Death is every day

There’s an old story about a man who was walking towards a town and he sees Death walking along beside him. They start to talk and Death says that he is going to kill everyone in the town. The man bargains with Death and says “Please don’t kill that many people” and Death says “Okay, I’ll only take 100.” When they get to the town, the man warns everyone there that Death was there and he was going to take 100 people. After a week a thousand people had died. The man finds Death and speaks with him, saying “You promised you would only kill a hundred people!” Death replied “I did. Fright killed the rest.”

There’s yet another story going around that says that the world is ending soon. This most current one says that they miscalculated the Mayan calendars and that it really is going to be June 3-4. This doesn’t give us a lot of time to get ready.

When my mother-in-law found out that she had a terminal diagnosis of cancer, I asked her what she wanted to do. She said she wanted to live. I pointed out that there is a difference between living and being alive. What do you want to do with the time that you have? What do you want to be remembered for? How do you want to contribute to the world? She didn’t have an answer. All she knew was that she didn’t want to die.

Our life is God’s gift to us. How we use it is our gift back to God.

“Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.” – John Donne

Jesus had many parables about constantly being ready for the kingdom of heaven. This could be interpreted as death or a change in our way of understanding. Perhaps the “Kingdom of Heaven” can be seen as a death of the way things have always been, and a new life of peace and harmony.

But he also said that even he didn’t know when this would happen. So how could these predictors know, when they aren’t anywhere as connected as Jesus, who heard directly from God? They don’t. But it doesn’t matter. The idea of being ready for death is useful.

People many years ago would keep a souvenir of a loved one who had died. It was called a “memento mori” – a reminder of death. It was not only to remember the loved one, but also to remember that death is their fate too.

Our society has sanitized death to the point that we don’t even see it anymore. Our dead are taken away from us by professionals. We don’t experience death as a part of life like our ancestors did just a hundred years ago. They took care of their own dead at home. They washed them, laid them out, built a coffin, and buried them, all on their own. Now because that is done for us, we are divorced from the idea of death. We see it as an aberration, instead of as normal, which it is.

Death waits for nobody. Death is every day. There are no second chances, no do-overs when death comes. Death isn’t a punishment or a failure. Death is the natural result of life. It is best to make friends with it because it isn’t going away.

What would you do if you knew you had only a year to live?
Why aren’t you doing that now?

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The earthquake theory of misfortune (poem)

People like to think that they are special,
that bad things can’t happen to them.
This is why they want to know
what disease
such-and-so died of.
They then compare to themselves.
“I don’t smoke, so I won’t die that way.”
“I exercise, so I won’t die that way.”

As if death is a punishment,
a thing that happens
as a natural result of
bad choices,
rather than being something
that happens to everyone.

Or they want to know
where the crime happened,
to see how close it is
to them.
On neighborhood watch pages,
someone will post that there was a
break-in, or a mugging
and everyone wants to know
what street,
as if being closer
is more dangerous.
As if criminals don’t travel.

People want to know
where the epicenter is,
to see how close
or far away
they are.

The poet John Donne said
“Ask not for whom the bell tolls,
it tolls for thee.”

Nobody told me about death

It was such a surreal time when my mom was dying. Nothing in my life had prepared before it, and nobody helped me through it. It was strange for her to, of course, so she was not able to help. The person I had always looked to for guidance was looking to me for strength.

The hospice social worker read off a set list questions – “What do you want to do?” “What life goals have you not achieved?” I guess the idea was to try to do some of these things before she died. It all seemed cruel and thoughtless. She couldn’t do these things – not enough energy anymore, or time. Visit England, her birthplace? Not possible. See me graduate / get married / be an adult? Not possible. 53 is a young death, and all preventable. She signed her death certificate the day she started smoking. She tried to quit but didn’t stick with it for many reasons. Something stressful would happen. She was bored. Dad wouldn’t quit.

