Words at the Starting Gate

When I talk with a person about his own death, especially when it is my own father, I feel like a race car driver having to make split-second decisions en route to the finish line.  Before letting my answer race out of my mouth,  I have to take in exactly what a person is saying and how they are bringing this subject up.  With my few seconds to answer, I have to consider how deeply they want to pursue the subject, why they are bringing it up, and what words and intonation I should use so I will not be evasive or inauthentic. I do not want to run out of gas or careen into a wall.

This time it was in fact my own father, so my emotions  came into play too before my brain gave me the all-ready signal. And now, as I write about it, I am especially self-conscious about my choice of words knowing that he, one of my blog followers, may be reading this along with everyone else who has alighted on this post.(Never fear, I did get his permission.)

Earlier in the day, my 92-year-old dad and I had covered our usual subjects, such as what good books to read, how he maintains his good health working out at the gym and eating the right foods, and what new activities I have engaged in. As I hung up, I remembered he had said something about feeling “so-so” and I wondered vaguely why he said that.

As if in response to my picking up on that, he rang again and broached the subject very cautiously by saying, “I think a lot about my age these days, but I don’t know if I should discuss this with my own daughter, especially because you are a chaplain.” I thought how ironic. It’s not like he was exploiting my expertise. But that was what he thought, because he went on, “You know, I don’t want to be like a person at a party who meets a doctor and then asks him about this or that pain you have.”

“Gosh no, not at all Dad.” Funny (but understandable) how the people we most should be sharing our thoughts about death with are the ones we most hesitate to do so with. It is one thing to attend a Death Cafe or peek at the dark humor Tweets of funeral directors, quite another to deal with the emotionally-laden prospect of a loved one’s death, whether imminent or remote. I felt like adding, “if not with your children, with who then?” Instead, I waited, which gave me time to think about what he had said about death in the past, such as that he is not afraid of it.

He continued, “I wonder when it is going to hit me. I wonder how it will happen.” I think to myself, I sometimes wonder the same thing. I also wonder whether I will die before or after my husband, whether before or after my brother.

“What can I do about it? Should I just not think about it?” Dad asked. Just to see if he had changed his view,I asked him if he was afraid. “I’m not afraid. It’s just like going to sleep, only for a really long time, that’s all. But I like being here and want to stay.”

At first I thought, what can I say to his question? It’s such an unanswerable one. And although what I said may not seem novel to most if not all of my readers, the fact that it was between a father and daughter, and that we were in a genuine moment, brought our cars in tandem: “Live in the moment, Dad.” He said that was a good answer and a great way to conclude that phone call. I celebrate how he and I were living completely in the moment during that conversation. Dad, may there be many more such moments for you before you cruise past the ultimate finish line.

“Death Cafe”–Not Exactly a Last Supper

Before I knew what a “death cafe” referred to, I pictured a collection of skulls clacking away as they helped themselves to a buffet, with soft foods and liquids being the most favored by far. “Death cafe?” How could food and death be juxtapositioned? One of the leading graphics in an article that  unveiled the meaning of this phrase showed elegant blue and white dishware obediently standing in a holder. A skull took up the center of each plate, hogging all the blue, leaving the white to fill in the periphery. Written on the rim was “Bone appetit.” See that? I’m not the only one who thinks like I do.

“Death cafes” are part of a movement to break cultural taboos against openly discussing such topics as how we want to be remembered, how to bring up the subject of dying with loved ones and how we want our funerals to be conducted. The food part, making this subject a bit easier to swallow, usually consists of beverages and snacks.The very first death cafes began in 2004 and really took off in 2011. The organizers say that by now approximately one thousand people have attended them in countries such as England, Australia, the United States, and Italy.

My husband Steve and I, both of us curiosity seekers, went to a death cafe in someone’s home  the middle of this month. We helped ourselves to some snacks–the best one was guava paste and cheese spread on crackers–and waited our turn to answer the question of why we  were there. Many people said they were open to discussing it because they had lost a loved one at a tender age, or they themselves were young when someone very close to them had died. My answer was that I wanted to see what people were saying about this topic and that I thought I might get ideas for my blog posts. (See?)

We then had to complete the phrase, “Death is……” Naturally I said, “Death is at the edge.” I say naturally because my book title is “Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died” (Pen-L Publishing) Later when we broke into smaller groups, I said that when I contemplate this edge, it throws life, which is on the other side of that edge, into sharper relief.

I figured that I would have to forgo retrieving any humorous gems from this particular event, but luckily someone said, “Oh, I thought this event was called a “Death Cave.” “Death Cave?” Oh, is that where thoughts on death end up after we chew the fat? When Steve and I laughed about that on the way home, he said “that sounds like the Flintstones were going to host the event.” It’s about time. I never have ever heard Fred and Wilma  address the issue, have you?

For related article, see https://offbeatcompassion.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/death-cafes-home-of-the-death-deniers/

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.