Serendipity, A South Dakotan Stranger, and me…

rick holm

I believe in serendipity, I do.  I believe that people join us in our walk for reasons designed by someone other than ourselves. Or so it has seemed in my life.

Nearly four years ago, I found myself impotently trying to punch my way out of the stubborn paper bag of depression.  The mounting losses had rendered me unrecognizable to myself.

Serendipity came then in the form of a powerful woman.  I met Maggie Callanan in my driveway. She was a new neighbor, but it was not until she told me she was a Hospice nurse that the familiarity of her name hit me over the head.  Maggie could not know then that seven years before someone had given me Maggie’s best-selling book “Final Gifts.” It was a gift given while my mother lay ravaged with stage four cancer.  Nor could Maggie know that three years later her second book, “Final journeys,” would join “Final Gifts” on my nightstand as my father lay dying. 

I leaned on Maggie when my elderly uncle moved to be near me for the final eighteen months of his life.  She patiently counseled me as Uncle Bobby’s health faded, all the while encouraging my writing. Maggie was the only soul who came to sit with me in the dark of-of a July night as I said my final goodbye to my beloved bachelor uncle.

Serendipity brought me an unforgettable friendship with a woman who helped me find myself again.

Today I want to introduce Dr. Rick Holm, a South Dakotan physician who has committed a significant part of his professional life to care of the aging.  He is also known as “Prairie Doc,” as host of a weekly, one hour, live medical questions program on South Dakota Public Radio and a 30-minute live radio call-in show.

You might wonder how a fledgling writer from Connecticut comes to know a Prairie-born, Doctor of Geriatrics of significant renown.  Serendipity, of course!

Rick and Maggie have known each other as distant colleagues in the business of death and dying. In the midst of writing a book about aging and end of life care, Rick was diagnosed with cancer. In an unexpected moment in time, his writing took on deeper personal meaning.  

Rick reached to Maggie for review of his manuscript.  Maggie suggested to Rick that she had a friend who might be valuable in tweaking portions of the book to inject some lyrical prose.  Two medical powerhouses and this neophyte writer? Humbled seems too mild a word.

These past six months I have come to know Rick Holm through his manuscript.  I wish it had been released in time to join Maggie’s books on my bedside table while I cared for the dying loved ones in my life.    I now consider Rick Holm a friend.

Please Welcome Dr. Rick Holm to my blog space.  If you are, or suspect you will someday be, given the gift of sharing the end of life journey with a loved one, I encourage you to purchase Rick’s book which can be found on Amazon: 

Image result for life's final season

Life’s More Rich as It Nears Its End    Dr. Richard P. Holm M.D.

I’ve lived a life formulated to live long: eating right, exercising daily and savoring friendships and family. Despite this, I still came down with cancer two years ago. I’ve been treated with chemo, radiation, major surgery and now, with spread to the liver, I’m back on chemo. I’m still here and truly feel blessed and thankful for every day, but you can understand why, lately, I’ve been thinking about death.

Loving my enemies has made this easier. As our kids were growing up, I would find myself saying to them ”I will always love you unconditionally, but sometimes I don’t like what you are doing.” We should say that to our enemies, too. Here is the lesson: hate is poisonous, especially to the one who harbors it. Remember what Jesus said (as did Mohammed and Buddha), “Love your enemy.” I believe hating others, even when justified, only destroys us. When angry, we should point the anger at what he or she is doing, not at the person. Use it as propulsion to fight to the tooth for the cause . . . but let go of hate. How is this related to death, you ask?

When people ask me how I contend with the prospect of my dying sooner than I’d like, I go right to the opposite of hate which is love. I know it sounds clichéd and unoriginal but the word love embraces the spiritual, inner-warmth I feel when I value the other person (even if he or she is my enemy). Truly valuing others gives more meaning to my time limited life and helps take away the fear of my own death . . . but there is something more.

Some say, “One day, you’ll be just a memory for some people.  Do your best to be a good one.” That’s not bad advice, but I think the measure of our worth after we die, has less to do with being remembered and more to do with the reflection of our actions in others. It’s that Pay it Forward or that Jimmy Stewart Wonderful Life sort of thing. I believe meaning and purpose comes with the good that we do and how that moves others forward (whether they’re aware of it or not).

Our lives are all like a book that becomes more precious as it nears the end, especially by savoring friendships and family, by letting go of hate and by paying good deeds forward. Why waste any time fearing death?

