Residents of the Tampa Bay area have many reasons to be grateful for the late Rep. C.W. Bill Young's more than four decades of public service. Congressman Young and his wife, Beverly, were pillars of the Pinellas County community and much will be written and said in the coming days of their leadership and the countless projects that exist because of his tenacious work in Washington on behalf of his hometown.
Now, as we learn more about his last days, we see that his parting lesson may be one of his greatest and lasting gifts. Having grown up in Tampa Bay — I was born five years after Mr. Young was elected to Congress — I remember knowing about him even as a child. At age 7, riding with my grandmother on the PSTA bus to Tyrone Square Mall, I asked her, "Who's Bill Young and why are there signs with his name on it all over 66th Street?"
Later, my father would tell me about Bill Young's involvement in the community and his work with the Jaycees. My best memories, however, were the times that my father took me and my brothers (and now, when I take my children) to the Veterans Day memorial service at Bay Pines. Every year that I can remember, Bill Young was there. It was my father's way of teaching me the value of patriotism, honor and respect. And the memory of Bill Young there every year made an impression on my young mind. It seems fitting that Congress will vote today to rename the facility in his honor.
We just learned that in his final week of life, Bill Young made a choice not to undergo a complicated surgery. He gathered his family and explained that he didn't want to "take the pain anymore" and asked his family if that was okay. His family supported him and cared for him in his final days.
They all gathered at his bedside. Those close to him, including former President George W. Bush, were able to say, "I love you." In another lesson of honor, one of his former colleagues in the House who happens to be a member of the other political party described his visit to Young's hospital room, where he kissed the congressman on the forehead. These tender moments hold meaning for all.
It is moving to hear that his 7-year-old granddaughter sang to him each night in the hospital, reportedly a version of Tomorrow from the musical Annie. It made me think of my own experience sitting at my grandfather's bedside at Palms of Pasadena hospital more than 30 years ago. And as a father who now has daughters of my own, this image strikes my heart as recognition of all that is good and meaningful in life.
It is likely that we could all see aspects of Bill Young's final days that resonate with us. He did not want to be in pain (though he tolerated it for so long); he wanted to be with family; he wanted to see and hear from those who mattered to him; and he apparently wanted some level of control over how this all played out.
Four decades ago, Mr. Young's contemporaries were all busy building their families, careers and the present-day Tampa Bay community. Today, they are in their 70s and 80s and possibly considering what lessons they would like to teach in their final days. Yes, it is true that we want to provide the best possible health care at the end of life. However, there is even greater meaning that can be found in a person's last days — especially in the lessons that they unknowingly teach those they leave behind.
Through his life, and in his death, Mr. Young gave all of us lessons in honor, respect and dignity. The example of Bill and Beverly Young, particularly how they lived and cared for each other the past few weeks, should be an example to us all.
Paul Malley is president of Aging with Dignity, a nonprofit organization in Tallahassee. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.