Saturday, February 10, 2024

FINAL GIFTS – Negotiating Life’s Ultimate Transition

Charlotte’s sister had been contending with cancer for some time. Sally and I would ask about her whenever we ran into Charlotte in the neighborhood. After several of those updates—reports of points made and lost—we learned that, after all, she’d lost the argument.

Soon after Charlotte returned from the funeral in Michigan, she gave us a book called Final Gifts. She explained that a friend had given it to her, and that it had helped her and her family get through those last painful months. The book was a blessing, she said, one she wanted to pay forward.

Final Gifts was written by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley, two veteran hospice nurses who not only care for the medical and emotional needs of patients who are dying, but help them and their families understand and grow from the end-of-life experience.

What makes this so relevant to the theme of One Man’s Wonder is that these wishes often aren’t immediately apparent on the surface.

NEARING-DEATH AWARENESS
A Kirkus review of the book says, “The ‘final gifts’ of the title are the comfort and enlightenment offered by the dying to those attending them, and in return, the peace and reassurance offered to the dying by those who hear their needs.”

In one example after another, the authors describe how the fear and grief associated with death are buffered by the dying person’s deep-seated need to reconcile relationships, settle accounts, spare loved ones’ feelings and leave a meaningful legacy.

What makes this so relevant to the theme of One Man’s Wonder is that these wishes often aren’t immediately apparent on the surface. Understanding them involves curiosity and open-mindedness.

Instead of using conventional words or actions, a dying person, especially when they’ve entered the stage the authors call “Nearing Death Awareness,” may describe what they’re going through or ask for things they need using apparently inane symbolism.

THRESHOLD OF FOREVER
A reference to a map or packing a suitcase, for example, might indicate the patient’s fear of the unknown or of not being prepared for death. Talk of a balance sheet or I.O.U. might represent scores to settle or amends to be made. Or the mention of having received an invitation might signal the patient’s peaceful acceptance of death.

In all their cases, Kelley and Callanan help families of the dying to do emotionally and spiritually what many of us already know how to do with our physical sensing: to appreciate the wonder of life, discover new ways of looking and seeing, give voice to deeply-held faith and, ultimately, to embrace the unfathomable.

Like all of Nature, death has more to teach us when we appreciate its many layers. For one dying person it might be the opportunity for caretakers and loved ones to look under the surface of spoken words to discover his or her ultimate needs.

It might compel another patient to reach back through layers of time, asking someone long estranged to come back and share the letting go of resentment, hurt or blame—often for a disagreement whose reasons have long since been forgotten. In many cases, patients are able to hold on just long enough to reconcile with that person before passing away.

Suddenly, he sat bolt upright in his bed, his gaze fixed on a point somewhere
well beyond the upper corner of the room.


WELCOME TO HEAVEN

Sometimes the end of life even enables a dying person to reach across death’s threshold and sense the welcoming spirits of previously-departed loved ones.

Sally and I had no way of knowing how soon the things we learned from reading Final Gifts would apply to our own lives. But within months after Sally finished the book, her friend, Mary, after decades living with recurring cancer, finally was succumbing.

One evening near the end, Sally was sitting with her. Mary’s eyes seemed to drift away from Sally to something in the empty corner of her bedroom. “Who are they?” Mary asked.

Sally admitted later that her normal reaction would have been to try talking Mary out of her “confusion.” But, having read about this behavior in the book, she was able to embrace Mary’s experience and help her make sense of it. “Tell me more about them,” she prompted.

That simple acknowledgment helped Mary realize that the figures were those of her long-departed sister and uncle, and that joining them might not be as fearful as she’d imagined.

THE RAPTURE
Those who experience Nearing Death Awareness often talk about seeing an indescribably beautiful place, one that moves them to wonder and awe. When my dad was dying (at the age of 91), we knew death was imminent. After being knocked to the floor several times by jolts from his defibrillator, he’d decided to have it turned off.

The doctor advised us he’d almost surely die within a couple of days. My brother, Dan, and I decided to keep vigil with him for whatever time remained. We let him know of our sadness and our hope that he’d change his mind. Ultimately, all we could do was to support him, talk with him, advocate for him, and make sure he was comfortable.

It was my shift. Dad was in deep sleep, his breathing so thin that I feared each time his chest rose and fell might be the last. Suddenly, he sat bolt upright in his bed, his eyes wide open, his gaze turned upward, fixed on a point somewhere well beyond the upper corner of the room.

