Wednesday, August 12, 2009

25 By Old Blue Eyes: Sinatra's Great Standards

AUGUST 11, 2009 10:04PM


There is no socially redeeming agenda here. Nothing to read. Nothing to think about. Nothing to get all worked up over. Just great music. By The Man himself.

Just slip on some headphones, or turn on some nice speakers, and listen. Open OS or any other sites in another tab and go about reading, writing or whatever else you want to do. The list will keep playing until you want to stop it.

This is too good to miss. The Chairman of the Board at his finest. I took a lot of time organizing only the best here, and have arranged them to move smoothly from swing to ballads and back, including some sentimental songs that are identified solely with Old Blue Eyes at the very end.

This is my tribute to Frank as a follow up on the popular "Who's Going to Fill Their Shoes" post, now pushing 2500 "listens." Nobody will ever fill Sinatra's shoes.


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Monday, August 10, 2009

Permission to Die

AUGUST 10, 2009

This is a true story. The dialogues are reconstructed from memory of events that happened 18 years ago.

"So how many are there?"

"Right now there are six. It changes from week to week."

"What exactly am I supposed to do?"

"Just drop in and see them for a few minutes each day you are here. Talk to them. Say a prayer before you leave. I think one or two of them are in comas, but check with the doctor. With the heavy pain meds sometimes its hard to tell if they are sleeping or in a coma."

"You say that none of them is expected to last a month?"

"That's right. They are in our in house hospice."

"I don't think this was in my job description when you interviewed me."

"Job description is your term. I never use it. This isn't a job. Its a calling. I can't tell you what you will be doing in any detail. If you don't think you are called to do this particular thing, then don't. One thing you learn in your 'in field' training is what you are called to do and what you are not. Hopefully you will find that you are called to do whatever needs to be done."

"I know that. I wasn't saying I won't do it. Of course I will. I was just saying that I didn't expect this."

"When I started chaplaincy 15 years ago I didn't expect most of what I have been called to do. You can't really program it and you surely can't plan it. Its day to day. Eventually a kind of pattern will emerge, more by instinct than anything else. Go home for the rest of the day and think about it. If you don't do it, let me know. There are lots of other things that need to be done, but I think you should try to do this."

The Chaplain of Good Samaritan Home smiled at me and picked up a chart on his desk, a signal that the discussion was over. I thanked him and walked down the long main floor hall to the small office behind the chapel that I was given to use the three afternoons and Sunday mornings per week I was to be there.

I learned soon that the closet sized office was a place to hang my coat and set down my briefcase. My real "office" was to be the entire 6 story, three wing, 400 resident retirement home.

"Good Sam" occupied a full city block and was perched high on the west bank of the Mississippi in South St. Louis. It was affiliated with the United Church of Christ. It has since been torn down for development. I can not bring myself to say for "progress."

I was a 52 year old second year seminarian at another UCC affiliated institution, Eden Theological Seminary, located in the suburb of Webster Groves, 6 miles northwest of Good Sam. "Student Chaplain" was my second "in field" education assignment.

Field education was important at Eden. It was a key part of securing the Master of Divinity degree necessary to become an ordained pastor. Three years of field education, plus at least one summer of full time Clinical Pastoral Education in a local hospital, was required to graduate.

It was a bit of a plum to get an assignment to Good Sam. It was one of the few remaining total living facilities in the area and included everything for the residents from assisted living apartments, individual rooms, rehabilitation, an infirmary with a hospice ward, a secure dementia wing, plus dining room, coffee shop, drug store, lounges, recreation rooms, chapel, library, and several commercial services available on site. It was a self contained urban village for the elderly.

After my Monday conversation with the Chaplain, who was my field supervisor, I returned on Wednesday and made my way to the infirmary on the 4th floor. I introduced myself to the nurse supervisor who would soon become my friend and a mentor.

"Hi, I am Monte Canfield."

"Glad to see you, Monte. I'm Mary. Dave has already filled me in. I am very glad to see you. Last year the student wanted nothing to do with the infirmary, to say nothing of the hospice, and it put quite an extra load on Dave. I don't imagine he told you that, but he spent hours here that meant working extra hours to keep up with everything else.

This is far too big an operation for one Chaplain to handle. Let me walk you through the infirmary, introduce you to the doctor and some of the nurses and then I will show you the hospice."

