by Alice Hoffman
As written in the October, 2013, edition of AARP Bulletin
When my sister-in-law, Jo Ann, fell ill we were in our 40s—too young. I realize now, to understand how quickly a life can change, and how illness can force us to make choices we would just as soon never face. Those of us who loved Jo Ann told ourselves she would rally and beat brain cancer. But one day, my sister-in-law pulled me aside to ask if I would go to the cemetery on her behalf. I was stunned and my heart sank. I was in denial. If we didn’t discuss her illness, perhaps the worst wouldn’t happen. I assured Jo Ann she wouldn’t need a plot at the cemetery, but she laughed and said that everyone needed a final resting place at some point, and for her the time was sooner rather than later. Do me this last favor, she said.
Jo Ann loved walking in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass., the first garden cemetery in America, a green jewel set into the city. We had often hiked there together. Mount Auburn was planned with a philosophy based on the idea that mourners should be given the opportunity to see beauty in the world, even in times of grief. Jo Ann believed her family would want to visit more often if they came to this peaceful garden. In their sorrow, they would remember her as someone who took joy in life.
I still couldn’t really hear what she was telling me. I didn’t realize she was saying goodbye. All the same, I took an official tour of the Mount Auburn grounds. I found a tranquil place by a pond where there were willow trees, and, miraculously, nesting in the trees were my sister-in-law’s favorite birds, blue herons. I knew this was the spot. Standing there, I finally realized Jo Ann was nearing the end of her life. I also realized that in our family we had never discussed aging, illness, health care or death. We acted as if such things had nothing to do with us. We didn’t make plans or make our wishes known; we didn’t even think about what our wishes might be until Jo Ann asked to be buried somewhere beautiful.
When I went back to the hospital, I told Jo Ann about the tulip trees, and the hedges of lilacs, and the blue herons. I showed her photographs of the pond and the weeping willows. What I saw in her expression was relief.
There are times when we all run away from the truth, when the facts of life are too painful to endure, and we don’t want to know what comes next. We’re taught to tell our ailing loved ones not to worry, even in the most difficult of times, to look on the bright side and hope for the best. It’s a survival technique that often works.
A certain amount of denial in times of trauma may ease the way for our loved ones, but making a plan before dire circumstances strike helps us and those we love gain some measure of control over our fates. The knowledge that our final wishes will be realized can bring us peace, as I know it did for my sister-in-law. She was able to choose what she wanted for herself. She had the courage to face her future, and for that her family will always be grateful to her for teaching us a lesson about love and grace.