Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Another funeral

It must be the season for funerals. Recently, I attended a great one. Recently, I was at another that was by my criteria, pretty bad. The contrast was very interesting.
This one was conducted not by a clergy person, nor a contracted celebrant but by the funeral director. Apparently not trained as a celebrant, he seemed to function merely as a master of ceremonies for a series of laudatory speeches, prepared and unprepared, and the simplest of committals before we adjourned for refreshments in the adjacent lounge. He was clearly trying to accede to the departed's request that the occasion be a "happy" one. Curiously, this painstakingly "secular" event included two hymns of significant Christian sentiments, but of stark irrelevance in such ceremonial as was attempted and somewhat beyond the ability of the fairly large audience to sing with any conviction or, indeed, sing at all.

Half a century years after reading Paul Irion's The Funeral and the Mourners, I have been asking myself what I expect of a funeral celebration. Off the top of my head, and in no particular order, I think the funeral needs to tackle a number of objectives.
The Funeral
1.  - must acknowledge the reality of fact of death. The other day this happened only by implication: there was a closed casket present.
2.  - should acknowledge and "celebrate" the huge gap that this death will make in the lives of all present. I have always made this a completely separate segment of the funeral service, not an incidental reference along the way.
3.  - should "celebrate: the life of the person concerned meaningfully and, if appropriate, with humour. We seem to get plenty of this these days.
4.  - should set the stage for the grief work that needs to be done, to some degree, by everyone present and should at least hint at personal resources that may be needed for this...
5.  - should offer some reflection on the meaning of living and dying. Many people arrive at a funeral with questions. Pious mumbo-jumbo from well-meaning Christian clergy is out of place in today's largely secular society. But so is an evasive silence. A celebrant should have the ability and the passion to at least articulate the questions if not also some personal suggestions as to the answers.
6.  - should offer an opportunity for a significant and final parting with the casket... A family group meeting later at the crematorium may not be adequate for all present at the celebration itself... 

I have prepared a series of statements on my personal end-of-life-choices relating to medical and other personal matters. But I have not prepared any directions for my funeral. The funeral may be about the deceased but it is for the mourners. I hope they will be able to work through their needs with a sympathetic celebrant and - at this stage! - I am happy to leave it to them. Perhaps they will have read this post...

Monday, December 22, 2014

Te Harinui

With the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the first white settlers, and the first proclamation of the Christian Gospel in New Zealand, Willow Macky's Te Harinui is a shoe-in for the Christmas service Bev and I are leading next Sunday at Paihia.  

I am not a pedant about pronunciation but I will once more try to encourage the congregation to sing the hymn title correctly. Many people, without thinking, sing Te Haranui... So what's the difference, I wondered just now. Does it really matter?

A quick look at a Maori dictionary suggests that it does matter:  As a noun, Haranui would be "the great  sin, foul, crime, offence, transgression, wrongdoing, gaffe, infringement, fault, problem", etc.  Not quite in the spirit of,  "Behold I bring glad tidings of great joy"

Yes, I will once more remind people that we sing Te Harinui, The Great Joy...

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Sixteen hours of misery


I don’t want to diminish the agony and anxiety of those who were locked up in Sydney’s Lindt Café for the other day. It was a terrible day for them and for so many who were affected by one sad, mad man’s actions and threats.

The immediate outpouring of floral tributes at Martin Place testifies to the widespread empathy of the Australian public for the victims of the crime. The horror of the situation has been felt by vast numbers. The moving hashtag #illwalkwithyou has been picked by people all over the world who want to work against any possible racial and ethnic hatred. 

So it is appropriate that NZ should “review” the anti-terrorism laws it has only just recently rushed through the parliamentary process. Perhaps there is more we can do to try to prevent random as well as carefully planned acts that can do so much damage. Parliament has a duty to our people to see that they are protected to the greatest possible extent from such catastrophies.

But it is a little ironic that we respond so dramatically to a 16 hour ordeal and two or three deaths when we still require hundreds of our dying citizens to suffer days, weeks or more of pain, indignity, frustration, loss of connection and quality of life because a well-drafted End of Life Choice bill may not get onto the parliamentary agenda.

The terminally ill do not get the kind of publicity given to the Lindt Café affair. Indeed, they don’t seek it. But they deserve at least the opportunity for the issue to be discussed in parliament. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A big medical week

16 Dec
Yesterday the last in the current series of consultations confirmed the findings of last week's visits. I had the skin on my back checked for damage from the radiation. There were sensitivity, strength and capability tests around my legs and feet. With the lowered PSA, all the signs are that the cancer in my L5 vertebra has not put significant pressure on my spinal column.

