire solar system–into a low spectrum sunbeam, roughly 2 foot by 3 foot, that only lasted for a minute and a half. Talk about partial.

Having said all that though, still.  The illuminated vases were very…verycool, and I guess that’s enough.  Sometimes, the slivers alone will knock your socks off.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Where the Natural and Human Worlds Meet

Okay.  As a wild thing myself, I’m an unreserved, unabashed lover of the natural world.  Always have been.  Since my earliest memories (and even before that according to my mother) I’ve gone to the trees, the rocks, and the waters…the storms and the stars…whenever I was confused or unraveling.  I’m not sure why exactly.  It’s just where I felt better.

My relationship with the human world, however, has been more complicated.  Initially, I was pretty enthusiastic about us.  But then hard things happened and I went through a middle phase, struggling with some disillusionment and bitterness before finally, during the hospice years, finding my way back to a vision of people that’s good.

Again…I have so much to be grateful for, to the dying who let me be with them.

Then this morning, I watched a trailer for BBC One Human Planet (I know, it’s been out forever and you’ve probably seen it already but still, wow.  I mean really, wow…) and visually it seemed to pull together the love I now hold for both worlds in one beautiful, jaw-dropping, mosaic of cinematography.

Which is a powerful…not to mention valuable…thing to do.  I don’t think I’m the only one that views the human and natural worlds as distinct.  First, the industrial age and next, the technological/information one have been terrific for shielding us from the cosmic brunt of natural forces, but in the process they’ve separated us from them, too.

Modern homes are now designed to cut us off as much as possible from fluctuations in just about everything–temperature, wind, light, smells, noise, wildlife, microbes, radiation, crime, neighbors–while our cars strive to prevent us from feeling like we’re even touching the ground.  Somewhere along the line we all agreed on what was the safest, most comfortable environment, and then we built it into everywhere we were likely to spend time; homes, office buildings, vehicles, planes, ships, hotels, malls, banks, airports, restaurants so that, if we wanted to, we could now live sans contact with most of the natural world, most of the time.  And some people do.  Did you know that roughly 80% of people in the U.S. have never seen the Milky Way?

We’ve come so far and so much of its good.  But even so, sometimes I feel like I’m living in a pillow.  It’s wonderful and amazing and safe, for sure, but it also feels like I can’t get quite enough air.

This trailer captures glimpses of some of the non-pillow people all over the world–wild people still living in wild places.  The ones who haven’t been separated into our modern, second world yet.  They’re still creating a lot of their miracles without technology…and I forgot how inspiring and amazing those kinds of miracles are, too.  With as hard as their lives must be in some ways, I’ll bet at least they have plenty of air to breathe, every day.  I wish there was some way to weave these two worlds together again.  It’s hard always feeling like I have to make a choice.

The video is 3:20 minutes long but you’d never know it.  And please…you have to watch it full screen.  (In the name of all that’s good and right, you have to.)  For those who don’t know what that means, look down in the bottom right hand corner of the video box below and click the four arrows pointing in different directions.   The video box will expand to fill your entire computer screen.  Then just buckle your seat belt, click play, and you’re good to go.  Oh…and if you want to see the actual series, I found the DVDs on Netflix.  I imagine they might be available other places as well.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Saving Valentina

And finally…on this blog devoted to talking about dying…here’s a story of something that didn’t die.  This big, beautiful girl came very close but was ultimately saved from drowning by a handful of people (who took a huge risk in doing so I might add.)

On Valentine’s Day earlier this year in the Sea of Cortes down in Mexico, Michael Fishbach was in a small boat with his family and a couple of friends when they came upon a young, humpback whale severely entangled in fisherman’s netting.  At first she appeared to be dead.  But then they saw her exhale and realized she was exhausted and frightened but still alive.  Her tail was weighted down about fifteen feet by all the fishing gear, both pectoral fins were pinned to her sides, and the net went up over her back forward of the dorsal fin.  I can only imagine the thrashing and rolling she must have initially executed in her attempts to get clear of the net that led to so severe an entanglement, or the terror she must have experienced as it tightened around her.

At this point they had to decide whether they were going to watch helplessly as she slowly drowned or try and help her.  Amazingly, as you’ll see in the video, Michael slipped on his snorkel, grabbed the one small knife they had in the boat, and swam slowly over to where she was floating to assess the situation.

At this point in the video I heard a weighty, entangling, and suffocating voice in my own head begin it’s droning about how stupid and dangerous it was for him to even try, but then the girl with wild hair inside me who adores the sea slipped past and ran to the edge of the boat, pumping her hand in the air and cheering Michael on.

Because sometimes safety just isn’t the most important thing.

