A Suspense Story: Our Lives

One of the downsides of dying is that it can be like failing to find out whose hand gets asked in marriage in a romance novel or which of the semifinalists you have kept track of in a beauty pageant, horse race or ballgame will win. This may sound morbid, but sometimes while I am reading a gripping novel I pray that if I do have to die suddenly, let me at least get to the end of the story before I get to the end of my own. (Do you think like that too or is that just me?)

There are more personal stories people are afraid of missing out on, such as a grandchild’s wedding, a graduation, and so on. Then there are those matters, which differ from completing a crossword puzzle, seeing the outcome of a bet or missing a holiday, that are further out into the future. I will most probably have to content myself with not finding out if extraterrestrials exist or whether humankind will ever be able to transfer in a pinch to another planet, or whether the Beatles will endure as many centuries as Beethoven.

There is yet another kind of loss, and that is missing something or someone versus missing out on something or someone. Even though presumably the former is not possible once we are dead, we do and can anticipate such  losses beforehand. Besides loved ones, this might include any ongoing part of our lives, such as appealing food, travel, uplifting music and so on.

I suppose what people would miss or miss out on depends on personality and priorities. How about we make this post a workshop and see? That is, to be on the honor roll, you have to participate! I will even go first so you can work up some courage: Besides friends and family, I think I would most miss being out and about in obedient nature (That is, I am fine with setting aside forceful winds, flooding and immoderate temperatures.); chocolate of course; writing posts and collections of stories; and satisfying my curiosity about other people’s life stories. As far as what I most probably will miss out on as opposed to missing, as I just mentioned, I wish I could know if there are extraterrestrials and what they would be like. What might their values be? What might they understand and not understand? What might we learn from them and them from us? (At least as a consolation prize, I can answer these in the fiction I am writing these days.) In general, I will miss out on whatever technological advances are in store for humankind, and how and whether worldwide problems such as mental illness will ever be eliminated or at least better managed.

As I started this post, I did not completely think through what I would list beforehand. This is the genuine deal. What I learned, and least anticipated listing, was writing. This makes me reflect on how valuable it has been in making my life an adventure through the interaction it has generated. I relish all the comments I have received on this blog, emails and Twitter for example, and of course all the feedback on my book.

Now it is your turn, in the comments below, to try out this exercise. You might find out something new about yourself. Not only that, you may become more aware of who and what is most important to spend time on now. And who knows? Perhaps seeing each others’ answers below may increase our awareness in unforeseen ways. Care to join in this experiment?

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Announcement: The Angry Coffee Bean Café in North Arlington, NJ on 89 Ridge Road will present “The Spoken Word,” my writers’ group first public event. Six writers (some published such as I) will read from various genres. At least one writer will be in costume! The event starts at 6:30PM on Monday, October 27th.

My “how-go” guide to writing a eulogy got published in the LA Jewish Journal Oct. 15th:  http://www.jewishjournal.com/expiredandinspired/item/biographer_for_a_day

The Pleasures of an Untasted Beer

“How can not drinking the beer be satisfying?” a member of my audience asked with irritation. She was reacting to another person at my book discussion in the local library who was a hospice volunteer. She had just told a story about one of her patients, who I’ll call Seth. He had described to the volunteer his urge to have a beer in such nostalgic terms, the advertising department of any brewery would have loved to get ahold of the words he poured out. On the next visit, the volunteer brought the longed-for beverage, presumably after getting medical clearance. It was in a thoroughly chilled can, its thin coating of moisture revealing its recent history of refrigeration. Seth’s hands reached out as the volunteer approached, her hands meeting his until the transfer was made complete. She could hardly wait to see the pleasure he would have as the prized liquid hit his tongue. But simply holding it and rolling it in his hands sufficed. He was too weak to drink it, or not thirsty. Yet he was contented as anyone who had had their fill of their favorite kind of beer at some pleasing backdrop such as an outing with their buddies to the playoffs or a school reunion picnic.

“How could just holding the can be enough?” the doubter kept persisting. This sufficed to get the discussion flowing liberally. “Of course,” someone else put in. “Don’t you see? Seth saw the beer and enjoyed the cool sensation of the can.”

“Yeah,” someone else added. “Seeing the beer probably brought back memories of all those good times he had when he could drink it. And you know, he must have liked the volunteer going to the trouble to bring it to him.”

I sealed up this discussion by remarking that when people get close to dying, more and more subtle things can please them. In the excerpt from Encountering the Edge that I had read to them prior to the volunteer’s story, the link between beer and its consumption was twice removed: With nary a can of beer in sight because Sam was not allowed to have it, I sang, In heaven there is no beer, that’s why we drink it here. The smile on his face reflected all the contentment of a beer connoisseur who had successfully demonstrated his own sensitivity to subtle variations in flavor.

