Category Archives: Observations

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.

 

 

 

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.

Ponquogue Beach

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.

 

 

 

pictures138

Bangs, Boobs, and Botox

Bangs, Boobs & Botox

A lady walks into her hairdresser’s and sees the beautician wrapping aluminum foil around little chunks of hair on the head of a skeletal client draped in black polyester with a face like silly putty stretched to the max.

“What’s cooking?” She says.

The beautician looks up and wraps, folds, bends another piece of foil onto the skull in front of her.

“Lean Cuisine…” she says.

When they are overweight, she says “Pulled Pork.”

Bitchy divorcees: “Leftovers.”

As my eyes travel from the emaciated woman in the chair with the too-taught cheeks, to the mirror, I catch a full-on glimpse of the hairdresser, her lavender smock and her blue eyes glimmering in the gilt-framed mirror.

“Claire!” I exclaim, “ You look fabulous! What is it? You changed something. The hair?” She had recently gone from over-processed blonde to a deep auburn that warmed her skin.

She shakes her head and smiles, and her bob sways girlishly.

“Nah.”

“C’mon, tell me. You look terrific.”

She leans in conspiratorially, motions for me to come closer as a smile plays at the corner of her lips. Her fingers keep pace with the section-brush-wrap activity on the woman’s head.

“The three Bs,” she whispers.

“Three B’s?”

“At our age, honey,” she says, “Its bangs, boobs or Botox.”

I back off and stare at her chest, between her brows.

“No, babe,” she says. “It’s the bangs!”

All during my hair wash, with my head arched back into the scooped-out sink, I think about it. Bangs, boobs or Botox. Could it be that simple? I start with the boobs. Mine haven’t passed the pencil test in years. Okay boys, the pencil test is this: If you stand up straight and put a pencil under your breast, and it stays… you haven’t passed. End of test. I think of my Grandma Edythe, my very favorite relative. We were the same height when I was eight. If I think of old boobs, I think of her.

When she stayed at our house, I would help her lace her corset. There must have been 50 holes that had to be threaded, pulled, adjusted. It took a good part of the morning to get Grandma dressed. She was sweet and funny, but detailed-minded, stubborn, set in her ways. She “performed her toilette” as she called it, the same way every morning except Friday, before Shabbos, when she took a full-out bath. Edythe didn’t shower. She was too short to reach the showerhead.

Her “toilette” involved washing every limb and cranny with a rough white washcloth until it glowed pink, then dusting herself with loose talcum powder from a big puff. All smoothed, she glided into her big granny underpants and stepped into the pre-laced corset. As she sidled into it, wiggling her hips in a manner that might have, years ago, been a little bit sexy, she stopped just short or her ribcage. At this point, she fondly took the bottom of each breast and rolled the flat skin up from her navel into a kind of mammary croissant, and tucked it into the cup of the corset. With a final wriggle and pull, her girdle settled into place. Grandma’s helper, in this case, me, adjusted each of the strings to create the desired hourglass shape she thought fashionable. This was the way it was done. Everyday: Wash. Powder. Roll those boobs. Cleanliness and order. Edythe lived until 96 but gave up her corset at 90, when she announced with modern indignation that she was tired of being hog-tied every day.

Straining against the unyielding back of the sink as droplets of warm water pooled in my ears, I ask myself: would Grandma Edythe have bought boobs? I think not. And I am my grandma’s granddaughter.

So, Botox? Possible… very possible. Cousin Fern offered me a Botox party for my fiftieth birthday. She’s a dermatology nurse. She did Michael Jackson’s hair plugs in the wee hours of the morning at her Park Avenue doctor’s office. The doctor was there, of course- but it was cousin Fern herself, she claimed, who stuck the plugs in. I guess that qualified her to stick needles into the faces of my friends and relatives to celebrate my reaching the half-century mark.

But Botox is poison. And the most toxic thing I put in my body is Sweet and Low. I already feel bad enough about that. I shift in the hairdresser’s seat while she applies a hot iron to my roots (hot flash alert!) and pulls it through my hair, removing every natural kink so that it will look young and sexy! As if gray hair can ever look young and sexy. A clear contradiction of terms in the beauty business.

The only solution to my dilemma about my fifty-something face is to go shopping. Buy a scarf. A hair thing. Earrings. Something that might make me look somewhere- anywhere- else but at my face. A treat, I think! Bendel’s! Youthful, trendy, stupidly expensive and indulgent. I leave the salon, freshly trimmed and pressed and head to midtown. In my funk I do not realize that it is Fashion’s Night Out in New York City. For those who don’t know about this self-proclaimed merchandising holiday, it is Halloween for Fashionistas. Terrifying! Ghoulish! And I am only talking about the skinny kids lined up in front of Abercrombie’s.