What follows over the next few hours is a series of courageous attempts and lucky accidents that lead to the saving of a gigantic, and unspeakably precious, young life.  There were so many things that could have gone wrong, things that would have made the situation far more tragic than it already was.  But surprisingly, none of those things happened which confirms yet again what my grey and grizzled father–career warrior, survivor of three major wars, and witness to countless weird and miraculous events on the battlefield–has always told me:

Dia, if it’s your time to die then it’s your time to die, and nothing can save you.  But if it’s not your time to die then it’s just not, and nothing…nothing…can kill you.

Clearly, it wasn’t anybody’s time to die in the Sea of Cortez last Valentine’s Day.

Here’s the video, Saving Valentina, if you get the chance.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

A Curious, Amazing Thing That Often Happens Just Before Death

Image by Vlado

Both the hubster and I were there with the family, at the house, when our good friend, Mr. B, died a couple weeks ago, and I wanted to tell you about something amazing that happened right before he passed.  Actually, this type of dying event is common and it frequently (certainly in every case that I’ve been involved with) lifts the spirits of those who are there to witness it.

It was nearing the end and Mr. B had been unconscious for close to a day and a half.  The hubster, driven by the common, but often unspoken, instinct displayed by loved ones to never leave their dying person alone, was taking his turn sitting beside the bed and holding Mr. B.’s hand.  The family was scattered throughout the house, cleaning up from breakfast, while Mrs. B was on the other side of the room discussing something with their son.  She’d just finished and was walking past the bed on her way out to the kitchen when Mr. B. suddenly, the hubster later told me excitedly, squeezed his hand.


“Like this!” he said, grabbing my hand and crushing it in a way that sent shooting pains up my arm.

“Ow!”  I snatched my hand away and glared at him.  “That hurts!”

“I know!” the hubster started nodding vigorously, relieved that I got it. “That’s just what it was like!  He did that to me, too!”

And suddenly I did get it, and I was amazed.  My mind flew back to the last hour when Mr. B. lay there helpless and still; pale, shrunken, and almost gone.  He’d grown so weak he fell into a final coma from which he couldn’t seem to climb back out, but then somehow…in that last minute…he powered back up anyway.  He’d grabbed onto the only thing available, the husbster’s hand, and squeezed it so hard that the hubster had to sit up and pay attention.

“He opened his eyes and locked onto mine…and I just panicked,” the hubster admitted.  “I didn’t know what was going on but I sure didn’t feel like I was the last thing he needed to see.  So I called Mrs. B. and she was right behind me.  She sat down and took his hand, spoke to him gently telling him she was there, and then a few seconds later Mr. B died while gazing into her eyes.”

The husbster paused, reflecting for a moment, then looked at me and said, “I feel like that’s what he really wanted, y’know?  That’s why he squeezed my hand.  He knew it was time to go and he wanted me to get Mrs. B. for him.”

Later, Mrs. B told me the same thing.

“It happened just as I was walking past the bed,” she mused.  “I think he knew it.  I think that’s why he made his move right at that moment.  He wanted to tell me good-bye.”

It’s well known within hospice circles that the dying are far more aware of and, in a lot of cases, far more involved in the timing of their actual departure, than most people realize.  Hearing seems to be the last sense to go and the dying often still respond to auditory stimuli…familiar voices, favorite music, sensitive information (which is why it’s so important to exercise caution when speaking within their hearing btw), etc….even from the depths of coma.

I love this…the fact that our relationships with one another don’t just stop because one of us loses consciousness.  The connections we build are so much more complex, beautiful, delicate, and tenacious than that.  It often feels…there in the rooms of the dying…like some vast and luminous web has been spun around us, supporting and binding us at a thousand, twinkling, alternate, junction points so that, even if we can no longer speak or see or touch, our love still travels easily along the other pathways, the ones that haven’t collapsed.

My mother awakened in her last moments, too (even though that was scientifically impossible with all the heavy sedation she was under,) her eyes opening for one last, brief glimpse as my brother read a passage aloud from the Upanishads.  My grandmother was decidedly more active about her’s.  After three days of coma (and six solid hours of heavy labor where she seemed to be stuck in her body and unable to leave) she finally sucked in one last, mighty breath, opened her eyes, and let out a yell on the exhale, as though she’d stripped off her helmet, mounted the sound, and was riding it wildly out of her own mouth in a last, triumphant charge.   I remember how I sat there stunned for a moment…and then burst out laughing.  With relief.  With applause.  With joy.

But my favorite story, the one that always cracks everyone up, involves the last moments of The Feisty One, an elderly German woman whose final words probably best sum up the sheer shock-and-awe effect of the transition from life into death.  She was what we call a colorful character; a regal prima donna who commanded everyone, was disdainful of doctors, dismissed all the symptoms of her decline with contempt, and who kept telling me that really, it was all just a bad case of constipation and she’d be up and around again soon. 

