I was reminded this past week when Paul and I were invited to the bedside of a longtime friend, Joel Elkes M.D., in his final days, of how important it is to me to be able to show up at a friend’s key life events. I’m fortunate in that I can cancel a schedule or change my plans when something of this magnitude comes up. We arrived just two days before his final breath.
Joel was approaching 102. His mind was just as clear as the day I met him thirty years ago, when he was still Chair of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins. He had a distinguished career founding the field of psychopharmacology.
While sitting with him in the hospital, I thought back to the significant milestones of my life that he had shared in over years; from the first meeting I hosted of leaders in the mind/body health field, to his witnessing my ceremony expanding to Judaism, and later when he and his wife, Sally, attended the Bar Mitzvah of one of our sons.
Joel’s commitment to community was evident in the vast number of people he stayed in touch with, and who’s friendship he cultivated, even among people much younger.
Joel had an artist’s soul, which served him in many ways, and in later life led him to pick up painting at the age 80. A few years into his work Paul and I attended his first art show, and were impressed by his ability to express emotion through the use of watercolor and charcoal combined. Here’s a picture from his current show in Sarasota, Florida, It’s called, “Soul’s Rising.”
When we got the call that he was declining, I was on my way home from a talk in Pittsburgh. Instinct told me that these might be his final days, and it was important for Paul and me to spend this time with him. I rerouted my trip and met Paul there. It felt important for us to show up.
The next three days were filled with love. We spoke of old times, squeezed hands, sang to him, listened to music, and shared the space with a few other close friends and family. When Joel could no longer speak he blew me a kiss from his outstretched hand. That’s the way I’ll remember him. I’m so glad I showed up.
Throughout our friendship, Joel and I talked about the big life questions. His support of my early efforts in the mind/body field gave me confidence to make my way in the larger world. In turn, he told me that being asked to join my team of pioneering leaders in the mind/body field was a transformational event his life, because it gave him the community he needed to buck the medical establishment.
Showing up for each other in different ways throughout our lives made a lasting impression on both of us. I’m so glad we had the chance to share in these memories one last time.
What does showing up mean to you?
Eileen and Paul . . . I am able to turn this special experience in life around. YOU TWO will remember and be blessed forever as you were FORTUNATE enough to spend the last days of your wonderful friend with him. I find that – in doing so – we are never the same again. We are the ones who are enriched for having the experience. I always called it “blessed”. Each of us is a deeper, richer person — and isn’t that what we would like to feel?
I personally hear too many excuses why a person cannot fly in to be with a best friend in his final moments. There IS no reason — you are excused from whatever you do for an impending death — or you should not be working for such a uncaring firm in the first place. We “find” money to get to the bedside no matter what our financial situation is. Fear of dying is prevalent and I feel often is the real reason to not be there. “What do I say?”, “what do I do?”, “it doesn’t make a difference”. And yes, I have heard them all. And then we hear the credo: DO UNTO OTHERS . . . but fewer and fewer heed those words I feel.
Your friend sounds so special and that painting is so striking. . as it too is reaching for the heavens.
And then your photo OF the heavens tells a beautiful picture. But as one who could not even imagine not showing my love and caring, I also know that what you have done to ease your friend’s last days will impact your life in the future in ways you may not yet believe.
I totally admire Eileen and Paul . . and hope your words will encourage others to also enrich their own lives by giving. . and receiving at the same time. Joan
Hi Joan, thank you for your supportive remarks. I read them out loud to Paul. It truly was a gift to be there for Joel and his lovely wife, Sally. While the gift went in both directions, we felt like the lucky ones.
Your sentiments moved me deeply. We all wish that we could be there for a friends last days. Sometimes it is impossible because because of a sudden demise. Sometimes other things unfortunately stand in the way. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Duckydd
Dear Ducky, So nice to hear from you. I’m sorry you were unable to be there for your friend. The suddenness of death does not make it possible to be there each time. But at some level I believe that everything happens exactly as it’s meant to happen. It’s just a matter of living into the answer. I wish you and Frank all the best.
Your article and photos convey the heartfelt sentiments of your friendship and professional association with Dr. Joel Elkes. That you and Paul were able to share your respect and kindness to a person, admired by you, is special.
Death is a “calling”, silent and unwanted… One wants to continue to live, to breath, to sing, to appreciate, to feel better, and to be…
Yes, I have been at the bedside of family, dying and gasping for life. One of my sisters, read a poem to my mother, another held her head, I sang a Catholic hymn, another sister “talked” to my mother. All of the family held her hands. All were present, “gifted” with feeling and quiet, remembering and praying.
Many lead, quietly, by being wonderful examples of vitality. Thank you.
Elaine you are so lucky to have been there with family for your mother’s passing. It sounds like it was very moving. I’m sure it was just what she wanted. How wonderful for her. Thanks for sharing.
I received a call that my college classmate/roommate was failing fast in his long battle with ALS and that I had better come quickly to see him in California. Carol and I went right away and spent several days with he and his wife and grandchild in LA. We had a wonderful visit knowing what lay ahead. He did pass soon thereafter and Carol and I who had known the family since school were so glad to have made the effort. Going the extra mile especially when time is short is so important for all concerned.
Thanks for your story John. It is inspiring. Your friend and you and Carol were lucky that you could get on a plane so fast to be with him and his family. It helps bring closure to be there. Showing up is not always possible, but when it is, it is truly a gift for all involved.
The short answer is: nature and nurture. Let me explain.
Nature: This one involves “abilities” as well as intentions and devotions. When I say “abilities”, I mean abilities such as, being able to physically and logistically be there for someone, i.e. have the means to travel to be with someone, have the fortitude and constitution to sit with a dying person or someone in the ICU and not feel totally overwhelmed. Have the “ability” to “show-up” and BE THERE for someone— have the innate constitution to weather any strong feelings that may arise. Not everyone is able to do this, try as they might, guilty as they may feel, or with the best and all good intentions. Sometimes, there may be strong reasons why one is unable to “show up” for someone—be it emotional, financial or logistical.
Nurture: When someone needs you, and there’s a heart-connection. That is, when you truly and deeply love someone or something, be it a person, pet, problem, job, tree, flower, mountain, river or stream, and that “someone or something” really needs you, you show up. You have a “relationship” with that someone or something that you feel passionate about and that touches your heart. Wild horses couldn’t keep you away. A no-brainer. You show up because you love this person, pet, place, predicament and you WANT to.
You make some very good points, Phyll. In the days before my time, people grew up and lived in the same town. Visiting with the sick or dying was not an airplane flight, or even a car ride. It was a walk down the road. As we have become more dispersed, showing up is not an option for everyone. And you are right on your second point, that it may also be because the emotional content is too much for them. The heart connection is the greatest motivator of all. Distance shrinks in direct proportion with the heart’s engagement, but even then it may not be possible for everyone to show up. And that’s okay. We do our best. Thanks for your response!