I make my way through the throngs of wrist wraps and fake lashes, taking note that the demographic of the crowd is three decades my junior.

“I can take years off your eyes without surgery!” a slender latte-colored man with exotic green cat-irises and deep red lipstick calls across the aisle. He is a wearing a small leather apron laden with brushes of every size. He pulls one from a pocket and waves it at me.

“Yes! You, honey!” he calls to me.

I look over the other shoulder. “Me?”

“Yes- darlin’. YOU! You can look FAB-ulous! Without a knife every touching your face.” Other customers turn. They look at my face. The whole store is looking at my face, imagining my before and after photos. Middle-aged gray haired lady now looks FAB-ulous! Let’s put her on the Today Show Make-overs. The View! Oprah… wait, there is no more Oprah! Okay, Ellen. Ellen does a kindler, gentler make-over.

“But I like my face!” I answer with pluck.

His groomed brows arch up to his shiny, shaved scalp. He pulls other brushes from the skimpy band of leather clinging to his hipbones.

“Of course you do! But we can make it better.”

“I earned every fucking line on this face,” I say defiantly- loud enough for the whole store to hear. The crowd roars their approval. They break out in thunderous applause.

I smile wide and let my laugh lines show. My eyes squint and disappear beneath my heavy lids. I thrust my closed fists upwards in a sign of victory. YES! I exit the store backwards, still waving at the supportive and adoring fans who believe I am paving the way to a new future without injectables.

I am on the sidewalk, remembering nothing past the moment I looked into the mesmerizing Kohl-rimmed eyes of the handsome young man. It comes back to me in a rush. I am not the outspoken champion of the natural face. I am a frightened sheep. A wrinkled woman silently fleeing the press of cosmetic socialism. I bought their creams and their promises and ran. I have been fleeced by the media.

I drive home quietly. My shoulders slumped, defeated. My husband is asleep in front of the television. His two chins rest on his chest and a little drool collects at the corner of his slightly open mouth. His snores fill the room. I love that little roll of skin that hangs around his collar. It reminds me of his mother’s face, the turkey neck that she refused to remove because her husband loved to tickle it. And I think: my husband loves this old face. I quietly move to the bathroom and rummage around beneath the sink looking for a long lost tool. And then I do something I swore I would never do again: I cut bangs.

 

 

Baby being held

What is The UnPregnant Pause?

To see an interview with author Debbie Slevin, click HERE

 UnPregnant Pause: Where Are the Babies

Now available through Amazon and barnesandnoble.com

Where are the babies? Where are the grandchildren?

Have YOU been asking that question? I have. When I looked around the living room at my book group, made up of women I have known since our children were in grade school and we all “did” PTA together, I saw eight women with seven daughters among them. Successful young women. Attractive. Self-sufficient. Funny. Talented. Single. With their long list of accomplishments,  something was still missing. None were married. Or engaged. Or having babies, even though they had hoped this would be part of their future.

What were we going to do with our retirement if we were not becoming grandmas? What was going to happen to our girls if they did not find partners? And if they did, would their fertility last long enough to have babies in the old-fashioned way? I wanted answers. And so I set off on a quest.

The Experts

I have interviewed some of the best fertility specialists in the world from NYU Fertility Clinic (Dr. David Keefe, Chairman) and have spoken with the psychologists (Dr. Shelley Lee, NYU, and Dr. Claudia Pascale, Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science at Saint Barnabas Medical Center, NJ) and the academics (Prof. Sara Hosey, Nassau Community College, NY). I have had my eyes opened to the future by the man who practically invented bio-ethics (Dr. Art Caplan, NYU). I have talked to the women themselves. Their stories are complex and compelling. And I have even spoken to a handful of men about this issue. (Oy! Don’t ask!)

This is a deeply personal book. While on this journey I have also shared my quest for a grandchild of my own. I have spilled my guts. But it is also a journalistic exploration into a problem – if we can call it that. Perhaps “trend” is a better word, as “problem” has a negative connotation. But something has happened.

The Answers

I wanted to know if, in our desire to raise independent, accomplished women, we might have gone overboard and raised women who thought they didn’t need men. Did the tenants of the Women’s Movement actually come full circle and bite us in our well-exercised behinds?

This has been an illuminating endeavor. I have laughed with the women I met and cried with one of the doctors. I have been moved by their stories and muddled through my own. This is for my daughter and your daughter, in cities across this country. With a foreword by renown ob/gyn Dr. Lila Nachtigall, I explore how their choices are changing the statistics of a nation. I invite you to join me as I examine this tender time between waning fertility and menopause. It is the UnPregnant Pause. And it impacts us all.