There’s a great line from the movie The Shawshank Redemption when the character Red, after being released after decades in prison to live alone and afraid in a dumpy apartment, declares he “better get busy livin’ or get busy dyin.’” Even having freedom didn’t mean he was really free.
I’ve been thinking a lot about living and dying this week as I honor my sister Terri’s death 10 years ago today.
She had a choice to fight her cancer again or die, and she chose death. And it wasn’t until she made that choice that she really started to live.
On a visit not long after her prognosis, I found her on hands and knees in the doorway of what was once her oldest son’s room. She’d been chopping out the ugly shag carpet by hand with a scissors, cutting five inch squares until her hand blistered and bled.
“What are doing sis?” I said trying to not sound like a smart ass.
“I always hated this crap,” she said. She looked at the floor without another word.
She’d revealed enough to see that underneath the crap was beautiful hardwood. She decided, with a little prompting, that she would redecorate and make it a place just for her. With a little help she started emptying the room bit by bit.
Once she let go of what she hated, she had some room for what she liked. It was overwhelming to her. How did she make something just for her from scratch?
Start with a picture, I suggested. Since she didn’t have one in her mind, it came from artwork we found in Target during another visit. It was a painting of a narrow street through what looked like a Mediterranean village. It was warm and bright with ochre, reds and greens. It looked like a place she’d like to visit, she said.
That was the start. From there it was the wall color – Bakelite Gold. Then a brass headboard and nightstand from her hubby. A trunk at the foot of the bed. New curtains.
We shopped for new things as she got sicker, her lungs closing with tumors from the breast cancer that never really went away. By fall her room was complete – beautiful, cozy and warm. It was all her, and just for her, but she never spent any time there.
“Why don’t you use it,” I asked.
“I don’t want to mess it up,” she said.
She made the trip late that year to take me back to the Wichita airport with our sister, and we stopped as always at the Hobby Lobby on Ridge Road. Instead of buying things for her room we now shopped for her funeral. She wanted it to be nice, though she didn’t think anyone would show up. But at least it would be the way she wanted it to be.
We stood in the candle aisle picking out what would go at the front of the funeral home chapel with the flower arrangements. She was drawn to the burgundy, deep green, and gold ones – the same colors that filled her special room. She picked them up, set them down.
“Will they look too fall-ish?” she worried.
“Do you like them?” our sister asked. Terri nodded slightly, still staring at the candles.
“I wish I’d known,” she whispered.
She wished she’d known who she was. She wished she’d known what she liked or loved and how to choose it. She wished she’d known that she could ask for what she wanted, that she could demand it even, and actually get it for herself or be open to the generosity of others. She wished she’d known that she mattered. She wished she didn’t have to be so close to death to figure it out who she was.
She taught me more than I realized about living and dying and how it is just as easy to fear one as the other. In fact, I think now they go hand in hand. How easy it was to avoid all the little kinds of deaths from failure and disappointment. How often had I been afraid to live?
So I decided to honor her and my own grief in a place that makes me feel more alive. I’m leaving early this morning for Wilbur Hot Springs to bathe in healing waters and memories, to shed tears and even my clothes if I wish – and connect to Nature that I love. When I do, I connect to all the other things that I love in me and my life.
I’m meeting a friend for deep conversation. I giving myself solitude and freedom from the constant pull of motherhood and work. And, I agreed to plans with a new friend when I get back to learn how to paddle board. I’m afraid of making a fool of myself, of not being strong enough, agile enough – hell, even willing enough to do it. But I must. What my soul calls for is water. I’ve dreamed for years of gliding effortlessly over the surface of water – to canoe, kayak, to sail. I must do it, because I know I love it, I know I need it and it will make me feel alive.
Like it or not we are dying every day. It is the way of nature. We have no choice. But we do have a choice to live more fully, even if it is simply appreciating each breath we take.
There, I’ve said it.
Excuse me now as I get busy living.