We saw a lot of joy in the hospice rooms and death beds we visited—more joy than you might expect. A lot of it rose from the fact these were people who were just glad to be alive. They didn’t take any day for granted. James A. told us his greatest joy was “being alive,” and he meant it. He was grateful for the life he lived—in spite of the mistakes he made, in spite of his humble circumstances. “I’m just proud of my life,” he said. “There’s some people that wouldn’t be, but that doesn’t make any difference to me.”
Given the pain these people were facing, the uncertainty, the sadness of leaving everything behind, you would think it would take a lot—a lottery win, a trip to Paris, a Nobel Prize—to overcome all that and give them joy. But that’s not what we observed. Our interviewees found joy in the things that had been there all along. Reitha was pretty typical: she told us her greatest joy was simply being pain-free and having her family together.
The hope of heaven gave people a lot of joy (we’ll delve into that in another chapter), but the people we interviewed had also learned how to enjoy the blessings of this life. There was a palpable tension for many of our interviewees: they eagerly looked forward to heaven, but they couldn’t help mourning at least a little for the good and blessed life they were leaving behind.
George said, “My only regret? I’m not gonna be able to live as long as I would like to. I hate to leave.” George believed he was going to a better place. But who could blame him for being sad to leave? “I have a very good life,” he said. “I’ve married a beautiful woman, have three real fine boys and nine grandchildren.”
George was like Lucy at the end of The Last Battle, the final book in C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. She was standing on the front porch of heaven—the New Narnia—reunited with all her friends and family, in the presence of Aslan (the Christ figure of Narnia), yet she cried to see the door closed on the old Narnia. Her brother Peter scolded her:
“What, Lucy! You’re not crying? With Aslan ahead, and all of us here?”
“Don’t try to stop me, Peter,” said Lucy. “I am sure Aslan would not. I am sure it is not wrong to mourn for Narnia. Think of all that lies dead and frozen behind that door.”1
Maxine looked forward to heaven, too, but she stated her love of this life even more strongly than George did. She joked, “I think when God is ready to take me, I might pitch a fit, because I don’t want to go. It’s leaving your family. I have wonderful kids, grandchildren, great-grandchildren—I’ve seen a lot with them but I’d like to see more. . . . I’m very proud of my children and my whole family. I hate to leave them. I believe my heaven has been right here on earth. Isn’t that fantastic? I’ll take it.”
It is truly a blessing to have lived a life you hate to leave, even when you have heaven to look forward to.
That’s the irony of the situation our interviewees found themselves in. Nobody wants a slow and painful death. And yet a lingering death is what gave these people the opportunity to understand how blessed they had been. And it was a spur to their loved ones to love them the way they should have been loving all along.
Consider Mildred M. Her son’s devotion to her was truly touching, and obviously a source of deep joy for her. He lived out of town, but he came to spend a week at his mother’s bedside. “If I went to sleep,” Mildred said, “when I woke up he’d be sitting there looking at me. He’s not a talker.” She smiled to think of that fifty-year-old man, sitting there gazing at his dying mother. What a beautiful image. It’s such a tender, intimate moment it feels strange to write about it, almost as if it’s a violation of their privacy. But it illustrates the intensity with which the dying experience life.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 is one of his “deathbed sonnets.” It’s about the intensity, the distillation of experience that results from realizing you don’t have long to live. That realization, according to Shakespeare,
which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.2
Loving well what we must leave before long. That’s one of the great themes to emerge from our interviews with hospice patients. Mildred loved her children with a new intensity, and they loved her in kind. I suppose there’s no real surprise there. But she also loved life’s smallest pleasures with a renewed intensity—watching Westerns on television, watching her birdfeeder out the window. “This morning there was the prettiest big redbird out there,” she said, her eyes twinkling. A redbird is common enough; it may not seem worth remarking on. But what about a redbird that might be the last one you’ll ever see?
In our conversations we saw the return of childlike wonder. The first redbird you see as a child—that’s a miracle. Soon, however, you realize how common redbirds are, and they don’t seem so miraculous . . . until you realize you’re running out of redbirds. You learn again to love well what you must leave before long.
