As a nurse working closely with cancer patients a few days out of the month, I have been afforded an intimate glimpse of what the experience of dying is like.
And it's not exactly what I thought it would be, since my modern-girl struggles would have told me otherwise: I'd have to say that the most recurrent theme among those who know they are passing is that they desire the people whom they have loved all their lives to just be there for them. And that's it.
The best I can figure is that, in the end, it all comes down to relationships: it's never about money, possessions, exotic trips, or even the existential angst of self discovery-- it's about the struggles and joys of being in relationship with the people who have been placed in your life, for good or for ill, and the profoundly rich blessings people receive for simply making the effort.
From talking at length with my patients over the past few days (I'm filling in for a co-worker lately and working waaaaay too much for my liking), the only things they regretted were the loss of a relationship of importance-- the distance from a child, loss of a spouse, a strained relationship with a sibling. No substantial worries were ever shared about the conflicts they had with a co-worker or nasty boss, or the trip to Bora Bora they missed; I guess those experiences just didn't register on the radar when the significant moments of life were being weighed.
And that's where I'm left, today-- a place I've been many times:
As a mom who has been working a lot of hours the past few weeks, I’m beginning to question the value of voluntarily choosing to be away from the people who matter most, especially when I don’t have to. Why spend more time than is necessary away from my family in the pursuit of money, if it means missing out on what I’m discovering is most important to being alive? I can never get this time back; I only get one chance to impart to my children what our values and beliefs are, and I can't teach them if I'm not present-- physically or emotionally, when I'm just too burnt out to be there.
I want my legacy to be one of relationships: home cooked meals, laughter around the kitchen table, long bike rides and passing on a lifetime of healthy habits. I don't want it to be forever trying to steal moments for myself, the kids becoming couch potatoes and avid television watchers, dispassionate spectators in life.
When I work with my patients, it isn't so hard to see beyond the here and now of crabby teenagers and messy kid house and into the world of grandchildren, visiting-- of feeding them "Grandma's special" Asian chicken salad, going for walks on the bike trail, holding grandpa's hand; telling funny stories about when their parents were young.
And dying; I am finally to a stage in my life when I can see that, too. And, if what my patients tell me is true, it's not that bad, if you have people who love you and make your life worthwhile, in the great grand scheme of things; how simple, how beautiful, and completely free of existential angst.
Well, I'm off to make my life worthwhile: time to wake my daughter and kick my son off the computer. A long walk and our legacy awaits...