Living Life Like You Are Dying When You Really Are
In mid-2017, I was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer. Before I knew what was happening, my breast cancer started in my left breast and then spread through my blood and took up residence in my bones, all of them. This diagnosis is terminal (a/k/a 100% fatal) and carries a median life expectancy of 2-3 years. At that time, I was 38, years away from the recommended age to start getting mammograms, and I was tandem nursing my two boys, then 3 and 1.
Talk about a wake-up call.
My first thought when I heard this life-altering diagnosis, was that I wanted to spend all the time I could with my boys. That driving force has remained a huge part of who I am and the decisions my husband and I have made since my diagnosis. We have radically changed our lives, moved to be near family and I closed my successful law practice.
With the perspective of a mother knowing that I will leave my children far sooner than I’d like, I made my “ultimate bucket list.”
Ultimate bucket list
1. Spend quality time, don’t spend money on things
While we do try to find amazing toys for the boys, we have tried to focus on having adventures together. Things break or get lost, but the memories we are building together will last for a lifetime. It’s also more amazing than I can adequately explain to watch them experience life right in front of my eyes.
2. Do physical things together
I have two boys, so physical activity is a part of every waking moment with them. While I know that there are some basic biological differences between boys and girls, I think it is true for all children that doing something physical together not only increases the good hormones, it also helps to fill the inevitable awkward silences. Plus, reciprocal brain movement is good for all brains, developing and developed.
3. Take pictures together
I’m usually the one behind the camera and also analyzing every little thing wrong with each picture of myself. Forcing myself to take more selfies, even if that means looking at my multiple chins, and focusing on having more situations where I am intentionally in the pictures has been super important. Some day in the not so distant future, the pictures of me will be a small part of what remains. I want my boys and my family to see me with them for as long as I’m around.
4. Prioritize family
When I was diagnosed, we lived far away from my immediate family. In my family, once we each graduated from high school, we scattered for college and beyond. Once I knew that there wouldn’t be that many more holidays or times to spend with my siblings, we made the decision to move to be closer to as many of them as possible. While the family time can also create more conflicts, the experiences of being close to one another and the cousins growing up together is priceless. An added bonus is that my boys are around my mom, my sisters, and one of my sisters-in-law, all strong women who will and have stepped in to help with nurturing them when I’m too sick, and I know they will continue to do so after I’m gone.
5. Give back, together
My kiddos are incredibly spoiled. My husband and I have worked hard all of our adult lives to provide for them, and they have an amazing life. What they don’t always see is that not everyone has that same life, those same experiences. While we haven’t taken them to a soup kitchen or done formal service projects yet, we do talk about helping others and I know they see me do a lot of volunteer work. It is important to me that they see and experience the incredible dividends from helping others.
6. Acknowledge and involve a higher power
I have been a Christian since adolescence, and my relationship with God is a huge part of who I am. While we don’t attend formal church services right now, we talk about God, we talk to God together, and He is a part of our lives. I believe it is important for children to learn about the spiritual elements of life from a young age and to be given the tools and foundation to be able to explore and form their own opinions. They are their own people, and they will form their own opinions, what I am giving them is the option I’ve chosen.
7. Start a memory box
I have a box for each of my boys, including my husband, which are filled with mementos, notes, letters, cards, etc. I’m sure some of what I’ve amassed means more to me than it will to them; however, the fact that I’ve tried to think about how important they are to me and save the things that remind me of that, I’m hoping will be significant to them.
8. Say I love you and then say it again
We need to speak the emotions we have towards people who mean a great deal to us. I doubt anyone at the end of their life would bemoan the act of telling those around them how much love they have for them. I sure won’t.
9. Intentionally give your blessing
I recently read a book called “The Blessing,” which details what each child needs from their parent or some other significant authority figure. Now this book is based on the Old Testament and the formal blessing a Jewish boy received from his father; however, the elements of the blessing that are laid out in this book are applicable to all children:
- Meaningful touch
- A spoken message
- Attaching high value
- Picturing a special future
- An active commitment.
Actually, I think these elements are true for any relationship, not just the dynamic.
10. Repeat 1-9
Start right now
While the items listed above have become more important since I’m dying, this list isn’t limited to those of us who are terminal. Each of these things can be implemented right now. Even if you don’t have children, each of these items can be applied to parents, spouses, friends, both the human and furry kind. The point is remembering what is truly the most important and who is the most important. No one, after all, on their deathbed worries about not having spent enough time at work or with people who don’t love them.
So resolve to spend more time with the people you love; you won’t regret a moment building memories with the people who love you the most. The days may feel long, but the years are few.
Do you have a safe space where others understand what you are going through?