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It started most recently at our Thanksgiving gathering of 22 members of my husband’s clan and celebrating the 33rd birthday of one niece, the 2nd pregnancy of our niece-in-law and cajoling my 93-year-old father-in-law out of a recent bad dream. There was that nagging sense that time is flying by. That we are now the age of our parents when they hosted these family get-togethers, back when our nieces and nephews were the infants and toddlers.

Back then my father-in-law played the invisible stair game with those little ones as the rest of us went looking for the “missing” kiddos, searching the house and carefully stepping over giggling youngsters on our mission to find them on the 2nd floor. Today they’re grown and invent games for their babies at this holiday gathering while we “oldsters” prepare dinner. Whew!

Left to my own internal clock I’m in my late 30’s with a healthy body and exuberance for living and no children to mark the passage of time. I’ve discovered yoga, hiking, biking and healthy eating and, so far, my body hasn’t betrayed me. My 60th birthday left me scratching my head and thinking about time. That more of it is behind me than ahead. When did that happen?

We’re now entering 2015. Friends and siblings are grandparents! GRANDPARENTS? My dearest childhood friend died from cancer last year. A woman in my jewelry class just suffered a massive heart attack that ended her life. She was 66. Other close friends are experiencing serious health challenges. Three of our pets are senior citizens. My father is 91 with health issues.

These are things that weren’t part of my world in my 20s, 30s and 40s. Life had so many years ahead. I was ensconced in a vibrant pulse of daily tasks with no thoughts about the beginning of the end.

Is a changing perspective part of the aging process?

Today I’m called ma’am everywhere. Ads no longer target me, neither do TV shows. Everyone at work is younger. My idea of social media is Facebook. Have no idea about the myriad other ways younger folks communicate. Evidently not much happens face to face anymore. And my silver hair is no longer novel. Now it’s expected!

And guess what? I don’t care. I DON’T CARE!  Now life is so much richer with understanding how precious each day is. Everyday I wake up and feel good is a day to celebrate and appreciate. Friends are more important. Work is much less important. I don’t have a yearning to acquire and strive to greater things. My testiness threshold is greater, I’m more easily satisfied and I’ve discovered how hobbies foster creative growth.

I’m joyful, content and at peace – most days. And I know I’m gonna die at some point. And that’s why each day, with its inherent challenges, is to be appreciated and lived without regret. It’s a miraculous gift to live this human life. That fills me with awe.

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We say yes, he insists no.  What’s a child to do?

Right now my 89 year old father is in a rehab unit hoping to re-gain the strength of his body.  His legs don’t work that well anymore, particularly his left leg that’s grown weaker in the 20 years following his stroke.  The same is true of his arms; the right does the lion’s share of work while the left hangs limp at his side.  He desperately wants to return home where he was about a month ago before this current crisis took place.  There he was able to move ever so slowly using his walker and also to perform the daily rituals of living.  Now he can’t get in or out of bed by himself, bathing and dressing himself is impossible and he requires the help of an aid to move even more slowly and unsteadily in his walker for yet shorter distances than before.  And yet he’s convinced himself that he’ll get strong enough to go home and continue life as before.  It doesn’t look promising, though he is improving.

The food there is good; we’ve tasted a bit of all his meals as they’re delivered.  He’s receiving excellent care, has a private room and is in a very cheerful, bright community of people with a similar cultural background as his.  He’s been accepted into their long term care household which is where we want him to live.  He refuses, complaining about the regimented lifestyle and business-like attitude of some of the nurses and aids.  They have schedules to adhere to regardless of whether he agrees.  He likens it to life in the military some 70 years ago and says he wouldn’t wish it on his worst enemy.

We’re in a stalemate.  Once his physical therapy is finished we’ll have to make a decision.  What do we use as our guide?  Our judgement, as his children, about what’s best for him?  Or his emotional insistence on the way he wants to live out the rest of his life?

Based on history, we think that if he goes home he’ll “fire” the aids after a short period of time because he thinks they’re no longer necessary.  It’s happened before.  He hates spending the money; he considers it wasteful.  He wants to die with his money intact “just in case.”  “Just in case” what?  we probe.  “I don’t know” is the answer.  He can’t grasp the idea that NOW is the” just in case” he’s been saving for.

Life at home consists of sitting solitary in a room and watching TV all day.  His only company is my sister when she returns from work and my other sister when she visits.  On many Thursdays he hobbles to his car and drives to meet his buddies for lunch at the nearby deli.  He shouldn’t, but he does.  I doubt he’ll be cleared by a doctor to continue driving.  He’s convinced we’re wrong.  He must keep his car.

When I was a kid I went to hebrew school and took piano lessons because my parents insisted they were beneficial.  I disagreed.  It didn’t matter.  I went and I practiced — for years.  And years.  And years.  Now, as an adult, I’m a richer person for the experiences.

