A friend of mine sent me this link about the work that two women in Colorado had done with 50 women who had metastatic breast cancer. They later connected with Duke University to do some research. If you have an hour, that link is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lwg9axoVsFA When I had watched that, I noticed this link in the sidebar and took a look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usME_edAW6Y
Somehow on Hallowe’en afternoon it is fitting to ask these two questions that the second videotape examines: What would be your perfect last day? What is your greatest fear? The next couple of days we honour those who have gone before us. Let’s spend some time thinking about death.
I am going to tackle the second question first. When I was not sure if I would survive the surgery last May, I had to look hard at the question about death. I had no promises by my surgeon that I would pull through. He stopped short of telling me to get my affairs in order and I knew the weight of the decision when I signed the release forms. What was my greatest fear then? It remains I think my downfall now.
I have lived this amazing life. I have not waited for a prince to come and whisk me away to fulfill my dreams. I have traveled far and wide, experiencing culture, beauty, kindness, joy, and love in mind-boggling ways. I have seen the extremes of life–poverty and riches. I have been exposed to learning and wisdom. My life-list is being checked off so that I never needed a bucket list. My relationships are meaningful and stunningly satisfying. I have had everything I have needed almost always, and especially now. I can pretty much say with tremendous confidence that I am not afraid that I have missed my life.
I have served from an early age. My missionary’s heart is one that constantly longs to be of use for the greater good. I have built homes in Guatemala, taught about grief in the Great Lakes Region of Africa, settled refugees into their new homes, sat with inmates here at the federal penitentiary, advocated with the Deaf Community regarding human rights issues, and so much more. I will keep chipping away at social justice issues until I die, I suspect. The Ignatian deathbed contemplation teaches us to live aware of our choices. I may not have gotten my purpose right but the path I have walked is enough; in fact, it is more than enough. I am not afraid that I have missed the boat here.
Even though I have not married or had children, I do believe that I loved well. I have relationships that span decades and are solid. Prior to my surgery, I bought some friends an anchor for their new boat. The symbolism for me was profound. They have been anchors in my life–their loyalty has never drifted and when I have needed a safe place to hunker down they have been there. I am blessed with many friendships that fall into this category. My greatest fear is not that I have not loved enough or been loved.
My greatest fear is based on the opposite actually. I am afraid that dying will break many hearts. As the poster girl for grief and having done a number of training seminars on bereavement, I know how painful loss is. I cannot change that no matter what I do. Heartbreak is the cost of love. All the trite answers that I have gone to a better place or I am no longer suffering, will not remove the gaping wound that the survivor feels. That is the simple reality of grief.
Sometimes we are blessed from a message from the other side and we do experience a calmness but still the daily absence, at least initially, can be challenging. My friend Rob died on what was supposed to have been my watch. Three of us were going to be with him for the evening but a family member called to cancel. He died within hours. I have wondered if he knew we were supposed to come over and sit with him. We would have all been there if so–his beloved family and his closest friends. We did join the family afterwards, praying and singing around the body. The next day as we were cleaning and restoring the home to a sense of normalcy, I glanced out the window and saw a beautiful hawk land on the back fence. Stopped in my tracks, it took me a moment to find my voice to call out to the others. We had been paddling partners and the outdoors was a great love of Rob’s. I am sure his spirit had swung by to tell us he was free and flying onward.
This brings me to the first question of what would be the perfect last day. I know that I have not saved many words for the end. I have tried to express my gratitude for acts of loving kindness. I have asked forgiveness where necessary. I have tried not to harbour ill will. I do not envision myself sitting on a beach or in the mountains on my last day; I am too realistic for that. When I contemplated today what that perfect last day would look like–whenever it arrives–I saw myself surrounded by family and friends. I would want those that I love the most to be present with me as I slip into the next world. I would want singing and praying. I would want peaceful silence and loud laughter. I envision the Eucharist present. I hope that as painful as it might be that joy would infuse the room anyway. There is no place I would rather be than Home but I am in no particular hurry to head there now. When that time does come though, I imagine that the line up to greet me will be spectacular. In my grandmother’s final hours, she flung open her arms to embrace visions that only she could see. I long to do the same–Gram, Corrinne, Rob, Fr. Brian, Louise, Ginny, Sts. Francis and Clare, St. Ignatius, and so many more await me. Mostly though, I desire to see my Beloved Saviour face-to-face and be welcomed into Eternal Rest. That will be the perfect last day.
What is your perfect last day?
What is your greatest fear about dying?
On that glorious day,
Jesus, I will see you
face to face and
stand in your loving embrace.
That will be enough for me.