Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Category: Death and Dying

On this side of heaven

On this side of heaven
Components are missing
Without which I am expected
To keep functioning
Albeit slowly and with effort
Especially in the white hot
Heat of summer sun
Boiling over into my veins
Weary muscles screaming for
Blessed relief

Outside I hear our neighbor’s
Lawn mower chugging back and forth
Droning its way through
This week’s crop of tender grass
Now rudely chopped and left
Lying in withering weather
Unable to cry out or scream
Enough is enough please
Let me rest in peace or go
To seed just one more time

Inside the air conditioner labors
Creating semi-civilized space
In which to sort through
Accumulations of a lifetime
Heaving and tossing what
Will never rise from the dead
In this life or we hope in the next
Dust flies in the face of reality
Only too eager to coat the past
With its tell-tail pall of powder

The last few weeks were a blur of doctor appointments, conversations with contractors, decisions about our bedroom reclamation project, and sorting through accumulated belongings.

So far, so good. We’ve managed to leave a respectable amount of livable space throughout the house. The actual work won’t begin right away. In the meantime, I’ve become allergic to keeping things around that have no clear purpose.

Not that we haven’t done this before. We have. But this time it feels different. Our late-70s have begun, and who knows how long we’ll have beyond that. So yes, I’m laughing and crying my way through bits and pieces I’d forgotten about, then letting them go. Feeling lighter with each fond, relieved, or I-can’t-believe-I-did-that farewell.

Cheers!
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 17 August 2019
Cool male cardinal photo found at mix.com

The Journey | Mary Oliver

Is Mary Oliver talking about herself in this poem? What do you think? My comments follow.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

© Mary Oliver, reprinted in New and Selected Poems, Volume One, pp. 114-15, Published by Beacon Press 1992

The first time I read this poem I was puzzled. Instead of writing directly about herself, Mary seems to be writing to someone else. Or to a past version of herself?

This poem was first published in 1986 in a collection called Dream Work. The current collection includes 18 poems from Dream Work. They focus on Mary Oliver’s personal life. Not a subject she’s particularly thrilled to write about. And yet….

Without her personal story, it’s possible to think Mary Oliver enjoyed a charmed life of wandering in the woods. Visiting ponds and streams. Watching foxes, fish and birds. Lying in fields of Spring flowers. Making notes in her hand-made notepads. Living a magical life in her chosen world that celebrates nature, beauty in the presence of death, and the perfectly sad and glorious ending of each season.

Wrong. Mary Oliver worked hard to ‘save’ her life. She left home. Literally. She walked away from her father’s abusive behavior, and from voices that incessantly cried out for her to mend their lives. Death followed by what? Nothing?

This poem celebrates Mary’s decision to make a clean break. It also celebrates what she found along the way. Something she didn’t even know she had: a life of her own and a voice of her own.

For that alone, I’m grateful. I’m also challenged to keep listening for my own voice in unexpected places.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 15 August 2019
A Dark and Stormy Night, by Warren Criswell, found at saatchiart.com

