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.”

Arc

We tend to think literature has an artificial structure that separates it from how real-life interactions go. But what happens during my visits as a hospice chaplain can have just as much of a “narrative thread” as any short story, with an arc that goes from building a connection with each other (the background), to pent-up emotion let free (the climax), to a peaceful aftermath (the resolution).

Why just yesterday I saw the patient Isabel (all names are aliases), relatively young in her mid-sixties, and her mother Gloria, fervently devout Christians originally from Cuba. Gloria and I began with greeting each other and some small talk, all tinged with a resigned air as we entered the bedroom and she gestured to her daughter lying in bed. Isabel dreamily opened her eyes, wanting the respite of prayer and song. Isabel encouraged me to keep going: “my eyes are closed, but I still am listening.” I had started with some traditional prayers, and some simple hymns. I felt the calmness in the bedroom, decorated with so many religious pictures they practically could count as wallpaper. The daughter was riding on the warm current of the comforting religious words and music. The mother was letting herself feel their message of peace. I paused, and Gloria let a memory rise out of her: “Even when Isabel was a child, she wanted to go to church. Every day she went to church. Both of us went. Every single day. When we were in [she names a place in the U.S.].” As she remarked on that, I pondered how her faith contrasted with  the Cuban government’s discouragement of religious expression. This much was, so to speak, Chapter One.

After a moment of quiet, I said I would offer some  “more modern” prayers, a shift to Chapter Two as it were. I recited a “prayer for caregivers” and “a prayer for the sick.”  It was then that Gloria’s emotions bloomed and she let her tears be released, the most intense moment of the visit. I said God was receiving her sacred tears. Perhaps for her these were tears of acceptance of Isabel’s fate, because during  my previous visit, anger was the emotion that took center stage. As I said goodbye to them, the mother asked me to bring copies of those modern prayers next time. Isabel acknowledged my departure with an opened eye, closing the third and last chapter of this human interest story.

On Not Being Afraid to Death of Death

A columnist with the Hudson Reporter interviewed me for an hour in December 2014 and captured the complexity of what hospice chaplains do, and why people are chary of reading about this subject. An excerpt of the interview follows:

——————————————

Most people shy away from the subject of death. Not Karen Kaplan. She made a career out of it, serving for seven years as a hospice chaplain, tending to the spiritual and emotional needs of people as they approached the end.

“A lot of people look at my book and say, ‘No, I’m not going there,’” said Kaplan. “Most people are very uncomfortable talking about death or afraid to see a person close to death. It makes you confront your own mortality. But we have to be aware our lives are finite. What’s the legacy you want to leave? There are many healthy questions to ask to make our lives more meaningful and stronger, for people to overcome their fear and enrich their lives instead of shrinking away.”

That was the impetus for writing the book. Then she had to find a way to make it approachable. “I try to write in a strangely humorous way, handling a forbidding subject in a gentle manner,” she said. “It usually revolves around some kind of story.”

For example there’s the 28-year-old ex-policeman with ALS who craved a beer. Although she couldn’t grant that wish, Chaplain Kaplan, as she was known, instead sang songs to him about beer, which brought a smile to his face. “One time he talked about getting a tattoo that would show his police ID,” Kaplan recalled. “Like he wanted to have an obituary on his arm.”

Another patient had parents who were going through a divorce and each visited separately. “There was a journal where they would each make an entry like, ‘I was here, this was what we talked about,’” said Kaplan. “Each parent would read what the other wrote. That’s why the job is so complicated. All the dynamics, the tension between people. All the complexities of life stirred together with this added layer of impending crisis. You have to be sensitive to all the dynamics, what people need, and when and why. That’s what’s intriguing. It’s not just about saying a prayer.”

The circuitous route to hospice

Sometimes, though, a prayer was called for. And when it was, Chaplain Kaplan was up to the task. Prior to becoming a hospice worker she was ordained as a rabbi and served congregations in New York and New Jersey. In fact, it was while serving as a rabbi that she discovered her affinity for hospice work and decided to make the career move.

“I found I was most helpful one-on-one, when they were in some kind of crisis or another,” she said. “Losing a job or bereaving a family member or having to be in a hospital. I was really there with them and felt very comfortable and effective.” Part of that she attributes to her own difficult childhood, with a challenging family dynamic. “Just surviving was kind of the goal at that point,” she said. “That’s partly what shaped my identity. I had so little nourishment of my own, which made me sensitive to the needs of others.”

