Endangered Memories

“When I look at even a tiny scrap of paper in all the ‘clutter’ I can’t part with,” my cousin reflected, “the whole memory comes rushing back, completely reconstructed.” I was having a heart-to-heart discussion with her about hoarding and clutter in general. Being a “declutterer” par excellence I wanted to understand more about savers, and possibly more about why I am so “Spartan” (as a saver friend of mine puts it). So when I asked my cousin why it was so hard to part with what she admitted were “no longer necessary things like the three extra coats my mother had and which are just sitting there in the closet,” she gave me a moving answer: “If I throw something out, I am so afraid I will lose the memory.”

I think my cousin would highly appreciate what some wise aliens had to say to a human visitor who could not fathom why memories of a pleasant event are “just as good” as the event itself. In Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis, the alien patiently explains to the human that memory is not separate from the event remembered:

“A pleasure and the memory are all one thing…What you call remembering is the last part of the pleasure. When you and I first met, the meeting was over very shortly, it was nothing. Now it is growing something as we remember it. But still we know very little about it. What it will be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes in me all my days until then—that is the real meeting. The other is only the beginning of it.”

Now that may be going too far, but so much about religion is about remembering, and by so doing, reenacting the event. The example that comes most readily to me as a Jew is Passover, where the principal purpose of the ceremonial meal (Seder) is to relive the story of transitioning from slavery to freedom. The Sabbath is about recalling the opening moments of Creation and the refreshing break that God took after all that work, which goes for us too at the end of each week. And for Christians, Easter is about “replaying” the events surrounding the end and the new beginning of the life of Jesus. That is a lot of remembering!

When we lose someone, they die. But our memories of them can last throughout our own lifetime. True, they are a distant remove from the “real thing,” but we cling onto whatever we can. Maybe that is why we do whatever it takes to make these memories as enduring as possible. For those of us who identify with a particular faith, we do not want to “forget” the pivotal events that make up our identity and understanding of who we are such as becoming a free and distinct people and receiving the Ten Commandments. As individuals, we want to remember our loved ones through letters (I can’t seem to bring myself to say “emails”), photos, videos, conversations with others who knew them, and through things they owned such as jewelry, awards, or things they created. Yes, things can add up and become clutter. And yes, saving too little can imperil those cherished memories, causing a secondary death.

But whether you are a “saver” or a “declutterer,” there is another even more enduring way to keep them alive: the ethical and other life-affirming deeds we perform as a result of the influence of our loved ones perpetuates their legacy. Just as whenever we read sacred writings we can ponder what is being revealed to us at that moment, when we carry out the good deeds that our loved one has done and has modeled for us to do, these bring our loved one to life anew.

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

With permission, this article was reprinted with some modifications from the blog, “Expired and Inspired,” a Jewish Burial Society blog regularly published in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. The link, of especial interest to the Jewish reader, can be found here: http://jewishjournal.com/blogs/expiredandinspired/231943/mementos-mori-rabbi-karen-b-kaplan/ .

Advertisements

Grief Without A Home

Famous essayists can go through it too, and of course express it so eloquently—the kind of grief nobody thinks should count as “real.”  Or has no business being present. Anita Diamant, author of The Red Tent and columnist for The Boston Globe Magazine, writes about grieving for her ex-father-in-law:  “My grief had no quarter. I would not be counted as a mourner [at the funeral and subsequent prayer services]. There was no prayer for a former daughter-in-law to say. When I told people of my loss, they said, ‘I always forget you were married before.’ So I wrapped up my mourning in a private bundle…I am stunned at how people interrupted my reminiscences about Milton’s  generosity. I didn’t want to be distracted from my sadness. I didn’t want cheering up. But for losses like mine, losses without standing or status, grief is an orphaned state, and lonely.”

When I read that, I longed to immediately write back to her and say, “How I hear your distress! We chaplains know exactly what you mean and want to listen and not distract or cheer you up. Just give me a ring and I will listen.”

