As a child growing up Catholic in the 1970’s, I was taught to face my own death every night. I doubt that was the intention of the simple bedtime prayer I said from age three until my early teens. But that was the effect.
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I imagine the prayer is familiar to some of you:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
and if I die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take
This little rhyme put the idea of a “soul” or spirit into my awareness. The underlying assumption was that I, or my soul, somehow continued on even after death.
The prayer also offered me a taste of what it must be like to die. It must be similar to falling asleep, and never waking up again. I often wondered what that would feel like, and imagined falling asleep forever. And other questions popped up, too.
Where would I go? What about my soul? If Jesus or God “took it,” where would they take it?
Oddly, the possibility of dying in my sleep felt very real because of this seemingly innocent prayer. So I repeated it every night, without fail, just to be safe. I wasn’t necessarily afraid of dying. Then again, I wasn’t afraid of rain either. But I was told if I carried an umbrella, it might keep the rain away. And the adults seems to prefer that it didn’t rain.
So I carried my umbrella – and my beliefs – like they did.
My friend Britt once joked that perhaps her Life Purpose was cheesecake. “What if,” she said, “when I’m in my 70’s, I make a cheesecake that changes someone’s life? And that is actually the reason I was born?”
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As we laughed, I enjoyed the notion that what we’ve come here to do may not be as grandiose as we imagine. Somehow, this idea took the pressure off. What if I quietly fulfill my Life Purpose in an instant, without my knowledge, as I serve up late night chocolate chip pancakes to some friends?
Britt, I like the way you think.
But the relief I felt was temporary. I could still feel us both wanting certainty about our calling in life, wanting to know for sure that we were on the right track. Will we ever find and fulfill our mission in life? Deep down, I was still hoping my Greater Purpose meant doing something outstanding someday. That’s how you know your life has had meaning, right? When you’re on The New York Times bestseller list. Or nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
But really, what is enough to make me feel satisfied with my life? How will I know when I’ve arrived?
I’ve accomplished all sorts of individual and professional goals. I’ve dedicated time and energy to my personal and spiritual growth. I’ve contributed to the wellbeing of my friends, families, and community.
And still, at times I wonder if I’ve done anything worthwhile with my life . . .
As my grandma sits in her wheelchair, I lean in to say goodbye before I return home – 3,000 miles away from room #39 at Oak Hill Manor. We touch our foreheads together and I look into her eyes over the top of my glasses. Only inches away, she looks into mine.
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“You are my perfect pigeon,” she says.
I laugh to myself because “pigeon” isn’t a pet name Grandma Gene has called me before, and certainly is not the choice bird for a compliment. I’m not sure what word she meant to say. But at her current stage of life, any connection is welcomed by me. I kiss her cheek softly for what may be the last time.
This moment and many others that could be sad or melancholy have actually been endearing. As my grandma’s physical and mental capacities shift, I’m reminded of both my mom and my partner Kate’s final journeys, when they seemed to age many decades in mere weeks due to cancer. The difference is that my grandmother really is in her 90s. And that she has Alzheimer’s. But otherwise, the signposts that she’s nearing the finish line in this body actually resemble theirs.
Perhaps most people resemble each other as this cycle of life is winding down. The way they move, speak, and blink more slowly – seemingly with little self-consciousness. I imagine it’s just what happens as the body and mind do what they do. And while witnessing this stage is often bittersweet, it is the sweetness that stays with me and makes my heart smile.
My sweet friend, what a year it’s been for you as someone so close to your heart has been living with cancer. A number of times, you’ve asked me to share insights from my own journey. And I admit, I often haven’t know what to say. There are so many nuances to cancer. And even more nuances to relationships.
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Over the months, I’ve found myself considering what practical advice I can pass along. Are there helpful tips on “what to do” or “how to cope” that I learned from being the main caregiver for my life-partner? How can I encourage you, comfort you, or simply empathize?
With your beloved signing up for Hospice the other day, I imagine you both feel the layers of this shift. Regardless of the timing, it seems clear he may leave his body in the near future. I see this as an opening. To me, there’s now permission to say hello to the likelihood of death from a new vantage point. And this is where what I have to share really begins . . .