Helen & Warren's Archive

“Ghosts,” by Warren, a poem

Sunday, July 27th, 2008


Izzy and Warren

  July 27, 2008 – Izzy and I made four different hospice visits today, and all of them were powerful and worthwhile. I have never made that many in one day and normally wouldn’t, but there were extenuating circumstances in all four cases, and this was in so many ways an important day, and full of meaning. In between visits, I rushed out and took photos because I needed to.
    Izzy was heroic. I am resting Lenore in the heat, because she gets restless and hot being in the truck so much in that kind of weather, whereas Izzy is always the same, rain or sun, heat or cold.
  I want to post a bit about all of these visits, but first I want to share a poem Warren and I worked on this morning, about remembering his wife Helen, who died several months ago after 60 years of marriage:

  “Ghosts” by Warren 

 ”Thinking about things,
  I hear Helen, in my mind’s eye,
  giving me advice.
  We always discussed things,
  it’s just as if she were still here,
  out of the corner of my eye,
  I see her.

  I’ll her a noise and it’s Helen,
  she’s in the kitchen
  doing things, puttering around.

  It’s not the least bit frightening,
  she’s a good ghost.

  When there is a financial decision to be
  made we discuss it.
  I know it’s in my mind,
  it’s like a ghost,
  talking to me.

  Rustling in the kitchen,
  working in the living room,
  sorting things upstairs.
  When there’s a brilliant display of lightning,
  I hear her comment, about common sense things,
  “we better be sure things are unplugged.” 
  and from the kitchen, looking out the window,
  I can see her in the garden, and when I go out
  there I always say “hi, sweetheart,”
  and she says, “hi.’”

Warren. Friendship, pain and loss, for him, for me

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

Warren and Izzy. Deep affection. Warren and I are working this weekend on another poem about Helen, this one he wants to call “Ghosts.” I hope to post it Sunday.

 July 17, 2008 – Warren had some tests this week and has some decisions to make. He says at 81 years of age, he is not about to waste valuable resources on any major medical procedures for him. And that was that. I didn’t even pursue it, nor was it my business too.
  Hospice volunteers come and go, and pop up in different places, and even though it isn’t forbidden, friendships are discouraged for obvious reasons. You are there to listen and help, and friendship ought to be a mutual relationship. Hospice work is not a mutual relationship. Somebody is dying, and you are there to help them and their families. There is nothing mutual about that, and they should never be burdened, as friends are, with your troubles and sorrows. You leave them at the door, or don’t come in.
  Yet Warren and I have been through a lot of powerful experiences, including the loss of his wife Helen, and his profound grief. He is 81 years old, and has  mounting health issues, and talks all the time about getting his affairs in order and rejoining Helen. He could be around for a very long time. Or not.
  I was his hospice volunteer, and am now his bereavement volunteer. We have been through a lot together, been in some circumstances too emotional or intimate to relate. We have written poems together, shared seasons, talked about life and family and spent some time of each week for months. We have seen some things together than no one else has seen, and have many memories and shared many secrets.
  Sitting in his living room, I realized a number of things today. We are friends, and it is a strong friendship. He always asks about me, and I have been more candid with him about my life, sharing more of it.  We know one another well, and can read each other’s moods.
   Warren is a stubborn, prideful and sometimes willful man, but he is also generous, loving and fiercely loyal and stoic. We always have fun together, even in dreadful times.
   I realized today that I miss Helen. She and I became quite close, as I read her poems and prayers, wrote stories and poems about her life and had the very personal relationship between a photographer and subject. What is more intimate than death? and she and I joked and talked about this to the very end. I told her she wasn’t the Queen of England, and she complained that I was pushing her around, making her work.
  Hours before she died, she blew me a kiss and waved goodbye. 
  I miss some of the other good people I have known in hospice, and their loving and devoted families. Hospice work is not depressing, but it is, I suppose sad, in that you get to know people well, watch them die, and then quickly move on. That has not happened with Warren. I am still there, and will remain there, as he was with his wife Helen.
  He and I could hardly be more different, or more comfortable with each other. Life is, in fact, strange.
  It is important, I thought, to stop and remember these people I have met, many of whom I have loved, remember laughing with Helen, hearing stories from Glen about his dog Pal. They deserve to be remembered, and I owe it to myself  to remember them, and mourn their loss.
  I wanted to prepare Warren for my upcoming book tour, and I told him about it and said I would be gone, on and off, for some time but would stay in touch. 
  “Jon,” he said, “I am very glad you are going. I feel you and the other people in hospice have sacrificed a lot for us and for others, and I am very happy to hear that you are going to get away for awhile.”
  I said I had sacrificed nothing, and that hospice was  a gift to me, including the friendship that had grown between us.
   But I told Warren that today,  I felt a wave of sorrow for the good people I have met in hospice, most of whom are gone, and especially for Helen. And then I caught myself and remembered the training, and remembered that line of conversation was not appropriate, that this is about Warren’s grief and not mine, and it was time to move on.
  And so we did.

