An important part of my work as a hospice social worker was engaging patients in what is called 'life review'. Life review is looking back on one's life and sharing stories about it. For patients to get the most out of a life review, it is helpful if they have an active listener. When dying patients tell their stories, deeper meaning is given to their lives and they get a sense that their life is valued. Some patients were too sad or scared to share intimate stories with their family and friends and felt more comfortable sharing them with a stranger - me. One patient recalled the love affair she had during her imprisonment at a concentration camp in Germany. Another patient who had been a successful high school football coach recalled every player he had on his championship team and described each one to me. A homeless patient talked about the daughter she never got the chance to raise. I loved that part of my job - being privy to the stories that defined so many people's lives.
This holiday season I had the opportunity to 'look back' myself by visiting both New York City and Woodstock, New York - two important places in my life both as a child and an adult. I had not been in New York City for many years. I got to experience the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall with my grandchildren - something I had done every year with my mother and my own nana. I had my picture taken by my son in front of my apartment at 35 Bedford Street, between Carmine and Downing, where I lived with my sister for a year in 1973, and then again in front of my apartment at 146 Central Park West where my second child Brooke was born in 1977. I remembered how liberating it felt to walk in Central Park after being on crowded city sidewalks. The pulse of the city was familiar and I got to feel it beat again.
Because I lived in Woodstock, New York three different times, the memories formed there also spanned years of my life. In college I dated someone from Woodstock and I would hitchhike from the University of Connecticut on weekends to visit him. In the 80's I lived in three different rental homes with my four school age children and then-husband. And at the age of 50 I returned to go through a divorce in the company of my dearest friends and lived there for three years until I moved to San Francisco. Each time I returned I remembered why I had lived there and why I continued to come back. I loved the earth itself as it was similar to the land of my childhood which was spent in Connecticut - deciduous trees, gentle rolling mountains, hearty streams and the light - oh the Hudson Valley light - made famous by the Hudson Valley painters. I drove around when I first arrived last week just marveling at the light and the accompanying shadows across the winding country roads.
At the end of our lives we can share with a stranger or loved ones the moments that gave us meaning and purpose. Being in New York gave me an opportunity to see what I might want to review when I am nearing my own end. We can see ourselves then and, in doing so, give meaning to ourselves now.