Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Things We Do For Love

More than 10 years ago, I was in a hearing in Domestic Relations Court. It had been rescheduled because the magistrate had a death in her family. She thanked us for our flexibility in changing the date and then explained that her mother had passed away.

She is Muslim and she told us that it is their tradition that the close female relatives of a deceased woman (not the undertaker) wash and dress the body for the funeral, which generally occurs within 24 hours of death. She and her aunts and sisters joined together to do that on the day we were to have been in court. Of course I and the other attorney were gracious about the rescheduling. These things happen; we never know what life has in store for us. We went on with our business before the court.

As we left the courthouse, the other attorney turned to me, and said, "I could never do that. How disgusting! Wash a dead body!"

I responded, "I don't know, I have never been asked to do it, but it seems like such a loving thing. A final way to take care of a person you loved and make sure that they are treated with care and dignity, not yanked around by a stranger." I thought it sounded like a beautiful tradition.

"I guess you're right, but I could never do it."

"I don't know, but I think I could."

We went our separate ways, back to the busyness.

On my walk back to the office, I mulled it over. I hadn't known about this Muslim tradition; hadn't known that this magistrate was Muslim; hadn't thought about the prospect of washing and dressing a body before that day. My parents were both in reasonably good health at that point, so the reality of it seemed pretty distant.

I wondered when and why our western culture had become so squeamish about death and dying. It used to be that bodies were "laid out" at home and visitors came there to pay respects and offer condolences. After a couple of days, the body was buried in a wooden coffin in a family plot or churchyard. The family was apparently not spooked by having a body in the house. Maybe they even took comfort in the nearness of the loved one who would soon be buried. Maybe it felt normal because that is what other families did. Maybe there were no other options. But at some point that all changed. Why?

My research indicates that burial customs started changing during the Civil War. Arterial embalming - the injection of a preservative solution into the arteries of the deceased - had been developed around 1830, primarily to preserve cadavers for scientific use. During the Civil War, some northern families had the bodies of slain kin quickly and crudely embalmed so that they could be shipped home from southern battlefields for viewing and burial.

American opinion was very unfavorable about the private use of this process, but that changed significantly with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the funeral procession of his body around the country. It was the first opportunity for most Americans to see an embalmed body. Interest increased, although the custom of the undertaker coming to the home of the deceased, preparing the body and measuring for the casket still prevailed, perhaps due to the relative scarcity of embalmers. Undertakers up to this time were typically cabinetmakers who built coffins and took care of the dead as a side business, although often midwives also prepared bodies for burial.

At the onset of the twentieth century, germ theory was beginning to be widely accepted and the notion that a dead body may be unsanitary gained favor. Mortuary Science became a course of study that included licensure and certification. Embalming required equipment and a space away from the distraught family in which it could be performed.  As more people died in hospitals they had to be moved immediately after death anyway. Once it became necessary to have the body moved to the funeral home for embalming, there was reluctance to have it brought back to the home following that process. Enter the family funeral home or "parlor".

The early and mid-twentieth century saw the rise of the funeral industry, with the mass production of ever more elaborate metal caskets and the increase in goods and services offered. Unethical practices which involved preying upon grieving families for the sake of profits became widespread and were then exposed in the media. As the public became fearful of being taken advantage of, cremation rates climbed. During the 1970's through the 1990's there was a tremendous consolidation of family funeral homes. Where there had once been funeral homes dedicated to particular ethnic groups, located in their neighborhoods, there became fewer, larger facilities, often retaining the names of the entities they had "swallowed".

Anecdotally, it seems that the increasing use of hospice services may result in more deaths at home once again and more cremations may result in less embalming. It will take time for these trends to play out, but it seems our funeral customs are continually evolving. I wonder if we will, as a culture, take back some of the care of our beloveds that we have relinquished to outsiders?

Even though practices may evolve with technology and social mores, the desire to "do right" by a deceased loved one will never change. We still want to respect their wishes. We still want them treated with dignity and even love, whether by us or by someone else.

My family was lucky because we did not have to guess at our parents' wishes. They were courageous enough to accept the inevitable and to provide their children with guidance - possibly their final acts of parenting us. We were brave enough to listen, accept and remember.

