LifeWords Reading Circles Thursday, March 22nd, 2pm Knox County Library, Bearden Branch
Theme: Death Becomes Us Questions to Consider: 1. When did you first become aware of what it means to die? What were your thoughts?
How did people around you (family and friends, for instance) talk about or conceptualize death in general?
2. As a child, when did you first experience a specific death (family member, friend, pet, etc.)? How did you cope? How did the people around you behave, and how did they discuss the situation with you?
3. As an adult, what death first really impacted you? How did you cope? How did the people around you respond?
4. Have you known someone with a terminal illness? How did they handle the news? How would you describe their interactions with you and others?
5. As youâ€™ve gotten older, how have your thoughts on death changed or evolved?
“Feel Me” - May Swenson
“Feel me to do right,” our father said on his deathbed. We did not quite know—in fact, not at all—what he meant. His last whisper was spent as through a slot in a wall. He left us a key, but how did it fit? “Feel me to do right.” Did it mean that, though he died, he would be felt through some aperture, or by some unseen instrument our dad just then had come to know? So, to do right always, we need but feel his spirit? Or was it merely his apology for dying? “Feel that I do right in not trying, as you insist, to stay on your side. There is the wide gateway and the splendid tower, and you implore me to wait here, with the worms!” Had he defined his terms, and could we discriminate among his motives, we might have found out how to “do right” before we died—supposing he felt he suddenly knew what dying was. “You do wrong because you do not feel as I do now” was maybe the sense. “Feel me, and emulate my state, for I am becoming less dense—I am feeling right for the first time.” And then the vessel burst, and we were kneeling around an emptiness. We cannot feel our father now. His power courses through us, yes, but he—the chest and cheek, the foot and palm, the mouth of oracle—is calm. And we still seek his meaning. “Feel me,” he said, and emphasized that word. Should we have heard it as a plea for a caress— a constant caress, since flesh to flesh was all that we could do right if we would bless him? The dying must feel the pressure of that question— lying flat, turning cold from brow to heel—the hot 2
cowards there above protesting their love, and saying, “What can we do? Are you all right?” While the wall opens and the blue night pours through. “What can we do? We want to do what’s right.” “Lie down with me, and hold me, tight. Touch me. Be with me. Feel with me. Feel me to do right.”
“The Last Scene” - Alan Shapiro
Extravagant sweep of clear sky darkening in the big picture window beside the bed, lights here and there already flashing all across the city down below us— Ellen and the girls out somewhere, you and I alone, you with your eyes closed, I with a drink in hand: you suddenly in character, your voice a wraith’s voice, faint, stumbling, slurry with morphine, and yet still artful 3
as ever, even if the art 25
was obvious, the dying brother playing the dying brother— Do you think you have a problem with that? the question masking a declaration, the brother a savior, the savior a judge, not all that different from before except that now the dying had distilled all doubt away as you repeated, Do you think you have a problem? “Me? With what?” I too in character now, the character without character, the little brother who in your mind proves the truth of all you think by his resistance to it, pulling 4
the scene off 55
by refusing to play it, pretending not to know: “With what?” With that,
head tilted to the shot
glass, “This?” my one desire now a little shtick, a final moment of material— “This? A problem? Not at all. There’s plenty more where that came from, almost a whole bottle.” You imperturbable, Look at yourself, how you sit here drinking all alone. “Well, mea gulpa. Are you happy now?” You drink a lot. “I have a lot to drink about.” And that was that. For now you drifted off, or seemed to, your eyes closed, 5
head turned away, the two of us together 90 for the last time ever on the stage of being brothers, our see-through figures in the picture window 95 spectral and vast against the city flashing a ghostly circuitry of nerves 100 within the ancient masks we wore, the hand I lifted, the drink I knocked back in a final toast 105 in honor of the timing, the concentration that neither one of us could ever break. â€œIn the Hospitalâ€? - Chen Chen
My mother was in the hospital & everyone wanted to be my friend. But I was busy making a list: good dog, bad citizen, short skeleton, tall mocha. Typical Tuesday. My mother was in the hospital & no one wanted to be her friend. Everyone wanted to be soft cooing sympathies. Very reasonable pigeons. No one had the tie & our solution to it was to buy shinier watches. We were enamored with 6
what our wrists could declare. My mother was in the hospital & I didn’t want to be her friend. Typical son. Tall latte, short tale, bad plot, great wifi in the atypical café. My mother was in the hospital & she didn’t want to be her friend. She wanted to be the family grocery list. Low-fat yogurt, firm tofu. She didn’t trust my father to be it. You always forget something, she said, even when I do the list for you. Even then.
