Is there a better way to talk about death? And to grieve? So many people have died during the pandemic — 4.8 million and counting — that we're living through a period of global mourning. And some people — and certain cultures — seem to be better prepared to handle it than others.
If you're having thoughts of suicide or are in emotional distress, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988.
Anne Strainchamps (00:00):
It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps. Every so often, something happens that is so unusual, so inexplicable. It feels like a sign, as if the universe is trying to tell you something, or prepare you for something.
Heather Swan (00:27):
I spend a lot of time walking in the parks on lots of different trails with my dog and also just by myself.
Anne Strainchamps (00:41):
Heather Swan is a writer, a teacher, and a friend, and she had this amazing and mysterious encounter with an owl recently, not too far from where Steve and I live. So they got together for a walk in the woods, and she told him the story.
Heather Swan (01:01):
I was walking one night and saw an adult guard owl, and was absolutely stunned because I hadn't ever really seen one as close as this. I felt like I had been pierced by this gaze. I started walking, night after night at around dusk. One night, I heard this sound and was sewing like any other sound that I usually heard in the woods. It was sort of like ... And I thought, what is that sound? And so I walked toward it and I saw this juvenile owl. I was just so excited. Then one afternoon, I was sitting in my yard and I looked up and about 10 feet in front of my chair was an owl looking straight at me. My heart is actually beating right now when I think about that moment.
Heather Swan (02:35):
I looked up and just stared at this owl and then in a few moments, she flew away. Later in the evening as it started to get dark, this owl kept returning to my yard. I was transfixed. She kept returning, she knew that I was there, she became very comfortable with me and would land quite close to me.
Heather Swan (03:16):
I would say that it sounds probably crazy to suggest that an Allah was visiting me. But by the end of three weeks, having the experience of her landing right next to me when I was standing by my gate made me think there is some connection here that I don't understand, that I felt so privileged to have.
Heather Swan (03:57):
They can have a wingspan of something like 38 to 48 inches. They're really big. A good friend of mine said you have to be careful, you're going to get sliced by the knife-like talons on this creature. But I was never afraid, one time she was on a branch that was probably, I don't know, nine feet in the air or something like that and I was on the ground and she came down and she flew right past my face, her wings actually brushed against my face and my neck and she landed right in front of me. I could have gotten hurt, but there was never anything aggressive about it.
Heather Swan (04:51):
One day I climbed up into the tree where I had seen her frequently and she came and she flew and she landed next to me and it was as though, why has it taken you so long to get up here? What are you doing on the ground all the time if you can get in this tree? I think that probably had I been a ... maybe even in a different space in my life, I might have been afraid, but I wasn't afraid.
Heather Swan (05:26):
So at that time, I noticed that my friend John Hitchcock was posting a lot of prints that he was doing. He's an amazing silkscreen artist, who is Comanche and Kiowa in his ancestry. And his work is mostly about the wisdom of his ancestors. He had owls in his prints suddenly. So I wrote to him and I said, "Hey, John, what's up with the owls?" And he wrote back and he said, "My family would say it might mean that the eldest member of your family is going to die, if it's a screech owl." And I thought to myself, "Oh, good. It's not a screech owl." I said, "Oh, well, geez, maybe I should be a little bit nervous about the owls." And he said, "Oh, they're messengers. The owls are messengers of big change."
Heather Swan (06:26):
A week later, my dad died.
Steve Paulson (06:29):
Oh, my God.
Heather Swan (06:30):
Steve Paulson (06:36):
Was that unexpected?
Heather Swan (06:39):
It's funny, he was struggling with Parkinson's disease for a long time. He was choosing not to live in a 24-hour care facility. And with Parkinson's, at his stage, he was falling a lot. So we knew that there was the possibility that he would fall and he did. We brought my dad to a care facility. He didn't want any kind of intervention. No morphine, no drugs at all, no machines. And so I realized that the kind of patience that it took for me to be with this owl, the kind of bringing down of my own ego was exactly the energy that I needed to have with my dad, when he was transitioning out of this world, and into the next one, whatever that is.
