Life can change in an instant.
In my 20s, I was an Army paratrooper with what seemed like a predictable path ahead. Those assumptions vanished during a nighttime tactical parachute mission. In the afternoon before the jump, I went for a run — an experience seared in memory because of how the day ended — getting log-rolled in a hospital bed. A mid-air collision, hard landing, and paralyzing injuries launched me into surgeries, treatments, and rehabilitation. My career in the Army was over, and my health wasn’t in great shape either. Doctors weren’t sure I’d walk again. An initial surgery fixed my spine for wheeling, not walking. It turned out that the paralysis was incomplete. I eventually learned to walk, but I’ve not run since.
I wanted my old life back. It took months, but ultimately I recognized the futility of knocking on the proverbial closed door. I hadn’t died, but parts of my life were dead and there was no going back. I needed to come to terms with where I was and who I could become. Not resurrection, but transformation.
With the Army over, my experiences led to hospital chaplaincy. Having paid the tuition, I could share the lessons by serving patients and families in their time of need. I encountered many things as a chaplain, but my biggest insight: most people are delusional. They don’t think the reality of mortality applies to them. Few I ministered to were prepared for illness, injury, or dying.
That magical thinking applied to me too. While studying for a master’s degree in religion, I had three close calls. In sequential years, I was trapped on a train during a fatal fire; barely avoided a tree falling in front of the car on the highway, and got hit by a bus while biking. It took the bus accident to connect the dots and reveal life’s cardinal rule – you just never know. Any of those incidents could have been an exit instead of a detour.
On the Metro awaiting rescue, I had 45 minutes lying on a dirty carpet to wonder:
If I don’t make it out alive, how much of a mess am I leaving behind?
That question continues to haunt and motivate. I wrote my thesis — Awakening to Mortality: End-of-life as Rite of Passage and Pathway to Transformation – as an initial response. With its approval, I completed degree requirements and graduated from Harvard in 2019.
The next step is a soon-to-be published book: Good Goodbyes: A Mortal’s Guide to Life. While conducting thesis research, I identified a gap. If you decide to get your affairs in order, who will guide the process? Where are the books? Who runs the pre-mortem Lamaze classes? End-of-life is professionalized and atomized: doctors try to fix body parts; attorneys draft legal documents; ministers extol a heavenly reward. Is that what it’s all about? You may argue: “But wait, doctors will be there at the end.” Yes, but trying to keep you alive. Dead is not a good patient outcome. Treatments are billable. Death equals failure.
Except that our outcome is a certainty — we don’t get out alive. And, because we revere beginnings and revile endings, we close our eyes to what’s ahead. Which means when we or someone we love reaches that predictable stage, the reality can overwhelm. We’re not the first to walk the end-of-life path, but denial, delusion, and procrastination force us to bushwhack a trail and learn as we go. And then we wonder: “Why didn’t someone tell me? Why didn’t I know this ahead of time?”
We will all face situations that we wish we could hit stop and rewind. Sharing my hard won insights won’t spare you trauma, but it could make you just a bit better prepared.
As I was writing, I was reminded of touring the Spinal Cord Injury Center as a new patient. I commented on the facility’s accessible design for those “confined to wheelchairs.” The staff member’s rebuke was rehearsed: “A wheelchair liberates. Confined is when someone who needs a chair doesn’t have one.” That exchange reframed mobility and made me see assistive devices in a new light. I hope Good Goodbyes might reframe death and inspire you to think differently about mortality. You may not be inclined to befriend the end, but maybe Good Goodbyes will change your perspective. Death may be a hard boundary, but we imprison ourselves with self-inflicted fear and failure to face reality. Is it possible for the end to be a liberating force rather than a limiting constraint?
Crashing into the ground shattered body parts, smashed the illusion of invulnerability, and opened my eyes. Chaplaincy, the Metro, tree, bus, and whatever comes next remind: there will come a time, when time is up. And a grace period isn’t promised to get our act together. A good goodbye doesn’t happen by chance.
We don’t know when a run or a kiss will be the last, so ask yourself:
- Have I said what needs to be said and done what needs to be done?
- Have I taken steps that will make it easier for those left behind?
- Have I considered what will bring me a sense of peace and completion?
You don’t know how much time you have, but you do have a choice:
Go it alone. If so, blessings on the journey.
Or learn from my mistakes, experiences, and research and keep reading Good Goodbyes.
Just don’t go without saying goodbye.
🦋 What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly. Richard Bach
“Life happens while we’re making other plans” is the preface to Good Goodbyes: A Mortal’s Guide to Life. It’s both the book’s origin story and stepping stones that have gotten me to where I am today. Stay tuned for upcoming chapters.
© Joan S Grey, 5 FEB 2021 ∞
IndexCardCure™: Preface to Good Goodbyes