We will no doubt be watching my regular PSA tests for indications of resurgence of my Gleason Grade 7 cancer. And if further radiation treatment seems to be required, we would prefer not to do that within a year. So, hopefully, I have a kind of warrant of fitness for a comfortable and medical-incident-free 2015. That's an outcome we didn't anticipate a year ago.

Thank you, Aragon and all the diagnostic benefits given to me In June and July while I was being considered for the for the ARN 509 Trial through North Shore Hospital. And Astra-Zeneca for quarterly implants of Zoladex. And the amazing NZ health care system which has spent an inordinate amount of money on this near-octogenarian over the last ten or twelve years. That's a lot to live up to, I guess. But I'm getting on with it. Life is so good.

11 Dec
Two consultations today… Ninety minutes’ drive into the city to meet again with the charming and ever-enthusiastic Frith (See 18 Sept). She was just back from an international prostate cancer experts’ junket in Portugal where there’s been interesting news of another drug trial with encouraging outcomes for men who receive chemo as the very first therapy after diagnosis. Well, that opportunity passed for me a dozen years ago.

But the good news is that the drop in my PSA during the last three months suggests that we will do nothing for another quarter. I am all in favour of doing as little as possible. We had a droll conversation about whether I should invest in much-needed glasses? (“Definitely!”), Do a $500 upgrade my video editing program? (“Why not?”) and go on a cruise? (“Well, perhaps not if you are going to take a couple of years to save up for it”). I forgot to ask about hearing aids and my ropey left knee prosthesis which is creaking ominously… But that was all pretty encouraging.

And so off to do a bit of windowshopping to fill in some time before Urology in the early afternoon at North Shore. I had nothing to complain of so there was nothing much to do there, either. We had another pleasant chat, collected a routine prescription or three, and said a final Goodbye. I won’t need to return there until, Madhu hinted a little mysteriously, I need a “bit of a plumbing job later on”. H’m… Well, if Frith is right, that won’t be for a while yet.

Considering the fairly vigorous nature of my cancer, and the absolutely regular rate of increase of my PSA for several years until October, that’s all a pretty good outcome. But we will still keep Monday’s appointment with Radiation Oncology…

8 Dec
I haven't started on this week of interviews yet but I have just now obtained my latest PSA result. It is about one-third down on the last quarterly one. 
Up until last June my PSA had been rising steadily at more than 50% increase per quarter for several years, and that's largely what prompted our move to the Village. So this is a significant trend, especially considering that we gave up bicalutamide nearly three months ago. It would seem that the targeted radiation on my spine has done some good.
I guess the discussions in the next few days will focus on whether we should start up an equivalent for the discarded bicalutamide. And no doubt some other options will be considered. But, all in all, if nothing else is done, this is an encouraging sign. It's some justification for all the time and professional skill and support lavished on us this year.

6 Dec
The other day I had my three-monthly Zoladex implant. That must be about the 40th I’ve had since embarking on my prostate cancer journey. They cost several hundred dollars each so my bonus of extended life has come at some cost to the NZ taxpayer.
I also contributed more blood for a quarterly PSA test and some other tests which are going to be of interest this coming week. For I have appointments with three difference specialties in the next few days, each of them involving traveling into Auckland and traipsing all over the place trying to find the right offices. At least, with a bit of cajoling of the ever-sympathetic booking clerks, I have managed to get two of them on the same day – even if in different parts of the metro area.
So we will listen to the words of wisdom from another half-dozen people this week and, no doubt, have to make more decisions as to where we go with this journey from this point.

We have made one decision, pretty much unrelated. In January we are going on a two-week cruise around the bottom of New Zealand and across to Australia where we will have a further few days with family. 
Meanwhile, we are enjoying our Barbershop Chorus as we sing our way through gig after gig in our Village community and local venues. One touching moment was for our male quartet to make a hospital call on a former member who is coming to the end of a cancer journey. I’d never met him before but I naturally felt a poignant affinity with him. It was great to be able to see him perk up as he tried to sing "Riverside" along with us.
Perhaps the rest of the quartet will come and do that for me some time. How will I handle that, I wonder? I hope I can give them back as much as Ron did yesterday.

Monday, December 15, 2014

End of Life Choice? - What choice?

Ian Lees-Galloway
So Labour Leader Andrew Little has "told" Ian Lees-Galloway that he is not to put his private member's End of Life Choice bill back into the parliamentary Ballot Box.

I was not unsympathetic to the decision made that the EOLC bill be withdrawn last year so that it did not become an election issue. That was understandable - to a degree. But I am now deeply disappointed that the party leader who is trying to convince the electorate that Labour is still "socially progressive" is not able to at least permit one of his members to give the draft bill a chance of gaining legislaters' attention.

