I have a couple of friends who have received prognoses of impending death. In one case, it’s a woman with inoperable breast cancer that has spread to the spine, never a good thing. My brother died fifteen years ago when his cancer spread from the sinuses to the lungs and spine. Treatment will prolong life in my friend’s case, but that’s all. I am uncertain what treatment did in the case of my brother.
For my other friend, it’s a recurrence of liver cancer, with treatments to shrink the tumors and extend the months left for time with family and friends. These cases lead me to ponder the advance of death, when we are given a timeline on which death progresses, inexorable as the revolution of the earth on its axis, as night following day.
The ordinariness of the days which are numbered speaks volumes. There are no special events or extraordinary trips planned. There are maybe a few more family gatherings and meals steeped in tradition and shared moments watching the grandchildren in their daily activities. My two friends are both people of deep faith, who have requested prayers from near and far, and they are on many prayers lists of equally faithful folk all across not only the country, but, indeed, the globe. Prayers ascend, asking for peace and comfort for loved ones, and peace and a grace-filled transition for the afflicted.
When I was young and growing into adulthood, I remember harboring dreams of a life filled with important work, interesting people and exciting activities, of making a difference with my life choices and earning a star in the pantheon of saints. As an adult, now in what is probably the last quarter of my life, my reflections take me to insights that I hadn’t dreamed of and am unsure I would have designed for my life. I ponder the transition from life to death, the knowledge of its immediacy and the impact such knowledge has on one’s daily choices.
Although I have been privileged to participate in some important work, to know a few interesting people, and to make a difference in some lives by my choices, I am struck by the Motown lyrics that reverberate in my head: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” I have always focused on the last half of that verse, “love the one you’re with,” because I have known for as long as I can remember that love is a choice, an act of will, and not something that one willy-nilly “falls” into as some hapless victim of eros or agape.
“Love the one you’re with” is an admonition to be present fully. At the moment you are before me, does anyone else exist for me but you? It has been said that the difference between genius and not-genius is the ability to focus undivided attention over extended periods.
When I am acting consciously, I do try to be present to the ones I’m with and to love them with my entire being, which gets expressed as being attentive to what they’re saying and feeling, and responding accordingly. When I am unconscious and distracted, I’m focused on my own preset agenda, what I want to accomplish and how I want others to help achieve my goals.
Being self-aware, conscious, opens up an amazing amount of psychic space in my conversations, because I am receptive to receiving what others offer. Being unconscious and egoistic shuts down my receptors, and my thoughts bounce against one another in a cacophony of aggressive indecision that grows into a communicable anxiety spilling out and affecting others contrary to my best intentions.
As I’ve prayed for my friends with their incurable illnesses and their families, I’ve also meditated on how I can be present to them in an authentic, life-affirming way. I've taken to asking my friends how they feel versus asking about their labs and last doctor’s visit. I am convinced that we might actually manage our days of living with some of these end stage illnesses better without the knowledge of lab results to which we privileged first-world people have access. We certainly wouldn't obsess as much about the lab results, and we just might be more present to our living versus to our illnesses.
We are all dying . . . from the moment of birth. It’s just a matter of timing, how quickly or slowly we make the transition. What matters is how well we’ve loved the ones we’ve been with.