A year before Isabella de la Houssaye reached the summit of a 22,840-foot-high mountain peak in the Andes with her daughter Bella, she had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.
The 55-year-old, an outdoors enthusiast, and her husband David Crane had five children, aged 16 to 25, all of whom had conquered outdoor adventures together with the family and as individuals. So after recovering sufficiently from grueling cancer treatment and feeling stronger, Isabella was determined to have other adventures with each of her children, individually, in large part to impart life lessons to them.
The climb to the top of Aconcagua in Argentina with college-junior Bella, with a team that included a New York Times reporter and photographer, is a remarkable story of almost unimaginable challenges, courage, grit and determination. It was featured in a lengthy article in the Times that you can read here.
One passage in the story that I found especially moving – and thankfully its lesson is not dependent on climbing a mountain to learn from – records Isabella’s attitude about illness:
“So much of who I was was defined by my physical strength,” she said. “It’s definitely hard being sick and saying goodbye to the person you were before. You have to redefine yourself, and you don’t want to define yourself as a sick person. I’m learning that you have to find acceptance with the decline.”
Facing Mortality Head-On
Her story is inspiring, to say the least. But I must admit that after I read it, I knew that if at some point I am diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, my first thought would not be: let me call my son and propose that we climb a 22,840-foot-high mountain together. As I kept thinking about Isabella’s ultimately successful ordeal, though, I wondered: what would I do (after emerging from a period of hiding and mourning my life under the covers)?
It’s an important question, one that many of us don’t think about much. How do I know that? For the past several months, I’ve been giving “Conversation of Your Life” talks to various groups. It’s all about advance care planning: having the conversation with loved ones about your treatment preferences if you cannot speak for yourself; choosing a health care proxy; preparing an advance directive; and communicating with your doctors about what you want and what you don’t want. Essential issues.
What I try to stress, though, is that the first and most important part of this process of communication is to communicate with yourself. That is, to confront your mortality head-on. So much flows from that. It isn’t all about medical treatments, just as serious illness itself isn’t just a medical issue. It’s about what you feel you want and need to do before you can no longer do it. It’s about how you want to live the rest of your life – honoring your sense of what gives your life meaning and purpose. It’s about the kind of legacy you want to leave. It’s about who you want to surround yourself with. And unfinished business to attend to.
When I talk about this fundamental part of communication, I sometimes ask my audience, who has given some thought to this? What are you envisioning? The response? Crickets, typically. Either no one has given this any thought, or people feel too shy or embarrassed to share.
Sharing Your Values
So I’ll share some of what I’d like. If I am gravely ill and still have my wits about me, I’d like a big good-bye party, with lots of food and lots to drink. I’d like to hear from family and friends about what I’ve meant to them, what they’ll remember, how I’ve affected them and funny stories they can tell. All the wonderful and moving things that people say at funerals that the deceased don’t get to hear. (At least we don’t have any evidence that they do.) I want to hear it before I go.
And, speaking of food: We’ve been hosting Thanksgiving and Passover for decades and in recent years our small family has happily grown to include seven grandchildren and cousins’ grandchildren, aged six and under. As you might imagine, these events are like organized chaos, but always seem too short. One reason I love to keep doing this is that I am hoping that all the younger-generation cousins and their children will continue to recognize how precious these times are and will keep the tradition going.
Clearly, Isabella had grander things in mind, but fundamentally she wanted to impart her values and wishes to her family. She succeeded in accomplishing what she set out to do. After reaching the summit, Isabella said, “It was so important to me that Bella and I have this experience together. I really wanted her to see that when things get hard, you can find a place inside yourself to keep going.”
An important lesson for all of us.
What’s your mountain?