Five Words That Changed My Life

I was thirty-two.

My wife and I had grown accustomed to a new definition of marriage, one layered with the responsibilities of raising three boys. The fact that they were all under the age of three just added to the adventure. I was a young professional, focused on building my insurance agency in my hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina.

What happened next changed everything.

One morning, I was overcome with a longing to write, as if a story from somewhere deep down inside, the place we often avoid for fear of what we might find, were waiting to be told.

I grabbed my computer, compelled by this desire, and I began typing. I was remembering a story from my past just as plainly as if it were on a television screen in front of me.

This is the story of the five words that would forever change my life.

A Story Waiting to be Told

Tricia was a dreamer. She chose to look at all that life could be instead of what life wasn’t and, at every turn, celebrated the special moments. She was a romantic at heart, never letting the cloak of realism hinder her outlook. Every story had a happy ending, and every day brought new opportunity. She was a breath of fresh air, a break from the norm. People and ideas were met with energy and excitement. Even when she was diagnosed with cancer at forty-eight years of age, she dreamed big. Cancer wasn’t going to stop her, and it certainly wasn’t going to be an imposition on anyone else.

In fact, the year she was diagnosed, she took her 38th trip to Walt Disney World and embraced it as if it were her first. To her, Disney embodied the way she lived, especially this part of the journey. In spite of her diagnosis, a hope grew within her, facing her condition as an opportunity rather than a burden.

Isn’t this how ever Disney movie seems? A story filled with tragedy: Mufasta dies trying to save Simba, forcing the young cub to run away from his rightful throne; it appears as if Beauty can’t quite save the Beast; Nemo finds himself torn from his father; and Andy’s toys are seemingly separated once and for all.

We relate to these parts of a Disney story because we all know tragedy and struggle. They weave a common thread throughout our lives. However, what we love about Disney is that, in each story, resolution waits on the other side. Just when the situation seems utterly hopeless, tragedy is replaced by joy; defeat triumphed by victory.

Samba returns to Pride Rock to defeat his Uncle Scar and reclaim his position as king; Beauty falls in love with the Beast just as the last rose petal falls to the floor; Nemo and Marlin are happily reunited; and Andy’s toys are rescued and find purpose in new friendships.

In Tricia’s mind, she knew her story would end happily ever after, just like every Disney movie she loved.

Aunt Trish had been that way as long as I could remember.

◊♦◊

Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma is a form of cancer that attacks the lymph nodes and immune system. Although the sound of it seems ominous, it is actually one of the more curable forms of cancer, if there is such a thing. So when Aunt Trish was diagnosed, the prognosis was always great. A few visits and scattered phone calls let me know that she was fighting her cancer battle with dignity and grace, just as I expected.

It wasn’t until Christmas of 2006 when I was home for the holidays that I even realized she was so sick.

She was adamant on hosting a Christmas party. It was her chance to serve the ones she loved the most. However, the pressure to cancel was real. At her request, no one was to know of her terminal diagnosis given just weeks before. The treatments were not working, and her cancer was spreading. Yet in the midst of this devastating news, she wanted to host a Christmas party.

I vividly remember her moving around the house with her wig and Christmas sweater in full flair. The spread was second-to-none, and the homemade eggnog was spectacular. Everything seemed as it should be. Except for Trish. I saw the weakness in her face and noticed that her efforts were taking a toll on her body, particularly her breathing.

Even in dying, she never let it stop her from living.

A few weeks later, I received the call. The call that you never want to receive. It’s after these calls when you know that life will never be the same. On the other end of the phone, my Uncle Larry’s voice cracked ever so slightly, “If you want to see your aunt, now’s the time.”

When I arrived at the hospital, I met the truth head-on. I knew now why my uncle had called. Until this point, I had held on to every last ounce of hope, to the promise of life and healing for my aunt. The promise that all stories end happily. It was then that I realized Aunt Trish was dying. I felt like someone had taken a sledgehammer to my heart.

Anxious to visit with Aunt Trish, I made my way into her room.

Hospital lighting carries a unique, dim glow. That night, it conveyed a mood of its own. It wasn’t bright, but at the same time, it wasn’t dark. It was an inviting glow that seemed to encircle Trish in her bed. The rest of the room held a darkness that I would associate with death, but not with Trish. The light fell upon her. Across the room, I could see her slouched over a pillow as she sat up in her bed, wheezing for air. Her cancer had spread throughout her chest cavity, and now she was retaining fluid. Her cancer was suffocating her.

When I caught her eye, she lit up as usual and in a weak but joyful voice said, “Hey Matt Matt!” Her eyes, peering through glasses, still held the spark of life. I was used to seeing her in contacts. The glasses, coupled with the effects of her illness, made her look older, but her eyes were no different. Always vibrant and full of life.

She didn’t speak much, as it required energy she no longer had. I did most of the talking. You never know what to say to someone faced with the nearness of death. I’m certain there are words that are better than others, but I talked mostly of our collective faith in God and my love for her. I expressed my deep gratitude for her presence in my life for the past twenty-five years. Honestly, it was the time together that mattered. I was content to just sit by her bedside.

As we sat there, a nurse stepped in to help Trish get comfortable. I realized it was just the three of us in the room, and I thought this odd, considering how many others were in the lobby waiting room. I expected someone else to step in at any minute. However, no one did, which now adds even more significance to the moment.

What happened next is cemented in my mind as one of those life-altering experiences–an undeniable moment, despite all efforts to make it seem ‘common.’

Aunt Trish was visibly weak. Her wheezing was causing her to tire, and the nurse gently propped her up between breaths. I watched these events unfold like I wasn’t even in the room. I was witnessing something profound, without any participation of my own.

As the nurse leaned in to straighten her pillow, Trish to grabbed a deep breath. She used that breath to muster enough energy, look at her nurse and say, “You make my life easy.” Without hesitation, the nurse smiled and graciously, yet confidently responded:

“You make my life rich.”

I repeated the words in my mind, not fully understanding what they meant.

“You make my life rich.”  

I felt like God had placed an angel from heaven in that moment to deliver those words. They sent shockwaves through my soul. Even as I write about it now, I’m taken back to that place. Observing that moment in the hospital room with the perspective on an onlooker, like watching a movie of my own life.

Other than my own goodbye as I left the room, those were the last words I heard spoken to Trish. She died the next morning.

I now know my presence in the hospital room that day was not coincidental, and those words weren’t just for Trish, but for me as well.

And, maybe, those words were for you, too.

◊♦◊

Those five words, whispered to my dying aunt, were the catalyst that sent me on a journey to define what it means to live a rich life. That journey inspired my book, Redefine Rich: A New Perspective on the Good Life.

The subsequent stories that have emerged from this little book have sparked a revolution in the hearts of those who have read it: a desire to uncover the fullness and wholeness that can only be found by living a rich life.

While you’re here, please look around.

My blog is full of countless stories that will force perspective by honestly exploring the richness in everyday life.

My podcast contains both interviews and stories of individuals who are, in fact, living richly. In addition, it provides practical ways for you to embrace this type of lifestyle right were you are.

If you’re interested in the book, you can find the remaining, limited-edition, hardback copies at www.redefinerich.com

And finally, guess who I was able to meet seven years after those fateful words were spoken?

My Aunt Trish’s nurse, Melanie Fogelman.

Thanks for being here.

Matt

My Aunt Trish's nurse, Melanie Fogelman, and me at a book signing in December

My Aunt Trish’s nurse, Melanie Fogelman, and me at a book signing in December

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