Category Archives: Death

Forever Young

I never met a situation for which there wasn’t an appropriate Joan Baez song. This is what made it possible to survive the vagaries of high school. Of course, when it is a Dylan song performed by Baez it is the best possible consolation. As I think of my mother, this song keeps coming back to me. In my harsher, younger years, I might have described her as immature and narcissistic. Now as she is coming very close to her last days, I am choosing instead to see her as forever young.

Several years ago after my mother was admitted to the hospital for what we now think was the beginning of dementia symptoms provoked by an infection, I had a dream. My brother and sister and I were in my sister’s house with debris up to our knees. My brother was standing by a map on the wall trying to point out directions. My sister said she had cleaning to do. And I just kept saying, “But a storm is coming.” Well, it came. But not as a hurricane. It came in squalls, cloudbursts, and occasional showers. The degrees of severity varied, but the frequency of the storms increased.

Having both worked and volunteered with different hospice organization, I know there are specific characteristics attributed to actively dying. I can tell you that my mother is actively dying, though not exactly by the clinical definition. She still has significant periods of lucidity where I can recognize her spirit and see a desire to be alive. But they are fewer. And physically, she has become much like a toddler in needing help to eat and with other bodily functions.

My mother had a shitty childhood. I don’t know many specifics because she claimed she doesn’t remember. There would be a few random stories that would creep out, and they were always sad. I know some of the darkness of her birth family, so I’m calling it: she was abused. Some people who come from a traumatic childhood become old quickly. And I think others, like my mother, become forever young. She functioned successfully as a teacher, parent, and overly involved church person. She never missed a wedding, shower, or reunion to which she was invited by extended family. But just under the surface there was an insecurity and perpetual, though usually mild depression. I think in her self-image, she never quite believed she was loved.

I am trying to value the time left for my mother while learning the lessons offered me and making every effort to meet what needs can be met before she crosses over. I was not her favorite and we were not close in the way that she viewed people being close. I am not the huggy-kissy type, so with my mother being a little over-the-top on that, it is a struggle for me.  I saw her last Sunday and spent most of the day with her and my father. She was in nursing care at their retirement community and he was able to return to their apartment at night, though at her side every other minute.

After a bad fall and likely a concussion, she had a relapse on Wednesday. After leaving my (new) job early, taking a train home, then driving for about two hours, when she stirred and saw me she said, “You’re here,” with surprise. I couldn’t understand why she would be surprised when I have been consistently showing up, with frequency. I promise that I have been front and center. But in my mother’s forever young, and now horribly bruised brain, because I’m not the smothering type she fears that maybe I don’t really love her. Having had lousy parents, she is never sure if someone loves her. For me, this is now a challenge to meet someone where they are. However uncomfortable it makes me, I must use this time left to figure out how to convince her she is loved – in a way she will understand.

It is especially at times like this that we get to see how people express their religion. I was not at all surprised to see two of my non-religious relatives respond with great compassion and spend nearly a whole day with my mother. Another drove from out of state just to spend one evening with her. I was not surprised to see my mother’s evangelical church folks absent. You see, they were busy with their “prayer chain.” My parents’ “pastor” has been showing up and offering public prayer, which to me was just showing off. At one point, when she was in intensive care, he made the relatives circle her bed and hold hands and for his meandering prayer. Had we been Roman Catholic I would have expected last rites to come next. I was grateful my mother was not aware enough to see this spectacle because it would have pushed her right over to the other side.

I can’t emphasize enough how much my mother has extended herself for nieces, nephews, and her church over the years. And where are they now? Their own Bible says, “Faith without works is dead.” She is an 85-year-old woman with a variety of unpleasant and frightening health episodes that keep occurring. I have outright asked her pastor to recruit visitors from his church. No one has shown up except for a couple of their own friends who happen to go to the same church and were already visiting. Where is that ‘community of faith’? They have demonstrated to me they are a social club with a religious theme and bad music, not a community, and not motivated to be compassionate.