Grief shared – help for Warren

Sunday, July 13th, 2008

Becky and Warren

  July 13, 2008 – There is help for grief, and Warren is getting some. A hospice social worker is coming to see him Monday, and today, educator Becky MacLachlan, a friend who lost her husband a decade ago to cancer and who runs a grief-sharing workshop, came to see Warren, along with Izzy, Lenore and me.
  Becky told Warren that it might be helpful to talk with others who have suffered similiar losses, and he agreed. He said he doesn’t want to be a whiner, and he was candid about his struggle to reconcile his life with the loss of his wife  Helen, to whom he was married for 60 years.
  Warren is talking more openly about his experience with grief, and he said it was helpful to talk about his loss, as long as it didn’t seem like complaining. It doesn’t. He is careful to intersperse talk about himself with conversation directed at others. 
  Becky was skilled at approaching the subject, without forcing it on Warren, and the two settled into easy chatter about houses, country life and the loss of somebody you love. It is not, both agreed, something you ever get over.
  I’ve learned in hospice to let the patients and their families take the lead in conversations, to let them decide the pace and intensity. Sometimes they can talk openly about death and grief, sometimes not, and that it something that needs to be respected. Warren and I can talk freely and comfortably now, and that is in itself a help sometimes. Warren has a wide range of interests, and it is often useful, I think, to talk about other things,  and get back to his loss when and if he is comfortable.
  Warren is considering whether or not he want to go to a hospice group that meets weekly with members of the families of people who have died. “I think it might help. It is good to know what that other people are experiencing what you are experiencing.” And good to know, I think, that sudden waves of sadness and confusion are inevitable, even healthy sometimes.
  His days are long, disorienting, painful. He is resilient, self-aware, independent. He doesn’t miss much.
  I suspect Warren has never asked for help in his life, and he doesn’t really know how to do it, something I’ve seen before in hospice. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there, or that it can’t get to him.
  Seeing him light up when Izzy and Lenore walked in the room was a pleasure. And he told me he would love it if Becky came back. We will.
  I gently encouraged Warren to go to at least one hospice bereavement meeting, if he feels he is ready, and to wait if he isn’t. We’ll see.
  I wasn’t sure myself how much real help is possible for people who have suffered such enormous loss. It is good to know that there is help, and that it helps.

Warren, losing a sense of time

Tuesday, July 8th, 2008

Izzy and Warren, a timeless bond.
Izzy and Warren, a timeless bond. I never claim to know what it in a dog’s mind, but every time I see Izzy look someone in the eye, it is almost impossible not to believe he has connected in some extraordinary way. Warren loves Izzy and is always very happy to see him. He says Izzy is the most sensitive animal he has ever seen or been near.

