Keeping current in wellness, in and out of the water
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The deck heaved and moaned under the pressure of the storm
No crew, no passengers, were brave enough to go outside
They felt a certain doom as the flooded staterooms forewarned
Death by drowning on the high seas, washing ashore with the tide
No lifeboat nor anchor remained to offer a chance of survival
Lost in the darkness, tossed by high winds, this ship awaits the arrival
Of the grimmest reaper of all, Neptune’s servants fish for treasure
Treacherous currents and winds aloft will assist with the desperate measure
Beware of dreams that drag you from your own familiar shore
Your stable secure feeling may be impossible to restore
Join writers all over the world creating poetry in the month of April. National Poetry Writing Month is for everyone. Find some new material, or submit a piece of your own under the hashtags above, or at the #NaPoWriMo site.
The dead teach the living is the meaning of the phrase mortui vivos docent. It was used to justify dissection of human bodies for science. In the middle ages there was fear of dead bodies that, coupled with real danger present in corpses, made dissection dangerous. The biggest danger faced by science, however, was the long arm of Catholic Church. Miguel Serveto (1511-1553), was a physician and theologist who studied medicine in Paris at Sylvius’. He published work describing post mortem examinations of corpses. For this sin Serveto was burnt at the stake along with his books, both medical and religious, sentenced to death by the Holy Inquisition.
The Greek physician Gallen taught anatomy in the second century, teaching by direct empirical observation. Ironically, his teachings were used to dissect one or two executed prisoners a year in the Middle Ages, but this practice was done more for theater than for research. In 1543 of Andreas Vesalius published his masterpiece, De Humani Corporis Fabrica. Vesalius, a young physician and professor at the University of Padua, changed the course of medical history. He demonstrated the importance of direct observation, creating illustrations of anatomy in action, teaching the secrets of the inner workings of the human body. Public dissection for educational purposes became popular.
The Middle Ages were plagued by the black death. Those dark ages were characterized by superstition and ignorance. The Renaissance occurred when science, art, and humanism gave rise to new philosophies. Some of these same ideas drove my ancestors to colonial America in the 1600’s. One of my ancestors, Dr John Greene, was perhaps the first surgeon in America. I have to wonder if he ever did any dissection in his training. I have not. I puked in the clay bucket for the art class (located right next to the science lab) in the 10th grade and was excused for frog dissection. It was never mentioned again, and boy was I glad.
The death rate in the US has risen in 2015 for some alarming reasons. The new statistics for Alzheimer’s disease, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis show that our population suffers from toxic overload. The liver disease is normally caused by alcohol consumption, and Alzheimer’s is still a mystery. I took care of both of my demented parents until death. My own suspicion about their memory loss issues is that they were primarily caused by alcohol consumption that continued for more than 65 years. My parents were not seriously into drugs like people are today, but they did like to drink. Their diet choices and alcohol consumption worsened as they aged. I often wondered if could have been reversed if they had reformed rather then slipped into worsening habits. We will never know. For myself I am making different choices. I don’t think I have a genetic risk from my parents, as much as I cultural one, from being raised at a cocktail party.
Now the middle aged white population is into opioids. There is an increase in suicide by drug overdose happening in this group. Heroin is often a cheaper option for those who begin their use of opioids with a doctor’s referral. I don’t use any prescription drugs, but I know very few people of any age like me. Almost everyone is on something. The idea of taking meds for everything, real or imagined, has become so common that doctors have basically become drug dealers. Now Americans are killing themselves willfully and accidentally with these dangerous substances. I am concerned about our society. These are not social drugs, but drugs designed to kill pain. Have we no skills to deal with pain? I am afraid of this trend. I watch the evening news that is punctuated with drug commercials that must quickly mention the side effects. Often the side effects mentioned in the commercials include increased possibility of death. In my mind the whole country is on one dangerous drug or another with increased risk of death as a general side effect. I have no solution, gentle reader. I will close with the words of Prince, our recently deceased rock royalty:
You can be the president. I’d rather be the Pope.
You can be the side effect. I’d rather be the dope.
