What does it mean to be alive?

My mother-in-law refused to die. She didn’t seem to get that simply being alive and living were two separate things. Life is more than your heart beating, your blood circulating, your breath coming in and going out like the tide. Life is more than simply existing, simply enduring.

I’m not sure what she was looking for, but I know that she didn’t find it.

The doctors had done all they could, but the cancer had done more. It had won the battle, even the war, but she wasn’t pulling out, wasn’t flying the white flag. She was held hostage to it but wouldn’t admit it. In the end, she was reduced to a sort of half-life, a half existence. A life that was the opposite of full.

She was alive, barely. She had so much pride that she didn’t ask for help even when it came to getting food. After she died, we found frozen dinners in her house and nothing homemade. We found receipts for a personal shopper from Publix. She’d rather ask strangers for help then ask her family. She’d rather hobble along pretending, trying to make do for as long as possible in adverse circumstances.

For some, this was admirable, but not for me. For me it was a sad way to die, a desperate attempt to hold on – but for what? A cure, a miracle? It was as if she thought that she was going to do the healing, that she thought that if she held on just a little longer that she would outlast the disease.

Her death was the same. So much struggle. So much fight. She lasted five days when the nurses thought she would only last five hours. It was an ugly death. It brought no grace or comfort to the family to see her struggle so much.

It had been a year and a half after her diagnosis that she finally died. A year and a half of tests and experiments, a year and a half of pain and struggle. She didn’t plan well. She didn’t budget her time or her energy. She didn’t do anything on her bucket list. She hadn’t even thought about it at all until I asked.

I don’t know if she didn’t know – if she was simply ignorant of the slow decline that cancer brings, of how it steals your abilities and independence bit by bit, piece by piece. Cancer takes all your pieces off the board one by one and doesn’t give them back. Cancer doesn’t play fair. When it got down to the very end she still wouldn’t let go. She was still fighting against this adversary. But she wasn’t fighting death by living. She was just enduring.

We don’t bring ourselves into this world, and we don’t take ourselves out. It is not for us to determine the length of our days. We have some control over how well we will live in terms of taking care of our bodies, but we have little control over how long we will live. Any moment our heart can stop beating. Any moment a blood vessel can break. Any moment we can choke on something and die suddenly, quickly, quietly.

Our lives are not our own.

If God was going to provide a miracle, then God didn’t need her to fight so hard to stay alive in the middle of so much pain, so much suffering. God gave her over seventy years of life and she had little to show for it. God gave her a year and a half after her diagnosis and all she did was hold on, in some desperate appeal for more.

More of what? Life for the sake of being alive?

If someone gives you a gift, they expect you to use it. You aren’t going to get a second gift if you refuse to open and use the first one. You certainly won’t get another if you don’t say thank you for the first one.

Why would God grant more life to someone who has chosen not to live it at all?

Pride. (In the name of pigheadedness)

I know people who refuse to go to the eye doctor because they don’t want to admit that they need help. They’d rather squint at everything than get glasses. Their logic is that if they wore glasses then everybody would know that they needed glasses.

Others will do the same thing about hearing aids. They have to ask people to repeat themselves all the time, or they miss out on half the conversation. Somehow they think that is better than getting a hearing aid, which everybody would see.

Likewise, I also know people who have children who need to be evaluated for learning or behavioral disabilities. They would rather pretend that their child who is having difficulty interacting with their peers is just going through a phase rather than getting help for him.

These are all related. It’s all pride, fear, and shame. They’re embarrassed about what other people would think. Meanwhile, they’d rather hobble along and suffer.

Think of it this way – If you were born without a leg do you want to spend the rest of your life hopping on one foot? Wouldn’t it be easier to get crutches or an artificial leg or a wheelchair? Pretending like everything is fine when it isn’t is insane.

People don’t look at you funny for asking for help. They look at you funny when you need it but won’t ask for it. If you really care what people think, you’ll take care of yourself first. Then they won’t notice your problem because you’ve dealt with it.

Family honor

My brother used to push the idea of family honor on me. He seemed to think that it was my responsibility to keep up the family name and family pride. And yet he was the one who changed his last name and who got two women pregnant without being married to them. He is the one who got divorced four times and who got himself a quarter of million dollars in debt.

So I’m not really sure why he thinks it is my responsibility to keep up with family honor and pride. Perhaps it is my responsibility because he realized that he had failed at it. Trying to make his problems my problems isn’t acceptable.

