Meditative Swims for those we have Lost

(A Women Swimmin’ Participant Profile)

by Erica Steinhagen

“I swim in meditation to those I and others have lost.”

I had decided not to bring my neoprene sleeves. It seemed so warm to me. Even at 8am, it was getting humid, and I didn’t even deign to look at the Cayuga Lake temperature abstract that I so faithfully refreshed each winter dip in order to record the audacity of our character on those bitter days. Today was a miler, and I was so eager to get in, I only made sure to have my sleeveless wetsuit for buoyancy, cap, goggles, Garmin, bright pink buoy… When I arrived at East Shore, I checked. 63 degrees. Hm, ok. I forgot my water shoes, too. Ah, well. I rushed in like always and pushed my face into the water and instantly bucked up and made that hooty reflex-sound like “WHOOF” and then eased back in, letting my face and neck get acclimated as I started the crawl. The water was so still it looked like a pool, but it was earthy and silty and the weeds were starting to reach the surface like they do in mid-June. The cold on my  bare arms made me almost smile, remembering the millions of needles of 32-degree water in February. This was easy. Exhilarating. Here we go. Whoosh. Quiet. And loud. Water in my ears. I’m alone.  

Every single time, it happens. I am distracted by the starting, by the challenge to my comfort, the settling into a rhythm. But then, once I’m settled and in a pattern of right/left/rightbreathe, left/right/leftbreathe, I start to feel a little tightness in my throat. All of a sudden, I hear Carol telling my how when I’m 40, my voice will do that too…I’ll find my lower range, I’ll sing that role, don’t worry, it settles. The laugh, the tease, the big sister squeeze when we part after the gig. I am sitting with Camilla, on the end of her sofa, and she’s got a tiny smile and is much too pale, and she’s telling us how she dreamed us before we were born, the three girls with blonde, brunette, and red hair, she called us the Princesses and we each had a pony to ride that matched our hair, and she drew us, and knew us when we finally met. And then my Kel, at the end, unable to speak, but rolling her eyes with a joke, and squeezing my hand so tight, and letting me rub lotion on her bald head and the sound of her breath the last time I was with her.  

In the water they’re sort of above me and behind me, these women, because in front of me is just green. Foggy green. Flash of sun. Foggy green. Flash of land. Breathe. Sip. Settle the breath. Calm the tight throat. Get it together. I am here because I CAN be. I can still move my body. On land I am now clumsy, less coordinated and strong and confident than before my foot dropped from nerves being crushed by an exploding disc in my spine. I limp on land. I am no longer a fast walker, a source of great pride, especially when I lived in NYC. Not now. I am slow, awkward. In the lake, I am buoyant. I am not fast, but I am confident. I can set my face in the water like the sun is set with some insistence and firmness into the morning sky. Not high, but purposeful at 8:30am. Me too, I say to myself. To the sun. To my women. Me too. I am insistent. I will move because I can move. I am still here.  

Somewhere is my sister, too. She’s quieter. But to be frank, death is all around me. And it is a part of this meditation. Every time. That I have had so many lost to me who were gathered so closely in my net. That is why. That is why I am in the water. Because there is nothing to be done about loss. It has happened, it will continue to happen, we are all plummeting towards it every moment. But one thing I can do is swim. I can swim to raise money for Hospicare. Easy. And hard. I want it to be hard. Two miles. More. Let’s go. I can do it. I am here. I can move. 

I am so grateful to Hospicare for helping us witness and be present for deeply loved ones who are dying. I am so grateful for the support, and resources, and care that allow for the…what? The transition, the guidance towards what is next. The resting of a forehead to a forehead, saying words that might be the last ones. Say them every time in case they are. Then they are. That is all.  I love you, I will always be here, I will be ok, I will take care of her/him/them, always, it’s ok, you can let go, you can rest, I’ll be with you, I am with you, I love you.  

