My friend Marie’s dad Louis died last week. Marie had accompanied him on his doctor’s visit on the day two months ago when he was first informed that he had cancer and he had no more than a few weeks to live. Because the cancer was so advanced and Louis at eighty-eight was in no condition to withstand chemotherapy, the doctor recommended only palliative care. Louis responded with the kind of equanimity and courage that Marie had witnessed in him throughout her life. Still, she was amazed by the grace in which he received the news. Marie committed on that day to devote whatever time her father had left to being in service to him to assist him in making the transition from this life to whatever awaited him as meaningful, peaceful, and loving as she possibly could. She was unwilling to turn her father’s care over to strangers, or anyone who she could not count on to provide the loving care that she felt him to be deserving of.
At work the day after the doctor’s visit, Marie spoke to her supervisor and requested a temporary leave of absence in order to care for Louis in his final days. Without hesitation, her supervisor granted it, assuring her that the team would manage without her. “Take whatever time you need”, her supervisor told her.
From that point on, Marie was with her dad, day in and day out, so that she could be continually available to him to attend to whatever needs he had. Her dad’s loving companion for over twenty-five years, Nelda, also attended to him every day. Marie and Nelda did the shopping, cleaning, cooking, laundering and personal care that he required. Marie ran whatever errands were necessary, including taking Louis to his bank and attorney to get his financial affairs in order. Her overriding intention was for Louis to experience being completely loved and cared for and to live his final days with dignity. She did everything in her power to make his life as easy and as comfortable as possible as his condition declined.
Louis’ initial response to his situation was at first one of fierce resistance. “I’m going to beat this cancer”, he told Marie. He was not about to “go gently into that good night”. But he soon came to accept his weakening condition and the inevitability of his dying. Louis had been blessed with good health and strength all his life until the very end, and rather than curse his fate, he chose to be grateful for the healthy life he had enjoyed during his eighty-eight years.
When Marie called his many friends and family members to tell them the news of her father’s illness they arrived almost immediately in droves. All day long, every day, visitors continually streamed in and out of his home. Family and friends arrived from faraway places to offer their blessings and say good-by to Louis. It was a weeks-long celebration of life and Louis had the starring role. Tears of laughter, sorrow, and joy were flowing freely, and at times simultaneously. It was truly an ongoing ‘love-fest’.
Marie had always known her father to be an especially kind and generous man who had given much of his time and attention and what little money he had to others throughout his lifetime. Louis was one of those people who gives without the expectation of getting something back in return. He knew and had always known that the reward for giving is in the feeling of giving itself. When Marie or anyone else did something nice for him, he would always say “Que dios se lo paque” which means “God will repay you”. This was his ways of expressing his gratitude for the divine showing him kindness. This time of deep gratitude and appreciation seemed to Marie to be a great bonus that Louis and all of his many friends and family members got to experience together. Yet in reviewing his life, not all was blissful. There were, as there are with most people, some regrets as well. “I wish that I had accumulated more savings for my children and grandchildren”, he told Marie. That admission reminded him of something that a psychic whom he had consulted many years ago told him: “You have never amassed wealth and you probably never will. You have always put other people ahead of yourself and will continue to do so all of your life. That’s just who you are.” Another example of the generosity that characterized Louis’ life involved his tenants who occupied the other side of his duplex.
Unbeknownst to them, Louis opened a bank account for them several years back and he unfailingly made monthly deposits in it, as if they were blood relatives. “My father viewed everyone”, Marie said, “as if they were relations, and that’s how he treated them, and that’s why he was so beloved by so many people.” Louis was blessed to be free of pain for most of his dying process and with a clear mind was able to communicate well right up until his very last day when he was too weak to speak. In his final hours, when his breathing became labored, Marie and Nelda were at his bedside, holding his hand, stroking his hair, and telling him repeatedly that everything was handled, that it was OK for him to let go and move towards the light. Marie and Nelda were both with him when he passed over to the other side. They both continued to sit with his body quietly weeping but also experiencing a feeling of great peace and gratitude that it had been such a good death.
Louis had always joked that he was living so long that there wouldn’t be anybody left to come to his funeral because they would all have died off, but he was wrong. His memorial service was packed with hundreds of people who came to pay their respects to this simple man with such a generous heart. Marie told me, “I feel so fortunate to have been blessed with a father as loving as my father was. I know that he lives and will always live on in my heart and in the hearts and minds of so many people whose lives he touched.”
Mother Teresa once said that there are really no great acts, only small acts that are done with great love. Louis’ life was filled with small acts of love, kindness, and generosity. Even in his dying, his regret was not that he hadn’t accumulated more for himself, but that he didn’t have more to leave those he loved. Louis was not only a loving man, but a wise one as well. He knew that the greatest riches in life are not those of the material variety but the riches of the heart, and that the best investment that one can make isn’t in the stock market or in real estate, but in matters of the heart, the returns of which are literally priceless.
You don’t have to wait for this investment to mature in order to reap its fruits and benefits. Louis’ beautiful dying was merely the icing on the cake of a long, loving life that was filed with the joys of living with an open heart. True, there was suffering and pain in it as well, as there is in everyone’s life, but the fulfillment that is inherent in a loving life makes life’s adversities and difficulties much easier to bear.
An old saying goes, “when you were born, you cried and the world around you was delighted with joy. May you live your life in such a way that when you die, the world around you will cry and you will delight with joy.” What would that take? How would you have to live your life such that that would be the way in which you left it? You might want to give it some thought.