All To Ourselves

My husband Steve and I were seated with a billionaire in a bustling restaurant in Paris years ago. (Oh yes, lovey, we do this all the time–ha ha just kidding.) I gazed at the man to see what exotica this creature would release, but I was treated to none. As soon as I heard he was always running here and there (meaning from one country to another) and hardly ever getting to see his family, my chaplain radar went up in disappointment. Not someone to envy after all. But something unusual was afoot in the restaurant itself. As we progressed from course to course, it grew more and more peaceful. As customers left, no fresh ones replenished them, even as it became closer to the peak hour. By the time we got to dessert,we were practically the only ones there except two gentleman and their dog at a nearby table. Steve told me later that the gentlemen were famous French actors, with the dog allowed to share their glory, and that the billionaire had arranged things so we could have the entire restaurant to ourselves!

It is rare indeed to have a desirable public place all to ourselves but it happened twice again to us all in the past two months. April first, we were strolling all over Branch Brook Park, which according to Wikipedia, “is noted for the largest collection of cherry blossom trees in the United States, having over 5,000 in more than eighteen different varieties.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Branch_Brook_Park Nope, the billionaire was not on hand to chase everyone out. Nor was it an unfavorable time to go. It was the height of the cherry blossom viewing season and the weather was spectacular. We hardly saw a soul, and as a healthy-looking gent who had logged many more years than us jogged past, he called out “enjoy it now, because tomorrow they’re gonna close-up the parks.” This was true, as the Corona virus restrictions were just then descending upon us in New Jersey. People were already scared to go, which made it supremely safe for us, with no people to steer 6 feet clear of. Just as astonishing, no litter blighted the trails. Bittersweet to have this fleeting privilege, self-denied by most, and starting the next day, externally denied to all..

On Memorial Day weekend, (May 23rd) again with no billionaire to work his magic, we found ourselves virtually alone as we walked through the Presby Memorial Iris Gardens, which “is an internationally renowned garden…with more than 10,000 irises and 1,500 varieties.” https://www.visitnj.org/nj-arboretums-gardens/essex-county-presby-memorial-iris-gardens Like Branch Brook, it was just a short car trip away. No jostling to get in close to snap photos of rare varieties, no one trying to sell us some packets of iris seeds with the perfect iris depicted on the front, or greeting cards decorated with pastel iris drawings. Just a lone figure near the gate, keeping his distance, with a black mask on—a government employee? Yes, it was drizzling, but on a holiday weekend, and right around the peak time for viewing irises, and no one there? Lucky us, because of that, we did not even have to wear a mask.

Just a couple of weeks ago, parks had reopened,with a nest of restrictions but we figured open is open can’t be picky. As my husband and I wondered out of the park and onto a street nearby, we struck up a conversation with a mother and child. The child was looking at a discarded pipe that a chipmunk had just crawled into and who knows might deign to peep out of soon to say hello. Both park neighbors were glad of some brief company, human presence now highly prized. As we marveled on our solo experience at the park, the mother explained that it had just opened up two weeks ago, and lots of people did not know about that yet. Not wanting to linger overly long in case we had other unwanted company whose name has to do with crowns, we sauntered onwards, much to the regret of the child. I hope the chipmunk would come out for at least one more salutation to encourage her.

I normally would stop my post here, but perhaps that is not fair to leave you wondering what we were doing in the presence of that wealthy man. The answer is, my husband has a newsletter about investments, which the gent had subscribed to. They got together to “talk shop”. And if this further arouses your curiosity, my husband’s site is https://truecontrarian-sjk.blogspot.com/

May you, too, find enriching moments of unexpected glorious solitude in these confounding times.

Portents

I slip outdoors to gauge the mood of living things. Humans range close to home nowadays, tentative and tense. Motorists are more deferential towards us foot-bound folks, slowing to give us a wide berth to compensate for our wayward movements. The birds are bossier and loudly state their business. Larger clans of squirrels and chipmunks clamor for my devotion at the expense of the dogwood trees and the azalea bushes. Gophers and skunks trespass into human domains of space and time, cautioning me to tread with less swagger.

My husband had said to me the other day the animals “are getting ready.” Nature is maneuvering into place, a master at outwitting us in the long run when we misstep or fail to honor its dictates. It is the most authoritarian government on Earth.

