In mid-January I learned that my grandpa, who lives in Maine, was diagnosed with Stage IV bladder cancer. The hospice doctor said he didn’t give patients timeframes. He encouraged my grandpa to just live his life and enjoy the days he had left without feeling like he was on a countdown.
When my grandpa pressed him for an estimate of how much time he had left, the doctor said, “I think you’ll be around long enough to fish in the spring.” So the family was thinking he had 4-6 months.
I was speaking in Boston the last week of January, and then I was supposed to go to Connecticut to spend a weekend with friends. Instead, I cancelled my weekend plans and rented a 4-wheel-drive SUV because, well, Maine in winter is usually buried in snow and ice.
I drove 4 hours north to the small town in central Maine where my grandparents live. I spent the weekend there, listening to my grandpa tell lots of stories, eating my grandma’s home cooked meals and spending time with relatives I hadn’t seen in several years.
One evening, after all the relatives had left for the night, I sat on the floor next to my grandpa’s recliner and said, “Gramps, what do you think are the five best decisions you ever made in your life?”
Lots of people look over their lives and think about mistakes and regrets, but I wanted to hear the opposite. I wanted to glean wisdom from my grandpa’s well-lived life.
My grandpa said that proposing to my grandma, marrying her and having five children were the top choices he was most proud of.
It was a really special weekend. And then…..it was Sunday night, and I had to drive back to Boston so I could catch a train to my next speaking engagement the following morning.
I went into the guest room to get my coat, and my grandpa followed me. Like a gentleman, he held my coat up and I slipped into it. Then I turned around and gave him one last, long hug.
I fought back tears as I said, “Gramps, if someone ever asks me the question I asked you – what are the 5 best decisions I’ve made in my life — this will be one of them.”
My gramps smiled his trademark gap-toothed, ornery smile. “When we meet in heaven, I’ll owe you a dance, okay?” he said.
“Deal,” I said.
I cried most of the drive from Maine to Boston. I cried with grief at the thought of losing him — and also with relief that I’d had the chance to say good-bye in person. I am so grateful that I got to tell my grandpa what he meant to me….and that he was able to carry those words into eternity with him.
In September, I contracted malaria in Togo and got quite ill. As I was lying there in the hospital, watching my way-too-low blood pressure and way-too-high heart rate on the monitor above my head, I had to confront the possibility that this might be a fatal infection.
My biggest fear was not of dying, but of leaving without being able to tell my friends and family how much I love and treasure each of them. Of all the assets I have, relationships are far and away the most precious to me.
Falling ill from malaria offered me crystal-clear clarity on what matters most in life.
We spend so much time, money and energy on stuff that doesn’t matter. We hold grudges, we pick petty fights, we judge other people who aren’t like us, we tear people down instead of building them up. We lose sight of the real reason why each of us exists in this world: to love and to be loved.
My grandpa passed away this morning, peacefully, in his sleep. I miss his smile, his voice, his stories and his Maine accent already.
A few days before my grandpa died, the medical director of the hospital I worked at in Togo — who helped care for me when I was in the hospital with malaria — passed away from an infection they couldn’t find or treat. He was 46 years old and left behind a wife and four boys.
Needless to say, this has been a rough week. It’s been intense and sobering and sad.
And it’s reminded me what really matters in life, and what God asks us to be about.
It’s important to remember that life is fragile and unpredictable, so we should speak each word as if it might be the last word we say, or the last word others hear. The time we have on earth, and the relationships we have with others, are precious opportunities that are not to be wasted.
It’s important to cherish each laugh, each meal, each conversation, each smile, each hug as if it might be the last.
Because one day…..well…it just might be.