Rob McRay – “When Grief Changed

Tenx9 regular Rob McRay delivers a heartbreaking story of a loss that changed his relationship to grief. He told this for Nov 2015’s event “Sorry.”

Amy Townsend – One Last Goodbye

Here is a moving story from Amy Townsend, a Tenx9 first-timer, told at October 2015’s theme “Ghost.”

They say the dead use water to be seen by the living. Like the River Styx in Greek mythology, water is the only element that flows between worlds.

They say everyone deals with death in their own way.

When my boyfriend died, I went looking for him.

His Cuban family told me that even a tall glass of clear water might be enough to bring me a glimpse of his face. For days after we put him in the ground I looked for him in the water. I peered into glass after glass, but he never came.

His mother had found his body in the bathroom of our shared apartment. He was slumped on the floor, his back against the wall. Over and over I sat in the same place so I could see the world the way he saw it that last time.

From my place on the floor, I could see the mirror and I waited to see his ghost appear on the other side of it. Staring up at the yellow ceiling light, I wondered if his father and best friend had come to fetch his soul the way some books say that our friends and relatives will guide us. Did they come through to him over there by the toilet or by the bathtub? Was this cold tile floor the last thing he felt?

I was traveling for work the day his aunt called me with the news: Raul is dead.

With a brain plunged into a sudden deep freeze, it’s funny the questions that rise to the surface.

How?

Drugs, she said.

“You can die from pot?”

“Heroin.”

“Are you kidding?”

She hung up on me then.

They say you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead. But he was an asshole about his possessions. He collected brand names like playing cards. According to one obscure website that meant his soul was probably hovering around his home or his grave, unable to move on to the other side –pinned to this world by materialism, like a butterfly to a corkboard.

So, I checked the cemetery. I brought our dog, another of his prized possessions – a pitbull with papers as long as your arm – in hopes that maybe he would come for the dog’s sake, if not for mine. We stood by his grave, as silent as he was, waiting for him to give us a sign he was there. That he knew me. That he wanted to talk.

Nothing. Just the breeze shaking the palm fronds in the blue Miami afternoon.

Without any kind of sign that he cared enough to haunt me, I went through our closet and donated armfuls of his Versace, Gucci and Armani clothes to Goodwill. If he was lingering on Earth, bound by his material possessions as this website said he might be, then his ghost would surely come down to stop me with his customary Cuban fury.

There was only silence from the great beyond when I handed over his things to the bored Goodwill employee. He didn’t know the clothes could maybe possibly be haunted. They were just things to him. And they were just things to me. Raul was the one that cared about them and loved them beyond all reason. He’d sacrificed so many experiences, wasted so much energy, in the pursuit and maintenance of his precious things.

Maybe it was that same night or a few nights later, when I had the dream. Of course you had a dream about him, you might be saying. He’s on your mind, and dreams function as a sort of strainer to let the stress and concerns out so your brain doesn’t explode. And yes, that’s probably true. But understand this: this was the first dream I’d had about Raul since his death months before. And I’ve never forgotten it.

He came to me like this.

I was sitting at a restaurant at a picnic table, which was weird because Raul was more of a 5-star dining experience kind of guy when he was alive. But all of a sudden he was there next to me. He was smiling and he seemed calm, but I was stressed.

I started talking. I told him all about his funeral and that two brothers neither of us really liked had been his pallbearers. I demanded to know if he was alright and how frantic we all were without him. He nodded and smiled throughout my litany of fears and concerns and can-you-believe-its. Behavior that was totally uncharacteristic of the hothead he’d been when he was alive. I think it was that difference that made me believe this wasn’t just a dream.

And then he showed me a long table stretching into the blackness, filled with people eating and laughing and talking together. He said he was fine. That it was all fine and I shouldn’t worry.

If this was a bestseller I would have woken up and been satisfied. It would have been closure and I would have moved on. This isn’t that book.

Everyone deals with death in their own way? Well, I wanted to live.

You might be surprised to learn that I didn’t know Raul was doing heroin before it killed him. Everyone’s first reaction to the news of his death was a glance at my arm, looking for tracks. I was innocent. I didn’t really even like smoking pot.

