The sum of life

Dear Annie: On Dec. 13, 1995, my 20-year-old son was killed in an accident at work. I was devastated. I had started putting up Christmas decorations before his death. But after his death, I had no desire to put any more up, so I decided to give the tree away.

The weekend after his memorial service found me back at work, delivering newspapers. While delivering papers, I heard a voice say, “If you don’t put up the tree, you dishonor Danny.” I spent hours trying to understand but finally let it go. Later that day, when I had finished my chores, I sat down in the recliner. I picked up the pad of paper and pencil beside it to do some sketching. But instead, I watched in amazement, as my hand seemed to have its own mind. I was multiplying numbers. I came up with a huge number and followed it by a colon and the number 1. I wasn’t sure what the numbers meant at first. Then it dawned on me.

Life or death only occurs when the soul arrives or leaves the body. It happens in the blink of an eye. The 1 in my equation stood for the one second it took for Danny’s soul to leave. The huge number to the left was the number of seconds he had lived. And no matter how horrible, how painful that one second of his death was, it was nothing compared with the millions of joyous seconds of his life.

So I allowed myself to grieve, but not for long. I wasn’t being fair to Danny by letting that one second overcome the rest. The day of his death means nothing. The day of his birth means everything. Every year, starting on the day after his birthday, I begin collecting stuffed animals. On his birthday, I take these animals to the hospital for the children who are patients there. I also ask the hospital staff to take some home for their own children because of the care they gave my son. — Sandy

Dear Sandy: I’m so moved; I’m at a loss for words. All I can say is thank you, so very much, for sharing your beautiful, powerful story with the world.

Dear Annie: I do not normally read advice columns, but I now enjoy reading yours on a regular basis. I’d like to comment on the recent column that contained the letter from the gentleman who had a big what-if when it came to the woman he didn’t marry. As usual, your response was direct and made sense.

What I want to say is that I think there is a significant difference between harboring a regret and wondering about what life would be like if something in particular had happened. I think that most of us from time to time wonder about the what-ifs in our past. We all make decisions — some good, some bad — and we need to accept those decisions. We cannot change the past, but we can learn from the bad decisions. I think the gentleman who wrote to you is reacting in an unhealthy manner and needs counseling, which I hope can help him come to terms with his problem. — George in Missouri

Dear George: You’re right. It’s totally normal to have “what if” thoughts from time to time. That’s a natural part of reflecting on your life. When it becomes obsessive, as you mentioned, it’s time to dig deeper and figure out what in the present is making you so focused on the past.

Dear Annie: My question has to do with end-of-life care. I have been beside my father, my mother and my husband as they died. Hospice was used in all three cases. I have never had a good experience with hospice, but that is actually beside the point. My question is this: Does anybody still get to go and die at the hospital anymore, or is that a thing of the past? When the obituaries say the person died surrounded by family, did that person have a choice?

I totally adore my family, but I do not want them taking care of me when I am dying. I would much rather have a stranger do it. I do not want to die in my own house, and I certainly don’t want anyone around me. Has insurance made it so that nobody can do this anymore? I want to die with dignity. This means that I do not want my family anywhere near me in my last weeks. Can this still happen? — Death With Dignity My Way

Dear Death With Dignity: This is a complex, sensitive issue, and I want to be sure you’re given all the information you need. I would recommend calling the National Institute on Aging at 800-222-2225. The NIA can mail you a copy of its guide titled “End of Life: Helping with Comfort and Care,” which outlines options for end-of-life care and lists dozens of additional resources. Be sure to communicate your decision to your family members ahead of time so they have time to process, accept and respect your wishes.