“Remember Me” - Hal Sirowitz
Every weekend your mother & I tour cemetery plots, Father said, the way most people visit model homes. We have different tastes. I like jutting hills overlooking traffic, whereas she prefers a bed of flowers. She desires a plot away from traffic noise. I let her have her way in death to avoid a life of Hell. But when you light memorial candles for us, arrange hers in the center of a flowery tablecloth, but place mine on the windowsill. Don’t say any prayers for me, just wet your finger & pass it through the flame. Remember me by the tricks I have taught you.
“A Meditation on Death and Aging” - Jason M. Holland, Ph.D. Conscious anxiety about death and dying is a relatively common human experience. From a developmental perspective, though, older adults tend to report less of it than others. Many indicate that they have simply accepted death, or have come to terms with it in some way. And that certainly makes a good deal of sense. Much more so than for other age groups, older individuals are likely to have experienced multiple losses. 7
Particularly among those in senior living environments, the death of friends, neighbors, and family members can become a regular affair. Thus, it’s certainly reasonable to speculate that seniors may simply get better at managing anxiety about death with the repeated exposure that comes with having lived a full life. At the level of thoughts and emotions, however, the picture becomes a bit more complex. Here, we find that the threat of repeated losses, whether of the interpersonal or health-related kind, can bring about major adjustments in coping. Remarkably, as friends and confidants across a lifetime begin to disappear, and one’s own health condition and ability to perform daily tasks is compromised, people still often seem to find creative and inspiring ways to accommodate the “new normal” that multiple losses impose. They may appropriately adjust their expectations or goals, as a way of developing a healthy acceptance of personal limitations. For many, there may also be a greater propensity to look for the silver lining in stressful life events or even find some paradoxical and bittersweet humor in them. This phenomenon has been termed the “positivity effect,” which refers to older adults’ tendency to favor positive over negative stimuli when processing information. Although the existence of the positivity effect has been confirmed in multiple studies, its origins are still a source of great debate. Is it primarily due to neurological and vascular changes associated with aging? Or is there more of a psychosocial process going on—a kind of learning that takes place leading one to conclude that life is short and we must look for the good in every moment? As a clinical psychologist, I am naturally biased toward the latter interpretation. Working on an inpatient hospice unit, I witnessed countless individuals who, despite the apparent hopelessness of their situation, dug deep within themselves to somehow make the very most of their final moments on Earth.
