I have written here before about receiving gifts, and of the sweetness of gratitude. I do believe that gratitude is one of the cornerstones of happiness. But lately I’ve been thinking even more of giving gifts, of what I want to leave for others when I go.
My own death is one of those gifts. Not that my loved ones want it. I know my parents in particular are anguished by my going and would do anything they could to stop it from happening. But it is my great hope to somehow turn the inevitability of my death into something of deep value for them.
The other day I watched a film about Stephen Jenkinson, a sort of renegade grief and death specialist. In it he spoke to a dying woman about my age with two children about the age of my own. She was at peace with her death but still concerned about how her family would manage without her. Jenkinson presented the metaphor of a dinner: she would not be at the dinner herself, but she was setting the table for it in how she died. I liked that idea. Though I know they’re going to manage just fine without me, I do feel like I am ‘setting the table’ for my family as I prepare for my own death. I have the opportunity with this bit of hard-won time to help them prepare for my death and, by example, for their own deaths in the future. I like the idea that my death can be a gift I leave for them that may, despite the pain of grief, be something deeply meaningful for them. Something that will ultimately enrich their lives.
This writing is also part of that gift. I hadn’t written for the past month or so, as it seemed I needed some time to just relax and enjoy the summer and time with my loved ones, but also, I realize now, to gather more thoughts, to read others on death, to contemplate and hopefully deepen my understanding of death and life—to prepare these gifts. I want these gifts to be something that others will cherish and bring to their own deaths and any others on the way. But I especially want them to be something that helps them hold life even more dear than they already do, as it has become increasingly clear to me that it is death that makes life meaningful, that without coming to terms with death, our lives are in danger of being thin, shallow, or sadly misdirected.
Thinking of my death and writing as gifts has me thinking about giving gifts more generally. People often ask me if I have any regrets as I face death. I don’t have too many, but one important one is that I didn’t give all the gifts I had to give. We often talk of people as having gifts synonymously with having talents. One of my talents is writing. But I didn’t write all the books that I wanted to. I regret that now, because I see that those books were gifts I was meant to give.
Our talents or gifts don’t do much good if we let them languish. We are meant to develop them as fully as possible and then offer their fruits back to the world. Whether your gift is caregiving, teaching, an art, craft, trade, or profession, part of the responsibility of having a gift is to develop it through hard work, playful exploration, the guidance of mentors, and through the lessons of failure. We probably also all have other gifts meant just for fun, as hobbies or recreation. Those with excessive self-doubt can benefit by not taking those too seriously!
The books and articles and stories and poems I didn’t write should have been written. I didn’t write them because I let fear of rejection and criticism and failure stop me. I let myself be discouraged by the many voices saying it was too hard to get published, that there were already too many writers all writing the same thing that nobody wanted to read. That success as a writer was close to impossible. I see now that I was wrong to believe this. The things I wanted to write and was capable of writing would have been appreciated by someone somewhere. They didn’t need to be bestsellers; it would have been enough that even a few people find something worthwhile in my words.
(One of the books I had planned and written in part was to be called Beyond Survival. It was conceived as an inspirational guide to not just surviving as a single parent, but thriving. It was to include interviews with other solo parents who had overcome all sorts of personal and parenting challenges. I regret not completing that book and offering it as my gift to all the other parents who struggle on their own as I did. More recently I was working on a feature article and potential book about youth addiction and its impossible challenges for parents. This is an important issue, another thing we don’t talk about in society but so need to as countless young people are being lost because we have no effective treatment programs for youth, who don’t respond well to treatment approaches designed for adults. Having lived through this as a parent, one of very few blessed with a positive outcome (as the photos here of my son Nathan attest), I very much wanted to write about this as my thank-you gift for getting my son back from the clutches of addiction. But again, I allowed myself to be discouraged by one rejection. Many years ago when my other son was just a little boy suffering from anxiety, I had also drafted a children’s novel (funnily enough, about a boy whose mother is dying). I let myself be discouraged from completing that book too. These are my regrets, because they are gifts I was meant to give but didn’t.
I did at least publish one book of poetry, so I have something to be proud of! I also did lots of other writing and work that made use of my gifts, so my regrets are not huge. But if I was miraculously given more time in this life, I would leave the self-doubt aside and devote myself to those unfinished projects.)
I am writing about this now because someone asked me the other day if I had any words of advice for others. (It’s curious that we assume that the dying are closer to wisdom!) I guess one of my messages is this: give your gifts. This is what makes life meaningful. I believe that, without necessarily realizing it, we are happiest when we are giving. So don’t ignore your own gifts; develop them, devote yourself to them, if possible make them the focus of your working life, so that you can then give back to the world. If you have the privilege of choosing a career, choose the path that allows you to offer your gifts as a contribution to society. It’s really not about what you get in return. Then when you’re on your deathbed, you will be satisfied to see that you have given all you had to give.