Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Christmas weekend

Dear Family and Friends,

Much has happened in a few days. Francis wasn't feeling well on Christmas night so he slept. I learned the next day he'd been in pain during the night because of his earlier inability to urinate. Though his nurse offered him the relief of a "Foley catheter," Saturday morning, it wouldn't work because of his enlarged prostate. So he slept that off too until a "coude" catheter (with a curved tip to bypass the prostate) was put in successfully on Sunday morning .

Yet, even that Saturday, after a long nap, by suppertime he had rallied. So we reveled in an elegant Christmas feast. When I opened a bottle of wine of which Francis took only a sip (because he's on opiates,) his eyes lit up with joy, seeing mine. His joy at my joy touched me. He didn't express regret that he couldn't partake; he was simply happy to see me relaxing with him.

Meg Wolff's dinner was not off limits for him however! The festive tray with Christmas tree napkins her husband Tom had delivered earlier included: "Cranberry braised tempeh, oven roasted vegetables, rice & wild rice w/pecans, pasta with tofu and Broccoli steamed, seasoned with drops of rice vinegar, and apple/blueberry crisp desserts made with rice syrup. The corn bread was made with blue corn flour." With inspiring Christmas Carols from King's College, Cambridge England resounding as we ate, we basked in the glow of Christmas lights. It didn't matter a bit we were a day late.

The next morning, Sunday, Francis told me he found himself "going in and out of reality." He "felt torn," he said, "between one reality and another. It's hard to take," he added. I pulled out the Hospice booklet which lists the signs to be expected and read to him the short section on "Disorientation."

When he told me with a new earnestness I hadn't heard before that he needed someone to be with him in this transition, I called the Hospice office to see if the Chaplain was available. Learning she was not I remembered how moved Francis was when he had dictated a thank you to Bill Gregory (a retired UCC minister) for his "Message to Francis." He had told Bill how much he admired him, ever since we had taken his course at OLLI (senior college) on "Poetry of Soul." So when I suggested -- "What about Bill Gregory?" Francis immediately said "YES!"

I then -- just as immediately -- emailed Bill who called in less than an hour. A few hours later he arrived at our doorstep. Once the afternoon exchange with Bill was over, Francis asserted, -- "He's the right person!" So Francis has a soul mate now, someone to help him prepare for the transition. He is very happy about it. And I, once again, am in awe at the ways of Providence!

It was not just Bill's "Poetry of Soul" course that brought us together with him. Francis and I also shared with Bill and his wife Nancy the experience of standing weekly for peace with our signs at Monument Square through sunny and wintry days.

It was also Bill who invited Francis and me to be interviewed for the program about seniors on Portland Community Television called "The Second Act."

In fact during Francis' wake and after the funeral reception, we'll have that TV interview available for viewing in one of the rooms near the Sacred Heart/St. Dominic's downstairs Chapel.

I had planned in these updates, to share Bill's recent monthly column in the Portland Press Herald because its subject speaks directly to us at this time: "Embrace death as part of life cycle." It's a good time to share it now, so I've copied it below.
But first a brief PS:
After writing the above last night I checked Francis' blood sugar before going to bed, but decided to whisper a question too: "Would you like some organic tofu yogurt?" adding, -- "You've been asleep a long time." (I know that though he looks asleep he easily awakens to a whispered question.)
Francis did indeed want the yogurt, -- a total of three big tablespoons. While he kept each spoonful in his mouth, one at a time, to warm it up before swallowing, I was massaging his feet with a rich oil Lynn got us to help knit the dry skin, especially on his feet, ankles and shins. He loves a gentle scratching to loosen the dead skin and elasticizing the new skin underneath with more oil.
Francis thanked me for having awakened him. He said the yogurt made him feel stronger, and repeated a few times that yes, he was glad I had awakened him because "it's not time yet." I questioned his meaning and he agreed: "Torn between one reality and another," his being lured toward long sleeps is premature right now.
It's not time yet!

