A Sanctuary for the Dead and Living

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…the original Hill section was still lovely, its mature plantings offering visitors shade and cool breezes. The gentle, rolling terrain and meandering gravel pathways felt natural and comfortable, even giving the impression that those resting beneath its picturesque hummocks – some interred before the Revolutionary War – had come there by choice rather than necessity. (Richard Russo, Everybody’s Fool, p.4)

Every time I drive into the center of town I go past this cemetery. And every time I drive by I feel a pull to turn in – not that I feel myself being pulled to death. No, I feel the pull to stroll the driving paths, sit in the shade of the very large evergreens, explore the grave markers in this oldest cemetery in our town. I love the rolling hills and how the morning sun shines through the trees to provide selective illuminations. There is a special eerie beauty when the sun shines through the morning mist.

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This mature cemetery seems to provide a place of sanctuary, a nature preserve for both the deceased and the living, much more than the level, perfectly laid out, sunny cemeteries. Our love for those we bury leads us to wanting a pleasant place for their bodies to rest, but logically these sanctuaries are more for us, the living.

We need this refuge as a place to keep our memories. The nature of this special cemetery seems to whisper that this is sacred ground – where we remember and respect those who have lived and died. I don’t need to go to the actual grave of my mother to remember her.

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This simple marker triggers the simple memories of times spent with my mother, sacrifices she made for her children, ways she helped me grow into the woman I am. When I walked past this grave I stopped to reflect and pay homage to all women who labored to give birth and then labored to nurture children to adulthood. And of course all the women who nurtured other women’s children.

When I view these simple markers, the stones and crosses without names, my thoughts are freed to think of the millions of people for whom there is no evidence of who they were within their small sphere of influence. I am reminded that we are not walking alone because we are walking on the path trod by trillions of people, unnamed people in our collective memories. Is there a sense of sanctuary in knowing that we are not alone in our walk through the joys and struggles of life, and our walk towards joining them in death?

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There is a sense of sanctuary for me in knowing, in my awareness and memory, that ‘I am’ because of all those who have struggled before me, all those who have loved with their hearts and hoped in a better future. I feel sorry for those who focus on hate and fear because it is impossible to find the peace of sanctuary within their world.

I have been wanting to do a post using these photographs for a very long time and Ben, at the Daily Post, provided a good prompt: Sanctuary. I had fun writing about how this cemetery has affected me, tying in the photographs and the prompt – and as always my words led me to thoughts that were new and exciting.

A Strange Thing is Happening on the Way to Old Age

20150127-Botanical garden 185Turning 70 seems to have created a change in my thinking about life and death, and especially life until death. Maybe this is because I seem to be more aware of my mortality. My faith in the Christian message of the birth and death of Jesus has made death just another exciting part of my life’s journey, one I anticipate within the next 10 to 15 years. What scares me is that my body is wearing out in ways that can’t be fixed. I don’t want to face a debilitating, painful illness where I have lost control. I don’t want medicine to extend my life when there is no longer meaning or quality. This really scares me.

I have studied and taught the biological aspects of aging but until now they were about someone else. I am now realizing that my body is aging – wearing out. Isn’t it funny that we can know something intellectually, but then know it at a different level when we experience it. I am beginning to think about what it means that my aging body is going to fail in ways that could result in increasing dependency and, sometime soon, total failure.

This probably sounds morbid to anyone under age 60 and you may not want to read any further – unless you have aging parents and then you should stick with me. If you are somewhere around 70 you should definitely read on because what I am experiencing is universal and inevitable. If you are having a hard time reading this, rest assured I am having a hard time writing about it. I want to be like Scarlet O’Hara and think about it tomorrow. But another part says I need to think (and write) about it now so that I may be able to impact how I choose to use health care and how I live until the end, before I get caught in the health care web and it is too late to decide for myself.

I have been thinking and reading about this for a few months. The first pressure to think about it came from health care providers asking if I had a health care directive. I finally forced myself to create one a couple of years ago when we updated our wills. I thought about it, and we talked about it, and it was much easier than I thought it would be. The reason it was easier was because the decision I made was for right now – this year. I know what kind of medical intervention I want now but I also know I will want to make changes to it as my body wears out in ways that are irreversible. As my body changes, I know my desires for health care and living will also change so I will repeatedly update my health care directive. Maybe we need to update our health care directives when we change the batteries in our smoke detectors.

I received another nudge to think about how I want to die from a post by Brian on his travel blog Everywhere Once titled “To Go Gently Into That Good Night?”  Brian doesn’t leave his life to chance – and I always enjoy reading his very well written essays on making good choices for traveling and life in general. In this essay he is thinking about the choices we can make about how we want to die.

Brian introduced me to the thinking of Ezekiel J. Emanuel who is an oncologist, a bioethicist, and a vice provost of the University of Pennsylvania. Brian talks about Dr. Emanuel’s decision to decline all medical treatment at age 75, electing to die of whatever ailment come first. I later read Emanuel’s article in the October, 2014 issue of The Atlantic and think that his decision is too extreme for me. He is now 57 and has decided that he will decline all medical treatment when he reaches age 75, including flu vaccines and penicillin. In the cost/benefit analysis that takes place when we make good decisions, it doesn’t seem logical to decline a treatment that doesn’t decrease quality of life but can protect and heal us for a while longer. But his arguments extended my thinking beyond my health care directive to thinking about under what conditions I would want to decline medical treatment when I am sitting in my doctor’s office instead of looking up at first responders or in an emergency room.

