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Some Thoughts on Dying

 

When I tell people that I am an end-of-life doula, their first question is: what is that? The second question is why? The “what” is simple to answer: it is a volunteer who accompanies a person on their final journey. We are not hospice. We do not administer medication. We are there only to soothe the passage from the known world into whatever an individual believes awaits them.

 

The “why” is more complicated. I tell them: I do it because I can. I can “do“ death. The dying process does not frighten me. It might when it is my turn to look death in the eye- but for now – I am unafraid.

 

When I was 41, a dear friend who I had known since grade school died of HIV/AIDS. I attended him in his final days. I was scared then. I was afraid of life without him, I was afraid of the actual cessation of his breath, I was afraid of being with a dead body. But my fear was unfounded. To the contrary, being able to be there with him during the last hours of his life was a gift from him to me. It informed me about living in a way that nothing had before.

 

I witnessed the miracle of life as I attended to his dying, playing the music he loved, massaging his hands and feet, bringing good, sweet smells to his bedside. I told him stories from our youth as the clock chimed his final hours. And then it was over. I sat with his sister until the wee hours of the morning, sipping red wine, reminiscing. He was a gentle soul and we basked in his spirit until the first light of dawn.

 

There is this bridge at the very moment of death when you see life leave the body. It’s an inexplicable suspension of time, when a day, an hour, a lifetime passes in a flash. There is air in the lungs, the blood moves, the heart pumps. And then it doesn’t. I think of this moment often when I am feeling sick or sorry for myself. I think: my heart beats, the blood flows, I am alive. Get up and get moving. Live in the world. Make the best of these numbered days of conscious being.

 

I was present for the death of both my in-laws. I could feel the palpable reluctance of my mother-in-law to leave. She did not wish to separate from her husband, to leave him on his own. We had to encourage him to lie down next to her in those last days, to hold her and warm her with his own body heat. Her spirit and her body struggled with each other days longer than her doctor anticipated. Surrounded by family, she finally succumbed. Two days later, the rails inside her closet collapsed, sending all her clothing to a jumbled heap on the floor. She did not go easily and she wanted us to know that. My father-in-law, on the other hand, at the age of 96, didn’t want to us fuss. With his customary aplomb and determination, he left swiftly to join his beloved. Within five minutes of death, the house he shared with his wife of 61 years was cold and deserted.

 

As I sat beside an elderly gentleman during my last vigil, I noticed the birds gathering along the eaves of his home. When I pointed this out to his daughter, she told me he liked to feed them and had birdfeeders set up throughout the yard. As the day progressed and his death drew nearer, the birds came by the dozens and perched on the branches outside the window. It was remarkable. I believe they came to witness and say thank you to a spirit that spoke to theirs. Each death is unique. Each death has something to teach us about living.

 

I liken the experience of being an end-of-life doula with that of being present at the birth of a baby. When a mother is in labor everyone runs to the hospital with outstretched arms. “ Can I hold her?” they ask the nurse. “My turn,” they insist. It is a natural instinct to want to welcome new life. When someone is dying, when they are leaving us for the last time, I think it is just as important to say “Can I hold her?” “It’s my turn.” To hold the hand of a dying individual is to see them out of this world in the same way we welcome a baby into it. They are both journeys of transition, ultimately experienced alone but not without company. To shepherd someone into this life or out of it is a truly rare opportunity, a remarkable experience, and in my humble opinion, an obligation.

 

 

 

The Jewish Standard’s Joanne Palmer covers UnPregnant Pause

I worked for the Standard for a number of years and had a great experience there. I interviewed local heroes, outstanding students, and some national as well as international figures. They sent me to interview Leah Rabin and Mario Cuomo! Those were exciting conversations. And now their editor-in-chief, Joanne Palmer, has interviewed me!

Thanks to Joanne for writing a really lovely piece. It’s nice to be back in The Jewish Standard again. Read it here

Annie & Me, Huffpo50

Check out my blogpost for December, 2015 Read this

This was the kind of post that just pours out. Every year, around the holidays, I take stock of who and what I am most grateful for. I review the list of friends who have grown dearer and examine why some have drifted away. I take the time to look back in December, before I step into the new year and move forward.

Annie & Me reflects a relationship I continually re-examine and serves as a reminder that not everyone wants the same thing out of a friendship. It is a good lesson for me.

 

Me & Alice Bloom

Debbie with TV host Alice Bloom, A Town ... and Village Two, LMC-TV

Debbie with TV host Alice Bloom, A Town … and Village Two, LMC-TV

I had a great conversation with host Alice Bloom on A Town and Village… Two. Check out the show:

Debbie Slevin & Alice Bloom talk about Slevin’s new book UnPregnant Pause: Where Are The Babies

“Produced and hosted by Alice Bloom, A Town and Village Two is a half hour interview format featuring leaders in the arts, education, business and public service; and, organizations that enhance the quality of life in our communities.

In addition to broadcast on LMCTV, A Town and Village Two is broadcast widely in Westchester and in Manhattan — all on non-commercial, public access stations.”

TV and Bookstores!

Having fun at appearances

At Sirius XM Doctor Radio with Dr. Miriam Greene, host of Gynecology and Sexual Health Show

At Sirius XM Doctor Radio with Dr. Miriam Greene, host of Sexual Health & Gynecology  Show

I have been having a great time meeting and speaking with book store personnel and radio and TV hosts as we discuss UnPregnant Pause: Where Are the Babies? It’s all about the people you meet along your journey.

