A WARM FIRE – AN OLD DOG – FRESH BREAD – AND A GRACIOUS, DYING WOMAN. . .

Warm-Cozy-DogI pulled up to the curb and parked, checking the numbers on the house to be certain of the address; this was my last visit for the day and I was tired. It had been an intense one: in addition to seeing regularly scheduled patients, there had been a death to attend; someone with a pain crisis; and a grieving family to see who were unraveling with conflicting and painful agendas around their dying father and needed time to talk and be listened to. I checked my watch. I was a little early, so I sat in the car and closed my eyes for a few minutes, to let my mind settle and give my body time to stop its internal humming.

The air was brisk; it was a dark, gray, winter day, and the sun was beginning to sink below the horizon. I knocked on the door and her son greeted me with a warm smile. As soon as I entered the house, I paused—breathing in the unexpected calmness. I had come into a place of sanctuary. A fire was crackling in the fireplace. An old dog was curled up, snoring in front of the heat. Classical music was playing—a violin—perhaps Vivaldi. Tendrils of earthy fragrance from freshly baked bread drifted in from the kitchen. His mother was close to dying, but there was no detectable weight of sadness in this home.

I quietly slipped into her room, illuminated only by the soft glow of countless, flickering candles. I walked over and sat in the chair next to her bed. Leaning forward, I took hold of her frail, cool, outstretched hand. She was cocooned in soft, fleece blankets and big pillows that cushioned her gaunt, eighty-pound frame. Though her body had almost dissolved, her radiance filled the room. I was drawn in like a bee to honey. As I sat beside her, her soft eyes looked deeply into mine, and we sat there for a long time, not speaking—just gazing at each other.

Finally, her surprisingly firm voice said, “Hello and who are you?” she asked, smiling. “I’m Candace, a nurse from hospice,” I replied. “I’ve come to see how you are feeling today?” “Wonderful. Couldn’t be better. Fabulous, in fact. I feel like I am at a very posh resort. I’m spoiled; they take good care of their customers here,” she beamed, looking first at her son and then her daughter-in-law.

She reached out to pull me closer, fingering the turquoise pendant hanging around my neck. “That’s a beauty,” she said. “Yes, it is,” I responded. “Would you like to have it?” “Nah. . . I’m dying you know. No more need for bling,” she replied, with a twinkle in her eye. “How is your pain?” I inquired. “Tolerable. They have heavenly drugs in this place. My, oh my!” she replied, rolling her eyes and laughing.

“I’ve also come to change the dressing over that pressure sore on your bottom. Would you mind if I did that?” I asked. “I wouldn’t mind, but I don’t want anyone else looking at my bony butt,” she teased. “I’m very vain, you know.” Her son crawled into bed with her and—ever so gently—turned her over onto her right side facing him and held her close while I carefully replaced the dressing. “Isn’t he the best son!” she exclaimed, as they nuzzled each other. When we turned her back over, her eyes closed. It didn’t take much to tire her out. I knew that she was in pain, and I gave her a dose of morphine. I continued to sit quietly by her side. She had reeled me in like a big fish, and I was caught in her spell, not wanting to leave.

Reluctantly, I returned to the living room to finish my notes. Her son joined me. “She is always like that,” he chuckled. “Everyone who sees her can’t leave, and when they do they feel like they were the patient being cared for by her. She whammies everyone. She has been the best mother anyone could have ever had. There is no unfinished business between us, and now, in these remaining days, we just enjoy and love on each other. When she isn’t so tired she sings me songs that she used to sing when I was a little child. I have taken a leave of absence from work because the most important thing I can do in my life right now is to accompany her on this final journey. It’s a small way for me to repay her kindness,” he said with tears in his eyes.

The visit was over and I bid them goodbye. One week later I received word that she had peacefully passed away in the arms of her son and daughter-in-law. They asked hospice to not call the mortuary until the following day. They wanted time with her body, as they had promised her they would carry out some ceremonies after she passed.