That all changed after his death.

The only drug I didn’t try was heroin. I went out every night. Death could come for me at any time, the way it had for Raul. Who could say when I would be on the bathroom floor, with only the memories of the experiences we make and the people we meet to leave behind.

In the absence of his ghost and an explanation, I chose to live like the next moment might be snatched away.

It’s been 10 years since he died.

He never came to me again. Not in my dreams, not in the water and not at his grave. I no longer live in Miami, I married the man he was always jealous of, our dog has since gone on to (hopefully) join him in on the otherside and I’ve given away or sold all the possessions his parents let me keep. The only thing I have left is the last card he gave me: I love you baby. Happy Valentines Day.

Two days later he was gone for good.

I don’t look for him anymore, but sometimes I’ll smell him. A whiff of Versace cologne. And I’ll wonder if he’s finally come to give me my explanation and one last goodbye.

Drac Payne – My Soulmate

Returning Tenx9 storyteller Drac Payne shares of missing his soulmate Lorrain, and of missing her death while he was incarcerated for 34 years. 

Over the last 34 years I have been incarcerated, I was just released this past January 15th, so I could have come up with several pages of what I have missed over the last 34 years. Instead I want to tell you who I miss and more specifically a death I missed.

Her name is Lorrain and she was my soul mate for the last 27 years of my incarceration.

She made sure that I learned something new each and every day.  She taught me how to pay it forward because she really believe that if people would take the time to help each other then the world would be a better place.

If I mention about someone in the prison unit that I lived in being unable to buy shoes or clothes during package month, then she would have me to find out their sizes and she would get them what they needed.  During the Christmas month, she would buy two individuals Christmas packages each year.  You should have seen the guys faces when their names were called saying that they had Christmas packages.

Lorrain had M.S. and was bed ridden the last three years of her life, but that never stopped her from teaching me. She would order us the same books and we would read them and then talk about them for days on the phone.  We would talk to each other three or four times a day. She always wanted to hear how my day went and what was going on in the unit that I lived.

During the last 6 months of her life, it was very hard on both of us, because we knew that she would not be around to see me get out. During this time her body was shutting down limb by limb. Her hands would not work right and that made her mad, because her mind was sharp as ever. The nurses at the Nursing home notice this and would start taking their breaks around the time that I would call so that they could help her with our phone calls.

When her time was getting close she would talk to me about moving on in life without her.  We both knew that she would not be around to see me get out of prison and that in truth hurt us both.  She made sure that emotionally I was prepared for life without her and that I could handle what ever society threw at me.  She is the biggest reason that I am who I am today.

Then the day came that I really didn’t want.  I tried to call her in the morning like I always did but could not reach her.  The nurses were not even answering the phone like they normally did.  I knew something was not right, so I started to worry about her.  I went to my counselor and explained that I needed an emergency phone call because I knew something was wrong.  His response was “If she is gone someone will call”.

I was finally able to make a call to the nursing home around three that afternoon in the chaplains’ office.  I talked to one of the nurses that always helped Lorrain.  She told me “Sorry honey, she passed away at 6:15 this morning” The nurse informed me that she called the prison three times to have the message relayed to me.  She also told me that Hospice called three times with the same message.  The officers who took the call did not tell anyone.  They did not tell the Chaplains office or their shift supervisor.  I did not find out until some six hours after she had passed away. I sat in the chaplains office and cried.  I felt like my world had ended, and in a way it had.  She was all I had on the outside.

I knew that I would not be allowed to attend her funeral and say goodbye because the Tennessee Department of Corrections does not allow this. I was not allowed to say goodbye. That afternoon while sitting in my cell, I had every intentions of taking my own life, because I could not see a world without her in it. After count time I went back over to the chaplains office and talked to her, and some insiders who I now consider my brothers and more importantly family.  They sat and talked and helped me get thru my grieve.

I thought about all the things that I missed with Lorrain.  The books we read together and talked about, the conversations about our life with or without each other, but above everything that I missed about her, the one thing that I miss the most, is her voice saying I love you.

David McRay – Going Home

For “I Remember,” David McRay tells the moving story of a patient’s death, one in which David was both attending physician, as well as grandson. 

