If you were down to the last weeks and months of your life, what kinds of stories would you tell? Perhaps you would have regrets, or the need to release a secret held too long. Maybe you would find the strength to make amends, or the will to finally grant compassion to others, or yourself. Kerry Egan is a hospice chaplain and the author of a beautiful and thoughtful book on this topic, called “On Living.” Recently recommended to me by a friend, I sat down after dinner last night to quickly skim through the 200 pages and found myself coming up for air four hours later deeply moved and in need of a tissue or two. This book was not sad. I found it to be an inspiring and sometimes humorous set of stories on how we as humans can find more meaning in our lives now, before we reach the end of our days.
By sharing many of the insights from her work counseling hospice patients, the author reveals what she has learned by listening and simply being present. I loved her chapter on “living in the gray” which dealt with judgement and the importance of kindness (which is not the same as niceness). Another section of the book that was meaningful to me detailed the contrast between toughness and strength, which are often thought of as being the same thing, but in fact are opposites. A favorite quote: “You have to be tough because you’re not strong. Being tough makes you mean. In most of life, you can be weak inside and get through by putting on a tough outer shell. But if you work in hospice, you have to stay soft on the outside. So in order to stand up straight, you have to have a spine of steel. Two ways to go through the world, two ways to deal with the loss that is an inevitable experience in life–with a hard shell or with a rock-solid backbone.”
My favorite chapter is entitled, “if I had only known, I would have danced more.” The author describes how many dying patients express regret that they had spent time hating their bodies for various reasons and wished that they had appreciated them more in the course of their lives. Egan writes, “They talk about their favorite memories of their bodies. And dancing. So many stories about dancing. I can’t count the hundreds of times people–more men than women–have closed their eyes and said, “If I had only known, I would have danced more.”
I am personally taking this last lesson to heart. I have always regretted not knowing how to dance. Six months ago, my husband Aaron and I started taking ballroom dancing lessons at the new Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Long Grove, and we have added one more joyful thing to our lives because of it. As a result of reading “On Living” I am also inspired to bring more peace into my life right now by working harder on forgiveness and compassion. My hope is to die with few regrets and I wish the same for you.