Live Life Now

This was published in the 5/16/13 edition of the News-Record of Maplewood and South Orange

Love enough people and you’ll end up spending some time in the Emergency Room – supporting them that is, and reassuring them that everything will be okay. My family has managed to avoid several trips to the ER by phoning our very generous Maplewood friend, an Emergency Room Physician, who always agrees to see us in her home when we need her and on one occasion when we were on vacation and my daughter dislocated her elbow, actually talked me through the procedure for re-setting the joint.

This Mother’s Day I found myself sitting with a family member in the Fast Track waiting area in the Saint Barnabas Hospital Emergency Room. Through the thin curtains drawn around our examination area to offer a modicum of privacy, I was able to hear other families’ conversations; a woman phoning her mother and wishing her a happy mother’s day, adult children offering humor and words of encouragement, a patient telling her grown daughter about her plans to take better care of herself.

The nursing staff and doctors were upbeat and friendly, their words laced with comfort, their tone confident and optimistic. On our side of the ER were the milder injuries and illnesses that had positive prognoses. Still, for people like me with a tendency to worry, every Emergency Room visit is fraught with some fear and gives me pause and time to consider the “what ifs.”

Last week I received and email with a list of the top 5 regrets of terminally ill patients. These were compiled by Bonnie Ware, a palliative nurse in her book, Top Five Regrets of the Dying. They were, in order of prevalence:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Perhaps one of the positive side effects of considering, “what if me or my loved one were seriously ill,” is the recognition of life’s fragility and the need to live life fully so that we won’t be left with feelings of regret and mourning what we could have been or should have done.The greatest regret, according to Ware, is not living life true to one’s self. Every once in a while it is useful to step back and ask, what were my greatest dreams? What have I always wanted to do? How can I still make them happen?

Often we yearn not for the attainment of some goal, but to be involved in the process of something we love. For example, my father was always a history buff, and truth be told he would have liked nothing better than to stand in front of a high school or college history class and share his passion. Unfortunately, that was not to be, for in his own words, “boys from Brooklyn who were good in science became doctors.” Now in his retirement, he does research and lectures at the local history club and other organizations. He has realized his passion and is sharing it with others.

The second of the great regrets is connected to the one of the biggest sacrifices we make for work – namely, cutting back on family time. Finding that balance between work and family can be one of life’s great challenges, but few things are more important in the bigger picture. Finding the time, making the time, carving out time; often we feel helpless to do these things, but perhaps the larger goal is that of “being present” when we are with those we love. Spending three hours with family on the weekend doesn’t mean much if we are checking our email every few minutes, or talking on the phone with a colleague or texting or looking things up on the internet. These days spending quality time means disconnecting from our phones, Ipads and laptops so that we can connect with the people in the room around us.

Next on the list of top regrets is perhaps one of the most difficult; having the courage to express feelings. This applies to both positive and negative feelings. Saying things like, “I love you”, “you hurt me”, “I miss you”, “you’re important to me” or even “I’m angry”, can make us uncomfortable, but holding onto anger, bitterness and pain can easily lead to both unhappiness and to health problems, and not sharing positive feelings often leaves us with unanswered questions like; “did he know I loved him?” “did she know how much I appreciated her?” Finding the words and the courage can be difficult, but even if it comes in the form of a letter or email, sharing feelings is critical. Last year I was at a birthday party for a close friend, and her husband got up to make a speech. He is someone who is always quick with a joke or pithy remark. But in front of this crowd of people, he turned to his wife and declared, “you make me a better man.” It was a very tender moment, and the courage of his statement made a deep impression.

Similarly, staying in touch with friends is an obvious necessity, but it requires sustained effort and is often neglected in the bustle of life, and the final great regret; allowing one’s self to be happy, seems a bit mysterious. According to Ware, many didn’t realize until the end of their lives that happiness is a choice. We can choose to remain steeped in bitterness and focused on what’s wrong with our lives, or we can instead look for reasons to be happy and allow recognition of what is positive in the world around us. It’s interesting that so many came to these realizations at life’s end when clarity of vision tends to bring things into perspective.

You needn’t wait for a trip to the Emergency Room. Be true to yourself, make time for family and friends, share your feelings and let yourself laugh. If we live life now, perhaps we will come to realize the gift in every new day.

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