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A recycled life is worth considering

IMG_1287The choice to move from my home of twenty years was not an easy decision to make. It was the childhood home of my children, and a healthy degree of sentiment was attached to the place as a result. It was also the home where my late wife and I spent so many years, and she passed away within its walls.

For three years following her death, I tended the gardens and built new water features in the backyard she loved. My daughter and I ranched monarchs from the milkweed plants, just as my late wife had done. These were important remembrances and real-life transitions, symbolic and otherwise.

Home

So the significance of that home was not lost on me. Yet there grew in me a need to change and start anew, to recycle some things in my mind.

In fact, I had many dreams in which I was moving, or had just moved and was trying to make sense of what my values were about in those dreams. In some of those sleepy time imaginings, my late wife was actually present as an observer to my behavior. I took that presence to mean there was a responsibility to my children in my decision. Her memory was obviously precious, and her dreamtime presence still presided over the place.

Away

And yet, she had told me in many ways that she understood my priorities in life as well. There was one early morning, perhaps a month before she died, when she woke me with a sheet of paper bearing detailed descriptions of how she wanted me to work for myself, and try new things. That was not some hidden message. That was direct consultation. It was also a sign that a month out from her passing, she knew more than she was telling anyone else.

That courage in the face of death was also not lost on me. It emboldened me to be brave and forthright about her passing. I had to take care of myself in order to care for our children. Sometimes that strength was a disservice, and I missed important cues of need and hope. Yet it was also best for me not to sit home and brood. So I went out on dates not because I wanted to forget her, but in acknowledgment that I love companionship. It is how I am wired. It is why we were married for 28 years and why we dated four years before that. It is also why I eventually met a woman and fell in love again.

History

It should be known that all that history added into my decision on whether to keep the house or not. In the end, I felt like that chapter in life had completed itself. There was a period of grieving and processing that lasted three years after her death. Yet I did not think that staying in the home would add anything more to that line of thinking.

The tougher question was whether it was a disservice to my children to sell the home. I will admit that I made that decision based on my own mental health. The thought of “losing” the home caused some suffering to my kids. We gathered in our basement and went through their prodigious collections of things stored there, and determined that not all of it needed to be kept. So we chose some important keepsakes and those have moved with me into a new home.

Stuff 

When I dug deeper into the multitude of boxes and collectibles stuffed into closets and basements and under staircases, I realized that my wife had kept just about everything about their youth. Entire books of homework and certificates of achievement. Old music scores and massive books of drawings, notes and cards. These I sorted through over a period of weeks. In fact, the process had begun years ago, and there have been many waves of examination and trips to Goodwill, calls from Amvets and Vietnam Vets for clothes pickups. When my wife told me a few weeks out from her passing, “Chris, I’m sorry about all the stuff,” I had no idea what she was saying. I learned the hard way.

And I had to deal with the real deadline of selling the house when it came into being.

That had taken place in stages. First, my now-fiancee and I examined the option of building onto my old place. But that was expensive, and impossible in some ways without a difficult two years in construction plan. Instead, we decided to work together and build the financial credit and equity to look into another home, one we could buy together. Start fresh.

And that happened fast.  Then after her lease was up October 1, we moved her stuff into my home for 10 days and stored her furniture. Then we moved her stuff again down to the new house and most of my furniture with it too. All that was left were two outside lawn chairs and a whole lot of closets full of disjointed memories.

Digging out

I worked like a bugger to clear out all the remaining stuff. But in the end, I missed the closing deadline. That caused the buyer’s realtor to panic and get a little angry with me. I called my realtor and apologized to all parties involved. I’d done my best but needed more time because I’d had no idea how much stuff there really was to move out. So the lawyers talked and it was agreed to hold back $5K and charge me $125 per day until the house was completely cleared out and cleaned.