Twenty-four hours later they called me. “You seemed to have had such a strong connection with my mother,” he said. “Would it be possible for you to come and help us bathe and dress her before the mortuary comes?”  “Yes, of course; I would be honored. I’ll be right there.”

When I went to her bedside I was struck by how peaceful she looked. We bathed her in rose-scented water and rubbed her favorite lotion all over her body. Then we dressed her in a silk, turquoise dress that she had worn to their wedding last year. They picked flowers from the garden which they drizzled all over her body from head to feet, a final adornment. Now it was time to let her go…

When I first started working in this field I received some very sage advice from an older hospice nurse. It was a gem. When you take time before entering a house to pause and empty yourself of personal agendas and expectations, you are open and more receptive to what a patient has to give you: that it’s not just about what you are offering to them. . . From this extraordinary woman—whom I was with for only one, ever-so-brief hour while she was alive—I received the gift of witnessing that it is possible to face death with humor, boundless love, grace—and without fear.

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The death of a writer

I want to repost this poignant blog entry written by a very dear friend of mine about the recent death of her mother in law in England. I, too, spent time with this amazing woman when I was there for my friend’s wedding four years ago. We went to hear opera streamed live in an ancient court yard, intoxicated by the stars, crystalline music, wine and chocolate. She regaled me with stories of British politics where she was a journalist, and introduced me to all the cultural wonders of London. This is a beautiful and sensitively written story of my friend’s first experience with death – worthy of sharing.

So you want to be a writer?

My mother in law died last Friday. She was a political journalist, an author, a spin doctor, and an enthusiastic and determined force of nature. Her life stretches back in time to Darjeeling where her mother was born to a violinist playing for the British diplomatic delegation, through war ridden Europe, weaving in and out of death, victory, prosperity, tragedy, loss, triumph-and decades of hard work culminating in a glittering career that was awarded with an M.B.E. by H.M Queen Elizabeth II.

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A HOSPICE MOMENT – CHANNELING MOTHER TERESA

Jesus in disguiseMother Teresa seemed able to see and relate to the divine spirit of everyone she encountered and cared for throughout her life. My view is not so pure. However, occasionally I have an experience with someone where my ordinary, judging mind falls away and I get a glimpse into a greater truth. These are moments of grace. I met such a person during my last week working as a hospice nurse.

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When the door opened an overpowering stench poured out like a toxic cloud. I felt my knees buckle slightly as I grabbed on to the door jam to steady myself. I paused and held my breath until the wave of sudden nausea had passed, and then stepped inside the dim apartment. A quiet, older man with a noticeable limp reached out his hand to greet me. I introduced myself. “Good morning. I’m the hospice nurse.” He replied, “Welcome, ma’am. Thank you for responding to my call. He’s just around the corner here. I’m his friend and I come in during the day to take care of him. He’s hurting mighty bad.”

I stepped gingerly on a narrow pathway that cut through the fetid clutter and peered into the bedroom on the right. The patient was lying on a rancid, soiled sheet atop a mattress on the floor. His eyes were closed; a slight moan escaped his lips. A threadbare blanket covered his emaciated frame. Plastic bottles of water were scattered on the bed next to him and an opened peanut butter jar with a spoon jammed into it was lying on its side by his pillow. I sat down on an overturned plastic crate at the entrance to the bedroom and waited quietly for him to speak.

After a minute he turned to look at me. His brow glistened with sweat and was deeply furrowed from pain, but his eyes were kind and gentle. He spoke slowly. “Thank you for taking the time to come into my home to see me. You know, I’m okay with dying; my last eight years have been pretty good all in all, but I’d be grateful if I didn’t have to suffer this much. It’s pretty intense. Can you help me?”

