I've got a case of the sighs. You know the ones originating from somewhere around the solar plexus (if that is really a thing) as a release for the emotional weight sitting elephant-like on your chest. Indulge me while I take you on the journey of this past week and the situations responsible for these weight-releasing sighs. My husband and I were excitedly anticipating a beach retreat at the conclusion of a hectic summer creative arts program I direct. Days before our departure we received news that our 47 year old nephew, who has battled a kind of blood cancer for years, was critically ill and dying. Vacation on hold, we traveled to Atlanta to grieve with David's family. Our roles were to provide strength and support to our bereft brother and sister-in-law who have outlived their child. Only days later am I realizing our personal grief was put at bay so we could support those closer to the nucleus of the tragedy. We returned home following the funeral, our postponed beach retreat feeling more important than ever….but….arriving back in Central Florida we ran into hurricane-like weather conditions. Undaunted...beach bags/chairs/umbrellas in tow, we ventured to our favorite Atlantic beach site. I will say the 23 hours spent at the beach were glorious, so much so I have the sunburn to prove it. Our intended leisurely morning sitting on the balcony enjoying hazelnut coffee and French pastries from an authentic NSB bakery was interrupted by the sound of drilling. Two floors below a jackhammer was busy breaking up tile; we were advised this jarring sound would continue throughout the next couple of days. We packed up and left. The hour’s drive home provided space for contemplation of other fun options for our day. I’m not sure who suggested it… but we both agreed and…we ended up spending six hours in a Subaru dealership after which we were the proud owners of a 2017 Forrester. Ok, so we needed to replace the car we were losing as our lease expired. So we left feeling productive and even a little excited. Entering the garage I realized the helpful salesman, while having explained the Bluetooth functions, audio system, and driver seat positions had failed to tell me how to turn off the car. Amid the excitement and confusion of the car I received a text telling me my step-mother’s significant other and committed life partner had experienced a heart attack and was in critical condition. Gene subsequently died leaving Beth in utter shock and despair. While we may be steps removed from these deaths, we nevertheless are reeling from these losses. It has been a bazaar week as a friend described our last 8 days. Agitated and anxious, I made my way to a yoga class this morning. As is often the case in yoga sessions, the instructor asked what motivated us to attend the class. “What is your intention for being here?” What popped into my head was the phrase “bitter-sweet”. Life as we know it is comprised of the bitter and the sweet. I just did not really expect for my taste buds to be quite so inundated all in one week.
My father-in-law, though never personally impacted, used to say something was wrong in the world when a parent outlived a child. He said he never wanted to be a member of such an exclusive club. Our nephew, his grandson, died this week at the age of 47. David is (I can't bring myself yet to say "was") the son of my husband's brother and sister in law. His passing leaves behind a wife of 25 years and two college-aged daughters. Mary, Kelsey, and Emily comprise his immediate family. They lived through his six-year battle (although at times it felt like a full on war) to hold his cancer at bay. This past spring his sweet girls surprised their parents with a trip to the Dominican Republic for a wedding vow renewal ceremony. The event was a demonstration of hope for the future of this man and his family... now it will go in to their arsenal of precious memories. I've been thinking of the domino effect caused by a death. It's like the proverbial ripple effect from a stone thrown into a body of water or more aptly the seismic waves emanating from the epicenter of an earthquake. The initial impact is at the center, the nucleus- the nuclear family. Then come the ripples- David's parents and sister are left to struggle with this loss, people who have known him all his days. Their brothers, sisters, husband, and children who not only love David, but grieve for the pain of their parents and siblings. Followed by cousins, nephews, nieces, aunts and uncles, and an array of friends who comprise outer ripples in this sea of love. My husband and I, my step-son and his wife, are members of the outer band of ripples and waves. We have fretted for years about the impact of the stress and strain of this ugly illness on Joe and Sue, David’s parents. At the funeral service I overheard low whispers of - ”But for the grace of God there go I”. I don’t know and don’t want to anticipate how I would handle the loss of one of my children or grandchildren. It’s an exclusive club to which I don’t want to ever be a member. It defies the natural order of life. I don’t know how David’s family will cope with their loss. All I do know, however, after observing the Standing Room Only crowd at the funeral service, is that there are a lot of ripples emanating from the epicenter of that Kitchens Clan and a lot of love. So much love. I am hoping that love and support from those ripples can carry them through.
