27 January 2017

Therapy Work: Saying Goodbye To Bill. Reflections On Mortality

Reading Your Letters

The Mansion Assisted Care facility called me this afternoon to tell me that Bill O., who left the Mansion two weeks ago for another nursing home – he needed more medical care – died last week. His death was peaceful. I know some of you are still sending him gifts and letters and cards, so I wanted to let you know.

Red and I went to see him a few days before he died, and the news was not a surprise for me. Bill seemed to be failing, he seemed to be letting go, disoriented at times. I know he very much appreciated the letters and messages some of you sent him, he kept them in the plastic bag (above), he read a couple to Red.

Bill lost his wife of 62 years last year, and he had to give his dog Duke to a shelter. The dog has been re-homed. Bill told me again and again – very proudly – how Duke used to fetch the morning paper for him, and how he accidentally taught him to do that.  I had the sense he needed to tell some of the stories of his life.

Before he left, and when I last saw him, he apologized profusely for not finishing a book I had brought him that I had written. He said he just couldn't focus most of the time.

I have been doing hospice and dementia and assisted care therapy work for more than a decade now. I began working with Izzy and Lenore, and now Red.

I have learned some things about how to deal with loss and death, although it is never simple. It is not a tragedy or a drama to me, it is just as much a part of life as breathing. We all live, we all die. It unites all of us as human beings. Perhaps not surprisingly, I often make the most powerful connections with people at the edge of death.

They are acutely aware of life, and what is important. They feel things intensely.

Hospice work and therapy work have taught me much about mortality. I connected with Bill, he loved to tell me stories about his life as a cook and before that, as a farmer. He loved to touch Red, who did not want to stay too long with Bill in his last visits. He became restless after a few minutes.

I have come to recognize this as the dog sensing that the person we are visiting is fading, is falling away.

Soon after, that person often dies. It isn't that the dog is psychic, as some like to think, they don't even know what death is.

Rather, they respond to the attention and body language of the person they are seeing. When Red sees people like Connie, she is excited, looks him in the eye, talks to him. He'll sit there for an hour. Therapy dogs are trained to respond to that, or do it naturally.  Bill couldn't do that.

As people near death, they gather themselves and withdraw, and lose interest in the dog, they begin to prepare. The dog reacts to this by turning away, I have learned to watch for it. Bill understood this, I think. He knew where he was.

In nursing homes and assisted care facilities, death is always the silent partner in the hallways and the rooms, the guest that is never invited but is always there.

The hardest part for me is when I show up with Red in a room, and there is suddenly no one in it. Volunteers are not the first people who are called or who should be called. It was nice of Marie at the Mansion to let me know.

In our culture, we hide the aging away from us, out of sight and consciousness. No one dies at home anymore, most of us never see it. Death is a taboo in our media and much of our culture. People who work with the aging know it well.

Death often seems a great and unnatural shock to people. Yet nothing could be more common or inevitable than death, and I am grateful to have seen it up close, time and again. I have learned not to run from the idea of it.

I did not know Bill as long or as well as some, but I loved hearing his stories and admired his grit. I loved his tales about the show goats he raised with his wife, "back in the day," as he put it. And of his cooking.

Bill lived a long and full life, he sensed he was near the end, and I was happy to hear he died peacefully. I think he had left enough behind and was done.  He more or less said so.

This work has taught me much about life and death, and the challenging part is that almost everyone you get to know well ages, and then dies. It is something you have to accept, not something to grieve over every time.  It is not an interruption in the work, it is the work. Any other response would make the work impossible. My work as a police reporter may have prepared me for this, I saw a lot of people die, and moved on before I got too used to it.

I wish Bill peace and compassion on his journey, wherever it takes  him. I was pleased to get to know him, and enjoyed our talks. He was given loving and compassionate care. He loved much in his life, and that is why he missed so many things.

In places like the Mansion, however well run it is, people often feel disconnected from life, and when life comes into their world, it is magic. I thank you good people out there, your letters gave him a human connection he seemed to want and need. It made his last days brighter and more meaningful.

(you can write to the Mansion residents c/o The Mansion, 11 S. Union Street, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816. The names of the residents who wish to receive mail are John Z.,  Bruce, John R., Dennis, Peggie, Barbara, Alanna, Connie, Helen, Christie, Aileen, John K., Carl, Allan, Joan, Madeline, Jean, Alice, Diane, Sylvie, Gerry, Mary, Jean A.)

Posted in General

My Goodness: India Is Two Weeks Away!

