08/24/2012 03:34 pm ET Updated Oct 24, 2012

Living Between Life and Death

About 15 years ago I got a call from a middle-aged woman named Caroline. She had advanced metastatic cancer and wanted to come in for treatment. I shouldn't have taken the case because at the time my sister was slowly dying of a brain tumor. Conventional wisdom said that treating Caroline would create too much emotion in me and I would have difficulty keeping my objectivity.

But I knew that with my dying sister and my aging parents I would be in a position to midwife death several times in my near future, and I thought Caroline and I could help each other. When I told her that, she had no idea how she could help me, but I told her I would explain later. I knew what I could do for her. I could provide her a safe place and fearless compassion. And I knew from personal and professional experience that those are the ingredients we need for wounded souls to heal themselves.

At the time she was taking aggressive and unconventional methods to fight for her life. She talked about her fear of dying and her desperate belief that she could again live her life with a healthy body.

Several weeks later, she had a CAT scan, which showed the tumors had grown. When she came to my office a few days later, I expected to see someone who was bereft and frightened. But Caroline looked much more relaxed, almost peaceful. She had a smile on her face that I had never seen before. She told me that she had stopped fighting with her body and began to live the life she had. She became Caroline the woman and was no longer Caroline the cancer patient. She said that everything felt different now and that she was simply able to love who she loved and enjoy the life she had.

And that was the moment she became my teacher, and I became her companion. When I told her that, she just smiled and nodded. We felt very close to each other as her life wound down.

When my phone rang in the middle of the night, I wasn't surprised to hear Caroline's daughters voice. She told me it was near the end and Caroline wanted to talk with me. I asked her how she was feeling and when she said she was "just fine," I could almost see that peaceful smile on her face.

And that was her final teaching. Shortly after her death I planted a small garden right outside my office window, and I call it Caroline's garden. I see it every day and everything about it reminds me of that sweet smile.

A couple of months ago my dear friend Joan gave me a small potted ivy plant. I put it on my desk in front of my window and watered as needed. It's a very pretty plant, but I really didn't pay much attention to it. Until last week that is...

I've had a wound on my hip that wouldn't heal because the bone beneath it became infected. This is not an unusual occurrence for people who sit in wheelchairs all day, but the consequences can be awful. My wound required some pretty extensive surgery in the beginning of July, and I was unable to sit in my wheelchair for up to six weeks. That meant I was confined to bed 24 hours a day. I thought a good deal about my life as a 66-year-old quadriplegic and what my future might be like. I also thought a good deal about all of the beauty in nature by was missing.

Then when I was finally able to get in my wheelchair the first place I went was my office, and the first thing I noticed was that potted ivy plant. A runner grew out of the plant toward the window. Then it curled around and climbed up the blinds to the top of next window. And now every day it's a bit different, growing in a slightly different direction. This is life pursuing itself. I know this thing will grow, but I don't know where and I don't know how. I just know that if I nurture the soil, it will live. This is true for all living things. Life pursues itself until it runs down, just like Caroline's body. Just like my sisters and parents did. Just like mine is.

So here I sit every day with the exciting and unpredictable life of this ivy plant on my left and a reminder of peaceful smile of death on my right. And that's where I live. That's where we all live. And if I honor Caroline's final teaching that when we are awake to the fragility of life, everything becomes more precious.

Fortunately I have Caroline's garden and Joan's ivy to remind me every day.

For more by Dan Gottlieb, Ph.D., click here.

For more on death and dying, click here.