Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Lessons in death...

A few mornings ago, I read this article on Huffington Post, "5 Things I Learned From Helping My Dad Die." Despite literally watching my own dad die, despite the vivid memories I have of how his last breath sounded, I read the essay in its entirety without crying. And I just wrote this post without crying. While those acknowledgments give a partial answer to the prompt itself, I think a more complete answer is important...not because my understanding of the death process reflects some profound and instructive emotional journey, but because it pays tribute to the person my dad was, the person my mom is, and the person I have a better chance of becoming because I am their child. Just as Mom always let Dad live the way he wanted (and he, her), she helped him die that same way: with quiet dignity, with confidence of self, with humor, and with acknowledgment that sometimes life just "is what it is."
For those who don't know, my dad died of colon cancer in 2010, some ten years or so after initial diagnosis. For those who have read this blog much at all, you know that he was my hero. I can look at pictures today or think of some funny quip he offered and immediately break down in tears. I remain heartbroken. I miss him literally everyday. And, I will unabashedly tell you that those things that many find comforting like "he's in a better place," or "things happen for a reason" just make me angry. Sure, we can always look back at something bad and find some encrypted lesson to make ourselves feel better. I certainly don't assume that to mean, however, that there is some great cosmic order. Horrible things happen to wonderful people. No higher being I could respect would destine that. And I say that only to preface the seemingly and potentially contradictory points that follow. Just because I learned valuable things between 2000 and 2010 does not mean that I am grateful for the experience. That's ridiculous. I would trade anything I know/own/have done to have my dad back.

Nevertheless, for the reason mentioned in the opening paragraph, here are five things I learned from helping and/or watching my dad die:

-We should all be clear as to how our funeral and burial should go. Dad talked to the preachers he wanted to preside over the service and explained how he didn't want a sermon. Mom knew what kind of music he wanted. He was buried in his Wranglers and button-down shirt by his barn.  Avoiding these conversations will not delay death. Be realistic and plan a service that honors the person you/they actually were. Sure, everyone hopes that funerals provide some comfort to the family, but it seems more important that they celebrate the things the person loved. After the deaths in my life from 2008-present, I started and have revised a "Funeral Requests" document that outlines how things should go for me.  Lord knows there better be some Avett Brothers playing rather than gospel hymns.

-There is no shame in letting your loved ones help you. It doesn't matter if that entails cutting your toenails while you're in a hospital bed, or spending the night on the couch beside you so they can wake up and get you homemade soup in the middle of the night and then jump to grab the mug when you nod off, or being a nurse that handles any issue without flinching or disgust, or sleeping in waiting room chairs while you're in the ICU or the fold-out oversized chairs, night after night, when you get moved to a room or canceling or changing plans because it is obvious you don't feel good even though you were willing to go. Your loved ones want to do these things. Let them.

-There are things worse than death. Drawn-out suffering is good for no one and sometimes there is a peace that comes when someone dies.  Dad pulled through more surgeries, treatments, and procedures than even the strongest man should have been able to do. And even when it first became clear that he was in fact near death, he held strong for several weeks after the first night we were all called to the hospital. It was time, though, when it did happen in the middle of that particular night. Acknowledging this does not make anyone a bad person.

-Illness and impending death do not justify selfishness or pity parties.  Dad was in the Cumberland County Hospital for the last two months of his life. Every day when I would walk in, he would ask me about my day.  He acknowledged a life well-lived, a life in which he had always done "the best he could." He smiled when visitors stopped by and often said something witty or endearing. I love remembering his sly grin, appreciative and surprised eyes and the sound of his voice when he said, "well, there's Miss Chicago," upon seeing Caroline walk into the hospital room. He didn't get frustrated when we all got tickled at something ridiculous. He was nice to the doctors, nurses, technicians, and interns. He repeatedly said "thank you" to mom, the hospital staff, and anyone who came by to talk. Neither reveling in "why me?s" nor making other people feel sad/guilty/awkward has ever cured anyone.

-People of dignity, die with dignity.
I have written about my Dad a lot, but in all honesty, I don't know how much I have ever said about his actual death.  If I have failed to do so in previous posts, I want to thank the staff at the Cumberland County Hospital from the bottom of my heart for the respect they showed my entire family throughout the last few weeks of Dad's life. Sometimes kindness, expressed in funny stories from former Ag students, the providing of extra pillows for the wife who spent every night in the hospital room, in turning a blind eye when a beloved dog was not-so-sneakily brought in for a visit, is far more valuable than the most advanced medical technology. Thank you for giving him, and the rest of us, far greater quality of life than any family in the throes of death would ever expect. Thank you to all who came to visit and to all who continue to tell "CLT" stories when they see me. Thank you to my mother and my grandmother for being examples of strength and unselfishness; you never used cancer as an excuse or sympathy ploy; you worked in cahoots with Dad when he wanted to lie by omission to shield others from pain or worry; you didn't tiptoe around him just because he had an incurable disease; you accepted early on that things would be hard, but that you would deal with them as they came; you gave him physical support, mental focus, and emotional strength when he reached those very few moments of weakness. Thank you to my Dad for living and dying so nobly.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Lessons from the circulation desk...

