War Is For Grownups

[Warning: fiction ahead] Pining for one big happy united world does not jive with the fact that we would not want to be in the same room with a hefty percentage of the seven billion people we share it with. Just step outside our little bubble and that’s clear. At best, you and I might feel at one with several million or so.Well if Earthlings cannot be one big happy seven-billion member family then much less can we become one big happy united Universe. You see there are whole worlds operating on premises more alienating than Earthlings who belong to the wrong political party.

It just so happens I stopped in one such goofy planet that made me curious in spite of myself. They have a way to keep war at a minimum, but by means most Earthlings would find unpalatable. Like many places on Earth, the inhabitants have a life-span of approximately seventy to ninety years. But no one may join the military until they are at least sixty years of age. I know this because my tour guide Buroh explained this to me when I remarked how peaceful their planet is. The creature said, “This policy has many benefits. Top on the list of course is that wars are infrequent and short. Old people don’t have much stamina for prolonged conflict, and with the perspective of their years, often keep a cool head to avoid wars in the first place. Another great thing is that by either training for war or in extreme cases going to fight, the ancients have something to do once they retire. And lastly, when our people are young and most fit, they apply all that energy to their occupations and family life instead of wasting it on wounding and killing. On Earth, you take such a foolish risk of wasting citizen resources when they are at their most valuable. That is so inefficient; it’s hard for me to relate to your species.  Doesn’t it make more sense to let the young live decades more whereas an old person has already given their best years and risks losing at most about ten years of life?”

No doubt their way of life has its charms, but I was too polite to say to my guide that rare is the Earthling who would countenance having the elderly endure the physical and mental strain of say, driving a tank over bumpy terrain. More fundamentally, we like to get bad things over with in our lives and look forward to taking it easy as we wrap things up.  A united Universe? What were we thinking?

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If you like this whimsical sort of satire blended with science fiction, then you might like my gentle sci-fi book, Curiosity Seekers, about an endearing old-fashioned couple in the future who sometimes has trouble feeling united with each other let alone with the larger society. See reviews and a free chapter on Amazon. It is available on Kindle and as a paperback and can be purchased wherever books are sold.

A Hippie’s Homily

Lucy, a patient not much older than myself, remarked to me last week, “I was at Woodstock, and tried every drug in the book…just like everyone else was doing.” Even on a cold day like that one, she was outside her home, seated by the back door, indulging now only in the drug of nicotine. She had unruly grey hair, except for a garish red clutching at the lower half of it. She had explained that she used to dye her hair red, but now found it was too tedious and tiring to sit long enough to have her hair dyed again, so she is just waiting for the rest of it to grow out. I gather you get the picture for why I then burst out, “So you are a hippie, right?” Lucy replied, “Oh yeah. Old hippies never die.”

She then turned her attention to her smoking habit after I mentioned further along in the conversation that I like to write. “I have a story for you to write about. And you don’t even have to attribute it to me.” I thanked her for that, as it can be a challenge to decide what to write about in Offbeatcompassion.  Oh boy! Fresh material dropping right into my lap! I settled in for the story, glad I had kept my pink button-down sweater on, not having anticipated the visit would be outdoors. She took one last puff on her current cigarette and began, “I’ve known Mr. Nicotine since I was ten. When I was ten, Mr. Nicotine was young, energetic, and cool. Handsome and cool. And a great talker. Everyone wanted to be with him, so we all joined in. But now, Mr. Nicotine is old and horrid and grumbles. He has a long grey beard and there’s food in it. He is very dirty, but now it’s too late for me to get away from him. So watch out you don’t get caught. That’s the story about Mr. Nicotine. He fooled me.”

I listened some more, and as the cold  penetrated past my sweater, I gave out some hints that I was about to put the brakes on the conversation. Her response as I left: “You’re givin’ up, huh?” I wish I had been quick enough on the draw to retort, “Certainly not. Chaplain visits never finish.”

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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The 99.5 Percent Solution

A short cartoon, just one frame of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, has provoked an awful lot of thought on my part. Snoopy is taking it easy as usual on top of the doghouse and Charlie comes round to vent to his buddy and perhaps imbibe some wisdom. He has some news for his dog: “Someday we’re all gonna die.” Snoopy retorts, “But not on all the other days!”

