Editor’s note: A guest blog today from Cathy Wurzer of Minnesota Public Radio.
Grief counselors say one of the most frequent questions they get from clients, newly diagnosed with a terminal illness, is “How am I supposed to live in the time I have left?”
I wish all of us would try to answer that question well before a life-altering diagnosis forces us to finally consider our options.
Minnesota Public Radio photo
I do not have a terminal illness, although my life condition, at some point, will include a definite denouement. I’m at peace with my future demise but only because, for the past few years, I’ve had the heartbreaking and yet joyful experience of being with two men who taught me what it means to live and how to die. One teacher was a friend and the other was my father.
The process played out in a very public way thanks to a blog, a radio series and now a book and podcast.
Both men were teachers, gifted educators who knew how to engage their students. My father, Fritz Wurzer, came to teaching late in life after having had enough of the corporate world.
Dr. Bruce H. Kramer Photo by Michael Ekern, University of St. Thomas
My friend, Dr. Bruce Kramer, was one of those dynamic teachers a student never forgets. I met Bruce, the former dean of the College of Education at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, shortly after my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Bruce started blogging about living with ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, several months after his diagnosis in December of 2010. A mutual friend steered me to his blog, thinking my public radio audience would appreciate Bruce’s candid and reflective thoughts on living while slowly dying.
Some of my newsroom colleagues were skeptical that a series of conversations with a dying man would be something early morning radio listeners would want to hear, and, to be honest, I wasn’t convinced it would work.
I nearly pulled out of the entire project, thinking that I was not going to be able to handle someone else’s pain while also dealing with my own as I watched my father fall apart.
My plan was to do a couple of interviews with Bruce, see how they went, and move on. Instead, our series of extraordinary conversations stretched over more than four years, ending with his death in March of 2015. My father had passed away a year earlier in March of 2014.
Watching how both men lived with their respective illnesses taught me about the gift of grace that reveals itself when accepting one’s reality and the surprising realization that a diseased life can be a worthwhile life.
Shortly after he was diagnosed, Bruce started asking himself some important questions as he mapped out how he was going to live with ALS. One of them jumped out at me.
“Out of the emptiness that was once the surety of my life came the question: ‘What will you be from here into eternity?’”
Think about the question. What will you be, even in the face of the pain, nausea, and exhaustion associated with many physical illnesses, the confusion of dementia, the darkness of mental illness, or the uncertainty of whatever you’re living with?
As his body deteriorated, his spirit expanded, and Bruce Kramer chose to live his days to their fullest without the ability to move a muscle. This isn’t what Bruce had envisioned his life would be, but toward the end of it, he said he wouldn’t have wanted to take back the gifts and lessons ALS taught him even if he could have had his old life back.
Bruce said his life had a richness and depth knowing that it was going to end soon. Might we be better served if we started asking ourselves, earlier, the deep questions that tend to get asked as we enter the final laps of our lives? What gets in the way of that kind of reflection? Fear, most certainly, and denial—after all, we live in a culture of immortality.
Kramer felt that, by facing his death and embracing it, he had the opportunity to focus on the task of growing into the person he was meant to be. He said, “That’s how I want to die. I want to die fully alive.” And indeed he did.
Now, how will YOU live your life? Are you clear about what really matters to you? I’m still working on those questions, but my intention is to live the rest of my days as fully as my now-departed friend did.
By the way, MPR has just created a new podcast of Bruce Kramer’s story. I hope you’ll give it a listen! http://mprnews.org/podcasts/living-while-dying
Contact John Lundy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More information on the Cathy Wurzer’s blog tour is available here: