BLESSING OF THE TREES. . .

Hospice of Humboldt has been serving families with end of life care for many decades – in their homes and in nearby facilities. The scope of this care is expanding to include a new in-patient hospice center. It will provide a place for some patients to go when it is no longer feasible for them to remain at home. To build this center on newly purchased woodland required a decision to cut down some of the trees – and as our administrator expressed – a decision that was not made lightly. A ceremony was held to bless these trees and to express gratitude and respect for their lives . . .

ancient redwoods - green borderThe sun glinted through the branches as we stood in a loose circle under the canopy of the forest. The fragrance of the trees and the rich organic matter blanketing the floor smelled sweet and earthy. Time did not feel ordinary here.

We were an eclectic group: hospice staff members from myriad disciplines; the architects that designed the new center; the contractors who would oversee the building of it, and the people who would be responsible for removing the selected trees and rendering the ground ready to accept the new structures that will soon grace this land.

The haunting melody of a wooden flute resounded amidst the trees, bringing to a hush the conversations of those who had gathered. Eyes naturally closed – some bowed their heads. I felt tears well up and saw that I was not alone. When the music ceased we continued to stand in silence for some time. Then our chaplains, some with guitars, lead us in a song paying homage to the holiness of this land, followed by a reading of “The Giving Tree”, by Shel Silverstein.

It was a short and simple ceremony, but a deeply poignant and respectful one. The professionals who will be responsible for building this center said they had never attended such a blessing, and felt honored to participate.

As I stood there in that forest, I imagined the patients who would come here to spend their remaining days. I thought of their loved ones who will be at their bedsides; of the paths that will wind amongst these trees for them to walk on, and of the chapel that will be built for them to find quiet and solace. The cycles of life and death will play out here in an environment of beauty, dignity and respect – held by an organization that had the sensitivity to bless the trees . . .

To everything (turn, turn, turn)

There is a season (turn, turn, turn)

And a time for every purpose, under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die

A time to plant, a time to reap

A time to kill, a time to heal

A time to laugh, a time to weep

(Pete Seeger with words adapted from Ecclesiastes)

 

 

 

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A VIRTUAL BIRTH LONG AGO…

 As a hospice nurse, I spend a big part of my time on the phone – counseling, guiding and comforting patients and their families, even at the moment of death. I remember the first time I helped deliver a baby by phone as a midwife many years ago.

women_air_traffic_controlRING…RING…The phone shattered my sleep. Rolling over I fumbled for the receiver. “Hello,” I mumbled.

“IS THIS THE MIDWIFE?” The voice was hysterical.

“Yes.” I groggily responded, pulling the phone back from my ear. “Who’s calling?”

“Uh, You don’t know me and I’d rather not say…” he muttered.

“I see… Pot grower? Maybe someone on wanted posters?  “Why are you calling? Do you have an emergency?”

“WELL, MY OLE LADY’S HAVING A BABY RIGHT NOW AND SHE’S SCREAMING HER FUCKING HEAD OFF. SOMETHING’S NOT RIGHT. A FRIEND HERE GAVE ME YOUR NAME AND I LOOKED YOU UP. CAN YOU HELP US?” he shouted, his words tumbling out of the phone.

“First, try to calm down. I can help you better if you don’t shout. Where are you?

“We’re way the hell out here in the southern part of the county.”

“Do you have anyone with you who knows how to deliver babies?”

“NO—We don’t know what we’re doing. I looked at a book and it didn’t seem like it was going to be this hard. Some friends came over. We boiled some shoelaces to tie around the cord. She’s hollering her head off. WE’RE ALL FREAKING OUT!” he screamed. I could hear the panic in his voice—and the deep, low-pitched screaming and moaning in the background. She sounded close. I knew transport was out of the question.

“Tell me. Did she see a doctor or midwife during her pregnancy?”

“No. We lived pretty far away, and we wanted to do this natural like.”

“Do you have any supplies there, like gloves?”