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Announcement: Book signing at Penn’s Place in downtown New Castle, Delaware, right across from the courthouse at 11am Sunday, October 12th. This combination cafe and handmade art objects also has its share of craft beer!

Movie Review: Departures (“Okuribito”) 2008

If you think being a hospice chaplain is not your cup of tea, just wait till you see this film. What could be weirder, you say, than being a hospice chaplain? Maybe a Japanese “encoffiner.” A what? A deliberately misleading classifieds ad draws an unsuspecting unemployed cello player to what he thought was a tourist company. But surprise surprise, and with the help of an advance, the boss cajoles the young man into learning how to ritually prepare a body in front of the mourners and gently place it into a coffin. This is a young man who has never even seen a coffin before, let alone touch a dead body.

As I watched his first days on the job, and subsequently other people’s reaction to his new career, I thought about the beginnings of my own. Both the movie and my own story share many elements: the sense by some in society that the young man and I were contaminated by our work; that there was the “eesh” factor; that we were plain old weird.

As the movie progresses, I suspect that along with me, the average viewers feelings evolve with the protagonist’s and ultimately with those of his wife and of the broader society. We feel less afraid, then curious, and then finally, in awe of a ceremony that can get family conflict out in the open or help mourners release their feelings, or take “honoring the dead” to a refined level.

This movement from fear to admiration is the main plot in the movie (This is no spoiler, because the way this happens is of supreme interest.) But there is another significant plot not referred to at least in the very short reviews I read: The protagonist felt unresolved intense anger at his father for abandoning him when he was quite young. As he confronted these feelings—I  cannot tell you how without it  truly being a spoiler—this somehow forced me to confront my own feelings about people I have not yet been able to forgive for abandonment of a different sort, and thereby be done with some of this hurt at long last. What more coveted review can there be for a movie or book or other creative work than for the reviewer to say that it provoked a healing change within?

Disclaimer: I saw this movie for free on television on September 20, 2014. I was not required to write a positive review and was not asked to write a review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Announcement:

See this link for a comprehensive article about Jewish perspectives on hospice care. I was one of the rabbis interviewed in this September 15th article by doula Amy Wright Glenn:  http://jewishexponent.com/judaism/2014/09/the-growing-appeal-of-hospice-care

The Sound of One Phone Ringing

 

Offhand the answer to the following question might sound as obvious as choosing between getting a back rub while relaxing at the beach versus doing the back-breaking work of moving furniture around. If you were a grieving family member of a patient on hospice, would you prefer that the bereavement counselor telephone you or visit in person? If I could see a show of hands from my readers, my guess is that most of you would be wildly waving your hands in favor of the home visit. And if you could explain why, you and a few others chiming in might say something along the lines of, “A phone call is impersonal and quick. It doesn’t take much effort. A visit involves travel and a real time commitment, so that would show the counselor really cares. Besides, there’s nothing like someone being right there with us and understanding what we are feeling by seeing our expressions and gestures. Not only that, we can get a hug that way or a pat on the arm.”

In terms of supervisors evaluating the work of their hospice team, home visits, implicitly or explicitly, trump phone calls. So even hospice professionals themselves assign more value to home visits. They “count” more. I sometimes got skeptical feedback from the supervisor when “all I did” some days was to document that I made about a dozen phone calls.

Ah, but hold the phone. It wasn’t like I was being lazy about going out into the wintry mix and traveling twenty miles. It wasn’t like I was hinting that I was busy or did not let on that a visit could be in their future. If I do not include the calls where the bereaved did not wish to talk with a counselor at all, almost everyone I called preferred a phone call over a visit. You might then say that is because a grieving person can feel unworthy and small. Indeed. Thus if he/she did not out and out decline a visit and seemed at least lukewarm about my proposal, I assured them that for example I would “be traveling right in your area” and the like. Even with that sales pitch, there were relatively few takers. I did start to feel like a pushy salesperson by mentioning visits so much, so as I became a more seasoned chaplain, I learned that what mattered most was to get a conversation going then and there.

Some mourners not only wanted to talk on the phone when I called to offer condolences and see how they were doing, but also wanted to receive subsequent calls. I got to know one of them well enough to reflect why so many in her position did prefer calls over visits. For one thing, she did not have to worry about tidying up the house. For another, she could shed tears without my being aware of it. Nor did she have to feel obligated to talk a relatively long time; accepting a visit implies more of a time commitment. That is, a phone call gives the mourner more control over the length of the interaction.

