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.  

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.

Alzheimer’s Doesn’t Mean that a Good Life is Over…a Letter from a Son to his Mother

Sometimes, we might not have the words right in the moment, but through contemplation and the creative practice of writing, the depth of understanding comes. Here a son reflects on the gifts his mother gave him in a letter he wrote to her after her death. Writing a letter to a loved one (even if you never send it) can be a healing act.

Thank you Steve Demakos for sharing your reflections on being a caregiver for your mother. It is an inspiration to us all to cherish the times we have with loved ones.

Dear Mom,

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for the gift you have given to me for the last five years- making my home your home with warmth, laughter, smiles, and lots of hugs.  You may not know this, but in this time you taught me the truest meaning of love.  It’s as if you have given me two lives.  The first, of course, many years ago in a New York City hospital.  The second life beginning the day I started helping you with your Alzheimer’s and continuing for the five years you lived with me at Valley View Road here in Ithaca. This is where you showed me that giving is more powerful than taking and can actually heal a fractured relationship. You and I became best friends and in our five years together you offered to me the fierce love of a mother and the genuine loyalty of a best friend. You and I together- remember I would always tell you we were a team- showed the world that having Alzheimer’s doesn’t mean that a good life is over. Together you and I started new family traditions. Your favorite: every Sunday morning a homemade cinnamon bun with your coffee. My favorite: the deal that we made that whenever you would give me a smile, I would give you a hug, which turned into countless hugs.  

On Thanksgiving morning, when you decided it was time for you to move on, I was overcome with a sense of loss that no words could ever describe. I have come to realize that that may have been your greatest gift to me.  As time goes on, I realize that you and your love haven’t gone anywhere.  You and your love reside deep inside me, exactly where they were that day in the New York City hospital when you helped me come into the world.    

Mom, I will close for now with one more of our traditions:  as I would say to you every night before you would fall asleep, “thank you for being my mom”.  And you would say to me, “it’s my pleasure”.  

Love,

Your son

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

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.

Winter Solace Community Memorial

Although we could not be together in person, our virtual memorial on December 6th was incredibly moving and we thank everyone who participated, either by attending or by sending in names of loved ones.
 

For the first part of the memorial we took advantage of Zoom technology and broke out into small groups for intimate conversations in breakout room. We were honored that so many people choose to open up and share both their joy and sorrows.  We offered tips on how to cope with the upcoming holidays and participants shared stories of how we are choosing to remember our loved ones this year.

We’ve created a short video for those who weren’t able to join us.  Please enjoy our memorial video which features the wonderful music of Travis Knapp and a slideshow memorializing the community’s loved ones.

Always remember, Hospicare is here for you. The holidays are not going to be the same this year but know that you are in our thoughts. May peace and grace find you in the New Year.  

Support through the Seasons

Tools for Navigating Grief and the Holidays during COVID

At this point it’s clear, the pandemic will change many of the ways in which we celebrate the upcoming holiday season. We usually associate the holidays with being “joyful” or “merry,” gathering with family and friends, giving gifts, and engaging in festivities and traditions. This year we will need to consider how our celebrations will need to change in order to keep ourselves and our friends, family, and community safe.  

We will naturally feel some grief as we reassess what parts of the holiday we can still create and what aspects we will need to modify significantly or discard all together.  Grief can manifest in many ways, and it’s important to acknowledge its impact on our physical and emotional health as the holidays progress.

Hospicare is providing support to the community at this unusual time. Programs are free and all are welcome! To RSVP for programs or for questions call 607-272-0212 or email events@hospicare.org.  Held online via Zoom. Login details will be provided after registration. Register for programs at least 2 days before event.

Winter Solace Community Memorial: Sunday, December 6. Join us at 7pm for fellowship and conversation and stay for a memorial service. Or come at 7:30pm for the program of remembrance. All in our community who are grieving, regardless of whether your loved one died on Hospicare’s services, are welcome to stop by for a time of remembrance during the busy holiday season.

Coping with the Holidays: Wednesday, December 9, 5:30-7pm. Holiday time can be especially difficult after the death of a loved one. Learn about ways to take care of yourself and honor your feelings as we head into the holiday season. Includes a presentation followed by a discussion and support group.

Yoga for Grief: Thursday, January 7, 5-6:15pm. Start the new year with self-care! Enjoy a gentle and peaceful yoga practice with Jody Kessler. No experience necessary.

Grief Camp for Youth – Opening Session with Laura

Grief Camp is presented by Hospicare & Palliative Care Services in collaboration with local practitioners. Camp is free and open to all. Classes and webinars will be on Zoom. Links will be provided upon registration, which is required. For more information or to register call 607-272-0212 or email bereavement@hospicare.org

Pick up location for collage art packs and Lifetimes Book:

FLOOF Collage pARTy! Art-Making Studio, 135 Burleigh Dr., Ithaca, NY 14850