Made Sweeter By The Bitter

I never could understand why someone would sweeten their tea or coffee if they were drinking it with dessert. It seems so redundant! Contrasting the bitterness of the beverage with the sweetness of the dessert, and vice versa, is for me part of the pleasure. Nor are the two sensations all that separate. As I sip some tea after a bite of the brownie or other indulgence, the sweetness mixes into the flavor of the tea, and as I take my next bite, the tea in turn makes the treat less cloying.

My work with patients is like that sometimes. Today I saw an aunt untangling and combing her niece’s hair. Then I visited with a learned lady who told me her memories of living in Paris. “I got to see Edith Piaf, in a black dress, up on the stage all by herself. I was absolutely mesmerized.” And I in turn was entranced to hear of someone who had seen The Little Sparrow in person. Later in the day, I visited someone who was watching the news from her bed, all tucked in and motionless except for her face, making cynical commentary about  the FBI and their role in connection with the suspect who was arrested for making bombs found in Elizabeth, Seaside Park, and Manhattan.

I had  all these encounters with people doing ordinary things: relating memories, combing hair, and acting as experts about the latest news, but all against the bitter backdrop that death could very well be around the corner. Combing hair is so ordinary, but becomes so poignant in the context of hospice because I know not many combings may be left for the niece. Was the aunt thinking about the tragedy of her niece preceding her in death? Or was she purely engrossed in the moment, pulling out “all these darn snags”?

Death’s proximity gives a bracing quality to the ordinary, and being engaged in the ordinary postpones the bitterness of contemplating death .

Consolation Prize

You would think that being non-Catholic, let alone Jewish and female, would disqualify me from standing in for a priest for a patient when none are handy. And that is usually what happens: no priest, no service. My husband jokes that all I need to do is put on a beard and wear a robe and say a few Latin words to be the next best thing. Hmm; impersonating a priest simply does not sound kosher.

However, there were two occasions  where I was better than nothing; a lot better they assured me. The first was when Julia ( name pulled out of the air) wanted me to hear her confession. I made sure she fully realized what flavor religion I was, and of course my untraditional gender. No matter. She found peace by unburdening herself of regrets in front of someone who symbolized God’s loving forgiveness. As I learned online, confession is also called the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Feeling reconciled with people and with God is a crucial task that many dying people wish to accomplish, so I am glad I could make it happen for Julia. Thankfully she did not ask me how many Hail Mary’s she had to do or any other such penance.

The other day, a family was with a patient who was not many breaths away from his very last one. They asked me over and over every half hour or so about getting a priest for last rites, and getting one right away. They had to ask me over and over because embarrasingly enough, I could not find one even after calling several. Finally I found one, but not one who could rush over literally at that moment. He said he would be there about two hours later. I explained this to the family members, who were all crowded into the patient’s room just waiting, and they decided that just in case it would be too late (it was, it turned out) to get the priest, that they would like me to offer a final prayer. The patient had only been on hospice for about five hours and could no longer respond in any way.Their distress felt so extreme, that I left out the distracting details of my religion and only let them know I was not a Catholic. I hoped that as I offered spontaneous prayer standing together in a circle holding hands with each other and with the patient, they would not notice too much that I left out words like “Jesus” and “Christ.” Perhaps they wondered to themselves several hours later what that was all about, but this family was comforted  that I recited a prayer that for them, put the finishing touches on the man’s soul at the critical moment.

I Was Stumped

Tammy (a pseudonym) was an African American and very young. Very young to be on hospice that is. This new patient  immediately took notice when I entered her room. I peeked in to see if she’d like to partake in some conversation. She was in bed and I drew up a chair. About the first thing she brought up was her quest for honesty. “You know, people they keep asking me how I deal with having cancer like I can beat it and all. There is no cure, I tell ‘em, and I –am– dying. You hear that? The doctors they lie and tell me about cures but I know that isn’t so. I just go with the  flow of each day and I accept it.” She then addressed how repugnant pity has been for her and introduced it with the same opener: “My friends say, oh, you have cancer, how can you deal with it. I tell them I don’t want their  pity. “

After I affirmed her feelings and opinions, and reaffirmed them a few times more for good measure, the visit was getting to be much longer than average for a hospice patient. I had been there close to an hour and she still had the energy to talk, despite nausea.