“Yep, we got those.”

“Okay. I’m going to help you. You can deliver this baby. You’ll be just fine. I need you to wash your hands, and then put on the sterile gloves. We need to determine what part of the baby is coming first—whether it’s a head or a butt. Put a friend on the phone and I’ll have him relay my instructions” When he was ready I proceeded to guide him through the exam.

I could hear shouting. “OKAY, OKAY, IT”S HARD… I THINK IT’S A HEAD… AND IT FEELS LIKE IT”S READY TO COME OUT. SHIT, MAN, I THINK IT’S RIGHT HERE!”

“Good. Good.” I calmly reassured him. “The baby is almost ready to be born. Make sure the room is warm. Place some towels under her bottom and coach her to just let the baby come on its own. If she feels like pushing, tell her to be gentle—little baby pushes. Have a blanket ready for the baby.”

His friend’s voice became my voice—calm and steady. I could hear the tension and excitement in the room, as the baby’s head slowly emerged—followed by the shoulders as they dipped beneath the pubic bone. The baby slid out onto the bed and let out a big cry.

“HOLY CRAP, HONEY, WE DID IT. WE DID IT!” he shouted with relief.

I stayed on the phone and waited until the placenta had been delivered, being sure there was no bleeding. From what I could tell the baby was doing fine—had already started sucking at the breast. The father came back on the phone. “Thanks lady. You were really cool. This was unbelievable. Man oh man. I sure want to thank you.” I made him promise to get the baby and his lady to a doctor to be checked the next day, and call to let me know how they were doing. “You owe me that, buddy.” I said.

When I hung up I tucked back into my warm covers, feeling rather pleased—rather like an airport controller. I’d never “talked a baby in” before.

THE THIN VEIL…

thin veilThe evening sun was glowing bright orange on the horizon as I sat on a bench at the marsh, watching the ducks bobbing in the still water of the pond. I looked up and then I saw her. She approached tentatively and we looked deeply into each other’s eyes. It took a minute for the recognition to move from a stirring memory (We know each other) to falling into each other’s arms with the familiarity of long lost sisters. She was the wife of a patient of mine who had passed away a few years ago, and we had developed a relationship of trust and deep affection as I came each week to care for him. It was a lovely family – gentle, refined people – and I became very fond of them. It was a joy to go there and I had looked forward to my visits. We would laugh and talk about books and their love of rocks and the sea. Even when he could no longer eat, she continued to cook because he still wanted the house to be filled with the seductive smells of her savory cooking.

In the twilight now she and I sat together and held hands. I listened as she spoke of the ebb and flow of her lingering grief and her gratefulness that he had passed so peacefully at home. She shared her memories; saying that he had lived his life with richness and integrity, without regret, and this had given her much solace these past few years. She remembered, almost with awe, how it felt to bear witness to his transition from this life, and how he surprised her because he did not hold back when it was time to let go.

The day before he passed I came to the house, as his condition had declined dramatically and he was now entering an active state of dying. I knew it would not be long. He seemed quite comfortable and relaxed, his breathing slow and shallow. I went to his bedside and stood silently for a few minutes, then quietly said his name. Immediately I felt regret. He was always such a gentleman, consistently polite and gracious. So I watched with some horror as he yanked his consciousness to the surface with enormous effort and struggle so he could respond to me. He opened his eyes but couldn’t speak. His body had deteriorated, and I could see that he was no longer clinging to this life. The veil between the two worlds of body and spirit had become very thin and I could feel him slipping to the other side. I put my hand gently on his chest and softly said, “Go back. Go back. There is nothing you need to do here now. You are almost there and you are good.” He gave a sweet smile, closed his eyes and fell deeply into a non-responsive state. He died peacefully twenty-four hours later.

It was a teaching I have never forgotten – what it was like to energetically feel someone’s soul pass through that thin veil – and I learned how it is not helpful to try and redirect their attention, not with our voice or our touch, because it holds them here and causes conflict. They are over it and moving on. Goodbyes and unfinished business need to happen before this moment.