By far the most interesting reason is the ability to hide feelings, which is something to explore in a future (next?) post. For now, it is of note that the bereaved can be low in energy, and that a visit may be far more taxing than a call. As in much chaplain work, the crucial element is not whether I talk with a person via the phone or Skype or face-to-face or for how long. My job is to deftly clear away the debris of small talk and thus join them in their effort to unleash what they most urgently need to say.

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Recent  Event:

 

September 18th Grief expert Chaplain Chaz Wesley  interviewedme on his radio program, From Grief to Grace. Here is the program  link:  Author Karen B. Kaplan on ‘From Grief To Grace, with Chaz Wesley’

Eulogy with a Surprise Ending

Two sons and their wives wanted a funeral that did not cut corners—at least insofar as meeting with me at length beforehand went. Above all, they wanted a eulogy that would do justice to who their mother was. My first goal was to get enough facts and emotional outlays from them about Mom to do just that.

And the second goal? As I often tell mourners, meeting with them about a eulogy serves another purpose. It’s not just about getting a hold of enough anecdotes and imagery to craft a minibiography to capture their loved one’s life story. The other goal is to use our discussion as a goad to do the heavy lifting involved in grief work. One way to get grieving to kick in is to talk about the loved one,  recall memories, and make sense of the loved one’s life. This can involve being aware that they are talking about her precisely because she has died, thus having to rub up against that, um, “grievous” reality. The discussion also guides them to expressing and releasing all manner of emotions about her, another task of grieving that must be done to reach emotional and spiritual healing down the road (way way down).

In the case of the eulogy below, I was moved by one of the son’s reaction to it afterward: “You told me a story about my mother that I never heard before.” I first paused, not fully understanding his use of English as a second language. Then I realized he meant that he came away with an increased understanding of why his mother was the way she was. As a biographer for a day with that family, I could not ask for anything more. The eulogy, with substituted names and cities is as follows: (The choice of names is not meant to imply anything beyond their approximate nationality.)

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Galina’s two sons Vlad and Nikolay and their wives Dominika and Natasha and I sat outside together yesterday to build a picture of Galina’s life. Weather-wise, it was the kind of day that was flawless—sunny but not burning hot, just enough clouds to give the sky some variety and balance, and breezes so gentle that none of us had to fold our arms together to keep warm.

In describing their mother, the very first word that came to mind was “elegant.” The second word: “strong.” That is a rare combination, but then Galina was that rare kind of person who liked to stand out from the crowd. She was “spiritual” the sons said, and had “an exotic point-of-view.”

Perhaps she was unusual because she not only suffered the adversity of having to be evacuated from Kursk during World War II to Siberia and live there with little to eat, but also retained a passion for living. She was defiant; she would not let the lean years of her life deprive her of relishing the good times. She got her college degree in education and pursued a career for forty years that gave her pleasure and gave her life meaning. She taught English to junior high and high school students in Moscow and served as a model for them to aspire to. She invoked discipline to help her students aim high. She was more literally a model for them because of what she wore, like the most stylish and up-to-date outfits, with a matching handkerchief peeping out of a suite jacket and make-up and jewelry that made the statement, “I enjoy being me!” Besides her career, Galina made the most of being alive by nurturing the good in her family, by doing whatever it took—and in her country that took a lot of chutzpa and ingenuity and stubbornness—to get her children a decent education and that unheard of acquisition, a 3-bedroom apartment.   She also embraced the intoxicating stimulation of traveling the world over. She refused to let the bad times color the rest of her life; that itself is a model for us all.

“Elegant” and “feminine” yet “strong” and “powerful.” These are unusual adjectives to say in one breath. Yes, she was a complex person, who on the one hand nurtured creativity and on the other ruled the household as well as the classroom with discipline. Yes, she had conflicting forces within her, the suffering and losses she endured versus that fire of resilience that nothing could smother, short of death itself. And even then, as she at last gently released the last sparks of fire, perhaps she knew they had found a new home: in Vlad and Nikolay and their wives Dominika and Natasha, in Viktor, Anna and Svetlana . May Galina Levkova’s memory continue to provide blessing.