He doesn’t see the analogy.  He sees himself as the parent who knows best.  We disagree.  Who wins?  And at what cost?

What do you say?  What would you do?

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People are usually wowed by my revelation that I’m a hospice volunteer, more than likely following that reaction with “boy I could never do that.”   They ascribe all sorts of saintly attributes to me which is uncomfortable, because they’re not true (ask my husband).  What is true is the following list … in no particular order … at this time of lists.

I receive much more than I give.

Time and receptivity is all that’s required and in return I learn about life and what it means to be human.  There is no other time in a person’s life when the need for true connection is greater.  To be invited into someone’s ultimate personal journey is a gift not to be taken lightly.  It holds great responsibility for truthfulness and vulnerability with its attending need for confidentiality.  Life’s lessons can be transmitted in just a few final months and I’m awed by the opportunity.

Hospice care givers are selfless heroes.

After a certain point a person in hospice care can no longer go and do.  All that’s available is to Be.  It’s the caregiver who is their loved one’s wheels, hands, utensils, hygienist, eyes, ears and task accomplishers.  They become housebound, leaving only when someone’s there to sit vigilance in their stead.  Life can exist that way for months, depending on the nature of the illness.  And it’s they who experience the deterioration of the person they knew and loved who’s no longer the person they remember.  They give selflessly without complaint – the greatest gift of love.  They lead invisible lives until theirs can once again resume.

Live life the way you’d like to be remembered.

This lesson can be sobering for someone on a deathbed.  One of my patients was postponing her death as long as possible even though its extension caused her suffering to be prolonged.  When we learned that she was afraid to die because of her shame about the pain she had caused others in her life, and her subsequent fear of retribution after death,  we called in her pastor to pray with her, allowing her to ask for the forgiveness she believed she needed.  And that included a necessary plea to her husband.  The next day she died.  No-one wants to be haunted on their deathbed.

Two friends

Authentic relationships are the only kind to have.

Once I experienced a true human connection I realized that it’s the only type I want.  Life is so short, putting on airs and pretending to be someone you’re not is foolhardy and a waste of precious time.  Being invited to peer into someone’s soul can be profound.

Friendship

It’s gratifying and enriching to be of service.

My time, until now, has been paid for by a number of companies who determined the value I brought to their organizations.  Doing what I did had market value and its commensurate performance standards. So most of my waking hours were spent performing to expectations – theirs and mine, tying my definition of value to size of paycheck.  Today I know differently and it’s had a profound effect on my life.

Day Hospice

Love comes in many flavors…

and romantic love might be the most shallow.  Relying on a family member to perform hygiene needs can force the final release of dignity.  And yet it’s part of the dying process.  Attending to people during their greatest time of need requires true unconditional love.

Friendship, Göteborg, Sweden

Image via Wikipedia

Shedding a facade makes room for intimate connection.

There are no more airs during the dying process, only naked humanity.  When I walk through the doors of a patient’s home I leave my defensive walls behind and open my heart to anything that might transpire for the next few hours.  I was privileged to attend to one elderly patient during her active dying phase with her equally elderly husband by her side, over wrought with grief.  With fever raging and her husband helplessly watching, I applied cool, damp wash cloths to her head, chest and arms, speaking soothing words as her breathing changed.  I witnessed her husband’s tears and last words of love and kiss goodbye – an unparalleled moment of intimacy that I’ll never forget.  Even her children didn’t experience this exchange between their parents; by the time they arrived she’d lost consciousness.

Change is the only constant.

Spending time with the dying certainly drives this point home.  Photo albums, pictures on the walls, stories from family members – those are the only ties to who this person was – his likes, her dislikes, their careers, their passions. This new person only shares the same name.  Most of the time I’ve never met the person they describe.  Life represents one changing moment after the next.  Might as well embrace it and enjoy it.

Patient

Trust defines our human-ness.

When you’re dying all there is is trust.  Trust that those who are there will do what’s right and take no advantage.  The dying slowly lose all control over their lives, leaving it in the hands of those around them, trusting that their wishes will be honored.  It’s heartwarming to watch adult children assume the role of parents and caretakers.  And the process reveals the true character of people.

Original caption: Ne ties a friendship bracele...

Image via Wikipedia

Listening without judgement is vital.

My role as a hospice volunteer is to do whatever the patient needs at the time.  Some like to be read to, others enjoy playing games.  One patient just wanted to watch old movies.  And one gentleman waited until his wife left to break down and grieve that he wouldn’t be around to counsel his grandson into manhood.  This man’s son died the year before and now his son’s son wouldn’t have a grandfather.  It was more than he could bear and it took all his energy to stand strong in front of his family.  Many patients need the ears and hearts of people who come with no family baggage.  Holding hands and simply nodding provides comfort.

Hospice

Friends show their true colors in time of need.