As a young teenager Kaplan wrote stories and poems before putting aside the writing to concentrate on a career. Graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 1984 with a PhD in linguistics, she first taught Spanish at Denison University before joining the ESL staff at Hudson County Community College in Union City about 15 years ago. Then came her rabbinical study, including a year in Jerusalem, and eventually hospice care.

Sharing secrets

Kaplan trained for a year in Clinical Pastoral Education to become certified as a health care chaplain. “There’s not only the practice, there’s theory,” she said. “We would meet with supervisors and other chaplain interns to discuss our role and what the climate is like and how to listen and keep our own personal baggage out of the way. We’re not supposed to preach. It’s all about learning how to listen in a nonjudgmental, open-ended manner and really be where the patient is.”

Encountering people on the brink of death wasn’t new to her, however. “I had visited plenty of people in the hospital and been around plenty of death and funerals,” she said. “Even back in my student rabbi days I felt very comfortable and not afraid with people close to the end. I was providing a calming presence. The difference was working with a whole interdisciplinary team.” That included nurses, therapists, social workers, and more, all tending to the needs of the dying.

Kaplan still remembers her first patient after taking a job with United Hospice of Rockland. He was completely nonresponsive. “A fair number of people are like that, sleeping or possibly in a coma or they don’t have the energy to talk,” she said. So how does one provide comfort to a patient when there’s zero response? “I try to get a sense of any energy or if they sense my presence,” she said. “I try singing. Maybe I’ll just stay and hold their hand. I try to find something they may find meaningful.”

The job requires a unique skill set, which Kaplan equates to a detective searching for clues. “You learn to observe and appreciate subtle things like someone opening an eye,” she said. “That means they were interested enough to look at me. They wanted to invest the energy to open their eye as opposed to just ignoring and keeping their eyes closed.”

More often, though, patients welcomed the personal interaction.

“It is part of the appeal of feeling that I’m doing something so meaningful for people, providing that sacred open space for them to bring up the most personal types of things, sharing so much of their personal life,” she said. “They’re telling me the most intimate things they may not even share with their own families.”

It can be an unburdening for the patient, a way of winding down, of letting go. “I might be one of the last people they’re going to see before they pass on,” said Kaplan.

Serving in another way

After seven years as a hospice chaplain, Kaplan decided it was time to take a break. “It’s draining,” she said, noting that the average length of time a chaplain remains in the profession is eight years…She began writing again. And what better subject than hospice care? For her first book she chose to craft “a safe, open place for people to explore these important issues on their own terms. I’m just serving in another way.”

Art Schwartz did this interview. This reporter can be reached at arts@hudsonreporter.com

The preceding interview is reposted courtesy the Union City Reporter. For the full story in this regional weekly, see http://hudsonreporter.com/view/full_story/26232227/article-Last-words-UC-teacher-s-book-details-her-experiences-caring-for-the-dying-?instance=latest_story

 

 

 

The Pleasures of an Untasted Beer

“How can not drinking the beer be satisfying?” a member of my audience asked with irritation. She was reacting to another person at my book discussion in the local library who was a hospice volunteer. She had just told a story about one of her patients, who I’ll call Seth. He had described to the volunteer his urge to have a beer in such nostalgic terms, the advertising department of any brewery would have loved to get ahold of the words he poured out. On the next visit, the volunteer brought the longed-for beverage, presumably after getting medical clearance. It was in a thoroughly chilled can, its thin coating of moisture revealing its recent history of refrigeration. Seth’s hands reached out as the volunteer approached, her hands meeting his until the transfer was made complete. She could hardly wait to see the pleasure he would have as the prized liquid hit his tongue. But simply holding it and rolling it in his hands sufficed. He was too weak to drink it, or not thirsty. Yet he was contented as anyone who had had their fill of their favorite kind of beer at some pleasing backdrop such as an outing with their buddies to the playoffs or a school reunion picnic.

“How could just holding the can be enough?” the doubter kept persisting. This sufficed to get the discussion flowing liberally. “Of course,” someone else put in. “Don’t you see? Seth saw the beer and enjoyed the cool sensation of the can.”

“Yeah,” someone else added. “Seeing the beer probably brought back memories of all those good times he had when he could drink it. And you know, he must have liked the volunteer going to the trouble to bring it to him.”