Heather Swan (07:32):
So anyway, I wrote to John, and I said, "Hey, John, the eldest member of my family did die." And he was not surprised by that. He told me the story about his grandfather dying, and they knew that he was at the end of his life because owls started visiting the house. And when the owls came, his grandmother started singing the prayers and soon enough, his grandfather moved on.
Heather Swan (08:09):
What was astonishing to me about John's story was how comfortable he was with that, that his tradition supported that knowledge and I felt like I wished I'd had a tradition like that to sort of lean on, but I didn't. And he felt like it was okay for me to accept that story.
Heather Swan (08:42):
I struggled with it afterwards. Is that a tradition that I can borrow? Can I imagine that an owl was visiting me to tell me that my dad was going to die? Probably not. But maybe. I don't know if this owl knew anything, but I also can't say for certain that that owl did not recognize me, did not feel that for some reason I was needing this visit. And for John, it was so clear, of course, that Allah was visiting me because my father was going to die. Yes.
Steve Paulson (09:19):
What happened to the owl? Did the owl then leave?
Heather Swan (09:23):
I saw that owl only one more time after my dad died, and what was incredible was that she didn't come to the yard, she came to a tree that was a little bit further up the hill from where I lived. I had to hike up to see her. And she called to me one last time and then flew out of my life and I never saw her again and I am still working on imagining what that means exactly. But I think that one of the things about being with this owl had to do with like I said, bringing my ego down and trusting something that was bigger than me.
Heather Swan (10:11):
I was afraid of my dad leaving this world. Really no one is ever ready for it. I think we all experience death, we all will face our own deaths, but we don't talk about it very well in this culture. A lot of times, we have very sterile environments and hospitals, and we have machines and all of that. I think that my experience with this owl did help me to allow something without trying to intervene, without trying to ask for something specific. And I really tried with my dad to be in a strangely, in a similar space of witnessing and not trying to control, but rather to honor what he needed and to be there with just the openness and just love. And I did actually try to approach that owl with love.
Steve Paulson (11:12):
Do you feel like you think about death in a different way now, because of this experience?
Heather Swan (11:20):
I think that we all have this energy, an individual energy, whether it's an owl or a bee, or a human. For anyone who's been with someone who is dying, it's so strange when the life actually leaves the body, but that that individual was not just a physical being, and if you don't have a strong faith tradition that explains this, it's complicated. You think, where did this person go? Right? For me, the experience that I've had with being in the natural world and being with my dad and that really sacred moment, has made me really feel like he's transformed into something that I don't understand. But I don't think he's gone. I don't imagine that like he's sitting here with us right now in the way that maybe some people believe, and I admire that if they do, but for me, it's much more that his existence ... it is not disappeared, it's only changed into a much larger existence, and that, I guess, is something that I believe came in part from experiencing this comfort from this visiting creature, whether or not that was connected, in my life that happened and I am so grateful for that.
Anne Strainchamps (12:55):
I love that story. I was Heather Swan talking with Steve Paulson. She also wrote about that experience in an essay called What the Owls Knew. And if you like bees, check out her first book, Where the Honeybees Thrive: Stories from the Field.
Anne Strainchamps (13:23):
So I wanted to begin this episode with that story, because I've been thinking a lot about death and grief. So many people died during the pandemic, 4.8 million and counting. And whether we notice it or not, we're in a global period of mourning, but some cultures are better prepared to handle it than others.
Gillian O'Brien (13:53):
My grandmother was, I think we would describe her as a character and I lived with her when I was in university.
Anne Strainchamps (14:02):
Mrs. Gillian O'Brien, her grandmother was Irish.
Gillian O'Brien (14:08):
She was someone who was obsessed with death, but not in a particularly morbid way. She would happily discuss death and funerals and her own funeral and, in some ways, was looking forward to it. She certainly planned her funeral right down to the finest detail and was very determined that she would get to choose what she would wear when she was laid out for the week.
Gillian O'Brien (14:45):
She wanted to be laid out in a dress that she'd had made in 1975 for one of her son's weddings. And I said that it was A, out of fashion, B, she was a much smaller woman, C, it was total madness, and D, most importantly for me at the time, it was taking up room in my wardrobe, in my room in her house. And I said, "Well, look, you'll be dead and you won't get to choose." Two nights later, I came home and parked the car, I went in and was no sign of her. And she called me down from her bedroom. She had literally laid herself out as a corpse, complete with rosary beads entwined in her fingers. She had low lights, she was lying on top of the covering, with her feet pointed to the ceiling and everything about her it looked as if she was a corpse, apart from her eyes slowly opening and saying, what do you think?
