To say that I had a strange day would be a major understatement. Granted, it is Halloween, so that might be expected, although I was rather surprised to see costumes on campus. But in general, Halloween was its usual candy-greedy, haunted-house-scary self. What made today special was that in the midst of everybody else’s celebration, I actually encountered death. I was going to journal about it this evening, but I decided that I wanted to share my new knowledge with as many people as I could.
This whole encounter with death truly started a few weeks ago, when I was required to read and watch Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture. Dying from cancer, he was fully aware that the customary “last lecture” typically given in academia was actually his last one. He shared a summary of his life and the lessons he learned through pursuing his dreams. He was a brilliant and witty man, and I enjoyed his inspirational advice, but it was hard for me to distance myself from the knowledge that this man no longer lives on the earth. I boo-hooed like a baby when I finished.
Since that experience, the sensation of death has followed me around, and today, it came after me like a beagle on a scent (I would know- I have one of those little troublemakers). I went to a chapel this morning where Belmont’s president Dr. Bob Fisher and his wife Judy spoke about the 104 interviews they did with hospice patients and the book they wrote about them called Life is a Gift. Once again, I was haunted by the words of advice from the, now, dead to me, the living. It was hard to hear at points, I even teared up a few times, but I’m glad I went. It softened my soul and made me evaluate the ways I spend and don’t spend my time. If I died tomorrow, would I have done and said all the things I could have said? The answer is no. That got me thinking.
So I’m thinking about life in lieu of death, alright? And then I find myself honoring a commitment to help out in a nursing simulation for a few hours. I was to be playing the family member of a patient (a mechanical mannequin), asking as many questions of the nurses as I could, while reacting to the hospital scene. It was a really neat concept, particularly considering the fact that I was getting improvisation practice in, I got to go into the incredible clinical facilities, it helped out the nursing students, and I got service hours. It was a win-win-win-win scenario. At least, it was until it hit me.
End of life simulation.
I had to pretend to be the daughter of a breathing, moaning, coughing, dying mannequin. And it was hard. Want to know why? I pretended like my own mother was in that bed, dying of cancer, and I was alone, and she wasn’t responding. I felt entirely helpless in a way I had never felt before. I couldn’t save her. And the nurses couldn’t either. When the nurses gently told me that my mom had passed, my breath caught in my chest and tears came to my eyes. And then I started telling the nurse about my mom. I told her about how she was the strongest woman I know having raised three daughters as a single mother, how joyful she was, how she couldn’t tell a joke worth anything because she would always laugh before the punch line. Then I wept over how sad it was that I never knew her mother, that my children will never know her, and that my sisters weren’t there to say goodbye, too.
Then the instructor asked everybody to sit around a table for a debrief, and as I tried to shake myself out of my morbid mood, I learned a lot about the job of a nurse, particularly when it comes to the passing away of a patient. How do you foster a comfortable environment for all? Do you talk? Are you allowed to cry? Is your silent presence enough? As I listened to their discussion, I realized that I was getting insight into the heart of nurses everywhere, and that I was learning how to handle the death of a loved one without actually having to lose anybody. I listened intently, amazed at the compassion and the moral intelligence of the students and the teachers, (our present and future caretakers) grateful for the experience.
I left the building and immediately wanted to call my real mom. I had to hear her voice after pretending she died. I pulled out my phone, and she had already called me. I dialed her back, and when she picked up, I laughed, saying, “Your timing is impeccable. I just pretended you died in a nursing simulation. It was terrible.” But my mom hadn’t called just to wish me a happy Halloween. She had called to tell me that the mom of one of my best friends from middle school had passed away last weekend.
So here I am at the end of this death-filled day. I’m emotionally shot having recalled all of these teary experiences, and I want to know why God orchestrated the concept of death to be woven into everything I did today. And of all days, too? Halloween? That’s, like, major overload. What was so important for me to learn?
And as I’m typing this, I think of an answer.
Life is a gift.
Not just my life.
And just because I’m not afraid of death, doesn’t mean that I should waste my time or your time.
Here’s what I’m going to do:
If you read this, let me know, and I will share with you what I admire about you and what I hope for your life in the future. You can pick whether it’s in person, in a letter, over Skype, or over the phone. It’s my way of expressing my joy in life and thanking you for reading this all the way through.
Take care of yourselves, and please, for heaven’s sake, tell your mom you love her tonight.