There’s something to be said for everything falling apart, for not being able to hold something together no matter how much we try. We see it as failure, sadness, and loss. And if we can hang in there through the falling down, we find that on the other side of every kind of death—a dream, a relationship, a drastic change, and even the big death with a capital “D”—is a newness. Perhaps uncomfortable and maybe unwanted, but certainly a birth, a new way of being. Losing something we love, anything we love, is difficult and often painful. As someone who has lived through many deaths of every variety, I promise you there is life on the other side. Much to my surprise, that new life has always been better than the one that came before. Even the sad ones, even the ones I prayed would never happen. I grew from each one of those changes. I learned. I became a better person. More grateful, more aware. And that’s really the point of it all, isn’t it?
I know we can’t hang onto time though that doesn’t stop me from wishing it were possible. As I was admiring the stunning Fall foliage in Central Park, Phineas was rooting around in the leaves looking for a tasty morsel of something. My pup has a penchant for trash. I was explaining the dangers of eating things off the ground to him when we met one of our neighbors with her flat-coat retriever. This sweet dog was diagnosed with cancer during the summer, started chemotherapy, and then had to terminate treatment because of internal bleeding. “I’m not sure how she’s still alive,” said our neighbor through a lump in her throat.
My eyes started to well up with tears. Losing a dog is one of the worst kind of hurts I’ve ever known. I wanted to let my neighbor have her space and time with her dog so I told her how sorry I was and wished her well. I turned to leave to let my neighbor have her peace and so she didn’t see me cry. Phineas did something else, something I thought was quite extraordinary. He walked right up to his dear canine friend and gently bumped her chin with the top of his nose. Then he gave her a smooch. He knew what was happening. He was saying goodbye since we’ll probably never see this sweet pup again.
When we got a few blocks away and I finally got ahold of my tears, I knelt down on the ground and looked right into Phineas’s eyes. “Look Phineas,” I said, “I know you’ve got a lot on your plate but you’re going to have to find a way to live forever. Okay, buddy?” He gave me a smooch right on the nose, and I think that means he’s accepted the challenge. I can’t hang onto time; I’m hoping Phin can find a way.
I stood on the corner of 11th and Bleecker staring at my email on a shiny screen through teary eyes. I found out that one of my sweetest and most dedicated yoga students lost his long battle with cancer. Today I’m going to his funeral to celebrate his long, happy, and bright life. I’ll be remembering his smile, laugh, and very kind disposition. More than anything I’ll remember the peace that washed over his face as soon as we began the meditation portion of our classes. I’m so honored that I had a chance to know him; my life is richer for it. And I hope in some small way his was, too.
Yesterday, marked the 20th anniversary of my father’s passing. I’ve been alive longer without him than with him. To even fathom that 20 years has passed makes my mind numb. I remember that evening so clearly that I could recite my actions and thoughts of each minute. I think of it in frames of a film, a shutter action happening in between each. There’s some soaring music in the background that rises and falls in waves like water.
That night I was viscerally aware that I was literally closing one chapter of my life and opening another one with my bare hands. The door between those chapters was heavy and awkward. I knew that once it shut behind me that there was no going back. That feeling is lodged in my heart in a way that used to feel painful and now is just familiar. It’s become one of my oldest friends.
Nothing happens in isolation. As soon as my mind turns those events over a few times, it just keeps going and I follow it along as an audience member, as if I am watching a performance of Sleep No More. At first it slowly trudges to the wake and funeral, to high school graduation, to leaving my hometown, to college and everything that would unravel and then coalesce in that time.
The speed of the frames in my mind picks up rapidly after that. As a young 20-something I thought I would go into politics and instead opted for a career in theatre, moving from D.C. to New York to life on the road. That would lead me to Florida, back to D.C., on to graduate school in Virginia, and then back to New York where I’ve made my home for the past 5 and a half years. That journey flashes with so many characters and scenes and travels across the globe, some happy, some sad and everything in between. It makes me dizzy if I think about it for too long.
I used to feel so much a part of that narrative. No matter how much distance I got from December 1, 1992, I was still that character, playing that role. I was this way because my dad was that way. I played the victim card, the martyr card, the lost card, the hopeless card, the trapped card. I let the role write the script instead of writing it myself.
