Barbara Coombs Lee
As president of Compassion and Choices, BCL’s new book, Finish Strong, Putting YOUR Priorities First at Life’s End, is a treasure of wisdom from an insider who has everyone’s interest at heart.
DM: What brought you to the world of aging and end of life?
I didn't have a lot of experiences with death growing up, but when I went to nursing school, I learned how to practice nursing, become a companion on the raw edge of human existence.
DM: What is the one lesson you wish everyone could get in life, and at the end of life?
That awareness of mortality enriches the gift of life. I believe being on speaking terms with our mortality helps move us through life with a certain humility, a certain sense of comradeship with our fellow humans. In some way, we are all doing the best we can with the tools we've been given. I’ve harbored the idea that a working relationship with our mortality could lead to a more peaceful world.
DM: What’s your idea of perfect happiness?
I love a little poem by Raymond Carver: “And did you find what you wanted in this life after all. I did. And what did you want. To call myself beloved to feel myself beloved on the earth.” It might be my epitaph.
DM: What are you reading, what’s on your bedside table?
I like Jungian Psychology quite a bit and love Egypt. Right now there are two books on my bedside table: Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett and The Sungod's Journey through the Netherworld: Reading the Ancient Egyptian Amduat, it’s the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
DM: What’s the big message in your book?
“Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.” Do what requires the most of you and the least of medicine. Don’t give away your power, your moral authority— own your values, When you embrace your moral authority, you shape your own death. Value-based questions are not questions that can be solved by a technical expert, they come out of your depths. You’ve got this. People have been dying and helping each other die for millennia.
DM: What is your current state of mind?
Joyful. Celebratory. I’m 72 years old. My main job from now on is to find joy and be joyful and celebrate life.
DM: Who are your favorite writers?
You know I’m not a big fiction reader.. I read a lot of psychology, people like Thomas Moore, David Whyte, John O’Donohue. Poets and writers who write about the art of living. My personal philosophy and the art of living and the art of dying are completely intertwined.
DM: What is one thing people would never imagine about you?
As far as I know I don't have any Irish blood in me, but I love Irish music! I got myself a pair of tap shoes at the age of 69 and started taking Irish dance lessons.
DM: What book would you like to be buried with?
Probably the Egyptian Book of the Dead, The Sun God’s Journey to the Netherworld because it would be an inspired little guidebook— my traveler’s guide!
DM: What is your exit plan? How would you like to die?
Well, I’d like to die a long, long, long time from now, when my grandchildren are a lot older than they are. Also, I would like to see it coming, have time to communicate in a very special way with the people whom I love. As I say that, I hear my own contradiction, for I am living my life in such a way that all that would be unnecessary. In the event I died suddenly, catastrophically, everyone would know exactly how much I loved them and why.
DM: If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
There are these various myths about people who are taken to a field after death where every single challenge, every joy, every experience is in a field represented by rocks and boulders. Once there, you are given a chance to keep or discard experiences. Since I wouldn’t change a thing, I’d want to be the boulders, because I can now see how everything in my life makes perfect sense as part of a cohesive whole. Though I do hope I wouldn't have to learn the same hard-laced lessons again, but rather, start where I left off.
DM: If heaven exists, what would you like to hear when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Welcome. I’ve been waiting for you.