Hope

by Paul Ketterer

In 1957, my family made one of several spring break trips south, this one to Hot Springs, Arkansas. It was one year after the integration of Little Rock Central High, most of which went right by my awareness in my secure northern culture. Being 11 had something to do with it as well. On this trip, my parents included a tour of the State capitol building in Little Rock, as well as museums and other historical sites. My brother and I both distinctly remember the shock we felt turning a corner and seeing the rest room:

Men

White Men Only

I can’t remember whatever explanation my parents made, only the loss of innocence. There were three African American students in my 20-student 5th grade class, just like the rest of us. I had no previous awareness that the world they encountered was different from mine. In the following year, other “negro” students came to our school as a result of “urban renewal” in central Madison. I was in college before a research project for a social work class taught me of the “Negro removal” nature of that process.

One such student became a close playmate on the playground and in frequent visits to my home. I never wondered why I never was invited to his. I lived across from the school, he almost a mile away, and I guess I just put it down to that. He was an unusually gifted athlete, most unusually because he was thin to the point of appearing emaciated, while being amazingly coordinated and able to jump twice as high as any of the rest of us. We enjoyed basketball together in after school sports and on the playground.

In the eighth grade, I somehow began to overcome a social isolation and get involved at parties and sports with the more popular kids. One in particular had been a best friend, and we played basketball at his place most days after school till dark. One day, “J” joined us and we had a great time. The next day, the host friend told me his mother didn’t want any “darkies” around. I was told I had to inform my friend that he couldn’t join us anymore. Out of my insecurity I did so. I still remember every word said and every expression on his face. Few experiences changed my life more. Incredibly, he remained my friend through high school. I wish I still had contact so I could finally apologize, belatedly and inadequately.

As a freshman at UW-Madison, in 1964, I found myself active in support of the US involvement in the Vietnam conflict and circulated a petition to that effect. At that time, there was not much clarity on the scope of conflict, the corruption of the South Vietnamese government, of the nationalistic nature of the Viet Cong. We were heirs of the McCarthy era, the space race and cold war images of Communism. In my physics class a fellow student, a nun,  spent some calm and considerable time giving me a much belated history lesson, with some excellent theology attached. As I remember, I did not turn the petition in. At the end of the semester, I turned in the Air Force uniform I had been given as a part of Intro to ROTC. (I did get to keep the hat, with which my nephews played.) I did learn to line up the buttons on my shirt with the fly in my pants in that class, which I diligently follow to this day. My pacifism grew with reading of Gandhi and King, and eventual involvement in protests.

In the course of those days, I became involved in a campus religious center, grew deep relationships, and found a growing desire to live “helpfully”. The clergy I encountered seemed to be doing the kinds of things I wished, so I made a tentative commitment to seminary. The first place I applied as a Junior, partially because it was the denominational school, and because pre-enrollment earned me a 4D draft status. I visited a seminary in Boston that Spring break, with a friend considering Harvard for grad school. I also spent a weekend at the University of Chicago Divinity School, which had a high academic rating, and more important, a socially involved curriculum. There were three of four getting the tour and meeting faculty. An option early Saturday morning was to attend a meeting of Operation Breadbasket in the school’s hall, led by a student who never graduated, but was ordained anyway, Jesse Jackson. Being the only white attendee among a couple hundred black activists was humbling and inspiring.

In my first few years in the church, the beginning of the 70s, the new experience of clergywomen brought the issue of language to awareness–and controversy. This one was easy to see: how exclusively male pronouns and references rendered women invisible and powerless. All it took was having it pointed out to me and I changed my speaking as quickly as I could, finding a Bible paraphrase with inclusive language produced by an Episcopal church in Washington, DC.

As I became aware of the bias and violence against LGBT persons, I participated in action within the local church as well as the general church for affirmation and inclusion.

The point of this rambling is that personal and institutional change is possible. Even in the situation our culture faces today. It only requires a capacity for empathy and compassion. I believe this is a trait of most people, the only exception being a few psychopaths. Fear blocks these capacities. Secondly, community is required, so that fear may fade and love increase. Thirdly, truth is required, so that justice may be clear.

Gandhi said that “truth is truth, though I be a minority of one.” Therein is hope, for empathy, community and truth all exist. Sometimes the journey is lonely, sometimes exhausting, sometimes filled with beauty. We are avid fans of Peter, Paul and Mary. My favorite of all their songs: “Sweet Survivor”.