Mom and Arnica Ointment

ArnicaFlowerExtractfromVideo

~~~Arnica Flowers and Healing Oil

Touching Mom was never easy for me. That included everything from an arm around her shoulder to a kiss on her cheek. Hold hands? Forget it. The ache for physical contact was there, but the reality—or even imagining the reality—was an immediate turnoff.

In the late 1990s I got a telephone call from Savannah. Mom had just been taken to the hospital. She’d had a stroke. No, it wasn’t the kind that could be easily reversed. It wasn’t major, and it wasn’t minor. It was what it was. She couldn’t talk clearly or move independently.

Mom was 78 years old. Too young, I thought, to die. I immediately made arrangements to fly down for several days. I wanted to see her. I loved her. In fact, during the last several years we’d developed the most positive relationship we’d ever had with each other.

The afternoon I arrived I went straight to the hospital. There she was, arms and hands covered with multiple bruises. The result of too many attempts to find veins to poke for various medical tests.

Mom always bruised easily. But this was horrific. Though she couldn’t talk, she signaled early on her extreme displeasure (slight frowns) and even embarrassment (a few tears) about the way her arms looked.

I didn’t know what to do, so I sat there talking to her and looking at the bruises. They were ugly.

When I travel, I always have a small tube of arnica ointment in my bag. It’s great for many things, including bruises large and small. It’s anti-inflammatory, has no nasty side effects, and needs no prescription.

I pondered the tube in my bag. Normally I would just give it to Mom so she could put it on her skin. Not possible today.

I took a deep breath. I knew what I needed to do, though I didn’t know how I would get through it without feelings of revulsion. If that sounds over-dramatic, it was not. Touching Mom in any way, except for a brief hello and goodbye hug, wasn’t even on my to-do list.

What I really needed, so I thought, was to maintain that ‘safe’ distance I loved and hated so much. The emotional and physical distance that seemed to shield me from being rejected.

When I suggested putting arnica ointment on her arms and hands, she perked up immediately and moved her right arm ever so slightly closer to me. I can’t even describe my gut feelings as I began applying the ointment. Just touching her skin was difficult enough, much less applying ointment.

She watched my hand intently as I gently rubbed the ointment in. It took a long time to do one full arm and hand. When I finished her right arm, she signaled that was enough for the evening. The nurses were coming to get her ready for the night.

The next morning she raised her right arm for me to see. Her eyes were bright. Her skin wasn’t 100% clear, but the difference from the day before almost took my breath away. She looked over at her left arm and pointed with her chin. She wanted me to do the left arm, too!

Mom’s arms and hands didn’t fully recover while I was there. Yet the difference between before and after was as dramatic in her body as it was in my heart. I got over my fear of touching her.

I still have regrets about what she and I missed in our relationship. This wasn’t the last time I ever saw Mom. It was, however, the beginning of the end. As unexpectedly wonderful as it was sad.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Psalm 23:5

 © Elouise Renich Fraser, 27 June 2015, reposted 13 August 2019
Image from purepro.com

Living on the edge

Living on the edge
of disaster or boredom
Throwing myself into
waves of hope
Rising to occasions
ripe with possibilities
Daring everything
at each turn
Forgetting yesterday
in favor of now
Life moves on
without fanfare

Ticking each day off
as if the whole
were more than it is
I take heart from
the carefree nature
of my beautiful cat
showing me how it’s done —
This thing called
living in the present
and loving it to death

Question:
What does it look like to live and die one day at a time?

Answer:
Just enough strategic motion to get through today
With a bit of excitement, boredom and mystery
Followed by firm commitment to letting it all go
Clearing body and brain for more of the same, or not, tomorrow.

Hoping your day is moving along with grace, grit and unexpected beauty.
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 7 August 2019
Photo taken by ERFraser, Summer 2019

Coping with homegrown terrorism

I don’t know about you, but I’ve learned a bit about me. Not everything, but enough to know how I cope with homegrown terrorism.

My first thought is relief that this isn’t happening to me. Definitely a way of protecting myself from the truth. Whatever steals life from someone else, steals life from me. It doesn’t matter how safe I think I am.

My second thoughts are a form of spiritual distancing: I could or would never stoop to do what that person just did.

And yet…seeds of terror are in me. Not just as a survivor, but as a perpetrator. If not in outward deeds, then in attitudes and thoughts that lead to outward behaviors. For example: Perhaps I have superior judgment and wisdom. Or a special angel that protects me from things like this.

Worse yet, I believe I could never do anything like that to another human being. Indeed, maybe I wouldn’t do it that way. Yet I know that my heart is human, given to fears, insecurity, self-sufficiency and taking advantage of others’ weaknesses. Are these not part of the picture as well?

This morning I read Nan C. Merrill’s personal re-imagining of Psalm 10. Here’s what stood out to me. Please note that I am not absolving terrorists. Rather, I’m challenged to be honest about my own struggles as I relate to other human beings and to our Creator.

Why do You seem so far from me, O Silent One?
Where do You hide when fears beset me?