That cleanout turned into 12 yards of eclectic dumpster material hauled away at an early hour by the Waste Management Bagster truck. I begged them to come that Friday morning to take it away. They told me they could not provide any guarantees. So when they pulled past my headlights at 6:00 a.m. the day I’d targeted for actual closing I heaved a giant sigh and cried with my head on the steering wheel. But there was still a lot of work to do.

Decision-making

Because the decision-making that had gone into those big bags of stuff was not easy. It’s a difficult thing to throw away the drawings your kids did in childhood. Yet we can’t keep all this stuff. None of us can. Last spring I cleared out the home where my late father had lived for 38 years. We filled up two 15-yard dumpsters. It was a massive job. It also slammed the door on any sentiment we might have felt toward all but a tiny segment of belongings from his home.

I realized that if I had not performed the act of clearing out that home and cleaning it, someday my own kids would have had to do it. I can tell you, that’s not easy, and it’s not fun. It also can have a demeaning effect on the memory of your loved one.

Owning too much junk is not a virtue. Dispensing of someone else’s junk is not a joy.

Even my own collection of CDs went spilling into the maw of those green bags. When I called the Junk Genie to come help with the final stages of the cleanout, even more formerly precious possessions were tossed into the garage. Then my fiancee and her son swept through the backyard collecting garden stuff and all kinds of other detritus.

Pickers

Along the away, a phalanx of metal pickers made my house a regular stop on their daily routes to find marketable metal objects. I was a fertile source of those objects. Even the metal poles that rested in the rafters of my basement as well as an ancient Kenmore stove that had lurked beside the ironing board all twenty years of owning the home were collected by the pickers. So while I created a load of junk, some of it went to good use as well. I was grateful for these newfound and somewhat transient friendships. But I have kept their numbers as well.

In the end, it felt like I was recycled as well. New beginnings are not a bad thing to consider in life. While somehow I wish loss never had to occur in life, the fact of the matter is that it does.

Controlling your instincts to keep everything

Which means sometimes it pays to take control of the losses you need to create, and empower your own existence by moving things along. That example can help others clean up the debris in their own lives. Because while junk in an old home is a physical thing, those of us that have moved a few times also recognize that there is emotional junk we need to move along as well. A recycled life is worth considering. Sometimes real love of self and others waits on the other side.

 

 

Ana Zanic watercolors elevate and expand the mind

Zanic swoopOccasionally I see the work of another artist and feel compelled to tell the world about it. And while Ana Zanic of Geneva is doing quite well for herself with paintings now featured in shows that include galleries in Chicago, New York, Denver and Baton Rouge, that does not mean one cannot add to the discussion.
I first met Ana Zanic back in 2013 when she was working as a Resident Artist at Water Street Studios in Batavia. Our family purchased one of her paintings and it hangs in my home to this day. Her recent show Fluidity being show at the Fermi National Accelerator gallery is an expansion on all that she is doing with her watercolors. The work is on display in the second-floor gallery of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory through September 16.
Fluidity demonstrates why Zanic’s work is drawing so much national attention.Her paintings range from the intimate in size to the ultimate in spatial expression with watercolors. Grouped under categories such as Origins, Nebula and Arcadia, each passage suggests a thought process. Yet there are no confining qualities to her work that limit the viewer’s ability to explore and use their own imagination.

Her largest works in the show are stunning in size. Encountering watercolor paintings that stand taller than a human being is uncommon in this world. But that is the point. Her six-foot tall watercolors force one to stand back for a wider look yet draw the viewer close to see what else is going on within these organic forms.

Zanic must either possess a very broad brush or is able to sweep the flow of a watercolor glaze using other means. Her large paintings consist of washes fully one foot across that are drawn in washes similar in form to a Mobius strip. Infinity thus exists on paper. She uses this format to create space and then enhance it with wet-in-wet methods that suggest landscape or plant forms, woods or valleys.

