Yesterday was my husband’s birthday. I lost him to a rare form of lung cancer four years ago, a mutation that typically affects younger guys who don’t smoke.
I’ve learned it’s important to have a plan for days like his birthday.
It caught me off guard the first year. I’d expect Valentines Day to be difficult. Or, our anniversary. But his birthday…I had never felt so empty as the day I couldn’t bake a cake for him.
I think it’s because grief is, among many things, our love, with no place to go.
A birthday is a day we’d typically get to express love and care. So, my kids and I like to spend the day together, and do something for him, in his honor. Yesterday we hiked together, and baked a cake — his favorite kind, yellow cake with fudge icing.
I spent a lot of time reflecting on all he taught me, particularly during his cancer journey.
People who are about to die get VERY real.
All pretense is stripped. If they believe in God, they lean in close to Him. We can learn SO much about living from the dying.
Dan was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, with brain involvement, and told he would not survive it, in 2011. He was told he’d live anywhere from a few weeks to a few years. He lived four and a half beautiful years.
Dan and I were able to spend his last few months together, uninterrupted, living pretty much in our bedroom — a tiny, limited world of IVs, hospice nurses, and Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix, but with opportunity for endless conversation.
Here are FIVE THINGS YOU’LL PROBABLY NOT REGRET, which I’ve collected by saying goodbye to some amazing souls — my husband, parents, and some patients I cared for as a nursing student.
1. GO FOR IT
“Wherever you go, there you are.” This was from my mom. She was taking a quote from Thomas a Kempis (The Imitation of Christ) out of context, flipping it on its end, reinterpreting.
She meant, GO FOR IT.
Have a dream? Afraid? Why are you afraid? Wherever you go, you are still you, and you had the passion to dream it…so try it. DO NOT believe the lies in your head that tell you that you can’t, or that you aren’t.
TRY. If you fail, you can try again.
2. DO WHAT YOU LOVE
“Never stop drumming. This was from Dan, in a letter to Jonathan, our youngest son. He’d noticed Jon’s passion and ability as they played together on our church worship team.
Many hospice patients note at the end of their lives that they’d wished they’d been less afraid to be themselves. Less afraid to be, embrace, who God created them to uniquely be.
If you find something you love to do, you are probably really good at it. If you are really good at it, it’s a GIFT that should not be squandered.
Find a way to do what you love.
3. JUST SAY IT
My dad passed away just months after Dan. He was just beyond his second or third year of being only 89. Just before he passed away I learned he believed in God.
I asked if I could pray for him one night before I left a visit, knowing he probably had just days left on earth.
He said, in a super grumpy tone, “It’s too late to pray!”
I told him it’s never to late to pray.
In a still-irritated voice he said, “NO. I mean I’m tired! It’s late. I want to sleep.”
I asked him if he understood what Christ did for him on the cross, and in simple words he said yes, and explained the Gospel beautifully. I wish he’d told me before. We could have had some great conversations.
Many patients at the end of life express regret over not expressing their feelings. My dad also mumbled “I love you” a couple times in his final days. This is not something my Dad said often.
Just say it.
4. EMBRACE DIFFICULTY
“It’s stuff for life.” This was the daily from a man everyone called, “Red.” He was my patient at a nursing home where I learned nursing was not my gift. Talking to patients, yes, but caring for them usually left me passed out cold on the floor.
Red had a thick shock of white hair, was bound to a wheelchair he always wanted positioned near a window, and I am thinking he was a redhead in younger years because he still had that wild look in his eyes. And because everyone called him “Red.”
Trials? They are stuff for life. Dan told me he would NOT have traded his battle with cancer for a long life. That even sounds crazy as I type it, but he said it, and I believe him. It brought him the closest he’d ever been to God, and that was a really good place to be.
Embrace trials. Let them shape you.
5. WORK LESS, PEOPLE MORE
Most of us allow our careers to become a huge part of our identities. Dan realized in his last six months that while working hard was valuable, he often missed the people. I saw him grow in love, interest and appreciation for his family, his friends, coworkers, in a way I’d never seen before.
6. LAUGH MORE
I realize this makes SIX. Bear with me.
Dan was the most fearlessly funny Dan he’d ever been during his last few months of life. He had learned to laugh at himself, and find humor in situations he couldn’t control.
By November, 2014, he was tired. He hadn’t left his bed in well over a month.
Our worship leader, Daniel, would often come by after church to play the weekend’s songs for him. We’d sing, pray…and laugh
“Dan,” Daniel began, one late November Sunday, “can I play a few worship songs for you?”
He’d asked this each Sunday for at least a month.
“NOOOOOOO,” Dan replied. “I’ll pass.” [very serious look, rolls eyes, shakes head]
Then he laughed.
“Of course. I was just teasing.” He had learned to laugh, even in the most difficult times. And we learned there was a humorous, sarcastic, Dan underneath the quiet, mild mannered man we knew.