It is assumed that Prince’s death involved a drug overdose of pain killer.
Memory and spirit linger after our friends pass into the next realm. The spirit is hard to define or capture during a lifetime, but after death the history of facts is distilled into an essence. I don’t communicate, as in converse, with the dead, but I spend time savoring the essential qualities they represent. This week a young woman who was our friend died from a raging melanoma in her bloodstream. She dedicated her time on earth to healing animals and people with her massage skills. When our dog was on hospice she helped our family immensely by providing love and care during her last months.
1 The righteous perish, and no one takes it to heart; the devout are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil. 2 Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death.
I feel the loss of her presence on this earthly plane, but have a strong assurance that she has gone to a sweet rest. Living had become too much for her, perhaps because she gave so much of herself to others. The details of making a living, paying taxes, doing the daily tasks that ground us to the earth slowly became more difficult. I had my own agenda about teaching her simple life skills that I thought were the solution to the slipping away from here syndrome I had observed. I could not have been more wrong. Self care is not always the answer for every situation, as I tend to believe. I have no knowledge of the supernatural energies that give and take life. My simplistic view that everything can be healed has been transformed by her passing. Wounds inspire healing, and in some languages the word for wound is the same as the word for healing. The complicated process of healing is not within our control. I am not in charge of it, nor do I understand it.
Living people feel robbed by the loss of our loved ones, but each of us has a private and unique gift of life. We must accept that those who leave us in their prime have fulfilled their own mission and are ready to go at some basic level. I accepted this fact when my dog gave up her life, and now I am certain that crossing the rainbow bridge may be scary, but it is a relief. I am grateful for the good times and calm in the knowledge that peace is welcome when the end arrives.
Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;
That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,
I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God,
I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.
Beliefs about death and afterlife vary, but we all share the knowledge that we will die. If you have helped anyone with end of life issues you know each departure is unique. If you are close to anyone who has departed you have had the experience of some eternal bond that is not broken by that exit. Some essential part of your relationship remains and feels alive. I started to study my ancestry after both of my parents were dead. I had a few brief conversations with them about their families in history, but they had little information. My dad said he was Scotch Irish, which is true. My mother thought she was a relative of Zachary Taylor, which does not seem to be a fact. I believe they would have been very fascinated to learn about their ancestors, but maybe now they are one with all our relations.
My dad died in a a hospital setting, but my other died in her own home. She had severe dementia at the end of her life. We had excellent help from hospice for the last months of her existence. The hospice nurses know all about death since it is their specialty. They let us know that it is common to have visitations like my mother did before she passed. Some people have brief encounters but my mother had large crowds of visitors for months. It was clear that she was in touch with other beings, and sometimes we had the sensation of feeling their presence also. They were not ghosts, but were the ones who had come to accompany her across the bridge. She was able to die peacefully in her bed after all the interaction.
This week celebrations mark the remembrance of the dead. As we in the northern hemisphere journey deeper into winter and darkness the departed are free of time. Neither global warming nor the stock market has power over them. They are in an eternal state we will know someday.
To care for anyone at the end of life is a privilege and an honor. Not all people are in the circumstances to allow them to devote time to caring for family members. I cared for my parents when they had end of life issues. My brother lived far away and had a demanding job. He had no extra time or energy for our parents, and I did. The direct experience I gained by taking care of their health, assets, and welfare has given me insight into mortality. I was close to them as they passed into the next realm of existence. I felt the change as they slipped into that permanent state beyond life. They became a kind of distilled essence of all they thought, all they loved, and all they did. Their presence is still felt on earth, but their physical bodies have ceased to function. They are spirits.
Yesterday we said good bye to the earthly physical life of our beautiful coon hound, Artemisia. She was a wonderful, funny, friendly, loyal dog for almost 13 years. She had reached the end of her physical limits, but needed help to make her exit. She was at home for her vet-assisted end of life. Although our sorrow and loss are devastating now it was good to be with her and love her while she departed. Our home feels and sounds empty without the sweet howling welcome when we come home. This mourning will take time. To be alive without my hound today is very hard. Her spirit is teaching me to be grateful for all we shared, no regrets. She does not regret any of her time with us, and wishes us a happy life. I can feel her love as a permanent support and protection. She knows my love for her can never fade. She is unlocking mortality’s secret code for me.