And many walk away, never to be heard from again.  It’s easy to be friends when life is humming along; it requires much more mettle when there’s nothing to be gained in return.

Mother and Child watching each other

Image via Wikipedia

Recognizing mortality energizes living.

Working in hospice is not depressing.  It’s not morose.  It’s not morbid.  It ends in sadness but inspires vitality.  When we recognize that life will end – for all of us – then we’re compelled by an urgency to appreciate each day and be aware of it.  Awareness of the present is a Buddhist tenet and that lesson stands front and center in hospice.

Hospice

Hospice is a gift.

It offers the dying a chance to end their days in comfort.  Without pain.  Without tubes attached.  Outside the beeping noise of an ICU with its antiseptic smell and sterile walls.   And it teaches the greatest lesson to accept that which you can’t control.

Yes, hospice inspires living.  May be we all be so inspired.

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Be forewarned – this is a Christmas rant...

A silent minority I am no longer, at least on this blog.  Actually, in life I’ve never been accused of being demure, though living in the South has offered a fruitful exercise in patience and understanding.  If I don’t want to be ostracized during this season of joyful expression then I must accept the south’s assumption that everyone is Christian during December.

There are no Jews.  No Buddhists.  No celebrations of Kwanzaa.  No agnostic expressions of love and giving.  In fact there are no traditions worthy of recognition other than for those who believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. You don’t get to play in December’s sandbox of love unless you share the belief in Jesus Christ the lord of lords.

Holiday get togethers I’ve attended start with a prayer in the name of “Jesus Christ our Lord” and, at times, end with an impromptu Bible study of relevant scripture.  That kind of agenda was not included on the invitation but, hey, that’s what this season’s about, isn’t it?

Frankly, I’m not bothered a lick that people believe in the divinity of Christ.  My feeling is that the spiritual path tends to lead to the same place regardless of the avenues taken.  And if it offers joy and peace for people to think Jesus is God, good for them.

It’s equally ok if you don’t.  

And I don’t.

My heritage is Judaism and my family celebrated Hanukkah – in December.  And it usually falls right around Christmas time.

As an adult I don’t identify as Jewish, certainly not as Christian either.  My spiritual tradition incorporates philosophies of Buddhism and Yoga flavored by a Native American appreciation for nature and all living things.  But it’s a personal practice that doesn’t include the assumption that you feel the same way.

I don’t need Jesus to save my soul, in fact, my soul doesn’t need saving.  My conscience is clear, my heart is full, my principles and values are in tact AND I celebrate the season of giving and love during December.  I don’t give thanks for all the grace in my life in the name of Jesus Christ.

If you’re Christian, enjoy the holiness of the season.

If you’re not –

Happy Holidays to you and yours in the name of your own traditions.  May we all absorb the warmth of this time of year and offer it out to the universe.

Namaste.

Carry on …

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oh christmas tree, oh christmas treeThrough the front door there’s a great view of a decked out Christmas tree basking in  white lights, covered with snow and dripping with big sparkly white round ornaments.  A white Christmas is definitely being celebrated in this house.  But the mood is somewhat blue.

My hospice patient and her caregiver husband live here.  They’re both seniors and have spent most of their lives together –  working their family business and traveling in the RV in which they expected a multitude of road trips during their retirement years.

NEW MEXICO 2006 RECREATIONAL VEHICLE plate

Image by woody1778a via Flickr

Four years ago husband sold the RV; wife could no longer negotiate the steps to assume her role as navigator in chief.  That act signified an admission of his wife’s fatal disease and the death of dreams that had been years in the planning.  That was also the last year she spoke; she hasn’t uttered a word since.  Not because she was disappointed, but because her Alzheimer’s had advanced enough to rob her of voice.  Now husband spends his days taking care of her.

Decorating the Christmas tree is something they always did together.  In fact, she bought this very tree and the ornaments.  It came adorned with white lights and snow. This year they decorated together again.  He set it up, he added the balls, covered the tree base, wrapped the presents and carefully arranged them at the bottom.  Wife slumped in her chair, sucked her lower lip, wrung her hands and nodded off.  That’s this year’s Christmas, at least until his children join them in a couple of weeks.

Husband cherishes wife.  She’s the love of his life and when she was diagnosed 8 years ago he promised he’d care for her until the end of her days.  He meant it, despite the sacrifice it entails.

Being housebound is one of those sacrifices, except for my weekly visits to socialize with him and sit with her during the couple of hours he goes where he wants.  His spirits are high, he laughs easily, he loves big.  He embodies the true spirit of giving.  And when he allows himself to think of how things were supposed to be, the twinkle in his eye grows dimmer.

He inspires me.  He fills me with admiration.  What inspires you this season?

