Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

Noticing the Life Worth Living

Author: 
Kathleen LaCamera

On their 70th wedding anniversary, my in-laws, the Rev. Canon Alfred Loughlin and Mrs. Edith Walker Loughlin, received a card from the Queen (Elizabeth II) congratulating them on their truly remarkable achievement. It was their third such royal congratulations. The others came on their 60th and 65th anniversaries.

Watching Edith and Alfred enjoy this milestone in their typical unassuming, unself-conscious way reminded me of the last lines of Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day,” about the brevity and value of ordinary life:

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Like so many others I know, I lament that plans for the future and ruminations about the past continually distract me from my one fleeting, “wild and precious” life, the one that’s happening right now, in the present moment, right in front of me.

Edith and Alfred seemed to have caught on years ago that there is no time like the present to get on with living, however it finds you.

Despite his rather advanced dementia, Alfred – 99 at the time of their anniversary – often commented about his marriage that “life sentences are shorter.” A grin always followed. Alfred was still committed to enjoying his life and a good joke (at his wife’s expense) even in his compromised mental state.

Edith, who had achieved a mere 97 years of age, would casually roll her eyes upwards, make a “tutting” sound and respond with “Oh, Alfred, honestly!”

Wonder and Affection

In the midst of great age, it was still obvious that Edith and Alfred celebrated life and showed amazing resilience despite the losses that come with it. They had said goodbyes to multiple homes, careers, physical and mental abilities, personal autonomy, and people – so very many people. They had even said goodbye to each other in some ways. Yet both continued to make new friends, try new things, and transform their own relationship in the midst of their frailty, limitations, and vulnerability.

“How can I get that www dot thing on the phone?” Edith asked me one day after listening to a current affairs radio program that encouraged audience response. Even as the world became a more confusing place for Alfred, he often managed small exclamations of wonder about the world as he still saw it. “Look at all those windows,” he’d muse as we drove past a large city center building.

Both individually and together, these two had something: an adaptability that nurtured life and affection, that allowed for new relationships and friendships and fended off cynicism and bitterness. This, in spite of all the change they’d had to adjust to over their century of experience. That special “something” was evident from the first moment I met them 21 years ago until the time of their deaths: Alfred at 101 in December 2011, and Edith four months later at 99.

I was privileged to get to know and love Edith and Alfred during their last two decades. Experiencing two people who wore their aging so lightly and graciously gave me insight I want to take with me as I approach my own “third age.”

I’m grateful as well to Coral Bury, whom I met at a local hospice, four months before her death from a progressive lung disease at age 58. Coral was one of four extraordinary people I interviewed for my film Last Laugh, which challenges taboos around death and features the spirited perspectives of people who are dying. She was a fiercely independent woman, devoted to friends, family, and her high-flying social work career. Among her biggest pet peeves as a dying person were people who only wanted to hear “good news” from Coral about her health, those who avoided any talk of death, and especially those who simply avoided her altogether because she was dying. She was adamant that she was going to bring as much life as she could into her final days, including personal candor, humor – and fast cars.

Why Stop Laughing Now?

Coral was especially animated when she talked about her love of driving. She explained that her illness-related mobility problems meant she had bought and specially adapted a new car. Coral being Coral, she decided against a boring “practical” vehicle. She wanted a Sirocco, something “cool, sporty, and zippy,” and despite a few raised eyebrows, she got herself one. When she discovered that the Sirocco was too small to hold her wheelchair, she bought a smaller wheelchair. In her filmed interview for Last Laugh, Coral said whenever she was behind the wheel of her Sirocco – oxygen bottle strapped to the passenger seat next to her – “I don’t feel at all at a disadvantage. I am just me.”

Coral finished off that interview by offering to tell her favorite joke about death. Its key elements included a dead woman, plastic surgery, and a conversation with God. (You can see Coral tell the full joke at dyingmatters.org/page/last-laugh.)