I believe faith is exercised in how we treat each other. When we extend ourselves to do what might even be uncomfortable because that is what someone needs, it can be considered an expression of divine compassion. Keep your prayers, people – unless you are going to pray for me to learn to be more demonstrative. If Mother God is listening, I could use help with that.

And to my mother, I am sending her Dylan’s words, with Baez singing them in my head.

“May God’s blessing keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you…
And may you stay, forever young…”

Right now, it is time to let others do for you.

And to the verse that says, “May you grow up to be righteous, May you grow up to be true,” she has. As my mother nears crossing over, I pray that she transitions from a sad child to someone who is forever young, and at peace. -J.B.

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Wet Suits and Suicide

The first time I was breathing underwater with scuba gear it was in a Kansas YMCA swimming pool. Breathing underwater was as amazing as the final test was terrifying, for which a mandatory free-ascent without oxygen was required. It took me three tries. However, my success had the intended result. I learned that in spite of my instincts, I could ascend from 40-feet of very cold, muddy water on a single breath. Since the test was early spring in a huge Arkansas lake, we were wearing wet suits.

Wet suits are another thing that don’t seem logical. When you get in the water, it soaks WetsuitCroppedyour suit. Your body then warms the water, very quickly, which continues to serve as a layer of warmth and protection from the cold water. I would love to walk around life with a social wet suit, protecting me from the cold-shoulders we inevitably bump into.

The thing about a wet suit is that out of water, walking around is exhausting. What was a layer of protection in the cold water becomes untenable on land. I think that clinical depression, for some, is like walking around land in a wet suit, but without it actually keeping you warm. It is like a permanent, cumbersome weight that you can’t figure out how to peel off. And at the risk of extending the metaphor too far, I would say that the wet suit of depression can convince one that taking it off would be worse than the misery of wearing it. Those on the outside might say, “Just take it off,” as in ‘get over it.’ But of course, it doesn’t work like that.

There are probably many groups of experts on suicide, but one of them which keeps statistics is the American Association of Suicidology (which is a word, and is the study of suicide prevention per Webster). They tell us that more women attempt suicide, but more men succeed, for example. A Washington Post story reports that there has been an alarming spike in the rate of suicide in white, middle-age men since 1999.

The Washington Post on Suicide and Robin Williams

While I am very sad about the loss of Robin Williams, I believe he made a choice that was his to make. We’ll never know what he was thinking at the time, but I can see that maybe he was just tired of walking around on dry land in a wetsuit and flat-out couldn’t figure how to get the damn thing off. The Parkinson’s was one more utterly exhausting obstacle – like trying to run track in a wetsuit. In Robin William’s case, he would have been expected to make jokes for everyone else while doing it.  Maybe he just thought,  “Enough is enough.” That he apparently hung himself does creep me out, but there should be some recognition for him in staying clean-and-sober to the end of his days, after what I’ve read was years of struggle.

In the last few days, in casual conversations in various settings and comments online, on radio and television, I’ve heard people say, “What about those he left behind?” “What a shame.” I remember someone telling a suicide story about an acquaintance saying, “Suicide is an angry act. It hurts everyone left behind.” Suicide may have a ripple effect on those left behind, but it is the most deeply personal act possible. It’s just not about you. That is not said to diminish the pain of those left behind. It is just to ask, why can’t people make a choice about their own exit?

HelenNearingBookCover

Loving and Leaving the Good Life, by Helen Nearing

Helen and Scott Nearing come to mind. They were the original hippies, leaving a comfortable Manhattan life during the Great Depression and teaching themselves subsistence living in rural Vermont, then Maine. Their story is a good one, but what is relative to this topic is that at age 100, Scott was finished. He accomplished what he intended, he had no life-threatening illness, he simply stopped eating. He did indeed make a graceful exit. And it was his to make.

