To find life, experience death

This year three friends have died, one was murdered.

The day after Keith died this week, another friend told me of a member of his congregation who had given up his battle at the same time as Keith, except he shot himself after shooting his wife and leaving two sons. Thank God, he never physically harmed the children, but their emotional scars will be deep.

 I’ve just finished speaking with Steven, a mutual friend of Keith and Glenn, the first friend who died this year. Steven’s wife has perhaps days or even hours left. They’ve had an extraordinarily happy 10 year marriage, they’ve never argued. Bridgette is the sort of person everyone loves.  They have both come to terms with her death; she was sleeping peacefully as we spoke.  She has needed no morphine; he and I believe she will simply pass on in her sleep. A heavy cigarette smoker she has lung cancer.

At Glenn’s wake in January, two of the 10 people there were already dying, neither they, nor we, knew it then. 

We’ve all known each other since school days, Glenn, Keith and Steve were some years older than I. Glenn and Steve were very good looking, popular with the girls, charming and wonderful. Keith was a quiet support, someone solid and reliable.

Glenn sent me a Valentine’s card every year since I was 16. He would often include veld grasses or flowers stolen from someone’s pavement, balloons or a poem he had composed and scrawled on paper ripped from a notebook. We were never more than just friends, but it was his Valentine’s card or wishes I waited for every year. Nothing else compared.

Steve says that when he first met Bridgette he never introduced her to the guys for some months because she was overweight, “and then I thought, heck she’s such a nice person, what the hell, and everyone loved her. Now I sometimes put the phone on silent because I can’t deal with all the calls, everyone loves her.”

He speaks of her without sadness, there is simply love and the gentle happiness we accumulate with someone we have loved long and who knows everything about us and we know everything about them. And because we know everything, we love them more. In part, because they see every flaw and still think we are wonderful.

A person, who is truly loved, loves themselves more because they experience their own life through the eyes and gentle tolerance of the one who loves them best.

Steve and Bridgette’s patient acceptance of death reminds me of another friend whose wife died two years ago, 72 days after being diagnosed with brain cancer. Together they chose her funeral spot and discussed the service; she approved the memorial he wrote for her tombstone, they spent the days of her dying in conversation, love and quiet reflection and gratitude. They too accepted it; they had lived life, loved a lot and were grateful for what had been and what was to come.

This week I met a wonderful Irish woman who married her husband when she was in her early 20s, she is now in her late 60s. He died five years ago and when she speaks of him now her eyes light up and her voice becomes animated. Love doesn’t die, we may experience it differently, but it remains. The first real boyfriend I had, the first man I loved, died in a car accident when we were both in our teens.

Many, many years later I am closer than most daughters to his 83-year-old mother, I help pay for her care and, but for one other, am her primary source of love. Those we love live in our hearts and because of them we may extend the range of those we care for.  There are times still, rare, but it happens, that when I speak of Mike with her, I weep. And in those intervening years I have married, had children and loved others a lot.

These are the things I have learned anew with all these deaths this year and those of other close friends I have helped care for before they died.  My experiences are not necessarily yours, so forgive me if what I write feels hurtful.

Those angriest about dying are often those who have failed to live.  One friend was a person who always seemed to be there, when our group of friends got together, he was there, yet he wasn’t. He was physically present, but never really emotionally engaged.  When he became ill he at first said he wanted to die and then was overwhelmed by all the friends who contacted him. Because he had never expressed emotion to others, he had prevented them from showing it to him. He suddenly realised how much he was loved and now wanted to live but already his body was betraying him.

He died angry that he wasn’t given another chance; yet all of us are given multiple chances, how many of us are squandering them even now?

Yet another friend was married for many years in a succesful marriage. But his wife increasingly became insular and disliked having people visit. She disliked going out even to the movies or for dinner.  In the last few years of her life she developed a close bond with a neighbour, me, and a few weeks before she died she did what she hadn’t done in years, she came to tea with her hair done, lipstick on, a pretty blouse and she looked simply beautiful.

When I conducted a door to door petition among neighbours to ensure better security for our street, she egged me on and though ill, insisted on driving alongside me as I strode up and down the streets delivering pamphlets.

After she died, her husband mourned briefly, then blossomed. He began going to the theatre, ballet, the movies, travelling, and although he had loved her he looked happier and healthier.  Four years after she died he developed prostate cancer and in the last 18 months as he became increasingly frail I helped care for him. He was angry, “I still had so much travelling to do, so much living…”

During the marriage he subordinated himself to his wife’s desires and surrendered his life.  When he believed his time had come, time had already run out.

If you have read this far, please sit back, take stock; this is your only life.  There is no time for if, but, maybe, when the children are bigger, when I retire, when I have money … time is running out, do it. Take the chance. Face risk. Get on the plane. Tell that person you love them. Put your needs first.

Do what you fear doing, bugger what others say, this is your life, your only life.

Edith Piaf sang a song that has been my life subtext, Non, je ne regrette rien – I have no regrets.

What is the point of regret? We are human, we err. Our errors should point us in new directions, allow us to discover new parts of ourselves, learn new lessons.  And so, I have no regrets, I have loved a lot, made plenty of mistakes, been hurt, learnt from pain and tomorrow I am going to wake up and say, ‘what a totally fabulous day..” and find new ways to be happy. 

I wish the same for you. Today may be the last day.

  •  This is dedicated to the memory of Mike, Peter, Guy, my grandparents, Nomakwezi, Busi, Glenn, Keith, Maria, Frank, Fran and the people who love and loved them. And to Bridgette and Steve who show us the power of eternal love. 
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About Charlene Smith

Charlene Smith is a multi-award winning journalist, broadcaster and documentary film maker. She is the author of 14 published books, including two on Nelson Mandela. Born in South Africa, she has also lived in Japan and Argentina and currently lives and works in Boston as a communications consultant.
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