Going Home: Remembering My Grandfather’s Decision to Stop Dialysis

I remember his last words. Or, at least, these are his last words I remember.

“I’m ready. Let’s go home.”

In the fall of 1991, my grandfather’s physician discovered on a routine blood test that a measure of his kidney function – his creatinine – was elevated.  By Christmas, his discomfort was evident to all of us.  He seemed restless and disturbed, frequently changing positions and quietly scratching his skin.  But, he was certain that his condition didn’t warrant anyone’s concern.

The months following Christmas were filled with additional visits with his doctor, referral to larger medical centers, and, finally the kidney biopsy.  We talked then, as we had on a few occasions before and many thereafter, about his health and the reasons for the various tests and procedures that were being recommended.  I was a young family physician practicing in a small, rural east Tennessee community four hours from his home, and I was eager to help.  I tried to answer his questions and encouraged him to ask more of his doctors.

My grandfather was always aware of the limits of his 8th-grade education.  He was concerned that he could not communicate well with his physicians.  As a result, I gradually began to serve as his interpreter.  I would try to translate what his physicians said into a language he could understand, and occasionally, when asked, provide my opinion about what was happening to him and what he was being told.  He was beginning to understand that he was ill and that his illness would require ongoing management.  He was, however, hopeful, perhaps even confident, that this was an illness that could be cured.

Unfortunately, the biopsy revealed a nonspecific form of glomerulonephritis – inflammation of the kidneys – untreatable and incurable.  Many questions followed:  “What did I do wrong?  Is it a result of my diet?  What should I do now?”  Medications were prescribed, and dietary recommendations were made.  Reluctantly, he began to understand and accept that the condition could not be reversed.  His goals, and all the conversations with his family, focused on the management of his illness and avoiding dialysis.

But, his condition worsened, and by the second autumn, he had no choice.  The itching and fatigue were incapacitating.  If he wanted to feel better – in fact, if he wanted to stay alive – he had to begin dialysis.  He did not understand what was being offered, how it would work, or how it would feel.  He asked very few questions and understood little of the explanations that were offered.  He grieved over what dialysis did to his life – to his freedom, independence, and opportunities for service.  The treatment was never described as a form of life support with all the customary conversations about indications, alternatives, ethics, and options for withdrawal. It was simply the next step in the management of his illness.  A step he felt forced to accept but never really did.

Three days a week, my grandparents would leave home early in the morning and make the one-hour drive to the dialysis center, greet the staff, and submit to “misery,” the word he used to describe the way dialysis made him feel.

Miserable though he was, he made the best of the situation, as he had always done with every hardship he encountered in his life.  For two and a half years, he was able to drive himself to dialysis most of the time.  He still traveled some – an occasional trip to visit his son in Nashville or his daughter – my mother – in Chicago, even a four-hour bus trip to see me.  He maintained his place on the county board of education, but gradually withdrew from his leadership role in his church, a position he had held for thirty years.

Then … a stroke changed everything.  It was an irreparable blow. An ambulance trip and brief evaluation in the local hospital emergency room were followed by transfer to Baptist Hospital here in Nashville, where my grandfather remained hospitalized for two weeks.  He was discharged to a rehabilitation hospital and then an extended care facility, and finally, at his insistence, he returned to his home, in a small, rural community at the foot of Monteagle Mountain. He became dependent, unable to attend to his most basic needs.  His dignity was under attack; his spirit broken.

Many more decisions followed.  The management of any chronic illness requires that attention be given to innumerable details, and everyone thought his illness would be chronic.  His thoughts, however, seemed to be moving in a different direction, ahead of his family and physicians.

I did the best I could to answer his questions.  The conversations were difficult ones.  He did not have the strength to talk for very long on any given occasion.  While all those around him labored to fix his broken story, my granddad began to quietly draft its final chapter.  I think he had, for some time, been preparing himself for the last scene of his life, a scene he would write.  The place was chosen.  He would be at home.  The time was still to be determined.