Gillian O'Brien (15:39):
Well, I didn't have a camera, so there is no photo, but I think I insisted she get up, but the one thing she did decide was, I was right. The dress really didn't fit. And so the dress then disappeared, presumably to a charity show, but it is not what she was laid out in when she did eventually die. She enjoyed that story about her [inaudible 00:16:09] about because a lot of my college friends knew that story, and she was very much a character in their lives too. But when she did die, she was laid out in the clothes she bought for her 90th birthday. She had spent quite a lot of money on, she was a woman who didn't have very much money, but she did like fashion.
Anne Strainchamps (16:40):
Just because you have to die, it doesn't mean you can't enjoy your own funeral. Lessons from the Irish, next. I'm Anne Strainchamps, it's to the best of our knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. When it comes to remembering the dead, no one does it quite like the Irish.
Gillian O'Brien (17:04):
Everybody turns up to a funeral in Ireland, and you go as much for the living as the dead. So you don't have to know the person who's died. You just need to know somebody who will be sad that they have died and you go to show your support for the living. Unless it's a tragic death, it really is done with revere and enthusiasm, but I've enjoyed myself at funerals more than at many weddings.
Anne Strainchamps (17:30):
Gillian O'Brien grew up in Ireland, so she's been to lots of funerals. She's also an historian. And so she's very familiar with Ireland's long history of trauma and collective grief. And Gillian thinks a lot about how we remember loss, especially on a mass scale. A few years back, she set out on a dark tour of her country's many historic sites and memorials of death. Her book, The Darkness Echoing: Exploring Ireland's Places of Famine, Death and Rebellion, came out during the pandemic, which seems weirdly appropriate. So I was thinking that a dark tour might be just what we could all use right now. We've survived something terrible, we're itching to travel, but we still collectively need to mourn. Just be warned, if your dark tour is anything like Gillian's, it could take longer than you think.
Gillian O'Brien (18:24):
I've planned as quite a short little jaunt around the country sort of stopping off at prison museums or museums associated with the famine or emigration. And I genuinely thought I could do it in a couple of months. And two years later, I was still on road because you just meet people, and they'd say, "Oh, but have you been to? Oh, you really should go there." And then you'd go off there and someone else would tell you to go another two miles down the road to all these small little museums. At the end of the night of traveling, I'd go into the local pub, and you'd end up sitting around talking about funerals and death and the tragedy of the local area or things. It sounds very miserable, but I really enjoyed a huge amount of my travels around the country. I was a little bit sad when they ended.
Anne Strainchamps (19:11):
Right. Tell me about one particular piece of history, the great famine, I guess, in the US, we call it the Irish potato famine. For a long time that wasn't even written about by historians. Right?
Gillian O'Brien (19:22):
Well, that's the really interesting thing. I mean, for a century, there was no academic textbook written in Ireland about that period. And still in Ireland, there aren't that many museums about the famine. And when you do start to look into the detail, you find that there's awful, tragic stories, local stories of our neighbors turn upon neighbors and family turn upon themselves. And I think for more than a century, it was just too painful because those that survived, may well have known those that died and may have overlooked them or may not have shared their food. And I think they were just really raw, difficult wounds that you couldn't make light of, and there was no levity in that sort of tragedy. It took us a century before we really were prepared to investigate.
Anne Strainchamps (20:14):
It's hard with mass trauma on that scale. I think the human mind can't really take in the numbers. It's been hard during the pandemic, for instance, to find ways to even comprehend what 2,000 deaths a day means. That must be true of the great famine too.