When I am not sure how long to stay, it is tricky to negotiate the length of a visit. Are they getting tired from the effort of interacting? Do they want some privacy? Are they just being polite by not letting me know it is time for me to go? There are plenty of polite ways for them to signal this. A patient often says something like “Thanks for coming” and I get the idea alright. Or they start to close their eyes, or tell me they need to rest. But if I bring up leaving before they do, I run the risk that they will  think I myself am the one who is getting tired or upset by what they are telling me, or that what I am doing is “just a job” and  am only concerned with having to get my quota of patients done for the day. So it is a tricky balancing act between leaving prematurely with the patient thinking I am rushed or not interested, versus overstaying and imposing on that patient.  This is the chaplain’s version of skirting the “damned if you do damned if you don’t” scenario. Nurses and social workers do not wrestle with this problem as much because they have an agenda of things that must be done or asked and it is less ambiguous when they are finished.

As I was saying, the visit was turning into a long one, so I asked Tammy whether she would like me to stay some more, and this is where communication went awry. She said, “That’s your decision, not mine.”

“Um mine?” (I thought about how I like to give the patient, who has so little control, at least some choice regarding when and whether I should visit and for how long.)

Tammy propped herself up in the bed to talk more emphatically: “You, not me, decide to stay with me. You’re the one to decide if you are going to visit me again.” Many possibilities flooded my mind. Was she challenging how sincere I was about wanting to stay and wanting to visit in  general?  She did, earlier in the visit, pointedly ask me why I do this kind of work. Was she questioning my motivations for visiting and the role I was playing of being the helper vs. the one being helped?  Did she feel besides my being in the “superior” role as the helper that  I was treating her as even more unequal because she is an African American ? (That is, there is automatically a power differential between me and my patients because they are sick and I as a professional am healthy, which I write about in Encountering The Edge.) Did she feel I was the one to decide if she were “worthy” of my attention? Did she really want me to take control? After a few rounds of my assuring her she was the one who could decide and her telling me no I was the one, I then tried out, “I think you and I should decide together.” That did not satisfy in the end either, and she went back to telling me to choose what to do. Finally I dropped it after assuring her I would see her again, because I could not figure out what was going on and I did not want to distress her. Because she was religious, I switched gears and told her I could sing hymns. She perked up at that idea, and I sang “He’s Got the Whole Wide World in His Hands.” After  I and then both of us sang together, she said, “Now I’m getting into the spirit of this.” Thus the visit began and finished on track, but the middle was dicey. Assuming Tammy was clear-headed, what do you, O Reader, think was going on?

The day Col. Sanders met Lyndon Johnson’s dog

In acknowledgment of the commencement of the general presidential campaign, I am featuring a guest post about First Dogs. Author Mindy Quigley’s post in this case is only remotely connected with the themes of my own blog in that the protagonist in her books is a healthcare chaplain!

Mindy Quigley

A reviewer once opined that, though she loved my books, she found the speaking in tongues scene in A Murder in Mount Moriah unbelievable. I laughingly noted that that scene, along with the notorious squirrel in the bathroom incident, are just about the only events in the book that are based on true incidents. This reader had happily swallowed the miles of yarn I’d spun and choked on the single nugget of truth.

I was reminded of this recently during a long road trip with a colleague, who I travel with several times a year. You can only talk shop for so long, so we often end up telling stories of our younger days to pass the tedious hours trekking back and forth along I-81. We were regaling one another with tales of pets our families had kept over the years–the bird who angrily demanded everyone in the house go to bed at 9pm, the…

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Book Review: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

Early on in this romantic time-travel novel, author Andrew Sean Greer (HarperCollins, 2012) clues me in that he is not going to follow some predictable formula. One of his characters is a gay man dying from AIDS who is both gentle and provocative. He says to a woman who had made a petty complaint  about his dog coming close to her flowers “When you were a little girl, madam…was this the woman you dreamed of becoming?”  I, and I suppose just about any of Greer’s readers, immediately pondered this question for myself. What are my own regrets and embarrassments, what my sources of pride and fulfillment?  If nothing else it is a fantastic comeback for any stranger who acts surly about a trifle and who is taking being alive for granted.