Swimmin’ for My Mom

By Casey Carr

We brought my 95-year-old mother home to live with us at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic so we could safely give her the loving care that she deserved. Although the first nine months were filled with lovely meals together, fun family card games, holiday celebrations and bonding time with my two sons; my mother’s health began to rapidly decline after she suffered a fall. This decline necessitated a hospital bed, Hoyer lift, and an enormous amount of emotional, medical, and physical caregiving. Due to COVID-19, placing my mother in a nursing home was out of the question. 

Casey Carr (left); Casey’s mom – Helene Carr (middle); Casey’s sister – Jayne Weeks (right) 

Hospicare to the rescue! I cannot begin to tell you how Hospicare made it possible for me to care for my mom at home and stay in balance at the same time. The emotional and informational support from the Hospicare social worker was phenomenal. She really cared about me, my mom and my family and made this difficult transition do-able. She helped me find and use every resource Tompkins County has to offer. 

Weekly visits from Hospicare’s nursing staff taught us how to care for and love someone while they are leaving us. They helped with everything from stress management techniques and medical intervention to changes in nourishment, toileting and mobility. They answered every concern and question no matter how odd or uncomfortable. Most of all, the nurse who visited weekly and more during the last few weeks of my mother’s life helped us understand what we could expect and how to respond in a medically knowledgeable and loving way. Please support Hospicare so they can provide this immeasurable resource to others.  

The home health aide that Hospicare provided gave me much needed respite to take care of other things in my own life that kept calling to me. The spiritual advisor checked in every week to ensure my mom and I had someone to process the changes happening during this challenging time.  

And they did all of this for no charge to us at all! And so, I swim for Hospicare to give back so Hospicare might be able to help others enjoy and care for their loved ones at home during the last weeks or months they are with us. Please help me by donating what you can to Hospicare and Palliative Care Services. 

The Night You Died – a love story, a poet, and her legacy

By Jen Gabriel

It was a sunny spring afternoon and an unassuming envelope arrived in Hospicare’s mailbox. Inside, a generous check and a single piece of paper. 

“To whom it may concern,” the letter began. “Enclosed please find my final donation. I have a terminal illness and will not be further donating to any organizations. Sincerely, Joyce McAlllister.” 

Joyce’s friend and caregiver, Erin Quinn, said that this effort was Joyce’s way of saying goodbye to the dozens of nonprofit organizations she had supported. 

“Joyce had a soft spot in her heart for nonprofits of all kinds,” Erin explained. “She made small gifts to them her whole life, and when it came time to prepare for her death, she wanted to be sure that her favorite charities knew why her giving would soon stop.” 

In addition to supporting Hospicare and a handful of other local organizations, Joyce made gifts to many animal rescue organizations. 

“Joyce always said, ‘everyone always cares about the elephants and the big cats, but no one ever thinks about the donkeys’,” Erin said, with a chuckle. “She loved her donkeys.” 

Born in Ithaca in 1931, Joyce and her family lived on dairy farms in Groton, and later in Dryden. She graduated with an Ithaca College degree in drama, left the area to live in New York City for a few years, and returned to the Ithaca-area in 1960. It was then that Joyce began a 30-year career at Cornell University.   

Joyce’s strong connection and affinity for Hospicare began in 2004, when the agency cared for her husband John, first at home, and then at the residence.  

“Hospicare did everything right by Joyce,” Erin said. “She felt so supported and cared for, and that meant everything to her.” 

After she retired, Joyce turned to poetry writing. She published her first book of poems at the age of 85.  In fact, it was her 2004 experience with Hospicare that inspired her poem, “The Night You Died.” The poem expresses Joyce’s gratitude for the Hospicare nurse who had sung her husband’s favorite Irish tune with him in the moments before he died. 

A copy of that special poem is below. Joyce’s third book of poetry, published posthumously, will be available for purchase later this year.  

The Night You Died 

Afterwards, they told me  
how you sang your way 
to death, head raised high  
to catch your ever-thinning  
breath, singing melodies you  
learned in youth, forming  
words you watched parade  
across closed lids. 

The Night Pat Murphy Died  
sounded from your bed,  
moved out the door, down  
the hall; your soul followed  
with a will, anxious now to  
find that spot of green you  
knew from birth was yours  
to claim. 

