September 14, 2011

Remembering Dennis …

It’s been a year since my father, Dennis Sweat, died of cancer – 365 days of my continuing to carry on with my life as he left his behind. He was 65 year old. My life changed in ways big and small the day I received the call from his social worker that he had Small Cell Stage IV Lung Cancer with less than six months to live and has not ever gone DSC_3280back to the “normal” that I once thought “normal” was. Yes, my father was a lifelong smoker – he never believed that cigarettes would kill him, they did. If you are a smoker … please stop.

Without question I could never have made it through the final month of my father’s journey without the gentle but strong arms of the hospice workers around me. Sometimes a disarmingly simple question like, “Have you eaten today, Felicia?” could send me into a gale of silent tears, while helping me to remember to do the most basic of things I’d forgotten for hours upon hours. My strategy to get through this process was simple: use my intellect, strategy and reason to step through it and keep my head about me. What a joke. Had I known the enormity and tremendous range of emotions I would feel day-to-day, hour-to-hour, even minute-to-minute I might never have stepped one foot on the path with my father but I didn’t, and I did, and my life is better for the experience.

Watching someone you love die – right in front of your eyes is almost unspeakable, being present as they exhale their final breath is profound. In our Western society, we gather around to celebrate life’s entry but cannot bear to acknowledge death. The sad truth of the matter is that many of us die alone. The hospice team asked me many times if I believed my father would want me to be there when he died and I never hesitated in my conviction that he absolutely, positively would. My father ceased to speak some seven weeks before he died and while we had not talked about this specifically, I vividly remember a conversation we’d had the year before he died where he’d explained to me that he was never a man who ever wanted to sleep in his bed alone. No, my father was not a faithful man ~ but he was an honest one. A man who didn’t ever want to sleep in his bed alone definitely did not want to die alone. In a quiet room in the middle of the morning, Dennis stopped struggling and let go with me by his side holding his hand and stroking his forehead as Peggy, the Hospice Nurse stood at the foot of his bed monitoring his vital signs. My family said a tearful and love-filled goodbye the weekend before he died … we knew it was close.  

I had to consider decisions made easier by the fact that my father had an Advance Medical Directive, but difficult nonetheless because having the directive does not mean that everybody reads it. As his Guardian of Person, it fell to me to call the meeting with his physicians and point out that if my father could no longer chew and swallow food/liquids on his own – we’d reached a turning point because his directive stated with clarity that he did not wish to be kept alive through means of artificial feeding or hydration. I asked the doctors to remove the IV tubes delivering food and hydration to enforce my father’s wishes. While I had absolute clarity that this was what my father wanted (it was written in black and white) versus my interpretation of what he would want -explaining this to my aunts and uncles, sisters, nieces, daughter,and mother was heart-wrenching. There is no way to ‘spin’ the fact that once you withdraw the tube providing food and water to a person who cannot eat or drink on his/her own – it is no longer a question of if they will die but when. While nobody was angry at me, I know that some in my family may not have enforced the Directive, which is exactly why my father asked that I be his Guardian when he was still able to speak. He knew that I would do what was in his best interest and honor his wishes above my own feelings – hard as it was to do, and it was excruciatingly hard.

As I think back on this journey some lessons shine brightly:
  • The power of forgiveness is even more powerful than the gift of love.
  • There is no substitute for the comfort of hearing the voices and feeling the touch of the people you love – no matter how far away the doctors believe you might be or how far you are on your journey ‘home’.
  • Tears do not make you weak, they keep you strong and are a necessary release. Letting tears flow won’t kill you – keeping them inside just might.
  • Love is all there is.
I have a deep respect and love for the professionals who cared for my father and for my family during my father’s time at the hospital. He received hospice care in the hospital because his health was too precarious to be moved. The compassionate care the doctors, nurses, social workers and others showed my father in every touch, administration of pain medication, gentle hand on my shoulder, and hug left me speechless and in tears day after day. If there are angels on this planet, surely they dance among the people who do hospice work and those working with the terminally ill in a hospital setting.

For some time after my father’s death I felt as if I’d been broken, like some part of me was irrevocably altered – it was, but I forgot that we heal and what is broken often comes back stronger. I am. Many people have asked me whether or not I would do it again, knowing all that I know now. My answer is a resounding, unwavering, quiet but steady … YES.

