Life in Every Breath
As Stanford students rush around campus beginning a new year, I remember one student who started her classes many years ago and who departed on September 22, four years ago. She had prepared for her departure for a long time, since childhood in fact, when she and her twin sister Isa, first found out that she had cystic fibrosis. Life was filled with numerous hospitalizations and treatments and Ana was faced with the stark reality that her lungs were not healthy enough to support her for very long. She realized early in life that while she could never have complete control over her illness she could control her attitude toward living and dying and that this could make all the difference.
In some ways her life was like other Stanford students. She studied hard, had big goals, and planned for the future. She and Isa, also a Stanford student, joked, "We borrowed thousands and thousands of dollars in loans, thinking, we’re not going to have to pay this back!"
But she also decided to live with a constant awareness of death, not pretending like most of us that she wasn't going to die. Ironically, this helped her to truly live. By being aware of her limited time, she did not waste any of it and lived as fully as possible. Illness became her great teacher of how to live in the now, mindfully present, appreciating and accepting each moment.
In November 2012 Ana came to speak to my students, many like she once had, planning to be health care providers. They listened attentively, deeply touched by her wisdom that was far beyond her years. That week they wrote in their journals how much Ana had taught them about living with acceptance and appreciation for what we have been given. In class they talked about how the experience of Ana sharing her story had given them the courage to live more fully, with gratitude for the small things, and acceptance of their own and others’ frailties and vulnerabilities.
Ana was strong and courageous, and survived not one, but two double lung transplants. When she told me she had colon cancer, at first I couldn't believe it, with a simple-minded belief that she, who had suffered so much, couldn't possibly be given any more trials. And when she told me that she was receiving treatments I was sure that she would defeat that illness too. But Ana was not indestructible and after a valiant fight left this world surrounded by family and friends that were a testimony to how much she had loved and was loved.
I often tell students that what we do is based on the simple lessons that Ana taught me and others -- appreciative and connected knowing. We try to see ourselves clearly and see each other clearly. We try to understand the world through each other's eyes, respecting each other for who we are. We attempt deep listening, using all our senses and our hearts. We embrace all parts of ourselves and try to be as authentic as possible. We see the goodness in others until compassion arises and penetrates our being. In this way we focus on what Ana reminded us really matters in the end:
"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."