They said your voice was  
resolute and unafraid,  
an Irish tenor making  
song to spend the leap  
from finished life to  
timeless death. Beside a  
stone in County Cork,  
ancestors perched  
and waited.  

Illuminations 2021

At Hospicare we provide palliative care, hospice and grief support to all residents of Cortland and Tompkins counties. 

Illuminations, our annual community memorial, is a part of the fabric of our community, allowing us to honor and remember loved ones who have died.  Every year, we offer this memorial service as a way for the community to come together and grieve our losses.  

Due to Covid, it was a hybrid event this year. A small group of our staff was able to hold the ceremony in the Hospicare gardens – the ceremony was livestreamed for guests via Zoom. 

On Thursday, June 10, we lit luminaries across Hospicare’s grounds, each light representing the loved ones we remembered and celebrated for the contributions they made to our lives. The ritual was presented by members of our incredible staff: Joe Sammons (executive director), Edna Brown (social worker), Rebecca Schillenbeck (spiritual care provider), and Rachel Fender (social worker). We honored the parents, children, siblings, grandparents, family members and friends who helped shape us and our worlds.  

Watch the recording of Illuminations and create a ritual of remembrance for your loved one.

In closing, Rachel Fender shared a poem that captures the beauty and power of collective healing. It is titled “If the trees can keep dancing, so can I” and is an adaptation of a poem written by Nancy Cross Dunham.

What I’m learning about grief
is that it sits in the space between laughs
comes in the dark steals the warmth from the bed covers threads sleep with thin tendrils
is a hauntingly familiar song,
yet I can’t remember the words…

The poem was collectively written, crowdsourced by over 30 people living across the United States and internationally. You can read the crowdsourced version here and the original here.  

Please reach out if you need additional support for processing your grief check out our grief support resources here.

Artwork for our 18th Women Swimmin’ for Hospicare!

Each year a local artist creates a custom design for the event t-shirts for Women Swimmin’ for Hospicare. We are incredibly pleased with the amazing work that Lisa Cowden did for the 2021 event. The design is a paper cut out and really captures the spirit of our Go the Distance event. Read more about her background and connection to hospice below.

An Artist Perspective By Lisa Cowden

The Finger Lakes region has been my home for more than 40 years, and if there has been a constant while I’ve lived here it is the enduring beauty of the landscape graced by the transformation of the seasons. I live in the woods, and my studio overlooks an old meander of a creek that goes over Taughannock Falls, and is visited every spring by optimistic wood ducks and the occasional stern heron; it’s a meditative space and suits me well.

No matter how often and how far I ventured out to find work as an illustrator and designer whether it happened to be for Cornell, Corning, or the New York Times, or I was creating my own body of work for an exhibition, the fulfilling and inspiring solitude of nature has always been right outside my window and this room has seen many an ebb and flow of all kinds of projects.

I went to Berkeley. I traveled. I became a certified Montessori teacher, raised goats, children, eventually got an MFA from Syracuse University in surface pattern design, and wrote and illustrated two cookbooks.

Much, if not all of that, is behind me; but I’m still ruining fancy scissors by using them to cut paper and I keep making stuff because it turns out artists don’t retire.

And if I look outside now, I can see that the skunk cabbage is in its glory and the maple leaves are just beginning to unfurl.

I am so happy to have been asked to make the artwork for Women Swimmin’ for Hospicare 2021. When my mother was dying and my brother and I were desperate for support and guidance, we could not have navigated the situation as well as we did without help. It was a long time ago, and in California, but I still remember someone from hospice calling me a year after my mother passed away to see how I was doing. I’m still grateful for that.

Regaining Well-Being Through Forgiveness

by Mara Alper

We are all faced with the question of whether or not to forgive many times in our lives.

Each time it is challenging. Yet there are ways of seeing it that simplify the question. Forgiveness is a choice that allows us to heal on our own, without the offender apologizing or even acknowledging their part.  Forgiving in this way is for the benefit of the person who forgives, not for the wrongdoer. It does not mean what the other did was all right.