Gillian O'Brien (20:33):
I think that's really significant. I think a million means nothing. I don't know what a million is. I can't conceive what a million people could possibly be. One of the big problems telling these stories is that so many of the people affected by the famine are the poor. And we don't have very many artifacts, because poor people didn't have things. And it's really hard to tell the story of the famine without having things to show. But I remember finding or seeing a tiny shard of mirror in a museum in county Roscommon. And it comes with a list of what a community of 4,000 people had. And they had almost nothing, but they had this one shard of mirror between them. And I remember thinking, those people had no need of a mirror. That's the sort of a thing you have with fantasy, and with having clothes to change and makeup to put on and hair brushes to comb your hair. They had no need of any of that, because they had nothing. They were real subsistence economy and they're the people who were absolutely devastated by the famine, because there was no safety net for them. And seeing that mirror was something that just really stuck in my head, because it's a tiny piece. It's sat in a little wooden frame, but it's the size of the palm of your hand.
Anne Strainchamps (21:49):
Gillian O'Brien (21:50):
There's something really moving, I think, about that in a way that you could give me all sorts of figures, and they wouldn't emotionally connect.
Anne Strainchamps (21:59):
Are there even any records? I imagine, there aren't even many names or dates or anything.
Gillian O'Brien (22:08):
What we don't have in a lot of cases is we don't know the names of people who died and people who were buried in mass graves, because people were dying. There's one graveyard in Skibbereen, in County Cork where they're estimated to be 9,000 people buried in this famine plot. And people were dying at such a rate and they were being buried very quickly, because there was a fear of infection from them. And we just do not have names of all of those people. So we will never know the full number of people who died during the famine period.
Anne Strainchamps (22:42):
Wow. So out of all of the historic sites connected with the famine that you visited, you mentioned the mirror, but are there any other ... I mean, what's one place that you think, wow, they really did a good job?
Gillian O'Brien (22:55):
For me, it's not so much the museums because there are so few artifacts, but for me, it's the graveyards. There's one little tiny memorial in the west of Ireland in County Mayo, and it's just a little cross. It marks this walk that people did from this small village called Lewisburg, where they walked 12 miles to meet the porter guardians, and these are the people who made decisions about whether people would get extra relief or food. And when they got there, they were told they have to wait outside while the porter guardians ate their lunch, which is just to me the cruelty of that to do that to starving people. And then when they'd eaten their lunch, the guardians came out and said, "No, we'll give you nothing." And so they had to walk back up this road. It's a road in the west of Ireland, which on a good day, it is absolutely beautiful. You've got hills on both sides, a beautiful lake. It's amazing and it's also heartbreaking because many people died on that walk back up to Lewisburg to return.
Gillian O'Brien (23:58):
And that one little cross where I always pull in when I'm going down the road towards Delfy, that I find is the most moving thing about the famine, that and often there were these public works that were done, where people built pointless things. So there are walls, stone walls built across the west of Ireland that had no purpose other than to give work to those who needed it. And it's those sort of things that really I find terribly moving.
Anne Strainchamps (24:25):
In their anonymity, really.
Gillian O'Brien (24:27):
It's like the landscape of loss. But unless you know about it, you would just drive on.
Anne Strainchamps (24:33):
Did it begin to get to you psychologically at all? That's a lot of sites of suffering.
Gillian O'Brien (24:40):
It certainly made me very reflective about a lot of things and made me think about what sort of funeral I would like and to give a lot of orders following my grandmother's footsteps. But I do think that because almost everywhere I went, I either went with friends or I went to talk to people afterwards. So I definitely decompressed after days, but I didn't need to do that. I could have written a very somber book, but I thought, well, nobody will read that if it's just pages of misery. So I wanted there to be levity in the book and humor and occasionally jokes.
Anne Strainchamps (25:19):
Yes, it's very Irish of you.
Gillian O'Brien (25:22):
I'll take that as a complement.
Anne Strainchamps (25:24):
Yes, I liked it. There's such contradictory feelings about visiting any places like this. I was remembering visiting New York City and staying in a hotel just opposite the 9/11 Memorial, the side of the Twin Towers. ANd I had to gear myself up to visit it. I mean, I was there on vacation, but visiting the 9/11 Memorial is not like going to MoMA. You don't go for pleasure or for entertainment. And so why go? Out of a sense of social responsibility to bear witness? Why? Why do we go and why does it matter that we go?