On October 22, 1996 – six months and four days after the stroke – my grandmother passed away quietly, and quite unexpectedly, in her sleep.  Suddenly, his companion and best friend for the past sixty-one years – his reason to go on living – was gone.  We buried her two days later.  As Granddad sat, in his wheelchair, among the hundreds of flower arrangements that encircled her grave, he was deep in thought and very sad, contemplating – I am certain – the three questions that would organize the next two weeks, his final two weeks.

What will happen if I don’t go back to the dialysis unit?

Will I suffer?

What about the ‘suicide clause’?

The next day, I welcomed, with caution and awe, the privilege of discussing his concerns with him.  I was not a philosopher, theologian, or ethicist.  I was his grandson and a physician, and I was increasingly being asked to be a physician to my grandfather.  The journey we were taking was moving into strange, new waters.  As we talked, I was careful to go only as far as he went.  I did not present new options.  I sought only to accompany him on his journey and assured him that I would remain at his side, no matter what.

We shared a faith tradition, one he thought had a “suicide clause.”  Was this suicide?  Was it prohibited?  I did not think so, and I tried to explain why.  I encouraged him to talk with others.  My granddad was not a man given to rash or hasty decisions.  A careful and thoughtful person, he approached this decision in the same manner he had so many others

During the days that followed, we spoke on several occasions, and, to the extent that his condition would allow, we worked our way through the possible answers to each of his questions.  We discussed other situations in which patients make decisions to withdraw life-sustaining medical care such as mechanical ventilation and tube feedings.  He concluded that for him discontinuing renal dialysis was similar to discontinuing a breathing machine in the face of an irreversible, terminal illness.

I spoke frequently with my mother and her brother, and with a close friend – a medical ethicist – who asked the important and hard questions about my thought, emotions, and intent.

The physicians in my granddad’s little town had not been of much help to him since he began dialysis.  His kidney specialist was too far away to provide the care he needed now.  Hospice services were not available in Franklin County, Tennessee, in 1996.  So, signing the necessary papers, I assumed responsibility for my grandfather’s care.  I discussed our plans with the home health nurse.  The day for his next dialysis treatment came and went.

My grandfather’s final three days were filled with very special moments.  He was surrounded by his family, sharing stories and special foods.  On the third day, as the end neared, we took turns sitting on the floor beside him.  I never moved farther than the next room.  When his mouth filled with saliva, I would suction it carefully.  When he awakened and groaned, I eased in a spoonful of morphine and wiped his lips.

His comments became less frequent and less coherent.  He said, “So far, so good.” He spoke of my grandmother, recalled his beloved mountains, and tried to sing a favorite hymn, “The Way of the Cross Leads Home.”  By the afternoon, he was much weaker, and awake less often.  He said, “C’mon, let’s go home.”  His wife had died at home, asleep in her own bed.  He was choosing to do the same.

“I’m ready.  Let’s go home” were his final words; the final words I remember.  He slept after that.  He did not arouse again.  I moved across the room, sat in a chair, and watched with quiet reverence; allowing space for my uncle and aunt and my mom and dad to sit beside him and allowing me to maintain some measure of professional distance.  That was my grandfather dying on the couch.  But he was also my patient; a patient nearing death.  I was the physician managing that death.  Until our task was complete, I wanted and needed to protect my objectivity.

The end came quietly.  Some of those present had never before witnessed a death.  Startled, they looked to me for an interpretation, a diagnosis, a verdict.  My solemn nod unlocked the door to their grief.

Together, his church, community, friends, and family allowed my grandfather to go home and stay home.  With grace and courage, he overcame the obstacles presented by the rural location where he lived.  With hesitation and gratitude and with some sense of urgency and necessity, I overcame my uncertainty about the dual roles I was asked to play.  I was honored and humbled by the privilege of helping my grandfather write the final chapter of his story.  I believe he wrote it well.

Jane Luna (read by Amanda Haggard) – I Was in Prison

Amanda Haggard worked with and presented the story of Jane Luna, the mother of Jason Toll, an inmate at Riverbend prison who was killed by officers during a cell extraction in August 2010. 

I’ve never actually been to prison.

The closest I’ve ever been was while watching a video of my son while he was in prison.

He was actually in prison here in Nashville for just nine months on a parole violation, and the video I’m talking about is one that lasted less than hour. And sure, if you’re wondering, I’d been there to visit my son.