Roger was among these men and women that I encountered in hospice1. At age 67, he was diagnosed with lymphoma, and his health went steadily downhill from there. However, he still showed strong signs of life, even after learning that he likely had six months or less to live. I would find him outside gathered with other patients smoking cigarettes, absorbed in conversation. He became a very popular guy on the unit. Though eventually confined to a wheelchair, he remained a significant presence, whether he was joking around in the hallway or rounding up a group for a spontaneous ice cream social. Still, Roger raised concerns among many of the staff. He seemed to completely ignore his impending death. His remaining family only came to visit sporadically, seemingly because he preferred not to tell them just how dire his situation had become. Even though doctors and nurses explained to him numerous times that his condition was terminal and likely to progress quickly, it wasn’t even entirely clear if Roger himself had fully digested that information. In fact, he was once overheard explaining on the phone that he was feeling much better now and likely to be released from the hospital soon. It was my job to go in and talk to Roger about this. He must have known it before I even walked through the door. Without breaking his gaze from the television hanging above his hospital bed, Roger cut to the chase. “I’m not going to talk about it,” he said to me in a matter- of-fact tone. My first reaction was to do what many therapists probably would in that moment. Rolling with the resistance, as some might say, I nudged him to go just a few inches further. “That’s fair. I’m not going to make you talk about anything you don’t want to. What would it be like, though, to have an honest conversation with me about it—about what’s going on with your health? What do you think might happen?” He wasn’t taking the bait. I had tried those therapist tricks on him before, and he saw it coming from a mile away. He looked me in the eyes and 9
calmly but firmly asserted, “You can stay here and watch football with me in my room if you want, Doc. But if you keep pushing on this, I’m going to have to ask you to get out of here.” I hadn’t yet earned my Ph.D. and appreciated the vote of confidence. With little other choice, I opted for football. As I sat down, I realized it actually wasn’t a live football game but instead one of those NFL documentaries showing all of the glorious highlights of Super Bowl past. A scene from Super Bowl XXXIV played on the screen. It was an epic matchup between the Tennessee Titans and St. Louis Rams that was played only 30 days into the new millennium. Befitting of the first Super Bowl of the 21st century, the game ended with a miraculous, game-winning play by the Rams’ defense that has since been labeled “The Tackle.” Watching it for the first time in nearly ten years, I instinctively winced. Surprised by my reaction, Roger leaned over and asked, “Are you a football fan, Doc?” I was (and remain) a football fan and remembered that Super Bowl very clearly. I grew up in Tennessee and had only recently moved to the West Coast to finish up my schooling. Like most Tennesseans on January 30th of 2000, I was at home with my family watching the game. Our eyes were glued to the television set, as the Tennessee Titan’s quarterback, Steve McNair, took the final snap and completed a pass to Kevin Dyson only two yards away from the goal line and a Super Bowl win. As I recounted the story to Roger, I could see his eyes lighting up. Suddenly, I found myself on my feet acting the scene out in front of his hospital bed as though it were a private stage. Using the curtain as a make-shift goal line, I reenacted Kevin Dyson’s valiant but failed effort to reach the end zone and stretched my arms forward, holding an imaginary football that fell just inches short of its target. “It was absolute pandemonium in my house,” I explained. Contorting my face to convey the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” that took over my family that night, we 10
burst into a spontaneous fit of laughter. And for a brief moment, I wasn’t a therapist and he wasn’t a terminally-ill patient. We connected as human beings in a way that seemed to transcend the bleached walls of the hospital room. Only days later, Roger’s condition worsened, and it was determined that he could no longer make medical decisions for himself. His designated guardian was notified that death was imminent. As friends and family gathered around his bedside, there were tearful remembrances of Roger, intermixed with expressions of surprise and confusion about his choice to minimize his condition for so long. If only he knew our thoughts and could feel what we feel now, surely he would have made a different decision and been more forthcoming. At least, that was the assumption at the time. But, that is an assumption of the living and the healthy. Although I imagine myself approaching my own death in a different way, I’m also hyper-aware of the fact that a “good death” is highly subjective, not too unlike a “good life.” What Roger knew, that no one else seemed to fully appreciate, is that he had made up his mind a long time ago about what he wanted to stand for and value in his life as well as in his death. He couldn’t be burdened with more bad news about his health. He was too busy connecting with other people and bringing out the best of them, just as he did with me that day in his hospital room. When I catch myself contemplating death and a wave of terror comes upon me, my mind sometimes turns to Roger. Thinking about his friends and family holding hands and singing songs around his bedside, I wonder, “What would I want people to say about me on my deathbed?” Or put another way, what do I really want to stand for in this world? The answer is always a moving target. I never quite get there, falling inches short of the goal no matter how far I stretch my arms forward. Still, somewhere deep inside, I find a voice that tells me to keep pushing forward anyway, no matter how much the odds seem to be stacked against me. 11
See “Can’t We Talk - LifeWords Excerpt” Part 1 and Part 2- Since this is a long document, you may choose to read online or with a device. You may also still print the document, but that’s not required.
Published on Mar 12, 2018
Published on Mar 12, 2018
This packet contains readings for the March 2018 meet of LifeWords Reading Circles, which uses reading and discussion to create conversation...