Spiritual Sisters

Spiritual Healing Serene Salad

Spiritual Voices Creativity Bakery

Spiritual Inspiration TeaRoom

Inner Sanctuary Growth Brew

Spirituality In The WorkPlace

Spiritual Parenting PlayRoom

Angels Miracles & Noble Deeds

Spirituality Message Boards

The Spirit of Christmas: Gratitude for What We Have - Chef's Choice Twelve For most of her life, said Joanne Douglas, she expected someone to hand her a magical block of time. "I always thought this time would come when all my obligations were taken care of. But I know now that no one is just going to hand it to me, that if I really want the time to do the things that are important to me, I'm going to have to take it."

"Give yourself the gift of time," she exhorted.

"I've never quite learned how to do that," Douglas, 61, continued. "There was always family to take care of. It was an obligation when the children were small. But now that they're grown and self-sufficient, they can be put on 'hold,' even though they're still important parts of my life. So finally I can put some of my needs before theirs. But why is that so difficult to do without a guilt trip?

"Is it because my life as a mother consisted of so much giving that I don't know how to do anything else? Is it my makeup because my astrological sign is Cancer? Is it the 'good girl' syndrome most of us are raised with? I didn't have the guilt of a Roman Catholic upbringing, but we Anglicans do a pretty good job with that, too. My grandmother believed strongly in reincarnation, but I've decided to hedge my bets and do everything I want the first time around because I may not get a second chance. So I ask myself, 'What do I want to accomplish this first and probably only time around?'"

Douglas prefaced her comments on preparing for death with a joke: "The priest asks an elderly parishioner if she's ever thought about the 'hereafter.' The parishioner replies, 'Oh, all the time. I'm always walking into a room, standing there a moment and wondering: What am I here after?' "

That question never really concerned her, she said. "I was always satisfied with life as it was. Sometimes I looked at women who weren't as encumbered as I was and felt a bit of envy. But just as quickly, I'd think, 'My day is coming.' When I was in college, I felt I could become one of the new career women. Then I became pregnant, married, and the mother of four, but I didn't regret any of it as I always knew, 'My day is coming.'

"I found satisfaction in raising my four kids the best way I knew. I busied myself with PTA, Boy Scouts, Little League. I loved the camping trips, found strength in knowing I could organize and maintain an active household. If I sound like a single parent, technically I wasn't, but with a husband who traveled part of each week, it felt very much to me like being single-until the weekend came and I was no longer in charge."

After the children were in school, Douglas said, she began taking college courses again and later took a job both for the money and the contacts outside of her home.

"When my mother was eighty-two, she suffered illnesses that required much attention. I was an only child, so the obligation fell to me. Also around that time," she went on, "the alcoholism that had been playing around the edges of our marriage began exerting more force in our lives. After much duress, some hysterics, and finally a confrontation, my husband entered a rehab program, and all the while I thought, 'My day will come.'"

She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer four years ago.

Douglas said her surgery was successful, even though the doctors weren't able to remove all the tumors. "Chemotherapy is keeping what's left under control, but the cancer changed my life drastically. I knew I would need to feel in charge of my own life and death," said the mother of three daughters and a son (who have given her four grandchildren to date), and who has been married to the same man for forty-three years.

"How am I getting ready for the hereafter?" Douglas got back to the subject at hand. "By taking care of business," she answered herself.

"By doing the best that I can while I'm still here, by trying to leave with all my i's dotted and t's crossed, so to speak. The job of living isn't over until the final breath is drawn, but the influence of a life is felt long after the last breath. I really believe that. We're all dealing with our mortality," she continued, "though few of us care to admit it, because by admitting death is out there we have to look in the corners and places we might not be ready to face. Confronted with my cancer, I began facing death by getting things done-all the practical considerations my children wouldn't have to handle if I took care of them myself."

These necessary things, then-life's remaining i's to be dotted and t's to be crossed-became the calm acknowledgment of her impending encounter with death.

"When you confront the inevitability of death you realize, consciously or subconsciously, decisions need to be made, things have to be done. Facing up to your mortality-living your life with the awareness it could end long before you fervently hope it will-keeps you from putting off those critical decisions and tasks you'd otherwise 'get around to' someday," Douglas said.

"I need to feel when I leave the house that I've tied everything into as neat a package as I possibly can. Just in case this is the day I don't return. It ranks right up there with my mother's admonition always to wear clean underwear in case I'm in an accident."

And so she started with the place she intends to be buried. "I want a place with a view in a central location-not for me," she added quickly, "but for friends and relatives who might be induced to drop by and 'share' a glass of wine later." She laughed. "Like the New York mother who wanted to be buried under the parking lot at Saks Fifth Avenue because she knew her daughter would come to visit at least once a week."

With that bit of business taken care of, Douglas said, "I asked myself, 'What else?' Well, there's another necessary player called a funeral home. Certainly this decision could be made by any of my relatives still around, but our family is scattered across the country. Besides, I'd hope, they'll be so devastated by my demise they won't need the extra stress of such decision-making. So I chose to do that for them too."

Douglas laughed again. "One of my daughters saw a shopping bag in my closet marked 'Mom's and Dad's Urns.' Aghast, she asked if that was really what it said. When I explained I wanted them readily accessible, she seemed to understand. It also provided a good opening for me to tell her where my list of wishes and instructions was kept. Which brings us to a service," she continued.

"I've also outlined what I'd like to be done in this regard, which bells and whistles I want and how many. Under stress, people sometimes forget to do things that normally would be second nature to them. So a gentle reminder from mom to the kids to mind their p's and q's and pay all the bills I didn't take care of.

"I've also included suggestions for the kind of going-away party I want after the service, though I probably overstepped the bounds of good taste on this one-no pun intended. Since I haven't ordered the menu from a caterer, they'll probably do whatever they want, and that's all right with me. I just want them to know it's to be a party."

Backing up further, Douglas revealed that she has investigated different hospice facilities and nursing homes, listing her acceptable choices in order of preference. Her "Living Trust" is in place as well, stipulating "special bequests" that aren't necessarily of high monetary value but are things she feels will be meaningful to specific children and grandchildren.

"I've also completed a 'Grandmother Remembers' book for each of the grandchildren," she went on. "In addition, the two younger ones will each receive a small chest I'm filling with mementos and letters I've written to them, along with whatever seems important to me at the time. It will be up to the individual parents to decide at what age each child should receive the books and chests. That's not a decision I need to make," she added.

"I've done all these things because, first, it's my nature to want a say in as much of what involves me as possible. Second, I don't want any decisions made on my behalf in moments of grief and stress that would put undue financial strain on the family budget. By taking care of them myself beforehand, hopefully I'm removing that unnecessary strain."

"Third and most important," Douglas concluded, "I'm doing all these things because they're very important to me at this time of my life. And while I'm doing them, I can speculate on where I'll be when it's all over. Best of all, when the time finally comes, it will make my going that much easier-for myself and for those I love."

For me, of all the people I interviewed for my book, Joanne Douglas epitomized the spirit of the holy season. She died in December of 2001, a few days after her last Christmas amid those for whom she had worked so hard to make her going "that much easier."

I'm sure that she did.

Lionel Fisher is the author of Celebrating Time Alone: Stories of Splendid Solitude (Beyond Words Publishing, 2001). Reach him at beachauthor@lycos.com to share your thoughts on magnificent aloneness.