“Laughter is a part of everything for me,” said Coral, “so why wouldn’t it be a part of this (death)? Why should I stop laughing now?”

Coral and fellow Last Laugh “stars” Billy Grimes, Carol Saunders, and Jean Coverdale all shared stories of their determination to be themselves – complex, funny, wholly human, and eager to embrace as much life as possible – even as they faced death. They showed me how the rest of us need to “get over ourselves” when it comes to mortality. They urged people to see death as something that can help us live better, more vividly, and with real gratitude. Last Laugh had its launch in a UK-wide public information campaign on radio, TV, and in print the week Coral died. Appreciative responses to the film came in from all over Britain, the U.S. and from as far away as China, and I had the chance to read some of them out to Coral the day before she died. She was thrilled and “chuffed to bits” that her dying was working so hard to support life.

I am lucky (and a bit mad) to divide my life between writing/filmmaking and professional healthcare chaplaincy for the UK’s National Health Service. The longer I do both, the more these two seemingly unrelated vocations inform each other. Which is how I ended up meeting Coral at hospice, and eventually Rose (not her real name) during her stay on a dementia ward.

It was Rose who reminded me to pay attention to something I had neglected: the restorative power of domestic life.

Rose’s Recipe

I was doing a general ward visit one afternoon when I found Rose in an agitated state, pacing back and forth mumbling something about “potatoes” and not having “enough time.” It was the first time I’d met her, and I eventually managed to get her to sit down with me. Both of us were confused, which turned out to be a very good place to start a conversation. I soon discovered that throughout her life Rose had found great meaning and enjoyment in domestic tasks, especially providing meals to her family and others. The more she talked about home, food, and cooking, the more coherent she became. The conversation became so animated and vivid, regarding her favorite meat pie and how to prepare it, that I actually went straight home from work and made that pie for my own family’s supper. She had been so precise I didn’t even need a recipe.

The next time I visited the ward I brought along a cookbook that had lots of photos accompanying the recipes. As we turned the pages together, Rose and I had a great time talking cake and biscuits (cookies in American-speak) and the differences between British and American baking traditions. Like Coral, Rose longed to enjoy the ordinary, normal things that had always been a part of her life until recently. She was grieving the loss of her role as a contributor and provider of valued things and of the ordinary rhythm of life those things provided. Living with dementia, she was now almost always on the receiving end of care and attention, rarely in a position to offer something back that she would understand as valuable. According to a Guardian newspaper report (Aug. 27, 2013), Rose is one of more than 800,000 people living with dementia in the UK.

My view of life, death, and aging has been transformed by encounters with Edith, Alfred, Coral, Rose and many others. Purpose, identity, belonging, meaning – all these elements are part of negotiating the very tricky challenges of older age, often in compromised mental and physical states, and ultimately in the face of death. No matter what one’s age, all these elements contribute profoundly to spiritual health and well-being, and all affect our ability to live as fully and richly as we possibly can in the present moment.

Religious groups – churches, synagogues, mosques, temples – have always taken on important care and support for people facing crisis and vulnerability throughout their lives and at life’s end. At a recent conference I attended on spirituality and mental health care, a leading world authority on spirituality and health, Dr. Harold Koenig, reported that participation in religious activities has significant, measurable benefits for people suffering from mental and physical health challenges.1

Contributions to Make

And yet barriers exist to this beneficial participation that we churchgoers don’t always notice. Making space at the heart of congregational life for people living with dementia or life-threatening conditions means seeing them as more than just people who need our prayers. They have a contribution to make at the center of our congregational life. We need to spend the time finding out what that contribution might be and then nurture it.