Susan was seventy-nine years old and dying of stomach cancer. But she was still in touch with the wonder and gratitude she experienced as a girl: “Once many years ago when I was eleven, I’d throw open the windows and it was so beautiful. And I said, ‘Oh God, I’m so glad to be alive. Thank You.’ Now I’m many years in between, and I haven’t forgotten.”
When it comes to what really matters to people facing death, nothing even comes close to being as important as people. We asked each of our interviewees, “What are you most proud of?” and “What brings you the greatest joy in life?” Overwhelmingly, their responses were related to people, and mainly family—wives, husbands, children, grandchildren, and so on.
Johnny said he was proudest of his grandkids, friends, and kids. “When I talk to them and see their faces, I know what I have accomplished.” His greatest joy? “Recently, on a visit with my grandchildren, my eight-year-old spent eight hours on my knee telling me about what she had done that day. It meant so much to me to spend time with her.”
While there were plenty of marriages that didn’t work out, most did, and those involved obtained much joy, strength, and courage from their relationships. Sam said the most important thing he’s ever done was “to marry my wife.” He went on to say, “That sounds facetious, but it isn’t. That was the greatest adventure and the greatest fun that I had in my lifetime. I’m convinced that she was made to be my wife. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. My greatest joy has been living sixty-five years with the greatest woman ever made. She was such a dear soul. Couldn’t have been a more perfect wife, mother, lover, and friend. What more can I say?”
Chester was a man of few, but powerful words. When we asked, “What comes next for you?” he answered, “Hug my wife as much as I can.”
As we began our conversation with Rodney and his wife, Dena, he put one condition on his cooperation with our work: “You don’t have nearly enough time to listen to all of our stories, but if you write anything about us the one thing you have to write is how much love we have between us.” When Rodney told his love story with Dena, his enthusiasm spilled over in a multiplication of “very’s”: “It’s a very, very, very special relationship that we have. . . . We’ve been in love since the fourth grade.”
“Sixth grade,” Dena corrected him.
“Well, I fell in love with you when I was in the sixth grade [Dena was in the fourth] and it took me two years to get you to come around.”
“Could be,” Dena said, “but I was in the sixth grade.”
Rodney concluded a very long interview by telling us, “Most people that meet us go away saying, ‘How could they possibly be happy knowing what they know?’ [Rodney was dying at the age of fifty-two from a neurological disorder similar to ALS.] But my happiness is waking up with her every morning and being with her as much as possible. And you know, work is important, it truly is, and I believe in hard work. I’ve always been a hard worker. But I never understood until now how happy one person can make you. And although I’ve always been happy with Dena, I never knew before now how truly happy I am.”
In discussing his marriage, William S. sounded a bit like Rodney in his overuse of the word very: “Well, it’s been a very, very, very wonderful life. Very good. Super. I got the best mate in the world. . . . The smartest thing that I did was marrying her. She’s been a real humdinger! And I don’t mind if she knows it! In fact I’m quite glad that she knows it.” His wife responded with similar exuberance: “Goody, goody, goody, okay!”
Mary T. boiled earthly joy down to two words: “Being loved.”
Perhaps the best way to get a feel for what really matters to people who are reviewing their life is to pick a random point and just go down the list of the responses to this question of what brings the most joy. Listen to the amazing consistency of these answers; and remember, this list represents the responses of a wide spectrum of people.
