Thomas Roberts lived almost his entire life as an atheist. But with death approaching, something inside his heart changed.
Roberts was dying of lung cancer. He had only days to live. He was wheelchair-bound and unable to breathe without being connected to an oxygen supply. He was a patient at the Palliative Care and Comfort Unit of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital.
He was in the hospital just waiting to die.
On Sept. 4, Roberts decided he wanted to be baptized as a Christian, and he wanted to be submerged in water, as he understood the Gospels to teach.
A hospital chaplain worked with Roberts’ doctor and hospital staff to see whether the dying man could survive without his oxygen tubes long enough to be baptized. When doctors gave the go-ahead, hospital staff made arrangements to use the pool at a nearby rehab center.
Surrounded by his wife, son, two sisters, a niece and a nephew, Roberts was lowered into the water with a chairlift, where he was met by the chaplain and a physical therapist.
The lifelong atheist was baptized. Just five days later, Thomas Roberts was dead.
Deathbed conversions aren’t that uncommon, but I think they’re a subset of something even more common. As most people approach the end of life — when they actually know death is coming — they get honest with themselves.
And most people have a lot of regrets.
Seven years ago, I met a 72-year-old man whose wife had just died two weeks before. He was despondent about losing his wife, but he was even more upset about realizing he had never really gotten to know her.
When I wrote about that chance meeting, I also included some information from a woman who spent several years taking care of dying people in their homes. She cataloged the most common regrets she heard — and you won’t be surprised at much of what she learned. (See the linked older article for details.)
The older I get, the more regrets I have. It might seem as though I would regret things I’ve done, but the opposite is true. I don’t regret any of the chances I’ve taken, even when I’ve failed.
The only regrets I have are about chances I didn’t take.
I have a feeling this is true for most people. When you’re facing death — assuming you have enough warning — you’re almost certainly going to regret not taking chances that you wanted to take. You’re going to ask yourself why you held back. You’re going to ask yourself why you didn’t give yourself a chance at the things you wanted.
As we approach death, the things which seemed so important to us when we were younger are going to seem pretty useless. The things which we set aside — making choices to be happier and more loved — are going to be very important.
For most of us, the regrets we’re going to have most are going to be missed opportunities to give and receive the kind of love with wanted. We’re going to question the decisions we made when we overlooked obvious red flags — and we’re going to regret not taking chances for the things we wanted.
For some people, the questions as they approach death will be about what happens after they die. In the case of some — such as Thomas Roberts — the lifelong certainty they had had won’t be able to stand up against the need they feel for a loving Presence they find in the days leading to death.
It seems to me that all of our regrets are somehow connected to love. Money won’t be a big deal by that point. Power and prestige won’t matter. Only love and our relationships will matter.
If you knew you were dying in a matter of days, you would do some things differently. The only reason you don’t do those things now is that you assume you have forever to change things.
All of us would be happier and more peaceful if we went ahead and made those changes now. We might have more time to live the way we really want to live. And we would have fewer things to regret when we’re lying in a bed knowing the death is just around the corner.