A Year to Live

We learn “Mavis” is ill only the morning after her death. My employer calls a impromptu staff meeting. Standing in the hall, in disbelief, we hear that our co-worker, Mavis, had known of her illness for some time. Many years prior to the Affordable Care Act Mavis spends her last months frantically hiding her terminal cancer from her employer, successfully hanging onto her health insurance until the very end. Our moment of quiet is more reflective of shock than denial. No one, not even her two sons, knew she’s been secretly taking treatments.

“Gee whiz,” blurts my 20-something co-worker “Alec.” He starts to laugh in the void of our stunned silence. I glare at him. He doubles over in mirth. “It’s just, it’s just – if I knew I was dying I won’t stay at some job.” (I’m thankful he doesn’t say “lousy” job or “stinkin'” job.) Alec explains, “I’d take off and travel the world!”

“Maybe she didn’t have the money to travel the world,” someone points out.

“But she was dying,” Alec retorts. “I mean if you only had a year to live, why not run up every credit card while you’re at it?”

The truth is none of us knew Mavis very well. Her circumstances of death poignantly underscore how little we knew. Much later her son explains to me that getting to Hawai’i meant everything to Mavis. She already is at her dream location. No bucket list. She’d arrived. For a middle-aged lady, single mother from the MidWest to relocate herself, alone, to the South Pacific takes chutzpah. Mavis had unapologetic audacity.

A friend complains to me that my blog is “dark.” I won’t apologize for my blog seeming negative. It’s not negative. That’s apparently just how it seems. My blog is actually very life-affirming. But you have to read it to get that. You can’t use Siri to skip to the good parts. This blog isn’t about pretending Cancer away. This blog is about what we go through. I say “we” because more than one Cancer patient has written me to thank me for saying what so many feel/ experience, in isolation. My blogs resonate with them.

Like Mavis, I can’t wait until I have a year to live before I take a vacation to Crete with my yoga teacher, David. There can’t be no bucket list. Last August before any kind of surgeries, radiation or chemo treatment weakens me I meet David at Triopetra. I won’t do it again unless I know my immunities are able to withstand the 24 hours of travel. The take away? If you haven’t yet, been diagnosed with a life threatening disease – do what you want to do while you can. What if you don’t have the money? Do what you can with what you have from where you are. That way you won’t be sorry. I know I’m not.

Note to other Cancer Patients: don’t expect other people to understand. My life is so much easier as I drop that expectation. My vacation is not without cost and repercussion. During my vacation two of my siblings frantically contact me. There is little I can do from the remote side of Crete. My travel partner suggests  returning to the States on the next plane. Yeah, going back would have put me in a position to be of more help but it also will abort my last vacation. Or should I say “first,” first in 15 years. At some point siblings, children, parents and employees do figure out their own lives, and usually that point exactly coincides with the moment I quit dropping everything to fix stuff.

They’re going to have to fix themselves after I’m gone. Why not let them have a test run? My mother, bless her heart, modeled doing what she wants when she wants while I am growing up. My mother marries a foreigner (my dad) and moves to foreign countries (Canada and the US) where she has no relatives. She has merely the optimism of youth, and curiosity. Though she dies at the tender age of 50 my mother did more in her life than most people. She learns multiple languages, travels the world, has children, jobs, a career, obtains a Master’s degree from the University of Chicago. She really had a wonderful life.

Things are not as great as they could be. This is why Rebecca calls my writing “dark.” I prefer to say realistic, not “dark” because things are certainly not as bad as they could be. Things are not as great as they could be, I can’t say I am cured. I can’t say I’m in remission. I actually can’t even say what the next step in my treatment is beyond saying I will be having more tests. Testing for a Cancer Patient is a routine thing. I should expect, if all goes well, to be watching my progress for the next 10 to 20 years with this strain of Cancer.

Yet things are by no means as bad as they could be. For one I don’t have a fatal strain. There are roughly 40,000 kinds of “cancer” and I don’t have the kind which is an instant death sentence. For two, while most relationships buckle and collapse with the diagnosis, I have excellent infrastructure. Being self-employed on both fronts I’ve managed my schedule around my care, even managed that vacation to Crete last summer. I give myself a pat on the back for pulling that off. For the three, the weather’s good. I had a nice 5 mile run. Quality of life is heightened by consciously, steadfastly, ardently noticing what’s nice.

I don’t let the good things slip through fingers like sand. I make an effort to install moments of unadulterated joy into my memory banks. How? To have good memories one must make good memories. I must have fun, while I can. Sorry if that sounds narcissistic, ’cause it’s mean to be self-preservation. I love people worth loving. I disengage from difficult people. In this way any year might be the last year without issue.

Plan your life, your whole life so that any year might be the last year without need for huge changes. Always do what you can while you can – even if that is just taking the time to read an enjoyable book. There will come a time when reading a book is hard, you’ll draw on memories of books you have read. Always do what you can with what you have. Do your best so there’s no regrets. It’s no sense lying, cheating, stealing. Make a habit of noticing and acknowledging what is nice and good and sound without pretense. Don’t act as if you are grateful for the sun and the moon if in reality you are hungry and sore. Doing so only builds resentment, anger, the opposite of resilience. No, don’t do that. Be real.

When you are real you realize that what is real is not dark; that darkness is nothing to be afraid of; dying is not a sin so for those friends who keep praying that everything evaporate? They might find something better to do, like read a good book, or how about a run?

Now y’all play nice!

Sat Nam