• Rose D.—“My family—children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren”
• Lois—“Grandchildren, who will answer the phone when I call”
• William S.—“Marrying her and my family”
• Chester—“My two kids turned out good”
• Mildred M.—“I’d say my kids”
• Mary T.—“My children, it made me think I’d done something right”
• Anna—“Daughter, family, everybody getting along”
• John H.—“The lady I’m married to”
• Christine—“The people close to me”
• James B.—“That I married Julia, thirty-three years of marriage, and two wonderful boys”
• Lena—“My three children”
• Sam—“Children turned out well and a wife that loved me”
At the risk of being redundant, here are a few more so you can get the real “feel” of what was said:
• Jerry—“My kids, you know, my son”
• Harold M.—“Marrying my wife; the day I got married my knees were shaking”
• Mildred—“My contribution to my church work and my husband and son are exceptional, [along with] the joy of being with my grandchildren”
• Reitha—“What can I leave? My legacy is my children. I’m most proud of being a mother and that my family is still together”
• Charles W.—“My family and friends; greatest joy is the day she asked me to marry her”
• James G.—“My family, my joy is having my family together”
• James A.—“I’m proud of my life, I have a fine wife and a fine son and daughter and son-in-law and grandchildren”
• Gary—“The birth of my son and my relationship with Jesus Christ”
• Louise O.—“My three sons”
• David D.—“My boys, my two boys”
• Leon—“My friends” (Leon had no surviving family members)
• Lillie—“My family—my husband, child, and granddaughter”
• Mickey—“Our children, having our children together”
The list goes on with amazingly consistent responses. Occasionally there are other responses such as “I’m extremely proud of my professional life,” but as a workaholic myself, I was simply amazed at how rarely people’s work life was even mentioned.
Being in a “life review” mode really seemed to bring some unique perspective and focus to people. As Thomas D. thought over what brought him the greatest joy he said, “My four children and my ex-wife and my wife.” He included his ex-wife? Willie Q. said, “I’ve been married twice and I made it through both of them, I guess. I had a lot more than I thought in my first wife.” Looking back they both see that things were better than they realized at the time. Their observations should give us, the healthy and thriving, pause to consider what really brings us joy today. What is it? Is it right there in front of us? Do we really even think consciously about creating joy in life? Or, do we just live life in some random pattern and find joy from time to time, but without really knowing how or why?
How much daily effort are we actually directing toward creating joy in our lives? Several years ago a psychologist friend of ours spoke, in very general terms, of a conversation he had with an unhappy client. He asked this woman in her forties to tell him of an activity that brought her peace and joy. Her eyes lit up immediately as she told him, “I just love to go fishing. There’s something about being around the water and out in nature that just renews me and gives me great joy.” He then asked her when she had last gone fishing. She thought for a few seconds and said, “I guess it’s been about fifteen years.” No wonder she was unhappy! I’m not even a trained psychologist, but I can tell her how to “get happy”—GO FISHING, for goodness’ sake. Start doing things that make you happy. So often we let our jobs, our volunteer commitments, and even our friends and family dictate to us what we should do and how we should feel.
One of many amazing findings in our interviews was the fact that the things that brought joy to people were so readily available. The “quest” for joy doesn’t require you make a long journey or save your money; we’re surrounded by joy. To repeat Christine, “There’s just such joy all around.” When we talked to the soon-departed, they almost all seemed to realize joy was within reach—and, more important, it had been all along.
“Time Is on My Side”
The Rolling Stones sang, “Time is on my side.” 3
Yes it is, but sometimes it doesn’t seem that way. We often say we just don’t have time to do the most important things that bring the greatest joy to our lives. We complain that we just don’t have enough time to get everything done today. Yet, in reality we all have the same amount of time in a day. And we all have all the time there is.
Money is the biggest discriminator in society. It separates people according to what they are able to acquire, control, and spend. Time, however, is the most powerful equalizer. As we thought about time and life we came to the realization that, while dollars are the currency of the U.S. economy, time is the currency of life. Seconds, minutes, hours, days, and years are the denominations of this currency. We all have 3,600 seconds per hour, 86,400 seconds per day, and a whopping 31,536,000 seconds per year (except for leap years when we get a bonus 86,400 seconds). These are huge numbers. If you really think about it, time is actually abundant. And at the end of the day, financially rich people don’t have any more than those considered poor. What none of us know and what will always remain one of the great mysteries of life, is how much time we have in the future. With the exception of the day on which you die, you do know how much time you have for each day.
One critical difference between the nature of the currency of our economy/money, and the currency of life/time, is that money can be saved and accumulated for use in the future. Time cannot. Speculation about what we would do if we “could put time in a bottle” makes for a great Jim Croce song, but we can’t put time in a bottle. At the end of every day, we have, in the currency of life, “spent” all 86,400 seconds we received for that day. Every single second is gone, used up, and vanished, and we cannot have it back. While we say money has to be earned, time is a gift, and that is further evidence that life is a gift!
Copyright © 2008 by Bob Fisher and Judy Fisher