And then, she insisted, I’m going to cook you a real German meal.

I adored this woman.

Her daughter-in-law was the one who told me the story of The Feisty One’s last moments.  How she’d had a burst of energy and talked for something like fifteen hours straight, all through the night and well into the following morning, before falling into a coma.  How she then just lay there, finally quiet, for a day and a half, her breathing growing increasingly labored and shallow.  And then how, right at the end, she drew one last breath and opened her eyes again, staring at them all in complete surprise, before exclaiming, “Shit…SHIT!…SHIT!!!”  After which she collapsed back against the pillows again and promptly died.

I can only imagine how those may very well be my own sentiments exactly some day.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

The Laughter and Sorrow of Being There

Luna Moth

I’d forgotten…how much better it is to be there when someone dies, than not.

Our dear friend Mr. B died at home, surrounded by those who loved him, last Sunday morning…which was actually pretty fast.  The doctors said he’d have more time, but then I’ve found that doctors usually overestimate;  partly because they feel it’s kinder and partly because they tend, personally, to be more afraid of death than the rest of us.

But Mr. B was glad it didn’t take as long as they said it would.  After four grueling, futile months of rotating between hospital, rehab center, and wound care center he was more than ready to move on.  He was grateful.

That’s the often overlooked gift of extended suffering.  Horrible as it is, there’s simply nothing like it for helping us let go of this otherwise far too rare and luminous world.  If something didn’t come along to tarnish the glow and loosen our grip, dying could (and sometimes does) drag on forever in this current age of limitless medical intervention.

Mr. B and his beautiful wife, Mrs. B, wanted the hubster and I to come and be there with the family during the passage; to help, to laugh, to cry, to steady, to witness.  I was surprised, deeply touched, and thrilled.  I love “a good death”; the kind that happens when someone dies prepared, surrendered, and surrounded.  There’s something potent and magical that happens when a family assembles to lift and love one of its members through the final transition,  something mystical and disorienting that occurs when a body and the life that inhabited it whisper farewell and break their long embrace.  Standing as witness to these things both shatters and transforms me, every time; actually it shatters and transforms everyone that’s lucky enough to be there.

Strangely enough, this…the good and healing part of dying…is the aspect I somehow forget about in between.  I’m not sure why exactly.  Maybe because, in spite of its potency, the experience is nevertheless fleeting and insubstantial and therefore easily overshadowed once it’s past.  Or maybe I forget because this part has become so invisible in our culture of death aversion that’s its just hard to hang onto.  I don’t know.

What I do know is that there’s an energy, a force generated during a good death that both cuts and cauterizes simultaneously.  It mauls me extensively, each time, but then it lays eggs of some vast and tender love there in the wound itself, as if it was some horrible yet sublime parasite, transforming me against my will into something better.   Someone more courageous, caring, and gentle.  Somebody wiser.

I think that was the gift Mr. B. wanted for me..for all of us.  I think that underneath everything else that was going on, somehow he intuitively understood that giving us all a good death would make the gaping hole after he left easier to survive.  Easier to recover and return from.  He used his own dying to create a final, profoundly generous, and life-affirming act.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Amazing and Strangely Beautiful: A Train Moving Through A Crowded, Urban, Vegetable Market.

This week has been crazy what with dueling colonoscopies for the hubster and I (including those ever-fun and entertaining cleansing preps beforehand), a mysteriously injured leg for Dane the Mangy Rescue Mutt, and visits to a dear, dear friend who has just entered hospice and is–bravely, calmly, and gracefully–readying himself for final departure.

It’s been a lot.

So this week I thought I’d just post a fascinating, 44 second, Youtube video of a train passing through a densely crowded, urban, vegetable market.  This thing just blows my mind.  See what it does to yours.

Living in the western U.S. as we do here, wide open space is a given.  The expectation of being able to see long distances, lots of sky, and relatively few people is actually structured into our physical, brain circuitry and the hubster and I have frequently noticed how, after a while, we start to feel constricted when traveling in areas that are heavily forested or otherwise “closed in”.  I imagine it involves some form of imprinting.

Anyway, this video beautifully illustrates how these people (possibly in Thailand?  I haven’t been able to discover for certain…) have imprinted on a heavily populated, urban environment.  Adapted.  In some strange way they’ve elevated these difficult living conditions into something fascinating and dynamic, disturbing and deeply moving.  The precision and coordination between so many diverse, moving parts looks like choreography, doesn’t it?  Or possibly an undersea scene.  The awnings coming back down after the train passes looks like the way sea anemones eventually, gracefully, unfurl again, after being disturbed.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Shark Whisperer

I just stumbled across this three minute, somewhat-unnerving-yet-deeply-moving video of Christina Zenato, a woman diver, interacting with sharks down in the Bahamas.  Frankly, I didn’t believe this kind of gentle relationship was even possible and yet here it is anyway.  Sometimes it feels so good to be wrong.