You have asked me why the days fly by so quickly

And why each one feels no different from the last

And you say that you are fearful for the future

And you have grown suspicious of the past

And you wonder if the dreams we shared together

Have abandoned us or we abandoned them

And you cast about and try to find new meaning

So that you can feel that closeness once again.

Carry on my sweet survivor, carry on my lonely friend

Don’t give up on the dream, and don’t you let it end.

Carry on my sweet survivor,

Though you know that something’s gone

For everything that matters carry on.

You remember when you felt each person mattered

When we all had to care or all was lost

But now you see believers turn to cynics

And you wonder was the struggle worth the cost

Then you see someone too young to know the difference

And a veil of isolation in their eyes

And inside you know you’ve got to leave them something

Or the hope for something better slowly dies.

Carry on my sweet survivor, carry on my lonely friend

Don’t give up on the dream, and don’t you let it end.

Carry on my sweet survivor, you’ve carried it so long

So it may come again, carry on

Carry on, carry on.

Addendum:

This is my chosen attitude, with one caveat.

Isaac Asimov wrote a classic trilogy: FOUNDATION. Without pretending to be, it is a treatise on cultural and governmental theory. He later added prequel and sequel volumes. In the books, a mathematical process has been developed to predict history, and to provide direction for intervention to control the future. All goes well for the plan to return civilization and galactic empire after anarchy. Till a mutant leader with mind-control power upsets the plan.

Some of what is going on in our culture is off the course of my systems understanding, and my observation of political behavior. What happens if power is given to insanity?

It’s just not waste effort on what I cannot change, and invest all the love I have on what I can.

 © 2017 Paul Ketterer.

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When the Cash Goes Marching In

By Kelly Sauvage Angel

Tonight, I’m doing a bit of laundry and becoming reacquainted with my cats. After all, I rolled back into town just a couple of hours ago, having spent the weekend at The Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans. I must admit, I already miss the spontaneous performance of music, the embraces of kind strangers, and the wide smile I carried upon my own face from the time I arrived in The Big Easy to the moment I left.

Beyond the hum of the dryer, my neighborhood is silent. There’s not a spontaneous act of creativity to be had tonight beyond the four walls that I and my cohorts can just barely afford—that is, until our rents increase at the end of our leases, when we’ll have no choice but to leave the neighborhood we once called home. Sure, a windfall for one becomes the displacement of another. I get that. But, it’s the loss of local flavor and the sacrificing of community that I mourn above all else, as well as the new-found air of civility that naturally accompanies gentrification, which sucks the fun—and honesty—out of just about everything, no matter how much money one drops on dinner.

 

My memories from the weekend include more laughter than I can recall in this lifetime. Even when tackling challenging topics, the panels at the conference remained warm, respectful and lively. While stowing our bags prior to check-in, the porter insisted on giving my shoes a quick polish after finding me and my road-brined boots to be nothing less than a “hot mess.” When my girlfriend received an impromptu backrub on the street, she reciprocated in kind.

Over several days, we heard the stories of those with whom we became acquainted through our mutual passion for the written word, advocacy, and an authentic way of being but more so through the serendipity of being at the same place at the same time. Simply breathing the same air was enough of a reason to establish meaningful connection. In fact, each and every moment provided an opportunity for the celebration of our humanity—the sharing of our struggles as well our successes, the indulgence in jokes as well as drinks. Mind you, I won’t be found stumbling down Bourbon Street with a fishbowl-sized Hurricane in my hands, but when on Frenchmen Street or anywhere else in the French Quarter, there’s no denying that I’ll be taking in the local music scene while enjoying a Pimm’s Cup or a well-crafted Cognac Sazerac.

Which brings me to the music. In a city that rings with the sounds of buskers, brass bands, and jazz/blues clubs, how can one possibly remain mired within the myopic fretting for oneself?

While listening to a musician (who likely can’t imagine the luxury of being approved for the mortgage that others wish they didn’t have to pay) pouring the contents of his or her soul into an instrument for the sheer passion of playing, surrounded by the diversity and camaraderie of so many others in the room, we begin to remember what it is to fully engage in shared experience, to enjoy the sensation of goosebumps rising from our skin, and to perceive all that is transpiring around us through a much broader lens.