After the tour and introductions, she took me to the back of the infirmary, down a small hallway and into a small ward that was decorated more like a large home bedroom than as an infirmary.

The lighting was subdued. A chair was available beside each bed; and soft music played in the background. It was a pleasant enough place if you didn't think about what it was for. A nurse sat at a small desk near the center of the room. We talked to the nurse a couple of minutes.

Then Mary walked me to one end of the room. "There is room for ten beds here without crowding things. We want the patients to feel as comfortable as possible. When beds are not occupied we move them out of the room to give it a feeling of greater spaciousness.

People are moved here only when two doctors, the staff doctor and their personal physician, agree that they are not likely to live more than another month. Of course we have a few that surprise us and get better for a while, but it is only a matter of time even with them."

"And most of them are Christian?"

"Well, yes, if you mean that they belong to the church. UCC membership is required for admission to Good Sam, as is the recommendation of their pastor. But their faith varies. Some have not set foot in a church in decades. Some married into a church going family but have little or no faith. And some, mostly men, simply do not share what they think about religion, considering that a very private matter. Most are from a generation that sees religion as a very personal experience."

"Dave told me that some may be in comas already."

"I will take you around in a minute and you can see for yourself. Of the six here now, one is definitely in a coma but seems to be stable for now, and one is kind of in and out of consciousness, partly due to his condition and partly due to the heavy pain meds. But I suggest that you always assume that they know you are there and can hear what you say."

We walked to each bed and I was introduced to all, not just the ones who could talk to me and clearly recognize me, but to the one who was in a coma and another who appeared to be sleeping.

After the tour I went back and spent a few minutes at each bedside, learning about the four who were clearly aware and saying prayers with them after asking them if they would like that and asking if there were any particular things they wished me to pray for.

None wished for their own healing, understanding exactly where they were in their own journey. All of them asked for prayers for family members. All said they were glad I was there and looked forward to seeing me again, asking when I would be able to come back. I told them I would see them on Friday.

I spent some time at the two beds where the patients were not responsive. I read some short passages of scripture to them, and said a prayer with each, out loud. I told them I would be back on Friday, although it appeared clear at the time that they did not know I was there.

Over the next two weeks I spent a few minutes with the hospice patients each time I was at Good Sam. I got to know four of them much better and even managed some cognitive contact with the one who was sleeping the first time I visited. He was very much "in and out" but I was sure that he was aware of me.

At the end of that third week I was told that the doctor thought that none of them would last more than a week longer.

That upset me more than I thought it would and, because I was scheduled for a week off the coming week, I went to Dave and asked him if I should come in to be with them instead. He said, "No. You told me before you came here that you needed the week off, so go."

Before I left for the day that Friday I went up to see each one and explained to all, including the one man who was asleep again and the one in a coma, that I was going to be off for a week, but that I would be back to see them a week from Monday, ten days later. I felt I was a bit disingenuous saying that while knowing their prognosis, but I wanted them to know that I was not abandoning them, because that is what it felt like to me.

I felt very badly about the whole thing and wondered if I was just in way over my head. I talked to Mary about it and she nicely reminded me to remember who was really in charge, pointing upwards and giving me a quick hug.

Ten full days later I returned with real trepidation to the infirmary. Mary called me to the side to bring me up to speed.

"I hope you had a good week, Monte. We held our own here, but missed you a lot."

"Just tell me how many died while I was gone."

'Why don't you just come down to the hospice ward with me? You really can't avoid it, you know."

We walked into the hospice ward, my heart heavy. There were now eight beds occupied. I could not believe how many were dying in such a short time span. In less that a month first six, and now eight more.

Mary went to talk to the duty nurse and I sighed and headed to the first bed in the row. It was a man I had not met before. I introduced myself, and went through the pastoral care routine that I was developing without being conscious that a routine was emerging. The new woman in the second bed was asleep, but I went through the same routine as if she were not.

At the third bed I recognized the man in the coma. I looked quickly at the next bed and the familiar face of a lady I had come to admire smiled at me. Quickly I walked down the aisle looking at each bed. Each bed had the patient in it who was there when I left ten days before.

At the last bed the woman raised her head a bit off of her pillow and lifted up her shaking hand to me. I took it and she smiled and said, "Welcome back, Chaplain. We have been waiting for you."

