January 31, 2012

What People Talk About Before They Die ~ Kerry Egan

The following article was shared with me via email by a friend of mine. It moved me much as it did for my friend, so I’m sharing it here with all of you. My opinion? If I would have had the opportunity to speak with my Mother before she died, I’m convinced it would have been about “family.” No more. No less. Because those are the ties that bind each of us, the bedrock upon which we build our lives thereafter, and all the relationships we develop, nurture, and enjoy during our time here on this planet. ~ Gusto

Kerry Egan is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and the author of "Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago."

As a divinity school student, I had just started working as a student chaplain at a cancer hospital when my professor asked me about my work.  I was 26 years old and still learning what a chaplain did.

"I talk to the patients," I told him.

"You talk to patients?  And tell me, what do people who are sick and dying talk to the student chaplain about?" he asked.

I had never considered the question before.  “Well,” I responded slowly, “Mostly we talk about their families.”

“Do you talk about God?

“Umm, not usually.”

“Or their religion?”

“Not so much.”

“The meaning of their lives?”


“And prayer?  Do you lead them in prayer?  Or ritual?”

“Well,” I hesitated.  “Sometimes.  But not usually, not really.”

I felt derision creeping into the professor's voice.  “So you just visit people and talk about their families?”

“Well, they talk.  I mostly listen.”

“Huh.”  He leaned back in his chair.

A week later, in the middle of a lecture in this professor's packed class, he started to tell a story about a student he once met who was a chaplain intern at a hospital.

“And I asked her, 'What exactly do you do as a chaplain?'  And she replied, 'Well, I talk to people about their families.'” He paused for effect. “And that was this student's understanding of  faith!  That was as deep as this person's spiritual life went!  Talking about other people's families!”

The students laughed at the shallowness of the silly student.  The professor was on a roll.

“And I thought to myself,” he continued, “that if I was ever sick in the hospital, if I was ever dying, that the last person I would ever want to see is some Harvard Divinity School student chaplain wanting to talk to me about my family.”

My body went numb with shame.  At the time I thought that maybe, if I was a better chaplain, I would know how to talk to people about big spiritual questions.  Maybe if dying people met with a good, experienced chaplain they would talk about God, I thought.

Today, 13 years later, I am a hospice chaplain.  I visit people who are dying in their homes, in hospitals, in nursing homes.   And if you were to ask me the same question - What do people who are sick and dying talk about with the chaplain?  – I, without hesitation or uncertainty, would give you the same answer. Mostly, they talk about their families: about their mothers and fathers, their sons and daughters.

They talk about the love they felt, and the love they gave.  Often they talk about love they did not receive, or the love they did not know how to offer, the love they withheld, or maybe never felt for the ones they should have loved unconditionally.

They talk about how they learned what love is, and what it is not.    And sometimes, when they are actively dying, fluid gurgling in their throats, they reach their hands out to things I cannot see and they call out to their parents:  Mama, Daddy, Mother.

What I did not understand when I was a student then, and what I would explain to that professor now, is that people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God.  That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives.  That is how we talk about the big spiritual questions of human existence.

We don't live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories.  We live our lives in our families:  the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends.

This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, this is where our purpose becomes clear.

Family is where we first experience love and where we first give it.  It's probably the first place we've been hurt by someone we love, and hopefully the place we learn that love can overcome even the most painful rejection.

This crucible of love is where we start to ask those big spiritual questions, and ultimately where they end.

I have seen such expressions of love:  A husband gently washing his wife's face with a cool washcloth, cupping the back of her bald head in his hand to get to the nape of her neck, because she is too weak to lift it from the pillow. A daughter spooning pudding into the mouth of her mother, a woman who has not recognized her for years.

A wife arranging the pillow under the head of her husband's no-longer-breathing body as she helps the undertaker lift him onto the waiting stretcher.

We don't learn the meaning of our lives by discussing it.  It's not to be found in books or lecture halls or even churches or synagogues or mosques.  It's discovered through these actions of love.

If God is love, and we believe that to be true, then we learn about God when we learn about love. The first, and usually the last, classroom of love is the family.

Sometimes that love is not only imperfect, it seems to be missing entirely.  Monstrous things can happen in families.  Too often, more often than I want to believe possible, patients tell me what it feels like when the person you love beats you or rapes you.  They tell me what it feels like to know that you are utterly unwanted by your parents.  They tell me what it feels like to be the target of someone's rage.   They tell me what it feels like to know that you abandoned your children, or that your drinking destroyed your family, or that you failed to care for those who needed you.

Even in these cases, I am amazed at the strength of the human soul.  People who did not know love in their families know that they should have been loved.  They somehow know what was missing, and what they deserved as children and adults.

When the love is imperfect, or a family is destructive, something else can be learned:  forgiveness.  The spiritual work of being human is learning how to love and how to forgive.

We don’t have to use words of theology to talk about God; people who are close to death almost never do. We should learn from those who are dying that the best way to teach our children about God is by loving each other wholly and forgiving each other fully - just as each of us longs to be loved and forgiven by our mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kerry Egan

January 20, 2012

Don't Quit!