Neighbors out on porches exchange remarks with me while their children wave their hands and elders throw me guarded looks. I shyly partake of this privilege to see my kind in person, a privilege due to expire by the time it takes to walk past. How we used to disregard occasions spent in proximity with others!

I detour to the commercial streets for the last part of my walk; a mistake. After seeing so much closed off to me there, I feel shut out. And shut off. Chastened, I retreat back inside.

_______________________

For more of my offbeat compassionate observations, see me on https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

 

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.

Making It To The Top Of The List

Since I have seen untold thousands of patients and their families in my eleven years as a hospice chaplain, I think it is a fair question people put to me at my talks when they ask, “What do the families you serve have most in common?” But for many years, I would say, and believe, that there were no real patterns. “Every case is unique,” I told them, wondering to myself why this was such a pressing question. I sensed that they did not like this answer. Was it the uncertainty it implied that bothered them? Did they want to know more about what to expect when the time to put a loved one on hospice arrives? Read on, and you will see that I will no longer leave you in the lurch.

I know that articles labeled “Top Ten” reasons, most popular diets, cities to live in, and so on can really grab a reader’s attention. Now it’s my turn to have such a list, even if not quite so long. That is because at long last I can discern the most common themes that families bring to my attention wittingly or unwittingly.

I’d say guilt gets top billing for what family members talk to me about when they are in spiritual distress over their loved one’s impending demise (and after). They feel they could have done something differently or did not do enough. This reminds me of a joke about what two different families did for their loved one. The Cohen family took their elderly mother to Florida so that she would not have to deal with the cold and could more fully enjoy her remaining years. She died soon after. The Levertov family kept their elderly mother in New Jersey so that she could enjoy her friends and community. She died too. The Cohens lamented, “If only we had not had Mom make that arduous trip and be torn from her familiar surroundings, she would have lived longer.” And what did the Levertovs say? “If only we had taken her from the harsh winters and had her make new friends to enjoy the balmy weather with she would have lived longer.” It is not easy to talk someone out of guilt, even with jokes like that. I try to provide relief by telling families that so many other families, who have done all they reasonably could, also feel guilty. Normalizing it like that gives them perspective and hints at the logic that if everyone feels guilty, then maybe no one is really all that guilty. Or at least,like misery, guilty people love finding out about company.

Nor does this guilt stuff stop here. Besides fretting about cheating the patient of how much time they should have left, they worry that if they are not present when the patient dies, they will feel guilty about not having been on hand for the final sendoff. Family members have to do other things, anything from leaving the room to taking a shower to boarding a plane in order to get back to jobs and childcare. And of course there’s plenty of guilt to go around for feeling the “forbidden” sentiments like relief or even delight when the person dies, because they were nasty stinkers. Or they feel that way because now a family can go ahead with making various plans and can see an end in sight for the financial drain. Hell, yes, money talks loudly at such times!

Second place for top spiritual concerns is uncertainty. How this torments families! So many ask me or the nurse how long their loved one is going to live. Unfortunately, this can be hard to predict. Sometimes I think a patient is going to die any moment and they live for several days more, or the opposite. I agree when people say the uncertainty hanging over them is worse than the death itself. There is also the uncertainty for the family concerning how they will cope after the death and what unexpected feelings may surface. The way I address this is to first of all acknowledge how nerve-racking and stressful and all round crappy uncertainty is. I then say that after the death, our hospice team will be available to guide them through the grief journey for an entire year. All hospices offer bereavement groups and one on one contact as well as literature about grieving. (My favorite grief book is How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies, by Dr. Therese Rando. It is so clear and almost entertaining in its style.)

On the positive side of spiritual concerns, top place goes to gratitude, excepting abuse cases of course. Even though the families are sad and usually angry about a good thing coming to an end, they are grateful for having had all the years they did have with their loved one. Their loved one enriched their lives through nourishing, encouraging, enjoying, and sharing love with them. Sometimes the gratitude is for whatever time is remaining, and sometimes as death occurs, for an end of suffering.

Rounding off my list of top four spiritual concerns is humility. Families realize how little control we ultimately have, and that we go through our lives at the mercy of innumerable factors. Some find comfort in believing that whatever happens throughout our lives including the timing of our death is all God’s Plan. More to the point, as the grand mystery of death itself extends its reach, rolling out its carpet of eternity, we stand humbly at its fringes.

