After decades of intense climbing and surfing, I know all too well what it's like to be in the company of death; I felt its grip, saw it sneer. What I didn't understand was what it was like to confront death's inevitable approach, to take that last breath and know -- with certainty -- that it will be the last. Now, through another man's journey, I understand.
I wrote an adventure memoir, To The Last Breath, which describes my journey from living a life of self-absorbed escapades to living a life with purpose. This week, I got a message from a reader that opened with this: "my boyfriend is terminally ill and decided we should live in India until his last breath."
She went on to explain that she brought a book along with them: To The Last Breath. She plans to read it aloud to him -- my words may be the last ones he hears.
His final moments are easy to picture, since her message is so honest and vivid: Scott has inoperable stage IV stomach cancer and was given just a few months to live. He was 220lb and now, in his final days, he is 70lbs. "He can't swallow food and is eating ice chips but still totally alert. He has refused to cave in. So, that's why I say he is the living embodiment of "To The Last Breath" as he totally came here to live not to die."
Time begins for each of us at the moment we take in that first lung full of air. That first echoing yalp as we enter the world is reflexive, an involuntary exhalation, our start.
And as we leave the world, what echoes then? Well, that's a matter of choice.
What I realize in reading that message, as the couple seeks a peaceful end in India, is that there can be purpose in our final breath. I'm not deducing that because of the words they've chosen to read, which I'm humbled by. Instead, it's because, among all the possibilities of how to close out, Scott's will come while hearing her voice.
His pain can be eased at the end; I know that. Cancer flames the nerves and an opiate provides a salve, as it did for my mother so many years ago. Still, by their choice, Scott is not desperately seeking chemo to extend his life by one more hour or one more day. His end will not come amid turmoil. He won't be alone, or in a sterilized room, or amid the gloom of ointments and pleas.
The end will come on his terms, at a location of his choice, with a person he loves.
I have had the good fortune in my life to stand on the summits of every continent and ride the waves of every ocean. In some sense, though, I didn't finish my journey until I read that message about Scott and I discovered the ending.
So here is the ending: to seize control at our most frail of moments -- that is what it is to live.