We can also choose to forgive ourselves; sometimes this can be even harder than forgiving another. In our culture, we often hear the phrase, “Forgive and forget.” But it isn’t about forgetting. It is about regaining the energy tied up in anger and hurt about past stories, and using it for far better purposes.

When we lose a parent, a loved one, faith in someone else or ourselves, we become vulnerable in a way that feels exposed beyond endurance. To protect ourselves, we may harden into anger or explode with blame, as we attempt to restore our sense of safety.  Deep hurt may propel us to say or feel, “I can never forgive you” or “I can never forgive myself.”

We may become fixed in that moment of time. We create a story about our grievance and repeat it to others and ourselves. Our outward lives continue, but our anger and hurt tie us to that point of pain and it lives on, consuming our life energy in ways we barely realize, until one day if we’re lucky, we may wake up and say — enough, this exhausts me.

I came to this place several times in my life. The first time, I faced difficult childhood recollections and over time began to understand the value of forgiveness. Each time after that allowed me to experience how forgiving helped me in ways I did not imagine possible. The turning point each time was the realization that my anger and hurt kept me completely connected to the one I was angry at, that I could not move on while I was caught in these feelings. I inadvertently learned about forgiveness because of my life circumstances and unwillingness to let the past deflate my life energy any longer.

I choose to tell my stories publicly so that others will have the courage to tell theirs. Stories can heal us. My healing process included making documentaries about my journey. These stories were heard by thousands of people around the world and helped them heal.

We tell ourselves repetitive stories about how things were and stay locked in these tales. Yet, shifting the story to consider other possibilities, new ways to see the situation, has positive effects in a short time. Our eyes are opened, our hearts softened. We can move on from a place of depletion toward renewed energy.

When I work with people about forgiveness, I ask them to write down their story the way they tell it to others. We tend to develop a few set sentences or paragraphs that tell our tale. In the workshops, we write our usual story, and then distill it into a few brief sentences and say them aloud to someone else. They listen carefully and repeat it back to us as they heard it and felt it. We hear it in a new way. A shift begins.

Hearing our own story in a neutral way, hearing the compassion someone else feels for our story, softens us toward our self. We feel tenderness for ourselves as if the story were someone else’s. From this tender place, we begin a meditation on forgiving ourselves. In gradual steps, we bring light into our darkened places. By the end of the workshops, a shift toward hope is possible. It happens when we learn to retell our own story with acceptance of our own and each other’s humanity. Forgiveness opens a door.

We can choose to forgive not because we ought to, but because it helps us heal.

Forgiveness is a choice that allows us to heal from past hurts that diminish our lives and effect our health and well-being.

 The focus of the two-part workshop “Finding Forgiveness: Healing After the Loss of a Parent” is to help adult children experience forgiveness as an on-going process, even after death. Learning to forgive our parents and ourselves opens positive possibilities.

During the workshop, you will experience a forgiveness process through a blend of meditation, discussion, journaling, brief exercises and gentle movement to guide you toward a softened heart and healing. This workshop is for anyone who has been hurt, but has not yet healed.

Learning to forgive our parents and ourselves opens positive possibilities. Thursday, May 13 & 20, 7:00-8:30pm. 

MARA ALPER is a teacher, media artist and writer. Her documentaries Stories No One Wants To Hear (1993) and Forgiveness: A Healing Documentary (2006) have reached world-wide audiences about healing past pain. She inadvertently learned about forgiveness because of her life circumstances and her unwillingness to let the past deflate her life energy any longer. Her award-winning documentaries and video art have screened nationally and internationally.  www.MaraAlper.com

Learning to Live Inside of Loss

By Chantelle Daniel

I love books. I not only escape into them, but I learn from them, about life, cultures, love, loss. I don’t always know why I’m reading a book until after I’m done with it and even then, it can be some time before I am able to gain a full understanding of the experience.  A dear friend gave me the book, It’s OK That You’re NOT OK by Megan Devine. I liked the title, it felt like permission to be in the space that I am in, a space that is difficult to articulate, because often I still don’t believe the loss is real and I’m not OK. I didn’t read it right away, I left the book on my bedside table, letting those words seep in, like a mantra or a daily inspirational quote. “It’s OK That You’re NOT OK.” Finally, one day, I picked up the book and started to read it, realizing rather quickly that I wanted to have a pencil on hand so I could underline the passages that struck me.  I found myself underlining passage after passage, so much so, that at times I felt as though I were underlining more of the text than I was leaving blank.