Zanic watercolor.jpgSuggestively, these same shapes could well be the processes that invented and expanded the universe, and from within these massive forms come Zanic’s textural commentaries. Tiny drawn figures seem to vacillate between material forms and energy. Sometimes they appear to be forests emerging from the earth. At other times, they seem to convey a population of thoughts or recollections. This is what makes her work so pleasing, accessible and yet mysterious at the same time. To complete this journey from thought to form, she has also created a series of pottery pieces that bear the same conversational inscriptions.

Work like this enables viewers to get lost in very personal worlds of visual appeal and contemplation of the process that led to its creation. The title of the show Fluidity could be taken as a literal comment about a watercolor show. Yet there’s more to it than that, because every watercolorist knows that creating paintings is a process of both anticipation and happy mistakes. Every inch of surface becomes its own palette when watercolor flows across the surface. This becomes a conversation and some points even an intellectual argument in which delicacy and force of will are in constant engagement. The drips, runs and expansions all play a role in this universe created by a watercolor goddess.

Her special command of materials is best demonstrated in her ability to create tension and excitement through use of edges, which Zanic employs in work to define positive and negative shapes. In between she celebrates gauzy wonderment in the wet and marvelous world of water, pigment and paper.

Her works in the Origin series bear suggestions of geology or topography. Yet they could just as easily be considered in the context of space and time. One wonders if the physicists at Fermi have been wandering through this show considering the subatomic worlds they explore, which could very well be similar to the world of watercolor and the paintings of Ana Zanic.

Zanic watercolor too.jpgIt is high time that all of us come to grips with the fact that the world is not a “paint by number” place. Physics and evolution demand that knowledge. We also now know there is space between all matter, and dark matter beyond that. We even have the ability to shoot neutrinos through the earth.  As it turns out, the pigment of our vision exists as much by force of imagination as it does in reality.

And Ana Zanic paints that space between. That is how (and why) the watercolors of Ana Zanic call us to consideration of all that we see. It may well be more realistic to depict the world in abstract terms than it is to attempt a direct copy of it. In this regard, the setting for the show Fluidity at Fermilab is perfect. It stands to expand your concept of the world and what you see around you.

The Fermilab Art Gallery is on the second floor of Wilson Hall. It is free and open to the public Monday to Friday, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Sign in a the Wilson Hall atrium reception desk. The show will be displayed through September 16.

She still calls me coach

IMG_6262On the way back from the studio today by bike, I pedaled past a familiar home. It was the house of a former soccer player, a kid that I coached through middle school who went on to play a few years of high school soccer. He was a talented player. Grew up kicking the soccer ball with his Latino family. In fact, his mother made me promise that I’d never hold him back from playing with members of his family even if it conflicted with one of our scheduled games.

That only happened once, but it was a bargain that deserved respect. His mother is a person of strong family values. Not the faux Christian kind that are so popular in today’s political climate, trumped up with grandstanding and ulterior motives. This was a good Catholic woman who demanded respect for every member of her family.

Like any middle school kid, her son still struggled with self-image and played hot and cold in practice and on the field. As he matured, he grew handsome, and his confidence grew too. I still recall the afternoon a band of girls from the U-13 team we scrimmaged called out his name across the field after a game. “Enrique!” they called teasingly. “Becky loves you!”

He’s married now if I recall and works building high-quality cabinetry. So he wasn’t “home” the day I rode by on my bike. He has his own home now.

Yet the memories of coaching him and other boys on a traveling team built from a successful recreational league squad are still strong in my mind. There is no doubt I could have known the game better. Could have done a better job with coaching skills and teaching how the offense and defense should work. But my assistant coaches were a great help. I relied on them, and that’s as it should be. You can’t know everything or see everything in a game of soccer. Or any game for that matter.

Years after my son was done playing I began relating a play in which he crossed the ball during a match and a teammate performed a flying header of the ball into the goal. “That’s my favorite moment in coaching,” I told him.

“Dad, I don’t remember a single game we played,” my son said softly. “But the practices were fun. I loved hanging out with the guys and riding home in that Oldsmobile we owned with the seat that fell back and the bell kept going off for the door. I remember TJ laughing and telling jokes in the back seat.”

