Washing His Bright Hands (I’ll Fly Away)

Study of Hands by Egon Schiele

Study of Hands by Egon Schiele, Austrian, 1921, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mmm, hmm. Mmm, hmm. Song’s in my breath this morning, dear heart. “Some bright morning, when this life is over, I’ll fly away.”

Here’s the basin, dear heart; here’s the soap, the towels. “To that home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away.”

So, dear heart, let me take your hand. You wake? Morning time, sir. Your eyes open; good. You sleep okay? Good, good. You remember me? Mary Ann? Right, I’m your aide, here to get you up for breakfast. You hungry? Get you some coffee soon, black and hot like you like it. First wash up a bit. Freshen up, start the day out right.

Ah, this man’s bright hands. When I hold his right hand, his skin is translucent. I see through it like cellophane over one of those hollow decorated eggs. You peer inside at frost flowers, you see blue veins; you see tendons flex and stretch, bones lift and bend and twist. Each joint, a full knot, moves slippery in my hand, soapy lavender smell washing away that night-bloom sweat. Flesh at the curved edge of his palm like putty rolled between silk.

When you get to this age, all human hands come down to this: bone under silk, my hands in blue vinyl gloves holding and turning his hands, passing the washcloth over the skin like polishing silver for Thanksgiving table. Silver and mica and blue and bone. Body heat. Lavender. My eyes fall over his hands, his eyes, his winged and naked shoulder. Silence; his ragged breath; the ringing in my ears as of distant and unearthly bells.

“I’ll fly away, oh glory, I’ll fly away (in the morning). When I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away.”

— Mary Ann Barton

The song is I’ll Fly Away (O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack) by Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss. The date is September 11.

Arnold Sacks: A Portrait by Summer Pierre

Oliver Sacks: An Artist’s Tribute

Taking The World Into His Arms

by Summer Pierre

An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales by Oliver SacksAs almost everyone knows, we lost the great writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks on Sunday.  His books were enormously important to me.  He had been on my family’s bookshelves for years, and had been spoken of with such reverence from my folks, that I felt I knew him before I had read anything. Then while recovering from surgery on the couch at my folks’ place, I picked up An Anthropologist on Mars and immediately fell in love with essays.  It was clear from the first reading that he was a man who was deeply curious and delighted by all he encountered in the world.  I never came away from his books without feeling that the world was totally broken open to me in a new way.

I will probably re-read one of his most recent meditations on dying several times throughout the rest of my life to remember how powerful the human experience is–even at the end, which Sacks described so vividly and with love.  Like every one else, I followed any and all inklings to his failing health after his announcement in February of his terminal condition.  My husband Graham was the one who broke the news to me and was not surprised when I cried openly upon hearing it.  I said, “I don’t think there is anyone I’d rather hear more from on what dying is like.”  Graham, without missing a beat, said: “I think he would love to tell us about it if he could.”

I think of him in these lines of the Mary Oliver poem “When Death Comes”:

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

May we all be so fortunate to be so alive and awake to the surrounding world while we are here as he seemed to be.

Summer Pierre: Self-PortraitSummer Pierre is a cartoonist, illustrator, writer, and teacher in Highland Falls, NY. You can read her autobiographical comic series called Paper Pencil Life at her blog, Studio of Summer Pierre. This post is reprinted with her permission. — MAB

How To Grieve With Challah Bread by Ellabell Risbridger

“How to Grieve with Challah Bread” struck me as a perfect expression of the complexities of family life. Grief and loss. Rituals and remembrances. New loaves braided and baked and broken at the table. All these are emblems and occasions of belonging to the tribes of our birth. — MAB

Eating With My Fingers

My grandfather is dead: I do not know how to grieve. So I make bread.