Disclaimer:  Evidently she’s a pro, so I wouldn’t recommend trying this at home. 

What fascinated me most was what happened in my brain while I watched.  I swear I could feel it rewiring.  Some deep and unquestioned prejudice against sharks took a hit here.  Big time.

(Which was strange, because I thought I was already fairly enlightened in my attitude toward sharks.  The hubster feels a deep affinity for them and his love for them has rubbed off on me over time, so it was surprising to discover these deep underlying layers of stereotype still lurking in the shadowy recesses of my mind.)

Initially, I admit I thought this woman was an idiot, especially when she started feeding them by hand.  But by the end I realized she has a much fuller understanding of sharks than I do, based on actual, nourishing, beautiful and real life interactions with them.   Something I totally lack…which is probably why my bias has thrived.

Prejudice is funny that way, isn’t it?  It feeds on unfamiliarity.  It doesn’t tend to fare as well when faced with living, breathing, sentient beings.

(Stray thought: Believing in stereotypes is like eating cheap carbs.  They’re like white bread, candy, and soda pop for the mind, not very healthy but what a rush!   Relationships with living, flesh and blood creatures, on the other hand, are more like whole grains; harder and slower to digest but far more nourishing in the long run.)

Once again I’m reminded that all creatures tend to respond positively to understanding, patience, respect, and intelligent handling.  I don’t know why I keep falling back into the default belief that some creatures (including some humans) are impervious to kindness and love…that monsters are real.  That kind of early conditioning is hard to shake I guess.

The video is only a couple minutes long.  If you get the chance I highly recommend it.  It’s soothing and inspiring.

About the technique she employs at the end of the video:  “Practicing a little known technique of rubbing and manipulating her fingers across the ampullae of Lorenzini, the visible dots [electro-receptive sensory organs] all around a shark’s head and face, she induces a tonic immobility. To the observer, this looks like a shark falling asleep right in her lap.”  

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Maybe I’m Just Dreaming Here…

In ordinary, everyday life, things look ordinary and everyday.  They just do.  Days tend to go the way we expect them to which makes life comfortable, predictable and…let’s face it…easy to take for granted.  Abundance is one of the things that breeds this kind of carelessness.  When it looks like we still have an unlimited supply of tomorrows it can make what we do with today seem unimportant.  Less urgent.

Which isn’t true of course.  Every last thing we ever do from taking a breath, to grumbling about chores, to graduating from college, to losing a job, to giving birth, to getting old, to dying, is an irreplaceable, priceless gift of life on a long chain of irreplaceable, priceless gifts.

But the illusion that any given moment doesn’t matter can be powerful and, when I think about it, perhaps not altogether unnecessary.  After all, it could be hard to get stuff done if we were face down on the floor all the time, incapacitated with the kind of wonder, longing, and gratitude for life that often comes to a person when they learn it’s their time to die.  I mean Big Awe can be fabulous, for sure, but it’s not terribly practical when you’re tackling a to-do list.

And yet, I do so love that feeling of dawning wonder.  Those moments when I look at my life and realize (for a mind-blowing, gut-wrenching moment) just how fragile, miraculous, and brief all this is.  Oh sure.  Those moments tend to wreak havoc with my daily routine because after a glimpse like that I want to slow down and savor everything.  Even things like taking the trash out and wiping under the rim of the toilet bowl take longer because crappy though they are, they’re suddenly glowing, like everything is glowing, and it’s really distracting.

But this spike in inefficiency is worth it to me because, for however long those moments last, I’m not afraid anymore.  Of anything.

Look.  I realize that dying is generally held to be a morbid subject and I know it’s odd for me to want to talk about it as much as I do.  But I can’t shake the hope that if I could just capture a couple of those brief and luminous moments in words, that maybe somehow it might help ease some of the deep, unconscious fear somebody else has, too.  That maybe if some of the general, widespread terror could be alleviated, our lives and relationships with one another might be transformed today, long before we ever have to face dying ourselves and embark on our own journeys.

Of course this is probably just a pipe dream.  Most likely, everything is perfect just the way it is and I should just be quiet and garden instead.  Dying is probably a reality too big to cope with in everyday life, too vast and searing to look at until we’re right on the brink of falling in.  Maybe we’re supposed to just forget, fall asleep and live in the dream of small, safe things until the yawning maw opens wide to swallow us at the end.

