Living with Death on my Shoulder

Jean and I
*Jean and me

First off, this is not the post I intended to write this week. After all, the title itself sounds so morbid—and not like me at all. However, as often happens, during the course of a week when I begin with an idea for a blog post, another idea provokes its way into my mind, demanding that it be penned. And so I have decided to obey, because I’ve come to believe that these are not chance ideas; they are spirit promptings.

Late last year, we were having dinner with one of our friends. As a medical doctor, he has worked at large hospitals and in private practice, but has now settled into hospice care. To the surprise of almost everyone at our dinner table, he reported that he was really enjoying hospice care. Crazy, right? How could anyone find enjoyment in this kind of work? When prompted to explain why, after what seemed like more than a few seconds of deep thought, he responded, “Because often when people realize they are dying, that is when they really start to live.”

I have been thinking about the paradox of life in death. As I told one of my classes recently, in a sense we all have a terminal illness. We know how this story of our life will end. And though the thought of it might seem a bit gloomy, at the same time, I think a healthy acceptance of this reality should allow us to place the right value on our life, our time, this moment, this second.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not in favor of over scheduling every iota of our time engaged in lofty meditative pursuits of the meaning of life, or even aggressively attacking our proverbial “bucket list” until we have had the pleasure of striking through each item with a loud: “Ta-dah. Done it!” That I think would be a mistake. We should leave room in our lives for the spontaneous. These are the serendipitous elements that add “flavor to life”. It is like the last minute extra dash, pinch, or swish of an ingredient I add to a tried and true recipe without a rhyme or reason other than, because on that particular day and time it just felt like that was what would give it that extra “oomph” (This, of course, makes it impossible for my friends to replicate my recipe no matter how they try. Oh, but I digress. Back to the subject at hand). In a similar way, the acceptance of life in death should inspire us to live so close to God, and to the spirit promptings that we heed His whispers and follow along paths of His choosing rather than our own. For, I would suggest that these promptings, journeys and sometimes even hardships often lead to moments of unanticipated joys—the extra “oomph in life.”

Case in point, I have had both the pleasure and hardship of walking alongside a few loved ones facing terminal illnesses. Indeed, it was a hard thing to do, and yet it was a pleasure because they are all remarkable people. These journeys have birthed in me this understanding of living with the twin companions of life on one shoulder and death on the other. I will not be disingenuous and suggest that it was all nirvana. Many days, we cried, and prayed, and questioned our way through it all. And yet behind the tears and through the pain, we loved each other with a tenacity that had eluded us before the illness–we said words that would have remained unspoken, shared gifts that would not have been given; we hugged each other deeply, shed tears uncontrollably, laughed belly achingly, and prayed unceasingly. Through these experiences I was in awe of their love for life, an appreciation that often escapes many of us with a more distant end date. In fact, one of my dear friends said to be recently, “I don’t understand it, but in a strange way I’m happier as a result of my walking through this incredible journey with cancer.”

Perhaps, this is the outcome the Psalmist had in mind when he prayed: “Lord, teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom”. When I think of this, I know that like Thoreau, I want “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” and “not when I [come] to die, discover that I had not lived.” I want to be guilty of saying too much to those I love rather than too little, to hug people more, to laugh more, to declutter, revamp, reorganize my schedule so that I can place people and relationships at the top. I want to choose to be irreverently happy in this one precious life that God has given me.

PS: Oh yes, and to savor with reckless abandon each delectable morsel of apple pie eaten with vanilla ice-cream (My favorite dessert!)

Note: For more about living with a terminal illness, check out Livingly Dying

* Jean lost her battle with cancer on June 26, 2009. I dedicate this post in honor of her memory.

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