In candid interviews, terminal patients in the Alive Hospice program talked with authors Bob and Judy Fisher, addressing some of the most important questions we ask about our life and how we've made the journey. These end-of-life ponderings are collected into inspirational and provoking thoughts that will encourage each of us to live life fully. Each story is reflected in thematic chapters-priorities, family, simple pleasures, romance, integrity, regret, forgiveness-crafted into a series of "lessons learned," offering motivation to approach life with more vigor. These powerful stories deliver the clear message that if you wait to really live until you know you are going to die, you risk missing much of the joy life has to offer and the chance to leave a positive legacy.
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May 19, 2008
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Excerpt from Life Is a Gift by Robert Fisher
We saw a lot of joy in the hospice rooms and death beds we visited--more joy than you might expect. A lot of it rose from the fact these were people who were just glad to be alive. They didn't take any day for granted. James A. told us his greatest joy was "being alive," and he meant it. He was grateful for the life he lived--in spite of the mistakes he made, in spite of his humble circumstances. "I'm just proud of my life," he said. "There's some people that wouldn't be, but that doesn't make any difference to me."
Given the pain these people were facing, the uncertainty, the sadness of leaving everything behind, you would think it would take a lot--a lottery win, a trip to Paris, a Nobel Prize--to overcome all that and give them joy. But that's not what we observed. Our interviewees found joy in the things that had been there all along. Reitha was pretty typical: she told us her greatest joy was simply being pain-free and having her family together.
The hope of heaven gave people a lot of joy (we'll delve into that in another chapter), but the people we interviewed had also learned how to enjoy the blessings of this life. There was a palpable tension for many of our interviewees: they eagerly looked forward to heaven, but they couldn't help mourning at least a little for the good and blessed life they were leaving behind.
George said, "My only regret? I'm not gonna be able to live as long as I would like to. I hate to leave." George believed he was going to a better place. But who could blame him for being sad to leave? "I have a very good life," he said. "I've married a beautiful woman, have three real fine boys and nine grandchildren."
George was like Lucy at the end of The Last Battle, the final book in C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia. She was standing on the front porch of heaven--the New Narnia--reunited with all her friends and family, in the presence of Aslan (the Christ figure of Narnia), yet she cried to see the door closed on the old Narnia. Her brother Peter scolded her:
"What, Lucy! You're not crying? With Aslan ahead, and all of us here?"
"Don't try to stop me, Peter," said Lucy. "I am sure Aslan would not. I am sure it is not wrong to mourn for Narnia. Think of all that lies dead and frozen behind that door."1
Maxine looked forward to heaven, too, but she stated her love of this life even more strongly than George did. She joked, "I think when God is ready to take me, I might pitch a fit, because I don't want to go. It's leaving your family. I have wonderful kids, grandchildren, great-grandchildren--I've seen a lot with them but I'd like to see more. . . . I'm very proud of my children and my whole family. I hate to leave them. I believe my heaven has been right here on earth. Isn't that fantastic? I'll take it."
It is truly a blessing to have lived a life you hate to leave, even when you have heaven to look forward to.
That's the irony of the situation our interviewees found themselves in. Nobody wants a slow and painful death. And yet a lingering death is what gave these people the opportunity to understand how blessed they had been. And it was a spur to their loved ones to love them the way they should have been loving all along.
Consider Mildred M. Her son's devotion to her was truly touching, and obviously a source of deep joy for her. He lived out of town, but he came to spend a week at his mother's bedside. "If I went to sleep," Mildred said, "when I woke up he'd be sitting there looking at me. He's not a talker." She smiled to think of that fifty-year-old man, sitting there gazing at his dying mother. What a beautiful image. It's such a tender, intimate moment it feels strange to write about it, almost as if it's a violation of their privacy. But it illustrates the intensity with which the dying experience life.
Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 is one of his "deathbed sonnets." It's about the intensity, the distillation of experience that results from realizing you don't have long to live. That realization, according to Shakespeare,
which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
Loving well what we must leave before long. That's one of the great themes to emerge from our interviews with hospice patients. Mildred loved her children with a new intensity, and they loved her in kind. I suppose there's no real surprise there. But she also loved life's smallest pleasures with a renewed intensity--watching Westerns on television, watching her birdfeeder out the window. "This morning there was the prettiest big redbird out there," she said, her eyes twinkling. A redbird is common enough; it may not seem worth remarking on. But what about a redbird that might be the last one you'll ever see?
In our conversations we saw the return of childlike wonder. The first redbird you see as a child--that's a miracle. Soon, however, you realize how common redbirds are, and they don't seem so miraculous . . . until you realize you're running out of redbirds.