I just had never felt like I was in prison myself until I watched him die on that video.

Minute by minute, second by second, this is what MY prison feels like:

At 9:23 p.m., and five seconds: Guards show up to my son’s cell for a “cell extraction.” This means he was in trouble, and they wanted him and his things out of his cell at that very moment.

9:24 and five seconds: The camera shows my son blocking the door with his face covered.

9:25 and fifteen seconds: He screams “Let’s get it on, goddammit!”

9:25 and fifty seconds: A team of five guards enters.

9:26: Guards scream, “Stop resisting!” I hear a struggle, but I can’t see my son. Guards surround him.

9:26 and twenty seconds: For the first time on the video, my son says he can’t breathe.

9:26 and thirty-six seconds: A guard says, “Put your arm out or I’ll tase you,” and my son says, “I can’t, goddammit.”

9:27 and eleven seconds: For the second time, my son says he can’t breathe. Guards tell him not to resist. For the third time, he says he can’t breathe.

9:28: My son screams for the fourth time that he can’t breathe.

9:28 and thirty seconds: A guard says to take everything out of my son’s cell, and gives directions to drag my son to the rec yard face down.

The other guards comply.

9:29: My son is turned over on his back, and a guard tasers his stomach.

9:28 and four seconds: For the fifth time, my son says he can’t breathe. A guard says, “Yeah, you’re not gonna be able to breathe.” My son is asked to flip onto his stomach, and in the process I see his face for the first time.

9:29 and twelve seconds: On his stomach again, he’s drug out on his face.

9:29 and thirty seconds: He says for the sixth time he cannot breathe.

9:30 p.m. The video goes dark.

9:30 and twenty-four seconds: My son screams in pain.

9:30 and forty-three seconds: My son says “stop.” And for the seventh time says he can’t breathe.

9:30 and forty-nine seconds: Some light shines into the frame and shows a taser shield pressed on the top of my son’s head and back.

9:30 and fifty-six seconds: A guard says: stop resisting. My son’s body shakes, and he screams out in pain.

9:31 and ten seconds: Taser shield is still pressed on the top of his head. A guard tells him: “There’s nothing wrong, Mr. Toll…Calm down, Mr. Toll. We’re here to help.” Guards are given direction to strip search my son, and you hear him cry out in pain.

9:31 and twenty-five seconds: The taser shield comes off my son’s head.

9:31 and thirty seconds: A guard says they’re going to take his restraints off, but that if my son resists, they’ll tase him. My son says he understands.

Now might be a good time to tell you that my son had a history of issues with mental health. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, depression, and finally a schizoaffective disorder. He was one of the more than 40 percent of inmates in prisons that suffer from mental illness. He was just 33 years old when he was killed.

At 9:32 and nine seconds: Guards are told to remove all my son’s clothes, but his boxers. He remains facedown and completely still as they remove his clothes.

9:32 and thirty-five seconds: My son cries out in pain, and guards tell him to stop resisting.

9:32 and forty-five seconds: A guard says: “Did you forget what I told you? Would you like me to reiterate what I told you?”

9:33 and fifteen seconds: My son sounds like he’s snoring. This is the last noise you hear him make on the video.

The snoring noise heard on the video is likely my son slipping into a coma, experts tell my lawyers and the media.

9:34 and twenty-five seconds: A guard says to remove his leg irons, and another says to remove his handcuffs and roll him over.

Two minutes later: My son convulses on the floor.

9:37 and forty seconds: The guards remove my son’s silver necklace from around his neck. He’s rolled onto his back.

9:38 and fifty seconds: Someone says: “Have medical come here and check him.”

9:39 and three seconds: A nurse says: “Mr. Toll? Mr. Toll? Mr. Toll? Mr. Toll?” You see his face from the side as the nurse checks for his pulse.

9:40 and ten seconds: The nurse begins mouth-to-mouth.

9:41 and twenty seconds: One guard says my son might be dead, and another says “Please don’t say that word.”

9:41 and thirty seconds: My son’s upper body is moving.

9:42 and thirty-five seconds: A guard says, “You gotta be kiddin’ me?!”