As others and I recently held a silent and loving vigil at the bedside of our dear friend in her final hours, I tried to feel into her experience, imagining it was I in that bed passing out of this life, leaving my body behind. Of course, we can never know until it is our time, but in that moment – under such supportive circumstances – it did not feel too scary.

 

GENEROSITY…

hands and torquoiseThis isn’t meant to be a story about panhandlers, or what I do or don’t do when I relate to them – or not. Rather, this is about the quality of generosity and the state of my mind at any given moment. It just so happens that the best canaries in my mind’s minefield are panhandlers. They are everywhere in my town, especially in the fall during trimming season. Seeing them is like putting a huge mirror in front of me: it reflects immediately the spiritual truth of where I really am, not where I think I am.  Encountering panhandlers provides me with a perfect check-in to see whether my yellow bird is plump, healthy and chirping, or lying gasping on the curb, belly up.

Is my inclination to stop, listen to their story, take them over to the burrito wagon for a meal, or put a buck in their cup? Do I take a minute to acknowledge them, hold a prayer that they find more fortunate conditions in their life? Do I try to imagine, as I am heading home to a warm house and abundant food, what it must be like to be out in harsh elements on a street corner with a scribbled sign, saying, “God Bless. Anything helps?” Does my heart feel empathic or is it hard and/or indifferent? Do I even notice them? Do I rigidly keep my eyes straight ahead, avoiding their gaze as if they were invisible? When I’m tired after a hard day on the job, do I put on my righteous clothes and mutter to myself? “I’m old and I work. Why can’t you?” And when my mind goes to dark, uncomfortable places, do I look – as through a window – thinking this is about them, or do I look in the mirror and remember that it is actually about me.

My teacher says that generosity is simply a mind that offers – a mind that is open, responsive, and moved to give. It is not small and tight, is not cold or self-absorbed, and does not hold back or hold on. I have always been attracted to generous people. I have been surrounded by many role models in my life. Like a sunflower turns toward the sun, I find myself drawn to the warmth of their ways. They are juicy and inspire me. I think about this because even though I work the edges of being a generous person, I am inconsistent. The tide comes in and it goes out; it’s an evolving journey.

My last blog posting was an attempt to take a beginning look at this quality of an offering mind: https://candacepalmo.wordpress.com/2014/02/04/more-is-best-and-other-ramblings. I think it was too subtle. A woman from the UK commented that it seemed to be about cooking in excess and overwatering plants, which she thought was cool and assumed that I had figured out a way to deal with leftovers so I didn’t waste food…

One night, as I was considering writing something more explicit on this topic, I googled Pictures of Generosity–looking for something to represent what I was feeling. Then the following evening a friend of mine took me to dinner to celebrate a late seventieth birthday and gave me a gift: little porcelain hands offering up a precious stone. It was gracious and perfect.

Generosity Dalai lama

MORE IS BEST AND OTHER RAMBLINGS…

imagesIn my family growing up, if someone came to your door at night and you did not have enough food to generously welcome them to your dinner table, you had committed a mortal, Serbian sin, punishable by death. It was inconceivable to cook only enough for just yourself. It was, in fact, shameful to do so. What if a hungry stranger showed up, and you couldn’t offer them nourishment? Abundance was the operative principal. More was always better.

I am a single woman now, and I still I cook in ridiculous amounts–just in case. You never know who might stop by. “Please, come in. Eat. I have plenty to spare.” This runs deep; I can’t help myself. To do otherwise feels like operating from a place of scarcity, and that is not my way. This attitude permeates everything I do, to an almost ridiculous degree.

When I lived on the farm I convinced my husband that we should plant more than we could eat so we would have plenty to give away at any given moment when people dropped in. We had a pumpkin patch and grew enough to supply every school child in the county during their field trips to our land each October. We charged them fifty cents a pumpkin–not a money-maker–but it was great fun, and I loved seeing the field splashed in orange globes, always enough for everyone, and more. . .