Goodlife Website on Scott and Helen Nearing

Disclaimer: I realize depression it is a treatable condition, not all people with depression are suicidal, and not all suicides can be linked to depression. Some would say that suicide can only be the result of mental illness. America may be a financially wealthy country but when it comes to mental health this is a primitive, unenlightened society. So, maybe the argument that suicide is linked to a treatable mental illness is often correct, but it is a moot point when mental health treatment is even less available and/or affordable than physical healthcare, for many of the non-wealthy. There’s the added problem that even if you have some insurance to help, you really don’t want mental health problems on your medical record. You know I’m right about that.

In our less-than-enlightened society, medical advances have outpaced ethics and common sense. People are living much longer, but not necessarily doing it well. Human beings are lingering beyond their ability to be productive, or even happy. Many are suffering painful, prolonged illnesses without the opportunity to get off the runaway train of medical science that lengthens life but can’t help us live it.

I was a hospice volunteer for several years. I learned that religion does not always support the dying or the suffering. In fact religion contributes to the shame around suicide. If someone is in so much pain they see suicide as a viable option, shaming them exacerbates the misery. One argument religions have used in condemning suicide is to assert the unerring sacred value of life – at all costs. This position is promoted even while all the major religions venerate martyrs. There are religious martyrs who died at their own hands and those who engaged in behavior that would make their death inevitable – that doesn’t even count religious wars. So a sweeping assertion about the unerring sacred value of life doesn’t hold consistent with how religions have been practiced historically.

As the article linked below says, it is not that long ago that a funeral mass was denied if the deceased committed suicide. While the Roman Catholic Church is now responding to suicide with more compassion, church teachings still make it clear that suicide is morally wrong. I single out the Roman Catholic Church because it is an easy and obvious target, but don’t think it is the only religion with discomfort around suicide.

CatholicDigest.com on Suicide

The thing about shaming suicide is that it makes people less willing to talk. The American Society for Suicide Prevention counts “Positive connections to family, peers, community, and social institutions such as marriage and religion that foster resilience,” as “protective factors for suicide prevention.” If someone is too ashamed to talk, how can they make those “connections?”

Preventing Suicide

I remind you that when it comes to faith, there are no certainties. That is actually what faith means – believing what can’t be seen or proven. So since it’s all speculation, maRobinWilliamsFBybe we could do the right thing and back off the judgment of the suffering and the tired. Suicide is mysterious. We can’t truly know what was going on. We can only try to pay attention to the people around us. And in any case, every adult deserves the opportunity to make a choice about their exit. To Robin Williams I say: Thank you. I respect your choice. Though we wanted more, you gave us plenty. – J.B.

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Death Becomes Us

For about three years I volunteered at a cancer center doing hospice and bereavement work.  Most people think that sounds depressing, but to the contrary, it was inspiring.  I was present during a holy time, no matter what I was doing.  Sometimes I just sat with a patient while watching TV.  (I think she did this so she could do something that felt normal and had nothing to do with cancer.)  One thing I noticed was that it was hard to be shallow in the face of imminent death.  Naturally, there were some who succeeded, but there were more people who stepped up to support the dying person and struggled to process their own pain.

I miss Jack Kevorkian.  Where is he?  He was a hero.  Those who condemned him have not looked a lingering, painful death square in the eye.  There is dignity for an individual who recognizes it is time to move on and has the opportunity to say good-bye.  Only out of respect and love can those around the dying person start to accept the pain of imminent loss, and also let go.

Loss is defined by the one who experiences it.  I have lost humans I love, but every day I miss my animal family members who have died, and often with much greater intensity.  If you are a person who does not understand human-animal bonds, you may take offense at my willingness to compare losing animal family members to losing humans.  You have my pity for what you are missing.

