Tag: death

The Kindness of #alternativefacts, Part 2

I’ve always tended to believe that the stories we construct about a thing are every bit as important as the actual thing. Feelings and shared meanings connect us and make us human. Maybe this is why I love writing novels. Fiction allows me to couch my own truths in other people’s stories.

I’ve seen first hand what happens when facts are divorced from meaning. Before my baby was born, I used to occasionally volunteer at our vet school’s Pet Loss Hotline. I’ve written before about how the most traumatized calls I fielded were from people whose questions could never be answered. Maybe they had trusted their veterinarian, only to later wonder if that trust was misplaced. It was impossible to go back in time and see if another choice would’ve resulted in a different outcome. Or perhaps their unanswerable question was even more visceral, i.e. one day, their pet simply disappeared. These were the callers who couldn’t move past the loss. As humans, unless we can fit a fact into a narrative we can understand, our brains get stuck in a perpetual “does not compute” cycle. Until we can create an answer to WHY?, all the facts in the world just don’t add up to a hill of beans.

In my last post, I said that I used to believe that meaning trumped facts. That was my explanation for the enduring pain of some of the Pet Loss Hotline callers, and that’s why I initially found myself nodding along when Kerry Egan, the renowned writer and hospice chaplain, suggests in her wonderful, poignant book, On Living, that the essence of a person’s experience, rather than the biographical details, are what remains at the end of life. At one point, Kerry tells the story of a dying woman who more than likely conned her way through life, and continued to fake her way towards death. Kerry chooses to focus on the power of the woman’s end-of-life experiences. “In the midst of unknowing,” she writes, “something absolute and real and true happened. Two women learned not just that they could love but that they were worthy of love.”

To me, however, the implications of that position have become less and less tenable in the era of #fakenews and #alternativefacts. The woman in Kerry’s story probably intended to deceive those around her, or perhaps had become so enamored of her own false narrative that she no longer recognized the truth. Either way, I’ve come to reject the idea that allowing someone free rein to craft their own life narrative is acceptable. Call me hardhearted, but I think Kerry lets the dying woman off too easy.

I will argue all day long about your opinion on an issue or a detail from a past event that we each remember differently. Just ask my husband. But I’ve become an ardent defender of the idea that where there is knowable truth, we must try our best to arrive at it. We cannot argue about facts. The blurring of the line between opinion, narrative, and reality and the maligning of the legitimate information is Demagogue 101. Prizing a narrative, whether it be about the size of a crowd or the size of a person’s hands, over knowable facts is dangerous and corrosive. Scientific progress and moral betterment rely on a basic acceptance that intrinsic truth exists.

The Buddha said, “Everything rests on the point of intention.” That has become my new yardstick for deciding when #alternativefacts might indeed be preferable to reality. A person who shares a falsely dramatic memory of walking seven miles uphill through the snow to get to school as a child probably doesn’t intend to deceive or to profit from crafting a false narrative, so I’ll let it go. No (intent to) harm, no foul. A dad who falsely tells his kid that her artwork is beautiful or a friend who reassures her bestie that no one will even notice her ill-advised foray into ombré hair color are almost definitely intending to be kind. A politician who spews whoppers to avoid the consequences of his actions? A woman, dying or not, who gains her lover’s trust in part by crafting a false life story? No free passes. It’s all about intention.

Then again, we all know what paves the road to hell.

 

When your time’s up, even Gandalf isn’t going to be able to save you.

I have a friend who is a nurse. Not just any kind of nurse, either. She specializes in the care of people with ALS, which is also known as as the disease that makes everyone throw a bucket of water on their heads. The average person diagnosed with this terrible, degenerative neurological disease lives 2-5 years, so for her, experiencing death is a pretty regular part of caring for her patients. A few Christmases ago, my friend was awakened during the night by the cries of her mother-in-law, who was experiencing symptoms of a heart attack. The elderly woman, who lived with my friend and her husband, had been growing increasingly frail, sickly, and confused during the years leading up to this and had, as a consequence, filled out a Living Will, specifying that no heroic measures should be undertaken to preserve her life. Yet, when her cries awakened my friend, her natural urge was to rush into her mother-in-law’s room and start performing CPR. She called 999 (the UK version of 911) and began frantically pumping on the elderly woman’s thin chest. She thought about trying to administer aspirin or beta blockers and wondered how long it would be before help arrived. But after a few frenzied moments, she stopped. Instead, as she awaited the ambulance, she called her husband into the room. They both held the old woman and stroked her hair. They spoke softly to her and told her how much they loved her as she took her last breaths.