And I had a thing about watering the plants. Definitely more was always better. We had a monster pump that brought water from a pond to irrigate the field. I couldn’t start it myself so was dependent on my husband to crank it up. I’d say, “Okay, I believe it is time to water this evening.” Then I’d watch as he’d amble down to the field, stick his finger in the earth, and if he could feel even a little bit of moisture there, he would decide that we could wait another day or two. This made me a crazy woman, and I would shout, “You don’t wait for the plants to start wilting–showing signs of deprivation–before you care for them! Give them lots of water, so they will never struggle. That’s what every living thing needs to reach its full potential. Give. Give. Give. More is best!

However, over the years, I have watched others who are minimalists–believing less is best–and that works for them. There is nothing wrong there; I am willing to admit that now. I have come to realize that our comfort zones and styles in life are fundamentally informed at a very young age, and we cannot be other than whom we authentically are. There it is and it’s all good.

 

MIDWIVES FOR THE DYING…

There are midwives for birth and for death. They are people who lovingly accompany those in transitionwatching over and supporting them as they do the work of giving birth or passing from this life.  Sometimes that means being a discerning and strong protectorlike a Mama bear…

mother bearHe looked to be about twenty years old but introduced himself as a doctor when he briskly walked through her door, clutching a chart under his arm. We nodded as he walked over and stood by my friend’s bedside.

“Hello Carly,” he said.

“Uh, that’s not her name.”

“Ahem,” he replied, clearing his throat, looking puzzled as he shuffled the sheaf of papers in his hand. He then spoke in a very loud voice to my friend who was dying and unresponsive. “So, how are you doing? Fine? Good. Very good,” he said in one rushed breath.

I glared at him and moved to the edge of my chair.

He continued to chat. “So, you guys are Buddhist, huh? Right on. I went to Dharamsala once when I was twenty-one. It was great.”

That’s it; you’re done here. “Thank you for your time. We’ll let you know if we need anything,” I said, as I gently but swiftly escorted him out the door.

The next morning, as we sat quietly around her bed, holding a silent vigil during the final day of my friend’s life, the door opened and the doctor burst into the room. My hand shot out as if to say, Halt right there, buddy!  “No need to come in; we’re fine. There is nothing more to do now,” I said, quietly but firmly.

“But I need to go in there. I have to write a progress note in her chart,” he declared.

“Well… Have a look, but please, do not say a word. Her wish was for silence, if possible, and asked that no one touch her unnecessarily during these final hours.”

He stood at the foot of her bed and stared at her for about thirty seconds, then abruptly left the room. I tiptoed out with him. In the hallway, he turned to face me, looking confused. “Are you mad at me?”

“Mad? Goodness no; I’m not mad at you. This is not about you or me; this is about her. She is actively dying, and this is probably the last day of her life. I am here as a midwife, a hospice nurse, a friend, and a mother bear to honor her request that I accompany her in these final hours, to be a protector and help safeguard her passage as she departs from this world.

I looked at him. He was so young, and I could see that he had integrity and was well intentioneda good person. “Do you have a minute?” I asked. He nodded and we walked to a quiet area. “I have no doubt that you are an excellent doctor, but there are subtleties they might not teach in medical school. They make a big difference. Firstget their name straight before you come into the room. Seconddon’t ask a question that they obviously can’t answer and then try to answer it for them. Seriously. She is actually not fine; she is dying. Thirdplease don’t indulge in idle chitchat in front of a patient. Don’t do that. It’s not respectful. Take a breath. Show up. Connect, even if you’re only there for two minutes. Patients will respond to that kind of presence, even if they appear to be no longer conscious.”

He stood quietly for a while and then replied softly, “I was completely mindless when I walked in there. Thank you. You’re right. We learn many things, but not how to be with patients.” We hugged and he slowly continued his rounds. I watched him pause and take a good, long look at the chart before he entered the next room.