I boast and strike out against those weaker than myself,
even knowing I shall be caught in a snare of my own making.

When I feel insecure, I look for pleasure,
greed grips my heart and I banish You from my life.
In my pride, I seek You not,
I come to believe, “I am the Creator of the world.”

I even prosper at times:
Your Love seems too great for me, out of my reach;
as for my fears, I pretend they do not exist.
I think in my heart, “I do not need You;
adversity will come only to others.”

My eyes watch carefully for another’s weakness,
I wait in secret like a spider in its web;
I wait that I might seize those who are weaker than myself,
draw others into my web, that I might use them to feel powerful.

….Break then the webs I have woven,
Seek out all my fears until You find not one.
You are my Beloved for ever and ever;
All that is broken within me will be made whole….
That I might live with integrity
And become a loving presence in the world!

Excerpts from Psalms for Praying, ©1996 by Nan C. Merrill
Published 2003 by The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.

Praying your Monday is thoughtful and productive, if not always safe.
Elouise

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 5 August 2019 

A quick update

First, Longwood Gardens photos are in the works. Yesterday D and I played hooky and went to Longwood Gardens. Our way of celebrating the end of a long streak of heat waves, rain and heavy winds. D’s photos are on my computer, and I’m already plotting a photo post. The photo at the top is a little taste!

Second bit of blog-related news. I’ve created a Mary Oliver category. I haven’t discarded or forgotten about Emily Dickinson. I am, however, especially drawn to Mary’s poetry right now, and anticipate more posts about the way they intersect with my life.

Third bit. I’ve just begun going through over 100 posts on Death and Dying. I’ve created the category, and will continue populating it with old and new material. I’m eager to think and write about life with death on the horizon. Not that that’s anything new….

And finally, I’m making peace with myself one day at a time. In general, that means taking things a bit slower than usual, and spending time in the attic each day. It’s a fabulous place to relax, read, write, do nothing at all, or think about the wonderful people who have helped bring me up whether they knew it or not.

Hugs to those who need them, and smiles to everyone whether you want them or not!

Elouise

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 25 July 2019
Photo taken by DAFraser, 24 July 2019, Longwood Gardens’ Waterlilies

Think again!

If you think retirement
Is a piece of cake
Think again!

If you think the medical world
Is ready for you in your wild and precious young or old age
Think again!

If you think the good old USofA
Has the best medical system in the whole wide world
Think again!

If you think you don’t need a palliative care doctor
Maybe you do and maybe you don’t
And please, Think again!

It feels overwhelming to begin planning for the unlikely and the inevitable.

However, if I don’t, I won’t be ready for what might come on this side of death. Our national medical institutions are NOT, for the most part, prepared to help us die with or without dignity. Many still operate with the imperative of keeping the patient alive at all costs.

Thankfully, the picture is changing. Nonetheless, it isn’t keeping up with our aging population. In addition, waiting and hoping for the best isn’t a viable option. Especially if we have serious health issues that won’t reverse, and will end in death.

Yesterday D and I met with Dr. Amy, my new palliative care doctor. We had a long, sometimes teary (for me), often lively conversation about my health. It focused on my top five concerns, and how I might make my current situation more tolerable.

Dr. Amy gave each of us a bright pink (yes PINK!) form to fill out at home and sign. After my doctor signs it, I’ll show it to my other doctors. They’ll make copies for their files. Then I’ll post the Pink Document on our refrigerator door.

In case of a medical emergency, the Pink Form will travel with me. It’s an official Pennsylvania Department of Health document with its own twist. Instead of Physician’s Orders, it says Pennsylvania Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment. Don’t ask me why–it’s all politics, and complicates things a bit as described above. Nonetheless….

The form includes explanations, and options for the treatment I wish to have (or not) depending on my preferences and situation. I can make changes later if I so wish.

I’m relieved to have begun this process. It isn’t about dying today or tomorrow. It’s about recording my decisions now to help avoid being caught up in endless attempts to keep me alive at all costs.

Thanks for visiting, reading and Thinking Again!
Elouise

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 23 July 2019
Cartoon found at pinterest.com

Death and The Kookaburras

First, a poem from me, a few comments, and a poem from Mary Oliver.

One loss at a time
The challenge is laid down
So transparently
The message cannot
Be mistaken

It’s time to let go
To hold each day lightly
To give up great expectations
And the hope of getting
To the top of Mt. Everest
Or even within its foothills

Yet my body and soul
Cry out for more –
More time
More energy
More beauty
More music
As greed sets in
Along with hunger
For what I think
I’ve lost
Or never had

I’ve been unusually restless this past week. It was wonderful to connect with my new palliative care doctor on the phone. Now I’m waiting for my first face-to-face conversation, and find I’m uneasy.

Is this really what my life has come to? Something in me wants to hang on just a bit more, even though I know it’s time to begin letting go and shifting my attention and energy to what’s yet possible. On the other hand, who knows what Mt. Everest I’ll yet climb or even fly above in ways I never dreamed of.

