Eleven Little Words to a Complete Life

I don’t believe in dying. It’s been done. I’m working on a new exit. Besides, I can’t die now – I’m booked. ~ George Burns


George Burns was a funny, funny man who was already in his late fifties when I was born. He died in 1996 at the age of 100 when I was a mere child of forty-three. Trust me, at 59 and 1/3rd-plus years of age, forty-three seems a long time ago. Sadly, his joke about dying, though humorous, is a little too close to the way many of us live our lives today. We try desperately to ignore the inevitability of our own deaths, seeming to believe we simply can’t die if we can just stay busy enough. Or, perhaps, we just think we won’t notice if we don’t ever slow down. Dying well isn’t even on our radar. We seem to have no idea as a society what that means. We are far more concerned with not dying. Dying just doesn’t seem to fit into our go-go-go philosophy of life. I mean, who’s got the time?

“He died well.” These are words we’re likely not willing to hear. Why? Well, the statement presumes you’re dead, for one thing. But what does that really mean – dying well?

My dear and wise friend, Judy P., emailed a link to me recently dealing with palliative care. Judy is a hospice chaplain, so has a vested interest in this particular topic. Because Judy became my mother’s hospice chaplain at the end of her life, I also have a vested interest in this topic. The point of the story she referenced in her web link and the point of my story is that we all have a vested interest in the topic of dying well, though we may not yet realize it.

Dr. Ira Byock is a leading figure in palliative care in this country. Palliative care focuses on relieving and preventing the suffering of patients, including end-of-life issues. Byock sat down with Krista Tippett, host of On Being on American Public Media, in March 2012 to talk about dying well. Byock wrote a book on the subject, published by Free Press in 2004, called The Four Things That Matter Most. Here’s the link if you’re interested in listening to the whole interview: Click here. It’s worth the time.

The doctor’s thoughts on the subject of end of life can be summed up in eleven words – four little sentences. While the sentences are short, they are some of the more difficult things for many of us to say out loud. They are:

  • I forgive you.

  • Please forgive me.

  • I love you.

  • Thank you.

My eyes welled with tears as I heard him repeat these words. They brought back memories of the time I was blessed to have with my mother in the final few months of her life. It was a confusing time. On the one hand, I was tasked with being mother’s executor. This role was a great help to me as it allowed me the luxury of staying a little above the emotional part of the me who was losing his mother. The disadvantage of that role was that it allowed me the luxury of staying a little above the emotional part of the me who was losing his mother.

The four sentences Byock outlined can be some of the most difficult words we need to say. Even at the end, my experiences growing up left me struggling to say these words out loud to my mother. Why? The simple fact for me is that I would have completely broken down in the attempt to say them. Would there have been something wrong with breaking down under those circumstances? No. But, the words betray a depth of feeling I’d been guarding against all my life. Thankfully, my mother understood this about me and made it easier for me to say them in different ways.

How will you die? Don’t know? That’s certainly not unusual. We none of us really know when the end will come – and that’s the point, isn’t it. The end for my father came quickly one morning with a massive heart attack. He was dead within minutes – likely moments. I’d seen him shortly before and there were plenty of things we’d left unsaid. More to the point, there were plenty of things I’d left unsaid. I knew he wasn’t looking particularly healthy but you just never think today will be the day someone close to you will die. Still, there were things I hadn’t been able to let go. Time, however, doesn’t always wait for us to be ready — and that is the point of those eleven words.

John Greenleaf Whittier said, “For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’ ” A lifetime of hurts and resentments have a way of trapping us in a place where forgiveness seems impossible. It was quite some time after my father’s death before I came to understand that I also had things about which to ask forgiveness. Life is a messy affair, never cut-and-dried – never one-sided. I’ve gradually come to the realization that I have a lot for which to thank my parents. Did they do everything right? No. Did they do the best they knew how to do at the time? I believe the answer is yes. My gift was that I was able to recognize many things in time to say all those four sentences in various ways before my mother died. As for my father, I’ve said these things out loud. I believe it helps to release those things out into the universe. It certainly helps me.

I recall the last time I saw my maternal grandmother. She was in an assisted-living facility at the time suffering from the beginning stages of Alz­heimer’s. Mother called to ask if I could come for grandmother’s birthday. I told her I really didn’t see how I could get away. I was living in New Mexico at the time and it was a ten-hour drive to Temple, Texas. The plain truth of the matter is that I was still drinking too much at the time and simply didn’t want to make the drive. But, I began thinking about it and realized I wasn’t going to have a lot more birthdays with grandmother. After all, this was to be her ninety-fourth. I decided I needed to make the trip, called my mother back, and asked if she thought there’d still be enough cake for me if I showed up. She said she was pretty certain there’d be plenty.

The little birthday celebration went well. I believe it was just me, mother, my step-father, Buddy, and grandmother. We surprised her with cake when we arrived. She was already in the dining room. Grandmother could get very excited about things. This was one of them. It seems I’m also pretty easily entertained. I believe I got this from my grandmother, along with always being the last to finish a meal. She was almost like a little girl that day. I was glad I’d made the effort to be there, for my sake as well as hers.

The next day, I left mother’s house in Calvert to head home to Roswell. The trip took me back through Temple, so I dropped by the place where grandmother was living. I found her again in the dining room. She was surprised and pleased to see me. I sat with her until she finished her meal, then walked with her back to her room. Grandmother never quite got the hang of her walker. She’d lift it, walk a little, then put it back down. Then, she’d lift it again and walk a few more steps before putting it down. Lift, walk, put it down, repeat. Well, whatever works. We got to her room and said our goodbyes. I was going to help her into her room, but she said, “No, I want to stand here and watch you walk down the road.” That’s how I remember my grandmother that last time I saw her. The hall in an assisted-living facility had suddenly become a road and I ambled down that road as grandmother watched me recede into the distance. She died a few weeks later. I believe she just sort of ambled down a different road.