His expression was one of pure rapture. It was as if he were witnessing something stunningly beautiful. Even though the wonder, whatever it was, was visible to me only in his eyes, I too was struck dumb. After about 20 seconds, he lay back down, closed his eyes and resumed his sporadic breathing.

He died the next morning.

SPIRITUAL TRANSFORMATION
Does all of this mean that death’s a wonderful thing? It depends. For my dad, I think it was. He was ready. On the other hand, I can barely imagine what it must be like to lose a child. Or a young family’s loss of a parent. Or anyone dying alone and scared…just the thought brings tears to my eyes.

Nonetheless, Final Gifts reminded me that the pain, fear and grief surrounding death are not evil; they’re part of the human condition, part of the Creator’s plan. When I view death in that context, through eyes unclouded by all the value judgments and taboos our culture imposes on it, I can’t help feeling that, somewhere under those folds, there’s the potential for it to be an awesome, even beautiful, thing.

The patients and families depicted in the book struggled with the apparent contradiction between that possibility and the stark reality of their own loss.

                                              ~             ~             ~         
PASS IT ON!
I’ve given away that copy of the Final Gifts that Charlotte gave us, as well as several others I’ve bought. The initial reaction I’ve gotten from some recipients, especially those under 40—from whom thoughts of death and dying are still far removed—has fallen a bit short of gratitude: “What a downer!” “Why such a creepy gift?” “Are you dying?”

Most, nonetheless, have dutifully read it. Everyone who’s done so has thanked me for the discoveries and the comfort it’s brought them. I hope you’ll read it too—and then continue the sequence by passing it forward.

Final Gifts – link to Amazon


(Final Gifts and a few other books and articles I’ve read about death and dying have led me to become a hospice volunteer—with Health Partners Hospice—which has deepened my understanding and appreciation of the end-of-life experience.)

Saturday, February 3, 2024

AS IF FOR THE FIRST TIME: Balance

In my As If For the First Time series I pick some common observation or activity—one so ubiquitous as to easily escape one’s full appreciation—and describe it as if I’d never seen or done it before.
                                               ~          ~     •     ~    

I toddled before my first birthday, and I’ve been on my feet ever since. Never doubting my ability to stand up, put one foot in front of the other and walk across the room.

Until late last summer.

That morning—it was September 13—I’d gotten up as usual, brushed my teeth, done my stretches. I’d just opened the refrigerator door to grab the orange juice when I felt a twinge of wooziness. Odd, I thought, as possible causes sifted through my mind.

Stroke? Heart attack? Brain tumor? Before entertaining any of these awful prospects, I decided just to sit down, relax and see if the dizziness might pass. But ten minutes later, as the dog barked to go outside, I just knew I wouldn’t be able to stand up. I tried, and I was right.

WHAT IT’S NOT
Quite the saga unfolded from there. Staggering to the door, vomiting, an ambulance ride, and an eye-opening night in the ER where they did every imaginable image and test to rule out the obvious culprits. Thank God, about 24 hours after whatever it was stole my balance, I was finally able to walk out of there.

The diagnosis after all that: dehydration. Ha! I knew that wasn’t the case. (Ever since having passed a couple of kidney stones years ago I’ve been quite conscientious about my water intake.) So if that wasn’t it, what was it, this mysterious, vertigo-like case of the swirlies? I just hoped and prayed it would be a one-and-done.

Then, just over three months later, while I was visiting my daughter and her family in Maine for Christmas, it happened again. Roughly the same time of day, same circumstances, same debilitation. Only this time, realizing that all the most dire causes had been ruled out, I worried less.

Sure enough, twenty-four hours later it was gone. But not without leaving me mystified again and feeling more vulnerable than ever.

           As far as walking, you might as well
           be aboard a tiny boat on rough seas.


ON ROUGH SEAS

While researching my new disorder, I’ve been reminded of the fascinating workings of the human body’s balance center, the inner ear. Among its components are thousands of little calcium carbonate crystals that sit on a gelatinous bed inlaid with tiny vertical hairs.

Normally, the crystals' condition and position signal to the brain where your body is in space. And they coordinate with your muscles to keep you…well…vertical.

But if those little crystals get jostled and some get tipped into the semicircular canals, that can be a problem. The errant crystals are supposed to dissolve, but certain positions can hinder that process, and then all bets are off. As far as walking, you might as well be trying to stand in a tiny boat on rough seas.