The practices were fun. We were assisted as well by a series of professional coaches from the organizations to which we belonged. Some were liked by the kids. Others were loathed for reasons I never fully understood. My team was not super-serious, for one thing. Despite a wealth of physical talent and some pretty good on-field thinking, for the most part, we played a Division or two down from the Classic or Platinum teams. Yet when we played them, it was usually only a 3-1 loss.

There was a tournament in which we advanced to the championship final. Unfortunately, we ran into a juggernaut squad from St. Louis that had us down 5-0 at halftime. With ten minutes to go in the game, it was 8-0. I was distraught and felt bad for the kids, for I felt I’d failed them in this opportunity for glory.

The kids saw it differently. They knew they’d been thrashed, and suddenly my tall defender got the ball and started doing some fancy footwork in the backfield. He stood 6’1″ as a 13-year-old kid and was still pretty fast and agile. But the sight of him doing moves worthy of today’s stars like Messi and Ronaldo was comical beyond belief. Our entire squad burst into laughter and even the other side got a yuck out of it. The match lightened up from there, and we all went home happy with second place.

Perhaps I could have skipped all that. Focused on my own career like some of the fathers I met along the way, who never coached or just dropped their kids off at this practice or that. Sometimes I felt inferior to those days, whose important titles and hard-ass jobs were definitely the mark of success. But I don’t regret a single day.

All this came back to mind when that mother of one of my players waved back as I pedaled by on my bike. “Hi Coach,” she called out. She still calls me coach.

There are far worse things in life, for sure.

 

Getting the full picture is tough to do

Sometimes events and images convene in a way that is meant to tell you something about life. It works that way if you are willing to listen. To hear. And hopefully, to understand.

Sunday while flying back from Tampa to Chicago, I sat in the middle seat of an airplane next to a man who slept most of the way, but fitfully. When we approached our destination and some turbulence began, he was visibly anxious and uncomfortable.

I waited through the landing, then turned to him and said, “You don’t like that stuff, huh?”

He smiled a quick smile and replied, “Well, I used to jump out of airplanes so it shouldn’t scare me. But it still does.”

It turns out the young man served in the Airborne in Iraq. “I was a camera guy,” he informed me. “It was my job to take pictures of what we were doing. Our unit.”

He told me that it was a difficult job. “I saw things people don’t want to see,” he said. “Like, I was taking a picture of a kid riding his bike and he just got blown up. Right there. But the military didn’t want to share that photo. There was an election going on and they wanted the news to be good.”

I asked him how he got involved as a photographer. “I spent three months training in photography and three months learning journalism,” he said. “Then they sent me over to Iraq.”

Did he expect to use his photography in civilian life? “I don’t think civilian life will take me,” he responded. “I got too many issues.”

On our way together through the airport I handed him my business card and offered to talk with him some. In turn, he pulled out an identification card that he called the Silver Ticket. “It takes twenty years of service to get this,” he told me. “I started when I was 18. Now I’m 41,” he said, and smiled that quick smile of his. The smile that says a lot, and yet seems to say nothing at the same time.

He still looks a young man. Yet he is now a man for the ages, and told me that he’d collect a certain amount of money for his time and service to his nation. Beyond that, his plans were flexible.

My encounter with that soldier came back into mind when I clicked on a link to an NPR story about the work of military photographer David Gilkey, whose compelling photos give us a small window to the world in which so many of our active duty soldiers live and work and sometimes, die.

“I consider myself lucky,” the soldier from the plane told me as we stepped off the moving belt in the terminal. Lucky indeed.

(Photograph from NPR feature on photographer David Gilkey)

Peach tree possibilities

Today is the day my father’s house is sold. It took several months to transition sort through the furniture and make decisions about belongings. There were no great surprises. No First Edition copies of To Kill a Mockingbird or anything dramatic like that.

