Sometimes, It’s Too Late

We live our lives in the shadow of time. Everything we do is regulated by it.

“What time shall we meet?”

“What is my deadline?”

“Do I have enough time to work out before lunch?”

“How long will it take us to get there?”

“What time will I go to bed?”

“When should we set the alarm?”

“When should I say ‘I’m sorry?’”

mother and daughter talking before it is too late

In a previous blog, “Sawubona,” I talked of three things that people who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness no longer take for granted. The first was time. Dying people no longer think in terms of hours, weeks or months. They think in seconds.

A large portion of those seconds are focused on the second of three things dying people no longer take for granted. Almost immediately upon diagnosis, their thoughts turn to those from whom they need to ask for forgiveness. They urgently need to say, “I’m sorry”.

If they could transfer their state of being to us, we would instantly understand that withholding forgiveness or holding onto resentment is completely incompatible with what it means to live. Instantly.

An example might help: let’s say that you and your life-long friend had a quarrel. This quarrel manifested into a fight; feelings of both were hurt and silence had descended upon you both. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months – even years. Nothing.

Then, through a mutual acquaintance, you discover that a life-altering crisis had befallen your one-time friend. For the purpose of “getting you there”, the son of your one-time friend had been killed in a car accident earlier in the day. What is your immediate reaction? Through years of taking people through this exercise, I know the answer, and so do you.

You go to that person. Now.

Immediately, months – even years – of silence wasted on stubbornness and resentment melts away into tears, hugs, and . . . . sikhona. I am here. Instantly, the reason for your silence is forgotten, and loving kindness takes hold once again.

Do you see it now? Why must it take tragedy to bring us together? The answer is simple – we can take care of it tomorrow, or next week, or some other time. It is an extremely arrogant position to take, but we schedule our days around the assumption that we will see tomorrow. Of course we must plan for tomorrow, but today is the day to make amends. Now is the time for forgiveness. You are not guaranteed tomorrow, or next week, or next year. Dying people cast away resentment and offer forgiveness freely. Here is where the story takes a turn.

husband and wife talking before it is too late

Offering forgiveness to those who ask it is within your direct control. What is outside your control is reaching the people from whom forgiveness is sought. As disease progresses, the world around the afflicted becomes smaller. The control once exercised gives way to dependence. The world turns into a community, a community turns into a house, a house turns into a room, and a room turns into a bed. As the space around you gets smaller, so typically does the circle of friends who are able to spend time at your bedside. As the disease progresses and it becomes clearer that the time necessary to seek those with whom forgiveness is sought, the lack of resolution continues to take a toll physically. Time, eventually, ends.

Sometimes, it’s just too late. I’ve been witness to it, and it is tragic.

In every speaking engagement, I draw attention to the fact that dying people first want to reach out to people to apologize. I find this fascinating, but I shouldn’t. There is not one among us who hasn’t looked upon the selection of bananas at the grocery store and made a selection based upon where the delectable fruit is on the “green” scale and made a determination of how long before they would be ready to eat – assuming we would be around the eat them. As silly as this example is, it represents how we make all of our decisions – based upon the assumption of time.

I’ll take care of it tomorrow. I’ll reach out to him next week.

Buckley and I have been to many, many memorial services. Where we have been affected deeply is when we have found those people who our clients were trying to reach and deliver to them the words our clients were desperately trying to say: “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”

I wasn’t good at apologizing before I began serving hospice clients. I’m good at it now. I do not wait. I do not assume.

I do not want it to be too late.


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