My maternal grandparents were both immigrants, and between the two of them, they probably escaped demise at least a dozen times. My grandmother had escaped the pogroms, my grandfather narrowly missed succumbing to tuberculosis. Overcoming mortality most likely contributed to the career paths they each chose to follow -- my grandfather became a physician, my grandmother a social worker. Certainly, one could make a case on how brushes with death reinforced a joie de vivre, however, I'm going to make the case that their experiences also helped form a fairly healthy view of dying. But it took me a few years to figure out my grandparents weren't batshit crazy.
For example, when our family would travel from New York to Colorado for a visit with Baba and Zayda, on the day of our departure, prior to leaving for the Denver airport, my grandmother would make us all drag our suitcases out to the backyard. Rain, snow, it didn't matter, we had to do it. Together -- with our packed bags -- my grandmother would snap a group picture. As we all struck a pose for this peculiar photo op, my grandfather groused audibly about the potential for missing our plane. This goodbye ritual contributed to 20 years worth of tension-filled Kodak moments captured in front of 229 Albion Street by an Instamatic-wielding Ukranian. Oh, but this made perfect sense to my grandmother. Had our plane gone down in flames, she would have a final picture of our last moments together as a family. Natch.
It's not as morbid as it sounds. Truly. I should mention Zayda also had his own schtick. He insisted on taking us right to the airline terminal and walking us up to the gate. As we headed down the jetway to board the aircraft, we could hear him yell after us, "THIS MAY BE THE LAST TIME YOU EVER SEE ME ALIVE!" When I was in college I confronted him about his pessimism, to which he responded, "I'm being a realist." And he was a realist. When I was around seven years old, I admonished my grandfather after he mentioned his wish to be cremated:
Me: It's against Jewish law to be cremated.
Zayda: I'll apologize to my redeemer and I will be forgiven.
Me:(wailing) You'll be a big pile of ash and He won't recognize you!
In my family, death is woven into life, and the dying are inextricably linked to the living, but this isn't the case for every family. I've met lots of people who are uncomfortable when it comes to dealing with illness, death and talking about dying is a taboo. Or for others, it seems like it's such a long way off, why worry?
Years ago, I had a stint as the Director of Volunteer Services for Harry Hines Hospice. When I would tell people that I work for hospice, I would get one of two reactions:
A. Oh, my mother(father,sister, grandmother, teacher, you name it) had hospice care. The experience was amazing!
B. Shit, that must be so depressing.
While I understood and appreciated A, responding to B always seemed like a fabulous way to introduce the idea of how important it is we give others a good death. Working with death is not depressing. At least for me, it was actually quite the opposite. I found helping families and volunteers with their end of life needs utterly life-affirming. Where else would I have learned about the Chalice of Repose; a special program which trains musicians to play the harp to coincide with the breathing patterns of the dying. When one of my co-workers was accepted into their training program, we were all so excited as we recognized the potential of a meaningful and comforting end of life experience for whomever was fortunate to have this musician play.
There is a proverb that goes, "People plan, God laughs." Any one of us may experience a change in the grand master plan, and whether we want to admit it or not, we're all going to die at some point. How about considering what it might take to give a loved one a good death? Admittedly, it's not an easy conversation to get going and you very well might shake up some folks around you, but I promise, it may be one of the best things you ever do in your lifetime. Talk about death. Read about death. Learn about death. And even blog about it. Because if you aren't sure what it might take to give someone a good death, there are some incredible writers across the blogosphere sharing their humor, fear, anger and wisdom.
Last year at this time, I had no idea this would be the year CalifMom would be saying her final farewell to her husband. CalifMom might kick my ass for describing her as inspiring, but damn-it, she is. Whether she's writing about her husband Bob:
And this precarious position between keeping him comfortable and having him coherent is a level of hell Dante neglected to mention.
I used to worry about children not coming with instruction manuals. Now, I wish there was one for life and death.
Or writing about her children's instinctive empathetic response to their father's dying process:
And then, as the night wears on, our son takes his sister's place at his father's side. He lays his cool hand on Bob's sweat-soaked head. He tells him about the online game they used to play together, how he's teaching spells to our friend, and new games he's playing -- always keeping one hand on Bob's head.
My children, who've expressed their fear of having their father die at home, are sitting vigil at his bedside as he draws his final breaths. No one asked them to come into our room. In fact, until now, they've spent little time in here, especially our son. I wonder if they sense it -- this most simple part of being animals -- the end.
And she's not the only blogger writing about The End. Good deaths are being given to others every day. It's sacred work, it's not easy to write about, nor is it easy to read.
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