But then again…maybe not.  What if there’s no law ordaining that we have to wait until we’re actually dying to glimpse the strange, revealing light it offers?  What if the rules are more flexible than that?  What if it’s perfectly okay, even good, to look around us sometimes with transformed eyes while we’re still healthy, happy and whole, so we can see once again, however briefly, just how huge, beautiful, terrifying, priceless, miraculous and brief this life really is?

What if, however impractical or inefficient they might be, moments of heartbreaking wonder were actually good for us?

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

When extraordinary forces act upon mere humans beings (even if we don’t want them to.)

NASA photo: Solar particles interacting with Earth’s magnetosphere.

Nine times out of ten when a person found out that I worked with hospice they’d stare at me wide-eyed and say I could never do that. But I was never fooled by this.  Of course they could.  Anybody can.  Bathing, dressing, and toileting are not rocket science.  They don’t require rare tools or four hands.

I always knew what people really meant was I never WANT to do that…a sentiment which, while perfectly normal and near-universally shared, is irrelevant.

Life is full of things we don’t want to do but at some point wind up doing anyway.  And sometimes, much to our surprise, when the time comes we wind up doing them gladly.  It’s important to remember that, no matter how skillfully we hide, sooner or later we’re probably going to be dragged back out of our hole and plumped down beside the death bed of someone we love anyway.  And once we’re there, yes, of course we’ll be as rumpled, wild-haired, and sleep-deprived as everyone else who ever sat by a death bed before us.

But here’s the thing.  With as hard and devastating as it’s likely to be, we’ll also probably experience that same unexpected, fierce moment when we completely forget about how we never wanted to be there, because all we now feel is a throbbing, shattering gratitude that we are. That we get to hang on for dear life to their hand one last time and whisper how deeply, how much, we will always, always love them.

Y’know, there’s nothing wrong with the profound and irreparable wounding that comes to us through our great love for one another.  Far from it.  This wounding is essential and deeply human.  We’re supposed to be dragged under and scarred sometimes.  It’s a big part of what helps save us from the aching emptiness of a shallow life.  I’m not trying to mislead anyone here—all beauty aside, dying and its accompanying losses tend to be brutal for everyone involved.

But I’m telling you, somehow every single person I worked with went right ahead and navigated the journey anyway…and I can’t begin to tell you how much that one, simple fact floored me.  At first I couldn’t quite believe it.  Then later, as I watched each one of those ordinary, average, regular, everyday people negotiate an event with a destructive power equal to any earthquake or solar flare, I experienced a growing sense of both wonder and indignation.

Wonder at how infinitely much stronger we are than I’d previously understood.  And indignation that somehow, somewhere along the line, I’d been lead to believe we weren’t.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Refugee Spiders Helping To Protect Pakistanis From Malaria

Here’s an odd and wonderful story.

Wired UK posted an article today about one of the stranger consequences of the major flooding that took place in Pakistan in 2010.  Evidently, there are submerged areas of the country where the threatened spider population took to the trees and spun draping canopies of webbing which completely cover them.  If you love great photography go take a look at the eerie, beautiful pictures included with the article.

But the most amazing part of the story is the report from Britain’s Department for International Development who is currently working there in Pakistan.  They say there are far fewer malaria carrying mosquitoes in the vicinity of these trees, in spite of the standing, stagnant water surrounding them.

The concentrated spider populations are helping to control the burgeoning mosquito population.  How’s that for a lovely side effect?  This strange partnership between trees and spiders is creating living, arboreal shields against disease for the people living nearby.

I love this; how tragedy can transform a creature we usually regard as a danger and/or a household pest into a profound gift of protection.   I’ll remember this the next time I pick up a shoe to crush one, and instead catch it in a jar and place it carefully outside…in honor of its little, eight-footed Pakistani brethren who are (however unintentionally) protecting my own devastated and suffering brethren across the world.

One small way of gratefully participating in the web of life.  (No pun intended.)

Photo UK Department for International Development

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Ghosts and Cemetery Babies

The Haunted Lodge built back in the 1920’s

And now for more from our recent trip to the Olympic rainforest.

The hubster and I were surprised to learn that Lake Quinault Lodge, where we were staying, is haunted.  Famously so.  The Lodge has been featured on a couple of supernatural-styled TV shows.

We were surprised because we heard nothing of ghosts during our first stay in 2008, even though we stayed for two whole weeks.  Perhaps the locals were too busy recovering from the recent hurricane at the time, in which case we forgive them.

Evidently, the ghost is named Beverly and she died when one of the original structures on the property (the boathouse which served as a kitchen) caught fire and burned to the ground back in the nineteen-teens.  Beverly was trapped and burned to death and she’s been hanging around the property ever since.  She’s reported to be a nice ghost and is usually detected in two favorite rooms.  (According to a helpful comment from Josh, evidently “the lodge staff call her favorite room, The Beverly Suite.”)  We were thrilled to learn that one of her haunts was the room right next door to ours, where she likes to open windows that overlook the lake.