Milton suggested that Adam ate the apple because Eve had, and he didn’t want her to be alone in being banished from the garden. He sacrificed his own happiness to be with her, to support her. Is this part of it? Or was it just a simple ugly habit, an addiction?

Near the end hospice sent over an aide they’d hired from a home healthcare company. She was a skinny black woman of limited education. She browsed our bookshelves and pointed out those that she felt were expensive. They weren’t – we often found large hardback photo books on the remainder table for under $10. We collected them and savored them, as the library in our city was small, and far away. After she said this I felt obliged to stay in the room with her all the time, which defeated the purpose of having her there. The point was to have a trained person with my Mom so I could go get errands done, or simply have some time off from the endless task of tending her by myself.

The aide also wanted to use Vaseline to swab my Mom’s mouth, saying that dying people’s mouths get dry. They do, but Vaseline isn’t the answer. That is weird. “Would you want Vaseline in your mouth?” I asked her. No answer. She couldn’t empathize.

She also had a bit of note paper in a folder she brought in. She’d written “The devil is real” and “You’re going to die!!!” on it. I asked her about it. She said that sometimes the people she tended would “act up” and she’d shove this in their faces to quiet them. I called hospice and said she never needed to tend my mother or anyone else ever again. They said she was leaving that company to go tend people who were profoundly mentally and physically handicapped. I replied that “She does not need to be around anyone who cannot defend themselves”. They had no answer, it was out of their hands they said. She wasn’t hired by them, it was through another company.

Around the same time a lady named Bernice was there. She went to the Episcopal Church that Father Rainsford had visited at and preached. He used Mom’s story in a sermon. He did not ask if he could, but that is another story. Bernice felt moved by the story to ask if she could help since I was tending Mom all by myself. She helped watch the watcher and later went, by my suggestion, to get hoagies from Ankar’s. She’d never had them before. They are my family’s comfort food. Submarine sandwiches don’t even come close.

I remember how weird it was when Father Rainsford came over towards the end and did last rights. That made it really real. He called out the page in the Book of Common Prayer. I was one I’d never seen before, and I scanned the title of the section. It is page 462 if you are interested, and it is titled “Litany at the Time of Death”. I’d not asked him to do it, but he knew it was time. I wasn’t ready for it. She died maybe a week later. She’d not talked for a week before this, but chimed in when we recited the Lord’s Prayer.

People who are dying see things that others don’t. Mom asked about that man who was sitting there, pointing towards the couch. No man had been in the house for days at that point.

People who are dying do unusual things. She was picking at her bedclothes. She took all the Kleenex out of a box, one by one. She filled in random letters in the crossword puzzle she was working on. Late one night she had nightmares, visions. She was quite anxious, calling out. I could not calm her. I called hospice, who sent out a nurse who gave her more anti-anxiety medicine. He said that people tended to die the way they lived. Since Mom had smoked a cigarette every 20 minutes of her adult life, she was quite unable to calm herself without chemical intervention.

Months earlier she’d finally came to understand about my pot usage at the time. She refused to try it, afraid that the doctor would find out through blood tests. What would they do – arrest a dying woman? Refuse further treatment? If she had tried it she would have been happier, more at peace, better able to process her feelings. It takes the edge off, and it is hard to think when life is all edges and angles. Plus she might have not lost much weight since she would have been hungry, and pot is also an anti-emetic. The wasting away from throwing up from chemotherapy drugs is awful. The “cure” is sometimes worse than the disease. Surely there has to be a better way to heal than by putting poison into people’s veins. It makes no sense at all.

The neighbors provided food. The priest visited. Hospice nurses and volunteers came. It still wasn’t enough, and still none of them told me what to expect. Hospice provided a page of “things that might happen” but it wasn’t enough. I needed someone to sit down with me and let me know that this crazy event that was happening was normal, and here’s what to do and not do.

Nobody told me what to expect. Nobody counseled me. Nobody thought to care for or about me, the 25-year-old child, not yet an adult, he was tending her mother, her friend, her roommate, alone and without training. I would suspect it is just as hard to do this at 50, but at least then you’ve had a bit more life experience to call upon.

