We have a finite amount of time as human beings and I’m becoming begrudgingly aware of this daunting reality. Why are we always surprised by death? It’s as if I will not concede to a mortal existence, until it is threatened, or limited in some way? It could be a survival mechanism, but I am not prepared for the end, and I assume I’m not alone in this conundrum. If we tackle the curtain together maybe the magician won’t seem so mysterious.
I feel much like a camera’s shutter, my life opening and closing in a fraction of a second, and now I’m wondering what has been captured by the light. I’m not talking about selfies here, but an intentional, well lived life, full of grace, and well-being.
Dr. Atul Gawande and Krista Tippett explore the question, “How do you live a good life to the very end,” in a recent podcast. I was straightening up the kitchen as Krista’s inviting voice draws Dr. Gawande into this important conversation. With wet dish rag still in hand, I was inspired to sit down, examine how I spend my time, and identify what defines my well-being. I’ve noticed how inconsequential matters can take over my life when I have not clarified my priorities or that which I value most. It’s a slippery slope from aimless habits to wasted potential. Are you thinking iPhones, television, and dishes? Me too.
“How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing.”Annie Dillard
Looking back in time, I noticed how each season comes with a new set of priorities to juggle, circumstantially dictated, as in marriage, raising children, occupational shifts, personal development, retirement, illness, or taking care of aging parents. What accounts for quality of life at every stage? Without a doubt, there is a common thread that runs through the entirety of my life, but I wasn’t aware of it until now.
When I consider what a good day looked like when I was a young mother it would include loads of caffeine, bringing order to chaos, a clean shirt in the closet, poop in the toilet (after weeks of tedious potty training), keys where I left them, milk in the refrigerator, a car that starts, a printer that doesn’t jam, a tantrum derailed, a compassionate ear to bend, and oh yes, a good bottle of wine.
Laying my head on the pillow at the end of each day, knowing I would wake up in the morning to four of the most enchanting people the world has ever known, was not always my last thought. The good days were so intermixed with the bad that it is impossible to tease them apart. It was a wonderfully difficult and challenging time for me, but if I want to understand the linchpin of my well-being, I’ll have to focus on what was captured by the light.
“If so much as a single one of you were missing, there would be an empty place at the great feast of life that nobody else in all creation could fill.” Fredeick Buechner
If I were to go back in time, I would have worried less about clean floors, good grades, unruly coaches, keeping schedules, following directions, and the retched judgement of others, especially those not in the throws of motherhood. I would have spent more time learning about who my children were becoming and less about who I wanted them to be. They had so much to tell me and often I was busy, distracted, overwhelmed.
At this stage of life my well-being depended on an enormous amount of support and encouragement from those in my tribe (this includes friends). You’ve heard the popular saying, “it takes a village,” referring to the idea that parents need all hands on deck to navigate the chaos of child-rearing. Due to the general diaspora of the extended family many children are raised without the support of grandparents, aunts, and uncles. It can leave parents feeling isolated and alone.
My parents lived out of town while I was raising children, it left an enormous hole, and this is one thing I’ve repeatedly discussed with Larry. I can tell he adores these conversations, because although he glazes over, there is this half-smile plastered across his handsome face. I have to believe he is in total agreement with the validity of my argument or he would have said something? Right? This is the deal, when our children are managing infants, if it is humanly possible, I want to live within a ten mile radius for at least five years. I think that is reasonable. If only I can get one of them to procreate in Paris?
The kids grew up and we sent them off to college so they could see possibilities they would never have envisioned for themselves (this applies to any learning experience whether vocational, intern, missionary, volunteer, travel, apprentice, even spiritual). By midlife, I also hungered for growth, so I entered a graduate program. It felt like my brain was on steroids, but it was a challenging time as I wrestled with research papers, and comprehensive exams. I depended heavily on my inner circle for encouragement and support, you know who you are, and I am eternally grateful. I now firmly believe a good education has life long benefits but especially as we age. I can only pray my children will be life-long learners. I have no qualms about spending money and time on developing myself at any age, it’s how I survived the empty nest, and rediscovered my passion for writing.
“It is true that we are called to create a better world. But we are first of all called to a more immediate and exalted task: that of creating our own lives.” Thomas Merton
Tippett says, “And what was interesting to me was that as they got older, they became less healthy — no surprise [laughs] — and they had some loss of function along the way. But they also had an increasing sense of fulfillment in their life, despite all of that.” She goes on to say that studies have indicated that after age 65, people were less likely to have anxiety, and depression. They’re less focused on acquisition and more on the immaterial aspects of life, like love and friendship.”
In the last year of my mom’s life I learned how to sit and just be with the one I love, often for hours on end, without talking. I learned patience, giving into the moment, communicating my love through deeds. I realize she would not have been able to live out her final days at home without Nancy and I being enslaved to her needs, along with the endless support of family and friends. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It’s what I turn to now with great fondness. As her illness progressed we tried to define what Mom really wanted in her final days but these conversations didn’t take place until after her processing and clarity were severely compromised. What do you do when you hit rock bottom
I believe having agency over one’s life is vitally important, Mom wanted to see her great grand-babies, gather her family, sit in the sun, read a good book, take trips to the lake, visit with old friends, enjoy a glass of wine, a good meal, watch Blue Bloods before bed with a scoop of ice cream. These are not grand expectations, when none of these options were available to her, we decided to stop the arduous treatments. We will never know if we made the right decision? It’s unfamiliar territory and commonly not a topic of discussion for parent and child. Would her final days have been shorter but more robust if we had forgone the treatments altogether? These are the conversations we should be having with our families on a regular basis.
Today I want to sip coffee with Larry for an hour each morning, have uninterrupted time to write, go for long walks, read good literature, travel as much as possible, engage my students, relish family dinners on the patio, spend quality time with my grandchildren, develop my spirituality, be in service to others, enjoy long stretches at the lake surrounded by family and friends. “This is another one of these great secrets, that growing old is actually a wonderful thing, and we’re all about fighting aging,” says Tippett.
When the time comes, and it will, that I can no longer do the things I love, I do not want to prolong my life if it significantly reduces my ability to live fully. As I toss the wet dish rag back in the sink, I reach for a clean glass, and pour myself a splash of wine. I’ve decided the linchpin to my well-being has always depended on the support and encouragement of family and friends. Grabbing my cell off the table, I ring my sister, and consider the question we should all be asking each other. How can I be this for you?
Thoughts? Leave a comment and we can chew on it together.
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