Even though I never met the woman who died, this story has really stuck with me. It shows how, even for those of us with a lot of experience with death and dying, the natural instinct is often to do something, anything to prolong life. So many of us can’t see what my friend was able to–that a lot of the time, we’re not prolonging life. We’re prolonging death.

By no means am I an advocate for giving up on life. Indeed, I’ve spent most of my professional career supporting biomedical research projects aimed at improving and extending life for both animals and people. And probably one of the things I like the most about writing murder mysteries is that I get to decide who dies, when. Unless I kill them, none of the characters I love will ever die. Even with that kind of omnipotence, though, have you ever noticed how most writers don’t raise people from the dead? Dumbledore, Gandalf, and countless other powerful wizards lack this one, very useful ability. And in fiction, as well as many religious traditions, when someone is brought back, they’re often a twisted, evil shadow of their former selves. From the zombies in Haitian voodoo to that creepy kid in Pet Sematary, lives that are resurrected aren’t restored. Instead, death, for them, becomes a prolonged, tormented state. In fact, the only positive examples of resurrection that come to mind are the few ancient Greeks, such as Achilles, who came back from the dead as gods, and Lazarus, who came back as just plain, old Lazarus. And then, of course, there’s Jesus himself, whose triumphant resurrection is thought to show that conquering death is ultimately possible.

For me, though, the lack of other example in literature or real life (the occasional “woman wakes up in morgue” story notwithstanding) is telling. I think we, on some very, very deep human level, know that death really is the bourn from whence no traveller returns. Now, I’m not saying that it’s impossible that we could go on to some other existence after our earthly deaths. As I’ve said before, I personally don’t think so, but it would be really nice. I guess I’m just saying that we all know deep down that when the party’s over, it’s really over. And that’s what makes just sitting back and letting go so damn hard.

Hospice chaplain Karen B. Kaplan sends a postcard from the edge

In her creative nonfiction work, Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died, hospice chaplain Karen B. Kaplan shares her patients’ stories–some heart-breaking, some funny, some profound–and refuses to offer easy answers or sound-bite wisdom about what it means to face death. Excerpted below is Chapter One, entitled “You’re Too Nice Looking to Work for Hospice- -Being Made Welcome to My New Career.”  For more samples of Rabbi Kaplan’s writing and information about her book, check out her blog, offbeatcompassion.com.  She hastens to warn readers of my Lindsay Harding mystery series that her book has no detectives, murders, or blind dates with teenage Zoroastrian Civil War reenactors.

Karen B. Kaplan has some stories for you

Chaplain Karen B. Kaplan:

I started looking for hospice work in 2005 as I wrapped up a three-year contract with Progressive Temple Beth Ahavat Sholom in Brooklyn, New York. As my contract was drawing to a close, I interviewed for pulpit as well as hospice positions, being ambivalent about leaving congregational life. The congregation was unaware that I was considering serving at a hospice. As of yet unannounced to a soul, soon after I got the offer from United Hospice of Rockland, one of these fans said, “Rabbi, I don’t care how far away your next post is, I will follow you there.” I told him I was overwhelmed with his faithfulness and touching sentiments, but that he would not want to fulfill his vow as the only way he would be following me would be as a hospice patient! A portrait painter would have had a heyday capturing the motley crew of emotions all over his face.

And that was one of the more positive reactions to my announcement of my career plans. One person made such an expression of disgust you would think I had already ritually defiled myself from contact with the dead as described in the Book of Leviticus. He was afraid I would be contaminating him in no time. Sure enough, he backed away from our remaining opportunities to get together over coffee. Someone else, upon hearing the news, raised his arms as if to protect himself, emitted an “Oh!” looked away, and retreated a step or two. Mentioning my new career to my congregants definitely was a way to throw a curveball into a conversation. (Nowadays, there is a mischievous part of me that sometimes gets a kick out of springing this surprise upon unsuspecting listeners such as fellow Bed and Breakfast guests.) Yet another congregant gave me a knowing look, saying “That is just the kind of job that would suit you.” Maybe I was imagining it, having been stung by the premature end of my tenure, but it felt like the subtext of that remark was “A pulpit rabbi you should not or could not ever be.” So onward I went, with all these votes of confidence, to life at the edge.

Knock, knock. Who’s there? Death.

There’s a great quote in Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s book Americanah about blogging. She describes a blogger so eager to impress her followers with her wit and freshness that she begins to feel, over time, “like a vulture hacking into the carcasses of other people’s stories.” As I peck at the keyboard in my little corner of the Great Blogosphere, I can relate. I, too, suffer from the blergy, sinking feeling that everything interesting and meaningful that can be said, has been said a thousand times before by people way fancier than I am. Undaunted, I will blog on, because, like Allison Janda, I am a blogoholic. All of which is to say: consider yourself warned that Adiche’s quote is going to be especially true about this blog post, because not only am I going to talk about things that other people have written, but I’m going to talk about, well, carcasses. In this case, human ones.

