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Living Alongside Death

Students returned to campus last week. In our strange new world they once again run madly and zoom around on wildly on bicycles, busy, busy, busy. It's not a return to "normal" as we're now vaccinated and masked, and many have vowed not to return to "normal." They've changed, they declare, and we're all wondering what that means as we begin a new phase of our lives, hopefully with beginner's mind for the infinite possibilities we have.

I remember some students when I’m lucky to recognize them and remember others who are no longer with us. Some will not be forgotten. I remember Anabel, who left this world on September 22, 2013, at the age of 41, leaving behind her twin sister Isabel and a legacy of joy, wisdom, and compassion. I know that she lives on because I constantly pass on the life lessons I learned from her. And I know the power these lessons have for young people hungry for guidance in making sense of the hardships they endure. When I told a thousand high school students what Ana had taught me they jumped up from their seats applauding emotionally and enthusiastically.

Ana used to come to my classes to talk with students, in some of the most powerful encounters they ever experienced. My Stanford students receive her messages quietly and with deep reflection, struck by the poignant realization that Ana was once one of them. She lived in their dorms, ate in their dining halls, and bicycled around campus just like them.

She told them her story of living from childhood with cystic fibrosis and facing the awesome reality that she would have a short life. She watched as friends with the same disease died, one after another. They were spellbound when she described her gradual loss of breath and the miracle of not just one but two double lung transplants, and how she has lived as long as she can remember in the shadow of a life threatening illness.

Students wrote in their journals of how inspiring Ana was, how courageous she was. Though they asked, "Why did one person have to suffer so much?" they realized that this question did not weigh Ana down. Instead, she repeatedly affirmed life. She valued the simple things, believing that “we are here to connect with each other, to revel in the human spirit."

Ana told the students that she and her twin learned to make the most out of living and dying at the same time and while they could never have complete control over their illness their attitude could determine whether they saw the glass as “half empty” or “half full.”

“A little defiance is good medicine. If we internalized all these statistics we probably would not have lived this long. There were basically two ways that we could react to dying; we could either move away from it or we could move toward it. When we moved away from it we did what most people do, we denied it, we buried our heads in the sand, we pretended that we weren't going to die. We wanted, after all, to be normal just like everyone else. We studied hard. We had big goals. We planned for the future.”

Everyone laughed with her when she admitted, “We went to Stanford and borrowed thousands and thousands of dollars in loans, thinking, “We’re not going to have to pay this back!”

Ana's lesson to all of us is simple. "By living alongside death for so long, I have truly lived. By being aware of limited time, I have not wasted any time, my life has been better for it. Too bad it has taken illness to realize this. To me, everyone wishes to feel love and connection, to be part of something great, to make an impact, to be inspired, to leave the world with a sense of peace and satisfaction."

Ana's life inspires me to live each day the best I can and rather than denying and numbing ourselves to the difficult reality of death, to face it and accept it. In this way each and every moment is a new and precious thing, lived with the awareness that this might be the last time I will experience such a thing. I ask students to bring themselves to class with such awareness and appreciation for this opportunity in life.

Today, more than ever, with their lives affected by loss and death, young people relate to Ana's message as they too are trying to find meaning in life's struggles. They also deal with the constant pressures they feel in school, socially, and with the existential fear brought on by their increased awareness of their mortality.

Students tell me how they are learning to live with acceptance and appreciation for what they have been given, and how this way of living gives them the courage to live more fully, with gratitude for the small things, and acceptance of their own and others’ frailties and vulnerabilities. And perhaps this is our way of finding meaning in Ana's life's struggles that extend beyond her individual existence to benefit the lives of others.

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