Many years ago two men, a father and his son, were planting wheat during the fall season in a remote part of Kansas. Actually, it was very remote, the population of the county in which they lived numbered less than 1,800 souls. They had nearly 2,000 acres of wheat to plant on various plots of land scattered over a 20 mile square area, many of which were far from paved roads. In fact, there were only TWO paved roads in the entire county, which was dominated instead with gravel roads that were maintained by county employees. But there was ONE plot of land that was so isolated, so far removed from the rest their land, that it required careful planning when they transported their equipment there each year to sow next year’s precious crop. Reason being, it was accessible by only two graveled roads, both of which were several miles away, and as always, they had to keep a watchful eye out on the weather, since the last leg to their destination was by rutted trail roads.

In that part of the country and that time of year, thunderstorms could pop up at any moment, unleashing their fury with vast amounts of rain. If one should happen to move in on them before they could get out and dumped too much rain, they would be literally stuck there, since their equipment was far too heavy to move. Even a four-wheel drive vehicle would prove useless.

And sure enough, just as they were finishing their last rounds during a hot and humid late afternoon in August, mother nature reared her head with one of most ominous clouds either had ever seen. They knew what was coming. They didn’t have much time. They knew they had to work quickly in order to escape. They had a 48 foot planter, a 280 HP tractor, a 1 ½ ton truck heavily laden with wheat seed, and a ¾ ton pickup, all of which had to be hastily prepared for the trip out. The son helped his father attach the planter to the tractor into “road” position, then scrambled back to the pickup which he then bolted to the back of the truck by means of a hitch. The father would then lead the way out in the tractor, lugging the planter behind it, while the son followed closely behind with the truck and pickup.

The process to do all this normally took 45 minutes, but they knew mother nature wouldn’t allow that. The son kept asking his father, “What will we do if we get stuck here?” The father simply said, “Stop talking, just keep going!” They completed their job in 20 minutes flat. But by the time they were on the move, it had already started raining. Worse, one of the 12 transport tires on the planter was nearly flat. They had to keep going, communicating with one another via two-way radio. The fastest they could travel was 12 MPH and judging by the speed of the approaching storm, it would be right on their tails for the next 12 miles until they could reach a paved road. They didn’t waste a second. Fortunately, they made it. And just as they reached their destination, which was bordered by one of the only two paved roads in the county, the clouds opened up. Breathing a huge sigh of relief, the son jumped out of the truck, meeting his father who had come down from the tractor. Standing there in the pouring rain, the father grinned, looked at his son, and said, “You made it! You did it. You didn’t quit!”

That’s just one of many stories the son experienced while growing up on the plains of Western Kansas, a place unfit for the timid or weak. A place where “hard work” is a normal part of everyday life. A place that developed a character that said, “Never give up, give it your all, keep going, and don’t EVER quit.” And it reminds the writer of this story of this special piece, one that it is hoped, along with the story you just read, that regardless of who you are, where you are, or whatever difficult circumstances you may find yourself in, there’s ALWAYS a way out, there’s ALWAYS a light at the end of your tunnel…..
When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high,
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest, if you must, but don’t you quit.

Life is queer with its twists and turns,
As every one of us sometimes learns,
And many a failure turns about,
When he might have won had he stuck it out;
Don’t give up though the pace seems slow–
You may succeed with another blow.

Often the goal is nearer than,
It seems to a faint and faltering man,
Often the struggler has given up,
When he might have captured the victor’s cup,
And he learned too late when the night slipped down,
How close he was to the golden crown.

Success is failure turned inside out–
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems so far,
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit–
It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.

~ Author unknown

January 13, 2012

"Carried Away...."

This one’s been around awhile, and there’s some question to its origin or even its validity, but irrespective of that, it’s food for thought. Cherish your loved ones, even when times are bad, even when things are at their worst, for we never know what tomorrow may bring…. ~ Gusto

When I got home that night as my wife served dinner, I held her hand and said, I’ve got something to tell you. She sat down and ate quietly. Again I observed the hurt in her eyes.

Suddenly I didn’t know how to open my mouth. But I had to let her know what I was thinking. I want a divorce. I raised the topic calmly.

She didn’t seem to be annoyed by my words, instead she asked me softly, why? I avoided her question. This made her angry. She threw away the chopsticks and shouted at me, you are not a man! That night, we didn’t talk to each other. She was weeping. I knew she wanted to find out what had happened to our marriage. But I could hardly give her a satisfactory answer; she had lost my heart to Jane. I didn’t love her anymore. I just pitied her!

With a deep sense of guilt, I drafted a divorce agreement which stated that she could own our house, our car, and 30% stake of my company. She glanced at it and then tore it into pieces. The woman who had spent ten years of her life with me had become a stranger. I felt sorry for her wasted time, resources and energy but I could not take back what I had said for I loved Jane so dearly. Finally she cried loudly in front of me, which was what I had expected to see. To me her cry was actually a kind of release. The idea of divorce which had obsessed me for several weeks seemed to be firmer and clearer now.

