Ten Years

It is ten years today since my sister Joanne died suddenly and all too young.  We talk about her fondly and miss her deeply. In the time that has passed since she would have been proud of her husband and how he cared for their daughters as a single parent. She would marvelled at their daughters as they forged their way in the world.  She would have been in her glory to attend her daughter’s wedding and to watch her newly minted son-in-law snag a home run ball on his wedding day.  

After she died it struck me I had assumed we would all grow old together. 

It can’t be ten years.  It was only yesterday and at the same time it was a lifetime ago.  

Death Cafe

Last night my friend and I attended the Death Cafe event in Ottawa.  If someone asks, what are you doing this week and you say, I’m going to a Death Cafe, it can evoke a bit of a shudder and a quick look I interpret as silently asking ‘why in the world’…..

What is a Death Cafe?  Death Cafe is based on the ideas of Bernard Crettaz, a Swiss sociologist who set up the Cafes Mortels. Jon Underwood read about the first Cafe Mortel to take place in Paris in the Independent newspaper in 2010 and was motivated to offer these himself.  It is described as a ‘social franchise’.  Death Cafes are now held across the world.  They are not for profit events and anyone can host one.  A worthwhile volunteer activity,  I say.  

Our society has a strong tendency to deny death.  We use terms that soften the blow such as ‘passed on’ and ‘lost’.  I attended a seminar where a palliative care expert asked the group who amongst us had “lost a loved one”.  Nearly everyone held up their hands.  Then he asked “have you found them?”  

 The objective of Death Cafe is ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their finite lives. Below (I hope) is a video from the first Death Cafe held in Ottawa in June 2013.  

Last night’s audience had a very strong representation of younger people.  Younger is a relative term and in my viewfinder, it means people around the age of 30, give or take 5 years.  The organizers created a welcoming and open atmosphere where, in small groups, you can discuss all manner of things about death and about living our limited lives in a way that recognizes there will be an end.

There are no reports, no flip charts  no group leaders at these events.  There are conversations that are wide ranging and can be touching and intimate.  If you come away from the event with one thing you plan to do, whether it be telling a loved one about your wishes upon your death or acting on something today you have been putting off, then it’s been time well spent.

Death Cafes help us inch ahead in living life fully and dying prepared.

Perhaps I am interested in the topic as I am rounding third plate on the ball field of life.  Now, there you see, I just used foggy language to describe death.  But I do plan to do one thing today to life more fully, one thing that I’ve been putting off for some time.  

Would you attend a Death Cafe event if you had the opportunity?

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Death Cafe

There is something a little chilling in the phrase “Death Cafe”.  Much of our society has difficulty in dealing with and speaking about dying and death.  I went to a seminar once where a palliative care worker asked the audience “Who among you has lost a loved one”.  Most hands went up.  He went on to ask “Where did you lose him/her?  Did you find them again?”.  In other words we use phrases that mean death (passed on, passed away or just plain passed) but keep us from having to say the word itself.

A movement known as Death Cafes are popping up in cities across the world.  I had never heard of the events until I read an article in the Ottawa Citizen today. From the article “Their (the Cafes) stated purpose is to “increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.” Underwood (who started the movement) held his first one in the basement of his home in September 2011, and since then more than 100 have taken place in homes, cafés and other spaces in Britain, Europe, Canada, the U.S., Australia and elsewhere, with more than 40 hosts and 1,000 guests participating.

 I am interested in what these events have to offer.  They are very small gatherings.  The one in Ottawa has a capacity of 30 people.  You can see though that 1,000 people gathering across many nations is really not that many, is it?

I like the idea of celebrating someone’s life regularly after someone has died (as noted in the article above).  It helps keep memories alive, pass them on to younger generations and to deal with the permanent loss.  

And so I signed up to attend.  My husband said (after he asked if our life insurance was paid up) he’d join me.  

What do you think of the concept of a Death Cafe?  Would you attend if one came to your neighbourhood?

 

 

Don’t Cry Because It Is Over, Smile Because It Happened

One of our dearest friends has died

He faced a relentless disease with optimism, courage and grace

 In the face of a reality that could have been consumed by despair

He rose above, giving and receiving love and support

 The disease was transparent as it never obscured

The heart and strength of this man, who lived life to the fullest

From Taoism comes a teaching of the balance of life that holds

Every life is filled with ten thousands joys and ten thousand sorrows

I choose to interpret the teaching as joys abound

And can be found in everyday life, like the small things

That culminate in a friendship that withstands all

It cannot be replaced and will for all time in memory stand

While sorrows are few, as singles, they count in hundred fold

We think of what he would want us to think and it would be

 Do not cry because it is over.  Smile because it happened

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Ella’s Tree

Chance Made Us Neighbours-Hearts Made Us Friends

Eight years ago today my dear friend Ella died.

