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

 

The 99.5 Percent Solution

A short cartoon, just one frame of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, has provoked an awful lot of thought on my part. Snoopy is taking it easy as usual on top of the doghouse and Charlie comes round to vent to his buddy and perhaps imbibe some wisdom. He has some news for his dog: “Someday we’re all gonna die.” Snoopy retorts, “But not on all the other days!”

I told this joke last Wednesday in an unlikely place for a not only Reform but female rabbi: A Chabad Center. At this very Orthodox venue, where the male host would not shake my hands in case I was “unclean” from a feminine characteristic (never mind my postmenopausal age), I was invited to be on a panel alongside an Orthodox rabbi to discuss, “how to make our lives better now.” No sweat, I could handle that question. I was less sure about the venue. I Tweeted, “What was a female Reform rabbi doing in a place like a Chabad Center in Bedford Hills NY? To discuss our mortality but of course.”

The Charlie Brown joke got surprised laughter from the crowd of Boomers and Generation Xers. Whew, I would be alright. But really, the cartoon captured in one sentence one of my main observations that night, which is that contemplating death can tune us in so much more to life, and to what we want to continue and discontinue for our remaining allocation of days. Snoopy the sage also intimates that we should appreciate and savor all those other days that are left.

Savoring life by staring at death may be a commonplace. But how about this? I told the group that sometimes my work in hospice intensifies some of those days that I get to live. On such an occasion, objects seem more present, more “there.” Sounds are richer, reflections off of water brighter, overheard talk more poignant, smells more pungent. I stand in the inscrutable swirl of existence.

During the question and answer period, many questions hinted at fear of death. They asked if people tend to accept it near the end, or whether everything falls into place for them at that point. I sensed the yearning for ultimate answers, which of course no honest human can provide. I gave the consolation prize of explaining how chaplains at least strive to clear away inhibiting agendas and provide a safe sacred space with open-ended questions. This and abundant time to listen lets persons articulate their thoughts without censoring them for family and friends. This way they can then clarify to themselves what their life story has been about.

But you know? Maybe humans don’t have the answers, but Snoopy makes a good point: Around 99.5% of the time that we are alive we are not going to die. Why worry about that less than 1% exception?