In fact, the books I cleared out yesterday were Encyclopedia Brittanica volumes used to hold down insulation in the crawlspace. I remember those books from trying to make sense of them as kids. They were the Internet of an earlier age. Ostensibly they held a little bit of everything you might want to know from A to Z.

It was always a test to figure out how you could say what you found in those books without copying the exact same language. Never mind the fact that any translation would be less scholarly and likely less factual than the work of those who wrote and proofed the book. “You shall not plagiarize” is the rule of all students, writers and journalists.

IMG_4559.jpgNow we live in a world where virtually everything we consume in terms of information is shared and likely plagiarized in some form from some other content. Real journalists puke at this notion. Real photographers too. But that’s how the world has evolved.

Which is also proof that the world does not always evolve in the direction of what we like to call progress. It also happily regresses at times.

I think about these things because before my father lost his ability to speak due to a stroke 15 years ago, he was an iconoclastic thinker. Even after his stroke, he would work hard drawing diagrams and symbols to communicate abstract concepts. These were often designed to challenge our perceptions about some past or current event. This could be frustrating as hell to discern. Yet he would not give up. He was an iconoclast to his dying day.

There is a certain pragmatism to being an iconoclast. This fact frustrates  people who thrive on a conservative mode of practical thinking. There are many people who prefer to speak in plain language, and act the same. None other than William F. Buckley once stated, “The more complicated and powerful the job, the more rudimentary the preparation for it.”

Well, William F. Buckley was right about some things, and wrong about others.

For example, the person we know as Jesus Christ taught using parables. That’s an indirect way of speaking truth. Yet it was his goal engage people in thinking about spiritual concepts by giving them familiar examples to which they could relate. This might seem like an unnecessary step for the Son of God to speak the truth. Yet it was true that metaphor helped make the Kingdom of God much simpler to understand.

But Jesus met resistance to his methods even among his closest advisors. His own disciples complained about the complications of his parables, and he rebuked them. The following excerpt from the Book of Matthew shows Jesus explaining that it was literalism by the priests that was actually causing so much confusion among the faithful. Jesus rebuked these teachers, then added an explanation:

13 He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Leave them; they are blind guides.[d] If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”

15 Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”

16 “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”

Let’s be clear. My father was not a religious man toward the end of his life. He would not likely have quoted Jesus to make the same point. In fact, at one point late in life, my father was asked why he’d attended church all those years. He just shook his head and said “Pooooh,” which was his post-stroke word for anything that was no longer useful. But he did like singing in the choir. He was an iconoclast.

There was a garden in my father’s back yard with a set of apple trees and one peach tree. The apple trees were hardy, but the peach tree grew dry and frail. During a storm one of the main trunks broke off and leaned to the ground. I was headed from my house with a saw to cut the limb off and arrived to find that my father had already tied ropes around the bent over branch. He did this even though he had use of only one arm. When I arrived, the peach tree looked like a traction patient. He’d grown up on a farm and knew the peaches might still grow if the tree were given a chance.

Indeed, the branch continued to bear fruit. My father then harvested peaches when they were ripe. Then when fall came, he instructed me to saw off the bent branch.

That peach tree stands in his backyard to this day, more than 10 years after the branch broke off. His seemingly impractical solution is a metaphor for how the man also dealt with the effects of his stroke all those years. He did grow angry now and then (the storm) but he also developed practical ways to get along in life. Our arguments were often like broken branches. yet when the harvest season came, he still offered me peaches of wisdom.

That is proof to me that peach tree possibilities are never to be underestimated. My father was neither liberal or conservative. But for better or worse at times, he was always determined to make us think about solutions. That’s what iconoclasts do.

 

Wild too

Prairie HillI just finished reading the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Many times I’ve watched the ending of the movie made from the book. I liked Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of the author. The thrills and the sex and drugs. The pain at losing her mother, portrayed by Laura Dern. The lost feeling that followed. Her divorce that was more like two boats drifting apart.