 

Not for Sale

All the signs in the tiny town of Fitzwilliam in New Hampshire had the same bold and unadorned lettering, whether for selling antiques, welcoming travelers to a bed and breakfast, or announcing an art exhibit in the library. Only a diminutive place like that could be so consistent across-the-board; I bet the town council vote that must have been behind the phenomenon. The art exhibit sign announced that the artist was Bill Barefoot. Who could pass up checking out an artist with a name like that? Besides, it was the only art show in this town of some four thousand people and I happened to be passing by during the small window of hours when the library was open. The paintings were relegated to the perfectly silent top floor, far far away from the auditory trails of murmuring patrons and of the children’s unedited voices below. I figured I would see something banal like nearby New Hampshire landscapes. They were landscapes, and they were from the area, but pleasing. And they were for sale.

As I came up to the front to leave a trace of my presence in the guestbook as evidence that someone that day cared enough to have a look, I noticed one painting to the left, marked, “NSF”—Not for Sale. It depicted the artist as an aging man hugging his likewise aging Collie to his chest. Mr. Barefoot’s hair was whitish grey, as was the dog’s fur. They must have been there for each other in many ways for a good long time. It was the best of the lot, but not for sale. Too bad, I thought, for no other painting drew me into its emotional field. What a teaser a NSF sign is! I wondered if the dog were no more. What was the artist remembering and feeling during the embrace and afterwards as he painted it? What was the dog experiencing? I wondered why he could not part from the piece, and I pondered other artists who have displayed artwork “NSF.” From what I remember, the ones not for sale were always the better works. Or is this just the phenomenon of forbidden, and therefore much more unavailable, fruit?

After signing the guestbook with the comment that “I felt the most emotionally drawn to your self-portrait of you and your dog,” I stood before it again. Maybe for Mr. Barefoot selling it would represent devaluing the meaning of the work, or that of his feelings for his dog, or feelings about ageing, or of whatever else ranked of high importance. Or perhaps he feared lest the buyer would not look upon it as he had but just as a “pretty painting.”

At times it must be hard for a graphic artist to part with an original. (We writers are so lucky. We can sell infinite copies of our books, like the “same” flame lighting candle after candle. The notion of an “original” for me is somewhat unintelligible anyways. I do not feel attached to how this post is stored on my hard drive before I put it online.) I imagine that if Mr. Barefoot were to part with that painting, it would symbolically be one way of parting with his dog, or with something—perhaps his unverbalized emotions about aging– that defines who he is. He would not be quite the same without that painting, like a dog suddenly missing one toe. When someone close to us dies or leaves us, we are no longer the same; we go on minus the interactions we had with them. That which we have lost is irretrievable, and no longer available at any price.

 

 

A Cold Case Solved

Like Detective Lilly Rush in the television show Cold Case, I have helped others unearth emotions that have lain unresolved for years and years. This time it was at a social hour taking place in the copious back yard of a mansion in New Hampshire…No no, my husband and I did not sneak in; our ticket to this privilege was making a donation to the Walden School, a summer music composition camp for children and teens. I was talking with one of the parents, and soon after she asked about my career, that gave her her own ticket to revealing an aspect of her mother’s death to me. “I just don’t understand,” she was saying. “Near the end, she was trying to tell me something.” Waiters bearing trays of dainty hors d’oeuvres traipsed by as she started to descend into progressively deeper layers of a mystery that had been haunting her.

I started at the surface, which I often do before making my way down to layer after layer of a person’s concerns to get some clues as to where to go. I also do that to see if they want to go further. If successful, I make it to the core. So I started out with, “What did she say to you?”

Anna [not her real name] replied, “Well she couldn’t speak really. I heard her moan. I could not make out what she wanted.” I moved down a notch with, “Sounds like something was unresolved there.” I waved away a tray laden with tinted glasses of pink lemonade as she elaborated, “I felt so bad; I did not know what her last wishes were.” For her, the mansion, the trays, the other people forming clusters on the lawn like grapes on a vine, had ceased their social demands. Her absorption in this intimate matter gave me permission to dig around the core: “Maybe we will never know what she had intended, but what would you guess she was after? What did she need? What do you think you provided her?” As tears came, I knew I had uncovered the core, that tender center of helplessness and love. Anna said, “I think she wanted to be hugged.” A pause, enough for one solid breath. Almost in unison we said to each other, “She might have felt isolated and afraid. She wanted to be comforted, to simply know that you were there, beside her.”

The party came back into existence as she swiftly removed herself from that vulnerable core, perhaps for Anna to approach again when she could be safely alone with her thoughts and emotions. Later one of those clusters comprised of a few “grapes” including me, were seated on steps leading down to the lawn. She saw us, paused to join in, but did not accept my invitation to sit alongside us. As the chit-chat skidded upon this and that pleasing topic, however, I found that she had sat down after all. Her irritation at my pressing against a painful spot had subsided, but I am sure the reawakened anger and regrets surrounding her mother’s death would not be so short-lived.