Gillian O'Brien (26:05):
Yes, I think you make a really interesting point and it's something I think about quite a lot, because that is part of dark tourism and I think there's a spectrum of darkness. So going to something like that memorial and you notice it's the same I think with concentration camps. Why do people go to those sites, which are absolutely heartbreaking? One of the things that I remember when that memorial opened and there was a lot of discussion about what they would sell in the shop. And I think you can tell a lot about a dark tourist site by, are they selling things that are educational and is it books about it, or are they selling things that are exploitative or tacky? I mean, it's still very recent 9/11 and is it as a memorial for those who died and their families, or who is it aimed at?
Anne Strainchamps (26:53):
Yes, I don't know if I would have if I had been staying all the way across town. I don't know whether I would have gone all the way across town on purpose to the 9/11 Memorial. But staying in a hotel, looking out the window on the site, I had to go. Maybe what I'm saying is, I think sometimes these are sacred sites. We tend to think of a sacred site is something good, but tragedy can make a site sacred.
Gillian O'Brien (27:26):
Yes, I think that is important. Yes, when you're standing in that area, it's an area where thousands of people died, and I think to take a moment to note that is really important. I think it's important that people are remembered. That's all we've got really left. One of the things I love most is the world is going around old graveyards and reading the names of people. I don't know, I would never know and what it says maybe about what their job was, or what children they had.
Anne Strainchamps (27:55):
I feel exactly the same way about graveyards. Even if I don't know who this person was, all I have is the name and some dates. The fact that I'm taking a few minutes in my life today, to just try to think about them, wonder who they were, that feels like some tiny small gift I can put out into the world.
Gillian O'Brien (28:20):
I completely agree. And I think there's something that's really hard to articulate about that, that I think it is emotional. It's funny because loads of people don't talk about how much they like graveyards, and as soon as I say my favorite thing in the world is a graveyard and to walk around and look at the names, and think about, oh, look, a Victorian graveyard and look at all the names that you no longer hear. Or look, this name is now fashionable again. All of those things, the amount of people that go, oh, actually, I really like doing that too. I just never tell anyone. I'm like, oh, you should. There's lots of us out there.
Anne Strainchamps (28:55):
Oh, yes. And just piecing together bits of history, especially at a family plot, and beginning to see who died when, and you can see, for instance, waves of disease come through a terrible flu season or, wait, that was the 1918 flu or a diptheria epidemic or whatever. It's all fascinating.
Gillian O'Brien (29:16):
I would do that anytime I go to somewhere I don't know because if I go to say a local graveyard in Liverpool, you can see the amount of them that are shipping merchants or traders. And that's when Liverpool was ... that's how it got its wealth. It's my top tip for anyone going to visit anywhere, is start with the cemeteries. Start with the dead and then work towards the living.
Anne Strainchamps (29:40):
Oh, I love that. Thank you so much. I was going to ask at the end of this, what lessons do you have for us, things to think about when setting out on a dark tour of your own.
Gillian O'Brien (29:51):
Well, I think identify a pub to go to at the end of the day, because you might need it depending what your dark tour site is. But I do think always start, even if it's not a tourist site, is start with the graveyards and be prepared to find that there is levity in doing some of the dark tourism sites, not the ones that are the darkest. But I think it's a really good way of, we always look at the shiny things and the bright stuff, and that's certainly how we would like to portray everything. But there's real merit, I think, in looking at the other stories, and also in any museum, go and look beyond the main cases. I always find the things that are more moving are the little things that are stashed away in the back, that you can learn something about a person rather than, as you said earlier, stories about the million because the million mean nothing to us, we have to find the people.
Anne Strainchamps (30:44):
Thank you so much for your advice. You make me long to have this pandemic end so we can get out and visit places again.
Gillian O'Brien (30:51):
Oh, I know. I really miss being able to get into museums [inaudible 00:30:55] on sites. I'm hopping it happens soon.
Anne Strainchamps (30:58):
Yes, me too. Thank you so much for talking today.
Gillian O'Brien (31:01):
You're very welcome.
Anne Strainchamps (31:16):
That's historian Gillian O'Brien. We talk just before St. Patrick's Day. Her book is The Darkness Echoing: Exploring Ireland's Places of Famine, Death and Rebellion.
Anne Strainchamps (31:32):
One increasingly popular way to remember someone who's died is on your skin, with a memorial tattoo. Tattoo artists say it can be up to 20% to 30% of their business.
