In the Orange County Register, I reflected on some of the people who exemplify living richly in life’s final frontier. Read my Parting Ways Column below…
I was at a baby shower for my childhood friend last week when her mother-in-law, who is in her 70s, came up to me and said, “For lack of a better word, I feel envy for your Mom. You took such care to make her last days as good as possible.”
It is easy to pair envy with living, but not with dying.
Yet, I understood what she meant.
Cancer aside, my mother lived life her way until the moment of her very last breath at home surrounded by family and friends on Feb. 10, 2002. It’s the tenth anniversary of those last weeks of her life that inspired my book “Parting Ways” and this column. Both are a collection of stories that invite people to walk alongside individuals and families who have chosen not to spend their final hours alone in a hospital.
Though it was tough, we celebrated my mother’s 54th birthday on Jan. 9 at home, knowing it would be her last. Family and friends joined us. We surprised her with a group of praise-music singers and a guitarist, and it was a transcendent experience to sing “Amazing Grace” with a group of intimates in my living room. This beat sitting in a hospital waiting for her to die.
In her last week, friends and family gathered in our home to pay tribute to her life and collectively reminisce in what I now call a living wake. Since I know memories fade, I video-recorded her stories, lessons and wisdom. I purposely recorded her saying, “I love you, my love,” smiling and laughing.
Ten years later, those are the heirlooms I cherish most in her absence. We all have people in our lives who inspire us, touch us, mentor us, move us, and they live on as our examples even after death. My mother and all the individuals I’ve encountered while writing this column invigorated me. Their final journeys model how to walk clear-eyed into a stage of life that is fraught with fear for so many of us.
So, I want to pause as we enter a new year to reflect and say “You’ll be remembered.” They’ve sparked a connection within the community of readers and followers who send emails of gratitude and reminiscences about loved ones they’ve lost.
Bessie Anderson will be remembered in our community as the daring 105 year old who wanted to take a balloon ride at the Great Park. And did. I received a thank you card from Sheryl Villapania, her granddaughter, who shared that Bessie was thrilled to be in the newspaper. She even autographed copies for people in her community. She died just 10 days after the article was published. Imagine taking a hot air balloon ride in your last weeks of life.
I still get a buzz, as if I drank champagne, when I reflect on the three-hour receiving line at the living funeral of Dee J. Valentine, a World War II veteran, elder of his church and star in his retirement community Costa del Sol. He didn’t let going into hospice stop him from celebrating his 100 years of life with 200 friends and family from across the country. He reveled in the reunions and embraces. His advice to me about longevity was: “You have to live for the future…even today I look forward to growing and make life better for others.”
He continues to grow and live! Hospice wasn’t about a death sentence for Dee J. It was about finding the kind of care to enable him to keep living independently at home among his family and community. Though the doctor has to say the patient has six months or less to live to receive hospice, Dee J. has lived on hospice for one year. He didn’t want to be institutionalized. His family is making that last wish a reality for him. My hope is one day these kinds of stories will drown out those in our community of parting ways with our aging loved ones in a cold, isolated institution.
Pat White will forever be a legend to me. I believe we must sit down with our family members to video-record their history, because you never know what could be living in the past of your grandmother or grandfather. I’ll never forget being transported to the underworld of prohibition told through the riveting reflections of 89-year-old Pat who grew up in a gangster family that “ran East Louis and Southern Illinois, the way Al Capone ran Chicago.” She told these stories for the first time and had almost carried them to the grave. That would have been a shame. Today, her zest and tales will be continue in her family lore but now also reside in our collective memory.
In my book “Parting Ways,” Elizabeth Vega, a journalist turned life-review guide for hospice patients, shared her belief passed down from the Aztecs that we die three deaths. The first death occurs when your body exhales the last breath and the heart stops beating. The second death is marked when your body is lowered into the ground, returned to the elements of Mother Earth and slips from the sight of the living. The most definitive of the three is when your memory vanishes and there is no one left to remember you.
I invite you to send in a photograph of someone you’ve loved and lost. Share with me a story of an individual who has set an example for you or recall a cherished moment that will live on in your memory. Our collective memory can help us challenge the third death. We might not be able to achieve immortality for our loved ones, but I can be sure that even 10 years after they die, their lives guide our tomorrows and even garner the envy of others.