They wanted to be cremated and then interred at the church they helped found in South Carolina and they wanted a party - a "celebration of life"- to include family and their dear friends.

At the time of their funerals, immediately after each of them died, the funeral director offered us the use of a "loaner" receptacle for their remains during the calling hours and Masses, until we could decide what we would use long-term.  My brothers, both skilled woodworkers (learned at Dad's side), examined the box.

"I could make that," James said.

"I think I will. I'd like to make one for them, for their ashes, if that's okay with everybody."

"Okay"? It wasn't okay, it was perfect.

No member of my family is particularly emotional; it's just not our style, but my brother James is the most laid-back of all of us. And yet I can't imagine what it must have been like for him, cutting the wood, piecing it together, sanding it, finishing it, and then placing Mom's and Dad's ashes inside.

He carried it into the church for the memorial service, then outside afterward and out to the "peace garden" where the columbarium sits. As Hurricane Sandy blew and spit rain, he gently slid it into their niche.

He did all these things in his typical, non-dramatic, matter-of-fact way. I suspect it was rewarding to him to have done it and probably therapeutic, too, but it cannot have been easy.

Such a generous, heartfelt gift to them and to all of us: that they should rest, together, in a beautiful casket made for them with love. I will always be grateful to him for his willingness to take it on and to do it so beautifully and with such grace.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

An Homage to Rumi

My minister is a poet himself and a fan of Jelaluddin Rumi, a thirteenth century Sufi mystic. Because of him, my interest was piqued and I have purchased a translation of Rumi's works for my own study.

A verse I have heard Reverend Budd recite more than once, and to which I return often, is this:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn't make any sense.
The Essential Rumi, Translation by Coleman Barks with John Moyne (Harper Collins, 2004)

There is something so enticing about the notion of a place where we can leave our separateness behind; where we can stop our quarreling and just be. Where we can realize the unity of all beings and share in that sacred energy. Where our commonality trumps our differences into silence.

And yet there is something frightening about it, too. Something so frightening about letting go of our well-rehearsed scripts and predictable dialogues. To leave what we know, imperfect as it is, and go into that field. Going into that field requires trust. Going into that field means taking a leap of faith that the other will show up and meet you there. It means dropping the armor that is your "ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing." Being naked. Defenseless.  For what are we without our ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing?

What would happen if we left our arguments at the door and went into that field with just our souls? If we saw only other souls, without the identification of their ideas?  Would we recognize them without their labels?  Would we be able to discard our memory of what those labels were? Would we see that we are all the same, really; all part of the same whole? All just trying to do our best, to make a life that means something?

This is what I thought about as I watched the debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama last night. And I wondered what would happen if they went into that field.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

(Big sigh)

I finally did it. I edited my "About Me" mini-bio to remove the reference to "and caring for my elderly parents." That phase of my life is over. I'm not done with it, though. There are many aspects of it that I am still chewing on, digesting and processing. I am not done writing about it. There is much more to be said.

There's another little change in the "About Me." I made myself a writer first and a non-practicing lawyer second. That's big for me. Really big. I have spent nearly my whole adult life defining myself as a lawyer. I worked hard to obtain the right to use that title. It feels dishonest somehow to not use it at all. But it is no longer how I define myself. I've had an epiphany.

In all the years I practiced law, I always liked parts of it and hated others. I loved the helping people part, and the research and analysis part and the gabbing with other lawyers part, but did you know that there are a lot of not very nice lawyers out there? Lots and lots of them. Being a divorce lawyer, I dealt with an unusually large contingent of the nastiest ones. It wore me down, dealing with them. It eroded the crisp edges of my optimism and soured my humor.

Some nice lawyers find a way to remain themselves in the midst of all the unpleasantness. They surround themselves with colleagues who buoy them or they compartmentalize or, very often, they drink. None of those routes really solved the problem for me, and I tried them all.

If it were only the other lawyers that were the problem, I could have looked at my lawyer-glass as half-full, but it wasn't only that. I was a litigator. I was in court in some fashion nearly every day and usually in more than one courtroom on any given day. Courts do not operate efficiently. Even when the judges and staff try to operate effectively, and not all do, there are unavoidable bottlenecks and detours.

