Charlotte, N.C. – Recently, I sat with a man as he lay dying in a hospital bed. For the sake of privacy we’ll just call him Bill. Emphysema had overwhelmed Bill’s lungs and no amount of heroic procedures were going to be able to prolong his life in any meaningful way. In the hours leading up to his death, Bill showed me a glimpse of the world – his world – through the eyes of a dying man. Although he is not the first person with whom I have sat during their final moments, this experience was unique. Bill unpacked more than 70 years worth of stories of love, glory, and humor. He invited me into his reality, giving me some perspective that I would like to share with you today.
Born to Italian parents who had immigrated to the US shortly after WW2, Bill’s life epitomized the American Dream. He grew up in Brooklyn, NY as one of seven siblings. His father was a factory worker who sacrificed greatly to create a better life for his children. Bill worked all throughout his high school and college years in manual labor jobs arranged by his Mafia-connected uncle, such as loading cargo from a shipyard onto 18-wheeler transfer trucks. He eventually graduated from NYU with a degree in Mathematics and spent the next 30 years working as an engineer for telecom companies across the northeast. Bill retired in his 50s and spent the best years of his last two decades playing golf and spending time with his grandchildren.
As Bill’s life came to a close, his focus remained sharp on the ones he loved the most. Around our country, the deaths due to COVID-19 are being measured by the thousands. It seems the world as we once knew it has forever changed. During this time, it is imperative that we also remain anchored by what will matter beyond this present circumstance. As this gentleman, who had lived a full and rich life, lay dying, he was concerned with only three things: his family, his soul, and his freedom.
#1 Prioritize your family.
Many social and cultural events which normally distract us and allow us to tune-out those closest to us have been canceled. This time of quarantine and social distancing is the perfect opportunity to reconnect and/or strengthen familial bonds. Fortunately, this pandemic has unfolded in early spring. For many, the warmer weather has meant salvation from an otherwise cold and lonely quarantine. Take this time to do some spring cleaning with your family. Tackle the outdoor projects neglected since last fall. Simply spend time together. The stories Bill shared about going to baseball games were not about the glory of witnessing a walk-off home run, but rather about the ‘experiences’ he shared with his loved ones.
#2 Prioritize your soul.
For Bill, when the time of his death drew nearer, he decided he would cease all life-sustaining treatments. This decision, however, caused him to question the spiritual consequences of his actions. Would he be committing a sin by deciding to no longer artificially prolong his life? Bill was fortunate to be able to speak with a priest before his death. He received the assurances he needed, but the lesson here is to use your time today to concretely settle your questions about your eternal future. Speak with your family and your spiritual leaders about your medical wishes. Discuss realistic scenarios you may face before this pandemic is over. Do you believe you would be committing a sin by asking for life support, or by asking to remove life support? Do not wait until your body makes those decisions for you. Approach these conversations with courage and start today.
#3 Prioritize your freedom.
On a personal level, freedom has a million definitions. For Bill, freedom meant deciding ‘when’ he would cease his life sustaining treatments. He wanted to die on his own terms: with a cup of hot, black coffee and no tubes, lines, or other medical equipment attached to him. He wanted to face death head-on and with eyes wide open.
Freedom also has a broader meaning in our country right now. Does your Governor consider gun stores to be essential? Will vegetable seeds that would allow you to grow your own food be considered an essential item to Purchase? Is your place of worship be allowed to remain open during flu season next year? Will your privately owned firearms be declared “too dangerous” to be owned during a time of national crisis? It has often been repeated that “freedom is not free.” But right now our country is selling its freedom for a very low price.
Our world, and the setting for the life-stories that we are still writing, is a scary place. While COVID-19 is creating a lot of noise worldwide, it is important we stay focused on the things that are truly most important. The things that will matter on our deathbeds. Our families, souls, and freedoms are fine priorities from which to start.
Use this time in quarantine as an opportunity for self-reflection and ask yourself the tough questions. If my family member were to contract the Coronavirus, is our relationship in a good place or is it full of conflict? Have I talked to God lately and what would happen to my soul if I were to die? Have I made my final wishes known to those around me? Is the world that I am creating one in which my children will know freedom? Answer these questions for yourself as soon as possible, because thousands more of us will die before this outbreak is over. Take some lessons from a man on his death bed and it might just improve your life.