It took a long time for me to understand how that’s a clear and certain road to disaster. No one wins in that scenario, least of all me. And it took me even more time to realize that it didn’t have to be that way. The beginning of a journey influences its course but it doesn’t define it. It is within our power, responsibility, and right to own the narrative of our lives.
We can fold, toss those old worn out cards into the center of the table, and walk away. It’s okay to leave it behind and continue on in a different direction. It’s healthy to do so. It’s required if we intend to do anything extraordinary with our lives. We can honor our past, our roots, and not feel shackled to them. What happened, happened. There’s no changing it. What happens next? Well, that’s up to us. It’s always up to us.
Wherever my dad is now, I hope he folded his hand, too, walked away from the table, and set out on a new course that was brighter than the one that was here among us. Every soul deserves that chance.
A few days ago I read a post entitled, “Top Five Regrets of the Dying.” Sound morbid? Read it anyway and learn from those who are preparing to cross over. They’ve taken the time to spell it out for us so that we can learn from their mistakes before it’s too late for us to do anything about them in our own lives. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about these ideas since I read them and I hope they always sticks with me.
For many years I worked in palliative care. My patients were those who had gone home to die. Some incredibly special times were shared. I was with them for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives.
People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality. I learned never to underestimate someone’s capacity for growth. Some changes were phenomenal. Each experienced a variety of emotions, as expected, denial, fear, anger, remorse, more denial and eventually acceptance. Every single patient found their peace before they departed though, every one of them.
When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently, common themes surfaced again and again. Here are the most common five:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me
This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people have had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.
It is very important to try to honor at least some of your dreams along the way. From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard
This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship.
Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.
By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.
As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming.
We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.
It is common for anyone in a busy lifestyle to let friendships slip. But when you are faced with your approaching death, the physical details of life fall away. People do want to get their financial affairs in order if possible. But it is not money or status that holds the true importance for them. They want to get things in order more for the benefit of those they love. Usually though, they are too ill and weary to ever manage this task. It is all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier
This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice.
They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to themselves, that they were content when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again. When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying.
“Beauty once seemed to me to be an accident of nature. But now that I can see my life on my face, I realize we earn the way we end up looking. Time, it seems, gives us all a chance to really be beautiful.” ~ Ann Curry
“Nature gives you the face you have at twenty. Life shapes the face you have at thirty. But at fifty you get the face you deserve.” ~ Coco Chanel
My Uncle John passed away last week. A kind, generous man, we was one of the people who figured prominently into many of my childhood memories. He was one of those people whom I always felt so lucky to know and love. He lived into his 90’s despite an abundance of health problems for many years. He was a miracle man, a real-life version of the comeback kid.
His funeral served as yet another reminder to me that everything that surrounds us is temporary, that this is all changeable. It reminded me of what Brian and I talked about last week – that a life just spent out on the ledge isn’t really living at all. You need to have the existence you want, and no one can define that for you except you. People will try – they will tell you where and when to go, who to go with, and what you should do when you get there. During Uncle John’s services I couldn’t help but think about the idea that in the end our legacies are about the choices we make, and the ripple effects we cause in the wake of those choices.
There was a poster board of photos at John’s wake. Some of them I’d never seen and some of them I hadn’t seen in many years. I was a tiny baby in the ones I was in. My grandparents were there, as was my dad, looking many years younger than I remember them and with wide, wide smiles. I loved seeing those images and yet it was hard for me to see them, too. Particularly with my dad, I was reminded of all the lost potential, the lost opportunity that he could have had, that my whole family could have had, and in particular that I could have had if only he had gotten the right help at the right time.
I think losing people like my Uncle John is easier than losing people like my dad. John lived a full, loving life. He was grateful for his days and was able to overcome extraordinary hardships. (I found out at his funeral that he had served in the U.S. Army’s First Armored Division during World War II, the first Americans in WWII to go into armed battle.) My dad, by nature, was not grateful and there wasn’t anyone in his life who asked him to be more accountable and responsible for the life we lived. In his eyes, life happened to him. In my Uncle John’s eyes, life happened and no matter what, he chose to love life again and again. My Uncle John took full advantage of all opportunities at his doorstep, and lived a wonderful, long life as a result. My dad did not.