Just to be clear, it’s not solely about having fun. Good Lord, let us need no reminder as to how resilient the people of New Orleans can be. Rather, those deeply-held values for self-expression and a vibrant community life serve as both a catalyst and a fruit borne of the same.

To name the celebration of life as uncivilized or frivolous when there’s money to be made is to promote the very way of being that has pushed the artists from my neighborhood, silenced the laughter as well as the dialogue, and made “homogenous” synonymous with worthy, correct and upstanding. Sure, it may get a little messy; life has a tendency to do that when it’s well-lived. But, if we turn a deaf ear to the music, how can we possibly hear the voices of others who also have something of import to say?

 

 © 2017 Kelly Sauvage Angel

A graduate of Northwestern University with a degree in literature, Kelly Sauvage Angel is the author of Om Namah… (published under Kalyanii), a collection of poetry, two stage plays, dozens of short stories and hundreds of articles. After surrendering to the healing touch of her massage therapist and downing a couple anti-inflammatories after dance class, she most enjoys wiling away her free time manifesting her culinary inspirations and reveling amid the magnificence of nature. 

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How to Give Feedback

“The piece I read to the writing group didn’t receive the response I expected.”

“I gave my memoir to my children and I didn’t hear anything back from them. Not a word.”

I hear these kinds of comments more often than you might think. Today, I decided to reflect on that, and share some advice on how to give feedback to other writers–and how to ask for it, yourself.

We all arrive at moments in our writing process when we want to share our work for feedback. It’s hard to find good readers, hard to give useful feedback, and hard to revise based on feedback that leaves you confused or uncertain what direction to go next.

Asking for feedback–or being asked to give it–raises complicated feelings!

When I review a piece of reminiscence writing, the first thing I do is read it through start to finish, no red pen in hand. I just observe my reactions to it. How does my heart feel? Where do I feel a pulse quickening, where do I feel lost in abstract thought?

Then I go back through it, assessing the clarity of the writing. Could I tell what was happening, moment by moment, scene by scene? Did I know what I needed to know, when I needed to know it? Is there anything about the structure of the piece that is working particularly well, or particularly poorly?

Finally, I go through it one more time, this time reacting at a sentence level. Are there great word choices, active verbs, ones that create scenes in my mind? Which of the writer’s tools has this author used well–like metaphor and simile, or humor, or description, or characterization?

From these musings, I try to distill some helpful critique I can offer. I try to include some pep talk for the person, but mostly, I focus on talking about the work itself. I offer specific observations about what I find good, what is not working for me, and what I would do next if I were the one sitting down to revise the piece.

Here’s the thing about giving feedback, when we’re dealing with true stories well told, the real stuff of life: It is incredibly hard to separate the storyteller from the story. It’s hard to focus on the writing when the subject matter is weird, wonderful, human lives.

But a writer needs to hear “You wrote that well (or poorly),” not “You lived through that–incredible!”

Below is a handout I use in my workshops , to help get a group of writers ready to give each other useful feedback. As for the other, deeper problem of showing your writing to your family and hearing nothing back–You could make it easier for your readers by giving them this handout. After all, the people you’re showing your memoir to probably have zero experience giving writing feedback. Be clear with them about what would be helpful for you to hear.

There’s one more thing I tell my writers… if you share your reminiscence writing with someone and they respond by telling a memory of their own, count it a win. You moved their heart.

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My Runyonesque Father

By Melodee Leven Currier

I wish I had listened when my father told me stories about his life.  I had no idea the fascinating history behind his words.

My father, Harry Levin, grew up in New York City’s lower East side.  His parents immigrated through Ellis Island from Russia in 1897.   He was born in 1904 and went to school only through the third grade when he began working in the garment district.  Despite his lack of a formal education, he became exceptionally sharp and wealthy as a bookmaker and ticket scalper.

He was unlike any other man I’ve ever known.  For one, he always wore a suit.  Dressing casual meant not wearing a suit jacket.  And he often wore a hat – removing it indoors and tipping it to the ladies.  He was a kind and gentle man with a great sense of humor.  He was mostly bald, smoked cigars and always carried an enormous roll of cash.  I can still see him flipping through it.

My parents lived in Flushing, New York when I was born in 1946 and we moved to Miami Beach three months later.  They divorced when I was five and my mother and I moved to a small town in Ohio.  Despite the distance, my father kept in constant touch with me and we visited a few times a year until I moved to New York City to attend The Wood School in 1965 and lived at The Barbizon Hotel for Women.