______________________

For Karen’s microblog see her at https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

Second In Line

I based this dark humor short story on what one of my hospice patients actually did:

Retired go-go dancer and hospice patient Victoria kept her spirits up by upending people’s assumptions, and the more she mixed people up the better. She startled even the most jaded staff when she announced she was using a dating app. Without revealing that she lived in a hospice residence, she wrote in her profile, “Short-term relationship highly desirable with freewheeling man attracted to the unexpected.” (She smiled and snickered as she wrote that.)

Retired antiques salesman Nathan, looking for a mutual carefree romp, felt he found the right match when he chanced upon Victoria’s profile. Her suggestive comment about men looking for novelties did the trick. He responded, “You mischievous gal! You sound like my type,” and straightaway offered to meet her at the address she gave. Her eyes gleaming with sweet victory, she wrote back yes.

As he neared what he took to be an apartment building, he saw a sign up front that read “Heavenly Hospice” in the most welcoming lettering possible. He stopped dead in his tracks, and wanted to sprint back to his car from that house of horrors. But he did not have it in him to break a promise, even though he was less than exemplary in other ways when it came to romance.

He got buzzed in and fearfully made his way to her room, located–wouldn’t you know it–all the way down at the very end of the hallway. The door to her room was closed, and as he put his ear to it, he could hear sighing and one deep breath after another. He said to himself, “Is this poor thing already drawing her last breaths? Is it already too late for that ‘short-term fling’ Victoria hinted at?”

He was too late, but not because of that. A male nurse had succumbed to her charms just as Nathan was forming his first seductive imaginings during his hurried drive over.

**************

Which part of the story do you think is true? Do you think you will act like Victoria in your last months? For more of my writing, both micro-fiction and micro-nonfiction, see me at https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

An Alligator Tale

Have you ever read about alligators on a blog like mine? Didn’t think so. But my hospice patient Fernando (not his real name) told me something about them that keeps sticking in my mind, which was but one of many offbeat subjects he brought up during his very long talk with me:“I like to stay here in New Jersey because it’s safe and I like cold weather. Out there in Florida you know what happens? During the dry season, gators go into people’s swimming pools.” I could not help but say, “Come now. How could that be?” Fernando replied, “No, no, it’s true. In the dry weather there is less water and so they look for it wherever they can find it.” I vowed that I would look this up after the visit.

Sure enough, the Internet yielded many stories about alligators in swimming pools, especially gators nine feet or longer. (You can see the videos for yourself on Youtube and elsewhere.) Well, okay, if you really insist on seeing one of them, here’s a sample link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8zZZcO1BHs

At any rate, since I wanted to know not only if this were true but why, I got an answer from a CBS News article published in May 2017 called, “Look Before You Leap: Massive Alligator Lurks at Bottom of Florida Pool”. As to why the alligator wanted to be there, “a public information officer for the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office said, ‘Let this be a reminder that it’s mating season in Florida and these creatures, especially the females, are on the move looking for areas to lay eggs.’” Okay, I get it. There isn’t much water available during a dry spell and the pregnant or pregnant-to-be gators are desperate for any body of water, no matter how small.

Now you know. And now you know how I can still do hospice work after eleven years on the job. It’s not all about dying and funerals I look forward to talking with Fernando again, especially because at the end of that most recent conversation, he asked if I could have a volunteer come visit and read out loud Don Quixote to him. I can’t wait to hear why he asked for that particular book. If the answer  is um “novel”  I’ll let you know.

Hubby Survives Death Cafe

Being the husband of a hospice chaplain can have its odd and trying moments, as you will see in Steve’s darkly comical anecdote below:

 A few years ago my wife told me about a nearby event called a “Death Cafe.” I was instinctively leery of anything with such an ominous-sounding name, but she seemed enthusiastic about being able to promote her hospice book there so I decided to try it out. Even though it was already evening, it was considerably warmer and more humid than the average summer day. The event was on Park Street in Montclair, New Jersey in a fairly upscale neighborhood, so I wasn’t too concerned about a lack of amenities. Unfortunately, my original fears proved to be justified as the meeting was on the top floor of a house in what would be called an attic in a less swanky town–and which had no air conditioning. One of the primary topics of discussion was whether assisted suicide should be legalized in New Jersey, but I was distracted from concentrating on that matter. The temperature in that packed single room was near 120 degrees with almost zero ventilation, so I tuned out whatever weighty issues were being discussed and quietly lay on the floor. I looked up to a majestic vaulted ceiling with outsized musical notes, and realized to my surprise that it was the beginning of the song: “You must remember this, a kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.” I remembered that Herman Hupfeld, the composer of this catchy tune featured in Casablanca, had lived in Montclair. I had no idea that I would ever be in his attic, or why he never had air conditioning installed.