Diamant titled her essay, “Grief, Dispossessed.” That is a much more vivid term than the official term “disenfranchised grief.” “Dispossessed” means being made homeless. Dispossessed grief is like someone throwing you out of your home after all the lights in the town have dimmed. When you grieve someone or something not recognized by loved ones or our society, such as death of an ex-spouse, a miscarriage, hopes one had for oneself or someone else, or loss of a partner in a hidden gay relationship, you get a one-two punch. One for the loss, and one for having to hide the loss or having the loss dismissed by everyone as not legit.

So if you are on the punching end, ponder how to change thy ways. Prescription : reread this post.

If you are being punched, persist until you find someone who will give you a home for your grief, completely furnished with love, acceptance and patience.

Not Your Typical New Orleans Photo

One of the elements that draws me to my kind of work (hospice) or to a story or in this case a photo, is its mixture of loss and resilience. Friend and photographer Jay Martin was in New Orleans during the Sugar Bowl and took this shot of a  person selling beads.   I invite my site visitors to let the photo speak for itself to you of obstacles versus moving along, of drabness versus color, of frivolity versus labor, of being in the center versus going unnoticed. Do you wonder along with me how he navigated with his arms extended, and whether  stretching them out like that was onerous?

Here is what Mr. Martin had to say: “I took the picture of the man selling beads from his wheelchair during Sugar Bowl festivities in the French Quarter, early afternoon, Friday, 29 Dec. ’17. A small parade of floats, marching bands, and anyone who wanted to be in the parade wound its way through the quarter. I could hear the bands playing as I spotted the man, shouting to prospective buyers– ‘Beads! Beads!’–on Bourbon.”

_________________________

Jay Martin is a technical and science writer who lives with his wife and cat in San Francisco. He has interacted with photography for over 30 years, taking pictures of people and animals. He thinks he can understand the world a little better than he did the day before by daily observation through the lens.

 

 

How To Have The Final Farewell Without Fear

It’s about time I figured this out after nine years as a hospice chaplain. A patient’s daughter showed me how to tamp down my intermittent fear of death. And you don’t even have to buy into an afterlife to value what Jill said.  It was a “usual” day at work, and I was talking with her as she was nearing the point of losing her loved one then and there. She just up and made the following aphorism:  “When you are tired, you go to sleep. When you are Tired, you are ready to pass on.”

Naturally she did not “capitalize” and “bold” the “t” with some auditory equivalent, but this is what I pictured as she said it. Depending on what “tired” writ large suggests to you, I believe whatever you come up with would illustrate what she meant, making it a superb aphorism indeed. When my turn to die comes, I think being Tired will mean feeling satisfied that I accomplished and enjoyed personal and creative and professional goals but at the same time having such a low physical quality of life that I will be good and ready to say bye bye. Maybe for someone else it will mean once all their loved ones are gone, they will be ready to leave everything else behind. And for someone who believes in an afterlife, (I am an agnostic in that regard) it may mean they are ready to join those who preceded them, continuing their love on a different level.

Like the aphorism, it may be wise to keep this post unusually short and conclude by asking you two questions: (1) Does this lady’s remark mean anything to you too or does it seem trivial and/or obvious? (2) If you do find it meaningful, what might make you feel “Tired” enough for your own farewell?

Film Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Although this provocative and fascinating film is “old news” having come out in 2008, I heartily recommend it for its timeless themes. This fantasy captivates me because it challenges assumptions about youth and old age so much that I was tempted to title this post, “The Elixir of Old Age”. The movie is about an individual born in his eighties, found abandoned on the porch of a nursing home who then gets younger instead of older as time passes. At first this sounds marvelous: why not get over all the bad stuff like arthritis and forgetfulness and baggy eyes in the beginning and have things get better and better, not only physically, but spiritually? There we would be, with the wisdom of our mature brains reflecting how we could make better use of those years of being in top shape and be attuned to appreciating them more once we reach them. Sure enough, as Benjamin becomes younger, he luxuriates in being able to do more things. He abandons the wheelchair. He then abandons one crutch, then the other. He enjoys getting a job on a ship because it is fun to be doing things “and even getting paid for it.” But life gets very complicated as he forms various bonds, including romantic ones…..But in case you have not seen the film, I won’t say much more about that part of the story save that what happens is not hackneyed but also most insightful.