Even in pain his eyes were shining and his gaze was soft and direct. For a fleeting moment I had the oddest sensation that I was in a church. “I sure hope so,” I assured him. “We’re holding some good drugs and we’ll do our best.” I called the doctor and we revamped his medication regime on the spot, using our pain crisis protocol until his pain finally reached a tolerable level. “Oh my God, this is the first time I have experienced reasonable comfort in a long time,” he exclaimed, his face visibly relaxing.

I sat calmly with him for an hour, listening deeply as he told me his story. As he spoke, the squalor in his environment diminished in my mind – replaced by a light that seemed to surround and support him. I felt as if under a spell, drawn in by his grace and dignity and by his gratitude for the loving, loyal friends who would be there for him.

I realized how easy it is to think that you know what’s best for another, especially in such problematic circumstances – but hospice doesn’t do that. Our only agenda is to meet and respect people where they are at the end of their life. They lead the dance and we follow. Our care is based on their priorities and goals, and his agenda was clear and simple: No pain. Minimal fuss. That was it.

I stayed with him until his eyes closed and he fell into a peaceful slumber. I slipped out the door, a changed person. I had been deeply affected by him, and I was not alone. Everyone who visited him from hospice that week also came away profoundly moved. He made it easy, but I wished I had the capacity to see everyone as Jesus in disguise.

 

 

 

 

THE PASSING OF A FRIEND – THE LAST STORY…

Ten days… From his diagnosis to his death… Ten days.

It gives one pause.

will and testamentMany people have asked. Did he see this coming? Was he prescient? If not, then why did he spend months last fall, while he was presumably healthy, preparing to die – educating himself about death and dying as if studying to write another doctoral thesis? He examined the subject thoroughly from every possible perspective. He contemplated it from a deeply spiritual view in his Buddhist tradition. He became knowledgeable in a practical sense about getting all his affairs in order. He even left signs around his house. “If you find me dead, call these people. Everything is in my briefcase.” He learned about End of Life care and hospice services. He went on a road trip, healing old relationships and taking care of unfinished business. “We never know when impermanence will strike,” he used to stay. “You breathe out and then you don’t breathe in again. It can happen anytime.” As he wrote, and personally took to heart:

“Most of us live our lives and make plans to live forever. That is normal, yet it is also wise to set aside a little time to make plans just in case we die in the next month. What would be left undone if you died today? Do you have any regrets that need to be remedied? Do you have important unfinished business in relationships haunting you? Have you created a life that was meaningful to you? How can you live most fully in whatever time is left? Do you have your estate documents in order? Do you know what to expect physically and emotionally in the weeks, days and hour preceding your death? What do you want your final days to look like? Are you prepared for the after-life (if you believe in it)? Who do you want around you, and what are they doing? These questions are important to those who know and have accepted that they are dying.”

His death was sudden and shocking and took place in an intensive care room. Yet, it was a “good death.” Never have I seen anyone, anywhere, die so calmly, be so clear, so prepared, and remain in control until he passed. He was not in pain and did not struggle. He was absolutely unafraid, but he did not roll over, asking the doctors to do everything they could to save him. In the midst of craziness, he continuously expressed his gratitude to the staff for their care, maintaining a grace and dignity that most of us do not have even when we are not suffering. I could tell that, even in a place where death is commonplace, he had touched all of them deeply.

It has been three weeks since he has died. I sit on my deck this warm spring evening at twilight, feeling the tender ache that seems to have taken up residence in my heart. In the stillness I quietly contemplate the questions I think he would want me to be asking right now: Am I ready to die today? What is unfinished for me? Do I have regrets? Are my affairs in order so that my loved ones will not have to tangle unnecessarily with the messiness of closing my life? Has my life had meaning and purpose? Is the world a better place because of what I was able to offer in return?

I have returned to my work as a hospice nurse. However, it is not the same. I feel I am vibrating at a different frequency. I am listening more deeply. I can quietly relate. I have been there. We will all someday be there… Every morning when I wake, I ask, “Am I good to go? What do I want my last day to look like?”

