Monday, July 30, 2012


 A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves. Sick storytellers can make nations sick. Without stories we would go mad. Life would lose its moorings or orientation….

Ben Okri, Bonsai Master

Once upon a time we lived in a small city--not too different from a place you've lived--where stories abounded in the social areas of a retirement village like echoes in a concrete tunnel. Parents, aunties, grandparents crossed paths and asked, “did you hear?” That of course was the problem: none of them could hear worth a fiddler’s bow so the stories twisted and convulsed like the stinging tentacles of a jelly fish. Their exciting fabrications followed visiting relatives to the coffee shops, phone lines and emails where they vibrated throughout the town.

“Why would you want to think that about them?” was considered a rudely irrelevant question and spoiled their wanton fun.

Pioneers trudging across the Nebraska prairies and Utah flats had enough troubles without conjuring imagined slights, childish rivalries and probable scandals. Their total involvement with life and death warns us to also move with deliberation while telling new stories in our present. The ruts permanently carved in the earth outlasted the small graves dug twenty paces from the wagon trail. The burials left behind were no less part of the story.

In organizations as in families, bored people simper and whisper jealousies. Story tellers without vision wander between diatribes and selfish tantrums. People without a compass bog down in “it seems to me.” Guilt turns us to finger pointing, with conjured blame hurled like sharpened fence posts in a tornado.  Opinion sucks us into sinkholes lacking the underpinning of the insoluble truth rock.

In contrast, people fully living their lives search for clarity in the present moment. Their story, like a paring knife turns readily to the subject, cutting off the brown spots of bruise and early rot. It just takes too much energy to preserve the dark tales. We don’t deny them. But as we can choose the thoughts we coddle in our brain, we can choose to tell stories of life, a story to live by.

Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart larger.

Thursday, July 26, 2012


Memories are the basis of our stories. Episodes from the past respond to familiar stimuli and spring into the present. They shade our past with sadness or lighten it with pleasure and joy.

Dorianne Laux begins her poem, “Family Stories”:

I had a boyfriend who told me stories about his family,
how an argument once ended when his father
seized a lit birthday cake in both hands
and hurled it out a second-story window. That,
I thought, was what a normal family was like: anger
sent out across the sill, landing like a gift
from Smoke. © BOA Editions, Ltd., 2000

Emotion determines how we remember an episode. It explains why an aging parent and middle-aged child who experienced the same occurrence remember it differently, or not at all. The data is carried emotively in our memory banks and rearranged in our story.

Unfortunately we remember our feelings associated with criticisms and negative actions more than the positive. We harbor regrets, move them from corner to corner in the basement and mostly manage to cover them with the patchwork quilt of time. It would be nice if our stories didn’t sprout from anger and the sins of the fathers and mothers being passed down through generations. Did anyone have a parent who never lost their temper?

Flannery O’Connor is a storyteller who extracts emotion from her family and neighbors and liberally spices her characters with it.  In her writing family relationships reflect the stories of generations as they merge to create new stories. Our Adagio families tell the “good” stories first that show everyone in a good light. We nod and wait and slowly we hear the adversities, faults, health challenges that offer explanations for the behaviors that are becoming our care stories.

To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.” In our personal story we desire a happy ending. Through the years we edit the data. We tell the story as we need to remember it. Those who hear the story do so from their perspective.

Reality may wait on the resource shelf. To again quote Miss O’Connor, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally.” But in time the facts are no longer the story. To demand the sun’s full exposure of reality is unreal, as the story’s conclusion trails into the clouds like pastels from a fading sunset. The covering perspective of evening allows us to laugh.

 There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. 
Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose.

Tell your story while there is still time, if only to yourself.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


At Adagio we may forget that we ate breakfast but remnants of proverbs and songs from our childhood slip out between the spaces of memory.
When a spoon or fork drops onto the floor either Grace or I will repeat, “and the dish ran away with the spoon.”  Then we try to remember the nursery rhyme from the beginning. She usually gets “the little dog laughed” and I finish “to see such sport.” Now how does that nursery rhyme start? Sometimes she will remember, “Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle, the cow jumped over the moon.”

If she doesn’t immediately remember, I give her time. Or she will hold up her thumb. “Put in his thumb and pulled out…. What was it?” Once again we finish the rhyme and try to work back to the beginning. In case you don’t remember, it is “Little Jack Horner sat in a corner eating his Christmas pie.”

One of you commented: “The other night, I was eating leftover marshmallows, and the sugar stuck to my teeth. I thought to myself, “She’ll rot her damn teeth.” then I thought ‘Now why do I say that?’ Oh yea, it’s a joke:
Teacher: Spell Rotterdam, and put the word in a sentence.
Kid: My sister ate all my candy, and I hope she’ll rot her damn teeth.

“I forget so many lovely, wonderful things. Words drift in and out of my useful vocabulary, and I remember the refrain to a ditty, ‘rot-er-dam teeth.’”

I can’t remember jokes to save my neck. But there is a joke involving people choosing between heaven or hell and they come to a swimming pool full of mud. Citizens of whatever the place--heaven? hell?--are lounging at the side of the pool. It looks good. The joke ends with our favorite and oft repeated line,
“Coffee break’s over. Back on your heads.”