(Once I found out about her I invited her to come over to our room a few times, but she refused to be lured.  Our windows remained firmly shut.)

The story that really got us excited though, was a personal anecdote from Michael, the activities director of the Lodge.  He once owned and ran the small mercantile/cafe across the street, and in those days guests from the Lodge regularly spilled over into his establishment.  In fact, on our first trip the hubster and I frequently haunted his cafe ourselves as the food and coffee were to die for.

(Intentional pun.)

Michael told us that one day, a woman came into the merc who was clearly agitated and it didn’t take much prompting to get her to tell him what happened.  She said she’d checked into her room earlier that day and, while unpacking her bags, turned around to discover a woman standing across the room behind her.  The guest became angry and demanded to know who she was and what she was doing in her room.  The strange woman explained that her name was Beverly and she worked at the hotel.

The guest immediately went down to complain to management that one of their employees had trespassed in her room, only to be told that they didn’t have an employee named Beverly.  She was further upset when, upon discovering her room number, management explained the trespass with the story that her room was a favorite haunt of a well known ghost named Beverly.  At this point she’d evidently had all she could take and, returning upstairs, repacked her things and left the hotel, stopping only to pick up a few sundries across the street from Michael’s mercantile on the way out of town.

I’m fascinated by these kinds of personal stories.  I always have been.   Partly for the delicious, spooky thrill involved, but even more so because of the peculiar demeanor that comes over a person who’s been involved if you can get them to talk about it in the first place.

Which usually isn’t easy because unless it’s on a hotel tour, around a campfire, or at a slumber party, we all know we’re not supposed to discuss ghosts, unseen things, or any other kind of experience that isn’t scientifically explainable yet.  At least not seriously and not if we want to have any reputation left afterwards.

I don’t understand the reasoning behind this and it bugs me.  As with so many other subjects, I believe that talking about it openly would be healthier.  I’ve always noticed when I can get a person to open up about an odd kind of experience, most of the time they’re eager to talk in a way that feels like a dam bursting.  Having to hide these things seems to build up varying degrees of internal pressure.  In cases where the experience is not particularly significant, the pressure is small and there’s no real damage done to the person keeping the secret.  But if it’s either a traumatizing event (as it clearly was for the woman who left the Lodge in a huff,) or a meaningful experience (as is often the case when the recently bereaved are experiencing a sense of presence of their lost loved one) then this pressure to remain silent can become a burden.  In a worst case scenario, it can even start to interfere with a person’s ability to cope and heal.

This strikes me as pointless and stupid.  I’m by no means opposed to verbal taboos as a general rule.  Some of them are valuable and essential.  Like not talking about sex in front of small children, or not saying cruel things about someone who died in front of someone who loved them, or not talking throughout the movie in a theater full of other people.  I’m totally on board with taboos that serve to nourish and strengthen our communal ties.

But this taboo against discussing strange, spooky, or mystical things doesn’t do that.  In fact it does exactly the opposite.  It takes a significant chunk of common human experience and puts it in the back of a closet where it can no longer be shared, explored, tested, eventually understood, and then utilized.

Poo on that.

Moving on, Quinault has a tiny, lovely cemetery that I fell in love with on our first trip and returned to take pictures of during this last visit.  Judging from the housekeeping, the ties between living and dead in this place are clearly still vibrant and celebrated.

As you’d expect of an old graveyard full of the original homesteaders and their colorful descendents, it’s fascinating to stroll around listening to the stories the headstones and other grave adornments have to tell.

I loved the patriarch of this family who was clearly a testy, old lumberjack.  Since our first visit the fern has almost completely overgrown the headstones.

Someone is still coming to sit and drink with Will here, as evidenced by the total lack of rust on the beer can.  Whoever it was left some liquor behind in one of the bottles for him.  There was an ache of memory in the gesture that moved me.

Some of the residents clearly came from money:

While others were remembered in less costly (and less enduring) ways:

Indeed, there were quite a few open areas among the gravesites and I stepped among them gingerly, hoping and praying I wasn’t walking on someone.  In a rainforest environment, anything less hardy than stone disintegrates at a rapid clip and I suspected many of the earliest grave markers were probably lost to the elements.

Here was the age-old tale of a couple who couldn’t live without each other.  Duane died in 2004:

And Maxine followed him less than a year later:

But as always the most poignant graves were those of the children.  In this cemetery there seemed to be an endearing custom of putting them to bed for a final sleep:

From youngest to oldest, here we have baby Kristan:

…little toddler Alexander:

…and six year old Trevor:

I was so glad and grateful that these children were here, in this close-knit, tiny cemetery surrounded by elders who would know who they were, who would be sure to look after them.  I know it would be harder for me, to bury a child in a big, sprawling cemetery somewhere, surrounded by strangers.