My thinking was further stimulated when we were with friends last summer talking about what all 70-somethings get around to talking about eventually – health issues. One friend is an ovarian cancer survivor. As she talked about her experience I started thinking about what I would do if I got that dreaded diagnosis of cancer. Her description of her response to chemotherapy sounded very similar to what I experienced before I got my Fibromyalgia symptoms under control.

I realized how difficult chemotherapy would be for me. I would have to stop all the medications that are working so well for me. My starting point would be similar to her response to treatment – and then I would add the discomfort of treatment as another layer. I don’t think I want to do that. I have mentioned this to many friends and family members. A few seem to get it, but most look away. Choosing to die instead of taking on the medical fight doesn’t seem to sit well with people and I understand, especially when love is involved.

I probably can’t prepare a response for when I am told I have cancer or some other potentially fatal condition because my decisions will need to be based on the costs (emotional, physical, and monetary) and potential benefits at that time. But I think I will have a better chance of making the right choices for me and those I love if I have thought through what I value beforehand.

That is why I am writing about aging and death. I want to sort it out in my own mind while sharing with others so we can maybe have a dialogue. I don’t have more posts written and waiting to be posted because this is a process – of reading, thinking, and writing. But there will be more because I know it is a conversation we need to have. Feel free to leave a link if you have written on this topic.

Somebodies’ Somewhere

We were on a short dirt road between nowhere and nowhere else. At least that is what it seemed like to us. We enjoy exploring these back roads, especially when we are far from home and everyday life seems so different. We are beginning the Circle Tour of Lake Superior and are on the east end above Sault Ste. Marie, Canada. We have only been here once before – a long time ago and that was just a quick drive through. This time we have no urgent reason to get home on a specific day so we are staying more nights at each stop.

The paved road we turned on, off highway 17, ended a short distance away at the water’s edge, at a boat launch. We lingered a while taking in the quiet. Going back we turned down a dirt road with a sign pointing toward a lake shore resort. It was a small resort that bills itself as “A slice of Austria on Lake Superior.”

On this dirt road, going to the slice of Austria, I had noticed a small cemetery, on a cliff between the water and the road. On our way back I told JB to turn in and we drove down a short bumpy lane to where the markers were.

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I had said that this was a road between nowhere and nowhere else. This isn’t true. This has been, and is a place of significance for many people for a long time. This is home to the Batchawana First Nation people. There were several homes along the paved road and some evidence that people had established small businesses. But there isn’t much opportunity for employment close by so we could tell it is a poor community, at least from our capitalistic, consumer perspective. Maybe they don’t value “things” so their perspective of “rich” is entirely different. Maybe they value family, community, nature and only feel poor when they come in contact with the dominate values. I would love to move in and get to know them better.

We do know their grief because we lingered in their cemetery. I worried about violating their spiritual space, but I think it may have been okay because I felt a lot of reverence as I walked around and both JB and I felt their grief. JB noticed that most of those buried here were children and young adults – there were only two who were older than 60.

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Most of the grave markers were wooden crosses, although there were some that were white stone. There was one that was made of cement. We had just visited the graves of JB’s ancestors in Owen Sound and both of us were struck by the difference between the expensive stone markers to honor the dead and the humble ways the dead were honored here. Could there be a “richer” statement of grief in burying a beloved child than this. It leads me to question the purpose of our very expensive burial system.

Pancake Bay 066 I have never lost a child that I had held and nurtured, and I can’t comprehend the pain. But these parents lost five young children over a series of years in the late 1800’s. It was almost a yearly occurrence to bury a child. How do you think they coped with it?

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Yes, this is a community that grieves the loss of their own, together – and listens to the spirits of their ancestors in this sacred place. Don’t we all know who we are by remembering who has touched us and left?

Beauty Thru my Lens: Chapel Doors

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We went back to the cemetery today, where yesterday we were told we were lost. Today we had an all day rain, and we were beginning to get cabin fever. On JB’s agenda was visiting family graves. When I saw these doors on a small chapel that is no longer used, my heart skipped a beat. They are among the most beautiful doors I have ever seen.

Think of all the tears that were shed on this threshold. Were there evil thoughts about the deceased or plots devised against other heirs? How many hearts were heavy with regret? Or maybe there were a few who rejoiced – like the family of my friend’s mother-in-law when she died. They said it was the nicest thing she ever did for anyone. She must have been one mean person.

I wonder if people who don’t care what people think of them when they are alive, care after they have died. Of course that only applies if we believe the spirit lives on after the body has stopped working. I don’t know what happens after death, because there isn’t much scientific data on spirits, but it seems to give my life more meaning if I believe some form of me will continue. I also like to think the spirit of the people I have loved are waiting to greet me. Do you think believing that our spirit lives on provides a moral compass for our daily interactions with people?

There is so much we don’t know, and that makes life so exciting.