Working back to the beginning is a healthy exercise as we tell ourselves the stories of our lives. The way we remember an event may not be another family member’s memory. We still have time to ask, “Do you remember….? How did that happen?”

Dementia may rob our senior of the ability to engage in meaningful conversation. But by telling their stories families can, in their laughter and smiles, reassure their parent that they were important and still are as important as ever.  

I know a boarding house not far away
Where they serve onion soup three times a day.
Oh, how those boarders yell
When they hear the dinner bell!
Oh, how those onions smell
Three times a day!

Oh, the stories we can tell!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Story tellers throughout the ages have followed the rule of three: three travelers, three dragons, three chances, etc.  Fables, fairy tales and dumb jokes always offer three wishes. If I criticize, “I wish you’d give me more time to think,” my first wish is gone and I don’t get more time.

There’s that time concept again. Downright annoying.

Aging with Dignity breaks with conventional wisdom and offers us Five Wishes®. This 10 page pamphlet was designed to offer a voice to anyone 18 or older. We just don’t know about that time thing. But I do know that I do not want to be fed sardines, smelt or any fish with bones. I have learned that I can endure unrelenting pain for just so long without fighting back. I know that I fiercely love life and have enough interests to fill another several decades.

I never was going to oil paint or climb any object higher than a two-step ladder. But there are books to read or books-on-tape if I can’t see or hold it.  There are memories of people and places to waft through my mind as I sit in the sun. And now the sun is setting below clouds reflecting unreal colors as I know it will for days and days on end. Suffice it to say that life is precious and I want more.

So it’s important that I choose who will make my health care decisions for me when I can’t make them for myself.

Wish 2 is for the kind of medical treatment I want or don’t want. Here is an opportunity to evaluate what I am willing to endure to see another sunset. CPR breaks ribs; is it worth it? Rehab from strokes is exhausting with no promises.

Wish 3 is for how comfortable I want to be. If I dislike certain music my spouse loves, here is where I speak up. I’m saying now that Verde’s Requiem at rafter-shaking volume is not soothing to my soul.

Wish 4 is for how I want people to treat me. Do I want others by my side praying for me when possible? Do I want to remain home if possible? With our current health care we need someone actively involved. Are they willing?

Wish 5 is for what I want my loved ones to know. “I wish to be forgiven for the times I have hurt my family, friends, and others.” If there is someone I don’t want to see, I’d best either spell it out or make amends while I have time.

A friend who is bedbound enjoyed a week talking and remembering with her 18 year old son, each filling out the Five Wishes so he would know what she wanted. One year later her son was killed in a motorcycle accident. She knew what he wanted.

Printable copies are available at  
Whatever your age I wish you would.

Friday, July 6, 2012


Last month I visited my internist and was given a paper on heavy, green card stock. I recognized it immediately because each of our residents have a completed POLST form in their documentation. But this must be for my mother, not me. I was confused why the doctor’s assistant was giving it to me. We talked and I realized how enjoying a 97 year old parent has lulled me into thinking that I have miles to go before I sleep.

Last year I re-wrote Loveliest of Trees by A. E. Houseman. My apologies to Houseman who wrote:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

My second stanza hobbles along thus:

Now, of my three score years and ten,
sixty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs three score,
it doesn’t leave me many more.

If you call me I’ll even sing it for you, complete with disgusting sound effects.  And if you’ve convinced yourself you’re younger than Housman who passed in 1936, here is the web site for POLST, Physicians Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment. Just look at it. For your parent of course.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

WHEN I DIE…Thoughts on Talking to Your Parents About Death

Guest Blog by Alice Kelso
Death. Have you and your aging parent talked about it? It's difficult, without a doubt. Yet allowing your parent to express his or her end of life wishes can be sacred, for all.

Trudy James knows. A Seattle-based trained hospital chaplain and Episcopal lay minister, James has facilitated end-of-life planning groups for years.

"People can solve their own hurts if they're listened to," says James. "Your job (as adult children) is to listen without talking, allowing them to tell you what they want."

But how to start? Be open-ended so your parent can fill in the blanks with what they desire, James advises. One idea is to ask your parent to complete the sentence, "When I die, I want..."

Typical answers include:

1.  When I die, I want things to be in order. Your parent may be adamant about dresser drawers being straightened, wills being finalized, or dishes, trinkets or antique guns parceled out to children.

2.  When I die, I want my loved ones to be OK.  That may mean adult children and others are provided for financially. Or it may mean a desire for emotional and spiritual peace, with kids getting along.

3.  When I die, I want a peaceful death.  At life's end, your parent may have specific requests such as music playing, scripture being read, an absence of pain, etc.

4.  When I die, I want to know my life mattered.  This statement speaks to the idea of legacy and may take many forms:  verbal or written blessings for loved ones, donating organs for research, giving money for significant causes, etc.

5.  I want my physical body to be laid to rest. Knowing your parent's preferences regarding funerals or cremation, and the specifics of the chosen method, allows you to do everything within your power to implement their wishes.

The sentences above can be boiled down to two basic questions:  "What are your parent's wishes?" And "Who will carry out the wishes?" For specifics on starting the discussion, The Five Wishes is a guide available from your local Hospice organization.

Trudy James presented this material earlier this month at the Seattle Senior Care Coalition, a group of professionals in the senior care field.