I have been struggling over the past week and a half with writing. I was working on a post about disorientation, a common complaint and concern amongst many group members, when one of our long time Wisdom Keepers died. I have been unable to finish the post and more focused on my experience of grief right now, once again exploring the work and love involved in saying goodbye and letting go. He was a remarkable man with an unremarkable death, which is exactly what he wanted. When the time is right and with permission from his family I may share some of his stories, some day. For now, the vivid and indelible impression of his memory and last six years on the planet will reside in my heart and the hearts of so many who loved him.
I received the call he had died very shortly after his passing. It was early evening and I was listening to my voicemail on speaker in the car. The sun was setting brightly and the air was cool. “The sun has teeth” is what my grandmother would say. His wife’s voice was hanging in midair along with the sunlight flooding my lap where the phone was resting. She left me a collected message on my voicemail, sharing a few details of his final moments and her relief and gratitude for his gentle death. I turned the car around. My next visit was scheduled for the following day and because of her generous call I was able to visit them both one last time, in their home, as he lie in wake, surrounded by close members of his family. Many of them had gathered only few days before to celebrate their 67th wedding anniversary.
There will not be a funeral, also his choice, but a gathering in the warm summer air under the sky in an open, natural space in the country. If this makes your heart swell a bit, I’m with you. Here is a couple, in the face of more than one life threatening illness, who had the courage to discuss and explore a rest of life plan. The words “rest of life” are far more inviting of curiosity than ”end of life.” The latter is misleading and does not include the most vital piece of personal planning – the living part, how you hope to live the rest of your life, whether it’s one week or several decades. From this place an after death plan takes shape naturally. I suppose it goes without saying that this scenario is ideal. The opportunity to talk, plan and create a personal map for living and dying. Some may say, pie in the sky. So I ask, how many of us have a plan then? I’ll leave this here as an open question .
The past two weeks have given me another opportunity to reflect on how fortunate I am to work in a day program for adults with memory loss. So many of us working in health care are bound and gagged by professional boundaries. In a clinical setting where you see your clients briefly or only once a month or twice a year at best there is potential for pronounced differences in relationship that can create unintentional divisions and superficial connections. It is a very different reality from sharing a workspace and large portions of daily life on a weekly basis in an atmosphere that feels more like a living room than an exam or meeting room. A gentle folding and relaxing of roles takes place overtime in a memory care setting. In many ways we, as staff and participants alike, have adopted our most comfortable and supportive human role: friend.
Years ago, a group member would frequently and jokingly ask “who’s in charge here?” after I had served her up a piece of pie without ice cream on the side for example, or when practicing a fire drill or when I would bring her the wrong coat from the closet. I see her now in my minds eye with a warm open grin and comfortable familiarity with the staff and with me. She did not know our job titles or our job descriptions and she certainly did not know I was “in charge” then, whatever that means. It didn’t matter. I did not matter then and it does not matter now. I was simply Laura (with name tag).
While these roles are helpful behind the scenes and in the implementation of our programming, they mean far less than our position as genuinely interested friends. So, as friends, we ache when our friends die. We remember and hold these memories in our work and personal lives, like vessels we continue to remember those who have passed through these doors and spend time here. The members themselves have trouble with memory so it is important to note the difference here between memory and knowing. Using myself as an example to illustrate: remembering my name, what I do and who I am pales in significance to the knowledge that I am someone who cares, listens, see’s and accepts them just as they are – they do the same return. There is little room for fear, distrust and misunderstanding in this space.
I read today that Walter Breuning of Great Falls, Montana, died (Thursday, April 14, 2011). He carried the unique distinction of “worlds oldest man” at the age of 114. Here are some secrets he shared to living a long, enjoyable life:
- Embrace change, even when the change slaps you in the face. (“Every change is good.“)
- Eat two meals a day (“That’s all you need.”)
- Work as long as you can (“That money’s going to come in handy.”)
- Help others (“The more you do for others, the better shape you’re in.”)
- Then there’s the hardest part. It’s a lesson Breuning said he learned from his grandfather: Accept death.
He went on to share, “we’re going to die. Some people are scared of dying. Never be afraid to die. Because you’re born to die,” he said. [Matt Volz, Associated Press]
I suppose it helps to have 114 years to get used to the idea. For the rest of us, we shall continue to learn about living and dying from those who go before us. I have a bag full of thank you notes to distribute on the other side. In the meantime, I collect and place these pieces of wisdom like colorful, soft edged bits of sea glass on my own mosaic path. And, like my remarkable friend, I hope to walk through the veil gently when it’s time, wherever it may lead, and merge with the great unknown in all its mystery. In this image I have long white hair, a bohemian dress, bare feet and good teeth. Can’t hurt to fantasize a bit. It’s part of my plan.