It is reasonable that a private member's bill be given a certain amount of scrutiny by a party leader before the individual takes the plunge. It is understandable that promoting such a bill will draw off some of the energies of the member concerned. But the airy dismissal of this issue as a controversy that does not warrant consideration "at this time" because of Labour's political predicaments is frustrating for two reasons.

The EOLC Bill is already favoured in some form or other in opinion polls. And a huge amount of promotional work has been done and will continue to be done using energies outside of Mr Lees-Galloway's own resources. If the bill is put back into the ballot, and is actually drawn, there is no doubt that the issue will at least receive serious consideration.
Andrew Little apparently stated (disparagingly?) that this "stuff on euthanasia" is not timely for a progressive party.

In what I interpret as a dismissive and ill-considered decision I think he has made a profound misjudgment of both the issue and the mood of the electorate. Both deserve better from an aspiring Prime Minister. I suggest that the test for him now is whether or not he is able to reconsider this unfortunate and inappropriate decision.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Christmas Story – “Once Upon a Time...... Lived Happily Ever After”

I had to cross my fingers behind my back a good deal in church this morning as we sang our way through the traditional Christmas carols. They are so full of concepts that are simply not true for me. My integrity is challenged in singing them. But I like singing, so perhaps crossing my fingers behind my back makes it OK to sing them. 

Of course it was mainly for the children that we acted out yet again the Christmas stories. Today’s service was entertainingly devised with symbolic Christmas presents brought forward for each element of the service. There was a lot of involvement of the congregation. Our curiosity was aroused as each parcel was unwrapped. And there were some whole-hearted laughs: after all, introducing the “Quirinius census” with an Inland Revenue Tax Return form was good for more than a bit of a giggle. And I can tell you the whole thing was a lot better than our recent Village Christmas service themed around a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

It’s OK to tell children stories that the adults understand are not “true”. There are usually elements of fantasy that are clues to help adults recognise fact from fiction. People can put imaginary quotation marks around these clues. But in the Christian stories the elements of fantasy or impossibility aren’t seen in that way by most people. Because they are found in the Bible, they seem to have become tests of our faith. Their acceptance has become a measure of our orthodoxy. No matter how improbable, unhistoric, or theologically unacceptable they seem, the fantasy elements of the Christian story have taken over the story.

I have no problem with re-presenting the story for the children at Christmas. But, let it be story. And when there are adults present let us be open and clear about what is most likely to be mythic. Maybe all we needed for the thinkers in the congregation this morning were one or two simple phrases. We could have been told that, "Of course, not all of us believe all these things actually took place like this..." or "We’re telling a story that was created by simpler minds in a world of different truth… and so on".

Such comment was not there today. For me, the story didn't end with living "happily ever after..." But perhaps I was the only person in 50 who felt a bit alienated because of it…  Also, what shall I say in ten days when I am invited to conduct the Christmas service in our former parish? How will I re-tell the story? 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Good Funeral

I don’t go to many funerals these days —my cancer medication makes me excessively tearful and that is not a good look when it doesn’t reflect genuine emotion at a funeral—but yesterday we attended one that gladdened my heart.
Of course the occasion was imbued with the Christian faith of the lady and her contemporaries. The things read and sung were her choice and well chosen. But, in these days of lengthy funeral contributions from all manner of relations and friends and even ordinary attention-seekers, what struck me was that her adult children declined to offer their individual spoken thoughts. 

Rather, they crafted a comprehensive written tribute which was read by the celebrant just as they wrote it. It was lucidly informative and touchingly intimate. The only other contributions, prepared carefully by a family member and her congregation were significantly distinctive and memorable. Her life was adequately and beautifully reflected in this celebratory part of the funeral service.

Then, after something like a committal, the celebrant turned to the family and spoke specifically to their need to deal with the gap left in their lives. They would, he said, be moving through “deep waters”. He urged them to “take it easy” and suggested that grieving may be expressed in love. But he warned that anger might be expected and would be best met with compassion and understanding. He seemed to be urging them to be accepting of their different levels and timing of acceptance of their loss. Caring for each other they could “allow loving to heal” them.

I wish that I could recall all the significant phrases that lit up this short section to the service. But whatever they were, there was communicated a profound awareness of the reality that seems to be so often missing in funeral celebrations: someone has died and a great hole is left in the lives of the bereaved. A good funeral can set the stage in which that huge loss can begin to be explored and dealt with. And the celebrant can then genuinely give an assurance that “One day, you will think and talk about your loved one without pain.” Any funeral celebration should include this dimension.

Thank you, Russell; it was well done.