Gather ye rosebuds.

Remember in Dead Poets Society, that incredible moment when Robin Williams takes his young students to look at the old photos in the school’s trophy room and teaches them “Carpe Diem”, to “seize the day”? Robert Herrick immortalised the same sentiment in his poem when he wrote:

“Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may,
    Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to day,
    To morrow will be dying.”

We have the same, albeit slightly less poetic, expressions in our modern culture, like “YOLO” (you only live once),  “One life, live it!”, “No limits” and “Stop and smell the roses”. The self-help sections in bookstores (the few that are left) are crammed with books screaming  “The power of now”, “Your best life now”, “The present” and everyone who is worth quoting from Steve Jobs, to James Dean, to Jesus Christ, to Mother Teresa, to rapper Chris Brown, has  something to say about seizing the day. This cliché was inevitable, so I may as well get it out of the way now… ( We call it the present because it is a gift (cringe).

We all know that this is true. We know very well that tomorrow, or even this afternoon, is not guaranteed, but I do not believe we really get it. Despite my almost daily confrontation with death, I do not get it. I am convinced I am going to reach 90, forget my dentures in my apron and sport a sexy blue rinse.

But the truth is, I might very well not.

This week it struck me right in my gut. It felt as if someone took a giant ice cream scoop and hollowed out my insides when I had to witness the signing of a living will with one of our end-of-life patients. Despite a spectacular career in the corporate world, having a loving husband and being a runner-extraordinaire, she is now a tiny bundle of bones reliant on fentanyl to manage her pain. Her illness is simply winning and we are only aiming for comfort and dignity in the weeks and months she has left. She went from a highly functioning and over achieving individual to collapsing in a road race one morning, and by the same evening, heard a tumour as aggressive as a pit bull on steroids was ravaging her brain. By the time she was told the heinous news, it was too late. She would never go home, never walk again, never speak again, never get better.

I hear these stories, and live with them in very real ways on a daily basis, but still believe deep down that it will never happen to me; never happen to my loved ones.

Some people have a genuine fear of death called thanatophobia. This is a form of anxiety characterised by a fear of one’s own death or the process of dying. This sound like a terrible thing to have (and not only because it is a horror to spell) but imagine having a fear of something that is totally unavoidable? That being said however, are people who suffer from thanatophobia not perhaps more honest with themselves than most of us?. At least they are facing their mortality?. The rest of us are living as if we all have another 100 years to get things done, to say those important words, to forgive and be forgiven, to change our careers, to make that difference, to marry that girl or to raise that family.

I’m not saying we all need to quit our boring jobs to go smoke weed on an island while we learn to surf. But is it not time to ask those hard questions?

My best friend had a tough task at university (many moons ago). All the students had to write their own eulogy. What would you put in there if you were asked to do this?

I recently wrote my dad’s eulogy. It was hard, but was such an honour. The best part was that I knew, without a doubt, that he had a life well lived, that what I said at his funeral would have pleased him endlessly. He somehow found his purpose and lived it beautifully. He did not change the world or find political solutions or invent a cure for cancer. He just did what he did well, every day, in the minutia of his life.

We might be inclined to think that “carpe diem” means we need to seize the day in the sense of making our lives extraordinary by climbing mountains, writing novels, making the perfect hollaindaise, bungee jumping off bridges and then going home to stop poverty. I disagree. Truly seizing each day is found in the gentle humility of a beautiful life; to be able to say you were kind, to know that you did your best, that you had integrity, that you served and loved the ones you had in your life. It is kissing your partner good night, smelling your baby’s freshly washed hair, planting a tree, rescuing the cat with ringworm, giving way to the taxi, showing up to that awful netball match.

Before, “carpe diem” created a sense of anxiety in me. I suffered existential angst that I would not manage to learn isiZulu before I die, or write a book, or get my kids through varsity. I thought that on the day I “seized the day” I had to change the world. But I didn’t have to, I just had to live in it, fully, every minute.

Life is not those big moments.  It is the million little moments that add up so that when you get to the point where you need the living will, or the chemo or the funeral plan, it’s okay because the time you were given, was well lived.

After our patient signed the living will with a wavering cross her husband, the notary and I stood ashen, feeling as though all the wind had been sucked out of our sails. The reality of how quickly her life is approaching its end broke our hearts. The patient however, was quite fine. She ran her race. She is easily slipping in to the next chapter and now, bravely making the most of the next days she needs to seize.


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