I concluded soon afterward that I didn’t want to remain in the house, so I went outdoors to walk around the back yard. The old construction hadn’t been modernized, and as it was getting dark, I didn’t realize that there were some sharp black iron pipes located in unexpected places. I banged my head against one of them and soon began bleeding profusely. Not knowing what to do, I remembered that in the uncomfortable attic were several tubs of ice cubes for the drinks, so I went back to put ice on my skull. When I walked in several people screamed when they saw me: blood was pouring out of my head down my body and looked much worse than it actually was. Fortunately more than one physician was present; two of them poured water over the wound and applied ice with towels, and within a short while the flow had mostly subsided. When they saw that I was recovering, a few people remarked that it would have been ironic to have an actual death at the Death Cafe. My wife never got the opportunity to mention her book to the other attendees. I had mostly blocked this experience from my mind until I heard on the radio that assisted suicide just became legal in New Jersey a few days ago, when I immediately recalled the details of that sweltering evening. The fundamental things apply as time goes by.

*******************

Steven Jon Kaplan regularly writes quirky stories on his website, true contrarian, as a side show to his main focus on contrarian investing, which is about unfollowing herd behavior in the financial markets.  He is a financial planner. The link to his site is https://truecontrarian-sjk.blogspot.com/

For more of my own writing, check out  my microblogging on https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

Adam’s Bad Reputation

Adam just had one simple rule,” Milt was saying, “and he screwed it up. Just one little rule.” Milt was a patient of mine sitting up in bed, who wanted me to debate with him as he summoned each of his phrases with a mighty effort. He often interrupted himself with queries about where his glasses and phone were, and inserted vast stretches of silence between each phrase as I awaited the next stage of the conversation.

Eve and at first the snake had something to do with that too,” I replied. Shaking his head Milt said,“Passing the buck. That’s what everybody does.” I thought to myself, the buck should stop with God at least sometimes. Milt went on, “Adam caused all of us to have serious sin. I have done serious sin.” During the next pause I thought about what a Christian told me about her tradition blaming Eve for humankind’s most colossal goof. At least Milt wasn’t blaming the woman.

After talking about sin for a bit, I then decided to challenge him as he had requested: “Milt, the Adam and Eve business is a strange story. If no one had eaten the apple (I thought to myself it must have been a fig or date or something because the Hebrew says “fruit” and we’re talking the Middle East here, but no matter; I didn’t want to confuse him.) then we’d have Adam and Eve still in the Garden, all happy and innocent and everything for all eternity, but then nothing would go forward. Only those two would be around, and you and I would not exist.”

Milt took this in and then replied, “Yeah, nobody would propagate.” Another long silence. I wondered what he would say next, and then there it was: “Karen, God put us here for a purpose.” He must have known this basic theology clashed with the reading of the Adam and Eve story as being all about sin. As he just said, nobody would have had children if the infamous fruit had sat around untasted, and then nobody would have been around to carry out God’s purpose.

Milt then went on to bemoan the religious conflict between himself and his son. Milt said the only part of religion that he doesn’t like is the proselytizing aspect. His son was involved with some missionary work which entailed being far away. Later I had spoken with the son, who said over and over that he felt called to that work.

I do think that in part, Adam and Eve flubbing up is about our imperfect world. We hold self-contradictory beliefs, and our beliefs are not always congruent with those of our loved ones. Both father and son did agree that God put us here for a purpose. But it is too bad that neither interpreted it to mean that his father’s final days was sacred time for them to make use of together. If father and son could have transcended their differences, they would have fulfilled God’s purpose for them to grow in love and understanding, the holiest and most purposeful task of all.


