For almost a decade I’ve been Death’s companion in some form, and for at least three decades I’ve been exposed to it in some intimate way. Nine years ago I began my “second career” training to become a healthcare chaplain and immediately knew I wanted to work with death and dying. Yes, I’m strange. I can own that. I’ve helped people come into the world, and I’ve been a witness to many more departures. Death, even though it can evoke incredible pain and sadness, has an inherent beauty and sacredness to it that no other transforming event in our life can match.
Before beginning training as a chaplain, I had seen someone die before. I had worked as a trauma nurse, so death was not an unfamiliar sight. But I had not seen a “beautiful” death until I began my spiritual care career. I remember that first one so vividly. He was very old. Family were coming in, but they were far away. Only one of his daughters and a son-in-law were at his bedside. He had fought a long, hard life. To ease his symptoms the family had consented for me to do Healing Touch, a system of energy healing, to aid his transition. He died while I was doing it. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the incredible cold that came off his skin just moments after his final breath. The other daughter arrived about an hour later. I explained about Healing Touch, and she hugged me and gave me a kiss on the cheek. It was exactly what she had been hoping to do herself. That precious moment cemented for me that I had found my niche.
While many of my patients have been in advanced stages of disease and have therefore not been able to have long, revealing conversations with me, I have had the fortune of being blessed by many people’s stories. One theme constantly has arisen time and time again: Regret.
While some of their regret could be more easily labeled guilt, an overwhelming number of times I have heard people share true, heartfelt regrets. “When I was younger I had the opportunity to do [XYZ], and I didn’t take it. I have regretted it all my life.”
I’ve heard stories of dreams that were squashed by well-meaning mentors, and I’ve been on the receiving end of that as well. For most of my childhood I had wanted to become a veterinarian, but I allowed myself to be talked out of it because “you have to have lots of money and know someone to get into school.” When I discovered the healing properties of doing art, I decided I would become an art teacher and was accepted into a visual arts program. “How do you expect to support a family by doing that?” And so I pursued more realistic, family-sustaining opportunities. I focused many years on supporting myself and “climbing the ladder.” Until I was in my mid-30s, I had never taken more than a week’s vacation because work had become such a big part of my life. During college while friends were backpacking across Europe, I was taking classes so I could graduate early. Their life was out of my reach.
The late 90s and early 2000s would play around with me a bit. In 1999, I went to the doctor because of some odd pains and walked out of the office with a diagnosis of testicular cancer. My world was spinning. I had seen cancer’s face many times during my healthcare career, and most often it was hideously ugly. Sure, I knew plenty of survivors, and if anything I am a survivor, but the battle. . . the wait . . . I just didn’t want to deal with it, even if, according to my doctor, Lance Armstrong, whoever that was, had kicked its ass soundly. This type of cancer isn’t one you biopsy, so I had to have surgery to remove the testicle and then play the waiting game for pathology and CT scan results to be matched. Luckily, I had at least done it right: My cancer was one of the most easily treated and one of the most curable if caught in the early stages, and we had done just that. Given the option of “watch and wait” or undergo radiation therapy to help ensure any stragglers got wiped out before I ended up with metastases in the kidneys or lungs, or brain, I said “Zap me!”
After getting through the cancer scare with all its subsequent post-treatment worries (“Uh oh, I’m suddenly dizzy. Did it go to my brain?!”) and hearing so many similar stories of regrets, I finally decided I had enough of living everyone else’s life. Because really as long as I’m following other people’s dreams rather than pursuing my own, I’m not living my own life. I was going to start living my own life, a life without regret. Instead of simply dreaming and having a life full of “I wish. . . ” I was going to chase down my dreams and make them my bitch.
That decision kept me from one dream, though: Adoption. I felt like I needed a little more time living my life for me before bringing a child into it when things would, understandably, change quite a bit. And so I put it off. Until six months later. I had fulfilled a lifelong dream of traveling to Paris. I was celebrating my last night while seated in a restaurant in the Eiffel Tower. I had just finished a rather sumptuous dinner that had included a variety of breads and cheese, kite in a beurre blanc sauce, and was practically purring contentedly after having made love to my spoon as I languidly ate a dessert of chocolate souffle. I gazed at the beautiful City of Lights while sipping on a kir royale, my eyes brimming with tears of joy, and then it hit me: I had done what I needed to do. I was ready.
As soon as I returned to Colorado, I called the local adoption recruiter. Synchronicity had been busy because that night a new 8-week class was beginning (a required course to get licensed), and there was room for me to attend. Naturally, I went, and my life has never been the same.
But I still hadn’t totally learned my lesson. While I was living my own life to a degree, I was still wistfully dreaming. “Oh, how I wish. . . ” My trip to Peru in 2010 set me on a path for living more intentionally and working to create the life I wanted, and I haven’t looked back except to wonder why I didn’t do this sooner.
While I was preparing for our new lifestyle, I continued to work as a hospice chaplain. One of my last patients was a woman in her 60s. Her whole life she had wanted to do an Alaska cruise. She had scrimped and saved and was finally going to be able to do it after she retired later in 2010. Unfortunately, before she could retire she had a massive stroke and ended up on hospice while she was bedridden in a nursing home. She died a few months later. As I heard her daughters tell me of this dream, I kept thinking “This is why I’m choosing to live NOW!”
I don’t care what your dream is, if it’s going to college, having 25 children, or living a life similar to ours, I just want you to live your dreams. Make them reality, because you honestly can. I’m no one special or particularly unique. I simply wanted this type of life bad enough and was determined enough to not accept any other type of life. Like the phoenix, I continue to re-create my life and rise from the ashes. All you need is a bit of stubbornness.
It’s YOUR life. When will you choose to truly live it?