In the beginning
“A little step may be the beginning of the next great adventure.” —Unknown
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “How did you go from the hallways of “Saturday Night Live” and casting CBS daytime to hospice?” Obviously, there is a story behind my answer to that question.
My first exposure with death was my great grandmother’s passing on my mother’s side. Everyone in the family called her “Big Mamma.” She was a tower of a woman, big not only in size but also in spirit. She worked for over 40 years at a Belk department store selling shoes. She ate cottage cheese with pineapple slices.
As a child, I was completely drawn to her. There was a history hidden behind her heart. I somehow related to the lessons and pain she must have felt as she weathered World War I and eventually saw her two sons join the army and head into battle during World War II.
She was very close to her two sisters and one brother until death parted them. Her passing opened my eyes to an experience. Death was a complete mystery to me before it became a career.
I remember it like it was yesterday. My brother, sister and I were delivered to my father’s parents’ home for a few days as mom and dad discretely headed for the small, dying town of Ahoskie, N.C. There wasn’t a lot of explanation about why we were going, but as kids we really didn’t care. It was summer, and we had nothing but time.
We enjoyed several long hot days running around the open fields of our grandparents’ 100-year-old farm. Chasing cows, destroying neatly stacked bales of hay in the barn, and speeding through the pastures on that dusty red go-cart, we were full of life without a thought about what the next few days would bring. It would be the last time I would recall this innocent feeling of being unaware that life is not as permanent as I once thought. I was 12.
As I laid my head to rest that last evening at the farm, I had a dream that would forever change my life. I actually envisioned Big Mamma’s death. She came to me as I slept and explained that it was time for her to leave. She described the place where she was going as just another realm; full of positive energy and love. She told me to live boldly, embrace all moments whether happy or sad, and to always remember words from respectable elders who would cross my own path in life.
Before I knew it, I was awake and being told my great grandmother had passed on. When my mother told me she had died, I simply replied, “I know.” I tried to explain the dream, but was abruptly dismissed.
Searching for something to help me define how I felt about losing Big Mamma, I remembered that I had heard another one speak of energy and reaching another realm. When I finally made the connection―I literally laughed out loud.
It was the “Star Wars” series. You can laugh too, but the films took my young soul to another realm. The epic tales told an in-depth story about good and evil that is so similar to real life as we know it.
While watching the “The Empire Strikes Back,” Luke Skywalker was being trained by his wise and respectable elder, Yoda. One scene in particular helped me connect the dots to discovering the meaning of positive energy and love.
Luke tried to raise his X-Wing fighter plane from the depths of a swamp. As Luke balanced himself upside down on one hand and Yoda stabilized on one of Luke’s feet, he reached inside of himself to touch “the Force” to reclaim his X-Wing from the murky waters. Frustrated by only being able to lift rocks around the swamp, Yoda asked him to “feel the Force.” Luke lost his concentration and he and Yoda collapsed to the ground.
“We’ll never get it out now,” Luke yelled as he walked to the edge of the swamp.
“So certain are you,” Yoda said, shaking his head. “Always with you, what can’t be done. Do you hear nothing what I say?”
“Master … moving stones is one thing. This …” Luke said as he pointed at the sunken ship, “… totally different.”
“No, no different,” Yoda said, shaking his head again. “Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.”
As Luke turned back to the ship he said, “Okay, I will give it a try.”
“No, do not try,” Yoda replied. “Do or do not. There is no try.”
As Luke nodded and turned back to face the X-Wing, he closed his eyes and slightly raised the ship. It moved suddenly in the wrong direction, sinking it further into the depths of the dark swamp.
Yoda bowed his head in disappointment.
Exhaustion led to Luke’s collapse next to Yoda as he turned to him and said, “I can’t, it’s too big.”
“Size matter not,” professed the wise elder. “Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? And where you should not. ‘The Force’―life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and between us. Luminous things are we. We are not this crude matter,” as Yoda pointed to Luke’s body. “You must feel ‘the Force’ around you, in you, between you … between me, the rock, everywhere and yes, even between the land and ship.”
“You want the impossible!” Luke proclaimed as he stood up and walked away in his own discernment.
Yoda closed his eyes, and pointed his claw-like hand toward the X-Wing. The swamp began to bubble, then the ship magically started to rise and float toward the land as Luke watched in awe.
As Luke circled the ship, caressing it in all its glory and force, he said, “I don’t believe it!”
“That is why you fail,” said Yoda.
Why does this scene from the “Star Wars Trilogy” lead me to such a controversial subject as death? The answer is quite simple. It’s a brilliant example of how one may be taught to think and how an empowering force can help one unlearn what they have been taught to expand to another realm of understanding.
This scene from “The Empire Strikes Back” helped me put my arms around death. I had to unlearn what I knew about death to embrace a new way of thinking about death. Death should not be perceived as taboo or a hard subject. Talking about death should be an engaging and light-hearted conversation. People are spiritual beings full of energy. Paraphrasing the eloquent words of Yoda, the wise and respectable elder, we are energy while we are breathing as well as far after our physical bodies are done. Our energy moves beyond such crude matter … we are luminous beings.
I embrace the creative viewpoint that we can design a death that is transcendent. A death designed to open doors to an amazing experience that reflects our personal journey through life. If we have an opportunity to be creative and positive with the perceptual dark side of death, why not do it and do it well?
We must first birth a new way to think about our final chapters. If we dare, we can even design it. Thinking about our own deaths forces us to reflect on the life we are living both in the present and the past. Coming face to face with the lost moments scattered on the ground of my own life can be disheartening, but facing them makes me want to live more boldly in the last half of my life. If we face our wasted days and lost moments head on, we can embrace the life we choose to live with open arms.
In the following pages, I will share very rare and intimate moments at the bedside of dying patients who have taught me lessons that have changed me and enveloped me. Their experiences have allowed me to move far beyond my own downward glance at my shortcomings and to accept all the little things that make me completely, imperfectly … me.
Throughout my years working with the dying, I don’t see death in any other way but color. Death is not black and white. Death is vibrant color full of life, adventures, laughter and hope.
My goal is to inspire you to live a designed life, empower you to have a voice about your end of life so you can have a designed death. I hope these stories inspire you to speak frankly, plan courageously and fully lean into the ultimate final adventure in life that just happens to be the end of life.