In the Bible they call bread the staff of life (my grandfather might have liked this: he liked religion), but really it’s the staff of grief. And rage, and guilt. I do not know how to grieve. I am twenty-two: my grandparents had children young, and I thought they would all die old. Older. I do not know how to grieve. I do not know how to grieve my grandfather’s passing, because I barely knew my grandfather. I tried to tell someone “he was like this-” and I came up short: who was my grandfather?

dough challah

He let me eat apple pie for breakfast. He was my father’s father. He was bald. He liked to garden. He was a teacher, and some kind of occasional preacher. He came from a village called something like Jacksondale, which…

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Safe Space Radio

Guilt When a Parent Dies

Editor’s note: How does a single voice manage to share such rich and heart-grained stories? Listen here, dear readers, to two plainspoken men as they talk about guilt when a parent dies with Dr. Anne Hallward of the Maine radio program, Safe Space Radio. — MAB

We continue our series on hidden feelings this week with two stories about guilt, the kind we feel when we believe we didn’t do enough at the end of a parent’s life.  We’ll hear from people who were troubled by the way they failed to show up for their parents, and discuss the process of finding relief from that guilt. — Dr. Anne Hallward, Safe Space Radio

http://safespaceradio.com/2015/04/guilt-when-a-parent-dies/

Copyright © 2015 Safe Space Radio, All rights reserved. Posted with permission of the author.

Dr. Atul Gawande in Being Mortal, a Frontline documentary on PBS

“Being Mortal” Airs Tonight

“The two big unfixables are aging and dying…you can’t fix those.” — Atul Gawande

Editor’s note: PBS airs a documentary tonight based on Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal. It promises to be a candid and intimate look at doctors and families coming to terms with the end of life. This article by Stephanie E. Rogers, MD, appears in the blog Geripal. — MAB, 2/10/2015

The True Art of Medicine: Atul Gawande and The Being Mortal Documentary

by Stephanie E. Rogers, MD @SERogersMD

“The two big unfixables are aging and dying…you can’t fix those,” notes physician-writer Dr. Atul Gawande, in a new documentary based on his recent book Being Mortal. The Frontline documentary airs Tuesday, February 10 on PBS, and explores Gawande’s frustration of not being able to “fix” all of his patients.

The Being Mortal documentary examines how Gawande and other physicians struggle to talk with patients and families about death and dying. He explores his own humble journey with the realization that “medicine fails the people it’s supposed to help” at the end of life. It also provides a powerful, intimate look at families struggling with conversations about the realities of aging and death, and the uncomfortable and difficult time even well-trained physicians have at leading these discussions.

One of the most startling aspects of the documentary is watching physicians participate in these conversations with patients and the behind the scenes look at what their thoughts are regarding these discussions. Even with cancer physicians who have these conversations all the time, it is apparent that they too are struggling to be forthright and eloquent. In fact, this is what makes Gawande a skillful storyteller — he exposes his own vulnerabilities both as a physician trying not to be the bearer of bad news and as a patient’s family member during his father’s inevitable death from a spinal cord tumor.

“Hope is not a plan,” Dr. Gawande argues. “We find from our trials that we are literally inflicting therapies on people that shorten their lives and increase their suffering, due to an inability to come to good decisions.” He notes that people may have other priorities besides living longer and that we should not be waiting until the last week of life to have these discussions with our patients.

As a Geriatrics fellow, I have learned that speaking to patients frankly about aging, dying, and their priorities for the time they have left has been the toughest challenge I’ve encountered yet in my decade of medical training. We physicians tend to be overly optimistic and timid about the truth, partly because it is difficult to tell a patient something they don’t want to hear. We want to instill confidence in our patients and hope with them for a cure or more time.

I now realize that the most worthy challenge– one likely to last my entire career – is to improve my ability to have these conversations. Our decisive goal as physicians is not only to know the most up-to-date scientific studies or treatments, but to be comfortable and capable of communicating truthfully and empathetically to our patients about the realities of life — that we will all age and we will all die. The true challenge is combining all our medical knowledge and skills with the art of communication, to allow our patients to choose how they want to live—all the way to the end. Being Mortal, the Frontline documentary from writer/producer/director Tom Jennings, airs Tuesday, February 10 on PBS and will stream in full online at pbs.org/frontlinehttp://pbs.org/frontline.

Source: Stephanie E. Rogers, MD, “The True Art of Medicine: Atul Gawande and The Being Mortal Documentary,” GeriPal: A  Geriatrics and Palliative Care Blog (blog), February 9, 2015, http://www.geripal.org/2015/02/atul-gawande-being-mortal-documentary.html.

