Heart Happy (cathy_edgett) wrote,
Heart Happy

Frost and Ice and Death and Dying!

It is really cold outside, and inside too.  Today, I watched my cat trying to figure out how to get water from ice.  She likes to drink from a large bowl I set outside.  It contains a rock from the Ganges, and she likes to stand on the rock and drink.  Today, she was standing on the ice, baffled.  The sun is out, and I am watching plants I thought might not make it through their coating of ice emerge in brilliance.  The roses have survived, and other flowers look alive, too, and yellows, reds, and purples stroke my eyes.

I want to share last night'e event, Poetry & the End of Life.  It took place at UCSF at Mission Bay, their new 43 acre life sciences campus devoted to teaching, research and health.  As I recall, construction here was controversial, but it is quite an amazing place.  We enjoyed the reception beforehand at Genentech Hall, and then the presentation which was scheduled to be two and a half hours.  The audience was enthralled for longer than that, and the only break was a minute to stand and stretch.

Where to begin?

Sandra Gilbert read her poem, A Corona, about her mother's illness and passing.  It captured well what those letting go must feel.

Dr. Steven Pantilat, director of UCSF Palliative Care Leadership Center, spoke of life as a plane flight.  We can crash land, which is what we have been doing in the world of medical care, or we can plan and give our terminal patients a soft and comfortable landing.  He also pointed out that "quality produces quantity".  These patients live longer, and in these cases, we may be speaking of only a few weeks, but imagine if they were your few weeks.  He asked us to recognize the mystery at the end of life.  Metaphor and language speak directly to the heart.  That is why poetry has been brought into the end of life care, and Jane Hirshfield has been the poet responsible for that this year.

He said that when Margaret Mead was asked for the first sign of civilization, she responded "finding a healed femur" from 15,000 years ago, because that meant people were caring for each other.

Dr. Victor Valcour, the geriatrician at the UCSF Memory and Aging Center spoke, and Dr. Mary De May, the geriatric psychiatrist at the same place.

Then Jane Hirshfield and Sandra Gilbert read a carefully chosen selection of Emily Dickinson poems related to her exploration of death and dying.

Frank Ostaseski, a pioneering hospice founder and end of life educator, spoke about his time on Oprah when she questioned him about  his involvement with the dying. He responded, "We should sit down and have a cup of tea with death".  "Death is a sacred process that has nothing to do with religion."  Interesting because he is a Buddhist teacher.  He said this time of meeting death is about seeing things in a new way.  Dying reveals the truth that was always there.  It is not just a medical event. Dying is about relationships with those we love, and ourselves, and....  I was taking quick notes, and the next word I wrote was "kindness", and this, "Live the questions".

Again, I hope I am sharing his words correctly.  He said there are three things to know.  1. There is a labor to dying.  Learn to be compassionately present with suffering.  2. We need a willingness to release ourselves and others from roles.  3. We need an abiding confidence in the process of dying as growth.  We need to trust that we are not the separate selves we think ourselves to be.

Oh, my.  I need to pause and digest this.  I will return.

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