I have felt like I have failed the family for many years but I’ve gotten over it. He really did a number on me. Because he was older than me, I trusted him. He imprinted me. I finally realized that their madness isn’t my madness.

If you work for a company, everybody should work together to make a good product. But if you work really hard and no one else does, then you will lose your sense of loyalty towards the company. You feel like it doesn’t matter what you do because no one else is pitching in nearly as hard as you are.

The same is true with my family. I feel like they aren’t doing anything for me so why should I do anything for them? In fact they seem to think that it is my responsibility to care about everybody else’s feelings, when they don’t bother with mine. That is the very definition of codependency.

In “Anatomy of the Spirit, Caroline Myss talks about how our first loyalty is to our tribe – our family, our culture, our country. Whatever we are born into and is impressed upon us. Problems occur when we disagree with it and realize that its goals and values are not the same as ours.

She talks about our family of origin as being Divinely chosen. So this means we should accept it.

That isn’t so easy.

This happened with Jesus in the Garden at Gethsemane – 39 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.” (Matthew 26:39, RSV) He was about to be crucified, and he knew it. He was about to suffer a very painful and humiliating death, one that he didn’t deserve. He knew that he was going to be resurrected, but getting to that point was going to be ugly.

He didn’t want what was going to happen to him. He was asking God to let it not happen.

I was angry at God for letting things happen to me. I was angry at God for the abuse and neglect. I was angry at God for it all – not having a better family then and not having a better family now. I didn’t pick these people.

I felt pretty ugly for thinking these thoughts. But if even Jesus can think stuff like this, then I’m in pretty good company. And Jesus says, not my will, but yours, God. It isn’t what I want, but what You want.

I’m trying.

Myss says that problems with this area tend to manifest in the lower back and knees, and that is where my pains are. And from my prayers before I read this, I knew that I needed to let God be in control. It is good to get confirmation, but still hard to do.

There has to be a reason what has happened and is happening to me is going on. God made it happen and is making it happen. It is a way to open up, to learn, to grow. It is a test, a trial. Somehow I doubt that the world will be redeemed through my sufferings, but I might be.


There are some people who seem to have an issue with asking for help. We all need help on one way or another. Some people are really good at it. They ask a question without hesitation and without fear.

Then there are some people who don’t know how to ask for help. They feel like they are causing a bother. They feel like they are interrupting. They feel like they shouldn’t ask. They feel their question is stupid. They feel like asking a question will make them look stupid.

So they don’t ask for help, and they fall further behind. They don’t ask for assistance or advice. They try to do it all themselves. This rarely works out well.

Then there are those who ask for help but are really arrogant about it. They will treat the helper like a servant. Like a slave. Like a lesser-than. They feel like they have to put the helper “in their place.” They talk down to the helper in order to feel more important. They want to feel like they are higher, more important.

These two situations are the same thing.

In both they feel that they are in a lower position. In both they feel like it is shameful or embarrassing to ask for help. One deals with it by simply not asking for help. The other deals with it by asking but doing it in a way that “saves face.”

The cure? Just ask for help. People like to help. Remember when someone has sincerely asked you for help? Remember how that made you feel? It might have made you feel important or special. This means that you have information or assistance that is needed. This means you are valuable.

You might have wanted to help them all along and they were stubborn, and you were relieved that they finally asked.

So take that feeling and turn it around. Give that gift to another person. Ask for help and they will feel important and useful. You are doing them a favor by asking for help.

Sometimes we have to turn things around to understand them.

Often at the library I’ll be helping a patron who obviously can’t carry all those books out to her car. I’ll ask if I can walk the books out for her. Invariably she will say no. She doesn’t want to be a bother. She doesn’t want to be beholden. She doesn’t want to be a burden. So I’ll turn it around. I’ll point out that she will be doing me a favor because I’ll get to walk outside and get some sunshine.

This usually works.

Once that wasn’t enough. The lady was very Southern. She was also very feeble.

Now, you never want to take away a person’s dignity. People don’t like to feel helpless. They don’t want to feel beholden. They want to be independent.

But sometimes that is all a ruse because they just don’t feel worthy.

I thought about it. I wondered what would work. There was no way I could let her take those books out by herself. Well, I could, but my upbringing would have smacked me upside the head. I figured out the magic formula. I out-Southerned her. I said “I would be offended if you didn’t let me take these books for you.” She broke out into a huge smile and let me help.

We both got what we wanted.