In Memory of My Mother

January 14, 2015

Today I am remembering my mother, Lisette Berglund Hyde, who died four years ago on the day before her 102nd birthday. She loved being outdoors, gardening and walking the dog; baking bread; setting a beautiful table; visiting art museums; listening to Vivaldi on public radio. Lisette was born in Bjuv, a small town in the southern tip of Sweden, so I am marking this occasion with a sunlit painting of a breakfast table outdoors by the Swedish artist Hanna Hirsch-Pauli.

Frukostdags (Breakfast Time) by Hanna Pauli

Frukostdags (Breakfast Time) by Hanna Hirsch-Pauli, Swedish, 1887, via Wikimedia Commons.

Commentary about this painting from the Swedish National Museum reads:

To this day, Hanna Hirsch-Pauli’s painting Breakfast – Time from 1887 is still able to trigger feelings of intense sensual pleasure from our visitors. “We truly feel invited; it is just like our very own breakfast ritual. The chairs are waiting for us and we can almost feel how the heavy teapot tilts as we lift it.” The table which is laid with beautiful objects gives associations to family life and domesticity. The image shows a corner of reality, where the bourgeois dining room has been removed to the garden.

This is an open-air painting suffused with light. The subject is dappled with reflections that give the objects a suggestive shimmer. It is a juste-milieu painting, being at once anchored in the classicist tradition with its linear perspective, but also inspired by the way the Impressionists depicted light with colour. Like many Swedish artists at the time, Hanna Hirsch-Pauli studied in Paris and exhibited at the Salon.

The use of light, the lively brushstrokes and the thickly applied paint outraged several Swedish critics at the time. They saw her technique as “slipshod” and one critic meant that the flecks of light on the table cloth were probably the result of the artist “wiping” her own brushes on it. In the late 1880s Breakfast – Time played a major role in Hanna Hirsch-Pauli’s breakthrough as an artist. Already an accomplished colourist, as we can see, she went on to develop those skills in her portrait painting. — Nationalmuseum Stockholm via Wikimedia Commons.

Thank you for reading this post,

Mary Ann

Related post: Remembering Gladys, Remembering Lisette: Three Years On

Thanks for Responding to the Survey for Rest, the Book

May 11, 2014

Dear Readers,

Last week I asked if you would help me write my book about caregiving, Rest, by taking a word-association survey (Want to Help Me Write My Book?).

Many of you took the survey. I am so grateful for your responses. Click on the REST Survey #1 to take it now. Feel free to take it more than once, as some of you have done.

Brilliant, springboard, resilience, woof, idleness, forgiveness, hunger, satisfaction. Why are these eight words important for a book about caregiving?

The words seem chosen arbitrarily, as if I’d opened a big dictionary eight times at random and stabbed down with my finger on the page. Which is true, in a way. I was following my intuition. Your associations to these eight words, I told myself, would be a resource for me in my writing, even though I didn’t know why.

Yet reading your responses, I know so much more about the gut-level process of writing this book for you. Your willingness to read my words has been such a gift to me. Your words, responding to mine, are another gift: sweet, soft, hard, unexpected. Brilliant. Together, we will make a gift that neither of us can make alone.

Only connect,” writes E.M. Forster in Howards End.  “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.”

Caring for others can bring us closer to them and closer to each other, even in the raw hardships of illness and frailty.

“My father and mother-in-law died this winter within weeks of each other,” writes meditation teacher Kate Wheeler in her blog post, The Dying Season. “I have been imagining us as orphaned little kids holding hands by an open grave, trying to carve out a little piece of happiness for ourselves as we transit through this life.”

I’m in transit through this life, too.

I’m writing this book because I think that life is precious, rough, raw, and whole.

I’m writing this book because lately it has dawned on me that my pelvic-floor problem is getting worse, and surgery is in my future.

I’m writing this book because Elana Miller, the young doctor who wrote When in Doubt, Write the Truth, has a new post about her life with cancer called Loss. In this essay, Elana hits the ball of truth so hard that I’m still reeling from the blow.

Thank you for being there.

All the best,

Mary Ann

PS: Will you take the survey? Click on the REST Survey #1. Thanks! And Happy Mothers Day.