Year To Live Project: Dia De Los Muertos – Hospice Training

Santa Fe New Mexico – 2/25/16

I woke up this morning with a jolt of panic, like someone had their knee on my chest and was pushing downwards. It was 9am and the sun was shining through the blinds into my room and having not slept past 6am in years, I irrationally thought I might have died.

Whatever, pre-coffee anything seems reasonable.

Dead people don’t have pee, so alive I certainly was. Solely relying on ‘the force’ for my aim in the bathroom was followed by a separate momentary panic that the best part of the day had already passed me by. Easy tiger, you’re calm as fuck remember. Deep breaths were my saving grace. So much for the Deepak level of enlightenment I had last week, the feeling I had finally eclipsed my own humanity and evolved above all human emotions other than joy and gratitude. Maybe that was just narcissism. Or the side effects of eating an absurdly oversized bag of chocolate covered raisins. For the record they were on sale, so I’m pretty sure I made money by buying them.

Yesterday, death was all around me, even though again, no one died. Hospice training has begun.

Welcome To Hospice Let’s Talk About Death

The volunteer coordinator is a woman named Adrienne, she’s a pistol. A spitfire in her seventies. If either of us drank, we’d probably go grab a beer and talk about football, and meditation. We’d playfully punch each other in the arm. Adrienne probably punches harder than I do and could out drink me in her heyday. She also curses a lot and accuses people of being morons. She may have half jokingly accused me of stealing her purse when she couldn’t find it. When it was found she showed me how she mistakenly brought her home phone with her to work that morning thinking it was her cell phone. I laughed, and was admonished that I’d be making the same mistakes soon enough. Whatever it may be, age or confusion, it’s coming for me too.

Like death. Hospice makes you realize death is coming for all of us, but nobody wants to admit that.

Yesterday, death was there. I was feeling it, looking at it from angles I’ve never had to prior. Death as a gift? Interesting. Death as a blessing? Sure. Death from a disease is something we accept, yet death from an accident prior to that disease running its course is a preventable accident? Confusing. Discussions on the “Do Not Resuscitate” doctrines make you think about weird shit, like, do you give the Heimlich to someone who has a DNR associated with their terminal pancreatic cancer? If so, why? I’m a long way from teaching deadlifts and kettelbell swings.

Yesterday, death was everywhere. My fellow volunteer trainee lost her husband the year before, after his ten-year battle with cancer. The hospice workers who came into her house had provided comfort, comfort at a time when that was all her heart had desire for. This human act had touched her so deeply she dedicated herself to providing the same relief to other families suffering the way she had. She cried multiple times in our meeting when she spoke of their kindness. I wanted to hug her and tell her everything was going to be okay. But maybe it wasn’t and that would be a lie. So I didn’t. She is considerably braver than I am, even though I know I can punch considerably harder than she can.

To Be Human Is To Be Powerless Over Death

We are never more powerless than in the unavoidable face of death. I know people that haven’t paid taxes in years. Yet we’re all going to die – no matter how crafty our CPA may be. Surrender is a word so many of us will never comfortable with, but I know it’s coming. It’s all coming for me. If you’re reading this, it’s also coming for you.

Why don’t we talk about death? Why is the concept so secret and elusive? So scary? So hidden? What is it about death that makes it taboo? We celebrate birth and honor couples who are expecting, yet slowly slink backward out of a room in the face of the dying.

I’m guilty, too. Part of my morning panic today was questioning why the Universe has decided to switch the focus of my life from pull ups and Paleo challenges to of all things – death. This topic chose me. I didn’t chose it. Is it because I’m going to wake up on Jan 1 with a lump somewhere I’d rather it not be? Is someone I love going to do the same? Is being around, thinking about, and writing about death going to make it somehow contagious or manifestable? If so, should I instead be writing about stacks of cash, perfect surf, and a cornucopia of boobs? You know, like a blonde, surfing Tupac?

You Can’t Do, You Can Only Be

“Guess what you can do to save the people you’re going to see in hospice?” Adrienne asked us after lunch. “Not a damn thing.” She then looked rather sternly at me over her gasses and added, “It especially sucks if you’re a Type-A personality and want to save the world. You’ll just have to get over yourself and pull up your big boy pants.” Huh…

I think if we were alone when she said it, she would have poked me hard in the chest and followed up with, “You can’t DO anything for them. All you can do is BE there for them. You can BE still. You can BE present.”

