David Cook: The biggest fear of all

David Cook: The biggest fear of all

October 31st, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Near the end, a man telephones his teacher from 40 years ago and thanks her for believing in him when no one else did.

A daughter holds vigil by the bedside of her father, forgiving him for all his failures as a dad.

A wife crawls into the hospital bed next to her husband of 60 years, cradling him, holding him, as his breaths turn fainter and fainter.

Once-estranged brothers now come home to sit by their mother's bedside.

These moments, all part of the same thing.

"A good death," said Sherry Campbell, a social worker with Hospice of Chattanooga.

This Halloween, we will get spooked, goosed and frightened. But the one fear we may hold deeper than all others?

The fear of death and dying.

What happens as the evening sun sets on our life? What happens in our last days and hours? How do we -- with bravery and grace -- merge from this world into the next?

"It is a very spiritual time," said Campbell. "These holy and sacred places where we are."

Campbell, a 1985 graduate of Rossville High School, has the heart of a social worker (which means it's about 10 times the normal size) and the guts that let her walk up close, really close, into the messy edges and corners of life where Chattanoogans do the hard work of dying.

We spent part of a morning together recently, talking in the lobby of a local hospital as folks rolled by in wheelchairs and others poured free coffee into white Styrofoam cups. In her 10 years at Hospice, she's seen that all different walks of people -- when told of their coming death -- begin to do the same things.

"Forgiveness, gratitude, love and saying goodbye," she said.

When dying, things fall into place that get out of place during life. Campbell -- who tells stories in the way good preachers do -- spoke about an elderly woman dying in her home.

"Crotchety. She lived by herself. I visited her for months, and her son never came to spend any time with her. He was gruff. Would drop off the groceries and talk real gruff," she said.

Campbell and her team of hospice workers (each patient is assigned a social worker, doctor, nurse and chaplain) loved this woman and couldn't understand why her son was so distant. So Campbell asked him.

"He started crying," she said.

All his life, he'd never heard his mother say she loved him.

So one day, Campbell and the woman are playing Skipbo when the son shows up. They all slowly walk -- the woman on her walker, the son and Campbell by her side -- outside to get the mail. Then, like mailing a letter long overdue, the woman turns to the son and says the three words he longs to hear.

I. Love. You.

"He just cried and hugged her," said Campbell.

Of course. Because his world was set right again.

I wonder if we've lost the ability to talk about death. Like it's a cultural taboo (Campbell said her husband jokingly asks her not to tell too many hospice stories at parties). What would happen if we really learned to look at death, squarely, without flinching?

"We have stopped talking about dying. We started talking about living," she said. "This is America. Keep your chin up. Grin and bear it. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Botox. Face-lifts."

Campbell is not Eeyore. She laughs far more than cries, but her laugh is the laugh of someone who has traveled a long distance, seen many things and knows a big, fat secret: Life is meant to be celebrated because it is so, so sweet. So precious. So ... temporary.

And that's the lesson of death.

"We're all in this together. We're all going to die," she said. "It is so important to be there. To be present, and to tell that person we love them."

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.