And then the hike up the trail from California to Oregon. Recovering, what? She did not know going in how difficult it would be. The pain of hiking. The busted up feet. The callouses on her lower back that felt like leather.

I’ve read other “journey” books and really liked them. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson chronicled his hike up the Appalachian Trail. His journey was more about the doing than the catharsis. But it wound up being a catharsis just the same.

In every journey book there is a similar dynamic. Isolated from everyday life, the lead characters wonder, sometimes with guilt, sometimes not, what might be going on back where life is normal.

For Cheryl Strayed, it was getting away that mattered. It was everyday life that had trapped her with its sorrow and its temptations. She’d done heroin and slept with a bunch of men. Ached for her mother, but it did not bring her back.

The point here is that life itself is a trail. That’s what Strayed discovered in the end. That the trail is wild, and that life is wild too. We can’t see around the next bend. Sometimes can’t see the next step we take.

I recall a moment in church when our pastor spoke plainly about the fact that not every service or moment will seem sacred or religious. It’s like there are mountains or peak experiences in our lives, and sometimes we get to feel them. Be there. Raise our consciousness. Yet there are a lot of days putting one foot in front of the other.

The year gets marked that way at church. There are days when the Youth Group sets out geraniums to purchase in spring. Then here are long strands of pine boughs to buy and hang on my white fence out front of the house in November.

Holidays come along like that too. They add up too quickly. My late father used to joke every January that the year was almost done. “You’ve got Groundhog Day and Valentine’s Day. Memorial Day, the 4th of July and Labor Day. Then Thanksgiving and Christmas. Yup, the year’s almost over.”

And of course, he was always right. But some of us add in a few more days than that. Mother’s Day just passed. That’s the day when all the mothers I know take quiet stock of their children and their own moms. They stand between these two worlds in hope that someone notices. Fortunately, many do. There are not many holidays as poignant as Mother’s Day. So what if it is a Hallmark occasion. Whether you spell Hallmark with a capital H or a small h does not matter. We need our hallmarks. Otherwise, the years go by and we do not know where we are.

There were several moments in the book Wild when Cheryl Strayed wandered off the Pacific Coast Trail. At other times, the path was covered with snow, or littered with the debris of forest clearcuts. She had to make decisions in those moments. Where to turn. How far to go even when you know you are lost.

Years ago I went out for what was supposed to be a short run during a stay in the north woods. I took off in just shorts and shoes and a thin tee shirt, like I always do. I ran a familiar trail and it turned into another familiar trail and then suddenly it was no longer familiar. I’d missed a turn somewhere. The sky was flat and gray. No sun to mark the direction south. And as I continued running I’m sure there were trails I missed that would have brought me back home. But I ran for nearly two hours that day, stopping to get some bearings and realizing it was somewhat hopeless.

Finally, I noticed my own footprints back the familiar path, and things shifted. The world was coming into focus as if seen through a projector. Then I ran the two miles back to the lakeside resort where we were staying.

I had been lost, and was found on my own. Not through any grand effort or intellect. Nor was there any discernibly divine intervention. I was not in desperate straits. Just a little tired.

Sitting by the lake that afternoon with my children playing in the water below my feet, I looked out at the water and up at the trees. An osprey flapped past carrying a big fat fish. It all seemed wild, yet tame at the same time. That’s sometimes all we want from life. That life be somewhat predictable. But a little wild, too.

 

 

The art of dying

Losing a loved one is one of the hardest things to experience in life. All signs may indicate that the end of a life is near, yet it is so hard to accept them.

Most typically, people experience the death of parents late in life. There are exceptions of course. Tragic accidents or fatal diseases intervene with the normal cycles of life. For those experiences, the principle need is to focus on coping strategies. Helping people when the shock of death comes too early is a profound challenge. Every single circumstance is different.

But there are some commonalities we all share when it comes to aging parents or grandparents. We know they are not going to live forever. We sometimes see the decline, yet focus on the good signs and hope the bad things hold off as long as they can.