So we have a choice – not necessarily of when it’s our time to move on from this lifetime, but certainly how we spend each of our days in this lifetime. We can choose what we stand for, how we spend our time, and with whom. We either choose to make and take opportunities, or just react to life as it happens. Given the very stark contrast of the lives and passings of my Uncle John and my dad, I know which way I’m going. Do you?
My mother is a breast cancer survivor. Even prior to her diagnosis and healing, I was constantly on my soapbox about how mammograms should be provided to young women. Because of my strong family history, my insurance covers regular mammograms starting at 35. Recently I got a prescription from my doctor and off I went to Lenox Hill Hospital.
Upon scheduling the exam, I had a feeling of real gravity. I knew I was okay; I just felt the weight of this kind of test. After all, it is an exam that is checking for cancer, a potentially lethal disease, and to go through with one we must look squarely in the face of our own mortality. What I felt was most certainly the feeling of “dis-ease” brought on by looking for a “disease”. The synchronicity of these words is no accident. Disease, and the potential of it, is uncomfortable to say the least.
So in I went to the hospital. They had to take several rounds of scans because the doctor felt that the first set had something out of the ordinary. Due to my strong family history, they take no chances. When the doctor came back into the examination room a second time to ask me to take an immediate ultrasound, the gravity of the tests grew a bit heavier on my shoulders. My only thought was perhaps my mind-body connection is not as a strong as I think it is.
I went into the ultrasound room, and the exam took a solid 20 minutes. As I was lying there, I thought about what I might do if indeed the abnormality was something of concern. What would I do if I was asked to have a biopsy? How would I deal with a diagnosis of cancer at age 35? Sadly, it has become more common in my generation than in those generations who have come before us. My mind was blank. I had no idea what I do, and so I waited and breathed.
The doctor read the ultrasound with a sigh of relief. He saw that the abnormality was not cause for alarm. He said he would review with his attending and then send the report to my gynecologist. He also noted that mammograms among young women are very difficult to read because the younger we are, the more dense our tissue is. Reading abnormalities in dense tissue can be deceiving and this is made still more difficult by my petite and mostly lean body type. What was supposed to be a 20 minute baseline exam turned into a 2 and a half hour event in which I felt fine, then felt worried, and then felt fine again.
I walked out of the hospital and took in a full breath in the sunlit air. I exhaled with a big sigh, though the lesson was not lost on me. My mortality is a very real thing, and I must live accordingly. Most people spend a lot of years, particularly their early ones, not looking at or thinking about death. Because of the deaths in my family at a young age, I have never had that luxury. The moment I could contemplate life, I began to contemplate death in equal measure. After all, we cannot have one without the other.
A happy side effect of losing close family members at a young age is that I never feel uncomfortable with the concept of death. I often talk to my relatives who have crossed-over. I think about them all of the time; I find reminders of them everywhere; I feel their presence in my daily life. On and off in my life I’ve done volunteer work in nursing homes, with hospice, and in critical care facilities in hospitals. It’s something I’m considering doing again – there’s so much to be learned about life from the dying.
Because of my comfort with death and dying, I find comfort in places like cemeteries. They’re such peaceful places. On my lunch break yesterday, I went to do an errand and went past Trinity Churchyard, this tiny plot of land that sits at the corner of Wall Street and Broadway. It’s a small green haven among the concrete and constant construction in the area. It is the final resting place for a number of famous New Yorkers, Alexander Hamilton being the most iconic figure there. I couldn’t resist stepping inside for a moment. Once I crossed through the gate, the noise of the city seemed to dissipate. I don’t know how that happened. The sunshine seemed a little brighter, the air felt a little sweeter. It actually felt homey.
Much to my relief, many other people were seated on the benches that are dotted along the cemetery paths. People enjoying their lunch, talking with friends, sitting quietly, thinking. It was a sweet thing to see the living and the dead co-exist in such an easy harmony. It’s exactly what a final resting place should be.