Mary Oliver’s poem “The Kookaburras” has haunted me for the past week.

In every heart there is a coward and a procrastinator
In every heart there is a god of flowers, just waiting
to come out of its cloud and lift its wings.
The kookaburras, kingfishers, pressed against the edge of
their cage, they asked me to open the door.
Years later I wake in the night and remember how I said to them,
no, and walked away.
They had the brown eyes of soft-hearted dogs.
They didn’t want to do anything so extraordinary, only to fly
home to their river.
By now I suppose the great darkness has covered them.
As for myself, I am not yet a god of even the palest flowers.
Nothing else has changed either.
Someone tosses their white bones to the dung-heap.
The sun shines on the latch of their cage.
I lie in the dark, my heart pounding.

©Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, Vol. One, p. 87
Published by Beacon Press , Boston, 1992

That’s the challenge, isn’t it? The struggle between hanging on and letting go of what we were never meant to imprison. Not ourselves, not other people, and not kookaburras who just want to fly home to their river.

I want to let my spirit, my soul fly home. I also recognize the coward and procrastinator in me, wanting to say no, and walking away without unlatching the cage.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 6 July 2019
Photo found at australianmuseum.net.au

The way from here

 

The way from here
Grows narrow
A finely chiseled path
From this life
To a world as unknown
As life beyond
The womb

When did birthing begin
And when will it end?

Wondering out loud
I search for midwives
To encourage me now
As in the past
How many and for how long
I cannot say
As I set out on another adventure
Another letting go
Another arrival
Somewhere
Into the waiting hands
And hearts of those
Who love me in life
And in death

How do we learn to die? How do we learn to give birth? How do we learn to say enough is enough? Or no, thank you, I’m not going to opt into our reigning medical model of trying whatever can be tried in order to live a bit longer. Comfort care is one thing; unrealistic hope for healing is something else.

My waking dream this morning led to the poem above. The dream suggested I need help, a midwife or two, to get through the last pieces of my journey on this earth. I might even need to become a midwife to myself. Not just by reading books, but by seeking out professionals to help me navigate what lies ahead.

I anticipate writing and talking about how this works out for me, and commenting on books I’ve been reading. My major guide will be a palliative care doctor I spoke with today. She won’t replace my other wonderful doctors. Instead, she’ll help me work with medical personnel, family members and others. I’m not willing to stay alive at all costs. So how will I get from here to there?

Today has been an up and down day. Lots of emotion about making the telephone call, and huge relief when the doctor said she would take me on. I know this isn’t a very popular topic. So I’m especially grateful if you’ve read to this point.

With hope, gratitude and a teeny tiny sense of adventure for what lies ahead,

Elouise

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 2 July 2019
Photo found at bastyr.edu

The mind is the last to consent

Or, Semi-poetic thoughts about death and dying

The mind is the last to consent –
Alternative scenarios tease us
Surely this can’t be the end
Wispy threads dangle enticements
We could try this or look into that
Prayers for miracles multiply

Cheerful faces mask sad truth —
The patient is dying, yet anguish
And well-meaning hope sometimes
Impede consent to the obvious
Resulting in further digressions
That produce even more anguish

The end is upon each of us sooner
Not later, with or without goodbyes

To ‘give in’ to death may seem to be
Callous dismissal of those we love
Or loss of hope or lack of faith to
Demand of God great things with
Or without the patient’s consent

Worse, if I’m a medical person perhaps
Giving in means failure to do my job
Even though I may agree that this
Dying person is sick unto death and
We were not created to live forever
In these temporary earth-bound bodies

My hero when it comes to dying is my sister Diane. She chose to go on comfort care after living with ALS for ten years. When she learned she had ALS, she worked with trusted people to identify what she was and was not willing to endure, and where she wanted to die—at home.

Even so, in the end she had to consent to the criteria she herself had itemized. She had to communicate to her doctors and nurses, ‘Enough is enough.’ She also had to trust that those with power of attorney would honor her wishes.

So what does it mean for me to ‘prepare’ for death? At the least, it means living each day well, insofar as I’m able. Especially when it comes to self-care.

I wish that were enough. Unfortunately, given medical structures and practices here in the USA, it isn’t. If I want to avoid getting caught in an endless search for ‘health’ or extension of life, it’s up to me to take the initiative. This includes decisions, paper trails, agreements, and work with family and friends involved with my care and wellbeing.

I can’t do this alone. I’m reading books, and have family and a few friends with whom I can talk. Yet it’s up to me. Even so, there’s no guarantee my wishes and directives will be honored. We don’t always get to choose the time or manner of our deaths.

Blessings to each of you, and thanks so much for listening.

Elouise

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 18 June 2019
Photo taken by DAFraser, Longwood Gardens, 12 June 2019

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