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It’s Thanksgiving and we’re visiting my father-in-law and the rest of the clan on his side of the family.  The yearly tradition brings between 16 – 20 of us together to catch up on the year’s events and see how old the kids are getting – now that many of them are starting to have children of their own.

My father-in-law spends the day beaming as he visits each of us.  He loves watching his brood grow and he takes his place at the head of the assorted tables cobbled together to make one long dining space that stretches from dining room to living room.

For him it’s bittersweet.  It’s the one time of year we all come to visit and feast together.  And in years past he would catch the eye of his wife seated at the far end of the table and blow her a kiss.  This is the second year that chair will be empty.

Dean was married to Susie for 63 years before she died, leaving him alone and unprepared to continue life without her.  For some reason he was blindsided by her passing, even though his kids had been expecting it for years.  He assumed she’d  come home from the most recent hospitalization just like every other time.  This time, though, she didn’t.

He’s been grieving for more than two years now, still heartbroken over losing his one great love. He tells us he talks to her every night to tell her of the day’s events.  He says he apologizes to her for not doing enough for her all those years they were together.

Myrtle Beach, SC Spring Break 2007

Image via Wikipedia

That confession astounds me.  I can’t imagine him doing anything more for that incredibly fortunate woman.  He created and maintained a beautiful garden in their backyard so she could see it through her kitchen window.  Bought a condo in Myrtle Beach to winter there because she loved being near the ocean.  Bought the house she loved in Pennsylvania because she loved it.  To me, their marriage was what fairy tales are made of, built on love and mutual respect.  And now – he bemoans what he thinks he didn’t do.

What he didn’t do is say goodbye to his wife of 63 years.  For him, she suddenly died.  While she was living he never said…

Thank you for a wonderful life together.  Thank you for our four wonderful, productive, achieved kids.  Thank you for working and supporting our household while I was earning a Ph.D in metallurgy.  Thank you for moving where my jobs took me.  And thank you for your never-ending support, friendship and love over the years.

Had he realized she was on a dying path for the last three years of her life, perhaps he might have taken the time to say to her then what he says to her every night now.

The lesson my father-in-law is teaching?  Don’t ever wait to say thanks to the people you love.  And tell them that you love them.  Today, tomorrow and future tomorrows.

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This weekend finds us tending family fires, both the cozy and the more crackling kind.  After all there are few families who resemble the Waltons, all warm and fuzzy with never any cross words between them.  My family is more like the Bickersons, actually, we all have much to say and if it gets a bit heated at times, ah well, that’s life.  Yet beneath the prickly surface we are bound to each other deeply and unconditionally.

My husband and I don’t see our respective families often; we live hundreds of miles from them, and have since we left our homes for college.  On Thanksgiving we all make the effort to reunite – first with his family then with mine.  It’s the one holiday that is sacrosanct and I love the tradition.  Parents, brothers, sisters, spouses, nieces, nephews, and now their spouses and children, all pilgrimage to a family house to squeeze around a growing assortment of tables and feast the day away.

Thanksgiving isn’t one of those hallmark card holidays, you know the ones whose only purpose is to lighten our wallets.  Hey, it’s very good these days to boost the economy, but in our family Valentine’s Day, Mothers’ & Fathers’ Days pass us by without fanfare.  Thanksgiving is different.  It offers a genuine opportunity to take inventory of our lives and devote a day, or even a weekend, to reflect on our personal good fortunes.

I’m among those who hold an optimistic perspective about life and tend to view the proverbial cup as half full.  The way I see it – each individual is on this planet for a finite period and what happens after that is up to personal interpretation.  I’ve been around long enough to know that a few problems will give way to better days and there will be gorgeous sunrises and sunsets that bookend each one regardless of the content between.

Research shows that an attitude of appreciation helps boost the immune system, which keeps all kinds of nasty stress causing ailments at bay.  And while money may help lower stress, studies also find it is not the panacea some people like to think.  Generally speaking, altruistic acts foster personal well-being.  As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says,

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

I spend time as a hospice companion and it’s a great teacher for the practice of “count your blessings.”  Offering friendship to people facing the end of life is proving to be a priceless gift to myself where I’m privileged to witness profound, yet simple examples of genuine appreciation.

One patient’s caregiver is grateful for each morning he’s able to maneuver his wife’s increasingly rigid limbs to dress her for the day.

Another patient eagerly waits for my visits so I can read the day’s news events because her eyes no longer cooperate with her habit of voracious reading.

And although taking care of her mother until that final breath keeps this caregiver virtually housebound, she is filled with gratitude for the opportunity to share such an intimate journey with her hero.

IMAGINE BEING THANKFUL FOR SUCH HARDSHIPS IN LIFE.  

The late Steve Jobs said,

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.  

To me that means live your dreams, have no regrets and be thankful for the opportunity – all the opportunities, in fact.

I move that each day be designated personal thanks day.  All those in favor …?

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