I do not blame my clients for being annoyed at our rather medieval court system. I tried my best to educate them and prepare them for the inevitable, but seen through eyes fresh to the system, the process seemed worse even than I had described it. Clients tend to hold their lawyers responsible for each and every delay as though said lawyer had control of the docket, the judge and the other side's lawyer. The plot, then, thickens: we now have nasty lawyers, a cumbersome system, and irritated clients.

There is an old saying that criminal defense lawyers represent bad people at their best, and divorce lawyers represent good people at their worst. As with all cliches, there is a measure of truth in it. There were few of my clients that I truly disliked. Most were decent, hard-working people who were going through what is among the most painful happenings in life. I do not share the widely held belief that people rush to divorce instead of trying to work out the problems in their marriages. Some do, but most do not. In my experience, divorce is a decision rarely taken lightly.

My clients came to me at a low point in their lives, full of worry, guilt, anger and sadness. I did my best to shepherd them through the process with their dignity intact, concerns addressed and with the least financial impact possible in the circumstances. I knew all the intimate details of their lives: how and where they spent their money, who cheated, who lied, who screamed and who hit. I knew it all about each of them and it was a heavy burden to carry. Most appreciated me. Some did not. Most paid me. Some did not.

It was my job, but they were not just projects to me. They were human beings, complicated and unique. Although I was careful to maintain a professional distance, every one of them left a mark on me in some way. All that emotion pouring out of them like melting glaciers, and I was the rock. In more than one way, I was the rock.

I came home from the office every day, exhausted; physically and emotionally. I rarely wanted to talk about my day; I didn't want to relive it. There were good days, when I "won" and when I got to strut my stuff in trial. There were funny days, when ridiculous things happened or were said. Mostly, though, there were exhausting days.

When my girls were 2 and 4 and when Hombre and I thought we could live on one income, I sold my law practice. I didn't make a lot of money from it, but it was something; something for what I had built. There were still a few loose ends hanging out there, but I was free to move on. I enjoyed my little ones as I hadn't ever before.

A couple of years and one downsizing later, I went back to work, this time in the corporate world. The intellectual aspect was exhilarating, the social aspect was rewarding, but having been self-employed for so long, I found the lack of control frustrating and corporate policies inane. I hung in there, making the best of it for just over four years. And that's when Mom and Dad got sick and life changed for all of us.

I always told my clients that a divorce is a death: the marriage has died. I gave them a list of books that dealt with grieving and I suggested that they seek counseling. I told them they might go through similar "stages" of emotion as one might when diagnosed with a terminal illness, or upon the death of a loved one. In some strange way, dealing with one type of death prepared me to deal with another.

I had been a sporadic journaler since second grade, when I got my first locking, 5-year model, but my journals tended toward archive rather than analysis. As I embarked with my parents on their journey to the end of life, and as I drove the 98 miles between their home and mine, I thought and thought and thought about all they were going through; all we were going through. I was gripped with a need to write it all down, to parse it out. I found that blogging worked best for me because the possibility that someone else might read what I wrote forced me to think it through and to resolve what ever issue I was grappling with - dementia, cancer, being "sandwiched." It took me from merely noting events and thoughts to exploring them and maybe resolving them. And it helped me immensely.

I discovered something about myself this past year. I discovered that I am a writer. I have always been a writer. I will be a writer. I feel self-conscious labeling myself this way. I didn't earn this title through a degree or take a three-day exam. I gave myself this title and I am nervous about that. Am I qualified? Am I kidding myself here? Do I really have a talent for this or am I being humored by my friends and family? Should I finally get rid of all of those suits in the closet? It is risky to rename yourself and then to announce it to the world, but here I go.

I was invited to join a writers group, and I did. For the first time ever, I read my work out loud to near strangers and it felt good. I am working on a blog about poetry with a poet friend. I went to a poetry reading and the next time I go (there will be a next time!) I am going to read something I have written. I am excited about the possibilities and energized every time I finish a piece - an essay, a haiku, a journal entry.

I am a writer.

So why did this chicken cross the road? To be with her peeps.