You can’t do anything. There are inevitables in life you can’t out run. You can’t outrun death. You can’t outrun pain. You can’t outrun being human.

Got it. Thank you Wednesday for your lessons.

Lastly we learned hospice has two tenets. Hearing them made me exhale like I’d been punched in the stomach. I had to question why they even need to be stated. Why are these stunningly simple ideas hospice’s tenets alone and not “Humanity’s Tenets.”

  • No one should die in pain if possible.
  • No one should die alone if possible, unless to do so is their wish.

Grace moved the hand that originally put those thoughts to paper. A divinity above all of the nonsensical decision making, bullshit, and cruelty of the world.

The Itinerary Is Subject To Reality

I left the hospice training in the late afternoon to swap jeans for sweatpants and head to Upaya, the local Zen center. They hold a Wednesday evening talk after their nightly meditation – something for the soul to chew on after the hour of silence.

What I didn’t know walking in last night was how the theme of life and death would be so poignantly continued. The Upaya community had unexpectedly lost a prominent member the day before and had spent the day memorializing him.

Fifty or so people sat around the room, on mediation mats on the floor or in chairs. Stillness and heaviness swirled with the smoke from the sticks of incense lit on the front altar. The two gentlemen leading the discussion first thanked visitors by dropping this little gem on the group:

“We apologize for the change in plans, as always around here, the itinerary is subject to reality.”

Something else to swallow on a year of travel, and the life that will come after it.

The discussion then delved into the prism of perspective that is a person’s life. How each of us experiences someone else in our own unique way. That one man can be thought of in a thousand ways by a thousand different people – a god to one, a terror to another – and somewhere in the conglomeration of all perception may or may not lie the truth. Reality is subjective, especially within the confines of human relationship. Something else to remember.

“All of us believe we will die after enjoying a long life and an even longer old age,” we were told. “For most of us, this is simply not the case. It is not the ‘if’ of death that plays on our minds, it is the ‘when’ and the ‘how.’ Most of us will not wake up one morning. That’s all there is to it.”

Sobering. As well as relieving. What’s the fear in that? I thought maybe I was dead this morning, and was pretty much ok with that until I realized I wasn’t and still had life to deal with.

Don’t Die With Loops Still Open

The room of darkly clad Zen students then had opportunities to share their stories of the man who had passed, and the lessons learned from the speed of his departure. Many expressed shock – shock at a casual conversation the day before that will now hang unfinished for eternity. People expressed the desire for closure, for the opportunity to say “thank you” or “I love you” or even “I’m sorry for…”

This is the human experience. This is the story we can’t escape. Unfinished business will be a part of all of our stories even with conscious efforts to the contrary. We can minimize this, though. Let us take a minute, or an hour, or a day and swallow our egos, open our hearts, and reach out to those people we have unfinished business with. There’s a reason Alcoholics Anonymous has people make amends as part of the healing process. There’s a reason doing so is a central piece of addiction recovery – let’s be honest we’re all addicts to some degree. It’s about recovering the piece of ourselves that lives in that open loop, in the conversation waiting to be had.

The evening was concluded with a violent, yet eloquent punch to the chest to anyone who was listening with more than their ears. I sat in the audience, not knowing the man who had passed, but feeling my own sense of loss being far from home and far from people I love. Truthfully, I had walked into the session last night angry. I had walked in with a head full of arguments I wanted to win, and hurts I wanted to give back to the person who had hurt me. I couldn’t stop my mind from spinning, from churning the same stupid conversations over and over and getting nowhere with them, especially to a place of peace.

Then, the last admonition of the night was passed to us by a man who had dedicated himself to Zen, to a philosophy filled with stoicism and not wrought with emotion. As he fought back tears, he burst the bubble of anger in my heart and broke it even further open.

“You’ve all heard this before, and it’s probably the easiest request to ignore or not take in deeply, but tonight I want you to throw yourselves into it fully. Right now, fold your hands in front of your heart and take a deep breath.”

If he was holding a mic, he could have dropped it and walked right out of the mediation hall after concluding with:

“Fold your hands in front of your heart, take a deep breath and as deeply as you can if only for a moment – appreciate the fact that you are alive.  No matter what state you think your life may be in. You. Are. Alive. Appreciate that.”

And I did. I hope you do too.

– Traver

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