Thursday, July 23, 2015

Prayer Cards

The other day I was cleaning out my office. In the midst of shredding documents and tossing detritus, I came upon a stack of funeral prayer cards. Those laminated three-by-five inch pieces of paper often with a sweet picture of the deceased on it, the date of birth and death, funeral information and the 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, or some quasi-religious, but always heartfelt poem. I couldn’t bring myself to toss them. They say if left to fend for itself, after about one millennia, all the material we humans have made will either have broken up and returned to the earth, or be so worn as to be unrecognizable. Libraries will be nothing but heaps of petrified wood, buildings fallow fields, cities forest and plains. The only material which will not give into time and the elements, the only stuff of our existence which will survive to near infinitude, is plastic. There, thousands of years from now, once we are all dead and gone, in a buried layer of existence interspersed between soda bottles and Barbie dolls, will be those laminated prayer cards, eternally reminding the universe of the individuals who have faded out of existence. Our lives, as with the world, hold on to very little. The people we encounter tend to be brushed out of our memories by time and distance; their memories worn down to nothing. But there are those people we choose to let in, those people we affect and allow to affect us in deep, authentic, and profound ways. They are stamped on our hearts, laminated into our souls. When our lives are through, when our times have come, they will be the last to go: enduring pieces of the other that have made a home in us, and in turn gave us meaning. Meeting and caring for these people is the true blessing of our task, and a great gift of this work.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Small Resurrections

I, like all of you, am often asked if this work makes me sad. Does spending day after day steeped in that facet of life so hidden in plain sight, so pervasive and yet taboo as death wear upon a soul? My answer is for the most part “no.” I, like all of you, have found a way to live with and to understand death so that watching it, living in its wake, is no longer much of a struggle. But when I answer “no” like any conclusive statement, I am only telling a half truth. Leaving out kids and tragedy, the thing that tears me up about this job is often the good stuff, the things we would call “wins.” The mock wedding that takes place months before the real thing so grandma can watch her first grandchild tie the knot, the last trip to the casino, the few bites of a treasured recipe, a few pulls of a final smoke or tugs off a bottle of beer. These last events that few and lucky people choose to experience before their time on this earth ends. These things have always made me sad. To me they seem too small to cap lives, too forced to be authentic, too pathetic to mark the end of a person’s time on this earth, oh but
do I know. There seems to be more going on in these last hurrahs than meets the eye. They seem to be less about the experience itself and more about the life that has been lived. Less about the taste of the particular meal and more about all the dinners shared with loved ones over the years. Less about a few hours pouring coins into a shiny box and more about the jackpots won, the adventures lived. These last experiences are slivers of beauty past, small resurrections before the death. These last things breathe a bit of life back into dying bones and ensure that nothing is wasted, they truly become occasions for great joy.
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Thursday, July 9, 2015

Death Bed Wisdom

They say that wisdom can be found in the most unexpected of places that she does not always dwell in dusty old books, well worn sayings, and that smoky myth of “common sense.” Perhaps the start of knowing wisdom is to see that there is no place where she is not. Elisabeth was 70, she lived in one room above and abandoned furniture store in the part of town the good folks avoid after dark. It was a home for women in recovery, recovery from drugs and alcohol, recovery from abuse and violence, recovery from lives misspent and lives mistreated. When I met Elisabeth cancer had already torn its way through her body, her blood tainted by AIDS, Her liver blackened by cirrhosis, and her lungs ceased by COPD. The life forced upon her was killing her and Elisabeth knew it. She faced that death heroically, beautifully, with her eyes wide open. In the end she welcomed the pale specter as an old friend. Elisabeth did what she could to mitigate the pain, she did not hesitate to take her meds or call the nurse for help. She did so not out of fear, but out of a desire to get the distractions of pain and uncomforted behind her so that she could get on with the business of living truly and dying well. She reconnected with a brother she had not spoken with in years. She told those she loved about that love, she made good on her debts, and forgave her debtors. She set up her own cremation and memorial services. Elisabeth offered final words of wisdom to those around her. She blessed her friends by letting them care for her. And when death arrived Elisabeth was able to say, “I have nothing left to do in this life but to die.” Something few can say, and even fewer can mean. Elisabeth was a 70 year old dying drug addict with aids and she had more to teach the world and myself about death and about life than any book, or class, or sermon ever could. In our patients are endless stores of wisdom. Fonts overflowing with lessons learned through struggle, and fires of life passed through. Many were burnt by life’s flames along the way, and many were left more beautiful for it. May we always be open to the wisdom and courage we are confronted with in death bed after death bed, and perhaps a piece, just a touch of who they were will become a part of us.
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Thursday, July 2, 2015

Nothing to Offer

If you have ever had a newborn, you know what I am about to say is true, but you’re probably smart enough to have kept it to yourself. Newborn babies are good for nothing. They demand and demand and offer nothing in return. They give no sweet smile, they are months from a real hug, a year or so from saying “I love you.” It seems a mistake of evolution that at the point when a human can offer the least in return is the very moment when they demand the most. Yet humans keep having babies, and by and large, those babies are cared for. Why? I think it’s because we don’t actually care for the babies, but for the potential they harbor. The worlds they will inhabit and create, the love they will show, the things they will produce, the things that they will change and the things that will change them. To care for a baby is to honor the filled manger and the potential life it represents. The dying too are needy with nothing to offer. Life follow its circuit and the end resembles the beginning. By and large the dying are cared for also, but why? In caring for the dying we do not honor life in its potential, but the potential that has been realized. We honor the love that has been given, the plans fulfilled, the material created, the experiences that have been shared. In caring for the dying we show that that life and the one who lived it has mattered, that their days have had value. Even if we don’t know the entire story of a life, we have faith that that life is worth serving, and that faith is a virtue. To care for the dying to care for those who have created the worlds in which we have been blessed to live.

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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

In Our Place

There is a couple who live across the street from me, a husband and wife. He’s 91, she’s 90. She’s a talker, he hardly says a word. They’re Polish immigrants who fled horrors at home to make a home in this country. A few weeks ago, as my dear wife was waddling her way down the street and through the end of her third trimester carrying our daughter, the wife in the couple across the way called out in her thick Polish accent: “When is the baby due?” “Anytime now,” my wife replied. Quietly, almost under his breath, the husband who was sitting next to his wife on the porch leaned in and said: “Our replacement.” Meaning, I believe, that as his time on this earth draws to an end, our little girl will fill the spot he had occupied. She will take up the vacant space left behind when he sheds his mortal coil. Most people will never see their life in this vein; most people will never understand their death as making space for new life, the end of their possibility opening up avenues for others. Most people will never think about the gift and blessing it is for one life to give way to the other, but it is a gift and blessing nonetheless. The beautiful thing about our world, its endless hope, is that the hole left behind after a death will be filled again, that every death makes way for new and expansive life. In helping people die, in easing the pain of their transition and allowing their final moments to be peaceful, we honor that last noble act. We provide blessing for the final selflessness, we allow one world to fade away gentle as new universes burst into existence.
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