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

Part III: Both The Light And The Darkness Conceal and Reveal

(In Part I and Part II of Chapter 5, I described my quirky attempt to break free of agoraphobia by hiking back into the mountains for three days and three nights alone with my fears.  When I left you last week I’d just come through my greatest terror; that of the sun setting, leaving me alone in the wilderness at night.  Part III is the conclusion.)

The perspective I gained that evening, that darkness delivers a profound gift has, over time, effected a slow yet massive transformation.  Initially, during those three days up in the mountains I clung to the realization primarily as a way to help ease my fear of being alone at night in the wild.  But over the coming years it unfolded in ways I never could have imagined, slowly permeating and changing my understanding of another, more human dimension of darkness; the kind that arises inside us from living with things like pain,  suffering, and death.

It was during this mountain retreat, six years after my grandmother’s death, that I decided to begin my work with hospice and later, by the bedsides of the dying, I wound up experiencing the same sense of revelation and coming home that I’d felt under the evening sky.  All the vulnerable, generous people I worked with were like the stars all over again—shining beings gradually re-emerging as the bodies that had veiled them faded and thinned.  During the hours I spent with them and their loved ones—bathing and turning and wiping and rinsing and listening and laughing and crying—I felt like I’d finagled a seat in their caravan as they journeyed out all together to the farthest edges of life, a beautiful, twilight place that reveals something else, something breathtaking that lies out just beyond.  And as I watched this transformation take place over and over again it slowly dawned on me that the process of dying is not so much about shrinking and expiring as it is about finally growing too big to contain anymore.

A gentleman who’d lost his wife of sixty-plus years once told me that he woke up a couple of times, in the nights immediately following her death, to glimpse her for a moment standing next to his bed looking down at him.  That sometimes, in quiet moments he’d still hear her voice clearly speaking his name.  A woman devastated by the recent loss of her husband told me it was eerie how she kept seeing an eagle overhead–a bird he’d always felt an affinity for–every time she felt like she couldn’t go on.  And still another man confided in a low voice that he’d seen his dead brother the day before, waiting by the graveside as the wife who’d only survived him by eight months was laid to rest.  Over and over I’ve heard similar stories from those who’ve bid a loved one good-bye, and while the events they relate take different forms there’s a common theme between them—a sense that the bond of love itself is not severed even though the loved one has physically disappeared.

Lying there in the mountains I was aware that many of the stars I looked at were actually gone, exploded millions and billions of years ago in supernovas.  What I was gazing at, breathless and awed, was their remaining light, the part that continues to travel through the vast reach of space and time long after the stars themselves die.  I wonder if these stories people told me of sensing the continued presence of a deceased loved one are like that somehow, indicating that sometimes, for those who are aching with injury and loss, there’s another tender, reassuring glimpse available to remind us we don’t have to worry.  We don’t entirely disappear.  No matter how dire things look in the short-term all the light…the love…that we generate over a lifetime continues on.

Here’s an example of something I experienced that falls into the pilot and lightning, lovely-but-not-a-clue category.  Over the years I noticed a phenomenon taking place in the midsections of patients engaged in the late stages of dying.  There was a faint radiance emanating from their solar plexus which increased in intensity as the wasting process accelerated.  I speculated on physical causes, wondering whether there might be a link between the physiological deterioration taking place and an emerging light source.  In physics, unstable atoms emit photons of light when one of their electrons jump from one level to the next and I wondered if perhaps a dying person’s atoms become increasingly unstable as their body shuts down, emitting a cascading increase of light.  I also considered a possible late stage, chemically-induced bioluminescence, like fireflies or the microscopic, sea organisms that light up the wakes of boats.

But most of the time I was just bemused by it.  Those glimpses had the same effect on me as struggling over the last, hot sand dune to gaze across the sparkling expanse of the sea.  The beauty soothed something hunched and shaken inside me.  The radiance in those exhausted, collapsing bodies was so unexpected and lovely that it felt as though the ordinary world was slipping out from beneath my feet and, whatever was happening, whatever was causing it, seeing that light triggered moments that made my heart both break and soar.

But as tantalizing as glimpses of that kind of phenomena were, I have to admit the view that really knocked my socks off was the one looking back towards here; this small, ordinary looking, blue, sky-encased life we live in most of the time.  It’s not that I started seeing unusual things here, too.  It was that, from out there at the edge, everything ordinary taking place back here looked like a miracle.  Changing a shirt, taking a bite out of a sandwich, saying hello, saying good-bye.  Complaining and tears.  Smiles and breath.  People longing and loving, pooping and peeing—nothing looked mundane or small anymore.  Nothing.