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 In addition to his personal notes on teachings from his Buddhist teacher, he found these books very helpful:

  • Sogyal Rinpoche, Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.
  • Bonnie Ware, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.
  • Ira Byock, M.D., Dying Well
  • Maggie Callanan, Final Journeys
  • Christine Longaker, Facing Death and Finding Hope: A Guide to the Emotional and Spiritual Care of the Dying
  • Anyen Rinpoche, Dying with Confidence. A Tibetan Buddhist Guide to Preparing for Death.

EVERYONE’S BEST FRIEND – REMEMBERING CRAIG. . .

diamondIt’s a rare quality for someone to have, but he had it: He was everyone’s best friend. The image of a diamond with many sparkling facets comes to my mind; each facet containing a need to be met, a need in others to meet, and a quality to be expressed. Every one of his relationships was unique; all were special, and his interests and talents were vast.

A brainiac who loved to work hard and get dirty, he generously volunteered his time wherever he was needed. He made manuals and videos of all his creations and experiments as if these would somehow unlock the door to our understanding of how they worked or, at the very least, show us the correct way to repair them. Ha.

He was a seeker of truth. As a Buddhist, he explored the depths of the nature of all phenomena. Spending a day with a friend solving math problems worked for him. He took dance classes with friends and learned to tango and do the salsa. He loved dressing up in costumes and was a flamboyant showman. Once an aspiring gymnast, he did his turn as a street juggler while getting his doctorate in physics.

He was also a first responder – bag in hand – proactive, ready to leap wherever there was a need. You could count on him to take you to the doctor and take care of you when you were sick. His heart and generosity were enormous and legendary, and he seemed happiest when he was helping others.

He was free with his compliments; you felt attractive around him. He had a way of being with you that left you feeling certain that YOU were his best friend.  And in that moment, you were. He showed up. You were seen and heard and never judged. And right there is where the magic happened. He could look beyond our stories and confusion and reflect back a greater truth – that underneath all the messiness we were absolutely perfect, just as we were. He was a rock; you were safe with him. No wonder we are mourning our loss of this man so deeply.

A friend and I traveled to his memorial in Southern California last weekend. We met his colleagues and friends from his life as a professional scientist. They were, and are, the brightest and the best. Their stories from those days revealed that their love and reverence for him had never diminished. We had known that he was a pretty smart guy, but we learned from them that he was absolutely brilliant. Who knew; he was always so humble. Only once did I hear him allude to his intellectual capacity. One day he said to me, shaking his head after a particularly frustrating day with his high school students, “They have absolutely no idea who they have here. If they were a swim team, I am like an Olympic coach.”

The world has lost a loving giant and we weep. But he left us bigger, because, for a brief time, we got to borrow him and stand in the light of his grace.

 

SPENDING EARTH DAY WITH CRAIG

2014-04-22 15.41.58I  walked into the crematorium office yesterday to claim his remains. It was a surreal moment. His once vibrant, intact body was now reduced to compacted ash inside the brown, plastic box that rested on the bare wooden desk in front of me. I felt a throbbing in my temples. I reminded myself to breathe, as I scribbled my name on the paper in front of me so he could be released to my custody.

I picked up the container; he was heavier than I thought. I placed him carefully on the passenger’s seat, resisting the urge to buckle him in and drove home slowly, my right hand instinctually resting on top of the box, like one does with a child, thinking that you can somehow protect them from harm that way.

I carried him into the house, locked my front door, and pulled the curtains open as a light rain began to fall. Sitting in the chair I gripped tightly to what was left of him, staring in disbelief at his picture on the wall. Then I reluctantly placed the box on top of the bed where he once slept. A rogue wave struck and knocked me to the ground. I was swept away by the brutal tsunami of despair. I began to sob. He had trusted me to care for him, and I felt I had failed, feeling if I had done my job properly, he wouldn’t be in this box.

