Feedback From The Beyond: A Fantasy in Two Parts

A hospice nurse told me an afterlife fantasy so captivating it has stuck in my mind for months. She said, “When I am in heaven, I hope to see every patient I have taken care of. All they have to do is file by and nod at me.” She has been in this line of work for many years; she would probably have to reserve several hotel ballrooms in the beyond in order to accommodate them all. The amount of people hospice staff see really does add up quickly. Say I see three patients and one or two family members a day three days a week which becomes about 780 people a year, then in ten years that is about 8,000 people. And that is just working part time.

As in any helping profession, we hospice workers yearn to know if we are making a positive difference. But unlike other professions, it’s a different story in that our patients cannot exactly give us feedback once discharged into the next world.  Not counting family, it’s not like we can conduct an exit interview! And the vast majority of family members do not return bereavement calls so we do not often get even a secondhand account of “how we did.” So I think that is why that nurse has um “nursed” that image as I have.

I have to be contented with what patients say in the here and now, and hope that the few who express their appreciation for letting them vent or helping them with some unresolved issue or simply entertaining them (I sing but I can’t dance), are representative of what I have done for others.

The nurse’s fantasy also is about how our patients have impacted us. I have learned about so many points of view that I am unfamiliar with or have little exposure to, such as those who voted for Trump, or those who believe that they are going to a mansion in the afterlife even if it has to be one of the smaller ones due to their sins, or who hunted and fished on their time off, or who fled Puerto Rico years ago because the island is going bankrupt, or who have had jobs I have never heard of such as  “recycling” bricks by cleaning old ones from a demolished building for use in a new one.

If I could reverse this fantasy and make me the one who files past all my deceased patients, I would hope that I would nod at those I felt privileged to know because of their passionate caring for those around them until the last moments of lucidity. I would nod at those who have dampened my fear of death, those who have shared their creativity with me—the other day a poet gave me a copy of his book of poems and signed it with a personalized message before dying just days later— I would nod at those who challenged my religious beliefs, and to all those who reminded me to slow down and relax. As for those who wish to nod back at me in return: that would be heavenly indeed.

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Touch-Tone A Prayer

As I entered the modest room, about a dozen friends and family were awkwardly standing all around the patient with his hospital bed as the hypnotic centerpiece. Xavier (pseudonym) could no longer register their existence, and they in turn felt disconnected from each other. Xavier’s daughter had asked for a chaplain and the spontaneous prayer I offered melted away some of the tension. But when I was done no conversation with me ensued, so to conclude the visit graciously, I gave them one of my business cards and explained that the cellphone number listed is my personal one for them to call as needed.

During my time off the next day, the daughter called and asked if I could come pray again. Guess I supplied a high-quality prayer since she wanted seconds. She declared, “There’s only my husband and me this time with Xavier, so it’s more peaceful now and we can concentrate better.” After I told her I was not in the facility that day, I broached the idea of imparting a prayer over the phone. I worried a little that she would think that was a pale substitute, but the power of the word was to prevail. “I’ll put on my loudspeaker and we’ll listen,” she enthused. Thank goodness she requested Psalm 23, because that was about the only Psalm I had in instant reach. After I recited it, she hesitantly asked about sharing a prayer of her own, which of course I urged her to do as I listened. Her prayer was about feeling God’s strength and praying for Xavier’s peaceful passing. I then intuited that I should follow that by softly singing the spiritual, “This Little Light of Mine.”

The couple murmured their appreciation, and the most moving call of the month was at an end.

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

 

Not an April Fool’s Joke

If you can’t wait to see even these unpolished and brusquely edited posts I have been sending since last July, then you may very well be um, “dying” to get your hands on my book, Encountering The Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died. I lovingly polished and buffed everything in it from periods and commas to entire chapters (with the help of friends and editors). If you are so lucky as to have a U.S. or Canadian shipping address, [Dear Canada! I talked the publisher into including you as well in this offer.] then you can get a 15% discount by preordering the book through April 22nd. Due to the complexity of having various shipping charges, Pen-L unfortunately cannot extend this pre-ordering to anyone else.

Everyone can see my author page right at the publisher’s site, including a free excerpt. and picture of the cover. The site is, http://pen-l.com/EncounteringTheEdge.html

I look forward to resuming my regular posts  reasonably soon. As always, I am  open to suggested topics and to written contributions, as well as to the insightful comments I have been receiving.  Inquiries for candid reviews of the book are welcome.

An Uncompleted Story (Not This One)

Jenny [I never use real names] was  eager to see me. This was her infrequent chance to dispel the boredom which she sugar-coated with a TV that beamed at her with the superficiality of a smiley face. Now with me there, she chit-chatted as long as she could to prolong my stay. Talking-time was a rationed goodie, because her daughter, son-in-law and grandson were seldom in her bedroom. It was quite a production to help her out of bed, being heavy and largely immobile, so she could not go in search of interaction with them at will, much less seek it outside the house. Whenever I visited her, I took in the sounds and smells of young lives coming from the rest of the house while we sat in the quiet: her daughter clanging a frying pan down on the stove and squeaking open the oven; grandson-friendly smells like fried chicken carousing all about the house, and the explosive noises of a video game alternating with the grandson’s yips of satisfaction upon beating the odds.

The patient and I had been visiting each other for many months, and when she ran out of her own stories to tell me, we figured out that she would love to hear me read detective stories aloud to her, because she found it too hard to read print. We became our very own mini book-discussion group. I would read a few paragraphs to her, then pause, and she would give her opinion of the author, or guess what might happen next. I might offer one theory of who the murderer was, and she might counter with a differing theory. Not only that, she would defend her position. And as at most any discussion group, we would meander off-topic, from complaints about how seldom she had visitors, to a confession that she really shouldn’t be on hospice because the family signed on just to get more free hours for a home health aide to help bathe and dress her. (More on this sort of thing another time, otherwise I myself will be off-topic, one of a writer’s Deadly Sins)

One mystery novel I read from not only had an intricate plot, but also was a parody of mystery novels. The detective overlooked obvious clues for example, while his wife and others gave him advice and picked up on all sorts of clues, both obvious and subtle. To be honest, I have wracked my brain for the name of the author and the book, which had something to do with blackmailing. Maybe one of you will know. At any rate, Jenny always wanted to know what would happen next, and so did I, as I did not peek ahead. But neither of us ever got to the end of the story. One day, before our next scheduled appointment, she had reached her own denouement. Besides missing her, it always has bothered me that she died before she could hear the much-anticipated resolution of the plot. I  had senselessly thought at the time, “How could she die before we finished the book?” Like the uncompleted detective story, death leaves trails of loose ends as well as roads that veer towards untidy beginnings. -Karen B. Kaplan