Until I started working at the library, I had no idea what a huge variety of people live in Cumberland County. That isn't to suggest, of course, that I had ever espoused the redneck generalizations and stereotypes of small, southern towns; I knew we weren't a bunch of uneducated hicks who all drove big trucks and had field parties well into our 30s and 40s. Those people exist primarily, if not only, in Luke Bryan songs. Do we have dumb people? And racists? And homophobes? And moochers? And jackasses? Well, sure. ... just like every other small town and big city in America.

On the other hand, we also have some of the most genuine, hard-working, and kind people I will ever know.  If I were going to run out of gas, I'd want it to be in Cumberland County. If I needed help moving furniture, or assistance at the barn, or advice on some random piddle project of choice, I could turn to any number of neighbors and friends.  In my moments of arrogant exhaustion, I regain perspective by looking around at all those people who are getting up earlier than me/working longer and harder/coming home later.  If I want to see goodness personified, I only have to drive three minutes and spend less than that with my grandmother.

Obviously, this is not some profound conclusion. Just as some seem inclined to promote the barefoot and pregnant nonsense, an equal, if not greater, number consistently play-up the "aww, shucks" nature of small-town life. Laced with oft-unintentional condescension, descriptions of the compassion, pride, and revered naivete of areas like Cumberland County sometimes seem like back-handed compliments in a "bless their hearts" sort of way. Intelligence is neither assumed, nor acknowledged. Political awareness is overlooked. Reading, music, and art affinities get lost in discussions of smiles, waves, and general hospitality.

My point is simply that in addition to all the things I mentioned in the second paragraph, Cumberland County is also home to some of the most multifaceted, interesting, and intelligent people I know. And working at the public library reminds me of this nearly every day.  For every one rude person who comes in trying to scam us in an attempt to check out movies under an alias, there are four who give me book suggestions or talk about something they saw on the news or invite me to a play or ballgame or fundraiser in which their child is participating. Local authors come in and do book signings.  A huge variety of people stop by to pick up farmers market applications. PhDs, retired doctors, renowned artists, decorated military servicemen/women, teachers, skilled craftsmen/women, jack-of-all-trades pseudo engineers and farmers with more knowledge than nearly every professor I've ever had, and successful business owners frequent the library just as much as those to whom many assume the public library caters: the unemployed, the poor, the shiftless, the outcast, the loner.

We also have people who take ten years to reach the crux of their argument. Sorry. ...

I say all of this to highlight one particular comment from one particular patron on one particular Saturday morning. She said something I found so profound that it has stuck with me for 15 days and literally been on my mind every one of those. Offering a review of Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things, a book
she knew I had read and enjoyed a few weeks prior, she applauded the way it came full circle at the end, describing how the tragic heroine finally acknowledges that "the most monumental thing we ever have to face is the betrayal of ourselves, the betrayal of our common sense."

Now, as I said, I've read that book. And I consider myself a fairly analytical and introspective person...BUT, I would have NEVER come up with something so articulate and eloquent.  I would have been incapable of reducing a 500-page novel to something so accurately poignant. I'm not sure I have ever had an original thought so replete with tragic depth and truth.  And, I think it important to note that as much as I initially was, and have remained, impressed by her conclusion, I have been equally haunted by it for two weeks now. I have looked at her words, the quote I quickly scribbled down on the little yellow post-it notes we keep by the circulation desk and have kept it affixed to the cover of Gilbert's book that I'm currently reading, Committed: A skeptic makes peace with marriage.  But these are glances, despite their frequency, unsustainable by choice. To linger would be to question. Focus would breed regret. Simply put, if I took the time to really think about this statement, to consider the times I have betrayed my gut, my heart, my mind, it would be painful. Trying to rationalize those times to myself or to anyone else will be emotionally and descriptively difficult. I know I have been there though. I know she is right to call it the most monumental of tasks.

I don't feel ready this morning to go into any details. As I've said since I started this blog around four years ago, when I write stuff down, I'm more inclined to do it.  I just thought putting it out there would be impetus for me to take the time to really evaluate choices that I would rather hide in the confines of a mind purposely overflowing with projects, recipes, and chores.

Plus, it gave me a chance to brag on my patrons and the area that I do so love.
Thank you for keeping me inspired. Thank you for encouraging me to think.  Thank you for being so much more than Luke Bryan songs suggest, Cumberland County.
I haven't posted much this winter, so I thought I would share a few of my favorite moments from the past few months...