I came to a line Megan wrote, “Grief is part of love. Love for life, love for self, love for others. What you are living, painful as it is, is love. And love is really hard. Excruciating at times.” I stopped. I had never heard the idea that grief could be connected to love, and yet it made complete sense.  I had always been taught that love was happy and beautiful, and yet I know from life that love has many different shades to it.  Megan explains that when someone we love dies, we continue to have the same deep feelings of affection for them.  The yearning and sorrow we experience at their absence, our grief, is a normal and natural extension of our love. I had also never heard love being described as really hard, even excruciating and yet in the context of grief, it certainly is.  That is what Megan does so well in this book, she speaks to the things I feel, but have never known how to put into words, or that I felt wrong or confused for experiencing. I admit it, I don’t know how to do grief. Megan tells me in her book that that’s OK. This book is written in a way that allows you to read at your own pace, you can jump around and find the chapters that speak to you best, read it straight through, or just have it on your bedside table reminding you that it’s OK to be where you are now.

“This book is about how to live inside of your loss. How you carry what cannot be fixed. How you survive.” That is what is so special to me about this book, Megan isn’t telling you to get over grief, she knows that isn’t how grief works.  Instead, she is helping you live with the loss, knowing you will always carry it with you, and guiding you towards finding tools to survive it. I don’t know how to survive grief yet, but I know reading books and talking about books has helped me in most other areas of my life.  Regardless of whether you have read the book cover to cover, jumped around to read certain sections, or just have the book on your nightstand; I invite you to come help us talk about the book, It’s OK That You’re NOT OK by Megan Devine on April 14th from 5:30-7:00 p.m.  Underline a passage or two that speaks to you, or simply come to be in the same space as others who are navigating grief. I look forward to connecting with you.

Wintering and Cold Water Swimming: An Exploration in Radical Self Care During the Pandemic

by Laura Ward, LMFT, CT

“When it’s really cold, the snow makes a lovely noise underfoot, and it’s like the air is full of stars.”

Katherine May

The water is completely still under a brilliant sky, layers of light beneath a canopy of dark clouds. The moon shone brightly above us.  Walking into the lake, I admire the tiny shards of shell glittering on the rocks below, each shard clear and defined in the calm water. As we swim, I can feel the cold reaching all the way to my center, reminding me to just be, to breathe deep. Walking away, I carry the lake within me, calm and shimmering.

I wrote this reflection after completing my second cold water swim in Cayuga lake with my co-worker Sara Worden, Assistant Director of Community Engagement.  Cold water swimming has been shown to have numerous physical and mental health benefits and many people engage in the practice regularly. 

I became interested in this practice after reading the book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat During Difficult Times by Katherine May, which is the book featured in our upcoming community book discussion. 

In the chapter “Cold Water Swimming”, Katherine talks about the mental health benefits and comradery of cold water swimming. Many people are using cold water swimming to help them cope with the many losses experienced during the pandemic. It’s a safe activity that can help swimmers feel connected to the healing powers of nature and other humans.

Book Discussion: March 4th with Laura Ward via Zoom. Register here.

Then, while talking with Sara, I discovered that she had had just booked American ice, open water and endurance swimmer, Jaimie Monahan, to speak at an upcoming event for the Women Swimmin’ community.  After marveling at the coincidence of our shared interest and the intersection of our upcoming events, we decided to give cold water swimming a try for ourselves and committed to six swims over a two-week period. 

Virtual Presentation: March 18 via Zoom. Register here.

It has been an exhilarating experience and one that has reminded me that I need to continue to stretch out of my comfort zone and look for new ways to stay healthy and care for myself as we approach the year mark of the pandemic and social distancing. To many, this might sound like a rather extreme example of self-care and I agree. 

