September 26, 2015

During the early months of 2009, I deployed as a hospital chaplain to Joint Base Balad, Iraq. The base commander was Major Gen. Brian Bishop — then a brigadier general.

The general was a former USAF Thunderbird pilot, an honest-to-god action hero whose likeness Hasbro toys had reproduced in a $29.95 chiseled, blond-haired “Leader Action Figure.”

He often used his action persona to challenge us to make the most of our deployment days. Standing at a backlit podium, he’d funnel his deep-throated words down an echoing microphone: “Don’t just count your days. Make your days count!”

Recently I heard his sentiment echoed by a woman whose doctors had placed her on comfort care. This will often entail a morphine drip to squelch pain and induce sleep, a sleep lasting hours or days until the last breath.

Before entering her room, I stopped for an update from the nurse. The nurse spoke to me in hushed tones as we watched the patient through the glass doors. Inside the room, the patient was laughing and loudly recounting stories to the family surrounding the bed.

I had expected to find a patient who was sleeping, comatose or just wracked with too much pain to talk. Was this the woman I was looking for? Did the family know she was dying?

“Yes, you have the right room,” the nurse said as she shot glances toward the family, like a librarian trying to shush an unruly patron.

“And yes, they all know she’s dying.”

It’s rare that I find a dying patient this lucid, even rarer still to find one laughing. So, I quickly thanked the nurse and walked into the room.

“Am I interrupting?” I asked, perplexed by the joviality.

“Depends. Who are you?” asked the fifty-something woman.

“I’m the chaplain.”

“Uh, we’re OK.” she said, as if dismissing a magazine salesman.

“You seem more than OK,” I pressed. “What does someone have to do to get an invitation to this party?”

The woman took a moment to size me up before flashing a smile and inviting me to sit down. Over the next several minutes she recounted her story about the terminal respiratory disease that had ruined her lungs.

I asked her about her pain level. She shrugged. “It’s bad, but you live with it — until you don’t. The nurse will give me something later.”

That “something later,” would come as morphine, but only when pain relief outweighed the benefits of consciousness. “In the meantime,” the she said, “we’re just having a party.”

“You seem fearless about all this,” I said.

“I was really scared a few weeks ago,” she confessed.

“Something changed?” I asked.

“I decided it didn’t make sense to spend my last days crying about what I don’t have,” she said. “Why not just live the days I’ve got left?”

Wow. It seemed unlikely she’d heard Bishop’s speech, but she was living his principle. She’d weighed whether it was better to have more days in her life or find more life in her days. She was making her days count, not counting her days.

A few hours after we met, the laughter in the room faded as the nurses began her morphine regimen. And later that night, the woman breathed her last breath, surrounded by a family who considered her to be their honest-to-god action hero.

Find out more about my days under Gen. Bishop’s command by visiting my website and downloading a free chapter from my new book, “Hero’s Highway.” Send comments or P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759. Twitter @chaplain. Leave your recorded comments at (843) 608-9715.