I told this joke last Wednesday in an unlikely place for a not only Reform but female rabbi: A Chabad Center. At this very Orthodox venue, where the male host would not shake my hands in case I was “unclean” from a feminine characteristic (never mind my postmenopausal age), I was invited to be on a panel alongside an Orthodox rabbi to discuss, “how to make our lives better now.” No sweat, I could handle that question. I was less sure about the venue. I Tweeted, “What was a female Reform rabbi doing in a place like a Chabad Center in Bedford Hills NY? To discuss our mortality but of course.”

The Charlie Brown joke got surprised laughter from the crowd of Boomers and Generation Xers. Whew, I would be alright. But really, the cartoon captured in one sentence one of my main observations that night, which is that contemplating death can tune us in so much more to life, and to what we want to continue and discontinue for our remaining allocation of days. Snoopy the sage also intimates that we should appreciate and savor all those other days that are left.

Savoring life by staring at death may be a commonplace. But how about this? I told the group that sometimes my work in hospice intensifies some of those days that I get to live. On such an occasion, objects seem more present, more “there.” Sounds are richer, reflections off of water brighter, overheard talk more poignant, smells more pungent. I stand in the inscrutable swirl of existence.

During the question and answer period, many questions hinted at fear of death. They asked if people tend to accept it near the end, or whether everything falls into place for them at that point. I sensed the yearning for ultimate answers, which of course no honest human can provide. I gave the consolation prize of explaining how chaplains at least strive to clear away inhibiting agendas and provide a safe sacred space with open-ended questions. This and abundant time to listen lets persons articulate their thoughts without censoring them for family and friends. This way they can then clarify to themselves what their life story has been about.

But you know? Maybe humans don’t have the answers, but Snoopy makes a good point: Around 99.5% of the time that we are alive we are not going to die. Why worry about that less than 1% exception?

A Dutiful Daughter’s Keeping Grief at Bay

Judith Henry, author of The Dutiful Daughter’s Guide to Caregiving: A Practical Memoir has an offbeat yet compassionate way of expressing herself, thus her inclusion here. For instance, advising us to “write our own obituaries to have the last word” is a novel take on the matter and humorous at the same time. Judith has a knack for describing what caregivers go through and what advice they could use, paving the way for those about to begin this role as well as affirming the complexities that more seasoned caregivers face. Her book also shows you what it might be like just after a loved one dies. There is the usual mixture of anger and sadness, but also the use of sarcasm and incongruous images.

It is worth pondering how using sarcasm and unexpected comparisons can help us grieve in the beginning. Death of a loved one is too much to take in, so any strategy we can latch onto to let this information come in a little bit at a time is a blessing. I have met with survivors who even months later would wonder out loud whether so-and-so was “really” dead. They knew this intellectually but could not absorb it emotionally. As Judith confronts the death of her mother, she uses humor to distance herself from the awfulness, to defend herself against it. Perhaps reading her description below will suggest how you too can find a way to add humor to your arsenal of healthy defenses if you are currently grieving.

[From a  section called,Dealing with Grief and Loss] “How many times can a daughter say the words ‘my mother has died’ without crying? For me — the stoic, the realist, the pragmatic ‘death is all part of life’ philosopher — only once.

A week after Mom’s passing, I drive to Orlando with my current ‘to-do’ list in hand. The first of many that serve to keep the grief at bay, this one addresses the business side of loss. The day is gray and rainy.

I’ve mapped out each step of my visit, beginning with the funeral home to pick up my mother’s ashes and multiple copies of her death certificate, which are soon to be handed out like flyers everywhere she’s had an account or an enrollment of some kind.

The funeral director speaks in hushed, respectful tones, but I don’t blink an eye when he presents me with the small, white cardboard box containing her remains. It looks like a present in need of a bow and with my lifelong tendency to ‘awfulize,’ I imagine someone breaking into the car to steal it. Figuring that my mother, of all people, would understand, I place the box safely in the trunk as I go about my other errands.

Next stop is the Orange County Courthouse to file her last will and testament. I get lost downtown and end up parking blocks and blocks away from where I need to be. After a twenty-minute hike in heels, I enter the security labyrinth of the courthouse lobby and stand speechless as a guard roots through my purse and proudly confiscates a pair of tweezers. What a relief that the chin hairs of Orlando, mine included, are safe for another day. The head of security tells me I can retrieve them on the way out. Like I am really going to add that to my freaking list.