He had prepared in the Buddhist tradition for the eventuality of death, and I had been assured by many wisdom teachers that he had “passed well.”  For that, I truly rejoice. But comfort eludes me right now because I am contracted around my own sorrow; I miss him. This is called grief. It comes with the territory when you love people and then they leave you.

Two dear friends came over this afternoon, and we hiked together in our Community Redwood Forest. We took a glass container that held a portion of his ashes, placing some of them inside dead stumps that still miraculously bore life, some under moist green ferns at the base of towering old-growth trees, and the rest around moss-covered rocks. It was Earth Day, a perfect time to carry out his final wishes: to scatter his ashes in the forest.

Walking under the canopy of these majestic trees with the sun filtering through their lacy boughs, inhaling the musty odor of the fertile earth, I could feel the weight on my chest release. Here, as one of my friends said, was the forest… “foresting.” An endless, ongoing dance of death and coming back into life—over and over again. I closed my eyes as we held hands and whispered our prayers of God Speed. I felt my mind relax and open. I smiled as we made our way back down the trail, imagining he might be thinking… This is good.

THE PASSING OF A FRIEND – STORY #1

retreat photo w:flowersSix days ago my beloved soul mate, my kindred spirit and devoted friend passed away in the intensive care unit of a local hospital. His journey from diagnosis to death took just ten days.

Walking alone out into the parking lot the night he died, I stumbled to the ground as I tried to find my car in the dark. From my throat came wailing sounds like a wild animal. I sobbed so hard I felt that my flesh had ripped open, and that if I looked down, I would find that my guts had spilled out of a gaping hole in my abdomen. My anguish was raw, primal and fierce. It shocked me.

I crept slowly home in my car back to an empty house. Why didn’t I have someone waiting? What was I thinking – because there he was – everywhere. The cozy bed I had made for him in the living room with his special blanket scrunched up at the foot of the sheets. His tiger towel on the bathroom door. His leather shaving kit. The paper graphs on the table he had created to record his fevers and declining weight. Eight bottles of blueberry juice lined up on the shelf, because for a while that was all he wanted to drink. The precision high-speed thermometer that he loved. A barf bucket on the floor. His clothes folded carefully on the bookshelf.

I was his designated health care person and am a nurse, so when he got sick he moved to my home so I could care for him. Without question… I was in. I took a leave of absence from my job so my attention would not be divided. My love did not come with conditions; I was going to be at his side for however long it would take for him to get his health back. He had an enormous support team ready to leap into action, waiting in the wings. He wasn’t supposed to die. Living life without him was not on the plan.

A few days after he passed I realized I needed to leave for a while. It was too painful to be where he had been. For the past three days I have been resting at a friend’s vacant cabin overlooking the redwoods on the Mendocino coast – trying to find my way in the midst of what has felt to be crippling grief. It is peaceful here, and in the stillness, I can find him. It is said that when one calms the mind and stops churning the oars, blessings and clarity come. I feel him in this quietude and when I really listen, I believe he continues to tend to my heart and the hearts of all the people he loved. Today I feel less pummeled by the tsunami waves of despair. The sea is not as rough, and I did not cry all day. I am starting to return phone calls. His many other devoted friends are beginning to create a memorial celebration. Life is again stirring.

Last night I curled up on my bed and watched the lunar eclipse play out its magnificent drama above the tips of the forest outside my window. I thought of him as I watched the bright, vibrant fullness of the moon diminish, like it was being nibbled away by a mouse, until it was suddenly gone – only to be reborn again into a glowing reddish-orange orb of light.

He always loved to read my blog stories, particularly those about birth and death. During his sickness he demanded complete transparency in my reports that were broadcasted on the Caring Bridge website. “Don’t sugar coat this! Write everything.” So, write I will try and continue to do, to ground myself, and with the intention that through the telling of his story, his death will continue to bring benefit to others.