REFLECTIONS Embrace death as part of life cycle

BILL GREGORY December 5, 2009
REFLECTIONS is a column written by members of Maine's faith-based community.
I've been thinking about death. Not focused on it, really; more around the edges.
Fall always does that to me. Rolf Humphries has a poem called "Autumnal" that comes to my mind each year as the leaves fall:
"Face it – you must – and do not turn away
"From this bright day
"Face it, and doing so,
"Be wise enough to know
"It is Death you face, it is Death whose colors burn
"Gold, bronze, vermillion in the season's turn.
"In pomp and fine array
"Not only all that lives, but all that dies
"Is holy, having lived, and testifies
"To bravery in season, spirit, man.
"Face it. You must. You can."
In my seventh decade, I don't have much choice. Slowly but surely, my body is shedding its leaves. The obituary pages list the ages of those who died recently, and more and more of them are my age or younger.
I'm facing it. I'm going to die. I don't have to like it, particularly the process of dying, but it is a fact. So what to think about it?
I think death is OK. More than that, I think it is appropriate. It's appropriate for each of us to step aside in our turn, particularly so for those of us who have been blessed with long lives.
But the more I think about it, I don't think the issue is when we die but what we think about the fact of our dying.
For a long time, perhaps still, physicians have been dedicated to keeping their patients alive, seeming to opt for quantity of life over quality of life. Our litigious culture is part of the problem. But underneath, it has to do with a cultural attitude toward death. We are afraid of it.
I understand not wanting to die. After all, when all is said and done, life is sweet even if sometimes it serves up a sweet and sour entree, even sour and sour.
But life has its moments, and the moments that make it sweet are moments of natural beauty and moments of love, and the moments make it all worthwhile.
I think that there will be moments like these for us after death, but if I'm wrong, I think that the moments we had during our lifetimes were worth it all, nothing more needed.
I understand not wanting to die, but I have a harder time understanding the fear of dying. Death is part of life. Life and death are partners in this world, not opponents.
This is so, both environmentally and spiritually. As Ecclesiastes says in its third chapter, "For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die"
"Face it. You must. You can."
The fear of death must have something to do with the unknown, like the darkness in the closet or under the bed of my childhood.
I used to stand against the wall that my bed was next to, get a running start and jump as far as I could to escape whatever scary arms or tentacles might grab me from the dark under the frame. If that is our picture of death, I understand fearing it. But it isn't my picture of death.
Neither do I picture pearly gates and golden streets after death. I do picture love, eternal love, which means it's here now and will be beyond the limits of my mortality and definitions. It is this love that leads me to think about death in terms of ecology: the ecology of grace and the ecology of organics.
The ecology of grace has to do with the fact that things, you and I among them, get torn down over the course of time, but the refuse – or our experiences and our days – is the humus that nourishes and nurtures the growth of spirit, character and wisdom.
The ecology of grace teaches that we can trust – in my trade, we often use the word "believe" – that what appear to be ends are more transitions than conclusions.
With love in the mix, the transitions may not be easy, but they are graceful. This is so for us in the mystery of what is next in the adventure of our being and for our loved ones and friends who must cope with the loss of our bodies to hold and the sound of our voices.
The ecology of organics says that things must die to make room for things that follow. Death is natural, appropriate. There is a time for us each to step aside – and better for all if we can take death's hand as a partner in the dance of life rather run from it as I did from my childhood fears.
There isn't much, if any, joy in saying goodbye once and for all, but we can participate with more generosity and gratitude when we understand death is natural and, in its unique way, a gift to our loved ones and nature.
That is another way to look at our dying, as gift-giving – giving, among other things, the gifts of space and perspective.
We step aside, making room for our loved ones and others on this crowded earth, leaving our remains to nurture some tree or bush. Let's not be buried in time capsules. I vote for biodegradable urns or coffins.
Our parting also gives the gift of perspective. No one fully understands what they have learned from us or what beautiful people we were, in spite of it all, until we are dead. That is a gift to them.
I taught a course once that involved writing our own memorial service, eulogy and all. One member of the class liked what she wrote so much that she wanted to be there. So she announced to her family that she was having her funeral now, including her reading some of her favorite poems.
I'm sure it was fun and meaningful, but it wasn't really her funeral. Our very presence gets in the way of others seeing us clearly.
Death gives those who loved the departed clearer and kinder vision. There is sadness in it but also joy. She did give her family wonderful gifts, though; she showed them that she wasn't afraid to face her demise, thus lessening fear all around, and she invited a conversation blessed with the perspective of mortality.
I was born and grew up in California, but I choose to live in New England, and I plan to live in Maine from now on and die here.
One reason for that is the seasons. They teach me many things, and one of them, augmented by my Christian faith, is not to be afraid of change – in fact, to rejoice in it.
I'm feeling more and more that way about death.

Copyright © 2009 MaineToday Media, Inc


  1. A beautiful blog post and column as well. Thank you for sharing it.

    Michio Kushi once spoke of the body being a placenta that grows us and when we die we are really being born into the spiritual life.

  2. Dear Elaine and Francis,

    My gratitude and thanks for sharing with us your most intimate dinners and evenings together. Your kindness and love for each other radiates through these writings. Thank you Francis and Elaine for speaking out and witnessing for social justice. You are both in our thoughts.
    In peace.
    Mary and Mike Donnelly