Dance me to the end of love …
As we grow older the sounds and voices of our life and its conversations change; they continually ebb and flow, re-energise and diminish. Some voices grow quieter and less significant, others lose their fire and passion, their strength and depth; and with the passing of the years many more, grow silent altogether. 2016 has been a year when some of the most familiar voices of my youth and adult life have grown silent. And perhaps more than anyone I have been moved by the death of the singer, poet and philosopher Leonard Cohen.
Leonard Cohen divided people between those who loved his music and those who reached for the mute button. Certainly this was true of my friends, some saw his lyrics as laden with deep insight and profundity about the human condition whilst others thought that he was the depressing master of despair and angst.
I am unashamedly in the former camp and I’ve always admired not just his expressive voice but also perhaps more than anything his creativity with words, rhythm and language. Just before his death he had released an album which according to his son he considered to be one of his best – ‘You Want it Darker’
In an extensive interview in The New Yorker in part promoting the album but also reflecting on what an increasing awareness of mortality gave him, Cohen said:
“At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your house in order. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels. Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable.”
Indeed though his death was sudden, Cohen had already spoken at length this year of his thoughts about life, death, memory and attachment. One of my favourite Cohen songs was ‘So Long Marianne.’ Just a few months ago Cohen sent a moving final letter to the dying Marianne Ihlen, the subject of his song, who died in Norway on July 29 at the age of 81. They had been lovers and partners for a decade in the 1960s when they had met first in Hydra, Greece.
Marianne’s friend Jan Christian Mollestad told Canada’s CBC radio that he had contacted Cohen, 81, to tell him Ihlen was dying of leukemia and had only a few days to live. He recalled: “It took only two hours and in came this beautiful letter from Leonard to Marianne.
“We brought this letter in to her the next day and she was fully conscious and she was so happy that he had already written something for her.”
Mollestad, a documentary filmmaker, read the letter to Ihlen before she died.
He recalled: “It said:
‘Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.
“And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and for your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey.
“Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”
Mollestad told host Rosemary Barton that when he read the line “stretch out your hand”, Ihlen had stretched out her hand.
“Only two days after, she lost consciousness and slipped into death. And when she died, I wrote a letter back to him saying in her final moments I hummed A Bird on the Wire because that was the song she felt closest to.
This story when recounted went viral on the Internet and especially Twitter. Simple words with real depth and meaning between two old friends written by someone with a realisation that his own journey was coming to its close; that the last few beats of his dance were being played.
At Scottish Care we have recently launched project work on palliative care in care homes and care at home services. There are four main strands to this work. The first has been the holding of focus groups with staff who work on the frontline, daily working with, supporting and being with those who are approaching the end of their life. I have been privileged to be present at a couple of these events and have heard rich, challenging, beautiful and harrowing stories. The majority of individuals who die in Scotland today and who are receiving social care supports will, in all likelihood, be supported by someone who works for an organisation which is a member of Scottish Care. We are eager to tell the story of these workers and organisations as they deliver this exceptional care despite challenging contexts. A report on these focus groups and their insights will be available at a workshop on February 8th. Please keep an eye out for an invitation.
The second strand of the work is an online survey which can be completed at
https://www.scottishcare.org/scottish-care-news/sector-news/palliative-care-survey/ ; the third an identification of best practice around Scotland, and the fourth strand is called ‘This speaks to me…’
For many of us it is through the words of poetry and story, through music and art that we are helped to gain insight into the nature of good care and support at the end of life. ‘This speaks to me…‘ is an opportunity for workers, carers and family members to share words, images or music which tell them something about what good palliative and end of life care can or should be.
Leonard Cohen provided a space to talk, music to ponder and images to paint insights which go beyond the ordinary and the tangible; he illustrated that some of the most important lessons in life cannot simply be limited to text, however creative, and I hope we can all take the opportunity of sharing the things, and the voices, that help ourselves and others to ‘dance to the end of … love… down the road.’
Dr Donald Macaskill