I talked to her for a couple of minutes and told her I would be back in a bit after I talked to the others.

I walked quickly to door where Mary was waiting with a small smile on her face. We walked down the hall a few paces.

"What happened? Surely Dr. Lewis could not have been that far off. He does this kind of prognosis all the time."

"His prognosis is based on reading the body. He doesn't factor in the determination of the spirit that stems from love."


"Yes, love. These folks love God and they have come to love and rely on you."

"But they hardly know me. And why did they not die? They would then be in a far better place than this. They don't need me around to do that. That is between them and God. And what about the one who is seldom conscious; and the one in the coma?"

"Monte, listen to me. They all know that they will soon pass over. And obviously the ones that you thought were simply out of it were not. On some level they heard you talking to them. Look, Monte, you told them that you would be back in 10 days and they took you at your word."

"But that shouldn't affect whether or not they would die when I was gone."

"Don't you see? They were waiting for you. They were waiting for permission to die."

I was shocked; completely baffled, confused, and repelled by the thought.

"I have nothing to do with giving them permission to die. That's not what I am doing here. I never mentioned dying to them. Never."

"Well, maybe it is time that you did. You are their Chaplain. Their own pastors almost never visit them and none of them have been here since they have been in the hospice ward. Dave was able to visit once toward the end of last week, and, like you, he told them that you would be back today. I fully understand why he told them that."

Mary continued, "Don't you see, Monte? To them you are their vicar of God. Whether you want the role or not, or, for that matter, whether or not they are right to think so, these older people need to know that it is OK for them to die. They want permission to do so.

There is no one else who is as close to them spiritually right now as you are; not even their family members, although most of them can't bear coming anyway, and so they don't. But you can give them that permission. They are ready to go. Let them."

I was still confused. But mostly I was in denial. I wanted no part of any such power, real or imagined. I had never asked for it. I did not seek it. I did not think it was good theology. I did not see it as part of my call. And I certainly did not think I was worthy to offer such permission.

I simply did not know what to do. But, almost instinctively, I trusted Mary. After 30 years dealing with people in situations like these she had learned much and had kindly shared that learning with me. I was learning something that I did not want to know. But I had to learn it.

I walked back into the ward and went to each bed, picked up a listless hand or held the thin hand of one who was awake and smiling at me. With great emotion welling inside of me I told each of them, "I am very glad to see you. I missed you, and want you to know that I recognize how hard it is for you to go on day by day."

I continued, "But I also want you to know that you will soon be going to a wonderful place, a place too beautiful for mere words, a place where there is no more pain or exhaustion; a place where you will be with God and where you will be again with your loved ones who have gone there before you."

And finally, I told them, "It is OK for you to let go of this place now. I can imagine how hard it must be to hold on here. So it is OK to go to on to that life where you will be in the the much closer presence of our Savior, the place we have all dreamed about since we accepted our faith.

I will miss you when you go, but I promise to look you up when I get there. It will be good to see you again when you are strong and happy, without pain and surrounded by love."

I then said a simple prayer. "God, this is your precious child who will soon be coming home to you. Please welcome this loved child with the same open arms with which you welcomed you Son."

Then I kissed each on the forehead, women and men alike, and walked from the room, tears streaming down my face. I knew the glory that awaited them, but I knew the sorrow of the coming loss to me of these who were strangers only a month or so before.

By the end of the week all had passed quietly on to be in the closer presence of the Lord. As each passed on I said for each the prayers for the dying, or for the dead if they died when I was at school and not at Good Sam, and I found comfort in those ancient words.

It was a hard lesson to watch how death was an integral, inevitable part of life that each of us must learn to accept in our own way. My lesson came unbidden, but proved to be the necessary lesson for me.

Through the years of my ministry, and through hundreds of bedside vigils and funerals, I always had misgivings about the authority that most members of the church place in the hands of chaplains and pastors. I still do. But I never again doubted that they do trustingly give us that authority.

And I finally accepted that, if they believed that I was the one whom God had given to them to help them through some of the hardest times of their lives, and even through their deaths, then I would do the best I could to serve them with love, compassion and hope.

From that time forward until now nothing in my ministry would ever be more humbling than this unwanted calling. There has been nothing that I consider myself both more burdened by, and yet more privileged to do, than to be there for them when they need God's love the most.