Charles Monroe-Kane (31:47):
Where do you want me?
Gabe Joyner (31:47):
Laying on your back with your head there.
Charles Monroe-Kane (31:47):
Okay. Oh, yes of course.
Anne Strainchamps (31:53):
On our staff, Charles Monroe-Kane has the most ink and he just got his first memorial tattoo.
Gabe Joyner (32:01):
Well, there, right?
Charles Monroe-Kane (32:01):
Yes, that's great.
Gabe Joyner (32:01):
Charles Monroe-Kane (32:03):
It was only a few years back. My older brother Joe and his best friend Doug completed a dream. They rode their Harley's from Maine to the North Pole. As they rode back, unfortunately, my brother had a freak accident in Anchorage. He was killed.
Gabe Joyner (32:20):
Charles Monroe-Kane (32:20):
Yes. It was one horrible experience after another. Oh, yes, that hurt. The worst was telling my mom that her son was dead.
Gabe Joyner (32:35):
Feel okay so far?
Charles Monroe-Kane (32:35):
Gabe Joyner (32:36):
Charles Monroe-Kane (32:36):
You didn't tell me it's going to hurt.
Charles Monroe-Kane (32:48):
My brother fit the Harley bill to a tee. He was big. He was bald. He had a beard down to his stomach. A number of people in his life got memorial tattoos. The Harley logo with his birth and death dates. Live to ride, ride to live. But I didn't see him that way. Sure, he was a badass, don't get me wrong, but he also was my roommate for the first 12 years of my life. He taught me how to ride a bike. He gave me terrible advice about girls.
Gabe Joyner (33:26):
This guy sounds like somebody I would be madly in love with.
Charles Monroe-Kane (33:30):
Yes, he also was very quiet, very angry, and very bad. As my wife was dating the perfect guy in high school it's like, I can fix him. My brother had the top bunk and he decorated the area with album covers. Ozzy, Alice Cooper, Iron Maiden, Led Zeppelin Pink Floyd. But a bright above is Teddy and Amir, Joe Cole Amir. That he won at the Ohio State Fair. It was, I don't know, eight by eight inches with Snoopy on it. Snoopy was wearing a red Joe Cole T-shirt. I thought that Amir was cool as hell. And then I remembered that, my man was right. I'm going to get that.
Gabe Joyner (34:13):
Did you guys both get a tattoo together or was it just him?
Charles Monroe-Kane (34:14):
It was just him, it was kind of thing that he brought at home. It was the only thing that wasn't in an album somewhere.
Charles Monroe-Kane (34:28):
On May 21st, 2020, just past midnight, at the beginning of the pandemic, Joe's daughter Chelsea had a baby boy. His name was Bodhi. Bodhi just had his first birthday the other day. Time heals wounds. But when Chelsea had Bodhi, some of my wounds just they reopened, I mean, God (beep), he would have loved being a grandfather. And it wasn't just that. I mean, I really struggled during the pandemic. I could have used his advice especially with my kids. He was a wise man and he was a good father.
Charles Monroe-Kane (35:03):
Are you done?
Gabe Joyner (35:03):
Yes. It's done.
Charles Monroe-Kane (35:03):
Doesn't it look nice?
Gabe Joyner (35:03):
Yes, it's great.
Charles Monroe-Kane (35:03):
I like the tattoo position.
Charles Monroe-Kane (35:17):
So I decided to get a memorial tattoo to my brother, Snoopy, Joe Cole. I'm looking forward to showing it to Bodhi someday. Tell him stories about his grandpa. Rest in peace, Joe Cole and I miss you brother.
Anne Strainchamps (35:48):
That's Charles Monroe-Kane, getting his first memorial tattoo at Wayward Tattoo Studios by Gabe Joyner. And if you want, you can see a picture of it on our website at ttbook.org. Coming up, doctor and poet, Rafael Campo talks about treating and remembering his COVID-19 patients. I'm Anne Strainchamps, it's to the best of our knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.
Anne Strainchamps (36:35):
This is the sound of a ventilator and for Dr. Rafael Campo, it's been the soundtrack of the pandemic.
