It’s uncanny, and I don’t know how many others have had this experience, but the “right” book has often fallen into my lap at the “right” time in my life — even before I knew it existed or that I should read it at all.
This happened recently with a lovely, perceptive and absorbing book called “On Living” by Kerry Egan (Riverhead Books). Egan is a hospice chaplain based in Columbia, South Carolina, and a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School. Her job, which many people could not do, is to sit and talk with those without much time left — or, rather, sit and listen to whatever they want to talk about and be a caring presence, too.
Sometimes she prays with these people, sometimes they speak of God — but most often they speak of their family. It’s only when looking at the dwindling sands of the hourglass that they realize what most matters to them and are grateful — and eager to hang onto it for as long as possible.
When browsing in my local library on a Saturday morning, I found the book by chance. I had nowhere to rush to that day, and because I could pause for a few moments, I was able to linger and just look. There was the book in the nonfiction section near the front. Someone had just returned it.
A small, attractive book, it was sticking out slightly in its row. Thank goodness.
It spoke to me, I am sure, because in the last few months I’ve lost two dear neighbors and friends. I had been lucky enough to spend a few precious minutes with each of them here and there, and with their family members, as they faced their inevitable last days. Both neighbors were in their 80s and lived full, happy lives — and we would never have been friends had we not lived on the same block, so there’s that bit of serendipity, too. Each had spouses they adored and each had children and grandchildren who made their faces crack into wide smiles whenever they spoke of them.
It was excruciating but also unbelievably important to spend a little time with them in their final days — and to be there as a neighbor, friend and fellow human being. To sympathize and share a few words. To ask after them. To see if they needed anything. To run an errand or two. To just be with them. When facing the end, five minutes means the world.
So I’m doubly appreciative of what Egan does for a living — because for her it’s not just a paycheck but a calling, and she does it day after day after day. She listens to people’s regrets. She sees pain, of all kinds. She’s the recipient of secrets long kept, wishes long denied, anger buried in part or in whole — and hopes still alive. As she relates in her book, one patient continued to hope for a lung transplant as his “ticket” to a new life long even after such a thing was declared not feasible. He had less than six months and the transplant wasn’t going to happen.
A nonfiction book like this is a gem and a blessing.
But “the lung transplant was a vehicle … He wanted to talk about [it] because that was his hope. His great hope not just for survival, but for a chance to redo his life. To live again, but this time differently.”
A nonfiction book like this — though unlikely ever to grab many headlines (but you never know) — is a gem and a blessing. Millions of readers have long relished nonfiction for a host of reasons, including that it can take a person inside a world, a life, a time, a calling, or an experience that that person never would know otherwise, or at least not as well. Egan’s book, a sort of memoir/reflection/biography (of her patients), does this well.
It’s also instructional. From the dying, one learns how to live. From those with regrets, one learns to get busy doing what matters. From the ill and the desperate, one learns to have hope — and to remember how important a positive outlook is and always will be.
As one patient told her, “Whatever bad things have happened to you in your life, whatever hard things you’ve gone through, you have to do three things: You have to accept it. You have to be kind to it. And you have to let it be kind to you.”
As another told her, “Promise me you’ll tell my stories. Maybe someone else can get wise from them.”
And as still another told her, “Promise yourself that you’ll have a great life, no matter what happens.”
“On Living” by Kerry Egan is available now; the paperback is out Oct. 24, 2017.