I had my cat, Milo, euthanized two days ago.  He was 14 years old, so certainly a senior citizen; yet his cancer, for me, was sudden and was aggressive.  Having to decide to take measures that would end Milo’s life was as painful for me as it was inevitable.  Though I have had to do this before, it does not ever get easier.  As I was agonizing over what was to come, I took time to consider how I would want to be treated.  Let the record show, I never want heroic, extreme measures to save my physical life at the expense of living it.  Though he just didn’t look as sick as he was, Milo couldn’t eat or drink water.  I am now certain the blow to his dignity from being reduced to complete incapacity, would never have been worth the few additional days I would have been able to have with him.

Milo taught me how to love someone I didn’t really like.  At best, he was a curmudgeon, and I’m not entirely sure he actually liked me.  He purred only grudgingly and was never a lap cat.  He is the only cat I had that I could not convince to stop clawing things up, which was quite unfortunate since my spouse has a lovely old house with antique woodwork that Milo favored.  This was the source of serious domestic disputes between the three of us.  Still, I will grieve for Milo for some time to come.  I will adopt other animal family members, but not right away and not as replacements.

Where is God in all of this?  If you have read my column before, then you will not be surprised that I can find a religious perspective on almost any aspect of the human experience.  I do distinguish between religion, God, and spirituality.  Most often when I refer to religion, it is related to organized religion and theological thought.  When I refer to the spiritual, it is usually a reference to experiences and feelings that are outside the temporal or physical.  The god-concept is always personal, in my view.  It might be impossible to talk or write about God while truly understanding someone else’s perception.  We can only really know what God does or doesn’t mean for each of us, ourselves.  For today, as a favor to me, I ask you to stand outside of your religious familiarity, set aside your god-concept, and just consider connections.  Consider connections to humans and to animals, to the living and the dead.

I learned a lot about meditation from my friend, Denny, who introduced me to Thich Nhat Hanh, among others.  We were able to attend a talk and group meditation with him in the early nineties that I have never forgotten.  My meditation is frequently a result of what I learned from Thich Nhat Hanh.  However, sometimes, in meditation I connect to people and animals who have died.  I recognize this can all be in my imagination, and consider that irrelevant.  I have experienced insights I don’t believe I would have otherwise.  I am ok with those who think I’m just nuts.  I am already accustomed to the relatives who think I’m hell-bound.  Those judgments don’t block me from experiencing the holy in my own way, and benefitting from it.

I had a Jewish friend that used to say, “Dead is dead.”  (It is possible to be a Jewish atheist, but that’s a column for another day.)  My response to that thought is that I do not want to live this life believing there is nothing else, even if it’s true.  Faith is believing that for which we have no physical evidence.  I have faith that there is more than “dead is dead.”  This is affirmed for me when I connect to other species, including Milo.  Experiencing unconditional love, though I can’t say I got that from Milo, I did from those animal family members who have passed before him.  To see love and devotion in the eyes of another species with whom I can’t verbally communicate is the best link to a loving God I have ever experienced.  This is a holy connection to me.  Just as death takes us to the brink of eternity, love gives us a reason to keep connecting.

When Milo was on the vet’s table, moments from certain death, I wrapped my arms around him, not even sure he wanted that.  I wanted to shield him from the lights which seemed so harsh and find a way to say a final good-bye.  The old curmudgeon, ready to die, started purring.  By my definition, this was not only a holy connection, but also a miracle.  I took it as his approval and good-bye.  So, Milo, I will miss you.  This house is so big and so empty.  But I will connect with you in my meditations and dreams.  You taught me to love the hard to love and I am better for it.  Scratch away, Milo.

Faith and the Lost Dog

This column is going to be more personal than what I usually write, and I do not promise a happy ending.  Consider yourself warned.  Don’t worry, I won’t do it often.    It is also a little longer than usual.  I have edited as best I could and I just can’t say what I need to say in fewer words.  And personal column or not, your comments in response are always welcome.

