Some time back, I wrote about what can happen in 100 days. It was related to how quickly life changes, how it moves on, and how we forget even in the wake of the horrible trial like that of Caylee Anthony. Life goes on and new lessons are learned in 100 days (or less).
Such is the situation with my family and the personal lessons we are learning over these past 100 days. In these months, my in-laws, because of significant health care issues and the medical supervision they need have been moved into a nursing home. Additionally in this time, my father in-law has moved into Hospice care following an unsuccessful heart surgery; end of life care for what is now a rather immediate terminal condition. Once again, I am made aware that we cannot predict the next 100 days of our lives—let alone the next minute.
There are lessons, however, I am learning in these days that are forever imprinted on my soul and conscious mind to use as guides for my own life and future. These are life shaping lessons that are ones I believe we must all understand to live well in the time we have on this planet.
Lesson One: Your material possessions should never define who you are
My in-laws’ 82 years of life and material accumulation have been reduced in the past 100 days to an 18 x 15 foot room (I know because I measured it). I have been responsible to help my wife clear out their house of material possessions. I have thrown away so much that they held sacred because no one wants it; Goodwill Industries is getting a large share or college students who need furniture getting another hefty helping. What we have and accumulate in life are tools to use but should not define who we are. Hold all the things you own loosely, not being afraid to give them away or discard them when not needed. What you treasure someone will ultimately discard as so much clutter or trash. Travel light in this world. (And thus by corollary don’t buy in the first place what you don’t need and use or invest your financial resources more wisely. Savings is a really good thing to have….it gives you options)
Lesson Two: Prepare for your own health future in your working years
Related to lesson one is preparation for one’s own health future and the options you are preparing to have in your later years. We WASTE, and I don’t mean this as a literary figurative image, significant financial resources while we are alive on stuff no one will want in the end; therefore using up valuable resources needed in old age for health care and living with dignity.
We don’t think about this when we are young but I have witnessed a full nursing home (with a waiting list to get in) where long life has been reduced to 18 x 15 foot rooms, normally shared with another person (thus a 9 x 7.5 foot cubicle separated by a curtain, if you are lucky). If you have enough resources available you might find space in assisted living or a retirement community, but that is a fantasy unless you spend your working life preparing for it. Wasting money on things one does not need or making poor financial decisions during one’s working years will leave very few choices when one is old. If you don’t plan now, you will reap the reward for that lack of preparation in the future. Take a minute to read Aesop’s “Grasshopper and the Ant” fable (and if you don’t believe me, take a field trip to a nursing home beyond singing there during the Christmas season for ½ hour). The delusion is thinking someone else will pay for this or Medicare has too. They will….but you won’t be pleased with the accommodations.
Lesson Three: Dying peacefully in your sleep is a fantasy we should hope will happen
In the last 100 days, I have witnessed that slipping away in one’s sleep is not the norm for the end of our lives. I have witnessed rooms of people who are alone, dying slowly by the tick-tock of the clock where a few minutes become an eternity of time. Most people I observe are in a slow, long, sometimes painful process of dying. We often lament those who die unexpectedly by a heart attack or accident. But in what I am witnessing it is the blessing not to be feared. What should be feared is the long, painful struggle toward death that I’ve observed by most people in the nursing facility that I am visiting regularly. (This too has a corollary: make nursing home visitation a part of your life choices of service. There are many lonely people in these places…no one visiting them. A place where the television or the occasional nurses’ aid dispensing medication or cleaning is your only companion. And by a second corollary, don’t tell people—or their families–you will visit them if you actually don’t take the initiative to set the time aside and do it. The most honest comment I’ve had to date is from an elderly neighbor of my in-laws who said, “I would tell you, call me if you need anything, but that’s not true. Best of wishes to you.”)
Lesson Four: In the US Western culture, we live in delusion by using nursing homes to keep us separated by the realities of aging and death
Nursing homes, at least for me and in my observation, have become a repository for the aging and sick, so that we can live a delusional state during our younger, healthier years. Somehow we believe we will never die—and keeping the aging and infirmed separate from us keeps us in this fantasy worldview. We are all going to die—you, me, everyone. It may be quick or long, but we are not living forever here on this planet. The US culture via media, advertising and all the books on a blissful heaven with streets of gold are a means of self deception to live “happily ever after.” (By corollary, I personally am in the camp of British theologian, NT Wright related to heaven and the afterlife. I don’t fall into the norm of the evangelical position here. If you want know my position, see the April 16, 2012 issue of Time Magazine, “Rethinking Heaven,” by Jon Meacham)
Lesson Five: People can rise to the occasion and exhibit the best of the human spirit and character
Lest you read this post and slide into depression or “doom and gloom,” let me end with a word of hope (which is also my conviction and belief about the afterlife as well–hope). I have witnessed the human spirit and the most cherished character qualities of humanity rise to the occasion for what is needed in times of struggle and heartache. Again in the West, we love our heroes. But I have observed the true heroes in this world over these 100 days; those who rise to the occasion over long periods of time and who are not a flash of heroism as we dramatize constantly (it has its place, instant heroism, but it is not the norm to be coveted or to gauge our lives against). I have watched my wife—and other family members in the nursing home–as my prime example. She has worked diligently to be present while being employed full time, giving dignity, and being an advocate for her parents in that 18 x 15 room. She has worked hard…there is no other descriptor—to do what is needed. I, too, have learned what being a husband is about. It is taking care of all the chores in the house so there is a place of safety when my wife does come home. It is hugging and loving as a companion or spouse and not as a sexual, romantic gesture—just being present. It is knowing to keep my mouth shut and opinions to myself on how to do something. It is just being there when needed, and engaging when asked….to bring some chocolate or a diet soda “just because” to that 18 x 15 room. To BE LOVE in the most important ways possible.
So my advice, dear reader? Evaluate your life now. Take stock of what is important and what is illusionary. Plan and prepare for your future (no one….I mean no one….will take care of that for you). Learn about aging and dying slowly….read some Hospice materials. Make nursing home visits a normal part of your life service, not just a Christmas feel good visit to sing a few songs and make old people smile. And learn about real love, commitment and fidelity beyond romance, so that relationships can be sustained and grow over a life time.
Blessings to you for this day, in the reflection, and the commitment to undertake understanding. Grace and peace.