Life is not a dress rehearsal

Even knowing I would end up running late, I always looked forward to my biweekly visits with Charles in Hospice. Though he was awash in the consequences of end-stage metastatic cancer layered over the frailties of age (he was 91), his mind was sharp, his outlook positive, and he never failed to say something that changed the way i saw the world. 

That morning he was sitting in his recliner, a picked-at breakfast on the tray table beside him, clean shaven and dressed, thinning hair neatly combed, his nasal oxygen positioned around his neck where it could do no good but which allowed him to set his glasses more comfortably for reading. He was poring intently over a photo album. I sat quietly down next to him and watched as he slowly turned the pages, carefully looking at each photo in its turn, pausing and smiling, occasionally soundlessly mouthing a name or gently touching a face. After a bit, he looked up at me and explained that his seven grown grandchildren, including two from out of state, had visited the past weekend and had brought this album of photos they had put together using contributions from the entire family. It was an impressive work. It included photos of all the important people and places in his life, both living and dead, and was in chronologic order, with captions as well as anecdotes and comments solicited from many. The nurses later told me it was his constant companion during his last weeks, and that he died with it open in his hands.

He told me the grandchildren had started the project when he was first diagnosed and that it had taken them months of calls and letters to put it together. They had come to visit, so they could present him with this record of what they said was ‘the grandfather they loved and would never forget.’ It came with a companion book, a journal for him to write notes and reminiscences, which they had told him they hoped he would use to talk about the people, places and events in the photo album, that their children and grandchildren could know and love him as they did.

I asked him if I could look at his journal and he handed it to me. His first entry will stay with me forever:

“Thanks to you all for this wonderful survey of my life and loves. I am honored and touched. The richness and magic of the history you have captured here will fill my remaining days with joy and peace. In return, I would like to offer you my only secret. Life is for living, by the living. The time for comes for all of us to  reminiscence, trade tall tales of adventures, and reflect with wonder and thanksgiving upon the lessons they taught. Just remember that yesterday is over and cannot be altered, that tomorrow is still fantasy and will have to take care of itself, but that today is real. Enjoy it and make it count: this is not a dress rehearsal.”

 



 

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