Triggers

Often there is some incident that triggers the process toward actual death. It may be some shift in health such as a heart issue or surgery. Yet something as simple as a fall can undermine a person’s health.

Recently that happened to a close associate of mine. His mother fell in the middle of the night and her equally aged husband did not notice. What followed was a series of stays in different hospital facilities and nursing homes.

There is a harsh reality afoot with people very aged and in a severe state of decline. Hospitals are chartered to help people get better. They reserve the right to determine if that is happening. There are broad patterns that affect these decisions. People experienced with the dying come to recognize whether the trend is toward better health or whether the symptoms of an accident or illness are likely insurmountable.

The protocols of this decision-making can seem confusing to family members or those chartered with caregiving. The legality of prescribing certain medications, for example, is often determined by the prognosis issued by the presiding physician.

Free radicals

Then there are the more radical decisions to consider. Will a surgery help mom or dad survive longer, or is it just a desperate attempt to extend their life?

Meanwhile, the patient sometimes vacillates between wanting all that rigamarole and perhaps not putting up with the intrusions. This can seem like they are giving up, or losing hope. But in truth, some people come to grips with their situation faster than their caregivers.

Yet that’s not often the case with people suffering pain. Their decision-making abilities are directly affected by their pain tolerance. That’s where it gets difficult for the hospital or other facilities to make decisions that please the family. Either the patient gets so doped up from painkillers and can’t converse, or they grow agitated from lack of treatment and just want the pain to end. Even death becomes a desirable option.

Opponents

There are relationship issues to confront as well. A temperamental parent can be a daunting opponent when it comes to end-of-life decision-making. If there are unresolved or dysfunctional relationship issues between parent and child or siblings, the end-of-life process can become complex and tense. Blame gets tossed around. Insinuations made. Guilt enters the picture. No one can find peace or balance. The parent becomes Ground Zero for family conflict.

Usually, there’s one sibling or one person that does most of the steering through an end of life journey for a parent or grandparent. Yet that leadership role can generate friction too. It can happen that parents will play one sibling off the other in order to gain sympathy or hedge the bets. When those parallel decisions work against the medical advice of the presiding doctor and the presiding sibling, things can get really confusing. Or angry.

Palliative care versus hospice

Sometimes medical staff will seek out the primary decision-maker(s) for discussions about palliative care or even hospice. Palliative care is defined as follows: a multidisciplinary approach to specialised medical care for people with serious illnesses. It focuses on providing patients with relief from the symptoms, pain, physical stress, and mental stress of a serious illness—whatever the diagnosis. The goal of such therapy is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family.

But quite frequently, palliative care has the goal of keeping the patient comfortable leading up to the actual process of death. When death is likely imminent due to any number of signs related to disease or debilitation, a transition to actual hospice care occurs.

Hospice removes most life-giving supports and acknowledges that the patient is indeed dying. This can be an extremely challenging decision for families to make. But there are good reasons why hospice is entered as a care strategy.

Experience

Having worked with both my parents and my wife in both palliative and hospice care situations, I can assure you that the differences are not so distinct or profound as they might seem. I am fairly convinced that the only reason the terms differ is to ease the transition for family members. The term palliative is designed to help them come to terms with the fact that their loved one is indeed dying. When the wise female physician pulled me aside the day my wife was unable to move from the table where she lay, and counseled me that palliative care was likely the next step, I knew what she was saying.

In my mother’s case, she had been directed home from the hospital because there was, n the doctor’s words, “nothing else we can do for her.” In plain and simple terms, a hospital is medically defined as the place where people go to “get better.” When it is determined by the hospital that a mission of that order is not likely to be fulfilled, families are often asked to move their loved ones to another facility, or to simply take the patient home. Hospitals do not like it when people die under their care. It does not look good on the record sheets.