I remember all those moments when I turned from a dying person’s bedside and headed back to my life—when I left their homes, climbed into the car, and just sat there staring, gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles like I was about to fall off a cliff.  I’d tremble for a while, looking down the street at the trees, cars, and houses, my heart ripped wide open and bleeding down somewhere near the gas pedal because everything suddenly looked huge and luminous.  And I’d reel from the fact that just a few hours earlier I’d been totally oblivious, taking it all for granted.

Stupid, stupid me.

Knowing that in a few hours time the awareness would fade and I’d be taking it for granted all over again.

Secretly, I like to imagine there’s something mysterious and radiant hidden inside of me, too—a hitherto unsuspected light in my midsection being slowly strengthened and seasoned by all the suffering and love, loss and joy, despair and redemption I’ve managed to endure and survive.  And that when my time comes it won’t be disease or neglect, violence, incompetence, or age, but instead this very light inside that kills me by swelling to an immensity, a brilliance, that finally grows too big for further restraint.

These days I spend a lot less time thinking about how not to die and more of it trying to truly live, to touch and savor everything I can while I’ve still got the chance; the pleasant and crappy, fun and hard, dark and luminous, all of it.  It doesn’t feel so much anymore like my dying will come as the result of a final, catastrophic failure; of my body or my choices or the medical system that cares for me.  Rather it seems like it will simply be the arrival of my own promised twilight, finally coming full circle in a vast and primordial cycle encoded in my body from the start.

copyright Dia Osborn 2010

A Dream of Her Dead Beloved

image by Salvatore Vuono

I arrived at a patient’s house one morning to be greeted by the news that Adelle, 104 years-old, had seen her husband last night in a dream.  It was a vivid, full screen, Technicolor kind of dream that she couldn’t stop talking about once she woke up.  Father of her children, love of her life and dead for over 40 years, she told me how healthy he looked in a tone of mixed surprise and delight, her face luminous with a happiness I hadn’t seen there in the year I’d helped to care for her.

Usually, she didn’t remember her dreams—in fact she was remembering less and less of just about everything.  Nearly blind and almost deaf, her retreat into the chambers of stillness and shadows had been recently accelerating.  We’d all noticed.  The complex web of threads that had once moored her here to the people and places she loved was unraveling, while her physical senses, whose job it had been to reach outward and connect her to the things of this world, were now reversing and cutting her off.  Spinning closer and closer around her like some kind of growing cocoon.

A shower fog thick with shimmering and whispers slowly curled around us there in the bathroom as I toweled her dry. 

It was like nothin’ I ever seen before she confided softly and I felt a little breathless myself at the strange radiance lighting her face.  Her words helped lift a growing load from my heart.  She’d been turning inward, slipping away from us to struggle alone across the borderlands for so long that I was relieved she was finally coming within reach of the other side.

Adelle lived a long, clean, healthy life and her heart, while ancient, was still strong and vital.  For over a hundred years that had been a good thing.  But now, as the rest of her body was slowly grinding to a halt, her persistent, tenacious heart had unexpectedly become a liability.  It was yet another of those odd reversals that take place in the dying world—how good health can turn out, at the end, to be something unlucky.  I saw it a few times in those with unusually strong physiologies.  There was a man with the strength of an ox whose cancer advanced to a degree of horror before his heart finally (finally!) gave out.  And another woman centenarian whose muscular control and mind had long since failed but whose heart (Oh, fabulously strong, pulsing, galloping heart!) continued it’s pounding on and on.

It puzzled me, how one organ could be so oblivious to the fact that its fellow body parts were dropping around it like flies.

Or, even more bewildering, why we would step in and medically intervene with a heart or any other body part that was paying attention and trying to shut down.  Propping them up with the brilliant science and medicine we’ve developed over the decades and thereby unintentionally furthering a degree of suffering that was never naturally intended, aggressively slamming shut every other door that offers a kinder and more timely exit.

I’ve been viscerally struck by the dear and true friend that various acute diseases turn out to be as we decline and fall apart.  Even with as miserable as things like diarrhea, flu and bacterial infections are in the short term, they can save us from an equally miserable and far, far longer dying process.

Adelle was blessed with an extraordinary heart.  She was the last of her generation by a long shot, and now longed to catch up with those who had gone ahead…more than ready to leave but forced to linger on and on.  I don’t understand, in the grand scheme of things, why her journey entailed the extended suffering that it did and it’s not my job to judge it in any way.  (Thank god.)

But I’d grown to love her and in my heart I couldn’t help but feel she’d endured enough…enough joy and grief, love and loss, strength and pain, enough long, long life.  She was ready to go and as far as I was concerned she deserved to.  She’d earned it.

I was glad her beloved had come.

Van Gogh

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

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.