At the end my aunt came, even though we were against it because of letters that she had written my Dad, saying that Mom would be better off dead. There was no one else I could invite to stay over to help me. Friends left me. In spite of my years of church involvement, church members never showed. Did they know? This is one of the disadvantages of being in a large congregation.

If I was pregnant, for instance, I suspect that someone would tell me what to expect, how to handle this. There are books at least. But people don’t talk about death. It is the elephant in the room. Perhaps they don’t know what to say? Perhaps I appeared to be handling it so well that they thought I knew. It was a façade, a front. In the back behind the scenes, I was alone, made more so by the fact that my counselor, my support, my friend, my roommate was leaving me, fading away to nothing right before my eyes.

One size (poem)

One size does not fit anybody.
Not even most.
We’ve forced ourselves into conformity
into complacency
into a mold that is not
of our own making.

We’ve shoved our feet into shoes
that don’t fit,
hobbling ourselves in the name of
getting along,
of making do,
of giving up our own power,
our own knowledge,
our own ability.

We thought by doing so that we’d have
more time
to be ourselves,
to do our own thing,
to think our own thoughts.
We thought that by giving up
everything
to the authorities,
to the experts,
to the corporations,
to the system,
that we wouldn’t have to worry
about it
about anything
anymore.
The professionals would do it for us.

Perhaps it is better said that they do it
to us.

Bigger isn’t always better.

We gave so much away.
Childbirth, daycare, school, medical care, funerals.
Our whole lives from birth to death.
Who raises our children?
Not us.
Professionals,
strangers.
Who takes care of us when we get sick, or old?
Not our family, not our friends.
Professionals,
strangers.

We stopped making our own clothes,
our own houses,
our own lives.
We gave away our power.
We stopped raising our own food.
We don’t even know what is in it,
thus we don’t even know what is in us.

We become sick,
and our sickness
is from separation
from our own selves.

Deep down,
we want the old ways back,
the community, the village, the self sufficiency.
We want to know
and be known by
the people in our lives.

We don’t have to do it all,
but we don’t have to give it all away
either.

Turn away

I’ve seen several pictures of things that have really disturbed me recently, and rather than just turn away again, I’ve decided to meditate on exactly what I find repulsive about these pictures. This is part of my recent decision to be more mindful. It is not an easy practice, but it is necessary for being fully conscious and aware of my actions.

These images aren’t things that people normally would turn away from, such as violence or abuse for instance. Those are abhorrent as well, of course. What I’m writing about here are images of people who are in ICU, hooked up to machines and tubes. I never gave it a second thought as to why I was repulsed until I saw a video about a machine that can keep a heart alive outside of the body in preparation for transplant. That tipped the scales.

What disturbs me about it is not exactly the same as what disturbs me about the ICU pictures, but it is a good thing to start with. The donor was dead, as far as doctors could determine. The brain had ceased functioning. The heart had been removed, and rather than keep it on ice as was normally done in a transplant situation, it was hooked up to a machine that replicated the environment inside the chest. It was kept humid and warm, with blood circulating through it. This heart was beating just like a normal heart, but it was inside a plastic box. There was no person attached.

I also saw a video of two mothers who had a strange connection. Mother A had a young child who had suddenly died due to trauma. She had decided to donate his organs. Mother B’s child had received his heart. They met three years later and mother A used a stethoscope to hear the heart of her son beating inside the chest of Mother B’s daughter. It was supposed to be a touching video, but I was really disturbed. Something seemed deeply wrong about this.

I kept being triggered by these images. I decided to examine the original related triggers – images of people in ICU. I don’t seek these out – people share them sometimes on social media as part of a story.

One was about a new mother who had been in an accident and the nurse brought her child to her so she could breastfeed her child. While the person who posted it was pointing out the value of breastfeeding, it was very disturbing. The mother was not present in any form other than her body. She was not being helped to breastfeed. The nurse put the child to her breast and that was it.