July 8, 2008 – I sensed from the minute I walked in to see Warren that something had changed, that another milestone in his arduous journey with grief had been reached. It had been four or five days since my last visit.
As always, Warren was at pains to ask me about me and my life, to not let his loss – Helen, his beloved wife of 60 years -  monopolize the conversation, and I have learned to persistently and eventually lead him back to it, because that is, I know, what he needs to confront, in his own way. He has a dread of being self-absorbed, of talking too much about his emotional self.
He told me he was losing a sense of time, that days and hours were melding into one another. “I used to be so conscious of time,” he said, “and now I never know what day it is.”
He is spending Wednesday getting some medical tests. He insisted on driving himself. He told me he was experiencing an increased number of physical symptoms, and I could see the pain in his knees was worse. He told me he wasn’t getting out much, that he had a lot of paperwork to do. He told me he wanted to tell Helen something a hundred times a day, and when he was doing something he wanted to share with her, when he realized she wasn’t there he often stopped doing it.
I looked at his face, and remembered my reading, and what I had learned, and I told him I thought it was time to take another step, talk it out a bit with people who had been experiencing it. He looked at me for what seemed the longest time, and then he said, “yes, I think you might be right. It might be time.” For Warren, that is as loud a cry for assistance as there will ever be.
So I called Keith Mann, the volunteer coordinator at hospice, and my friend Becky MacLachlan, who runs workshops on grief and loss, and has experienced it in her own life, and we will arrange some help. I told Warren that he was doing extraordinary well, and given the seven years of intense round-the-clock physical and emotional support that he had been providing Helen, it was a wonder he hadn’t collapsed.
But, I gently coaxed, it might be time to get a bit more help, he might be ready to do that, and if he wasn’t, he shouldn’t. But I hoped he would think about it, and then I would call hospice or someone of his choosing and he could talk it out a bit. He said he thought he might be ready. “You’ve told me, and I remember it, that it is something I should do when I’m ready,” he said. Yes, I said. That’s right. It seemed to me that he might be, that we are entering a new phase.
This is, I think, a good and healthy thing. I doubt it will ever be easy for Warren to talk much about personal things like grief, but after talking with other people who know more about this than I do, I am lead to believe it can be helpful to know that the things you are feeling are natural, even inevitable.
Warren has fought this epic personal struggle for years now, and Hercules himself would be tired from it. I felt a twinge of regret that I wasn’t more alert to it, and wondered if I had missed some signs. Impossible to know. It is my job to see those signals. I admire Warren, and I reminded myself to be careful to let his own feelings determine this question of help, not mine. I think we are both in the same place.

Grief Observed: Warren, Organizing the rest of your life

Sunday, June 22nd, 2008

Warren got a double-barreled love dose from the Hospice dogs today. Lotsa love.
Warren got a double-barreled love dose from the Hospice dogs today. Lotsa love.

June 21, 2008 – Cool, dry. Storms passed. No damage. Warren says one of the things he wasn’t prepared for was the question of how he will make decisions about the rest of his life. He was so used to making decisions for and with Helen that he simply doesn’t know yet how to make them for his life without her. He is thinking of a new car, but, he wonders, is there a point to that? How long will he be driving it? Should he bother to replace the trees knocked down by the recent storm? Does it matter one way or the other?
At first, this seemed like depression to me, but I realize that it is something more than that. With death, a whole system of living changes, and the survivor has to find a new way to rationalize and conceive of life.
“I am not saying I don’t wish to live,” he said. “I do, and I have things I want to do. It’s just that I’m no longer sure of how to make decisions about organizing my life.”
For 60 years, he discussed every decision with Helen, and she with him. Now, she is not there. I asked him if he wanted to join a Hospice bereavement support group, or see a counselor, and he said no, not yet. He said he felt he was nearing the end of one phase of grief, entering another. He is, he said, preparing to return to the world a bit.
He and Helen were so close, so connected, that he has not yet, I see, envisioned a life without her. But he is working on it. He faces a number of medical decisions, as well as other life choices, and he seems confident, purposeful and resourceful. I told him I was concerned that he was bottling up a lot of grief and pain, and that I couldn’t imagine what he was feeling, which I can’t, not really. I said I just wanted him to know there was help if he needed it.
He said it was important to talk with me about it, and he wouldn’t hesitate to get help if he needed it, and would ask for it. I left it there. He knows himself, and these are his decisions. Warren talks about a lot of different things when we meet, and he is gracious and interesting, as always, but I always make sure to bring the conversation around to Helen, and his loss, and he is ready for that. Active listening, and more active listening. No one can tell anyone else how to grieve, or knows, for that matter.
Warren says that at his age, one can’t help thinking about death, and he is eager to rejoin Helen in the hereafter, but nothing, he said, really prepared him for the space in between.
Izzy and Lenore continue to have a pronounced emotional impact on Warren, as they did on Helen. When we pull up, Warren is at the door, smiling and calling to them, and they come bounding down the walkway to the door and rush into the house. Warren is instantly laughing and talking to both dogs, throwing dogs, giving them treats.
I am pleased with Lenore’s great progress in Hospice work, beyond what I expected. Lenore, interestingly, seems acutely aware of Warren’s painful legs, and never bumps into them or him, showing some of the intuition that makes Izzy so effective. An enthusiastic, even boisterous dog, she just seems to know.
In Hospice work, the dogs are often beyond control or command. You have to trust them sometimes. I completely trust Izzy. I am trusting Lenore more each visit.
They light him up, and the change in his mood is palpable. He is simply at ease around them, and opens up, lightens up. These dogs are doing important work, and all three of us are learning and growing all the time, and I am excited and fortunate to renew my commitment to it.

