Contributed by Alicia Nimonkar,  Editor and Writer with, Certified Trainer with Equilibrium Dynamics

After I became a hospice volunteer, I was fascinated and concerned to hear the residents in a full care facility regularly discuss their escape plans. In hushed tones over soft drinks and cookies, under the gaze of the nurses, they would share their plans with me and each other. Even though I’d completed a nine-week training program and had been visiting my assigned patient weekly—not once had escape come up—until my hospice patient wanted to start attending community gatherings!

One person wanted to go to a quiet comfortable place with someone to lie with.  Another person fretted about where they would even go but they definitely wanted out. One even offered to pay me to help them escape! When I asked why they wanted to escape, they said they didn’t want to die in “captivity”!  These conversations about escape seemed to me the most poignant of all.   

It led me to think about the progression to dependency that we all experience as we age.  As babies and children, we begin fully dependent on others and gradually undergo an evolution.  As we gain the knowledge and skills to take care of ourselves, we become more and more independent. Teenagers are notorious for fighting for more and more independence. However, at the same time, we must rely on others as well as support others: interdependence.  

As adults, we gain an ever greater amount of independence through our relationships, education and careers.  With each of these phases, our identity changes.  One view of ourselves is connected to our level of independence.  However, we have multiple perspectives of our identity: our public personalities and our private view of ourselves.  Changes in our roles and level of independence impact our identity in both of these areas. 

Some residents of this full care facility struggle with how to integrate their growing need for assistance— dependence—with their identities.  Discussing the exciting possibility of escape serves as a form of denial and resistance to this unwelcomed change.  Their escape fantasies provide a temporary sense of complete freedom: “Somewhere over the rainbow!”  While the realities of having to live with constant support seem bleak in an institutionalized medical facility, being able to escape terminal illness to an imagined place of complete free will is enticing.  Even if they were really able to escape the location, the reality of their material needs would be unchanged. 

Sometimes residents expressed the opposite desire, in wishing that they would die tomorrow. I rarely heard anyone say today, it was always tomorrow.  So the escape fantasies seem an understandable desire to escape increasing dependence as well as painful body and self-image changes from growing loss of control and freedom, I wondered if I could I use them to start a conversation about how to navigate these changes. We will all eventually face something similar if we are lucky enough to live so long. Perhaps the escape fantasy is just more evidence for the resilience of the human spirit, a way to have fun while coping with any obstacle, even death. 

Surprisingly, I’m learning how to live, and celebrate life, by witnessing how others choose to approach death.  It’s an honor to support them through this phase of their life.  I think our finales are just as important as our beginnings and deserve as much attention and care. 

Harriet E. Wilson could be my distant cousin!

By ruth | December 12, 2016

Contributed by Alicia Nimonkar,  Editor and Writer with, Certified Trainer with Equilibrium Dynamics

I recently received the results of a DNA test I took for health reasons.  While our family knew that we had Native American ancestors, I was surprised and pleased to learn that we also have West African ancestors! 

I have identified as Caucasian most of my life since we are from mostly European ethnicities. However, I have also spent much of my professional life working towards social justice.  To discover that I have African American cousins feels like a gift—especially in an era that has seen the first person of color be President of the United States!  In embracing both the joy and the pain of membership in a vibrant community that is still struggling to achieve equality, I am integrating a whole new aspect of my identity.

I am experiencing in a new way how we are all so much more connected than we can even imagine, as well as unique and diverse.  This new knowledge of my heritage strengthens my sense of responsibility to continue doing my part to create a community that values all perspectives and inspires everyone to achieve their full potential.

The timing is great. Serendipitously, I have been learning even more this year about the African American community. Last semester, I took a graduate level literature course on American Romanticism.  We studied authors, from the popular poets, Poe and Dickinson to Melville, Stowe, Frederick Douglas, who have come to represent this time period in American Lit.

To learn more about Frederick Douglas while reading his autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, I visited the African American Museum in Boston and the African Meeting House where he gave speeches opposing the Fugitive Slave Law that was passed in 1850.  When Toni Morrison, one of the greatest living American writers, came to town, I was first in line for her first lecture.  As the course progressed, I wrote a short paper on one of the three African American characters in Moby Dick, Pip, the cabin boy (who is arguably one of the most important characters in the book).

Of all the texts required for the course, there was only one that I had not encountered before—Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig: or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black.  After reading Harriet E. Wilson’s book, I chose to focus on it for my final paper.  I was moved by the suffering and the strength of the author.  She displays a sophisticated knowledge of the literary genres of her time in employing aspects of each one before the narrative dissolves into a genuine plea for help. 

Wilson’s husband died a year after their son was born—she struggled as a single parent to support her son as a free Black woman living in the North.  She was forced to place him in foster care when he was two years old.  She wrote Our Nig to raise the funds to get him back.  The book was unsuccessful because it represented an unpopular perspective—she exposed the racism of the North. 

At seven years and eight months old, her son, George Mason Wilson, died in foster care.  I cannot even imagine the heart break that Wilson must have experienced in losing her son this way—caught in a low power double bind in the midst of such overwhelming racism.

In my research, I came across a note about the location of her grave in Quincy, Massachusetts.  With a little bit of sleuthing, I was able to find her final resting place!  Despite the fact that her book is considered to be the first novel written by an African American woman, there was only her name on her grave stone—no mention of the fact that she is considered to be “one of the most important African American writers of the mid-nineteenth century” (P. Gabrielle Foreman).  

To show my respect, I brought a copy of her book to her gravesite.  I imagined what her reaction would be if she could know what a success her book had become—though it didn’t happen fast enough to save her son.  I left a pencil on her grave—from one writer to another.  I savored the opportunity to honor her struggle in my final paper.

Now, several months after the class has ended and with my new identity, I wonder who my African American ancestors were.  What were their lives like?  I wonder what George Mason Wilson would have done with his life had his mother and society been able to support his growth to manhood? Did I lose a cousin?