I look at a sketching website every day, and today there was one of a man in ICU. The sketcher even commented about it, wondering if it was ethically correct to sketch such a thing. He did not mention if he’d thought about the ethics of sharing it online as well.

I read something recently that speaks to all of this in a useful way.

There is a Jewish belief that it is improper to have an open casket. To do so is to violate the privacy of the person. It is also putting focus and attention on the wrong thing, as the “person” is not there – their soul has left. When there is just a body and not a soul, it is not a person. It is a shell, a husk. An open casket is an insult to the person who had inhabited that body, because they have no say over how they are seen. They have no control over what happens to them. They are fully exposed for the world to see and cannot do anything about it.

I think this is at the center of it all. To show pictures of people who are not at their best (to say it lightly) is to violate their rights. It is an invasion of privacy. It is embarrassing. To focus on body parts rather than the whole is equally unethical.

The lady’s son was no longer present. His heart was just a piece of muscle, doing a job. The heart in the box for transplant was moving as if it was alive, but as it was not attached to a person, it was simply the illusion of life. There was no soul in it. It was the same as looking at a machine.

Being mindful and considerate of others’ feelings also applies to not sharing pictures of people who have passed out from being drunk or are intoxicated to the point that they are unaware of their actions.

Remember the story of Noah and his sons?

Genesis 9:18-27
18 Noah’s sons who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. 19 These three were Noah’s sons, and from them the whole earth was populated. 20 Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. 21 He drank some of the wine, became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent. 22 Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. 23 Then Shem and Japheth took a cloak and placed it over both their shoulders, and walking backward, they covered their father’s nakedness. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father naked. 24 When Noah awoke from his drinking and learned what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said: Canaan will be cursed. He will be the lowest of slaves to his brothers. 26 He also said: Praise the LORD, the God of Shem; Canaan will be his slave. 27 God will extend Japheth; he will dwell in the tents of Shem; Canaan will be his slave.

The son who saw him in his drunken state, unable to control himself, was cursed, along with his children. The two sons who covered him and made sure not to see him exposed were blessed.

This is the core teaching. To look at someone who is dead, or like dead (in ICU, or passed out due to intoxication) is an insult to their very being as a person. It is disrespectful. It is a violation of their privacy. It is the same as stripping someone naked. One might even go so far as to say it is equivalent to rape, as the person is treated as a thing and not as a person.

Poem – In the winter, we can see

In the winter,
we can see the bones of things.
We can see the true shapes
of the trees.
We can see where the birds
have made their homes.
We can finally see
the river that nourishes both,
that sustains.

In the winter,
we know what is what,
without any pretense,
without any show.
No more padding,
no more guile.
In the winter,
you know where you stand
and what you have
to work with.

It is like this in our lives
when the storms tear down
our defenses,
our walls,
our artifice.
Only when we have nothing
do we see what we really have
to work with.
Only when the tornado has come through,
the divorce is final,
the tragically died has been buried,
do we see what we really have,
what is our foundation.

Who knew?
We might have been building
all our hopes
on something frail,
something false.
We might have been
pinning our dreams
on something as insubstantial
as the morning mist.

It is a gift, this stripping away.

Jesus’ side pierced

The Jews didn’t want the bodies to stay on the cross through the next day because not only was it the Sabbath, but it was also the first day of Passover. They asked Pilate to have the men’s legs broken to hasten their death so that their bodies could be removed before the Sabbath began. The soldiers came and broke the legs of the two men who had been crucified alongside Jesus. They saw that Jesus was already dead when they came to him, so they did not break his legs. However, a soldier used a spear to pierce his side and blood and water immediately flowed out.

The one who saw this has told you this so that you might believe. He speaks the truth and is convinced that what he is saying is true.

These things fulfilled the Scriptures that say “None of his bones will be broken” and “They will look upon the One they have pierced.”

JN 19:31-37