My Cottage and me…

cottage

“It’s no bad thing to be lost in a fog or at sea.
When land comes into view again, you will appreciate it with a keenness
that is denied to those who know nothing but the safety of the shore.”
Sister Monica Joan, “Call the Midwife”

Leave it to the perpetual parochial schoolgirl to find inspiration from a BBC series set in the 1960’s about nuns in London. But, so it was…

I bought a house. I had no such intention, but in a leap of financial and personal faith, I bought a magical cottage in the course of eight weeks.

Here’s how that goes:

I have a lovely friend who invited me to dinner at his new home. When I pulled in, I could see warm light from his windows and as he opened the front door, I was drawn in by the character of the place. Old-fashioned charm eeked from every corner. You know that house, the perfectly, imperfect cottage with nooks and crannies and “good bones.” It is the kind of home that suggests history, where you can imagine who may have lived there before.

I was surprised by my delight in his fortune. Over dinner and wine, I couldn’t stop myself from distracting our conversation with Tourette-like interruptions, “God, I love this cottage,” “How did you find this great cottage?” and finally, “Can I have your cottage?” He laughed and with the confidence born to him said, “You cannot have my cottage, but I bet I could find you a cottage of your own.” And that’s how this story begins; a lovely friend with an imagination for me that I did not have for myself, and a realtors license.

He sent me several listings the following day.  I approached it like a shopping expedition that would take years to complete.

When I divorced I bought a condominium, and it was a good one. It came with all the perks of condo living: plowing, shoveling, mulching, leaf raking and the safety in numbers. It was a good space and I shared it with a man I loved. It was a wonderful nest for a time. Then it wasn’t. When love takes its leave it’s hard to remember the good of it and so it was with me. No amount of sage burning, Feng Shui-ing, therapy, or kitchen renovation could chase the memories of the unkindness that replaced the love that once filled that space.

My thoughts flew to moving far away from its memories. Rhode Island, Savannah, Nashville, or some lovely South Carolina coastal town became my goal. Pack up and go, start again, do whatever it takes to stop the paralyzing memories. It’s been three years since the crash and I still can’t quite shake the memories of what once held such unexpected promise. Good aura was replaced by bad and I was powerless over its hold on me.

But what of friends? What does one do when there is no family left except children, off to their own lives, on whom to depend? Enter my Russian, “You can move, but how do you recreate your family of friends?”

Those words, delivered across a bar, stuck in my soul. My friends, who stayed with me when I lost myself, could never be recreated. As I painstakingly find myself again, how can I possibly leave them behind?

The house my lovely friend presented to me was on Cotton Tail Lane. That’s a good start in anyone’s book. I met him there and as we entered the stone-framed front door I took note of the dormant climbing hydrangea. I walked into the home, built in 1938, and spied the original planked, fir floors and an endless bank of windows through which the sun poured on a chilly November afternoon. The mammoth stone fireplace was also original, though the kitchen and bathrooms were new.

The pièce de résistance was a magnificent screened-in south facing porch which led to a deck, which led further to a flagstone patio and a perfectly manicured yard built for a romping labrador. I have a romping labrador who has, for four years, not known the thrill of a leashless romp. Perrenial bushes and flowers, so many of them, had just settled in for their winter nap, but it took nothing to imagine them in the glory of a June morning. It was a cottage dearly loved by its owners. I wanted this house as much for me as for my seven-year-old labrador, Seamus.

The cottage was half the size of my condominium; a summer cottage which spent its winters unoccupied. Closets were sparse and it had no attic or basement. I tossed and turned that night with a gnawing question, “Where would I keep my vacuum cleaner, or winter sweaters, or sherpa lined snow boots?”

It’s hard to articulate when something is simply right. I returned to the cottage several times to test my rediscovered imagination and at the same time tame suspected romantic folly. Each visit bonded me to the space. Within two weeks a bid was accepted and before I knew it keys were handed to me. The gravity of being its next caretaker floated like a cashmere cloak about my shoulders.

It’s been nine weeks since that serendipitous meal at the home of a lovely friend.

It’s a magical place, my cottage; a soul grabbing writers space that at once summons peace and creativity. This morning, I am sitting on a new couch in the center of my tiny cottage. The original, large-paned kitchen windows are frosted from the inside and in the silence, you can hear the creaks of age. When I sweep the floor my mind swirls with thoughts of the summer lives lived here. It thrills me to think that my cottage was born when Franklin Roosevelt was President and Candlewood Lake was just a child of ten herself. If I close my eyes, I can hear the laughter of children and the happy slam of wooden screen doors competing with the hum of cicadas on summer evenings long before I was a thought in anyone’s imagination.

Sometimes, it takes a long walk in the wilderness to appreciate the light of open space again. Serendipity and a friend found my next chapter for me. Isn’t life full of unexpected surprises?