A physician’s grave illness brings two brothers together

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, June 19, 2014

“Being open to the pain of Hal’s experience has deepened my experience of . . . what matters in life.”
—David Irvine

A few months ago I received a phone call from Cochrane coffee companion David Irvine.

Dave, a prominent corporate relationship expert, wondered whether I’d join him and a mutual friend at his home to help him come to grips with a matter of some deep personal concern.

When I arrived, he poured out his heart to us. His 61-year-old brother Hal had been diagnosed with grade III anaplastic astrocytoma, “an aggressive, inoperable tumor intersecting three lobes of the brain.” He might live for only a few months.

Hal had received the devastating news about the same time he’d been honoured with the award for being Alberta’s Family Physician of the Year for 2013. Here was a brother who was used to reaching out to his patients in their time of need. Now at the peak of his career he was the one in need of companionship in the journey.

Dave looked to us for advice on how he could be a better companion to his brother at this time.

His candor quite surprised me. After all, Dave had long been a model to me for authentic relationships. For example, see my column for July 6, 2011 on being meaningfully connected to each other in a fast-paced, high-tech world.

But Dave explained how the two brothers themselves, although very good at being present to others, had not really enjoyed that same closeness with each other. That had to change now, he said – and that change had to begin with Dave himself.

In Dave’s June Newsletter, he shares quite openly what some of those changes look like.

“While I wouldn’t wish this hell on anyone,” he writes, “I am surprisingly grateful. Hal and I have spent more time together in the past six months than we have the previous 20 years.”

They’ve reminisced, shared gratitude and forgiveness, and in deeply heartfelt ways expressed their love for each other. And they “make time to hang out when he simply can't get out of bed, can't utter a word, and I have no clue what to say,” he says.

For a man who makes his living helping others connect, Dave’s reconnection with Hal has had some rewarding ripple effects.

“This whole imperfect and human experience of being together in an awkward and clumsy way has somehow been a blessing,” he says. “This reminder of the impermanence of life has strangely increased my life's quality. My marriage and my relationships with my daughters have improved as I've slowed down and made a little more room to be a bit more present a little more often with those that matter most to me.

“Being open to the pain of Hal’s experience has deepened my experience of being alive, what matters in life, and what it means, more fully, to be human.”

Here are six lessons Dave has learned thus far in his journey with Hal:

Don't procrastinate getting to your bucket list. If you have some things you are planning to do when you retire, don't wait. Do it now. The preciousness of life is not realized in the future. It is realized only in the present. There is no guarantee that the future will meet your current expectations.

Take time to connect. Life is impermanent. Every relationship as you know it today eventually ends. Don't wait for the end to be near to appreciate what is here now. Besides, we never know how abrupt and unplanned that ending can come. You really don't know what you've got till it's gone. Don't miss opportunities to be present to the people around you.

Embrace the realization of life's impermanence. The older you get, the more opportunities arise to be with people who are in the sunset of their life. Be with people when they are dying whenever you can. Embrace the experience of dying along with the pain, and your life, and the lives of those still around you, will be enriched.

Take regular sabbaticals. In today's world, with its relentless focus on success and productivity, we have lost touch with the balance between work and rest. Constantly striving, so many of us feel exhausted and deprived in the midst of abundance. Carve out regular time each week for rest, renewal, time with friends and family, and a few moments for yourself.

Take care of your health. Don't take your health for granted. Good health is a source of wealth. Being free of pain is one of life's most vital blessings. While you can't necessarily control your health, you can certainly influence it - with good habits. Later life will test your disciplines.

Renew your spiritual strength. Times of loss afford us immense opportunities to renew, strengthen, and deepen our own personal and individual experience of spirituality. Take time each day to commune with nature and witness the intelligence within every living thing. Spend time in a sanctuary away from the demands of the world. Sit silently and watch a sunset, or listen to the sound of the ocean or a steam, or simply smell the scent of a flower.

Thanks for your compassionate wisdom, Dave. Our thoughts and prayers are with you and Hal.


© 2014 Warren Harbeck

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