Byock’s point in his book is partly that dying is another, final developmental stage in our lives. My experience with my mother seems to bear that out. For certain, it was a sad time. On the other hand, mother had the time to say what she wanted to say. My friend Judy asked me near the end if there was anything left I needed to say to my mother. I said I didn’t think there was anything. She then asked if there was anything I needed my mother to say to me. It took very little thought to answer that I didn’t believe there was anything left I needed to hear. Mother and I disagreed on a number of things, had had our share of problems over the years. But, as I looked back over the years, I realized she had already said what I needed to hear in so many different ways.

I had major surgery a couple of years ago – my first. I had to sign the obligatory forms outlining the possibility of death, however remote, and the various ways I might die during or after the surgery. I spent the night before the surgery alone in Austin. Tom drove mother from Waco to be there the morning of the surgery. That morning before walking into the hospital, I realized I wasn’t worried about the surgery. I realized I was okay. Yes, me — okay! Regardless of the outcome, I was going to be okay and I knew everyone else would be okay. If you know me and have been following the story, you probably also know that I rarely feel okay. I can be pretty rough on myself. But that morning helped prepare me for the coming few months after my mother’s cancer diagnosis. I finally knew it was possible to feel okay, whether everything was really okay or not.

Like you, I presume, I have no idea how the end will come for me – I’ve even stopped planning it. I do know, however, that I am more prepared than ever for the end to come. Thankfully, I no longer wish for it to come soon. I think too many of us are afraid if we put our affairs in order – if we prepare for our inevitable deaths – we somehow tempt fate. We fear we may even hasten our own deaths. When you think about it, it’s a very odd way of looking at life. One of the most loving things we can do for the people we love is to make our leaving as easy as possible. It’s not a matter of if, but when. As I said, life is a messy affair. There are so many loose ends we can leave for someone else to handle. I realize now, though, that some of those loose ends can have devastating effects on the ones left behind.

Things left unsaid are loose ends. A year after my father’s death, I was still arguing with him — no matter how one-sided the arguments may have been. Sadly, I was also still losing the arguments. I’d left far too much unsaid. A year and a half after my mother’s death, I’m still sad. The difference is that my sadness comes from her absence, not from a sense that I should have said something I was still refusing to say or even acknowledge.

I forgive you, please forgive me, I love you, thank you. Four little sentences containing only eleven words. But what powerful sentences they are. Contained within them are the keys to healing relationships and ensuring that we make certain those we love know how we feel. Through all the hurts, there were many times I couldn’t see how I could possibly need to ask for forgiveness. In some cases, I couldn’t see how I could possible forgive. As I stepped back to observe the larger picture of my life, I began to see how both of those things were possible. Despite the hurts, I love you showed me why the first two were necessary. Once I understood that, the thank-you’s began to appear.

I’ve lost a lot of people over my lifetime. And, that’s the way I saw it for most of my life. In fact, I spent considerable time trying to keep people at a distance so I wouldn’t have to feel so much pain after they were gone. That was a mistake. That never prevented the pain and usually actually intensified it. I understand now that I never lost any of them. They’re still right here with me as long as I remember them and I have no intention of forgetting.

I have begun to try consciously to make sure I ask for forgiveness when needed. No matter how difficult it may seem, I work at being forgiving. If I love you is the appropriate thing to say, I’m trying to say it – out loud. The same goes for thank you. All these words have made me realize just how many things there are for which I have to be thankful.

Eleven words. Contained within them are entire relationships. It’s time to slow down enough to realize there’s really no reason to allow any of the important things to be left unsaid. Whether we like it or not, we need each other. Our ideas of being self-sufficient are merely illusions. Without the love and care of others around us, life can indeed be dim. It’s said it takes nothing away from the light of your candle to light that of another. These eleven words allow our lives to burn all the brighter. Sharing, in the long run, brings abundance.

So, I forgive you for wondering if this piece would ever end; please forgive me for, well, things likely too numerous to count; I love you all just for being here; and thank you – my life would surely be incomplete without you.


4 thoughts on “Eleven Little Words to a Complete Life

  1. I’m glad this was helpful to you, Ben. Apparently you agree with me that t’s a pretty important subject. By the way, I also highly recommend Byock’s other two books, Dying Well: Peace and Possibilities at the End of Life, and his most recent, The Best Care Possible. (Oh, and thank you back. I love you, too.)

  2. I had a feeling you wouldn’t mind the “wise” reference. But, you are. I’d also like to help people understand that hospice is not all about dying. Was my mother dying when she went on hospice? Absolutely. But hospice was about helping her live her life to its fullest near the end. We simply would not have had the same rewarding experience without hospice and a wonderful hospice chaplain.

  3. Wow Ben!! I got teary eyes!! Thank you for writing about stuff everybody thinks about but are too scare and won’t dare to write about. Or plain and simple are not as gifted as you. miss you very much! Also I consider you one of my good friends. For some reason I believe God put you In my life

  4. Thank you, Lisa. I believe God places us in each other’s lives in order that we may benefit from the relationship – if only by providing a smile. I know without a doubt that I have benefited from knowing you. I don’t think I have to know anything else. I also know when I think of you a “thank you” comes to mind.

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