I spent time recently with someone I consider cool, colorful, fun, and creative. (Be Brave. Lose the Beige is a big fan of these qualities.) Now, here is the kicker…she is a hospice and palliative care nurse focusing on the ostensibly not-so-fun topic of death. Donna Gray is the voice and coordinator of The Conversation Project, a local chapter of a national organization devoted to helping families talk about end-of-life care. She says,
“If we plan by having meaningful discussions with our loved ones, a couple of important things happen. First, they will actually know what we want so they are not someday in the waiting room of an ICU wondering. Second, these conversations promote closeness. We learn things about each other, and that is always special.”Ellen Goodman, columnist Pulitzer Prize winner, and one of the founders of The Conversation Project says:
“It’s time to transform our culture into one that does not talk about dying to one that does talk about it. It’s time to share the way we want to live at the end of our lives. It’s time to communicate the kind of care we want and don’t want at the end of our days.”The Conversation Project believes the place for this conversation should begin at the kitchen table, not in the intensive care unit when it may be too late. I’m a statistics junkie and statistics indicate 90% of people say that talking with their loved ones about end of life care is important, but only 27% have actually done so. 80% of people say that if seriously ill, they would want to talk to their doctor about their wishes for medical treatment toward the end of their life, but only 7% report having had that conversation with their doctor.The Project has developed a Conversation Starter Kit, which helps families jump-start the process of talking about a potentially difficult conversation. Steps in this kit looks like this-
What’s most important to you as you think about how you want to live at the end of your life? What do you value most? (Thinking about his will help you get ready to have the conservation.) Now finish this sentence: What matters to me at the end of life is…They even include ice-breakers to initiate the conversation, such as…
“I need your help with something”; I was thinking about what happened to Aunt Stella and it made me realize….”Talking about the way we want to live at the end of our days is what I found most compelling about the mission of The Conversation Project. It introduces an element of hope into an otherwise potentially morbid situation. Creativity is at the core of Be Brave. Lose the Beige. Before talking with Donna Gray I had not considered that the end of our days could be lived as creatively as our earlier ones. If our goal is quality of life (life being the operative word here) then find a strategy to manage the pain and still be able to play the guitar or watch football and eat ice cream. (Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal eloquently addresses this issue). I broached this topic with my daughter. Tracy immediately curled up into an emotional fetal position saying “Noooo! We are not going there! I experienced first hand how difficult this potential conversation will be within my own family. Thus, a Starter Kit is obviously helpful, or as Donna Gray says, “It's always too soon until it's too late. Hope is not a plan”.
Within the past 3 weeks I lost two grandpets. And what amazing pets they were. Annie was a ginger tabby with a poof of red fur atop her head. Rusty was an apricot tinted labradoodle with a really big schnozzle (nose). (I can't stand the fact I'm forced to use the word "was".) Rusty was originally raised by a single parent, namely my daughter-in-law Katie. She fretted about Rusty's future relationship with prospective boyfriends, they were so attached...that is until David arrived on the Chicago scene. Rusty and David quickly became BFFs. There are countless photos of the two of them in ice forts, paddle boarding on the Halifax River, and swimming in the ocean at dawn. Rusty was responsible for the purchase of our very own labradoodle puppy, so taken were we with this grown up labradoodle zen dog. David counted 26 states in Rusty's geographical repertoire. He accompanied David and Katie through many academic transitions. He started off at Ohio State with Katie, moving to Chicago for a master’s degree, and a doctorate at Perdue. As if those degrees were not sufficient, he trekked to Tempe Arizona for yet another doctorate and then on to Atlanta for an internship. Such a credentialed canine was he! Tracy rescued a traumatized and homeless Annie and her kittens from an inner city school in Baltimore. Once the kittens were safely ensconced in found homes, Annie became Tracy's faithful feline. Dogs often win the best pet contest over cats. I might have agreed with that assessment until I met Annie. She shucked the "distant", "reserved", "independent" labels typically attributed to cats. She was Tracy's constant companion, helping with laundry, enduring water droplets as she waited patiently for bath time to end, accompanying her on airplane trips to Florida, and listening attentively to her owner’s blog posts and podcasts. My reason for loving these animals has more to do with the comfort and companionship they provided my children, especially during some dark hours. Rusty was truly David's best friend during his lonely, transportation-deprived year in Atlanta. Annie was the one Tracy reached for after especially scary nightmares when she lived alone in a basement condo in downtown Baltimore. The way they loved these pets says a lot about the kinds of people my kids have become. Tracy’s rescue of a homeless, defenseless creature speaks volumes about her compassion. She is a hero in my mind. David’s abiding love and commitment to Rusty’s needs laid a predicate for the kind of father he would be to his newborn baby girl. Thank you Annie and Rusty for caring for my kids when I was too far away. We’ll never forget you.