India Is Two Weeks AwayI

I got sick yesterday, a cold or a flu and have been drooling and staggering around the house, the world is pretty fuzzy, but I can still write. Maria suggests we cancel Saturday's one day overnight to celebrate her 53rd birthday, she is but a child. I keep telling her I have a lifetime of wisdom and experience beyond her.

But she simply laughs at me.

I am not canceling our trip tomorrow, even if I have to be carried into the hotel.

I have a couple of neat and modest gifts and am looking forward to honoring this day with her, we will be apart for a time soon enough. I was stunned this morning when I asked Maria how far off her trip to Kolkata (Calcutta) India is, and she said she was leaving in just two weeks.

Can it really be so close. She is ready, I think, I'm not so sure about me.

My heart did quite a flutter, I had to see where my heart pills were sitting in their shiny silver case. Time to prepare myself, to practice feeling sorry for myself, to recall my experiences with aloneness. Things are going to get crazy for the both of us.

No one has invited me to dinner, and I think that's a good thing. I can feed myself, and I have plenty to do. One she's gone, I will be fine. But still…It is hard to imagine life for any length of time without her, not only personally, but in terms of her very great presence on the farm.

I am very excited for her. I think this trip will be a life-changer, not to put too much on it. I think it is her destiny to teach the women who have suffered from sex trafficking how to make the gentle and durable potholder. Something everyone needs, all across the world

Maria is prepared, she has done everything she is supposed to do, gotten all of the shots and supplies she needs, organized all of her travel, is practicing packing, has freaked out the appropriate number of times, knows where to tuck her passport and money, seen most, if not all, of the Calcutta videos on YouTube, devoured some books on India.

I can hardly imagine the impact India, with all of its life and mysticism and color, will  have on her art when she returns. I think Calcutta will wend its way into her heart, and she might go back again and again, I can't say. I might go with her, if invited.

For me, I'm starting to feel some flashes of self-pity, some shivers of loneliness, which I used to know well. There will be much excitement and some pain, that is the nature of things. When you find that kind of love, you will miss it, even for a couple of weeks. The trick is to acknowledge it and live your life.

I have arranged for Cassandra Comety, a much loved and respected vet tech and farm girl, to come to the farm in the mornings to handle chores and firewood and some shoveling if necessary,  while I take my first fellowship and hole up writing "Lessons Of Bedlam Farm." I was horrified at the idea of hiring someone to do the morning chores but my editor and Maria pointed out the wondrous opportunity to have a free and purely creative time.

My editor, who I greatly respect, believes it would be good for my book, which I am very excited about. Maria strongly agreed, and it will probably be good for her also, to know I am knee-deep in writing.

I will do the afternoon and evening chores, and of course, the shopping and cooking that I  usually do. I plan to get up at 4 or 5 a.m. and write and write. Then walk the dogs in the woods. That will be sweet, if I stick to it.

Cassandra is a strong woman, she is right for this.

I have to get my head straight about this kind of help, but I will.

I was set on proving I could still run the farm alone, I'll have to postpone that.  And nobody cares.

I can't wait for the texts and videos and phone calls and Face Time chats from Calcutta. Maria is bringing her laptop, she will be blogging from there as well. It will go quickly, and she is in good hands, no need to worry about her.

In the meantime, I'm going to look for the few remaining drops of that wonderful cough syrup I got a year ago,  I think it still somewhere in the house. There is only a teaspoon or so left, I might just stop wheezing long enough to sleep tonight. That cough syrup makes me happy.  I am seeing two of everything, it messes up my photos and makes blogging difficult.

We are leaving in the late morning Saturday – no writing class tomorrow – and heading out. I'll probably post something in the morning,  then go off and return on Sunday. Stay steady out there.

Posted in General

Fate, Jack London, And The Call Of The Wild

The Call To Life

When I see Fate run, I think of Jack London's The Call Of The Wild, in my humble opinion, far and away the best dog book ever written. It is sometimes, harsh, sometimes brutal, always realistic, a counterpoint to the rabid emotionalizing of dogs that has robbed their animalness and their connection to nature. Many people actually believe dogs can and should never be left alone.

I can't imagine Buck every worrying about that. The Call Of The Wild has helped me to see the wolf in dogs, especially in my border collie Rose, and sometimes, in a different way, in Fate. Fate was born to run wild, to sail through the woods, over streams, through bushes, she sometimes leaves the ground when she circles the sheep across the meadow.

This is an inspiration for me, a call to life, something that lifts me up and gets me excited about life. London't book is the literary opposite of the gooey Rainbow Bridge, a sad testament to how far from their destiny dogs have come.

London gave dogs their independence, loyalty, adaptability and their very visceral connection to nature and survival. The Rainbow Bridge takes all of that mystique away, and reduces dogs to slobbering and dependent creatures, with no real lives of their own.