Reading from UnPregnant Pause at Barnes & Noble, Paramus, NJ

Reading from UnPregnant Pause at Barnes & Noble, Paramus, NJ. Thanks to Store Manager Marc Fabian

Debbie with TV host Alice Bloom, A Town ... and Village Two, LMC-TV

Debbie with TV host Alice Bloom, A Town … and Village Two, LMC-TV

Call Me Granny, Huffpo50 blogpost

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/debbie-slevin/call-me-granny_b_8514140.html

I had so much fun writing this piece. Being a grandma really takes me back to my early days as a mom- but with more sleep and sit-down meals.

I finally understand why fertility ends at a certain point. You just CAN’T do it full time with creaking knees and achy backs. And yes- needing reading glasses to see the Baby Tylenol label!

Each stage of life has its joys (and sorrows) and I am soaking up the pleasures of being a grandmother.

Saving Grace, 2nd place winner, Dan’s Literary Contest 2015

Saving Grace

A perfectly placid day at the beach; it is the reason I live not far from the pristine shores of the Atlantic, where Long Island narrows, then disappears into the voracious ocean. It is the only sunny day of the July 4th weekend. Under a big floppy sunhat, I am engrossed in a novel, a respite from work. It is hot. The air is infused with the smell of suntan lotion, celebration and sweat. This is summer.

 My reverie is interrupted by a commotion at the water’s edge. The lifeguards have mobilized. And not just a few. Two are in the water, crashing through waves with tomato red floats strapped to their bodies. A boat is launched. The other guards run swiftly through the sand and climb the stand that has just been vacated. The lifeguard in the water, a young woman with a mass of dark hair pulled back in a messy bun, plunges headfirst through the underside of a wave while her trusty sidekick, who appears to be more boy than man, follows. Their synchronicity makes them look like dolphins on display.

 It is quickly apparent to everyone on the beach that this in no drill. There are a number of people caught in a strangling riptide. They are struggling. I try to count – one… two… I think there are at least four. Wait! There are five. I see a young boy in a green-patterned swim shirt. He is small enough to be mistaken for floating algae and he is paddling hard to mount the wave. His dad is struggling to get to him, waving at the guards. I watch with horror as he goes under again. I am sure I can actually see the fear in his eyes beneath the clear water as the sun hits the wave. The beach is suddenly very quiet. People move from their chairs and towels to the water’s edge. Eyes wide, hands covering mouths, we are all focused on the distance between the lifeguard and the boy. Swim, I think. Swim, I say out loud, urging her on.

 How does she gauge the distance between herself and the boy from within the water? How does she keep her eye on the mark while swimming against the current, as they all drift west? It is a terrifying display of courage and daring. It is both overwhelming and thrilling, as I believe she will get to him in time. She has been trained for this.

 I watch a yellow towrope spool out behind her. There are three strong male guards on the shore, the rope coursing through their palms, feeding it into the water as she tries to close the distance between herself and the boy. The last guard has the cord wrapped around his torso. I can tell the strength of the current by how deeply it cuts into his flesh.

 Beyond the breaking waves, a guard in a kayak paddles hard, flanking the distressed swimmers. A huge wave is cresting behind him. The people on the beach take a collective breath in and hold it. We see what they cannot. It is going to curl right over the heads of the boy, his dad, and the others caught in the clutch of the riptide.

 The wave stretches blue-gray satin toward the sky, its ragged edge glistening. The guard in the kayak must feel the swell in his body. He pivots, his muscles ripple, and he navigates through just in time. But the wave crashes down on the boy, still yards from the lifeguard. For several very long seconds, no one moves. The moment is frozen, as are we, the spectators of potential disaster. Our chests hurt with the air we are still holding inside, waiting.

 The water recedes and the guard emerges from beneath with the boy on her back, clinging to her shoulders. There is an audible release of breath as her strong arms stroke towards the shore, the towrope guiding her in. Several other guards are there to meet her and take the boy. He is not hurt. He turns and looks out to the water, regards it coolly. Does he understand how close he has come? His father follows on his own accord; he is breathing hard. The relief on his face as he walks through the wet sand to his son is as evident as his exhaustion. He puts a hand on the boy’s shoulder, pulls him close. He nods at the lifeguards, raises a hand in gratitude.

 But there is no time for the guards to rehash the rescue. There are still people in the water, other guards battling the current. One by one, three people are extricated from the riptide. One young woman has her arms around the guard’s neck, her legs scissored into a lock across his hips. The water is only knee-high, but she cannot let go. The lifeguard gently untangles her, sets her on the sand and reassures her that she is safe.

 I want to applaud as the last person emerges from the ocean. I look around. Nobody else feels the urge to clap for the daring troop of lifeguards. People weave their way between the blankets and umbrellas to their own encampment. They will tell the story over barbeque grills and restaurant tables that night. They will recount the bravery of the guards and that moment when no one was quite sure of the outcome.

I am sure this scene occurs many times during the summer but I am not sure how many of us express our appreciation. So this is my shout-out to you, Hampton Lifeguards. You protect us- all of us: the over powered, the surprised, the drunks who are too far gone to know better, and even the idiots out beyond their capabilities. You watch over our children, the flesh of our heritage. I put my hands together and applaud you. You are brave, diligent, courageous and beautiful to look at. You keep us safe. Thank you. We should all thank you. I hope you can hear me clapping.