But picture how getting younger would actually work out.  If we were to grow younger, and the ones we love grow older, we would have less and less in common with them. We would have less and less to share with them and we would literally be growing further and further apart. Just think of how it would accelerate or mutate the changing roles in our relationships, especially across the generations. Say my 13-year-old niece gets married in thirty years, would I want to be around her age at the time? When they have their 10th anniversary, how would I relate to them as a much younger person? The feelings of loss we all experience arise at least in part from the loss of connection we have with others, and being out of temporal sync would be another spur to such loss.

This film made me think about how glad I am to be growing old along with my husband, other family, and friends. We are increasing and deepening rather than decreasing our connections in so many ways. We have a growing stock of shared experiences, challenges, and insights. We have a shared understanding of what it is like to be older, and therefore can empathize with the limitations that others face. As he “younged,” Benjamin Button found himself even cutting off relationships he was doing well in, because he feared the consequences of eventually having to be taken care of as well as being cared about. The darkest side of becoming younger became painfully clear to him as he wandered about as a teenager for many years with virtually no connection with others at all.  This is as close to a living death that one can get. Although some of our loved ones including ourselves may have to be cared for, I see in a vast majority of cases, the people involved continue relating to each other on whatever level that may be. Unlike Benjamin, I rarely witness the caregiver nor care receiver completely cutting themselves off from each other except of course due to certain diseases or other extreme matters.

Whatever our circumstances, I rejoice in the ever deepening connections I have with people I have known, as well as the increased quantity of connections with new people I meet. Our stories get longer and filled with recurrent themes as we journey in step. Benjamin ends up as a baby…with no memories… at last closing his eyes, uninitiated.

Telling It Like It Was In Castro’s Cuba

In my last post I wrote that relating to others as a chaplain is like performing improvisational theater. I go into each encounter with a patient with no script in mind, and what they say shapes the give and take between us. But the flavor of interactions at hospice varies so much, I get to sample a number of careers, not just one. Sometimes I feel like a detective, following up hints my clients inadvertently drop which point to hidden deeper concerns that they feel too hesitant to express outright to a total stranger.  Other times I feel like a journalist, gathering stories of public interest. Besides “getting the story,” when I act like a reporter, I am giving the client in such cases the freedom to tell their story and fulfill their need to be heard and understood. Many of the anecdotes in Offbeatcompassion derive from this journalistic role.

Thinking back, there was a storyteller who was so anxious to have me listen in detail I think she wanted me to publicize her words so that more Americans would know what it was really like in the early years of Castro’s Cuba, in the early 60’s. I was genuinely surprised to hear such tales of woe and bravery. Like any reliable reporter, I “checked my sources” on the Internet and found that others have told similar stories.

I will call the narrator “Juana”, who spoke to me for over two hours while her loved one lay sleeping under a portrait of a friend who served in the Cuban Army prior to Castro. “My family was on the ‘losing side’, and they called the people on the losing side ‘worms,’” she explained.  As Juana spoke, these sorts of details reminded me of Nazi behavior. She went on, “The people did so-called volunteer work in the cane fields. Very hard labor they would ask people to do on their time off. But I did not do it.” Instead she went to study at a medical school, hoping to find a niche in Castro’s Cuba where she could do something productive and avoid some of the worst consequences of his regime.