For Warren, and the Bride and Groom Tree

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

Generally, Hospice dogs are forbidden to take treats in a patient's home, but Warren has a jar of beef jerky and I can't stop him from giving some to Izzy and Lenore.
Generally, Hospice dogs are forbidden to take treats in a patient’s home, but Warren has a jar of beef jerky and I can’t stop him from giving some to Izzy and Lenore, who appreciate it, and I suppose, have earned it. But I’m careful. I don’t want the dogs begging in Hospice homes, or anywhere else.

June 15, 2008 – When Warren woke up Sunday, he saw that part of one of the two maple trees in the back yard had fallen into his yard. The other tree – both are 200 years old, and are called “Bride and Groom Trees” because they were planted when a new couple moved in – was blown down in the same lightning storm that hit my farm.
The symbolism, a month after Helen died, hit him powerfully, and hard. “I guess I feel useless sometimes, wondering exactly what I will be doing with my life. I believe in an afterlife, and so did Helen, and so I do have a sense of waiting.” Warren and I talked for a couple of hours about his life, and his plans for it. He wants to do genealogical research, and preservation work as well.
I gave  him no advice, other than telling him there is help available if he needs it, and it is perfectly normal for him to be feeling this way. There is no knowing when that feeling will ease. He is 81, and wondering how much time he has left, whether he should have the knee surgery his doctor has been urging. He wasn’t sure he wanted to take a couple of months and use it that way.
I said it was his decision, to be made in his own time.
I know this is an especially painful time for him. He has done most of the business related to Helen’s death – lawyers, insurance, credit cards. The calls and visits are slowing, and now, he is face to face with the new normal, life without Helen.  I can only imagine.
The tree seemed to open a deep vein of loss, and some grief, and this is also common, these triggers that bring up so much pain and sadness. I was grateful again for my Hospice training, even as I visit him more as a friend now than a volunteer, and we are close and comfortable with one another.
Warren is almost painfully reluctant to talk about himself, or his pain, and so we approach these issues glancingly, hopping back and forth to other things. I make sure to talk about my life, my farm, so he doesn’t feel self indulgent. And I listen.  Actively.
Izzy and Lenore bring great cheer, and Izzy and Warren are almost brothers.
I admire Warren, for his faithfulness to Helen, for his bravery, for his fierce independence. But it was a hard day, for him, and a challenging visit. It was a difficult day. There will be others. That is the truth of it. Before and after death, Hospice work is not about reassurance, not about cheering people up, or making them feel better. It is about being there, helping in any way people want or need. I have no idea if he should get that knee surgery or not, and I think, just a few months ago, I might have thought that I did know. Hospice is a great teacher.
So is pain and loss. They have their own life, their own path. I might wish I could ease it, but I know I can’t, not really.
Warren is an optimist by nature, and he also has many interests. My guess is that they will soon re-emerge.
“I want my life to be more than just waiting,” he said, “and I want to get my affairs in order so that my life isn’t a mess that falls on anybody else.” I asked if he might want to plant some new maple trees, a new Bride and Groom tree, in honor of Helen.
He said he might drive to the Historical Society meeting Monday night. I said it was up to him.