The next day, I came back home very late and found her writing something at the table. I didn’t have supper but went straight to sleep and fell asleep very fast because I was tired after an eventful day with Jane.

When I woke up, she was still there at the table writing. I just did not care so I turned over and was asleep again. In the morning she presented her divorce conditions: she didn’t want anything from me, but needed a month’s notice before the divorce. She requested that in that one month we both struggle to live as normal a life as possible. Her reasons were simple: our son had his exams in a month’s time and she didn’t want to disrupt him with our broken marriage. This was agreeable to me. But she had something more, she asked me to recall how I had carried her into out bridal room on our wedding day.

She requested that every day for the month’s duration I carry her out of our bedroom to the front door ever morning. I thought she was going crazy. Just to make our last days together bearable I accepted her odd request. I told Jane about my wife’s divorce conditions.  She laughed loudly and thought it was absurd. No matter what tricks she applies, she has to face the divorce, she said scornfully. My wife and I hadn’t had any body contact since my divorce intention was explicitly expressed. So when I carried her out on the first day, we both appeared clumsy. Our son clapped behind us, daddy is holding mommy in his arms. His words brought me a sense of pain. From the bedroom to the sitting room, then to the door, I walked over ten meters with her in my arms. She closed her eyes and said softly; don’t tell our son about the divorce. I nodded, feeling somewhat upset. I put her down outside the door. She went to wait for the bus to work. I drove alone to the office.

On the second day, both of us acted much more easily. She leaned on my chest. I could smell the fragrance of her blouse. I realized that I hadn’t looked at this woman carefully for a long time. I realized she was not young any more. There were fine wrinkles on her face, her hair was graying! Our marriage had taken its toll on her. For a minute I wondered what I had done to her. On the fourth day, when I lifted her up, I felt a sense of intimacy returning. This was the woman who had given ten years of her life to me. On the fifth and sixth day, I realized that our sense of intimacy was growing again. I didn’t tell Jane about this. It became easier to carry her as the month slipped by. Perhaps the everyday workout made me stronger. She was choosing what to wear one morning. She tried on quite a few dresses but could not find a suitable one. Then she sighed, all my dresses have grown bigger. I suddenly realized that she had grown so thin, that was the reason why I could carry her more easily.

Suddenly it hit me… she had buried so much pain and bitterness in her heart. Subconsciously I reached out and touched her head. Our son came in at the moment and said, Dad, it’s time to carry mom out. To him, seeing his father carrying his mother out had become an essential part of his life. My wife gestured to our son to come closer and hugged him tightly. I turned my face away because I was afraid I might change my mind at this last minute. I then held her in my arms, walking from the bedroom, through the sitting room, to the hallway. Her hand surrounded my neck softly and naturally. I held her body tightly; it was just like our wedding day. But her much lighter weight made me sad. On the last day, when I held her in my arms I could hardly move a step. Our son had gone to school. I held her tightly and said, I hadn’t noticed that our life lacked intimacy.

I drove to office…. jumped out of the car swiftly without locking the door. I was afraid any delay would make me change my mind…I walked upstairs. Jane opened the door and I said to her, Sorry, Jane, I do not want the divorce anymore. She looked at me, astonished, and then touched my forehead. Do you have a fever? She said. I moved her hand off my head. Sorry, Jane, I said, I won’t divorce. My marriage life was boring probably because she and I didn’t value the details of our lives, not because we didn’t love each other anymore. Now I realize that since I carried her into my home on our wedding day I am supposed to hold her until death do us part. 

Jane seemed to suddenly wake up. She gave me a loud slap and then slammed the door and burst into tears. I walked downstairs and drove away. At the floral shop on the way, I ordered a bouquet of flowers for my wife. The salesgirl asked me what to write on the card. I smiled and wrote, I’ll carry you out every morning until death do us apart. That evening I arrived home, flowers in my hands, a smile on my face, I ran up stairs, only to find my wife in the bed -dead. My wife had been fighting CANCER for months and I was too busy with Jane to even notice. She knew that she would die soon and she wanted to save me from whatever negative reaction it would have on our son, in case we pushed through with the divorce. — At least, in the eyes of our son—- I’m a loving husband…. THE SMALL DETAILS OF YOUR LIVES ARE WHAT REALLY MATTER IN A RELATIONSHIP.

 "IT'S NOT" the Mansion or House, the Car, Property, the Money in the bank. These create an environment conducive for happiness but cannot give happiness in themselves. So find time to be your spouse’s friend and do those little things for each other that build intimacy. Do have a real happy marriage! 

The story you just read reminds me of this…..

"One day I won’t be here. One day when you have a problem you won't be able to call me to ask for help. One day when you want to send me a message I won't ever receive it. One day when I'm not here I won't be able to tell you that I love you so much and I cherish every moment I have with you. Never regret anything we did. Regret the things we didn't have a chance to do because it was too late. Remember all the laughs we got to share and the tears we got to see roll off each other's faces. Remember all the hugs and air kisses. Don't ever leave my side when I need you because I will never leave you." ~ unknown.