To see my microblogging, go to https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

Hooked On Hospice

Working for hospice is like following the progression of about forty different plays at once. What unexpected or surprising thing will one of my forty or so patients casually drop in her conversation with me today? What new realization will I come away with? What will I learn this week about the country the patient is from or what new Spanish expression will they teach me? Which staff members will suddenly materialize at my side as I start to sing to a patient as he sways his foot in rhythm to the music?

No question hospice can be sad, but I am always a sucker for the drama involved among my patients. I get to cut to the chase and see the final act play out all the time! You might say the final act is always known so what is there to be curious about? But that would be like saying the same about any serious opera and therefore not see them. And when the patients or families reminisce, I even get to hear flashbacks of other climactic moments in the earlier “acts” of their lives.

I am not sure why this is so, but I am so dreadfully curious in comparison with most people. I always wonder what the next patient admitted will be like. I might meet a fellow writer. I might meet someone with a career I never heard of before. I definitely will meet people from all backgrounds, from people who have heard of my home town of Erie, Pennsylvania, to someone whose country I myself have not heard of. From the most vocal atheist to the most ardent fundamentalist, to a white American Muslim to a Hindu. From the straightest couple to the gayest, the whitest to the blackest, the one with no children to one with fourteen of them. I will come across the patient who wants solitude and the one who craves society; the one who is agitated and resentful and the one who is calm and humorous.

The staff members who end up staying with hospice have their stories too. One nurse has worked at hospices for over thirty years. Hospice staff have traversed the paths that have brought them to this offbeat career. Best of all, they understand why in the world I would do this kind of work. I do not have to explain. We fit in with each other even as we are seen by some people outside of our circle as misfits to shudder at.

If nothing else, this job gives me so much to think about. Mortality and spiritual values, sure, but so much more, as readers familiar with this blog have seen for the past six years. If you are new to offbeatcompassion, have a look at the past few posts. If by any chance you are pondering an unconventional direction in your career, by all means make a comment here or contact me with questions. My email is karenbookmankaplan@gmail.com, and my twitter link is https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

Pay Dirt

“I got a weird notice from our Jewish funeral home,” began the daughter of a hospice patient who I will call Donna. I was on the phone with her because she had asked for a rabbi on our hospice staff. “They have those dinners, you know, where they try to get you to prepay?” I thought to myself, no, I didn’t know they did that! She continued, “And what confused me is the paper they gave me that said ‘burials or cremations.’ How could a Jewish funeral home be offering cremations? Anyway, that’s what I want. But I don’t know what to do.”

 I responded, “You mean because that’s against Jewish law?” (After the phone call, I checked, and yes, some Jewish funeral homes offer cremation, with at least some requiring procedures such as burial of the ashes.)

 “Yes,” said Donna. “My mom taught Hebrew school, tutored students for their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, was very active. But I want something in my house to look at and remember her after she’s gone. I want to put her ashes in an urn and have it where I can see it.”

 So here she was, conflicted about following Jewish law and following her needs as a mourner. When I face a dilemma like that, I try to be creative. “I wonder,” I suggested, “if there is some other thing you could display on the mantelpiece that would be distinctive and remind you of your mom? That way you could still have a traditional burial. What about something she made, like an embroidery, or something she wrote or painted, or something she owned. Maybe clothing?” Donna said no to each one. She definitely did not want the obvious one of photos, because “that would be the same as what I had before Mom died.” I was running out of suggestions. Now what? I kept on thinking, and I had to think fast, because Donna was in distress and I did not want to leave her empty handed. Also, “dead time” (pardon the pun?) on a phone is almost as bad as on the radio.

 ..Ahh, now I got it. I reflected on how some mourners bring or order some soil from Jerusalem to place into the grave during a funeral, which led me to a related concept: “Donna, what do you think of taking some of the dirt they dig up to prepare your mother’s grave, putting it in an appropriate container like a jar of some kind, and taking that to put in your home?” Donna warmed up to the idea, especially when I added for good measure that she could get some dirt from Jerusalem and add some of it to the grave, and some to the sample that she would be taking home. Success! No conflict between remembering and feeling closer to a deceased loved one and between being an observant Jew. No tug-of-war for her between “Honoring thy mother and father” and honoring Judaism as her mother had done. We had hit pay dirt.

 

This  June 2nd, 2019 article of mine reprinted with permission from http://jewish-funerals.blog/2019/06/pay-dirt/