Heat, love, tears and laughter at Gardenworks

Sunday, June 8th, 2008

Hospice muck-a-muck Keith Mann talks about Hospice, and what it does, at Gardenworks
Hospice muck-a-muck Keith Mann talks about Hospice, and what it does, at Gardenworks

June 8, 2008 – Had one of the memorable afternoons of my life yesterday, and it caught me by surprise, as  memorable things do. “Hospice Journal: Stories, Pictures From the Edge of Life” was an intensely collaborative effort – Hospice workers and volunteers, families of Hospice patients, Stephanie Arpey, the framer, Meg and Rob from Gardenworks, Maria who hung the pictures, Mary Kellogg, who read some poems, Keith and Kim, who sang and played Maria Heinrich, who hung the show, Izzy and Lenore, about 100 people from all over the Northeast on a sweltering day,  and a number of ghosts and spirits from Hospice work and my life, who could not be present.
It was 97 degrees in Gardenworks beautiful second floor barn when the exhibit opened, and barns are no place to be in that sort of heat and humidity. So I was somewhat overwhelmed that so many people took the trouble to come and hear about Hospice, not usually a subject one travels to hear about on a Sunday afternoon.
It was very important to me to see Warren and his daughter Berta looking at the pictures, sitting in the center of the crowd. What a good and loving man, to endure that grief on behalf of other people who are walking in his shoes, and I was reminded of his long – seven years – and unflagging commitment to his wife Helen, who was the subject of a number of the photographs, and whose spirit suffused the day.
There were a lot of tears in that room, and a lot of smiles, too, as Lenore managed to personally greet almost every person there. One of the Gardenworks staff said it was a good thing the weather was so hot, as there would have been no place to put any more people. I thank those who came.
Still, I was surprised, even bewildered by the event. Maria’s quilts were hanging and Mary read a beautiful poem about grief and loss, but still, the afternoon felt somewhat personal for me, and there I was, this thing happening, a connection between me, this site, the dogs, the Hospice patients, the people in the room. I could almost touch the affection and good will, and I thought, wow, let me work hard to earn this.
It was a true opportunity to spread the message of Hospice, a program to help people leave the world with choice and dignity. I have seen how the dying are often shunned and isolated, and how much it means to them to have choice and support and know that people care about them. That they can decide how they wish to die.
I felt it was a turning point for me as an artist, and maybe as a human being as well. I could not have imagined, even a year ago, taking those pictures, writing those columns and poems, seeing the things I have seen, going into so many strange houses, doing that work with Lenore, and especially Izzy, writing those poems, learning so much about death, grief and loss, and seeing so much of it day, after day.
The dead the dogs and I have seen and known were standing right alongside me, their spirits very much in evidence in the photos, and I could feel each and everyone of them, filled with gratitude for the love and openness they have shown me and the dogs, and the trust and faith they placed in me by allowing me to write about them, and take their photos at the edge of life, the most intimate and personal of times.
I not only bonded with them, but with their families, and that kind of bond is eternal.
Hospice is not depressing. I have never known such love and courage. I have also seen a lot of pain, suffering and loss.
I felt, somewhat to my surprise, the power of this blog – what a clunky name for this – and the reach of its signal. I appreciate that. I will work to justify that. How lucky I am, to the kind of friends who were sprinkled throughout that room. Nobody could feel deserving of that, or fail to be humbled by it.
I am lucky to be a writer, to have found photography, to have such dogs, to have the opportunity to do this work. Tomorrow, Izzy and I go to see a new patient. We are eager to start another chapter.
So it was a great  and memorable day, for me and for other people,  and thanks to all of you who came, who would have liked to have come, who sent e-mails and poems and messages of good will. Your own signals were heard and very much appreciated.

Izzy and Warren after Gardenworks
Izzy and Warren after Gardenworks