9:42 and forty-eight seconds: The nurse is still giving him CPR and asks if they should call an ambulance.

9:43 and ten seconds: A captain comes in and asks: “What happened to him? Did you taser him or what?” Another guard tells the captain my son was never tased.

9:43 and fourteen seconds: The nurse tells the group that my son doesn’t have a pulse and is not breathing.

9:43 and twenty-six seconds: The captain asks again what happened, and guards say my son was conscious when they got him into the rec yard.

9:43 and forty-nine seconds: The captain tells his guards to take off their helmets to “breathe.”

9:44 and twenty seconds: They attempt to use a defibrillator machine, but it doesn’t work. They continue CPR on my son.

9:46 and thirty seconds: My son is attached to a breathing machine. You now see a cut on his right temple.

9:47 and twenty-three seconds: They try to use a defibrillator machine again and it doesn’t work.

9:49 and thirty seconds: A guard says: “The inmate was combative when we got through the door.”

9:51 and thirty seconds: They try to use a defibrillator again and it doesn’t work.

9:52 and twenty seconds: A nurse says: It’s “a neck injury or something. I don’t know.”

9:54 and twenty-nine seconds: You hear the guards say my son was “awake and coherent” when they got there, and that he was a diabetic who took a lot of Tylenol.

9:55 and twenty-one seconds: A guard says: “It’s very unfortunate, I think.”

Three more times in the next seven and a half minutes they try the defibrillator machine, and it doesn’t work.

10:08 and thirty-three seconds: Paramedics show up. Guards give this summary: We were “in a cell extraction and he was raising hell in his cell and he walked out there 30 minutes ago and he fell out and he’s been out every since.”

10:09 and thirty-five seconds: My son is lifted onto a gurney.

10:11 and twenty seconds: My son is rolled through the prison. Inmates are yelling. The nurse is no longer doing CPR.

10:12: My son is rolled into the ambulance. The doors close.

10:12 and thirty-seven seconds: The tape clicks off.

My son is dead.

I was in prison once.

Drac Payne – I Was in Prison

At Tenx9 Nashville’s special event, “I Was in Prison,” Drac Payne speaks of death, friendship, and rehumanization after 34 years in prison. 

“From Dehumanizing to Humanizing”

I was placed in prison for second degree murder in 1982 at the age of 18. My first thought was that I would not survive in prison.  I’m only 18. Just a few years later, my ex-cellie tried to kill me. I was convicted of Murder 1st degree and sentence to life with the possibility of parole. Upon arriving at Brushy Mountain in 1982 the first thing that I saw was how inmates were being dehumanized by officers.  I saw officers beating inmates with little sticks that they carried around their waist. I saw inmates being told that they could not go and see their love ones in the hospital or even attend their funeral if they passed away.  I listen time and time again over my 34 years, officers yelling, and screaming at inmates as if they were two year old children.

I learned quickly how the system was bent on dehumanizing individuals, you’re told when to eat, when to sleep, when to go outside.  Officers would even pull you into a building and make you strip naked just to see if you are carrying a weapon. Being dehumanized every day is the norm in prison but nowhere did I see this more clearly than in the death of my friend Jerry Honey.  Jerry had Hepatitis C and was in the last stages of his life.  We use to walk around in the unit that we lived in talking.  He would look at his swollen stomach and then tell me that he wish that he could drop this baby so that he would be ok.  We would just look at each other and laugh.  A lot of us knew that he did not have much time left.  We would spend as much time with him as possible to make his last days on earth pleasant.  The community stepped up and took care of Jerry.  We cleaned his cell when it needed cleaning, and brought his food to him every day. If he just wanted to sit and talk, someone was always there.

Jerry was constantly in pain.  His swollen stomach kept him in misery. Sometimes he would say he wished he had a gun so he would stop hurting so bad.  Day after day, we watched the prison system turn their backs on Honey.  Some days he couldn’t get the painkillers he needed; other times, they wouldn’t drain the fluid from his stomach.  By the end, Jerry really did look 8 months pregnant.  He was only in his 50’s but you might of thought he was 70.  It seemed clear to us that the prison system only thought of us as disposable objects.  They didn’t care.

