You’re lying in a bed. Maybe you’re surrounded by friends and family. Maybe you’re alone. Perhaps you knew it was coming, or maybe it came by total surprise. The nurse comes in with a look on her face that tells you what you already know. She says it’ll be a matter of days and it’s time to prepare for what’s ahead. And in that moment, what will run through your mind? Your children? Your best friend? The one who got away? The job of your dreams?
And if asked the question, “What would you differently?” — what would you say?
I help people die for a living. I work in hospice, and death has become as common a part of my routine as brushing my teeth or having that first cup of coffee to start my day. When that ever-popular question comes up on first dates, happy hours, or conversations in the line at the grocery store of “What do you do for a living”, the response I get is always the same. “Wow, I don’t know how you do it. You’re an angel. I could never do something like that.” When I tell someone I work in end of life care, it’s almost as if people put you on some God-like pedestal where you suddenly you possess some saintly gift to deal with that one awkward and uncomfortable subject no one ever wants to bring up.
Death. Dying. The end of a life.
Most people look at me and think I still have a lifetime to experience the world and all it has to offer. Sure my life has “just begun,” and there’s “a whole life ahead of me,” according to what society tells us, but what I’ve experienced working with the terminally ill has afforded me the opportunity to see and appreciate life in a way I never truly thought I could: That life is fleeting, and you only get one chance to do it right.
A hospice nurse compiled hundreds of hospice patient responses; highlighting the top five regrets people had who were dying.
“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
“I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”
“I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
“I wish that I had let myself be happier.”
Easier said than done, right?
We don’t think twice when we complain to our coworkers about another 60-hour work week, or when we have the best intentions to call that friend we haven’t seen in over a year that I’ve lost touch with.
But the truth is, life doesn’t come with a do-over. It doesn’t come with an endless string of opportunities or a giant eraser that cleans the page. There is no second chance.
I used to look at life like I was indestructible hurricane, having 80 more years ahead of me to make up for my string of immature missteps and mistakes. That’s no longer the case. To me, life is no longer something I feel entitled to, however, a precious opportunity to wake up and simply live another day as a magnificent blip in this vast universe.
Does that sound cliché? Take it for what it’s worth.
Because sitting and holding the frail hand of a woman who lived 90 years as she takes her final few shallow breaths, or hearing the story of how a handsome World War II vet met his sweetie walking home from school back in 1945, and after eight children, one home, and 50 wedding anniversaries, he couldn’t imagine loving anyone else, or watching my father get carried away at 59 under a white sheet as tears streamed down my face, I came to learn that life is not a just series of meaningless daily occurrences. There is more to living that purely existing. It’s a wonderful, terrifying, incredible, impeccably imperfect journey, and you only get a one-way ticket. Life isn’t a round-trip affair.
So when the time comes, whether you are 35 and diagnosed with incurable brain cancer, or a hundred and two, celebrating your birthday with three generations of family and friends, and someone ask you, “Would you do it all different” — would you? And after you ask yourself this question, will it be too late? Don’t let life pass you by so when they’re playing the highlight reel of your life, it’s totally worth watching. I know now without a doubt, mine will be.