“Just as people have eyes to see light with and ears to hear sounds with, so they have hearts for the appreciation of time.”— Michael Ende
If you are skittish about the topic of death, then stop reading this post right now. Or better yet, don’t. I used to be one of those people, superstitious that talk of death would draw it nearer somehow. Yet, when one of my closest friends was diagnosed with terminal cancer, it became a topic I could not avoid. And guess what? I found out that talking about death could actually be a very life affirming act.
I’ve been reminded of this irony recently by a friend of a friend of mine, a man I never met but whose forthright manner of living with and ultimately dying from ALS has inspired and touched me since I first heard his story. When my friend Barbara McAfee asked me to create a video of her song about her friend Jamie Showkeir, I had no idea I’d be drawn so completely into his story that I’d feel I knew him personally.
“We’d suspected for months…but the suspicion crystallized into a diagnosis as the doctor said the words that would upend our lives: ‘We’ve ruled out everything else. It’s ALS.’ It was a devastating, icy cold gut punch,” wrote Jamie’s wife Maren in their CaringBridge blog.
As Jamie and Maren faced the disease together, head on, Maren faithfully posted updates along the way. One of the many reasons I came to appreciate Jamie so much is because he chose a life partner who is brilliantly wise, funny, strong and articulate and who, like himself, did not shrink from the task of talking about hard truths or painful challenges, as is so beautifully evident in the way she chronicled their life over the last year.
“Looking into the eyes of the sun is being able to look at things in their most honest and austere form,” Jamie said to Maren earlier this year. “And that is where the excitement and the learning is. But it’s also painful. I’ve spent much of my life trying to embrace that pain. It’s why people think I’m so edgy. Why would I expect to die any other way? Why would I want to die any other way?” [Jamie, quoted by Maren in her April 10, 2015 post]
“You can trust a human being with grief. Walk fearlessly into the house of mourning, for grief is just love squaring up to its oldest enemy. And after all these mortal human years, love is up to the challenge.”— Kate Braestrup, “The House of Mourning” on The Moth podcast
Instead of running away from the tough conversations and hard realities of a terminal diagnosis, Jamie and Maren walked fearlessly into them. Again and again, the theme that came forth from Maren’s posts about Jamie’s illness was the importance of living in and valuing each moment. In theory, we all know this is a good idea, but it’s so easy to forget when we become consumed with the day-to-day details of managing life, details that become pretty trivial when facing death.
Make the moment important, vital, and worth living. Do not let it slip away unnoticed and unused.” ― Martha Graham
I also appreciated that both Jamie and Maren demonstrated something I had found out myself as I spent time with my own dear friend at the end of her life: even in the darkest moments, you can find humor and, yes, joy, if you allow yourself to look for them. I am not trying to candy coat this or make it sound easy. It is most definitely not easy. Tomorrow will mark three years since my friend died, and I still feel both her presence and her absence acutely. But being able to find humor and joy in the hardest of times is a skill that comes in handy in life, one which I am grateful she taught me, and for which I am grateful to Maren and Jamie for the reminder.
“Happiness, not in another place but this place…not for another hour, but this hour.” ―Walt Whitman
Jamie died on August 16th, just a little over a year after his diagnosis. In Maren’s last post, she describes his final moments:
“I wrapped him in my arms and put my head on his shoulder. How many times had we slept like this? So many quiet conversations while we lay together, in just this way. I continued whispering in his ear, expressing my love, thanking him for being a superlative partner, reminding him of the good work he had done here. I reiterated the promise, easily made, that I would carry him with me as long as I live. He would be alive in me and all the people who love him.”
When I think about death now, it’s not as though I find it a happy topic, but I don’t shrink away from it either. I know now that love is up to the challenge. In fact, as my dear friend once told me, “There is no limit to love.”