Editorial: Grace and gratefulness at the end

  • People gathered to hold a vigil and visit with Chris Foley, 39, at Concord Regional VNA's hospice house in Concord on Friday, Sept. 8, 2017. Foley left his position as principal of Penacook Elementary School in March after being diagnosed with cancer and entered hospice care in late August. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Friday, September 15, 2017

In the sci-fi superhero film Guardians of the Galaxy, a grieving Drax the Destroyer apologizes to Rocket Raccoon for recklessly risking the lives of the other Guardians. “I was a fool,” Drax says. “All the anger, all the rage, was just to cover my loss.”

In movies and life, the expectation is that this kind of vulnerability will be met with warmth and empathy. But Rocket offers derision instead: “Oh boo, hoo, hoo, my wife and child are dead,” he says mockingly.

When another Guardian, Groot, covers his mouth in shock, Rocket says, “Oh, I don’t care if it’s mean; everybody’s got dead people.”

Rocket may be insensitive, but he’s not wrong: Everybody’s got dead people. And not only that, everybody will die. The two big mysteries are when and how.

Those with a terminal illness solve both mysteries at once. They are typically given a rough idea of their life expectancy, and the diagnosis itself generally answers the cause-of-death question. But there is another element to the question of how – as in, “How will you face death?” – and Chris Foley, the former principal of Penacook Elementary School, has given his answer: With grace and gratefulness.

Foley, 39, is dying of cancer. He is married with three children, including a newborn son, and he is out of treatment options. So he will spend his days at the Concord Regional VNA’s hospice house and say his goodbyes.

“I feel lucky, honestly,” Foley told the Monitor’s Caitlin Andrews last week. “I feel like Lindsey (his wife) and I have built such a strong foundation to succeed, to have our kids have a successful life. I feel overwhelmed with support and care and kindness. ... I am a fortunate person to have what I’ve had, you know?”

For people who actively avoid thinking about their own mortality, or that of the people they love, the words “lucky” and “fortunate” probably seem out of place. Thirty-nine years isn’t a lot of time. But Foley is indeed lucky and fortunate to be surrounded by so many family members and friends, so many people who will miss him.

Everybody dies, but not everybody will get to say goodbye to the people who made their life worth living. Not everybody leaves the world surrounded by love and appreciation. Only the lucky ones do.

Foley can see that, and he wants everybody else to see it, too.

Sometimes we wonder how different the world would be if people truly accepted their own mortality instead of fending off the very thought of it. Would they be kinder? Would they be more generous? Would they be more appreciative of all the little things they take for granted? Would the words “I love you” and “I forgive you” become easier to say?

Would people be happier?

Intellectually, almost everybody knows that the curtain will fall on every earthly life – and that “everybody’s got dead people” – but that knowledge rarely influences the actions of daily life.

So what would you do differently if you knew your days were numbered? Because truth be told, they are.