A few years ago, an artist named Candy Chang began something to help her work through her own grief after losing someone close to her. She found a crumbling house in her neighborhood In New Orleans, covered it in chalkboard paint and stenciled the words “Before I die I want to . . .” She left chalk for anyone to write and really was not certain what would happen. What happened was extraordinary as people came by, picked up the chalk and, with the freedom of anonymity, wrote many of their deepest thoughts and hopes and wishes.
From there, “before I die” became a bit of a movement. There were cities that erected huge chalkboards with these words on top and lines for people to write on; there were organizations that sponsored boards like this at meetings and even community groups that used this at various events. I don’t know if you ever had the chance to participate in one of these, I had the benefit of seeing several of them in both personal and professional contexts.
What struck me when I saw the large community chalkboard installations was that they were designed with a large number of lines for people to write on and yet all of those lines were filled and people kept writing. They covered the edges, the borders, wrote sideways or in tiny script because they so wanted to express their thoughts in this way.
We began a similar exercise this morning. At a meeting of our management staff, we used softened language but the same intention, asking them to share with us the end to this sentence, “Before I leave I want to . . .” The results were equally powerful and moving. Some of the answers that stayed with me included “before I leave, I want to make sure I have no regrets,” and “I want to see my siblings all in one place again.” Others expressed desires to “dance at my grandchildren’s weddings” or “leave a living legacy.” The words were deep and visibly emotional and even hours later they were folks who shared their thoughts with me, clearly still thinking about the exercise and what it meant.
We talked about this as well in the context of the older adults whose lives are entrusted to our care. It is not enough just to ensure that people are safe and well, that we meet their physical and medical needs. We must give them the opportunity to share what matters to them and to try and help them realize those desires because, as we all know too well, life is fleeting.
For those of us with older adults in our own lives, it is a reminder to ask the question, to understand what matters — not to us but to the individual. Imagine if we can help someone to both share the answer to the “before I leave” question but, even more so, imagine if we can help that dream to become a reality.