Hospice Bartender Eases the Spirits

Marty Slattery has a healthy appreciation - and a kindlier phrase - for irony.

By Cate Terwilliger
Denver Post Staff Writer

Sunday, May 06, 2001 - Marty Slattery has a healthy appreciation - and a kindlier phrase - for irony.

More than three decades sober, the Congress Park author has spent the past six years serving Friday afternoon cocktails at the Hospice of St. John in Lakewood. 

"I used to tend bar when I was drinking myself," says Slattery, whose father drank himself to death at an early age. "So there's a redemptive quality about the whole thing. ... I've been sober 32 years, and here I end up serving drinks to the terminally ill. There's a wonderful completeness to the cycle." 

 Cate Terwilliger - former Denver Post Staff Writer
Cate Terwilliger

The experience is the basis for Slattery's latest book, "The Cocktail Cart," a slender fiction strongly rooted in fact. The self-published, $12.95 paperback is available at local book stores and through Slattery's Web site: www.edwardbear.net. 

It's the retired engineer's third tome with an explicitly spiritual theme, and this one, like its predecessors, has garnered praise. 

"The Cocktail Cart' is a gem of a novel about the capacity of people to heal, and the ability we have to assist one another in that healing," says Lakewood clinical psychologist Judith G. Dowling. "I love this book ... It's about believing."

The story finds protagonist Edward Gallagher sentenced to 100 hours of community service for neglecting a few fistfuls of parking tickets. His assignment? The Hospice of St. Michael, where Edward's weekly turn serving drinks introduces him to an eccentric cast of patients who are facing death with varying degrees of courage and dignity. 

His most profound relationship, however, is with Sarah, an audible - but not visible - spiritual guide who begins mentoring Edward soon after he starts his hospice hitch. It's Sarah who teaches Edward how to help the dying let go of life; along the way, he learns, as well, how to let go of a son whose untimely death has haunted him for years. 

Gracefully rendered and often humorous, the book is largely autobiographical. The main character's name reflects Slattery's longtime pseudonym, Edward Bear (after Winnie the Pooh, a favorite spiritual teacher). "There's a lot of Edward in me," Slattery says. "Probably, I put into Edward all the compassion and courage that I'd like to have but I'm not sure I do have." 

Although older than his protagonist, 67-year-old Slattery also has struggled with unresolved grief for a child; his son, Tommy died at 37 in 1998. "The Cocktail Cart," he says, "was a way to acknowledge him and say goodbye to him, and wherever he is, I think he knows that." 

But the most striking similarity to real life is the cart itself. For years, it has traveled the hallways of the Hospice of St. John right around Happy Hour, pausing at each room to offer patients and guests a libation, soft drink or candy. 

"It's a great way to bring ... a sense of ordinariness, a sense of the commonplace, into a place people often think of as the house of the dying," Slattery says. "People look forward to it; they're delighted by it." 

"It describes something that's pretty unique in hospice care," concedes Peter Wellish, executive director of the hospice. "Marty becomes something of a bartender, going from room to room ... and the stories (in the book) kind of reflect that. 

"You know how bartenders are: They listen to people, hear their stories. And this is what he's doing - he's tending bar in a very unique setting." 

An Orthodox priest, Wellish has no argument with the book's eclectic spirituality, which envisions ascending levels of enlightenment attained through successive lifetimes; between incarnations, souls choose the lessons they next want to learn. 

"I don't personally put much stock in ideas like reincarnation, but that's my own hope," Wellish says with a laugh. "The idea of coming back and doing this all over again, I don't know if I want to do that. 

"But whatever gives faith to people is what's good. I don't believe there is just this one path to God; I believe you will reach God however you view God." 

Wellish has observed, however, that some kind of faith - some form of belief in a hereafter - seems to ease passage out of the mortal coil. 

"In what I have seen in the last several years of working with dying people, I am absolutely convinced that there is more," he says. "Not because I've seen anything firsthand; I've not had a single apparition or vision ... But I have come to believe that there are things that simply cannot be explained, and that there is more to life than can be explained. "My basic religious or philosophical view is pretty much encapsulated in the book," says Slattery. "I think everybody's going to go on to some other kind of life." 

He concedes, however, that he has never experienced the kind of clear spiritual direction Edward Gallagher gets. 

"I don't communicate with any angels per se," Slattery says, "but there are hunches and presences, intuitions that you get. ... 

"Basically, we all do have a voice like that (Sarah). ... I think we all have spiritual guidance, for lack of a better word." 

That's why he spends 30 minutes each morning in meditation, hoping to hear that still small voice through the noise and hubbub of the human mind. 

"It's my gesture to the universe that I believe there is a power greater than myself," he says, "and if I can quiet my mind, that power will in some sense guide me through the day." 

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