To Laugh Properly
On this Christmas Eve, we offer this story, one that is true, that celebrates joy in life. It is even in the midst of challenge and pain that we can be reminded of goodness and wonder and love all around us. When we can find joy within our fears and disappointments we have truly found a gift worth having and holding onto every day.
To Laugh Properly
Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.
— Tim McGraw, from the song “Live Like You Were Dying”
Several years ago there was a retreat near Baltimore, Maryland, for people living with life-threatening illnesses. The time we shared together was intense, invigorating and instructive. At the end of the week our minds and hearts were overflowing with the spirit of the good people who were there. The insights they taught about what it was like to live with a life-threatening and life-altering condition were inspiring and illuminating.
But it was a deceptively simple act near the end of the retreat that would become our strongest memory from the week.
A soft-spoken man, age 44, weak from his particular disease, attended the retreat with his wife, who helped and supported him physically. They lived on the sunny coast of Florida and the January cold made it especially challenging for him. But he persevered quietly, anxious to absorb any wisdom he could as he struggled to live with his challenging circumstance.
Through the last afternoon and night of the retreat it snowed. The wooded countryside surrounding the retreat center was especially beautiful in the twilight moments that day. A stillness and calm descended outside our windows and there was a magical quality to our final retreat hours together. During dinner that night our friend from Florida became animated for the first time that week. The snow, which he hadn’t seen in years, absolutely enchanted him. He was boyishly excited to see it, feel it on his face, and delight in its splendor.
It gave him an idea.
The next morning, after our last session and as everyone began to say their wistful goodbyes, he announced that he wanted to do something he had never done before. He wanted to lie in the snow and make a snow angel. His childlike wonder at the miracle of the snow transported him back to a simpler time, an innocent time when disease did not threaten and his future was still open and bright.
We all loved his idea.
We gently helped him down into an undefiled blanket of snow, at least six inches of it, and he slowly spread his arms and legs to create an angel. As he did, for those moments, he was free. He was young. He was not in pain. He was not weak.
He laughed and laughed. Loudly and exuberantly. Deep down, from within. A moment of silliness in his life again. A deeply needed moment of childlike fun, full of relief and release. For him and for all those living with life-threatening illnesses. His laughter transported us all. Everyone there shared in his joy.
Sadly, a few months later he was gone. His life ended too soon. But his moment of joy, of laughter, of silliness, of release, lives on. Forever.
That afternoon, when we were driving home from the retreat, a song came on the radio and brought tears. It was Tim McGraw’s classic,
“Live Like You Were Dying.”
He said, “I was in my early forties
With a lot of life before me
And a moment came that stopped me on a dime
I spent most of the next days Looking at the x-rays
Talkin’ ’bout the options
And talkin’ ’bout sweet time”
I asked him, “When it sank in
That this might really be the real end
How’s it hit you When you get that kind of news?
Man, what’d you do?”
He said, “
I went skydiving
I went Rocky Mountain climbing
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu
And I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying”
And he said
“Someday I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dying”…
It might not have been skydiving, RockyMountain climbing or bull riding, but that frail snow angel was our friend’s moment to live. He was dying. But the new fallen snow that morning gave him one more moment to approach his life without regret.
One more moment to laugh. To live.