I sealed up this discussion by remarking that when people get close to dying, more and more subtle things can please them. In the excerpt from Encountering the Edge that I had read to them prior to the volunteer’s story, the link between beer and its consumption was twice removed: With nary a can of beer in sight because Sam was not allowed to have it, I sang, In heaven there is no beer, that’s why we drink it here. The smile on his face reflected all the contentment of a beer connoisseur who had successfully demonstrated his own sensitivity to subtle variations in flavor.

Meeting High Standards: A Chaplain Reviews Encountering the Edge

What follows after the announcement is the first official review of Encountering the Edge. Even though Chaplain Kinzbrunner focuses on my final chapter as an especially elaborate death awareness exercise, no spoiler alerts are needed if you read this review. Kinzbrunner is a professional health care chaplain, whose point-of-view here and at his blog in general may be especially intriguing to others in the health care field. -Karen B. Kaplan

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

Annoucement: The Publisher, at http://pen-l.com/EncounteringTheEdge.html is offering a 20% discount on all their books for the merry month of May for the U.S. and Canada. You can also get Encountering the Edge at Amazon at the link http://tinyurl.com/kbk-book

 

The World of Pastoral and Spiritual care

Disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of the book, Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died  by Hospice Chaplain Karen B. Kaplan.

Over the weekend, I took advantage of some quiet on Shabbat afternoon to begin reading a book sent to me for review.  I had skimmed it upon receipt and figured it would be an easy read, as it appeared to be a book of stories about the hospice experiences of a chaplain.  I have read books by hospice professionals describing their work in story form, offering readers an insider’s look at the process of death and dying.  So there I was, reading the book, and I suddenly realized halfway through that this book was more than merely anecdotal.

Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died, describes hospice chaplaincy in an intimate, personal way.  The book allowed me, a hospice chaplain for 9…

View original post 486 more words

Ambivalence Par Excellence

“Of all possible subjects, why did you have to go and write a book about THAT?” Perplexed and repelled in equal measure, that was more than one person’s reaction to my writing a hospice career memoir. Another good fellow’s reaction along the same lines was, “Who would want to read stories about people who were about to drop dead?” He believes that Encountering the Edge would only interest chaplains and such. No doubt about it. Some people I know make dead sure I get their drift.

On the other extreme, before I started the book, I got comments like “You should write a book about that.” After I finished it, others said, “That title is sure a grabber.” And, “We need more books like that to get this subject out in the open.” Naturally these are more to my liking, but I think most people coming across the subject of hospice will experience elements of both reactions: Curious but wary. Intrigued but repulsed. And so it is with death in general. While it is the greatest mystery to ponder, the very consideration of it can evoke fear, dread, and other lovelies.

Ambivalence was the challenge before me: How to get a prospective reader to at least glance at the back cover and peer at the opening pages? If I could get him/her to do that, I would have it made… Well, at least I’d have a fighting chance they would not sprint away from the book. My solution was to address the ambivalence at the outset. Here is an excerpt of what I mean from the Introduction:

“Throughout my seven-year career of encountering people at death’s door, friends and family have puzzled over my offbeat choice of career. ‘Isn’t it depressing? Doesn’t it get you down?’ easily takes first place for most frequently asked questions. Other top contenders I get include, ‘What do people near the end want to talk about and what do you say to them? What wisdom do they share? Come crunch time, what do they really believe will happen to them? How do they cope with knowing their time is near?’ One of my own favorites, which even the patients themselves ask, is ‘Why do you want to do this kind of work?’ (Read: ’Why on earth would you want to? You must be a little strange.’)”

“…But then again, you may be curious about how my visits with people from all walks of life have shaped my beliefs about the meaning of life and the nature of the afterlife. You might wonder what you would witness if you could invisibly accompany me on my visits. You might wonder what it is like to constantly improvise how to respond depending on the patient’s personality, mood, presence of family or of medical professionals, ethnic and racial background, and even socioeconomic level.”

“…The aim of each anecdote in this book is to portray how the moments in question were adventurous, inspiring, meaningful, perplexing, or otherwise authentic to those present. As you peruse these tales, you may in turn have these reactions, or at least get a glimpse into a time of life that was a fertile ground for the patient’s search for meaning and for the affirmation of what each valued most.”

____________________

For another free excerpt from the book,  plus a view of a gorgeous cover to uh, “die for,” you can go to the publisher’s author page at this link: http://pen-l.com/EncounteringTheEdge.html     Inquiries about reviewing the book are most welcome.

 

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.