A post devoted to the realities of death may seem a strange place to review a book entitled "On Living", but you can't always judge a book by its title. The author, Kerry Egan is a hospice chaplain and the insights she shares 'on living' are derived from her conversations with the dying and their caretakers she encounters in her work. What can people grappling with the end of life tell us about how to live? Plenty, it turns out.
In spite of the heaviness of the subject, Egan's writing is light and clear with occasional humor. People often feel regret or shame for choices they made as they look back on their lives. Other stories involve trauma or a tragedy that seemed to define them.
But she is able to draw meaning from these conversations, primarily by applying them to her own sometimes troubled life. This approach keeps the book from becoming preachy. She allows us to see, through example, how we might learn to live a better life when we listen to people on the outer edge of theirs.
Egan explains in her preface, “I thought I was broken and cracked and could not be put back together again,....When I started working in hospice, I didn’t yet understand that everyone—everyone—is broken and cracked.”
Surprisingly few of her conversations involved religion or the after life, but were instead about relationships. “We don’t live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories," writes Egan. "We live our lives in our families: the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends.”
The book is rich in ideas to contemplate and take action on. Not least of which is to not wait until the end to share your thoughts. “Why would you do that? If you had something so important to tell your loved ones that you’re taking the time to plan it out, why in the world wouldn’t you say that important thing right now? This very moment?”
The ultimate lesson Egan leaves for the end of the book. Spoken by Millie, as she watches her newly dead husband's body loaded into a hearse: “'It’s a beautiful life and then you leave it,'” Make the best use of your time here.