31 March 2015

Life sentence

My beautiful, intelligent, activist, mildly irreverent, and—may I add—favorite Aunt Ellen died peacefully a few weeks ago, following a valiant battle against cancer. As her loved ones gathered, we witnessed her painful, wrenching, lingering death sentence play out in sometimes despicable ways and, at other times, amazingly beautiful ways. While cancer dealt my aunt a sentence of death, it is her “life sentence” that provides the context for this post.

My aunt faced death with unwavering courage, staying strong and resolute as she waged a fearless crusade against an ugly and detestable enemy she knew, ultimately, she could never defeat. Her fervent wish was to forgo an official memorial service. Instead, she wanted to live her final weeks and days engaged in intimate dialogue about her legacy and how her time on earth made a difference in the lives of those who loved her most. Neither she—nor we—were to be denied fulfillment of that desire.

But how would we go about doing this? How would we gather memories and impressions from countless members of our large Irish Catholic family, located far and wide around the globe, that would capture in words the impact of my aunt’s life? It was my cousin—Aunt Ellen’s daughter—who came up with an incredible and meaningful way to document the impact of someone so deeply and dearly loved. Considering that time was of the essence, her idea was an incredible way to chronicle a life well lived.

No more than six words
My cousin asked each of us to consider the following question: “How could we capture the essence of Aunt Ellen’s life—her legacy—in a single “life sentence” of six words or less?" Wow, this seemed like a nearly impossible mission! To get us started, my cousin asked us to reflect on a “story” by Ernest Hemingway who wrote “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.” In six words, Hemingway illustrated how an entire story could be told using only a half-dozen words. Hemingway believed you don’t need a lot of words to tell a story and demonstrated that six words can be sufficient.

They say flowers are for the living. So are loving words.
Ruta Saulyte-laurinaviciene/Hemera/Thinkstock

Using Hemingway’s story as an example of brevity, my cousin asked each of us to describe the impact of my aunt’s life. How were we changed by having Aunt Ellen in our lives? What was our unique connection with her? What did we remember most about her life? Six words, just six measly words.

74 years, six words
My cousin wanted to receive our responses within three days so she could share them with her mother as she lay dying. How do you sum up an entire life of 74 years in a few words? And how do you do that for someone who is still alive, knowing that your words will be shared and discussed with that person? While no single truth or perspective can summarize an individual’s life, a collection of them, written by various people—spouse, son, daughter, grandchild, niece, nephew, brother, sister, friend, neighbor, student, and others—offers a surprisingly meaningful portrayal of a life well lived. My aunt was adamant that, when the time came, she did not want us to dwell on her death. Rather, she wanted us to remember how she lived.

My cousin collected hundreds of reflections, encapsulated in no more than six words, that described her mother’s life. We discovered, to our collective amazement, that, when taken together, these pithy phrases truly expressed the multidimensional layers of my aunt’s life, providing a beautiful and loving mosaic.

Below is a sampling of the responses my cousin received and shared with her mother, who, elated and humbled by the outpouring of love, savored our words as she took her last breath. Later, my cousin told us that her mother laughed, cried, and ultimately took her family for a walk down memory lane as she added details to the quips we provided.

And the Oscar goes to, Ellen!
Mom: The house that built me
A mosaic of love and sassiness
She’s always a woman to me
(as sung by Billy Joel)
Danced to her own drummer
Fierce champion for children and animals
Taught me to love butter again
Petite stature, giant heart, tender soul
Keep your elbows off the table
Growing old is optional
More complicated than a Rubik’s cube
A life lived in confident rebellion
Always question the status quo

Perhaps my sister summed it up best when she said our aunt was surrounded by those who loved her most, she was content in knowing she was loved completely, her life mattered, and a sacred place is held for her in heaven. Privy to our myriad warts and wrinkles, she loved us nonetheless.

One day, a phrase will be uttered, a music lyric will be heard, an old movie will be watched, a dog will leap with joy in the presence of his human, or a young woman riding freely on her horse with the wind in her hair will remind us of Aunt Ellen, and we will be filled with laughter and joy! That’s when the healing will begin and the pain will lessen.

Family and friends are our biggest supporters and our most sought-after rescue in a storm. Maybe these six words will summarize this post: Rest in peace. You’ve earned it.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International. Comments are moderated. Those that promote products or services will not be posted.