Over twenty years ago, in another city and another time, we had new neighbours move in next door.  Our daughter, a single child, was standing on her bed watching the activity next door.  “Mom” she squealed with delight “They’ve got kids!!”.   Ella and husband Al had arrived with their four children.  Our families became close friends over the years.  We shared meals, we talked and laughed and experienced a great deal of life together as neighbours.  We coached a softball team together and naively hosted a shared garage sale thinking it would be fun.  We had keys for each others homes and often “shopped” in each other pantries if a trip to the store was inconvenient.    Two of the girls who are close in age to our daughter became sisters in everything but blood to her.  While the three of them are now separated by time and substantial distances, they remain close.

Ella and I became close friends.  I admired her strength, her humour, her energy and her capacity to love.  I marvelled at her blue eyes which burned brilliantly particularly when she was passionate about something-right through you I thought.  (based on those brilliant eyes and the sharp intellect I thought it wise to always stay on her team…not the opposing one.) 

While there are many things that could be said, the story I want to tell today is about Ella’s tree.  And something that happened after her death.  To this day when I tell the story I get goosebumps.

For a number of years before she died, Ella would travel to our family cottage at Crooked Lake in the Qu’Appelle Valley for a getaway.  She sometimes was with her family, sometimes with her dear friend Caroline and sometimes alone.  She loved the place-it was very special to her. When she died her family asked if they could plant a tree at the lake in her honour.

This is the story of the day we planted Ella’s tree.  I wrote and sent to Ella’s family shortly after the planting.

Crooked Lake from the top of the Qu’Appelle Valley

Ella’s Tree
On June 13, Al, Joanne (my sister) and I went to Lakeview Gardens to look at trees.  It was to be a tree in memory of Ella who so loved the lake and the times that she spent there over the years.  Al chose a crimson maple. It stood about 8 feet tall and the trunk was about 2 inches across. We planned to have the tree delivered to the lake the following weekend.

For those of us at the lake the week before the delivery, there was much discussion about where to plant the tree. On the left side of the lot, at the right side, at the front in the middle (no, that won’t do-Ella wouldn’t want the view spoiled). We acted like workers standing around a construction site waving our arms, pointing and doing everything but digging a hole.  Joanne didn’t stay the whole week but before she left to go back to the city, we said to her “Give us direction and we will dig the hole while you are gone.” She didn’t and so we waited for her return.

Joanne brought the tree out on the weekend of June 19. Saturday morning was a pleasant and sunny one and we retrieved the tree from the van. Then we started all over again. Should the tree be on the left side, should it be on the right, how far away from the current trees, how big will it grow (checking the tag and pacing off imaginary branches and leaves in all directions), what will it do to the neighbours’ view, what about the prevailing winds…..on and on. Finally Joanne said OK, this is the spot and away we went. Digging, digging, then putting root nutrient liquid in the hole, compost leaves from the back of the lot,a stake for stability and then the tree. We anchored the tree to the stake and stood back to survey our handiwork.

Kathy from the cottage next door came over and started to chat with Joanne. Kathy said she saw we had become arborists and Joanne said, yes, the tree was in memory of our dear friend Ella who had spent time at the cottage. Kathy knew Ella and was saddened by the news and she said:

“Oh, that lady…..that lady! I said to my husband, as you dug the hole…. where is that lady going to put her lawn chair for that’s where she always sat in the sun and read her book.”

And so, without realizing it, and with guidance that only Ella could give, we planted the tree where she did her reading on the lawn. I’m sure the rationale was that if she couldn’t sit in that spot then no one else could either. We will give the tree love and attention and we want to have you come to the lake to see it too.

It’s a lovely spot, a lovely tree and is a memory of a beautiful woman.

Joanne by Ella’s Tree June 2004

Epilogue
My sister Joanne died suddenly in September of that same year.  Two families and their friends devastated by the deaths of strong, loving and wonderful women.  Ella’s tree faired well for a number of years.  The cottage property was sold.  We didn’t leave the tree behind.  We couldn’t do that.