If it is vertigo there’s a remedy. The Epley Maneuver—a series of specific head and torso movements—can help satisfy the inner ear that you’re not really aboard a storm-tossed dinghy. I tried it three or four times without success.

LIKE FATHER…
This is one of those junctures in my life where I wish I could talk to my dad. He was a good-natured stickler for good posture. He’d see my brother or me slouched over our oatmeal and, without saying a word, demonstrate what sitting up straight looks like. Robot-like, he’d lift a spoonful straight up to the level of his face and then execute the precise 90-degree turn into his mouth.

Dad must have been taught the same thing growing up, that posture’s not just good for one’s spine, but is also an expression of one’s character. He walked steadily—and even played cartless golf—until just a couple of weeks before his death at age 91. No one would have been more profoundly bothered by the inability to stand.


Maybe that’s why this vertigo thing has hit me so hard. I’d like to ask my dad if he ever had an episode of this vertigo-like disorder. And if so, how he felt and what he might have learned about it.

From here on out, I guess all I can do is keep exploring possible causes…and hope it doesn’t happen again. I’ve made an appointment at the National Center For Dizziness and Balance, located here in Minneapolis, so maybe I can get some answers about causes, prevention and, I hope, a remedy.

And I’ll never again take simply standing for granted.

Friday, January 19, 2024

ARTICULATE SILENCE – The Power of Presence

“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing...not healing, not curing...that is a friend who cares.”
HENRI NOUWEN
                                              ~      •     ~      •.     ~     .     

It’s taken me a very long time to realize that just sitting, with no task, no agenda, no expectations, isn’t necessarily a waste of time.

“Just being” is something babies and old folks do very well. I suppose you could say that’s because they can’t walk and their hands don’t work very well. But more important than how they might have come to be so acutely in the present moment is the fact that only the most cynical observer would ever conclude from their lack of “productiveness” that they’re wasting their time.


It’s a shame the art of just being is so lost on the rest of us. For it’s in that state, devoid of ambition and guile, liberated from expectations of any kind, that we’re best able to experience what I’d argue are the human pursuits of the highest order: curiosity, compassion and wonder.

NOT THEN OR WHEN, BUT NOW
By the time we’re in grade school, most of us have already been indoctrinated with the familiar mantras: Keep your nose to the grindstone; Idle hands make for the devil’s work; Work hard enough and everything will be fine. You know, the good old American dream. Trouble is, there are some worthwhile goals that don’t fall within the reach of anyone who’s reaching.

          There are some worthwhile goals that
          don’t fall within the reach of anyone
          who’s reaching.


We’re all conditioned to place enormous value on the past and the future. We think the past, the sum total of all our life experiences to date, defines who we are. We think the future is where all our hopes, dreams and fears will play out. In fact, we tend to focus so much of our mental and emotional energy on the “then” and the “when” that we fail to fully experience the “now.” As much as we’d like to think we can do it, no one can be in two places at the same time.

I learned a lot about just being during my parents’ last days in this life. These lessons come naturally when you’re with someone who can no longer communicate with words. You sit there. Maybe you talk a little, hoping the person understands you at some level. But mostly, you just sit.

Simply sitting with someone may seem like an old-fashioned idea, like visiting or court-
ing. These are things no one used to think much about; there were fewer options, fewer distractions, so they just did them. But now that we’re all wired in, on call, connected 24/7 wherever we go, it’s gotten harder and harder not to feel we should be “productive” at some level nearly all the time.

Yet it’s precisely in such moments of “emptiness” that we are most apt to be fulfilled. That’s when we let go of any notion that, somehow, we’re “in control,” that there’s something we should be doing or thinking, or that anything but our presence matters.

When our consciousness is full of stuff from the past and future, there’s no room for what’s happening now. It’s only by clearing the decks of these preoccupations that we can be open to a communion with the present, whether with our own true spirit, the soul of a loved one, or the astounding beauty of Nature’s gifts that surround and fill us.


            We focus so much of our mental and 
          emotional energy on the “then” and the
          “when” that we fail to fully experience
          the “now.”


FINDING SOMETHING NEVER LOST
To be truly in the moment is a difficult concept for some people to grasp. After all, how can you achieve something that’s accessible only to those who don’t try to achieve it? Is it really possible to notice the absence of everything?