I felt drawn to take a look into Trinity Church as well. I felt like I was peeking into someone’s home. It’s a fairly small church when compared to the likes of St. Pat’s or St. John the Divine, but it feels warmer, like a place where you could take your problems and worries and ask for help. In the main hall, I felt like I was so close to something holy, a kind and empathic ear.
In the back of the church there is a small chapel meant for quiet contemplation and prayer. There was a man at the front weeping, softly. He must be going through a very hard time. I lit one of the candles just outside the chapel and took a seat in the back. I thanked God for helping me through these last few weeks, offered up my immense gratitude for my wonderful friends and family who have been so supportive and helpful.
Just before I left, I found myself saying a little prayer for the man at the front of the chapel. I don’t know him, will probably never know him. I don’t know what he’s going through but it must be something very difficult. I prayed that the same strength I’ve found in the past few weeks will touch him as well, that somehow the strength and positive outlook that’s been such a gift to me will find its way to him also. With all of the abundant blessings in my own life, I felt that it was the least I could do.
Yesterday my friend, Ken, called me with an incredible story that’s too good to keep to myself. Last Fall he lost his mom to a terminal respiratory disease that she had managed for a number of years. Ken was very close to his mom and he’s a rough go of it for the past 6 months. One of his friends gave him a gift certificate to a nearby greenhouse and nursery so he could buy a tree in honor of his mom to plant in his yard.
When Ken was a teenager, Evita had just opened on Broadway and the song “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” was the mot popular song around. Ken’s mom used to crack herself up by changing up the words to “Don’t cry for me Sargent Tina…” She’d sing that all the time, making everyone around her laugh.
Ken was at the nursery yesterday with a friend, choosing a tree to honor his mom. They were specifically looking for a crabapple tree because of their beautiful flowers and found one they really liked. Variety: the Sargent Tina Crabapple. Maybe a coincidence…
Ken and his friend, Linda, get back to Ken’s house and plant the tree in the yard. They place the last shovelful of dirt around the tree and head back inside the house. Just as they get into the house, the song Hold Me Kiss Me Thrill Me was on the radio. That song was the only song Ken’s mother requested for her memorial service when she and Ken were choosing the music while his mom was in hospice. Coincidence, I think not…
Losing people is hard, though experiences like Ken’s remind me that we don’t ever lose the ones we love. They just cross over, and they’ll be there when we cross over, too. We’ll be with them again, and while it’s hard to accept that they don’t exist in the form in which we knew them and loved them, their love is still very much a part of our lives, always. Their love is truly all around us.
Whenever I think about Penn, I imagine it to look like it did when I was there as a student. And every time I go back, I am always surprised to see how much it has changed. The place I imagine in my mind isn’t in the world anymore. Change happened without me.
My friend, Jamie, and I took a stroll along Battery Park at lunch time this week and a woman stopped us. She looked a little lost. “When does this park end?” she asked us. “I haven’t been in this neighborhood for 20 years and it looks completely different. This park wasn’t even here then!”
When we leave a place, we have a tendency to fix it in our minds. Even though we change and grow, we expect places we’ve been and people we’ve known to stay the same. It’s too much for us to imagine that life goes on without us.
Today I went to the funeral services for my Aunt Lorraine. She was a lovely lady that never forgot a birthday, an anniversary, or any other important occasion that involved her family members and friends. She lived a happy, long life, and I’m so glad that we had the opportunity to have her with us for so long.
On my drive home from the funeral, I kept looking at the clock, registering in my mind that all these minutes were unraveling, that I was traveling mile after mile, and my Aunt Rain wasn’t here with us anymore. Time went on, and we’ll all go on to make new memories even though she won’t be with us. And she’s going on without us, too.
I shed tears over the injustice of it all, of having to let go of people we love as a natural course of life. Change and time cannot be stopped. One day will fold into the next, whether or not we’re around. What changes because of our existence and the interaction we have in specific places with specific people is the how. How will one day become the next for me because I had my Aunt Lorraine as a role model? How does she live on in all of us even if she can’t be with us? And how do we want the world to go once our time has come and gone? This is really the only work that needs our attention.