I’ve written about death on this blog before, so you may already know that I have an interest in the subject. If you are very clever, the fact that I write murder mysteries about a hospital chaplain (whose job in large part involves providing pastoral care to those facing the end of their lives) might also have dropped a subtle hint.

Thus, I was heartened to learn that there are other young women who’ve given this topic some thought. [And, yes, I did just have a birthday. And, no, saying “young” and including myself in that age bracket wasn’t a typo.]

Caitlin Doughty isn’t like stuffed squirrels smoking pipes.

When I first heard about mortician and death scholar Caitlin Doughty’s new book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, I thought it was going to be a piece of hipster shock art, like those weird taxidermy scenes of, say, chipmunks playing miniature banjos or stuffed squirrels smoking pipes. After all, the publicity photos showed Doughty, an attractive Morticia Addams type with black hair and red lipstick, holding a skull. This signaled to me a posture of somehow being “cooler” than death.

But you really can’t judge a book by its cover (or an author by her ability to look sexy wielding a skull). The glossy Betty Page pin-up image is only bait to pull readers into a thoughtful and engaging work about the modern American experience of life and death. There’s humor and humanity in her book, but she never comes across as flippant. If anything, she encourages us to think more deeply, and become more engaged in the essential fact of life that death is. Doughty doesn’t believe in an afterlife; she’s someone who has suffered from existential fears and has stared death in the face…literally. From all of this, she has, in my opinion, grown wise beyond her years.

Another young woman whose writing on this subject I greatly admire is Stacy N. Sergent, a.k.a. Chaplain Jesus Lady. You’ll have to trust me that the Lindsay Harding character who features in my murder mystery series is not based on Sergent, although they’re both funny, young, compassionate, Southern, single and have very curly hair. However, it’s been wonderful to discover Sergent’s blog, which so often expresses views that mirror my own and, by extension, Lindsay’s. As an ordained Christian minister, Sergent falls on the the opposite end of the theological spectrum from Doughty. However, the two women share a passion for advocating acceptance of the inevitability of death and compassion for those facing it. I can’t recommend her recent post “D is for Death” (in her ABCs of hospital chaplaincy series) highly enough. I’ll leave you with the words she closes with:

We are the same. I am with you, as far as I can go. God is with you all the way. You are not alone. Even in death, not one of us is alone.

Why write murder mysteries? And why have a chaplain solve them?!

One of my writing heroes, the fabulous novelist Ann Patchett, was interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air recently. She said that all of her books are fundamentally about groups of strangers who are thrown together in unusual circumstances. Patchett reckons that all writers have a similar “thing”–the theme that underpins almost all of their writing. Jack London? Man against nature. Hemingway? Strength and the loss of strength.

My writing buddy, Charlotte Morgan, heard the Patchett interview, too, and asked me what my theme was. It may not be entirely obvious to those who’ve only read A Murder in Mount Moriah. In fact, it wasn’t something I’d ever thought about. Yet, I was able to answer Charlotte’s question immediately. My theme is death. Or perhaps more accurately, my own fear of death and my exploration of other people’s attitudes towards death. That may seem an odd answer given that most of what I write is (or tries to be!) funny. But I’ve never seen any incompatibility between humor and death. Indeed, one of my first literary ventures was writing an original comedy piece for my forensics team when I was a freshman in high school. The story I wrote began with the death of an old woman who was “rammed by a ewe”. All these years later, I’m still pretty proud of that pun.

So death is my theme. But why have a main character who is a hospital chaplain? I suppose that my protagonist, Lindsay Harding, is my shield. Her wisdom and humor protect me from the aspects of death that I would otherwise find too scary to confront. Because hospital chaplains see death so often and in so many forms, they are often able to find moments of levity, beauty, poignancy, and transcendence within the processes of dying and grieving. I think a lot of us feel, or want to feel, this way about death–that it would be better to treat it as another part of life rather than as “that which cannot be named”. To that end, I commend to you the heartbreaking and hilarious series of tweets recently put out by comedy writer Laurie Kilmartin, whose father passed away a few days ago. Check it out. If you don’t laugh AND cry, I will eat my hat.

p.s. This post is dedicated to my friend, Ida Jarron, who passed away late last week. I went to visit her recently in the nursing home she moved to after her condition took a turn for the worse. As ever, she offered me a gin and tonic, which (as ever) she poured with a very heavy hand and almost no mixer. I suspect that I am one of the few people who can say that they’ve walked out of a nursing home at 4 o’clock in the afternoon steaming drunk. RIP, Miss Ida.