Religion, doctrine, theology, these are all big picture concepts.  What we believe, what we have faith in – that is where the rubber meets the road.  Faith is individual and personal, and not an area where any of us have the right to dictate to each other.  Further, if you are deferring your own personal discernment to others, whether they are friends, spouses, or clergy (especially clergy), then you are shirking responsibility for your own spirituality.  (I don’t mean atheists or agnostics, for they – by definition – are taking a position for themselves.)

My faith is exercised by believing in an eventual good outcome in times of pain and noticing the times of joy and contentment with gratitude.  Just Monday morning I was sitting in my office writing, with my dog Buddy crashed out on the futon looking so content I took a picture.  I remember feeling grateful to have the peace and safe space to read, and write, and be with the unquestioning devotion of Buddy.  Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss,” and I can say that this was a blissful morning.  I don’t have a full-time job and I never seem to have money, but in that moment, life was perfect for me.

I have to ask, is joyful contentment an invitation for Evil?  It seems so.  On Tuesday evening Buddy ran away.  Buddy has epilepsy and I give him a lot medication every day.  He has run twice before, but I sincerely believed we had corrected his lapses in judgment and willingness to cooperate with me.  That being said, there is nothing he loves more than running and running with reckless abandon.  I couldn’t bring myself to keep him constantly tethered to me on a leash.  Our yard is big and sheltered and I had every confidence that I could teach him it was best to stay home.  I was so very wrong.  It was as if Evil whispered in his ear and even as he was looking back at me, he just kept going further away from me until he vanished into suburban hedges.  The last time I saw him was 6:20 p.m. on Tuesday evening.

And that is why I found myself last evening sitting in the backyard of my veterinarian’s office (close to where he was last spotted) from 9:30 p.m. to midnight, writing by flashlight in between meditating and dozing off.  I did this the night before (except for the writing part) and have spent many other hours starting at 5:30 a.m. driving, walking, and sitting search for my missing dog.  Again and again I ask how this is possible when Buddy and I are so connected.  As I write this, it is Buddy’s fifth day in 90-plus degree heat with no food, water, or medication.  Maybe I’ve been watching too many “Charmed” re-runs, but isn’t there some protection for the innocent?  Well, if Evil is an entity with a dark plan for pain, this was the most successful shot at my faith that could have been fired.

In the interests of disclosure, I practice Christianity, though many Christians would not want to claim me.  I’m not really sure about the deity of Jesus and I certainly don’t believe Christianity is the only ultimate truth.  I admit to cursing like a stevedore and loving tequila.  Though I am now with my favorite spouse, I have too many divorces behind me.  (I think you get the picture.)

I do not believe in God the Chess Master, smirking while we all scramble to figure out his mysterious “will” for our lives.  I do believe in karmic justice and every time I get screwed I hope that I live long enough to see some of it.  I also do not believe in a Santa Claus God to whom we submit requests for relief from pain or just bonuses for being such great folks – like a winning lottery ticket.  I do believe in miracles, but most often the miracle is that another human was motivated to do something kind for no personal gain.  That counts, by golly.

If Buddy does not come home safely, or worst of all, if I never actually know what happened to him, then I have to say, Evil won.  That is quite enough to make me question the power of love in the universe.

Remember Chief Seattle told us we are all part of the web of life?  The reverence of that connection is what my relationship with Buddy means to me.  I had an everyday connection to all that is good in the world.  I had a clear understanding of unconditional love.  I knew simple joy.  So if it is the goal of Evil to disrupt and destroy: mission accomplished.  If I never see Buddy again, I expect to go on with my life.  His abrupt and premature departure does not diminish what we had.  It does shake my faith to the core.  I don’t really believe in a personal God, but I also don’t believe in Nothing.  And somewhere in the middle, I was hoping for help in a time of pain for things that are out of my control.  Sort of sums up the human condition, doesn’t it?  Well, we’ll see what happens.

P.S. Don’t tell me if you find a typo.  I haven’t slept much since Tuesday.

Epilogue: As of 7/19/2010  he is not home and no one has seen him since the 15th.