Many of my father’s New York friends were household names such as Meyer Lansky, head of the Jewish mafia.  They grew up in the lower East side in the early 1900’s and were close in age.  Lansky’s family also immigrated from Russia.  He was instrumental in the development of the “National Crime Syndicate” in the United States and for decades was thought to be one of the most powerful people in the country.  I’ve been told he appears in my home movies lounging around a pool in Miami Beach with my parents.   His son, Buddy, got his first job at the theater ticket agency where my father worked in New York City–where someone was shot and killed in a mafia hit.

Since cell phones hadn’t been invented yet, my father would stop numerous times throughout the day to make telephone calls at pay phones, checking on bets for the horse races.  And at exactly 3:00 p.m. he would dodge into a bar and get a shot of Old Grandad which would be repeated a couple more times before dinner.    His daily activities were planned around the horse races, primarily Aqueduct.

When I was ten, my father took me to a hockey game in Detroit.  While sitting in the lobby of our hotel, I heard a man yell “Harry!”  It was Eddie Rickenbacker, World War I American Ace and President of Eastern Airlines.  They greeted each other like long lost buddies and talked for quite a while.  After we left the hotel for the hockey game, my father told me what an important person I had just met.

On a visit to Lindy’s Restaurant in New York City to meet some of his cronies, he introduced me to Milton Berle.  He was seated at the head of a long table of men having breakfast – reminiscent of Damon Runyon characters — he was just another one of the guys.

Frank “Red” Ritter, another friend of my father’s, set up gambling operations in the Bahamas with Meyer Lansky’s money.  I first met him and his son, Frank Jr. (who was my age), at the Eden Roc Hotel in Miami Beach.   When I was living at The Barbizon Hotel for Women in New York City, Red, his wife and son, picked me up in his chauffeured limousine and we went to an exclusive Italian restaurant the Ritters frequented and we had dinner in our own private dining room.  I dated his son a couple times and visited their home.  In 1967, Red was under indictment for violating federal anti-racketeering statutes and wasn’t allowed to leave the Bahamas.

My father also mentioned names to me like Bugsy Siegel and Joey “The Greek” Adonis — he knew them all.

He was protective of me as well.  When I lived in The Carleton House on the upper East side, I learned that he slipped the doorman some cash to keep tabs on me.

He had connections for everything.  He would tell me to shop for certain brands of clothes, give him the numbers of whatever I wanted and he would send them to me. When I got married, he used his connections to get a Rabbi in Carnegie Hall to marry us and he used his connections to completely furnish our first apartment and the list goes on and on.

Throughout my life my father told me “When I die, you will be well taken care of.”  Just before he died, however, my mother (divorced over twenty years from him) did the unthinkable.  She took her attorney/lover to my father’s bedside at the hospital and had him sign everything over to her.  I didn’t know until years later when going through her legal documents.

Even though I didn’t inherit anything from my father’s estate, the Universe has taken good care of me and I know my father is watching over me from the big race track in the sky.

© 2017 Melodee Currier

Melodee Currier left corporate America in 2008 where she was an intellectual
property paralegal.  Since then she has devoted her time to writing and has
had numerous articles published on a wide variety of topics.   Her articles
can be read on her website www.melodeecurrier.com. Mel is an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told.

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Army Girl and the Mardi Gras Indians: St. Joseph’s Day, 2006

By Sarah White

St. Joseph’s day, March 19, brought to mind this story, which picks up where this one left off…

It is Sunday, March 19th, 2006. Yesterday was the Pontilly Vision Retreat, facilitated by Bert Stitt. We woke up this morning in a sweet French Quarter hotel. About midday Bert and Linda return from breakfast. Bert hits his cell phone: a plan comes together for Caroline, one of the organizers of the Vision Retreat, to take us on a “windshield tour” of the Seventh Ward and Treme (tre-MAY) neighborhoods, where she grew up. On our way, she tells us about her Creole pedigree and the grandparent who went to the hospital to see how black her grandbabies were.

Hurricane Katrina hit these neighborhoods hard. We drive for blocks and blocks with hardly a person in sight. The rubble of construction debris tells you someone is getting on with his life. The lack of it indicates houses that have become corpses.