However, we invite you to join us in reflecting on what you might need to keep going during these challenging times.  We hope that you will be inspired by Katherine May or Jaimie Monahan as you contemplate how to answer this question for yourself.

Hospicare Announces New Executive Director

The Board of Directors of Hospicare & Palliative Care Services is pleased to announce the successful hiring of its 8th Executive Director. Joe Sammons will join the Hospicare team in February. 

“We’re thrilled that Joe has agreed to join Hospicare as our new Executive Director,” said Betsy East, president of the Board of Directors. “Joe has valuable experience leading organizations in the health care arena, is committed to the Hospicare mission, and is a compassionate, strategic and thoughtful leader. We’re looking forward to working together with him and Hospicare’s incredible and dedicated staff and volunteers as we work to provide end-of-life and palliative care to members of our communities.” 

Sammons currently serves as the Executive Director of Challenge Workforce Solutions, the largest provider of training, vocational services and employment for people with disabilities and barriers in Tompkins County. Prior to joining Challenge in 2015, Sammons served as the President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes, creating and completing a capital campaign of over $8 million while building new health centers in Hornell, Corning and Ithaca. Under Sammons’ leadership, the agency also implemented electronic medical records while dramatically expanding its education and community outreach programs. 

Sammons has also served as Executive Director of the Geiger-Gibson Community Health Center in Boston and as Assistant VP of Operations for Community Healthcare Network in New York City. Locally, he is involved with several groups, including the Tompkins County Human Services Coalition, the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, the Tompkins County Workforce Development Board, and Ithaca Rotary. 

Sammons and his family live in Ithaca. “I am deeply honored to be invited to lead Hospicare – I am simply in awe of the compassionate, high quality care the agency provides to people in our community, regardless of income or insurance.” said Sammons. “Throughout my career, I’ve been truly blessed to do good work for good people – a description that fits Hospicare really well.  I can’t wait to get started!” 

Sammons succeeds Kimberly De Rosa, who served as Executive Director for Hospicare until September 2020. Joe Mareane, former administrator for Tompkins County, has served as interim Executive Director. 

Hospicare & Palliative Care Services serves residents of Cortland and Tompkins counties. Our hospice team cares for patients’ medical, emotional and spiritual needs so they can more fully enjoy time with loved ones. Our palliative care team cares for people with life-limiting illnesses by relieving the burden of illness, enhancing the quality of life, and fulfilling the patient’s goals for comfort. Finally, we provide bereavement support services to anyone in our service area who is grieving the death of a loved one, whether or not they died on hospice. 

Anyone interested in learning more about our services and programs can call 607-272-0212 during our administrative business hours (M-F, 8:30am-4:30pm). 

A Report of our Work in Cortland and Tompkins Counties

As we turn the final pages of 2020, our thoughts go to all who have struggled with loss. Whether you mourn the death of a beloved friend or family member – or simply the loss of normalcy — this has been a hard year for so many of us.

At Hospicare, we celebrate the nurses, aides, counselors, social workers, and staff who have tended to those whose end-of-life needs and grief did not take a pause for COVID. They donned masks and gloves and gowns, mastered new technologies and techniques to maintain human connections at a distance, and selflessly braved risks to themselves in order to help a person or family in need. 

The good work undertaken by these extraordinary people could not have happened without donor support. Even in less challenging times, nearly one-fifth of Hospicare’s budget is supported with funds given by a generous community—not for frills, but as a means to provide the level of care, dignity, and comfort that has been the hallmark of our agency for over 36 years. 

When you give, you inspire others to give as well, be those gifts of time, talent or treasure. Together, we are creating a community that we can be proud to call home.

To our donors, we say a special thank you. Thanks to our commitment to patient care and our rich community connections, we stretch every donated dollar as far as it can go.  As Helen Keller once said, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

On behalf of all the patients and families we serve, and on behalf of Hospicare’s staff who have not let the challenges of 2020 get in the way, we offer our thanks and gratitude. You make a difference, and our online report is how it shows.

Safe and happy holidays to you and yours,
Joe Mareane
Hospicare Interim Executive Director