When we go to the movies, we are shown previews of coming attractions. As each of us views the trailers from our individual and idiosyncratic points of view, we decide whether the movie is to our liking. Otherwise, we may find it too violent, too romantic, too foul-mouthed or too slow-paced. Based on the trailer we’ve previewed, we’ll resolve (or not) to see the full featured film.
Sometimes we preview coming attractions of a different sort, for example, end-of-life scenarios. We learn about those who have died suddenly and accidentally; others who have had protracted illnesses and died slowly. Some have died alone and others with family and friends; some at home and others in a hospital or nursing home. As we preview our own demise, each of us has a preferred alternative in mind. The “rub,” of course, is that none of us can choose our passing. If that’s true, is end of life merely a crapshoot?
Last year, the question of death as a crapshoot came to haunt me. I had planned a weeklong visit with a dear friend. Bettsy and I have been friends since she worked with me as a paralegal 50 years ago. Over the decades, Bettsy has inspired and challenged me. Her accomplishments are many. For example, on the week-end of her 70th birthday, Bettsy earned a Ph.D. with distinction from an Ivy League university.
I had planned a good-natured and spirited visit with Bettsy, anticipating that we’d regale each other with accounts of past feats and joy-filled adventures. My weeklong visit would be fun, a respite from the worries and concerns of everyday life. My visit didn’t turn out that way.
When I arrived, I found a valiant and energetic woman hobbled by pain. She was taking powerful pain killers, yet they provided no relief from her chronic pain. Further, the side effects of the medication were debilitating. It all was too much for Bettsy to bear and she cried out for help, asking for transport to a nearby hospital. So off we went to the glare of an unwelcoming emergency room. After a long wait, Betsy was admitted to the hospital for surgery and a long and difficult recovery of many weeks. As I witnessed all of this, I thought I might be previewing my own demise, whenever it might come. I didn’t welcome this preview at all.
With grit, courage and best efforts, Bettsy persevered and was able to return home. In the years that followed, she faced more hospital stays, followed with weeks of arduous recovery. As these challenges confronted Bettsy, she faced them directly and proactively, welcoming caregivers into her life and doing some form of physical therapy every day. Bettsy is always interested in her caregivers and who they are. She gets to know them, expressing gratitude for their assistance. Not surprisingly, friendships often form.
Best of friends, Bettsy and I speak nearly every day. As we do so, I sometimes hear myself whining about my own aging. I can no longer run marathons, nor bike 100 miles in a day. I find that riding a stationary bike is hardly a substitute for biking cross-country on a summer afternoon.
Recently, in the midst of my whining, Bettsy simply asked: “What can you do now that you couldn’t do 30 years ago?” Her question startled me to reflect on how I live my life today. Truth is, I write, coach and facilitate today, as I could not have done thirty years ago. I value these skills far more than my fastest marathon time and longest bike rides. While I miss the athleticism of my past, I treasure the skills I have developed in my later years. I want to live a life that benefits others. That is possible today as never before.
From where I stand, it’s important for each us to appreciate the life we live and how we view it. Seeing how another lives or dies is not a preview of our remaining years. Nor are our remaining years a crapshoot. Facing directly what we are experiencing (or worrying about) is important, aware that the common images of aging are skewed and distorted by a culture that prizes youth. As we age, there are often treasures of great worth. Ignoring what you can do now that you could not do earlier is likely a cost to you, and a loss to others. The words of George Bernard Shaw are instructive:
“I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”
So be it.
Dennis Coyne is a Master Certified Coach and retired lawyer. He coaches lawyers and consults with law firms to take effective action and to achieve their objectives. He can be reached at [email protected], or at his mobile: 612 708-8924.