Finding the second-floor Probate Division takes forever and requires directions from several people. When I finally walk into the right office, a woman with a genuine smile looks up at me from behind the counter and says in a warm southern drawl, ‘How can ah help you?’

The words ‘my mother has died,’ spill out of me with a flash flood of tears, and when she reaches out and squeezes my hand, I cry even more. Minutes later, I leave with a gift of tissues from her desk and a suggestion to do something nice for myself that day.

Arriving next at the neighborhood bank where my parents have kept a checking account and safe deposit box for more than 40 years, I walk up to Juanita, the young woman at Client Services, and say, ‘I’m here to close an account. My mother has died.’ The last sentence is barely out of my mouth when she comes around the desk and wraps her arms around me as a parent does a child. And I, almost 60 years of age, rest my head on her shoulder and sob.”

 

Judith Henry: "How to have the last word: write your own obituary"

Judith Henry: “How to have the last word: write your own obituary”

Judith Henry’s Biography

In addition to working on her second book and writing for online publications, Judith leads a well-loved writer’s group for caregivers, and does presentations on caring for aging parents, the benefits of expressive writing, how to create a legacy letter for family and friends, and having the last word by writing your own obituary. For more information about Judith and purchasing her book, go to. http://www.judithdhenry.com

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Announcement to my followers and visitors: Now hear this! Encountering The Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died is now available as an audiobook on Amazon and on audible.com. Go here for a free sample of the narrator’s emotionally touching voice (Cindy Pereira): http://www.audible.com/pd/Religion-Spirituality/Encountering-the-Edge-What-People-Told-me-Before-They-Died-Audiobook/B011CHH2BE

A Garment You MIGHT Wish to Be Caught Dead In

Guest blogger Joanna Shears caught my attention because she writes about death in an even jauntier tone than I. In her Twitter profile @winding_blog, she styles herself as a “promoter of death positivity,” and in her blog she largely focuses on creative funeral planning. This September 26, 2014 post of hers is about designer shrouds and how we ourselves can be the designers!

The Winding Sheet

As I’m always banging on about the importance of preparing for your own funeral in advance I thought it was time for me to shut up, put my money where my mouth is and get on with it. Having thought long and hard about what kind of disposal and ceremony I want I have decided on an eco woodland burial (hopefully in the same woodland as my nan). I’m super passionate about funerals that give something back to the earth instead of taking from it. I don’t want to be buried in a big wooden lead-lined coffin and if anyone even thinks about embalming me I’m coming back to haunt you!

With this in mind I have decided to forego a coffin completely and be laid to rest in a shroud (aka winding sheet). These days shrouds can come in all different designs and shapes and materials but basically a…

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Not Even Chocolate Lasts Forever

For some mysterious reason, I’ve noticed lots of recent references to chocolate in Tweets and posts by several different people. It didn’t take much for me to fall in with this trend and let myself be beguiled by it as well. At first blush, I figured the most pertinent association with offbeatcompassion would be the phrase,“death by chocolate.” It may be pertinent, but it does not evoke any memory or story,so no help there. Luckily a real link between chocolate and my career comes to mind: Just as there are plenty of stories about my patients, I have my share of stories about all the fascinating dynamics that took place in my hospice job interviews.

One of the most memorable was what I dub the “chocolate” interview. After going through the preliminary steps to being considered, I could see from the onset that the interviewer (let’s call her Constance) had virtually decided to hire me on, sight unseen, given my years of experience. She not only did not pummel me with provocative questions nor overstep the boundary between being curious and being intrusive, she scarcely talked with me at all about my qualifications. Instead, about 85% of the interview was about chocolate. Yes, chocolate. The joys of dark chocolate, favorite recipes, chocolate festivals, a certain line of brownies overpriced due to their receiving an award, and her policy to have chocolate at the ready for all her employees when they came out of the field and into the office for respite from facing death. “I believe in treating my staff well, “she asserted. “And chocolate is one important way of doing so.” I could not argue with that. Never mind the pay. When could I start?

Constance talked so sweetly (literally), I wondered when she would spring some trick question. I was almost letdown that she didn’t. Seems she was very focused on sweetening her offer with her appealing personality and lack of desire to lord it over me as my supervisor. Unfortunately, a couple of weeks after I was hired, Constance, who herself was brand-new and had even sold her home and relocated, was fired. The higher ups did not look kindly on her free spirit, nor mine, and it wasn’t long until every piece of chocolate as well as yours truly had disappeared for good from the premises.