The Call Of The Wild is all but forgotten, the paperback sells for $1.50 on Amazon, yet it is the book to read to understand the great bond that can exist between people and animals, and the wild part of every dog. Various Rainbow Bridge books sell for 10 times that much.

There is something joyous and also sad about the lives of dogs, they do not live as long as we do, and to love them is to know grief and loss. London captured that. In our time, some people are stunned to learn that dogs ever die, grieving for years and spending thousands of dollars to keep dogs alive beyond their time.

I don't ever want to lose my appreciation for the true history of dogs, of their wildness and place in the natural world.

Books reveal where we are as a culture, and so do dogs. I love to see Fate run, there is something so liberating and free about it.

Posted in General

What You Did On Wednesday: Blankets And Plates For The New Americans

What You Did On Wednesday: The Amazon Delivery

Amy, a warehouse volunteer working with the U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigration sent this message yesterday:

"I thought you may enjoy a photo of today's incoming Amazon Wish List Delivery, "I seldom tear up, but opening these boxes, I find myself overwhelmed and inspired at the generous support for arriving refugees." Me too.

Your donations have filled the warehouse space and are being stacked in the hallways. The above photo shows the deliveries for Wednesday only.

Thanks again for continuing to support the refugees arriving in my area. They come with nothing, and desperately need everything. The items listed on the special Amazon page are inexpensive, common household items. They make an enormous difference to people arriving in America in the middle of an upstate New York Winter.

You can click on an item, go to the checkout, and Amazon will mail it to the USCRI warehouse. Today, I'm sending a World International Soccer Ball for $7.60. (Sometimes, the USCRI address does not appear. If you don't mind, try again later. It fixes itself.)

Who are we helping?

"The refugees who are coming are mostly children and they fear for their lives," said Kathleen Hidalgo, a USCRI volunteer. She has assisted the parents and four children of the Albakour family from Syria who resettled in the Albany area in October after they fled the heavy fighting in the Syrian border town of Azaz in 2012 during the brutal civil war in their country.

"The Syria people are terrified," she told the Albany Times-Union. "They gave up everything to keep their children alive…"

A number of refugees arrived this week, they need help. They pray to be reunited with their husbands and families one day. They have suffered enough and waited long enough.  Correction. Earlier I wrote that each refugee is given $900, and they must pay it back. That is incorrect, and I'm afraid the truth is worse: A one-time amount of $925 per refugee is given to a resettlement agency to use to secure an apartment, pay the first months rent, furnish the home, buy a week's worth of groceries, and a familiar hot meal (for a family of four, this would be $3,700). Most of the money is spent before the refugees even arrive.

Refugee aid workers are especially worried about Syrian families and other refugees who have remained divided, and are now unable to come to America after the President's new executive orders on immigration. Some family members  are in the United States and others are now trapped in refugee camps in Europe and Turkey awaiting permission to come to the United States.

The refugees are here legally, have been thoroughly investigated and some have waited up to four years to get here.

"Families have been torn apart once by the war and this executive order tears them apart again," said Jill Peckenpaugh, director of the Albany office of the USCRI. "What happens to them now? They've waited years and finally got to the front of the line. Do they go to the back of the line now?"

According to the Times-Union, nearly 100 Syrian refugees came to the Albany area of upstate New York in 2016, about 580 refugees came to the area altogether. More are arriving this week.

The refugee crisis is overwhelming and the way I can deal with it is to help one family at a time, one towel, plate, bowl, teapot, blanket and soccer ball at a time. I am not participating in our polarized political system, these are Americans, here legally, who need our help. It is not more complex than that.

The volunteers thank you, you cannot know, they say, what a difference you are making to these frightened and exhausted people.  You are showing them the true heart and soul of America.

They are to me, my brothers and sisters. It could have been me, it could have been you. This is a simple way to do good and keep the torch that is America alive. You can help by going here.

Posted in General

At The End Of Every Day

At The End Of Every Day: Photo By Maria Wulf

At the end of every day, Fate comes over to my chair – usually after dinner – and she crawls up into my lap. This hyper-active dog, who never pauses from sunrise to dusk, crawls up gently and puts her head on my shoulder and closes her eyes. I sometimes close my eyes as well. It is a loving and peaceful moment, it  usually lasts about three minutes, and then she is up, bringing me toys to throw, wanting to fool around for a bit, wanting to go out, wanting to pester Red.

I love this time, it marks the end of the day for both of us, for me a chance to take a deep breath, settle in, put the day behind me.

Fate is the most active dog I have ever lived with, and the most loving. It is curious how we both need this time together.

Posted in General