The only signs of commerce are the semi-invisible bars. The clues are the signs spray-painted outside a house, the men out front, drinking and talking. The locals call this  “liming.” We come upon a party spilling out of a bar at a crossroad – cars are parking on the boulevard down the middle of Tureaud street, parking up the cross street Dorgenois.

“What’s going on?” Caroline rolls down a window to ask. Someone replies. “The Indians are marching! It’s St. Joseph’s Day.”

“What time?” A shrug. Caroline tells us, “The Indians put the L and the G in Loosy-goosy.” We drive on. Caroline narrates a tour through the landscape of her youth, now in tatters, with a stop to meet with a contractor at a house she owns in Treme. When we return to the bar, it is past 6pm. As we leave the car I pull out my camera. “Never take a picture of an Indian without asking,” Caroline cautions me.

“Liming” outside the Bullet Lounge

The Bullet Lounge. It’s just a dive like on every corner in Wisconsin, the long bar down one side, smaller groupings of tables and chairs. Down the middle is a passage. Now and then I glimpse  a man in partial Indian get-up—face paint, or an elaborate beaded and feathered skirt tied over pants—pass through to a private room.

Caroline says, “I never drink. I never go in bars.” But she orders a Miller Light. A girlfriend from high school spots her, squeals. “Ann!” “Caroline! You! Here?” Someone takes their picture. “Caroline in a bar!”

A woman in the corner is spinning Motown and funk, Tower of Power, and every third or fourth tune, a slower jazz number. One woman and man are dancing just the slow numbers. She is a teenager, pants slung low and exaggerating her long torso, which she undulates for him. He, old and tiny and wiry, is strutting for her like he’s the gorgeous one. This is dirty dancing.

Then that Booty Call song, a staple of Disco Nights in places much whiter than this. Caroline and Ann join the line. And the most delicious young woman I have ever seen. Slim but with a butt that rounds out the army camo pants she is wearing low on her hips. A hint of tattoo peaks out below an olive t-shirt, low on her back. (typographic trivia: you can guess a word from seeing just the top half, but not from seeing the bottom half.) She has us all wanting to lift her shirt and read what’s written there.

This woman knows how to seduce! When the dancers turn, I see that the front of her t-shirt – shrink-wrapped to her gorgeous torso – has a design entirely in rhinestones. “Army Girl” it says, with a graphic of a dog-tag on a rhinestone chain. Above that her sweet, caramel-colored face, and above that, two pompons of Afro’d hair that make me think of Mickey Mouse ears. The dancers turn again and again and now her perfect butt is facing me and she’s working that butt like a belly-dancer.

“That woman is FINE,” I shout in Bert’s ear.

The dance ends and Army Girl joins a friend at the bar. He’s much older, café au lait under a white cowboy hat. But she belongs to us all.

Linda, who has hardly said a word all afternoon, announces she is hungry. (We all must be hungry, we must be! I can’t feel anything but excitement.) Bert responds, “The it’s time we should go. Maybe this was the scene. That dance. Army Girl.”

But once we get outside, we can’t make ourselves leave, because we are catching glimpses of big feather pieces. In the gathering dusk, men are bustling with real purpose now. Bert disappears; reappears with a paper container of barbeque pork chops.

“Where did you get that?”

“I saw somebody and asked him where he got it. He said ‘you can have it.’ “

I see an Indian! More Indians! People are taking pictures so I do too. Not one is good. My camera has no power to see what my heart has taken in this day.

Photo courtesy of /houseofdanceandfeathers.org

We witness the challenge dance, Spy Boy then Flag Boy. But we must find food… do not mess with a menopausal woman’s needs. We hear the Indians’ drummers intensifying their rhythms as we pull away. Army Girl’s performance may be complete, but the Indians’ is just beginning.

We are all performers here: the white Wisconsin tourists, our Creole native guide, Army Girl and her admirers. The Mardi Gras Indians too, Black men celebrating their inner Native Americans. New Orleans’ culture of ambiguity, freedom from fixed identity, has survived the flood.

© 2017 Sarah White

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WanderNWayne Goes to Guatemala

By “WanderN Wayne” Hammerstrom

Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala

Hearing My Own Story

from WanderNWayne’s LiveJournal November 15, 2007

Preparing for a seven-week journey to Guatemala as my first big step into retirement has led me to discover journals of other vagabond travelers who shared their expectations and experiences in a land of perpetual spring. I’ve catalogued their recommendations and had begun to schedule an itinerary between the bookends of my 2008 Guatemala arrival and departure.

