“It’s a pleasure to be here with you. It’s a pleasure to be here. It’s a pleasure to be.”
That’s how Michael Fratkin starts his stirring TEDx talk about the lessons he’s learned as an end-of-life doctor.
Michael is an uncle of mine (well, removed by several marriages but I’m still going to claim him as family) who lives in Northern California with his wife and two young children. We met them for the first time at Thanksgiving last month, and just a few weeks later, he gave this wonderful speech about a subject that we might not like to talk about this time of year (or any other time of year, for that matter). But who among us doesn’t have a hint — or more — of sadness during this time of celebrating with families and thinking about getting a new start with a new year?
One of the stories Michael shares is of his first encounter with death: a grandparent when he was six. I was just a few years older than that in 1994 when my great-grandmother Joyce (in the driver’s seat of that oversized motorcycle) died just a few days after Christmas. One of my last memories of her, or perhaps I should say moments with her, was her singing “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” as she lay dying from emphysema in her hospital bed. But she sang that song with a smile, which was of great comfort to my sister and I, who didn’t really know how to act when we saw her just a week or so later at the funeral home.
On the flip side, I remember the awkward feeling of relief when the whole family went to see “Dumb and Dumber” just a few days after her funeral and we laughed so hard we cried. She was the kind of fiery-red headed-lady who would have laughed so hard she cried, too.
Joyce was certainly a feminist before her time, but with that liberation came personal demons that she didn’t shake until later in life. I think she was probably the happiest when in 1974, she married a cowboy named Jack McKinley on horseback on his ranch in New Mexico. She was almost 60 by the, and so many of those first decades she chased pleasure and personal freedom at the expense of responsibility. When she got the opportunity in the 1950s to raise my dad, she jumped at the second chance. I’m sure he’d be the first to say that she wasn’t a perfect mom, but I know she was the one who instilled in him an appreciation for strong, even bull-headed women.
My sister and I (Chelsea is the dark-haired baby on the bottom) were lucky enough to get to know her a little before her time on this earth expired, and she is just one of the many people who came to mind when I heard Michael’s words on death, dying and life. (For the record, the only food-related memory I have of her is her love of coffee — she drank coffee all day long — buttered toast and the hamburger at Wayne’s, her favorite restaurant in Branson, where she lived. By that point in her life, she didn’t do much cooking, and she and her sister Pud and brother-in-law Bob would eat at that restaurant every single day for lunch.)
Please take a few minutes to watch his talk. I have a number of posts rolling around in my head from the past week I spent in Missouri with my sweet little boys, parents and grandmother, during which we laughed so hard we cried at least a handful of times. As I let those moment soak into my consciousness, I leave you with these questions of Michael’s that I really, really needed to hear:
“Is it true that there is never enough time? What is a whole life? How many moments make a life?”