What Would You Do If You Had a Week to Live?

Read this reflective narrative about facing mortality.

Robert suffers from asthma, and the coronavirus pandemic has ushered in some difficult and urgent questions for him as he faces an increased risk of death to this disease. Here, he shares some of his reflections on what it means to live well and hope for the future when the danger of death seems closer than ever. 

What would you do if you had a week or two left to live?

It’s not a pleasant thought to consider. But it’s one that many are confronted with during this global pandemic. For those of us with asthma, an autoimmune disease, or another condition that makes us particularly vulnerable to a severe case of the coronavirus, the recognition of our mortality can never be too far from our minds.

The pandemic has produced widespread anxiety and fear, uncertainty, and even despair. But those feelings can inspire helpful introspection if we don’t simply try to escape from them but really grapple with the questions they raise.

Until recently, it has been easy in our society — at least for those of us who are not facing violence or abject poverty on a daily basis — to go about our days as though death is scheduled for a distant future, focusing on our daily lives and perhaps planning for an even more secure, enjoyable future. But that’s changed now. As Pope Francis explained, “The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities.”  

This heightened sense of vulnerability and the fragility of the present moment may give us a sharper sense of what truly matters.

In a throwaway culture where we are all inundated with stuff, I have started to consider which of my possessions are actually worth passing on to another generation: the simple rosary I got for my grandma’s wake and have had with me in my happiest and most trying moments since; the wedding ring I inherited from my grandfather; the stuffed monkey I got at my first birthday; the files on my computer with our family history, pictures, videos, and more; the mementos I have saved from various meaningful occasions; the autographed football card signed by Jerry Rice to the “white Jerry Rice;” the three prayer cards that I got when my kids were born (which match those sent to their cousins and the children of our dearest friends). For all the marketing we are bombarded with every day, it is remarkable how many of our most valued possessions have little material value. 

And as a parent, I’ve been forced to really ponder: What lessons do I want my kids to understand if I might not be there to try to teach and foster them on a daily basis? What type of people do I hope they will become? For me, the answer is clear, though perhaps jarring to some: Saints. Not otherworldly figures, but everyday saints with whom I hope to be reunited after death. There is nothing that matters more to me.

I want them to be faithful, virtuous, authentic people, who live lives of service to others, are willing to defy senseless conventions, are daring and unafraid to fail, and avoid substances that ruin lives and offer only false happiness. I want them to have integrity and passion, to care about the weak and vulnerable, to strive for excellence while being humble. I want them to engage in lifelong learning to deepen their knowledge and wisdom, to avoid objectifying themselves and others, to have a good sense of humor, and to be good citizens who defend human dignity and promote the common good. I want them to find balance in life; to play sports and live healthy lives; to value their family, including past and future generations; and to root for the sports teams that their father and grandfather and great-grandparents have supported. I want them to be kind, warm, loving, and joyful. (No pressure, kids.) And beyond all that, I want them to know that while other parents may love their children just as much as my wife and I love them, no parents have loved their children more.

Before the crisis, I tried to be very intentional about gratitude. I tried to not take for granted a good game of pickup or catching a one-handed touchdown pass; interacting with my students each day at school and watching them play sports or act in the play; browsing books at the used bookstore; or eating chips and salsa with my family at our favorite Mexican restaurant. I did not know that social distancing was coming, but I knew that circumstances can change and the little things that we love can go away.  

But that gratitude has deepened in these past couple of weeks. I might not be able to do any of those things right now, but I’m alive. I can still watch a movie on the couch with my kids, while they position themselves so that there are always exactly zero inches of space between us. I can have them sit on my lap, even if that means not being able to work on this article until late at night, when I am exhausted from a full day of working and caretaking. I can stare out the window at the cardinals that always seem to vanish when I reach to grab my camera. I can be grateful that I have work, when so many others have suddenly lost their jobs.

This does not eliminate the fear of a pandemic that is not yet under control — not in terms of my own life and certainly not for the lives of my loved ones. I fear we will all feel the sting of death more acutely by the time this crisis ends. There is much to grieve already and no way to prepare for certain losses. So I hope for the best, rather than grieving hypothetical losses. And, with clarity about what I truly value, I prepare in case my time on earth — which will end at some point — arrives sooner than I had imagined.

Until then, I choose to live in gratitude.

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