“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” – Proust
When Bob was released from Shepherd Center Brain Rehab in Atlanta, Georgia after seven months’ in-patient, I was told that he had one year to live. Still recovering from a life-threatening illness, unable to walk and in a wheelchair, it now was up to me to decide what it is that makes life worth living in the face of demise. Our once-active and stimulating lives were no longer focused on the next cultural event or global trip, but rather on the reality of the painful, present moment. Our future together was no longer about setting new goals, but rather about living well day by day in a very limited amount of time. And I determined to make each moment of his last days as rich and meaningful as they could be so he had some feeling of significance, dignity and satisfaction.
Each Day Brought New Joy
As one who always fainted at the sight of blood and dreaded hospitals, I found that I could do any medical procedure the nurses did without flinching—from suctioning a trach to stopping a bleed to flushing out a feeding tube. No longer able to meet with colleagues or catch up with friends at lunch, I learned to make my own sunshine each day without depending on money or things or new places to make me feel contented inside. I somehow found the serendipitous positivity in our dramatically changed lives and woke up daily with great anticipation that each morning would bring with it new joy. I aimed to live the quote from Proust, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
Learning the Greatest Lessons of Life
Looking back over the four years, I can honestly smile and say that throughout my brush with death and Bob’s final health decline and death, I garnered the greatest lessons of what is most significant in life. Even when Bob was lying with his eyes closed in a hospital bed on a high tech ventilator, I began to appreciate him more than ever before, as I was flooded with waves of lifetime memories of his great commitment and accomplishments as a husband, father and leader. His delicately whispered words warmed my heart more than they ever had because I finally stopped racing toward my goal. Instead, I was privileged to listen to and love him during his arduous end-of-life journey. I discovered a extraordinary kind of exhilaration sitting outside next to his wheelchair on a cool windy day, more than I had ever experienced on global cruises or touring foreign countries. Even though his lifespan was abruptly cut short by society’s standards and even though I now wear the deep scars and badges of a catastrophic illness, I have become a much gentler, caring and compassionate person. I feel tenderly blessed by the richness of Bob’s life and our lives together as a family.
Death is a Real Part of Life
Keep in mind that death is a vital part of life. I believe that most of us forget that fact when a loved one becomes ill or near end-of-life. Our first instinct is to run or hide or blot out the sad memories when, in fact, these too are part of what makes us fully human. While the thought of dying, or watching a loved one die or losing a loved one is beyond frightening, in reality, the unbelievable sense of loss and sadness does ease over time and this last journey can give invaluable life lessons, molding you into an emotionally balanced person. No, the catastrophic memories never go away; but they do become softer and easier to accept. I have learned that even in the most horrific situation, the human spirit can handle it and make us better for it.