I was walking in the woods with dozens of eagles soaring and swooping around me when I noticed this little squirrel. I am sure he was terrified. Above him in the tree were four eagles. He had scampered half way down the trunk and then stopped. I could almost hear his petrified heart pounding. Poor thing! He knew without a doubt that his days were numbered. Few of us have that sense. We live as if we are immortal and cannot imagine that we might not live to a ripe old age.
I read a conversation between a priest and a Catholic recently about what the Catholic man might do if he learned that he only had three months left to live. It reminded me of that party game question that I had encountered a number of times: If you had a year left to live, what would you do? People often say they would quit their job and travel the world and/or spend time with the people they love. My answer before I was living that reality was that I would not change much of anything–I would keep doing whatever I had been doing as I loved my life. Reflecting back, I think the squirrel has it right. The question should stop us in our tracks, horrified that we would actually be given such ghastly knowledge.
As someone who is now seven months past her estimated life expectancy, I am not sure that knowing really was helpful. The information created a time frame and a certain amount of stress that went with it. At some point, I simply decided that God alone knew my future and I would just carry on. Life became much more manageable after that. Each calendar month I flip over old school is done with gratitude. The physical taking hold of the page, while acknowledging that though the birds of prey circle overhead, I am going to make a run for it and play in the field for a bit longer is a moment for a grateful pause.
If I were to give advice on how I have answered that fateful question with my own life, these are some of the things I might say:
Hold lightly to time frames. Instead be grateful for each day.
Make memories with loved ones. Bucket lists as they are called do not have to be extravagant. Spend your time well. Laugh and love well. Take photos. Say what needs to be said. Listen to what must be told.
Let people be kind to you. People want to help. As a giver, receiving is hard, especially when the gifts are lavish. This far into receiving I have mostly let delight be my primary emotion. That has been a major shift for me.
Do not be afraid to love. This one has paralyzed me at times. I know that dying will shatter hearts and that hurts me. I feel so helpless and responsible since I have long been a caretaker. I have formed new and rekindled former relationships with joy. At times, I am overcome by great grief at what is to come for these beloved people in my life. Perhaps it is the first or second fear on my list of dying. Suffering by others may actually top my own suffering.
Do not be afraid to be loved. This may fall into the letting people be kind to you but letting yourself be loved is a notch up the emotional scale. A friend came over just to spend time with me and the hours flew by. She went home and spend the rest of the evening crying. I know how much she loves me. In fact, I know how many people love me and the cost of that love. I have been on the other side of letting go often in life. I try not to push away those who are in my inner circles while trying to balance my time and energy. Dying well perhaps means loving well right to the end, of allowing people to help with the cross and watching them stand at the foot of it, knowing they have chosen to be there.
Do not stop living before you are dead. One of the comments I hear often is that I just keep smiling through it all. I have loved my life and though the disease steals my exuberance some days, I will not let cancer have the last word. Breathe beauty. Behold wonder. Seek goodness. Sow kindness. Let Love say the final blessing on my life. I do not know what my final days will look like but I do know that right now is all I have and I am going to keep embracing the joy of now. Living is not just about joy though and so I welcome all the passions of a fully engaged life.
Take risks. Life is scary and yet glorious. Do not squander any of it. You do not want to look back on your deathbed and regret not having lived more intently. Sometimes, throw off the comfortable creature of habit ways and don a shiny, sparkly robe that attracts your eye. Do not let fear stop you from being your best you. Do not procrastinate for whatever reason because you may not get another chance. Believe that all things are possible with God.
Make amends wherever possible; let go of the rest. Try to ask forgiveness where you can and forgive those you are able to. This requires an honesty, a vulnerability and a courage that sometimes is inconceivable. In the end, forgive yourself for what you were unable to do with the gift of your life. This might be the hardest of the three.
Serve others as long as you can. I am truly Ignatian in this desire. My life is not, and never has been, mine. It belongs to God and I hope to serve my Creator until my breath is no more. How that looks may change but rest assured, I long to do this
Offer it all up. I want all to be for the glory of God, which includes my life, my dying and death. Whatever comes, I want people to say she loved God with all her mind, all her heart and all her spirit. I want to keep being the hands, feet, and face of God and point people to the Glorious One.
Let your life, however long you have, be a blessing.
What might you add to this list?
Would you scurry into the field or stay immobilized on the tree?
Giver of Days, I humbly ask that you bless my life and let it be a true testimony to you in this world, working through a servant who desires to give all the glory to you. You alone know the number of hairs on my head and the length of my days. I entrust all of it to you, desiring only what you wish for me. Amen.