My mother was consigned to palliative care following an attempt at chemotherapy to treat her pancreatic cancer. The treatment was too hard for her to take. It put her in the hospital for a few days. Then the doctor came by and told me that they were done treating her. She was able to get home and we hired caregivers. All our family visited during a three-day period and she was happily able to see nearly all her loved ones.

But then she had a stroke on a Sunday evening, and by Monday morning, the case was clear. Her ability to swallow had been destroyed. The decision to enter hospice care was defined by that condition. Within a week of entering hospice, she passed away peacefully at home. Her husband and immediate family were there with her. And while it was sad to know that she was gone, there was great closure and peace that came from that.

Hospital business

Hospitals try to avoid keeping patients until they die. It’s simply bad for business. And hospitals are a business. That does not mean hospitals can necessarily avoid death in their patients. Plenty of people die in their hospital beds. Death is simply unavoidable when the human body and mind have had enough trouble dealing with pressure and failure.

Life comes to an end in one of three ways; natural, unnatural or somewhat assisted. A natural death is what we all seem to desire. That’s when people pass away of so-called natural causes. That would be heart failure in many cases, or other organs. There are many ways to die.

An unnatural death is typically the product of overtreatment. That would be too many surgeries in many cases, and not enough energy to recover. From what I’ve read, that process and occurrence is an all-too-frequent occurrence in the American health care system.

Perspectives 

I’ve watched my own family members anguish over the merits of yet another surgery for my father-in-law. Deep down I knew it was fruitless. But the patriarch of a family is not something people give away easily. Never mind that he’d already skirted death when he collapsed face first into a pile of sawdust while sawing wood in his own backyard. His wife woke him up that day. But from there, it turned into a series of heart operations, kidney problems, weight loss and finally death in the hospital. None of that was an easy choice for the family to make. It was deemed necessary as long as he was alive, to keep him alive. But whether it was absolutely necessary to keep him alive was the question everyone avoided.

Almost all families face that type of decision sooner or later. No one said dying is easy. But we tend to make it much harder than it should be.

Prayers for dad

My father passed away in a hospital bed six months ago.  He had fallen in the middle of the night and broken his hip. His caregiver called emergency for the umpteenth time and they carted my dad off to the hospital.

Everyone knows that a broken hip is a tough injury for any elderly person to sustain. My father already had an injured arm from a previous accident. But mostly he’d had a long time dealing with the effects of a stroke suffered back in 2003. He outlived my mother by ten years and we kept him in his own home with caregivers. The diagnosis to do surgery was his decision.

The diagnosis to do surgery for the broken hip was his decision. I let him make it because even though I was an executor of his estate with Power of Attorney for health care, he was still lucid and capable of deciding for himself whether to live with a repaired hip or die from the effects of the injury.

He lived another four days and saw all four of his sons during that week. Then he passed away quietly in that hospital bed. I arrived on a Saturday afternoon to a room with quiet music playing. His blanched figure with open mouth lay on the hospital bed. I kissed his forehead as I had done many times in fifteen years of taking care of him. Then I knelt and said a prayer next to him even though he was not necessarily a praying man.

I thanked him for his love over the years even though he lost his ability to say it. I said thanks to what I know of God for believing in my ability to take care of my father. It was tough as hell, and definitely worth it.

He was dead, but his memory just as surely came alive in the days that followed. There was nothing medically I could have done to change that outcome. There seldom really is. Death comes because it is meant to be. It gave me peace to know that he no longer had to live without his voice, and his golf clubs, and that wandering spirit squelched by his confinement to a wheelchair all those years. He dealt with it pretty well, and like an SOB at times.

The art of dying

But he dealt with it. And it was our job now to deal with his passing. It all took so long and happened so fast. That’s how death works, after all. And sometimes you should not fight it. That is the art of dying.

There’ll come a time when all your hopes are fading
When things that seemed so very plain
Become an awful pain
Searching for the truth among the lying
And answered when you’ve learned the art of dying

––George Harrison, The Art of Dying