One of the wisest persons I’ve ever met was a client of mine who was diagnosed with late stage cancer. I’ll call him John. When John first discovered that he had cancer, he did what so many of us are prone to try. He began searching for Eastern cures, he changed his diet, he signed up for every drug trial and cure he could find. He was frightened and frantic to try anything that might cure him.
Each time we met, he talked and reflected about his life; the mistakes he’d made, his regrets, the good times——and the dreams he had for his life that he would never get to experience. He was struggling to find meaning. I had no answers for his questions. It was his journey. All I could do was listen and share the struggle with him.
I’m not sure to this day how the shift happened. He walked into to my office for his appointment one morning and announced that this would be his last visit. When I asked him about his decision he told me it was about values and priorities. He wanted to spend his final days focused on his wife and children; not himself. That was the last time I saw him.
His wife called about a year later to inform me that John had died, and then went on to share with me the story of his final days.
It turns out he dropped the battle against his cancer and spent the last 8 months of his life sharing experiences with his wife and three children. She said he began to offer his children all of the experiences he could. He took them to theater plays in New York City. They traveled to the Grand Canyon. He took them hiking and camping in several national parks. He took them skiing and ice-skating.
She said he picked out three books that he felt had most changed his life and then shared them with his children. He explained to them how the ideas in each book had changed his life. He took the time to tell his friends and family why each person was so important to him; how each had added value to his life.
And unbeknown to his children and wife, John bought gifts for each member of his family; a gift for every birthday and Christmas for ten years——including gifts for every graduation his children would experience until they reached 21 years of age. He even included gifts for their graduation from college. Each gift came with a personal note in which he shared insights from his own life at that time in his life; and each note included words of encouragement for their dreams.
She paused for several moments to collect herself, and then ended the call by thanking me for having changed his life, and the life of their family. I thanked her for sharing the story with me.
I knew in my heart that, other than quietly listening while he sorted out his emotions and feelings, I had contributed very little to the changes John had decided to make in his life. The last eight months of his life were about making a life, not saving a life. It was about adding memories and value to the lives of those he loved—–not prolonging his own. But most of all he taught them, and me, the importance of compassion and the importance of adding value to the lives of others; a lesson I have tried to embrace in my own life over the years.
What John taught me, and those around him, was the importance of creating a life, not simply living a life. He demonstrated how to live life with an awakened presence and what it can mean to live fully engaged in every moment of our lives. As I said, John was one of the wisest men I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing—-and that knowing changed my life.