By Norris Burkes, March 13 2022
During my 28 years as an Air Force chaplain, I repeated my share of military clichés.
For instance, I might be on a hot and sticky deployment when a fellow airman would ask how I was doing. The expected reply was, “Just living the dream!”
Of course, most clichés came from those chiseled-chin generals standing at a backlit podium. Through flashing pearly whites, one would funnel his deep-throated words into an echoing microphone:
“Don’t just count your days. Make your days count!”
While the saying may be cliché in a speech, I can tell you that in my current job as hospice chaplain, it quickly loses the cliché quality.
Recently I witnessed this sentiment expressed by a woman whose doctors had placed her on comfort care. This often entails morphine to squelch pain and induce sleep – a sleep lasting hours or days until the last breath.
Before driving to the woman’s home, I received an update from our hospice nurse, who spoke to me in hushed tones, warning me our patient’s time was getting shorter.
Thirty minutes later, I pulled into the patient’s driveway and knocked on the front door.
I expected to find the woman sleeping, comatose or just wracked with too much pain to talk. So imagine my surprise when I entered the house to find her laughing and loudly recounting stories to her large family surrounding a bed set up in the living room.
Was this the woman I was looking for? Did the family know she was dying?
“Yes, you have the right home,” a family member assured me.
“And yes, we all know she’s dying.” He added.
It’s rare that I find a dying patient this lucid, even rarer still to find one laughing.
“Am I interrupting?” I asked, perplexed by the joviality.
“Depends. Who are you?” asked the fifty-something patient.
“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 is bringing something later.”
That “something later,” would come as morphine, but only when pain relief outweighed the benefits of consciousness. “In the meantime,” 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. Why not just live the days I’ve got left?”
Wow. It seemed unlikely she’d heard the military cliche, but she was living the 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.
Later in the same week, the woman breathed her last, surrounded by a loving family and celebrating her life — which some might call, “living the dream.”
Contact Chaplain Norris at firstname.lastname@example.org or 10556 Combie Rd. Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602 or voicemail (843) 608-9715.