Years ago, I had a friend named Eddie Morton from Richmond, Virginia. Morton was a champion tennis player having competed at the D-1 level in college. Soon after I met him, he began to struggle with various health issues. Initially he had debilitating headaches, then stomach spasms and finally, his ambulatory functions became compromised. Eddie was confused and frustrated by these seemingly random symptoms. He went from one research facility to the next starting with Hopkins, then on to Harvard’s Massachusetts General, quickly followed by a thorough examination at Stanford. No one seemed to be able to crack the mystery. What was wrong with Eddie?
This journey of discovery went on for almost three years with Eddie growing more despondent and hopeless by the day. For my part, I was not sure how to help or encourage my friend. This all seemed a cruel twist of fate with no good answers on hand. Increasingly, Eddie spent his days in solitude, frequently despondent, fearing the worst.
Then, on a very humid July morning, I got a call from Eddie. He was absolutely elated. I was confused, wanting to believe that he had received promising news from one of the research hospitals. Quite the contrary was the case. I inquired as to his buoyant mood and he told me the following: “I just got a call from my primary doctor and he confirmed the worst, I likely have six months to live at most.” After some conversation I asked, “Why such good spirits?” He told me that finally, he knew the truth and that was utterly liberating.
Isn’t it odd that often the unvarnished truth, even when it is really bad, is liberating? My observation is that so much stress and pain in our life is the result of ambiguity; we simply do not know what is going on. When Eddie finally got the diagnosis, he was free to live his remaining days calmly and peacefully. The truth sets us free.
Eddie’s case is unusual; typically, we have to work our way through our sorrow to get to a place of acceptance. I initially learned about the five stages of grief by reading On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Her process seems right to me. When faced with a crisis of some sort, we initially are in denial, and then we move into an angry phase, followed by bargaining. The last two stages are depression followed by acceptance. For most of us, it seems we cannot merely jump over any of the five stages.
I recently came across a short piece on dying by Fay Vincent, former Commissioner of Major League Baseball. Fay’s short piece, A Good Life in My Dying Days, is one man’s view of the end. He quotes Pascal on the fragility of life, “Man is a reed, the weakest in nature.” I have always been intrigued by how people navigate their last days. Some face it joyfully, while others are angry to the last. Some even find humor in the very thought that they will be gone soon. On his deathbed, a local priest in Paris administered Voltaire’s last rites. As part of the ritual, the priest asked him to renounce the devil, at which point Voltaire mused, “This is no time to make new enemies.” Pretty good, I must say.
Below is Fay Vincent’s perspective on the end. Everyone must make sense of this important last passage in their own way. I am constantly struck by how at peace many are when they consider their final days. And while this topic might seem a tad morbid for some, I think it is good to live our days in the light of our very limited runway.
My friends, let us resolve to approach each day as a gift, and not postpone entering in fully.