Today, I decided to leave these guides at home. Instead, I want to hear my own story, to discover my own journey – to learn of myself by wandering off-path. How could I have thought that I would be able to recreate the stories of others, to follow trails of their experiences, to know more about myself through them?

By immersing myself into another culture, instead of hearing what others say about it, I might explore that which is NOT me. My life-view has served me well for 60+ years living in the United States, but how might other cultures see me; how do they see themselves.

I’ve been told to think of retirement more as reFirement; loosening the limits of living for work and igniting a personal passion for life itself. This becomes a change in attitude, perspective, and options. My journey begins not with packing my bags, but emptying them for possibilities. I want to open myself to seeking and learning, of self-discovery,

   ~ ~ ~

Don’t Be Chicken

Guatemala 2008

Don’t be chicken—ride the colorful, public buses (camionetas) in Guatemala. You’ll find these transportation services low-cost, entertaining, and an experience to write home about.

Guatemala bus terminal

These former school buses have been brightly painted and decorated inside and out. Locals use them to travel between destinations and the buses are usually packed-full of passengers and cargo. People cram into the small seats designed for children or stand crowded in the isle. Traveler’s luggage and vendor’s wares are secured to storage atop the bus or stuffed inside on racks above the windows. It’s not uncommon for food and drink to be sold inside the bus at stops or as the bus travels between villages. Due to the cramped conditions, purchases and money are exchanged overhead between passengers, row to row throughout the bus. Tickets are obtained from assistants (ayudantes) who muscle their way between passengers as the bus swiftly darts through traffic or passes slower moving vehicles on curvy mountain roads. Each diesel burning vehicle leaves behind a sulfurous black plume as they accelerate through the drive gears.

We sought out our bus to San Marcos by listening to dozens of drivers and ayudantes shouting bus destinations throughout the busy terminal lot. Our packs were tossed up to the roof as three of us squeezed into the child-sized bench seat. With our knees jammed into the back panel of the seat in front of us, the bus lurches forward. We pickup more riders who flag down the bus from anywhere along the route. They had waited patiently for our arrival, but our scheduled time could only be estimated. The isle was now crammed with bodies, fabric bundles, and flower bouquets for market sales in the next village.

Like a ship on the ocean, we are thrown from side to side as the bus swerves around obstacles. We hit our heads on the luggage racks above as the driver launches over speed bumps intended to slow traffic passing through an occasional village. Our knees are now in our mouths and our hands grasp anything not moving.

Drivers pass anything moving slower than themselves, ignoring the yellow decorative markings painted on the road surface. This is frightening at first, until you learn the implied rules of the road. When you are passing a vehicle as another approaches from the opposite direction, the three drivers have the following options: (1) the approaching vehicle can slow down to let you complete your passing action, (2) the vehicle you are passing can slow down to let you complete your pass, or (3) you can chicken out, slow down and fall back behind the vehicle you wanted to pass. The game is played as cooperation, not competition. But I wouldn’t want to try this at home in the United States.

© 2017 Wayne Hammerstrom

Wayne Hammerstrom has been a lifelong traveler who now wanders (WandrNWayne) serendipitously on journeys near and far. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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Living Until I Die

 

By Kaye Ketterer

I’m dying.   Not right now, nor tomorrow probably, but someday. We all are dying. From the day we are born, we begin life knowing that someday we will die.

I find it interesting when I talk with friends about my own death or plans for when I die. They are not willing to talk about it and shrug it off as a subject that does not need to be thought about now.  We probably learn our values and beliefs about death from our family of origin and also from religion. The Christian tradition teaches us that in death we receive eternal life.   If you buy into that thinking, it seems that death would be something to embrace and trust that our life in a different way or form would continue.   Other religions help their dead by preparing the body in certain ways so the loved one can transport to the other side; or some cultures build huge temples for the dead rulers or leave food or valuables with the dead person so they have something with them for the “other world”.

Whatever our beliefs, I don’t think we really can know what happens when we die.   If I had to guess, or state my beliefs, I’d say it will be a place where there is peace, good food, and great music!   I believe I’ll be reunited with family and friends that have died before me.   I will look to them to show me the way.