Rafael Campo (36:48):
The doctor's song. The ventilators rise and fall, the ambulances siren call, the blue gowns rustle down the hall, they page us and we go, the wail of loved ones. Silence then until the next alarm. A pulse a tile bleed almost like an infant's cry. A teen in baggy scrubs slugs by. The coughing like a symphony. A virus might conduct. We listen as if the breath sounds might not lessen. As if the body we are given protected us. The stethoscope won't be an instrument of hope. It merely amplifies the gallop, makes audible the failing heart. The doctor song is not heroic. Saying like the needle, saying like hurt.
Anne Strainchamps (38:21):
Rafael Campo is familiar with epidemics. He started practicing medicine at the height of the AIDS HIV crisis, and he's been on the frontlines of COVID-19 at Harvard Medical School and at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is also an award winning poet, one of those rare hybrid physician poets who sees medicine and writing as different modes of healing. Shannon Henry Kleiber reached him in between patients.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (38:53):
So Rafael, how are you? How are you doing right now, with being a doctor through this entire pandemic?
Rafael Campo (39:02):
Yes, of course, it's been such a challenging time for so many of us. And I think for me as a doc and for other doctors, it's been particularly cruel because the pandemic and the isolation and distancing that it has imposed on all of us, has really alienated us in many ways from our patients and kept us more than six feet away. In settings like the ICU, even in the clinic where I spend most of my time caring for patients, we're masked, we're gowned, we're removed from the presence of one another in ways that I think really can interfere with empathetic care, the care that I think is so important. I have to say that my connection to poetry and through poetry to my patients has really probably been the most sustaining thing in my life, as I've continued to work with folks who are ill with COVID-19 infection.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (40:07):
I read that you're writing poems for those who have lost their voices in a literal sense, those who've died, which I thought it's so powerful. Is that your way of grieving?
Rafael Campo (40:19):
Yes. That is one way I think poetry helps us, and probably the oldest poems that we know were elegies, were expressions of grief. We're called to grieve through language and that language allows us ... poetic language in particular allows us to create a container for our grief, or if not a container, a way of making sense of our grief. Death comes for all of us and poetry, again, I think, make some sense of it. By narrating it at least, I think helps ease our own pain as we confront death.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (40:57):
Were there many poems written after other times of great death and illness?
Rafael Campo (41:03):
Yes, absolutely. So I think of the AIDS pandemic, and I remember so clearly, when I was training to become a doctor, I was an intern in a resident at the University of California, in San Francisco, at the height of the crisis, and I remember activists in the street chanting, silence equals death, silence equals death, and those voices, the poems that came out of that moment actually were sustaining, I think, in a very real sense, not only did they help us bear witness to the tremendous suffering in communities that were most impacted by HIV and AIDS, but also, I think, they actually spurred scientific research that led to some of the medicines that we have now that are so effective in treating the infection. And that poetry, I think, really saved lives. And some, I think, very real sense, saved my own life. That was life sustaining for me.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (42:06):
Tell me more, how did it save your own life?
Rafael Campo (42:09):
Well, I felt so hopeless then, as a gay man and a member of the Latinx communities to communities that were particularly impacted by HIV and AIDS. I felt that it could be me, and that hopelessness was really dangerous. And so discovering voices and engaging with those voices helped me think about what I might do to be a healer, to stay on this path of becoming a doctor and not give up, not allow this dread disease to take me too. And so in that sense, it really did save my life, that language and it also, I think, helped me really to become a better doctor. It really helped me retain my, or preserve my humanity As a doctor.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (43:02):
It seems like we have a lot of deferred grief that's happening right now. And I lost someone early on from COVID, my best friend's mother, who is really my best ... my second mom growing up. And I just feel like I haven't seen her for a long time and I haven't seen my friend for a long time either. And I just haven't grieved.
Rafael Campo (43:23):
It's interesting what you say Shannon about that sense of a deferred grief, because so often, we can't be present with our loved ones when they're facing the end of life because of the fear of contagion and that immediacy is lost. So yes. So I think poetry for me is a way of revisiting in a way those last moments or projecting myself imaginatively into those moments where one can still, I think, create a sense of connection and allow oneself to feel what wasn't allowed in that actual moment. It also goes back to what [inaudible 00:44:05] does since the beginning of human history. It livens. It brings back the lost loved one in a way that's really almost out chemical and the person that we've lost in some ways, I think, lives again,
Shannon Henry Kleiber (44:22):
When you felt despondent during this time, do you sit down and write a poem or how does it work? Do you say maybe try and it makes you feel a little better, even if the poem doesn't come right away?
