Some of you may remember an old post I wrote called Someone Else Wrote My Book: What Now? where I expressed some angst at the discovery that a hospice nurse/chaplain from Oklahoma had just published the book I was trying to write. Well, after a year of dark muttering in my cups I finally read Transitions: A Nurse’s Education About Life and Death by Becki Hawkins and loved it. Loved.
Her book brought it all back to me again in the best way, what it used to feel like when I worked with hospice and how the people I served strengthened, nourished, and changed me. Transitions provides an authentic portrayal of the endless number of ways that people face catastrophic illness and death, not in a clinical or grisly way, but in terms of the beautiful and vulnerable humanity that inevitably surfaces.
More poignant still, Becki reveals the transformative power generated by something as simple as accepting the overwhelm and grief of another human being. There are some terrific reviews over on Amazon that do a better job than I could at describing her gentle, loving handling of the subject matter (especially the one titled Nurse Conquers Attack Geese, Copperheads, Sceptics which I wanted to copy and paste in full here but didn’t for fear of getting caught) so I won’t try and cover that ground again. I’ll just mention a few of the particular reasons why I loved the book so much myself.
Number one, Becki’s career spanned decades and her stories are written through the eyes of someone who’s seen people die from a lot of different things, something that’s actually pretty rare. I got to take the journey again with her as she evolved and changed through the work and it took me right back to the mystery, magic, and intense vulnerability one experiences while roaming the dying rooms. The way that each person winds up teaching what an extraordinary, mind blowing feat it is to live an entire life from beginning to the very end.
There is no such thing as a boring life, just boring ways to talk about it (something one encounters both in and out of hospice.) But with some practice, good listening skills can overcome that problem and Becki’s clearly a master listener. She draws out the thoughts of those she worked with in a way that allowed a quality of luminous, trembling soul to shine through and the book is full of the kind of dignity and strength that results from that level of respect.
Which brings me to the second reason I loved the book. Becki not only captures the full range of experiences of what it’s like to work with the ill and dying, she captures it in the abundant charm of the Oklahoma vernacular. She has quite an ear for the spoken word and delivers her stories in an enjoyable blend of modern medical language and the older, traditional language of her people. For me, the book was as much a loving portrayal of the culture and people of rural Oklahoma as it was of their health status, and when reading her stories I felt like I was peering in through a window to catch glimpses of an old wisdom tradition passed down through the generations.
A quick head’s up for those who are not of a religious bent, a lot of this wisdom tradition is couched in the religious terms of the region and from a couple of reviews I read this was a stumbling block for some people. It was actually part of the reason it took me so long to read the book myself but as I got to know Becki personally over the last year I discovered that she’s one of those people who can love her own faith while also respecting and supporting the beliefs of others and that knowledge helped me relax and let down my shields. I’m really glad I did, as I would have missed something beautiful, heartfelt, and universally true otherwise. No matter how we express it individually, we all die with the same aching mixture of heightened longing and love.
And the final reason I loved it that I’ll mention here is because in the last section of the book Becki reveals how her professional work with the ill and dying eventually helped her navigate the illness and dying of her own loved ones, and I found her experiences to be a confirmation of my own. While the illness and death of a loved one is just as overwhelming for those of us who’ve worked with the dying…the loss as great and the grief as piercing…still our familiarity with and intimate understanding of the dying process helps enormously when the time comes. I can’t say this enough. A knowledge and understanding of dying is an anchoring influence for everyone involved.
Of course everyone can’t go out and become a nurse and work for decades in the field to gain that kind of familiarity and understanding, but everyone can read books like this and begin to arm themselves with the knowledge of those who have.
I know I keep saying this over and over again but it’s only because it’s so important: We all need to be better educated about this last and greatest journey of dying, and we need to start doing it now. The number of aging people approaching their final threshold is growing daily and in the next few decades dying will become a central, collective social event. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a sad, tragic, and horrible era. At all. With the tools and perspective that hospice and palliative care provide it’s entirely possible for us to collectively craft a thoughtful, courageous, and wiser way to approach the end of our lives, one that’s dignified, loving, generous, and ultimately life-nourishing for us all.
Transitions: A Nurse’s Education About Life and Death is another book among a (thankfully) growing number that provides a window into such an approach. I highly recommend it.
Here’s a Youtube video of an engaging talk Becki Hawkins gave in Sedona, Arizona about some of the spiritual experiences she saw in her work.