A defiantly creative model is offered by the Cleggs Lane Methodist Church, located in Greater Manchester in one of the UK’s most deprived neighborhoods. Five years ago, faced with the prospect of closing its doors, the church took a gamble on a partnership with a local public health improvement team and started a weekly men’s health group. Men aged 20 to 70-plus who often isolated themselves in a health crisis found a safe place in the group to talk about their challenges. A gardening project created on land behind the church quickly started out of the group. It now supplies vegetables to the church’s new community café. So positive have been the outcomes for the men that the church now receives referrals from social workers, local doctors, and mental health specialists.2

Cleggs Lane has worked hard not only to welcome but value the people that many, including those men themselves, no longer saw as contributors.

Congregations need to be alert to other obstacles in our midst. Too often in our religious communities, people find it hard to talk openly about loved ones who have died, or about an illness that is frightening, or even about a faith that is being tested by crisis.

Put Fear Aside

If there was just one thing I could pass on from all my years of pastoral work it would be this: make contact with people who are living with pain and loss. Get in touch. Put aside fear of being a nuisance or burden or “making it worse” when someone is in crisis. They will tell you if it’s all too much. More likely, they will be pleased to know you care and took time to think about them. If you don’t know what to say, say that. Let them know you are sorry for what they are going through. Let them know that it is okay, if they want to, to tell you how things really are with them.

Only this morning in the hours before I wrote these words, I was called out to a hospital ward where an older woman asked me through tears why the people in her church had not rung her or visited her. She is likely within days of her death and had been in the hospital for many weeks. When I rather feebly offered that some people might worry that their visit could be a burden to her because of her illness, she looked astonished and said, “Why would they think that?” Indeed.

In a recent Huffington Post article, blogger Linda Robertson (JustBecauseHeBreathes.com) wrote about her appreciation of support that she and her husband received after the death of their son. But she went on to confess that Sunday services were also a place where people said “some of the most painful things” imaginable to her and her husband. Like Coral, Linda found that a number of people were “overly happy and bright,” needing her to be cheerful and to avoid talk about her son’s death or even mention of his name. Even more sadly, she says, some avoided her entirely, “turning away when they saw us coming.” The article’s title is “Weep with Those Who Weep … Please.”3 Surely we – and I include myself here – can work harder to do just that.

A recent trip to the U.S. to help my own parents move into a retirement community coincided with my 38th high school reunion. It was quite different from our 15th reunion, the only other I’ve attended. There, the tone was quite competitive. The latest one was much smaller, for a start. The words “gratitude” and “grateful” were abundant throughout the evening in various conversations. We were mostly just grateful to get this far. Being together inevitably made us aware of absent classmates and others who hadn’t been so fortunate in life and health. An increasing awareness of mortality seems to have made Lakewood High’s Class of ’75 more gentle, more gracious, and more content.

Aging has so many positives in the midst of its plentifully documented challenges. I hope I can do justice to it – and to those who have taught me much about how to do it well.

Kathleen LaCamera ’83 M.Div. is a filmmaker and healthcare chaplain living in Manchester, England. She is part of a team currently developing a course under the auspices of the UK’s National Council for Palliative Care to help congregations better support those living with bereavement and life-threatening conditions. Two of her recent films that explore death, dying, and bereavement are: Last Laugh (PictureWise Productions, 2011 [duration: six minutes]
dyingmatters.org/page/last-laugh) and
Dying for a Laugh (PictureWise Productions, 2010 [duration: seven minutes] dyingmatters.org/page/dying-laugh).

Notes

  1. Presentation by Harold Koenig, “Religion, Spirituality and Mental Health: A Review and Research Update,” July 11, 2013, at the Spirituality and Good Practice in Mental Health Care Conference, Durham University. See spiritualityandhealth.duke.edu/index.php.
  2. See Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability and Inclusion by Mark Pinsky (Alban Institute, 2012),pp. 92-95.
  3. “Weep with Those Who Weep … Please,” by Linda Robertson, Huffington Post, Aug. 8, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/linda-robertson/weep-with-those-who-weep_b_3711292.html.
Issue Title: 
Test of Time: The Art of Aging
Issue Year: 
2013