Staying in Character

Lucy, the main character in Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, really does reveal all, including her thoughts about how our personality provides a script for how we finish up our lives:

“You do have some control over how you slide out. People manage it in their own peculiar style, you know?…It’s in you all along. It ain’t no net that falls from up on high. It’s there—like a gift for music, this appetite, long hid, waiting. Comforting to see how it’s tucked inside our marrow from babyhood forwards…so when old Death rears up—you can control and shape it some, it being you…Cradle to crypt, we get to stay who we are. Only fair, really…we die in character.”

In those few sentences, she spells out a message about our final exit that gives us control, comfort and meaning all in one. She seems to be saying that we have “designer” endings, and that how we view ourselves and our life story plays into that design. I am not sure what that means, and I might not find out until the time comes, but when I try to imagine it, I think of blending in with a deep but somehow burgeoning quiet. Maybe for someone else it might involve a feeling of unity, or a return to the inchoate state we were in before birth, or a merging back to God. Even Lucy’s description of “sliding out” suggests for that character something gentle and smooth rather than harsh and abrupt. Perhaps you have some other image for yourself. If so, “tell all” in the Comments section!

Lucy’s outlook is meaningful because instead of viewing death as an alien Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum rampaging Thing that bears down on us and um, “stops us dead” and cuts us off from all that went before, Lucy perceives it as the fitting finishing touch to our life story. We are who we are in life, in the moment we pass, and possibly in the hereafter. (At one point in my hospice career memoir Encountering The Edge I describe my view of the afterlife in terms of a “designer” one, in that there might be many more options out there for us than simply the two best known ones of heaven and hell.)

To say we “die in character” says to me there is a cosmic justice. We are not completely surrendering all that we each have taken a lifetime to create and preserve.

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.

Standing Astonished in the Swirl of Existence

Here’s a paradox, and one that accounts for why any agreeable person would take on such work as preparing a body for burial, or in my case, serving as a hospice chaplain: being present to the dying the dead and the bereaved  has intensified my sense of being alive. Just as a malevolent character in a novel can heighten the goodness of the hero, being near the dying or the dead can serve as a foil to life. Sometimes as I step outdoors after visiting a hospice patient, everything I encounter seems more firmly anchored in the here and now. Birdsong and the patter of rain make of me a rapt audience. A swaying traffic light beams out with more redness; a wind kicking up and vacillating between cool and cold bars my way from any warmer crosswinds. How can all this be happening around me while someone is about to cut loose from the moorings of her life?  I stand astonished in the swirl of existence.

Where does this intensity come from?  The closer I am to reading the end of a piece of fiction, the more weight the sentences bear. Each succeeding word seems to take on a deeper significance. Likewise, as I am talking with someone who is nearing the end, whatever they are saying is more poignant given that backdrop. I think that is why so much is made of hearing a person’s “last words.” We assume they will be loaded with wisdom, or that they will enlighten us regarding something we had never understood about that person or about ourselves.

Those of us who care for the dead and the bereaved, get a continuous sneak preview of our own final crossing over the inscrutable edge between life and death. As with any rehearsal, we reap benefits that could never accrue if we were to simply improvise when the time came.

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This is a reprint of my guest post in the blog, Expired and Inspired, in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, November 25, 2015. The precise link is: http://www.jewishjournal.com/expiredandinspired/item/astonished_in_the_swirl_of_existence

 

What is offbeat compassion?

When I told friends, family and Twitter followers I would be starting a blog, they wondered if my anecdotes about people in Act 3 Scene 3 of their lives would be comforting or inspiring. They wondered  (and either hoped or feared) whether I, a hospice chaplain, had a religious agenda.  Hospice after all is a heavy-duty subject. Chaplains after all are, well, chaplains. Despite this, I have foregone any such goal. There are plenty of other books and blogs that already perform that service. Rather, my purpose in all of my writing is to bring readers  close-at-hand to places they are ambivalent about approaching, yet respect their need for space. Rather than perform the distasteful task of selling you a message, I feel my task is to let you see for yourself what hospice patients think about, value, believe, and avoid.

My attitude towards the hospice patients and their families is similar. I am not there to promote anything, though my presence may be of comfort. As a quiet nonjudgmental presence, they have full leeway as to what they want out of my visits, whether it be a listening ear, song, prayer, touch, casual chatter, or even simply just sitting silently with them. So one of my definitions of “offbeat compassion” is making room for persons who call upon us for help and letting them freely sort out for themselves how we can be there for them.

In the coming months, I will blog about anecdotes about the dying and with grievers, or  tell you about my experiences with such groups as a threshold choir (they sing to the dying), my responses to others writing about similar topics to mine, give book reviews, and provide excerpts from my hospice memoir. As this evolves, I look forward to amplifying comments you make and answering questions you may have. I plan to ask you challenging questions too. Who knows, I may give a pop quiz.

Since this is my maiden post, above all I want to thank all of you for venturing with me into this sometimes soothing, sometimes strange, sometimes curious, and sometimes funny ride.