The prison system wanted to send Jerry to Special Needs, which is a medical prison for prisoners, but we knew that if he was sent there, he would die without his friends or his community around him and Jerry did not want that. We fought to keep him around us, like he wanted.  One of a prisoner’s biggest fears is dying alone, forgotten. At night, sometimes I would lie in bed and think, If I died tonight, “Would I be missed?” Who would even know or even care? When Jerry’s time was drawing near, some of the staff noticed how the community was taking care of Jerry and they knew this was what he wanted.

In the midst of a system that thrives on cultures of death and suffering, I was able to see and participate in a community that was built on a culture of life and love for each other.

Jerry died with his community around him like he wanted. He died holding the hand of Chaplain Alexander, with his celly right beside him. He died with dignity, respect, and as a human being.

Even though I’ve lived firsthand the apathy and dehumanization of the prison system, I have also seen that none of us has to die alone. Through communities of love and friendship, we can resist the isolation and sorrow of a system that thinks we are disposable.

I want to close with this poem by my dear friend Tony Vick who remains locked up.

 

I Shall Not Die Alone

If today becomes my last moment on earth,

I shall not die alone.

I will not hear the whisper of hope

mutter from a stranger.

I will not seek comfort from a preacher

whom I’ve never met.

But I will remember the eyes that have looked into

mine with love and inspiration.

Drifting through my mind will be words that

have uplifted me the real me.

The one not bridled with deceptions and fear.

I will feel the touches of those who

were not afraid to reach out to an

outcast of the world.

If today is my last day, I don’t need

medical folk simply doing their job.

I just need to remember

Remember the words of my God.

Remember the love of my friends.

 I SHALL NOT DIE ALONE.

 My friend Jerry did not die alone.

I Was In Prison – The Understory

Deep gratitude to our storytellers tonight. It was a privilege to hear your words, your lives & your dignity. – cary.

In prison…

I watch. Minute by minute. Second by second. My son: stripped, beaten, killed.

No breath? No justice.

I read. I learn. “The way out is in one of those books.” I get out.

No attorneys? No friends? No justice.

I teach. I am banned from teaching. I am heartbroken. I keep teaching.

No teaching? No ideas? No justice.

I keep vigil. For my friend. Dying. Surrounded by community, care, love.

No humanity? No dignity? No justice.

I fall in love. The prison is hell. A monster. Yet it is my church: holy.

No collaboration? No community? No resistance. No restoration. No justice.

I see scars. Tears. Anger. I see more scars. Self-violence. Unbearable pain to erase unbearable pain.

No voice? No peace of mind? No sky? No relief. No justice.

I visit. They abuse my husband. They abuse me. We sue. They punish us both.

No freedom of speech? No litigation? No reform? No justice.

I am sitting in prison. I am sentenced to death. I am angry. My mother dies. My world shatters. I pick myself up.

No direction? No purpose? No advocacy? No justice.

I am a threat to the system itself. I am exiled. Solitary. Caged. Animal. Tortured.

No humanity? No reconcilliation? No love? No hope?      No justice?

There would be no me.

Jacques Sirois – Love Stories

Here is Jacques Sirois’ story on hospice, death, and the sacred words, “I love you,” and “goodbye.” Told at February’s Tenx9 event. 

Michael sent me a text yesterday asking me what my story was about? I answered: “Death, ask me no more questions.” His reply was “ OK..”

My favorite movie in 2013 was “The Book Thief” in which I fell in love with a character that you never see but only hear his voice, his name was Death.

In 1955 there was a song written for a movie with the same name and was last recorded by Ringo Starr in 1998 on his album called “Sentimental Journey”, the title of the song was “Love is a many Splendored Things”.

Let me combine these two facts and tell you about my love story and what it has to do with death.

My love story starts my involvement with Hospice, an organization I have been a part of for the past 14 years. It’s a love story not of watching someone die, but the privilege of being on sacred ground when you’re in the room with a love one as they pass.

It all began in 1982 when my father lost both his legs due to diabetes leaving him wheelchair bound and depending on my mother and myself to aid him with some basic tasks such as dressing, bathing, and turning around in bed during the night.

Growing up, my relationship with my father was not the greatest and things like hugs and saying I love you was not a part of everyday life in my household.

