By any measure, it’s an uncommon lifestyle, traveling around the country with a German shepherd for a companion in an RV festooned with a sign that reads, “You’re going to die.”
“People are like, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Kimberly C. Paul said. “I tell them I’m on this mission to connect with other people so they fully realize their life could end at any moment and what they do today is how they could be remembered.”
That’s pretty heavy on its own, but there’s more to Paul’s work, which is ostensibly about making arrangements to leave this world on your own terms by making sure everyone knows your wishes for medical care at the end. But it’s also about leaving nothing unsaid and little undone: tell those you love that you do and live your life as if you are on vacation, trying to wring every ounce of joy, adventure and fulfillment before it’s over.
Paul is a featured speaker at Tuesday’s fifth annual Advance Care Planning Community Collaborative, sponsored by Honoring Choices Virginia, the Richmond Academy of Medicine and the Virginia Association for Hospices & Palliative Care. There is no charge to attend the event, which begins at 8 a.m. and will be held at the University of Richmond, but advance registration is required.
For details, visit https://honoringchoices-va.org/events/5/.
This is not necessarily a line of work one might have predicted for Paul, who grew up in Chesterfield County where she graduated from Monacan High in 1990. She went off to college (Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.) and then headed to the bright lights of New York, where she went to work in television, first as a sort of personal assistant in the talent department at “Saturday Night Live” and then in casting for CBS Daytime.
Though working in entertainment was her dream, television proved not to be all she wanted at the time, so she left New York and headed back south, first to Raleigh, where she dated a police officer who would become an FBI agent for a couple of years and then to Wilmington, N.C., where TV’s “Dawson’s Creek” was filmed and where she hoped to work her way into the industry. While she waited for that opportunity to present itself, she started volunteering for a local hospice, largely because her grandmother had died in hospice care, and she wanted to do something helpful in her memory.
She had no idea at the time, but it would prove to be a life-changing move.
Paul wound up being hired by a hospice company, where she would spend 17 years, much of it as vice president of outreach and communications. Her inner journalist kicked in as she sat at the bedsides of patients nearing death, listening to stories and regrets and their views of the lives they had lived. Nobody said they wished they made more money. They talked about wishing they had spent more time with the people they loved. One successful executive said he regretted not attending his daughter’s third-grade play, 27 years earlier because he was “too busy.”
“I really started learning about life at the bedsides of the dying,” she said.
She became impassioned by the experience — and by the death of her Raleigh boyfriend from cancer at age 30 — and went all in on the concept of living life like you mean it and viewing death as simply another stage of life.
Paul left her hospice job in December 2016, cashed in her retirement and went to work spreading the word about having open and honest conversations about life and the often-taboo subject of death. She wrote a book, “Bridging the Gap”; created a podcast, “Death by Design”; acquired an RV; and she and Haven, her German shepherd, hit the road.
She is in the midst of her 49-state “Live Well Die Well” tour — Hawaii being difficult to reach by highway — and Virginia is her 14th state. She’s staying with her parents in Moseley during this leg of her trip. Unfortunately for attendees at Tuesday’s conference, Paul’s RV is in the shop in North Carolina, getting worked on in advance of the westward portion of her tour that will begin in the coming weeks and last for the next two years.
Haven will be there, however.
Paul talks about wanting people to understand the importance of living “boldly” and “outside their comfort zone” — and that’s exactly how she is living her life, traveling around in an RV that is so far outside her comfort zone that she needs a GPS device to find it. She is following her curiosity, meeting strangers and finding goodness, all the while maneuvering 46 feet of RV and towed-car through unnervingly tight squeezes she’s pretty sure it wasn’t intended to go. This part of her life truly is about the journey.
“One of the greatest lessons I’ve ever learned from the dying is that time is not measured by length,” she said, “but measured by depth.”