Can you really hear silence, feel emptiness? You can if you’re ready. Just as a sponge can’t absorb a spill until it’s wrung out, you can’t understand these things without first wringing from your consciousness the concerns and constructs that saturate your mind.

Perhaps the one mental construct that clashes most with just being is our notion of time. We imagine our lives as linear paths; we move along a time line. Each day, each experience we have, becomes another part of our past, that which defines who we are.

And the line extending in front of us, the future, holds all the experiences we will have from now on, illuminated by our hopes and dreams. It’s precisely in such moments of “emptiness” that we are most apt to be fulfilled.

        

Curiously, we even tend to see the spatial aspect of our existence as linear, imagining, again, that only those places where we’ve been and where we’re to go delineate the sphere of our existence. Imagine walking through a Costa Rican rain forest, touring the Musee D’Orsay or even riding the bus home from work, looking nowhere else but straight ahead or straight behind you. Would anyone consider this a whole experience?

As Eckhart Tolle says in his wonderful book, The Power of Now, these linear paradigms are just illusions we’ve invented to help us deal with the incomprehensible reality of the infinite. 

If you're looking to the past, the future or a change
of scene for the secret of happiness, you're looking
in the wrong place. If fact, it makes no sense to be looking at all, because you already possess it; it’s already inside of you. It is part of you; you are part
of it.

This is why just being is such a powerful, articulate force. Notwithstanding its utter simplicity—or, perhaps, because of it—it is a most eloquent expression of a reality few of us are ready to grasp. That, outside of the present moment, nothing—literally, nothing—exists.

Even the most defining moments of your past exist only as you interpret and apply their lessons now. Even your fondest wish, your most compelling goal, exists only in the work you begin now to realize it.

Monday, January 15, 2024

ANGELS AMONG US – A New Year’s Tradition Takes Wing

For the past decade or so, Sally and I have spent every New Years Eve in Scandia with my brother, Dan, his wife, Ruth Ann, and two other couples we’ve gotten to know through them.

Of course, there’s always good food—Ruth Ann’s an excellent cook—and wine—Dan is a fine sommelier. And everyone contributes an appetizer, side or dessert. The setting is incredible; their beautiful home sits atop a bluff overlooking a stretch of the scenic St. Croix River.

All these people are, each in their own way, smart, funny, talented and kind, and we share many interests. So conversation and laughter come easily.

Nonetheless, every year Dan, a week or two beforehand, throws out a theme for that year’s celebration. Everyone’s to bring something creative, their own or borrowed, that somehow expresses that theme. A reading, a hand-made craft item, a work of art or musical piece, or a group activity.

New Year’s 2023’s theme was “Angels,” and, as usual, everyone responded with something thoughtful and expressive of who they are.

YEAR OF THE HALO
It was heartwarming seeing and hearing all the interpretations of “angels,” ranging from silly to solemn, plainspoken to poetic. Some were quite touching.

While most saw their angels manifest in other people or things that have happened to them, Sally’s offering, typically, turned that on its head: First she handed out halo garlands. Then, once they floated above our heads, she asked each of us to share an experience in which we had been the angel.

Some were reticent to pretend to that status. Still, I think everyone walked a little taller after being urged to claim it. I mentioned my hospice volunteering.


The influence of the angel theme didn’t stop there. For the rest of the evening it kept popping up in the conversation. There was even talk of folks showing up Sunday at church next Sunday wearing those fuzzy halos.

And I won't be surprised if the evening's effects extend well into the new year
for some of us—maybe in the form of resolutions. Twenty-twenty-four: year of
the halo?

(In case you might be interested, here’s what I shared as my take on “angels”):

JUST WHEN I NEEDED YOU

Once, they hovered, haloed
Revealed by none less than God,
A bridge from divine to human.

I’ve not seen such angels,
Not that they don’t exist,
Just that I don’t believe they do.

The kind I like are real, and I’ve met a few:
People, animals, trees…even experiences
That showed me the way, saved my hide…or soul.

My angels are like my god; they’re everywhere.
In me, around me, beyond me,
They show up exactly when I need them.

As mortals, though, we miss more than we see.
For angels don’t just happen to us; they happen from us.
From love, from presence, from faith.

We discern what we expect.
So with angels, as with other wonders,
Believing is seeing.

And that same generosity of sight, belief and spirit
That allows us to see angels prompts us to be angels.