Over the summer, I had the privilege of meeting Kerry Egan, a hospice chaplain who authored the acclaimed memoir On Living. Kerry is perhaps the most famous hospice chaplain in America, having been featured on NPR and in the pages of the New York Times. Obviously “famous hospice chaplain” is a bit of an oxymoron, like “tastiest lima bean in the school cafeteria.” Kerry’s book, though, stands on its own merits. The book’s cover states that it reflects on “the spiritual work of dying” as related through the experiences of her patients. That sounds awfully dreary, and indeed the book is literally existential, that is, concerned with existence and non-existence. The word “existential” is so often paired with “crisis,” but in Kerry’s stories, what emerges isn’t crisis or trauma, but a sense of calm reckoning, coupled with a profound sense of wonder.
One chapter that has stuck with me for several months describes the last weeks in the life of a Cherokee woman who was dying of brain cancer. The woman led a remarkable life, born as the illegitimate, ultimately estranged daughter of the famous Cherokee leader Wilma Mankiller, sustaining severe injuries while rescuing a young man from a burning car, and uprooting her life to be with a woman she met online. Perhaps more remarkable, however, was that according to the woman’s daughter, almost none of this amazing life story was actually true. The dying woman had been a serial liar and con artist, well-practiced in art of manipulation. She wasn’t Wilma Mankiller’s daughter. In fact, she wasn’t even Cherokee. Kerry only came to discover this alternate reality after she and her dying patient had taken part in a powerful Native American religious ritual together. How can we reconcile the profoundly transformative experiences the woman had in her final weeks with the likelihood that most of what she had shared with her own partner and with Kerry was false?
This divergence between the facts of our lives and the narratives we create about them is a conundrum nearly everyone has struggled with — hopefully in a less extreme, less unscrupulous form. Whenever we misremember a childhood incident, painting it with overly-rosy or overly-dark hues, we engage in an act wherein the meaning we create around an experience has more resonance than the nitty-gritty realities of that event. My mother and her sister have an amusing version of this that is perhaps common in families. They often substitute themselves for the other sister when telling a story. So often, in fact, that they sometimes forget which sister was the protagonist in the real story.
Kerry comes away from her encounter with the faux Cherokee woman choosing to hold onto the essence of their shared experience. That essence, that feeling, was the existential truth of the woman’s life.
That’s what’s really important, right? Well, not to me. Not anymore. I think this story has stuck with me because its tidy conclusion caused me to reevaluate my own understanding of truth versus truthiness. Stay tuned for more philosophical ponderings in the next installment of The Kindness of #alternativefacts…