Yesterday I met with a new group of students, starting a course at Stanford University. And as always, the spirits of Ana and Isa were with me. Perhaps it was because it’s their birthday, but I felt their presence when I told the students that we were all there together simply to learn how to be more alive.
Ana and Isa found out at five years old that they had a lung disease that would lead to multiple hospitalizations and a relatively short life. They realized that they could either turn away from dying, by ignoring and denying it, or they could learn to live with it, somehow making sense of it, finding meaning in their lives. They tried to do as many of us do, to pretend that they weren’t going to die, studied hard, set goals, planned for the future, were always busy and filled their lives with distractions, even setting up a business in their hospital room.
But they also decided early in life to make the most of living and dying at the same time. Facing death, gave them fear, anger, and anxiety, but also empowered them to live fully. And they did. They courageously did what was most important to them. They went to Stanford, living in view of our classroom, joking, “We borrowed thousands and thousands of dollars, telling ourselves, we’re not going to have to pay them back!” Thankfully, they were wrong.
They learned to hold onto their emotions, to look at them, feel them, and ultimately to talk about them. The more they talked about dying, the less scary it became. They discovered that fear mobilized them to action, empowering them to not only accept their disease but to learn as much as they could about it, to understand what control they had so that they could stave off their death as long as possible.
In the Afterword to their book, The Power of Two, Ana wrote “By living alongside death for so long, I have truly lived. By being aware of limited time, Isa and I have not wasted any time, and our lives have been better for it. Too bad it has taken illness to realize this.” This message has inspired me to teach, hoping that my students will awaken and learn to truly live now, before being forced to learn life’s greatest lessons in a more traumatic and painful way. I want them to someday leave this world as Ana did, with the words: “I have no regrets.”
In our class we awaken by coming together in a small group with beginner’s mind, and a sense of “ichi-go, ichi-e, that reminds us that each moment is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Isa speaks of how she embraced this view as a child on her first airplane ride, staring out the window at the majestic mountains and thinking, “Wow, this is my first and could be my last airplane ride--I better enjoy it!”
With beginner’s mind, we can create a space of vulnerability and authenticity, filled with compassion and gratitude just for being together. In a new class, as in every human encounter, we look at each other wondering how much we want to open and connect with these strangers. In such moments, I’m reminded of how the twins faced the challenge of connecting with others with CF, knowing the inevitability of loss. They decided to courageously live with compassion.
“We’re in this together. It’s better to know these people than to not know these people.”
Through their illness they learned the greatest truths: “We all strive for love and connection, to be part of something great, to leave this world with a sense of peace and satisfaction. . . Loving one another is the greatest antidote to dying.”
Their simple message to the eternal question, “Why are we here?” is:
“To connect with each other, to revel in the human spirit because at the end of the day all we want is to be loved and remembered.”
In closing a talk they gave shortly before Ana’s passing in 2013, they ask us to pay attention to the miracle of our breathing, “Breathe! You too can feel fully alive!”
To listen to their talk: The Power of Two: Isa and Ana Stenzel at TEDxConstitutionDrive 2013