Rafael Campo (44:33):
Yes, I mean, sometimes I'm so exhausted, I can't actually write. But I find that these experiences being in the clinic with patients is itself like being inside a poem in so many ways. And so the poems are being written all the time as I'm present with my patients. So when I do finally have, I don't know, 10 minutes to sit down and usually late at night, and I'm not so exhausted that I can't keep my eyes open, I feel compelled to write to prepare myself for the next day. And writing is healing. I almost can't resist. I can't imagine not writing. I think of the two things that I do is really inextricably inter-related. I can't imagine doing one without the other.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (45:29):
You're giving some of these patients more voice or a voice that they otherwise won't have.
Rafael Campo (45:36):
Yes, I mean, I hope I am able to do that. I don't want to ever, in that glib or presumptuous way, say, oh, I know this other person's experience and I can articulate it for them. But I definitely, at the same time, have a sense that, how many patients of mine have been really literally silenced by that endotracheal tube being placed through the vocal cords when they go on a ventilator? And so, who is there to speak to their pain? Who can be a witness to that suffering?
Shannon Henry Kleiber (46:13):
I wanted to ask you to read Vaccination. And if you can also, just tell me first a little bit about when you wrote this, and if anything got you to think about writing this poem.
Rafael Campo (46:27):
Yes. This is actually a very, very recent poem and was inspired, actually, by the story one of my patients whose sister actually was dying of COVID. And he said to me, he just wanted to see her in the ICU and the doctors said, it was impossible. He couldn't see her. She was dying, essentially alone in the ICU and he said, "I just wanted to smash the glass wall. I could see into the ICU, but I couldn't see my sister. I couldn't visit her." So that resonated with some of my own experiences in caring for patients and feeling that distance and wanting to get through it. So this is a poem, again, just wrote it a couple of weeks ago.
Rafael Campo (47:19):
Vaccination: Immunity, supposedly through pain. I see their faces like I'm there again. The ICU, its brightness crystalling, controlled fragility. I want to smash the panes of glass, break through, tear off my mask. Somewhere, the nurse's station maybe back plays like a memory, like someone dying, like viruses are fully multiplying.
Rafael Campo (47:56):
I still remember how hard I was trying to not let one more die. But it was AIDS back then. And so instead, we busily made quilts. Dreams, supposedly, or grief, betrayed us to ourselves, and let us hope again. I see their faces and I'm there. Their pain is mirrored in the sinks metallic drain. As once again, I wash my hands, my eyes above my mask, same blur, I recognize. Immunity, elusive, still contrives to make us think we might live long enough to find the cure. Across my latex gloves, his skin feels alien, but still craves touch, at least as I imagined it. So keen, this interplay of notes, the major key and minor fall, the prick of the vaccine.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (49:06):
Wow, that's really beautiful.
Rafael Campo (49:09):
Shannon Henry Kleiber (49:11):
And you feel like you're there. I mean, you just brought me right into that spot. I feel like I could hear it and see it.
Rafael Campo (49:20):
Well, if that happened, then I think that's what poetry can do for all of us, is bring us into that space where we're told we can't go into the ICU, but yet we can. And I think poetry helps us transcend those distances and those barriers.
Anne Strainchamps (49:47):
Physician, poet Raphael Campo. He's written five award-winning poetry collections and two nonfiction books, The Poetry of Healing and The Healing Art. He practices medicine at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, and he was talking with Shannon Henry Kleiber.
Anne Strainchamps (50:11):
I think we haven't really acknowledged how many people lost someone they loved during the pandemic, partly because there weren't a lot of opportunities to mourn together. We couldn't hold funerals or go to memorial services. We couldn't even hug each other. And that's why we wanted to do this show, to remind all of us that even though we may not notice it, we're living in a time of mourning. And maybe the kindest thing we can do for each other right now is to talk about it. So thank you for listening. Be well.