September 9, 2011

Knit. Purl, Knit. Purl. Life.

*originally posted on WarmHeadsWarmHearts blog.

An interesting thing happened as I was frantically twisting and looping my way towards the completion of the first of my twelve sets of hats and scarves ... it became more.

Warm Heads. Warm Hearts. began out of my desire to meet an essential need of the homeless who live on the streets during the winter ~ warmth, and to do so in a personal way by knitting hats and scarves for them with love. As way leads on to way (in the words of the venerable Robert Frost), knitting has become a metaphor for my life.

As I sit with these pieces in my evenings and on weekends, at the doctor's office, and in the middle of the mall waiting for my daughter to finish a movie with friends - the life lessons just keep coming.

So here's what the loom whispered to me last month:

1. Persistence pays off, always. One knot at a time, a scarf and hat take shape out of strands of individual yarn. My life has become richer and more full over this past year as a result of fantastic people who have woven their lives in with mine, one story, one experience, one laugh at a time until out of nothing deep friendships have evolved.

2. There CAN be perfection as a result of imperfect process. My knitting is not perfect by any means - I won't do a test swatch to ensure my gauge is correct, instead, I just plow forward and make adjustments along the way, believing it will work. Is this how I operate in my life too? To a large extent the answer is yes, I trust my intuition implicitly and often make decisions that appear to others to be haphazard, but much like my knitting - it works.

3. You have to unravel your stuff from time to time, you just do! My yarn gets tangled and I keep knitting until I absolutely have to just stop and look for the loose ends to unravel the unruly mass of beautiful yarn I've created. I find that I try to do one more thing, make one more call, send one more Tweet before I look around and see that I've got an unruly mass that I have to unravel, usually somewhere close by - the laundry, opening mail, having the conversation with a friend that I've been putting off.

I can see the parallels between knitting and my life and delight in them. My life experiences will be inextricably tied, with love, into every knit and every purl of these hats and scarves.

I wouldn't have it any other way.

September 1, 2011

You Are Special ... And So Is Everybody Else!

When my daughter was young (and we are talking really young here, people) she loved Barney. You remember Barney - that purple dinosaur that absolutely, positively never seemed to have a bad day and told kids day after day how special they were? I put up with Barney because, well after all, my daughter was special and the message was wonderful. Here is the problem - it would seem that some grown ups have begun embracing this message as their personal life mantra. News flash people, this is a message for children. Adults don't get to walk around espousing how 'special' they are to everybody within earshot and behaving badly because they are 'special'. I call this behavior 'Special Person Syndrome' (SPS)* and it is NOT cute.

What does 'special person syndrome' (SPS) look like at work? The person suffering SPS at work doesn't believe they have a grandiose personality nor do they think that they are better than everybody else, lack good listening skills, or are unable to work as a collaborative team member. Oh no!! they are just special and therefore different and therefore we just don't 'get them'. We don't know how to work with them and if we could figure out how to work with them everything would be just fine. We are the ones with the problem.

SPS at home? Because 'special people' possess inordinately extraordinary and special skills and abilities, the only way anything can be done properly is if they do it themselves. Why should anybody else even bother trying? - it won't be right enough, good enough or just plain enough. Of course that means that they are always tired and a martyr, but hey, nobody ever said being special was going to be easy.

SPS with friends? When 'special people' look around they often find they don't have many friends but don't quite understand why. They often feel very betrayed by people who have dared to be honest with them about their behavior towards those they deem to be 'ordinary'. Far worse, sometimes they ask for others' opinions and when people who are not 'special' are not smart enough to understand that they do not in fact really want an honest opinion and offer one, all hell has been known to break loose.

It should go without saying that 'special people' have a very hard time sustaining meaningful relationships, so we won't even go there.

The truth is none of us have time to read a care and feeding manual for each and every person that we meet. Each of us is indeed special in our own way. 

If you are suffering Special Person Syndrome you might wonder how you can snap out of it. I would offer the following:  stop thinking that you are the special one and consider that every person you meet is just as special as you are, just as smart as you are, and just as important as you are because guess what ... we are.
*Quasi-Legal Disclaimer: 'Special Person Syndrome' and 'SPS' are purely fictitious terms with no medical basis and are not real disorders that can be found anywhere. I am not a doctor, I do not play one on television, blah, blah, blah and all the other legal mumbo jumbo.