To See What Matters

When Senator John McCain announced his cancer was glioblastoma in 2017, I knew his death would come quickly. It is a brutal cancer.

And I suspected, based on his public persona—though we never know what others are truly like—that the former prisoner of war would make the most of his living until he died. In his book, Character is Destiny, McCain wrote,

“So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.”

The Arizona senator’s death in this last week transported me to a day in hospice when I visited three patients, back-to-back-to-back, and observed glimpses of people who tried to “beautify all things.”

First visit.

There are four small rooms and a bathroom. The house is a ramshackle structure containing worn-out furniture and peeling paint. One of the rooms is a bedroom, jammed with a double and a single bed. The cramped space has no air conditioning and the outside triple-digit temperature is forcing itself inside. A man is alone on the single bed. He is dying, but I look into his eyes and see life.

Second visit.

Another place welcomes me after the outside security gate is unlocked. I enter through the front door—with more locks—into a sprawling home cooled by silent air conditioning. The office I walk by on the way to the bedroom is filled with framed photos, awards and citations. All of the office’s memorabilia surround an immense desk. In the master bedroom, past the office and past a solarium with its filtered sunlight, a hospital bed holds a man. His face turns toward me as I enter. He is dying, but I look into his eyes and see life.

Third visit.

The wife tells me her husband isn’t up to meeting me. “Please sit wherever you want,” she says. I choose the sofa. In the middle of the living room floor, a freestanding fan hums and swirls. By the front door, a glass-walled cabinet displays wedding photos. After leaving momentarily to help her husband, she returns and sits near me. I share information about hospice. Attentive and alert, she nods her head as she listens. In a room I have not seen, her husband rests. He is dying, but I look into her eyes and see life.

One day. Three visits. The first was a new patient. On the day before, he told the nurse about being, “scared shitless of dying.” Barely fifty, he lives in near poverty. Still, two daughters hover near him, their eyes filled with love. The second was a man I visited numerous times. In his mid-seventies, his house reflects a lifetime of success. The third visit was for sharing basic hospice information. Though I never saw the patient, his chart noted he was in his sixties. His wife, across from me on that sofa, listened to every word I said about what hospice could do for her husband and their family.

When I started working in hospice, one of my sister’s reaction was . . . Won’t you be depressed all the time? On the surface, it would seem inevitable she’d be correct. I could have guessed I’d visit families where someone—maybe fifty or half that age or even twice that age—was dying. And I could have guessed I’d enter houses where one place might have peeling paint and another a sun-dappled solarium. But now, having visited so many people, one thing I know for certain is what it means to sit down by someone touched by life’s final moments.

I meet the eyes of family and friends, of patients and potential patients. Tears flow. Tears are withheld. Floating in those tears or near tears, like a lifeboat crowded with too many passengers, are dread, anger, hopes, longing and exhaustion. And more. I look into the eyes and there’s no poverty or luxury, no age, no difference in skin color or religious background or sexual orientation or any other distinctions we too often use.

I look into the eyes and see what matters. What can I say that will be completely honest? What can I do that will truly help? Shouldn’t it be like that every day, with every person? Each moment we are alive, as we see the other, we can see ourselves.

Each moment is a chance to increase, enhance, and witness beauty for ourselves and in the next person we meet.

Senator McCain’s political priorities and mine were different. But I respected him, and his way of living and dying were equally humble and noble. His eyes remained wide open to beauty . . .


Photo – John McCain showing CBS’s (and 60 Minutes’s) Lesley Stahl around his ranch near Sedona, Arizona in 2017.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. Larry, your writings touch the hearts of so many people; your writings offer us opportunities to examine our own lives and each life we interact with… but this week’s essay is one that is as timely as it is beautifully written. While I know I shouldn’t have favorites, I think this work is my favorite! All I can say is, wow.

    And, thank you.

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