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                The greatest gift God has granted us is free will

 

All passages below are taken from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ book, “The Wheel of Life—A Memoir of Living and Dying.” It was published in 1997.

 

Throughout life, we get clues that remind us of the direction we are supposed to be headed in. If you do not pay attention, then you make lousy choices and end up with a miserable life. If you stay focused, then you learn your lessons and have a full and good life, including a good death.

The greatest gift God has granted us is free will. It places responsibility for making the highest possible choices on our shoulders.

The first big decision I made solely by myself took place when I was in the sixth grade. Near the end of the semester, the teacher gave the class an assignment. We had to write an essay describing what we wanted to be when we grew up. In Switzerland, this particular task was a big event. It helped determine your future education. Either you received training in a profession or you went on to years of rigorous academic study.

I grabbed pencil and paper with unusual enthusiasm. But as much as I believed that I was charting my destiny, reality was different. Not all was left up to the child.

I only had to think back to the previous night. At dinner, my father had pushed his dishes aside and studied the faces of his family before making an important pronouncement. Ernst Kübler was a strong, tough man, with opinions to match. He was very strict and demanding with my older brother Ernst Junior and pushed him down a rigorous academic path. Now he was ready to reveal the future of his triplet daughters.

I was swept up by the drama as he told Erika, the frailest of the three girls, that she would follow an academic course. Then he told Eva, the least motivated, that she would receive a general education at a finishing school for girls. Finally his eyes turned to me and I prayed that he would grant my dream of becoming a physician.

Surely, he knew.

But the next moment I shall never forget. “Elisabeth, you will work in my office,” he said. “I need an efficient and intelligent secretary. That will be the place for you.”

My heart sank. While I was growing up as a triplet, one of three identical girls, my whole life had been a struggle for my own identity. Now, once again, I was being denied the thoughts and feelings that made me unique. I imagined myself working in his office. I would have a clerical job. Sit at a desk all day. Write down numbers. The days would be as rigid as the lines on graph paper.

It was not me. From early on, I had an intense curiosity about life. I looked at the world with awe and reverence. I dreamed of becoming a country doctor, or better, practicing medicine among the poor in India the way my hero Albert Schweitzer did in Africa. I did not know where these ideas came from, but I did know that I was not cut out to work in my father’s office.

 “No, thank you!” I snapped.

In those days, such outbursts from children were not appreciated, especially in my household. My father turned red with anger. His temporal veins swelled with blood. Then he erupted. “If you don’t want to work in my office, then you can spend the rest of your life as a maid,” he yelled, and then stormed into his study.

“That’s all right with me,” I responded snappishly, and I meant it. I would rather work as a maid and hold fast to my independence than let someone, even my father, sentence me to life as a bookkeeper or secretary. For me, that would have been like going to prison.

All of that caused my heart to pound and my pen to fly the next morning in school when it came time to write our essays. Mine did not include a single mention of office work. Instead I wrote passionately about following Schweitzer into the jungle and researching life’s many and varied forms. “I want to find out the purpose of life.” Defying my father, I also stated that my dream included becoming a doctor. I did not care if he read my paper and got mad all over again. No one could take away my dreams. “One day I bet I can do it on my own feet,” I said. “We should always reach for the highest star.”

 

*     *      *

 

The questions of my childhood: Why was I born a triplet with no clear identity of my own? Why was my father so tough? Why was my mother so loving?

They had to be. That was part of the plan.

I believe every person has a guardian spirit or angel. They assist us in the transition between life and death and they also help us pick our parents before we are born.

My parents were a typical upper-middle-class, conservative couple in Zurich, Switzerland. Their personalities proved the old axiom that opposites attract. My father, the assistant director of the city’s biggest office supply company, was a well-built, serious, responsible and thrifty man. He had dark brown eyes that saw only two possibilities in life— his way and the wrong way.

But he also had a terrific enthusiasm for life. He led loud sing-alongs around the family piano and he lived to explore the wondrous beauty of the Swiss landscape. A member of the prestigious Zurich Ski Club, my father was happiest when hiking, climbing or skiing in the mountains. It was a love he passed on to his children.

My mother had a fit, suntanned and healthy look even though she did not participate in outdoor activities with the same zeal as my father. Petite and attractive, she was a practical homemaker, and proud of her skills. She was a fine cook. She sewed many of her own clothes, knit warm sweaters, kept a neat home and tended a garden that drew many admirers. She was a fine asset to my father’s business. After my brother was born, she dedicated herself to being a good mother.

But she wanted a pretty little daughter to complete the picture. She got pregnant for a second time without any difficulty. As she went into labor on July 8, 1926, she prayed for a curly-haired muffin she could dress in fancy doll-like clothes. Dr. B., an elderly obstetrician, helped her through the pains and contractions. My father, notified at work of my mother’s condition, arrived at the hospital at the culmination of nine months of anticipation. The doctor reached down and caught a baby, the smallest newborn anyone in the delivery room had ever seen born alive.

That was my arrival. I weighed two pounds. The doctor was shocked by my size, or rather my lack of it. I looked like a little mouse. No one expected me to survive. However, as soon as my father heard my first cry, he dashed to the phone in the hallway outside and informed his mother, Frieda, that she had another grandson.

Once he ran back to the delivery room, he was corrected. “Frau Kübler,” the nurse said, “actually gave birth to a daughter.” My father was told that often such tiny babies cannot be correctly identified at birth. So he hurried back to the phone and told his mother that she had her first granddaughter.

“We plan to call her Elisabeth,” he said proudly.

By the time my father reentered the delivery room to comfort my mother, he was in for another surprise. A second baby girl had also been born. Like me, she was a fragile two-pounder. After my father finished informing his mother of the additional good news, he found my mother still in considerable pain. She swore that she was not finished, that she was going to have another child. My father thought it was nonsense caused by fatigue, and the old experienced doctor reluctantly agreed.

But suddenly my mother began having more contractions. She started to push and moments later gave birth to a third daughter. This one was large, six and a half pounds, which was triple the weight of either of the other two. And this one had a full head of curls! My exhausted mother was thrilled. She finally had the little girl she had dreamed of for the past nine months.

Dr. B., an elderly woman, thought of herself as a clairvoyant. We were the first set of triplets she had ever delivered. She studied our faces in close detail and gave my mother predictions about each of us. She said that Eva, the last one born, would always remain “closest to her mother’s heart,” while Erika, the second child, would always “choose a path in the middle.” Then Dr. B., gesturing at me, remarked how I had shown the others the way and then added, “You will never have to worry about this one.”

All the local papers carried the exciting news of the Kübler triplets in the next day’s edition. Until she saw the headlines, my grandmother thought my father had been playing a stupid joke. The celebrating went on for days. Only my brother failed to share the excitement. His days as a charmed little prince ended abruptly. He found himself buried under an avalanche of diapers. Soon he would be pushing a heavy carriage up hills and watching his three sisters sit on identical potties. I am quite certain that the lack of attention he received explains his distance from the family later on. [21-24]

 

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