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On Living… (before you leave it)

05 Jun

As a voracious reader, I will sometimes hesitate to read a book for which I am excited. It will sit on my bedside table for weeks, or even months. Because I know it will affect me. Perhaps even devastate me. See, I’m a very emotional reader. I get invested in books, in fictional worlds and characters. I feel things very deeply, even when they aren’t happening to me, even if they never really happened. (However, using that phrase brings to mind one of my favorite ever quotes, unsurprisingly uttered by that most wise of fictional characters, Albus Dumbledore: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”) So many things that affect me are often only happening inside my head. And they are very real. Just a few days ago I finally picked up a book that has been sitting at the bottom of the stack on my bedside table for months. I eagerly ran out to buy it, but I knew it would destroy me. So it sat there at the bottom of the stack until I felt I could face it. Why, you might reasonably ask, would I buy a book that I knew would be difficult, perhaps even painful, to read? Partly, because I am a glutton for emotional punishment. One of my requirements for what makes a book good is that it make me feel something, anything, deeply. But in this specific case, because of the author.

Kerry Egan and I were classmates at Washington & Lee University. We were sorority sisters, and friends, the way most people were at such a tiny liberal arts college in the middle of small-town Virginia. We weren’t roommates, or besties, but I liked Kerry. She was sweet, and kind, and delightfully quirky. My kind of eccentric. Obviously, intelligent, you didn’t get to W&L without being so, but a far deeper thinker than I. At least, that’s what I always assumed. If I had to guess, I would have said she was a Philosophy major, or perhaps English, though to be honest, I don’t know, because I have forgotten in the ensuing 20+ years. But W&L is a small school, a utopia in a small-town, especially back in the early 90s, when our halcyon existence included wandering wherever we wanted, whenever we wanted, practically nightly live music, and the freedom to be exactly who we wanted to be. (As an aside: I cannot express enough how grateful I was to attend college in the age of grunge, where girls were “allowed” to wear flannel shirts and baseball caps, where dressing up included Laura Ashley instead of stilettos and micro-minis, and cell phone cameras and social media did not yet exist.) Kerry and I knew each other the way social friends at a small school in a small town do, with lots of overlapping mutual friends, and shared experiences. Over the course of the past 20 years, we have run into one another at reunions, and I have connected with her on Facebook. Through this, I have learned many things about her and her life, at least the life she shared publicly. She is even funnier than I remember, she went to divinity school, and she had a job I couldn’t even have imagined doing (hospice chaplain). What I didn’t know about Kerry was what a beautiful writer she is. This I discovered over the course of the past four days, after finally taking her book off the bottom of my to-be-read stack. Guess what? As predicted, it destroyed me. But in the most beautiful and productive way. And now I want to shout it from the mountaintops, I want to grab total strangers on the street and push her book on them, I want to buy copies for my loved ones as gifts.

I cannot strenuously enough recommend you read the book ON LIVING by Kerry Egan.

What is the book about, and how did I know that it would make me cry? On Living is a book borne of her experiences as a hospital and hospice chaplain. It is a book chock full of her own experiences with personal trauma. It is a collection of stories and secrets and advice passed on to her by hospice patients in the final months, weeks, days of their lives. It is a conversation with a friend. An unflinchingly honest, refreshingly self-deprecating, quick-witted friend who admits her mistakes, even her shame, with the same openness as her many triumphs. It is an uplifting romp through a scary landscape. It is a love song to life.

What it is not: On Living is not heavy-handed or condescending. It is not melancholy for the sake of shock or effect. It is not bible-thumping in its discussion of spirituality and faith. It is not a difficult read, despite the fact that the majority of the “characters” listed within have died.

This book made me laugh and smile every bit as much, actually more, than it made me cry. And it did make me cry. But it truly lives up to the billing on the dust jacket. This absolutely is a book about living, not dying. And I rose after finishing it, wishing to become, and willing to strive to become, profoundly compassionate and fiercely empathetic. Sometimes a book comes to you at just the right time, and with everything that is happening in the world today, as we experience a pervasive loss of civility, a seemingly spiraling decline of humanity, the time for this book is now. Never have we needed more to live in the gray. Never have we needed more to make that final promise to ourselves. (Read the book to find out what that promise should be.)

I sincerely hope that if my loved ones ever find the need for hospice services, they will have a chaplain who is willing to surround them in a bubble of love to provide a peaceful presence. I would be honored for any of my loved ones to share that time with Kerry. I hope that each of you will consider running out to buy this book, read it cover to cover, and allow it to affect your life.

I hope all of us will  find the courage to say our dying words well before dying.

And I hope, perhaps most importantly of all, that when I am in my 80s, I will still remember the feeling of the wind in my p*ssy…

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© 2010 Krista Lindsey Willim