During my growing-up years, death was part of my life.   Living on a farm, animals were born and animals died, and it was never hidden from me. Sometimes there was no explanation why an animal died, it was seen as a natural event.

 

Having a mother who was a registered nurse also helped me know that death was a natural event and something we could talk about over the breakfast table. When my mother was a nurse most people died in the hospital and if they died on her shift I knew they found comfort in her.

Sometimes I would hear my mother on the telephone with a co-worker talking about someone who had died on their shift. Their conversations would often reveal their beliefs that “people always die in threes”, or there was nothing anyone could do, or simply talk about the poor timing of the death and eventually I would hear laughter which meant they worked through their feelings a bit and eased the stress they must have felt while on duty.

I remember when my parents discussed with me their wishes for what would happen when they died. They assured me they weren’t afraid to die and later my mother would say she wasn’t afraid of dying, but of simply getting there. My parents trusted me to abide by their wishes as they faced their own death and knew I could handle it with honesty and compassion, thus I was their power of attorney for health care. Having them as examples and having had conversations with them about death, made it comfortable for me to be with them both as they were dying.   It wasn’t frightening; but it was hard, it was holy, and it was an experience I wouldn’t have chosen to miss.

 

My Dad died in December of 2003. He had been a resident of a dementia unit in a County Nursing Home for three years.   As is usual, weeks before his death he had stopped eating and didn’t have many words left to say. It was fortunate that it was Christmas time as my sister was there and she and I along with my mother stayed with my dad pretty much round the clock for six days until he died. There were other family members who came to keep vigil.   My dad’s sister felt it important to be with him, as did another resident of the dementia unit whose name was Harold. He and my dad had become good friends and knowing my dad was dying, he would sit by my dad’s bedside until a staff member would come and insist that he come to eat a meal.

My dad had a slow death and it seemed as if he fought every minute to remain with us.   My mother said her goodbyes like we all did, and still he lingered.   My mother wondered if he was waiting for my one brother who chose not to come until the funeral; Or was it some unresolved issue about WW II which he seldom talked about?   Whatever the case, he died slowly and hung on to each labored breath.   On December 28th he achieved the peace that dying can bring.

As for my mother, in her nursing role, she would have said she had a good death.   My sister who is also a nurse did say that Mother had a good death.

My mother was in a nursing home from October until February 2010.   In the last month she became more and more confused and the last week of her life couldn’t put a complete sentence together.

I called her on a Wednesday evening and she couldn’t find words to talk, but when I talked with the nurse and was informed that she wasn’t eating and seemed to have difficulty responding verbally, I decided to drive the two hours to be with her and I am so glad I did.   She knew I was with her and I got in touch with the hospice nurse so she would have the right pain medication and assurance that she would be kept comfortable. She received good care. Early on Friday, February 12, 2010, she just drifted away.

It seemed she had no regrets and was a peace.   When the funeral director came I helped him move my Mother to the black body bag and said my final good byes.

 

After my mother’s death I found a book that I had given her years before when she was still active in her profession.   The book is by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a psychiatrist who studied and wrote several books on death and dying.

The title of one book, Death the Final Stage of Growth really resonates with me.  Kubler-Ross sees death as the key to the door of life. She writes,

There is no need to be afraid of death. It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather, our concern must be to live while we’re alive—to release our inner selves from the spiritual death that comes with living behind a façade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are.

Every individual human being born on this earth has the capacity to become a unique and special person unlike any who has ever existed before or will ever exist again.” (Death the Final Stage of Growth; 1975, p. 164)

I take Elizabeth’s words to heart and have my “death plans” written and cremation paid for.  This brings me comfort in knowing that when I die my friends and loved ones can concentrate on their grief and memories both good and bad instead of having to make arrangements by guessing what I would have liked to have happen. This also brings me comfort so I can live each moment of every day to its’ fullest.

I believe we must have conversations about death with our families and friends so it is not something to be feared, but something to be fulfilled.   If we accept death as the final stage of our growth, we can fully live our lives in the present.

© 2017 Kaye Ketterer

Kaye lives in Monona, Wisconsin, and keeps her country roots close to her heart. Along with writing, her interests include music, traveling, children, and the elderly.

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When Kaye read her essay at our January “First Monday, First Person” salon for memoir writers, I encouraged her to share it with readers of TSWT.

 

 

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