Today a family stood by the bedside of their beloved husband, father, uncle, cousin, brother as the nurses disconnected his respirator and other machines keeping his body alive days after his brain had died. All week, as family gathered for the final moments, the patient was rarely alone—someone or a large group keeping him company, telling stories, crying, praying, holding each other. In the room today, the love was palpable, as people held each other in their sorrow. At one point, after a son had been wailing for awhile, setting others off into their own tears, their uncle gently but firmly told them that they had all been blessed to have had the honor and privilege of knowing their dad—“people like him don’t come along every day, you know,” he told them. And it was now their responsibility to take what they had learned from him, all the lessons, and use them, share them with the rest of the world. No time to waste. And the crying stopped, and people started falling over each other telling stories of what they had learned from him—always inviting people over to eat with him, taking in anyone who needed help, supporting anyone in the family who needed support, teaching young people to become the best they could be. And then they started to laugh, and continued to tell stories.
Later in the day, I stopped by the room of a patient I’d been visiting regularly for a couple of weeks. She had eaten a cookie at church after worship on a Sunday that turned out unbeknownst to her to have peanuts in it, and her peanut allergy cascaded into a stroke. I didn’t know that happened. I had been called in because her daughter was in distress. When I originally met them, I discovered that in addition to the church surrounding them, family was flying in from all over, and the patient’s friends were surrounding them as well. Every day, more people came. And every day, the patient got a little stronger, until yesterday, she was moved out of the ICU. But today she was back. And when I arrived in the room, the daughter was alone with her mother, in tears. She had been told it was now time to put away the ideas of a rehab facility and long term planning, and instead, to prepare for the end-of-life decisions. She was devastated, and I just held her as she sobbed. I asked if she were calling in the troops and she explained that her boyfriend was making the calls, because she couldn’t bear to talk to anyone. Sometime soon, her mother will die, from eating a cookie at church.
What struck me – over and over – were two things. One is the truth we all know, but don’t ever seem to remember: things can change in an instant. You think you have more time with your loved ones, but you really don’t know. It could be over in a flash.
Another patient, with a particularly deadly form of cancer, told me a couple of days ago that when he received his diagnosis three years ago, he changed his life. His bucket emptied out—not on trips to China or Hawaii, but on doing service in his church and community. He wanted to be connected to people through service and engagement, not flitting around, but grounding himself with the people he cared about, giving his life meaning.
And that’s the second point—all these people were engaged, truly engaged in their community—of family, friends, church. The love that filled their hospital rooms was the love they had given out over the years coming back to them. Everything the research shows—about how we live longer, more fulfilled lives when we are in community—was revealing itself in the small slices of life and death I was watching unfold in front of me. It made me want to shake people—get involved: don’t just be a member—belong, embed yourself into a community that matters to you. Not so that they will be there when you are sick, but so that your life will have meaning. And then they will be there when you are sick. Just as you were there for them.
And it’s not always so easy—many of us struggle to find the place, find the way in, feel welcome. But now I say, don’t give up. Keep looking for the community that DOES welcome you, that shares your values, that can appreciate your gifts. But importantly—bring your gifts now. While you’re healthy.
Count your blessings every day (preferably, if you’re Jewish, 100 every day), because tomorrow you might not be able to. Surround yourself with people who matter to you. And surround them with your love.
Start today. Because tomorrow may never come.