A couple of months ago, I received an email from a friend. In it, she revealed that she has been diagnosed with glioblastoma, a particularly aggressive type of brain tumor. After discussing her situation with her doctors and her husband, she said she’d decided against surgery. Instead, she planned to take steroids to reduce the swelling in her brain, and enter hospice care.
“For some reason I had a hunch the news would not be good, so I am not devastated,” she wrote. “I’ve had a happy and full life, and my beloved friends and family give me much to be grateful for.”
I have said more than once that none of us gets out of here alive. How we baby boomers have more days behind us than ahead. And how important it is to live fully in the present moment and make each one count.
But my friend’s email was a real gut check. In today’s vernacular, sh*t just got real.
It’s not that burying both my parents and my in-laws between 2003 and 2010 wasn’t a sobering rite of passage. Or that losing my high school friend Julie to ovarian cancer when we were 48 wasn’t a slap upside the head about how fleeting life is. Or that the death of another friend’s husband eight years ago didn’t remind me to cherish my own husband’s continued presence on this earth.
But I was younger then. The inevitability of my own death, or Hubs’, seemed much more an abstract concept that resided in my head, not in my heart or gut or wherever real knowing lies. Julie’s untimely death was an anomaly, I thought. Hubs is pretty healthy, I keep thinking. There’s still plenty of time to get clear on all the things I want to do in this life—and get around to doing them—right?
Who the hell knows?
What I do know is that I just turned 64. Hubs will be 72 this year. And with my friend’s email, every freakin’ cliché that’s ever been uttered about life being short came home to roost.
I get it at a more visceral level than I ever did before: We’re really not getting out of here alive. I have to stop paying lip service to the fact of my mortality and, as I read in a beautiful piece by Rob Lyon about a baby boomer paddling expedition recently, “own the moment…and savor the poignancy of being somewhere between the doing and the done.”
Because “the done” could be here sooner than we know.
I want to stop being afraid to risk rejection. Stop spending so damn much time online. Stop feeling so self-conscious about looking older. Stop giving my internal censor so much control over what I write. Stop working so much. Stop thinking about going for a walk/calling a friend/booking a vacation/playing hooky from work/having a dinner party/trying something new—and just effing do it.
And I want to start telling people I care about what they mean to me more often. Start reframing my perspective about what I have to do into what I get to do. Start spending more time simply being instead of doing. Start making fun a bigger part of every day. Start getting clear on what my priorities are for the time I have left on the planet, and living in alignment with those priorities.
Because when my time comes, I don’t want to feel as if I’ve left undone the things that matter. I don’t want to regret roads not taken, hugs not given, or words not spoken.
Rather, I want to be able to say, “I’ve had a happy and full life, and my beloved friends and family give me much to be grateful for.”
Postscript: A few days after my friend’s initial email, she wrote again to say that she’d reconsidered her options, and had decided to have surgery and chemotherapy after all—something two of her children had been campaigning for. She even joked about how she’d be looking like an extra in “General Hospital” for a while.
I also was heartened to learn that the steroids were giving her more energy, helping her to be steadier on her feet, and relieving her headache—perhaps fueling her willingness to undergo the treatment that we hope will keep her with us longer.
My friend underwent surgery in April. In medicalspeak, the procedure was “uneventful,” and she was slated to go home just three days later. The nurses joked about “drive-by brain surgery.”
On the day of discharge, however—as she was changing into her street clothes to go home—my friend fell in the hospital bathroom and hit her head on the sink. A CT scan found no injury affecting her surgery, but she was experiencing some disorientation and memory loss, so she remained hospitalized for a few more days. Her surgeon said said my friend’s symptoms weren’t uncommon short-term aftereffects of brain surgery and general anesthesia, and saw her fall as a setback, but nothing insurmountable.
At this writing, she has returned home after a couple of weeks at a rehab facility where she underwent physical and occupational therapy to help regain her strength and equilibrium. She has completed 15 radiation therapy sessions, to be followed by a chemotherapy regimen. While not curative, we’re hopeful this will give my friend more time with us.
I am grateful for this. I’m also grateful for her strength, fortitude and grace, and for her husband’s unwavering support as they navigate this passage together.
What’s more, I’m grateful for the cosmic slap upside the head that her experience has given me, and the upshot of it is this: I’ll be making some changes in my own life in the weeks and months ahead. I’m looking at all my options, but through a different lens—one colored by a greater sense of immediacy to fill my days with more of what matters, and less of what doesn’t.
In the meantime, here’s this week’s haiku:
Life is too short to
be anything but happy.
Go for it, my friend.
What do you think? Are there things you’re putting off until tomorrow? Changes you want to make in your life “someday?” Or are you living fully in the present moment, ticking off items on your “to-do” list in earnest? Please share!