After losing his leg and having to depend on me more and more, my father taught me to  how to say “I love you” and he made sure to say it every time  I assisted him in the simplest task that he was not able to do alone.

One night in March of 1985, my father had a bad cold and I was awaken hearing him cough. I went downstair to see if he needed anything and he said my mother already gave him cough medicine, he felt tired and most likely would fall asleep soon. As I proceeded up the stairs, he called out my name and when I respond he told me that he loved me. Those were his last words he spoke , he died that night. 29 years later I still hear his saying those precious word like it happened this afternoon. I believe hearing those simple yet powerful words that night, was the best THANK YOU for my years of service to my father.

In 2000 I became a volunteer for Hospice, a position  I feel honored to hold to this day. Hospice has taught me not to be afraid of death and to be that helping hand with family members as they participate in the dying process.

A couple of years after my father’s death, unbeknown to me, my mother invited her sister to come and live with us. It started off good but in a short period of time it turned sour and I was stuck in the middle, my aunt had no other place to go. This woman was not a happy person which could make being in the same house with her very uncomfortable.

My aunt was 90 yrs. old and in great health,but one morning while turning off the stove her nightgown caught on fire. She had a bathrobe over the nightgown and the flame smoldered up her arm and down her back until my mother threw water on her to put out the fire. I was with her the day before she died.

She woke up long enough to tell me that she was afraid that she would not go to heaven. I asked her if I could pray with her to put her mind to ease, which she agreed and I could sense a peace that came over her. I not only prayed for her, I forgave her and I said goodbye let her know that I was going to be there for her until she passed on. She died the next morning and there was a sense of peace as she passed..

The sad part was my aunt was a widow, had no children an had 3 sister that live in the area, my mother was in the same hospital at the time and would not come up to see her. I have always felt that my mother and her sisters were never at peace with Aunt Julie’s death and a lot of it had to do with the fact they never forgave her and never said goodbye.

In 2008, at the age of 94, my mother had a stroke and was in rehab for 2 months. During her time in rehab she fought hard to get better so she could come home, I believe she worked hard so she could come home and die. She lasted 4 day after coming home.

Less than 24 hours before I realize she was dying, I called all 12 of my sibling telling them they better come home. It was then that my years of Hospice work kicked in fast. I not only made sure my mother knew she was not alone, but was able to teach my sibling the importance of saying goodbye, something none of us had a chance to do for our father.

One stipulation we established , was if anyone wanted to be alone with our mother, everyone had to leave the room out of respect  for that sacred time with her. Some sat and held her hand, others prayed with her, one of my sister actually climbed into bed to be with her. I imagine some asked for forgiveness and forgave her.

The privilege I experience was the one time I was alone with her. She opened her eyes and said thank you for taken care of her for 32 years and that she loved me. Again I was the last one in the family to hear the final words “I love you” from each of my parents. What a gift!

When my mother died there were 10 of her 13 children in the room. Two massaging her hands and 2 massaging her feet. Each one of us felt the loss in our lives, but that day  we all remember the love that filled the room. A side note: my mother died in the same room she was born in 94 years earlier

My last love story with death happen in November of last year. My brother, who just turned 67, had a stroke , fallen and not found until 6 hours later. He had fluid built up around his brain.

His children made difficult decision collectively to take him off life support, knowing that was a decision he had discussed with his sons before any of this happened.

No knowing for sure if I would make it home in time to see my, I called my nephew while he was in the hospital room with his father and asked if he would put the phone to my brother ear so I could talk to him. Hearing is the last thing to go in the dying process.

I told him goodbye, that I loved him, I asked for forgiveness for anything might between us, lastly I told him it was ok to die.

Once my sibling heard what I did, each of one that lived a distance  away, took the time to call to say goodbye and that they loved him. Those that lived in the area made sure to say those precious words every time the entered or left the room

An important lesson I learned from Hospice  was to always make sure to say  goodbye when we have the chance. I believe that saying goodbye and making peace with a loved one takes the sting out of death.

A quote from Martin Heidegger :“If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life- and only then will I be free to become myself”.

So yes, Love can be a many Splendored thing, even in death.