“Somebody should tell us, right at the start of our lives, that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day. Do it! I say. Whatever you want to do, do it now! There are only so many tomorrows.”
   — Pope Paul VI

I am not afraid of dying.

I used to be afraid; and when the subject would come up, I would speak the words of denial, “Don’t worry about that…it will be a long time before you have to think of dying.”

My great-aunt Essie became a permanent member of our household before I was born.  She had come to visit when my older brother was born and never was able to return to her family home.  The heart problems she suffered from would be easily repaired today; but nearly seventy years ago, medicine was limited.  She spent most of her time in bed; and we spent a significant amount of time visiting in her room, keeping her company and watching tv with her.  Essie often would talk about death.  She had lost her father when she was only eleven; and when her mother died ten years later, Essie took her place as head of their family, caring for her brothers.  Her brother, Clyde, was only fifteen when he died of tuberculosis.  They were sitting together under a tree in the yard when he suddenly exclaimed, “Oh!  How beautiful!” and breathed his last breath.  Essie wanted us to know that death was not an ugly thing.  She wanted us to know that she would not live forever and that she was looking forward to finding out what her brother had seen in his last moments.  From time to time, Essie would call us girls into her room and spread out all her old-lady jewelry on the foot of her bed.  “I want you to have this when I am gone,” she would tell us, and we would all cry.  “You’re not going to die, Essie…you will live forever.”  She told us that nobody lived forever; and she made me promise that I would not be sad when it was her turn to leave.  She extracted a promise from me when I was eleven — that I would not cry at her funeral and that I would sing her favorite hymn.

Essie died on my birthday in 1979.  I kept my promise and sang at her funeral.  Every year on my birthday, I think of my dear Aunt Essie and all the matter-of-fact lessons she taught us.  It seemed cruel that she would die on my birthday, but her timing was impeccable.  Thirteen months later, my boys went out to play with the neighborhood kids.  In the midst of all their fun, my son Brett ran into the path of a slow-moving car.  He died that day and turned my universe upside down.  In the days and months and years that followed, I  often thought of the stories Essie told about living and dying.  I thought of how unfair it seemed that I should outlive my little boy whose energy and love of life had just begun to blossom.  I thought about the happy times we had together and how the memories all triggered such deep sadness now that those times had ended.  I thought about Essie, bedridden a good bit of the time, but eager to do whatever she could to help during the good times when she had a bit of energy.  I thought about how she continued to live in spite of all her losses and in spite of her illness; and I realized that I had no choice but to live the life my son had not survived to live.

I used to be afraid of dying; but my great-aunt and my little son taught me there is something worse to fear than death.  I no longer fear death.  What I fear now is forgetting to live while I have the chance.  It took me nearly thirty years to really open my eyes to the precious gift of every new day; and the loss of the people I have loved has allowed me to find a truly full and abundant sense of gratitude for each new day.  Each morning, when my eyes open, I say to myself, “Yes!  Another day!  I get another day!”  Each new morning is a celebration; and I am grateful every time I see another sunrise.

Yes, we all are dying; but I hope more than anything else that we are living each day in ways that leave our mark on the lives of others we touch.  Because Essie was not afraid of dying, she offered me the gift of understanding what it means to be truly alive.  She often put it quite simply when she would say, “Eat when you’re hungry and drink when you’re dry.  If the Devil don’t get you, you’ll live ’til you die.”  We thought it was a cute little ditty back then; but it carried a ton of wisdom.  Yes, we all are dying, but we have a chance to live in spite of our mortality.  So eat when you’re hungry and drink when you’re dry; and above all, don’t let the Devil — the doubt and fear — rob you of a single chance to live until you die.