She was cremated today and scattered under trees at the pet cemetery. Now she is a couple miles down the road to the east, and her grandparents are buried a couple of miles to the west of our home. She was close to her grandma, and acted as her therapy dog. I feel sure they are together now in some way. The gift in caregiving is understanding. The task of helping someone die well can be draining and frightening. There is nothing easy about it. The rewards are lasting and meaningful. I know this will come in handy when the time comes for me to die. My loyal hound will be there to guide my way.
Fear has many aspects. Reasonable fear keeps us safe and alert to danger around us. We must learn to strike a balance between risking too much and avoiding life to stay safe. Frightening situations call on the adrenal glands to kick in the fuel needed to either fight or flight. If we tax those little glands too much with our lifestyle choices they can become depleted and add to an over all loss of well being. Some people face danger in their professions, but the rest of us can generally avoid it. Strong healthy bodies with well nourished nervous systems can endure some stress and fear without harm. In reasonable doses we can handle scary aspects of existence.
Dread is quite another matter. I am under a dark cloud of dread now because my darling dog is having end of life issues. She is 12 years old, so this is not a big surprise. Her kidneys are failing in slow motion. She has been to her vet for antibiotics frequently in the last 6 months because she has a recurring infection in her urinary tract. She has been able to recover from these bouts, but not come back to the same level of health. She has less ability to find comfort and move with ease. She no longer jumps up on our bed, and has difficulty jumping into my car. The thrill of riding has been replaced by a fear of getting into the back seat. Since she can’t tell us in words about her level of pain I am wondering.
We cared for my mother at the end of her life. That was a tough time in terms of patience and understanding. It was similar in that we knew she was at the end of her life, but had no idea how long the end might take. Now that Artemisia the magical huntress will soon go to join her grandma I remember how difficult it was to wait and wonder when death would come. Dread is not depression, and it is not regular fear. It is a test. For an unknown time it is necessary to walk the tightrope between sorrow and acceptance. The inability to control or stop events in progress is a hard pill to swallow. It is bittersweet. This lovely dog has brought much joy to the world which will remain with us after she leaves.
Poppies have been cultivated since ancient times. Poppy seeds are used in magic as well as in cooking. They are associated with rest and remembrance. It was mythically created by Ceres while she was in search of Persephone, as a symbol of grief. Death and pleasure are symbolized by red poppies. The bees are very active on them, although red flowers are typically pollinated by hummingbirds. I think they are being sedated.
All Souls Day in the Catholic tradition is a time to honor and remember the dead. In native belief systems of the Americas death played a central part. Making fun of death, or mocking the fanciest parts of life have gone together forever, everywhere. In Basel Switzerland I saw a collection of art from the middle ages portraying the same dancing skeletons used in Mexico to show death as a fiesta. Being mindful of mortality is known as memento mori. Skulls and other reminders of the transience of life were used in churches and religious settings. Ancestors graves have been a place of reverence for almost all peoples. Art depicting death in a whimsical or dramatic way has been with us in many cultures around the world. To remember mortality is essential to living a full life.
If there are rituals in the entire culture that honor the souls of departed there is a continuity. Fear of of death is made comical when portrayed as the dance of death or the fancy dressed skeleton. The folly of amassing worldly goods seems obvious when the fiddler and the dancers have nothing but bones and clothing. In 1839 the possibility of capturing the image of a dead person became very popular. I have seen quite a few graves embellished with photos. Others use symbols. Have you ever given any thought to your own death, your own grave and epitaph?
Tucson celebrates All Souls Weekend in a mixed tech cultural expression of art and celebration. By building personal or community altars, by artful masquerade, and by watching or participating in the procession Tucsonans have the opportunity to bring mortality to life. Come on down to the Old Pueblo for an old time custom revived.