But even there she felt society had become so warped that she could no longer find a viable place to fit in. She said, “the school had ‘cleansing meetings,’ where in front of all the students they would say which students they were going to expel. And then one time I heard a shot and later I found out a student had shot himself after learning that his girlfriend was expelled.” This gruesome story reminds me of the recent science fiction thriller movie The Thinning, whose equally gruesome premise is that those who fail a school aptitude test are executed in order to ensure population control.

One other significant anecdote she shared was about the U.S. Naval base in Guantanamo Bay. I have always thought of the part of Guantanamo Bay which serves as a prison, but Juana explained that Cubans would try to climb over the fence to be on U.S. soil and gain their freedom. Some Cubans eventually were allowed to go from there to the U.S. Juana told of one exploit where the escapees practiced going over a similar fence elsewhere before they went on a train that passed very close to the naval base fence. “The conductor had a plan in advance, these people went on the train on a particular day from all over Cuba; from many provinces. The conductor stopped the train real close to the fence. Not the usual stop. He opened the doors and the people all dashed out and rushed over to the fence. Many climbed up but the guards up on the towers shot at them and some were hit and killed. But a lot of the people made it. They made it to freedom.”

Getting Into The Act

My childhood dream of becoming an actress has come true: relating to others as a chaplain is like performing improv theater, only the “audience” is participating at least as much, if not more, than I.

For instance one evening as I was walking towards one patient’s room, I heard someone just across the hall saying, “Look there goes the chaplain.” I took that as a cue to veer away from my original destination and detour towards that merry invitation. The beckoning voice was the patient Maxine’s brother, and as I walked in, Maxine looked me over with as much delight as if I had been made out of chocolate all ready to consume in bite-sized pieces. We three engaged in the sort of talk that paradoxically refers to nothing much in particular but warms people up to each other. Maxine suddenly stalled the banter with, “I want a hat. I want something around my ears.” It happened to be on the weekend when the receptionist was not on duty, and I was not sure where the donated clothes were stashed. As I stepped out to ask the aides and nurses, they did not know either. I even went over to one of the cooks, and as we were talking about the clothes, I noticed a white thin net the cook used while on her shift. Ah! There was the prop I needed. Better than returning empty handed I could improvise and bring one of those nets to Maxine. I asked the cook if there were more. Skeptical, she handed me one from a stack daintily lined up on a hook.

When I came back into the room I gambled on the patient having forgotten exactly what she had asked for since she had some dementia. Sure enough she enjoyed the attention of having me place it on her head, and her brother laughed along with me at how charming it looked.

That same day, I went to someone’s private home, expecting to see the patient Marge and her sister. Her sister had asked me to come over because  Marge did not have much longer to live. Instead, I saw an aide-turned-friend there who wanted to pour out his angst, not about being at the point of losing someone who he was so devoted to, but about the President of the United States. This was the first time I had listened to political fears as a form of spiritual distress, so like changing my direction from one “stage set” (i.e. room) to another, I had to swerve from the intimate atmosphere of a friend grieving imminent loss of another friend, to the public source of his feelings of vulnerability. This friend told me about how the President has bred in him his own fears and feelings of negativity which he has not confronted in himself before. He is worried about the resultant changes in himself and in our society. By the way, the “subscript” of this genuine alarm over politics may have been a way to hide from his sadness at the patient’s waning days. But as with improv on the stage, I went in the direction the other “actor” chose, not what I knew to be the deeper issue. Perhaps in the next “act” he will be ready to go there.

As I understand it, the way improvisational theater works is that one actor spontaneously starts some miming action or indicates some trait in him- or herself or in the other actors. This is called an “offer”. Then the other actors build on that, and so on, back and forth among the actors or among themselves and members of the audience. On my own “stage” a lot of times I wait and see what the patient will offer as a first cue for me to react to, and then I take it from there. Coming into these unscripted situations and having clients make the first offer is the appeal as well as the challenge of being a healthcare chaplain. It also cuts to the chase for spiritual healing.