Another profound observation comes about for Greta, the main character,  (and for us) when she travels back to 1941. Then, unlike in 1985 when her twin brother, the gay man’s partner, had died of AIDS as well, he is alive. Greta thinks about some irritating behavior of this “restored” brother, and muses, “It was infuriating, and so like my brother, but not in any of the ways I had hoped….And yet of course when the dead come back to life they come back with all the things we didn’t miss.” (emphasis mine.) How astute of the author to refer to an earlier stage of grieving which typically does not include the negative memories that might occur in a later stage.

I am very glad that I read on. Greta gets more insights about love and loss, which we could always benefit from. But while the plot is intriguing on one level, it is confusing on another: Greta cycles between three times, 1918, 1941 and 1985, which is clear. The confusing part is that while she is in one time period, “another” Greta is getting things done and affecting other relationships in the other two periods while she is “away.” Moreover, the reaction of some of the other people in the older time periods to her revelation to them about her traveling to the other two is far-fetched, but the pleasure of the fantasy, the romance and the insights, are well worth the trips.


I borrowed this book from the local library. I was not required to write a positive 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.” 

Quiet Drama in a Garden

Evening is closing in on a

Bush bearing roses of Sharon.

Darkness disables their blossoms

Except for one holdout:

One lone flower tucks itself in

According to its own readiness to surrender,

As a robin chants

The closing hymn.                       -by Karen B. Kaplan

In Honor of Offbeat Compassion’s Third Anniversary

It is quiz time once again! I figured this would be a fit way to celebrate the third anniversary of which is July 4th. It is also a sneaky way to get people to read more of my posts, beginning with February 24th through the present. Here are the rules: 1. I will only count responses made to my email address,  ( No one will be on a mailing list as a result.) 2. I will count responses in the order they are received. 3. The first 3 people to give me the correct best answers will win. The prize will consist of: being the first people in the general public to see a sample from my next book, The Curiosity Seekers. It is compassionate (what else?) science fiction, and I will send the sample via email as a Microsoft Word attachment.  Once I get 3 winners, I will notify everyone here in this introduction  that the competition is over, and I will reveal the answers. Update: as of July 11th, I have one winner. This contest will close July 15th.


A. This quote from a poem by an Iraqi, “allow my pen to slay itself,” refers to

  1. another quote, “the pen is mightier than the sword.”
  2. writer’s block.
  3. mental illness.
  4. a euphemism for a kind of grieving that has gone too far.

B.Even though I am a rabbi, I was hired by my current hospice because

  1. I can speak Spanish with  the many Hispanic Catholic patients they have.
  2.   Most of the patients are Jewish or agnostic.
  3.   They could not ask my religion due to fair employment guidelines
  4.  The chaplain’s particular faith does not matter. Spirituality is what counts

C. One of the more fascinating encounters I have had with a patient involved:

  1. Someone who turned out to be a distant cousin of mine.
  2. One whose occupation in their youth was as a clown in Disney World.
  3. A 99-year-old who could still play chess.
  4. A Nigerian nun in a convent.

D. “Do you think God should be fired?” Regarding that question,

  1. I asked it to help a patient articulate his ambivalent feelings about God.
  2. I would never ask such an irreverent question.
  3. A patient asked me that to see if he could shock me.
  4. I really asked, “Has God disappointed you?”

E. It is nonsense to say society should dispense with chaplains at hospices since the U.S. is more secular because,

  1. some patients are very devout; not everyone is secular.
  2. some chaplains are secular themselves.
  3. it is rare indeed to have someone visit a patient with no agenda other than to share in their suffering or perplexity.
  4. who can be the judge of who is secular and who is not?