Making Memories While Living With Advanced Cancer
Last updated: November 2021
The air was crisp, the sun was bright, and the sound of laughter ringing like an echo. It was me, my children, and our dog, Star, on a narrow canyon trail at the end of summer 2020. Nothing grandiose. Just us, together. Simple, and altogether perfect. We have lived in a few different houses since they were born, bought, renovated, sold, then relocated and leased. I realized that they wouldn't have a family home to go to, per se, after I pass away. Somewhere they can say, "That's the kitchen where mom cooked Thanksgiving dinner", or "That's the fireplace mom would decorate at Christmas". Somewhere they can feel close to me.
Certainly, they will have my milk crate library, my treasured books, my favorite china, and wind chimes! My daughter, Penelope, will inherit my eccentric wardrobe, with polka dot skirts and floral tea dresses. They will have my special things to take with them wherever they go.
But that isn't the same, is it?
As having a place. Somewhere to go. Not a cemetery, but somewhere they can go and feel close to me. Somewhere they can go and remember our happy times together, and laugh instead of cry. Or, at least, smile. Our place.
I am still scouting out just such a place, but it would be someplace like the canyon trail. Somewhere quiet, amidst the evergreens and mountain peaks and stacked stone walls. But that is the idea.
Living with advanced cancer, making memories becomes all the more important
I plan on being alive for a long time, but...what if I am not? I have seen too many medically stable people with cancer die suddenly, from pulmonary embolisms, from infections, or from cardiac episodes.
It has taught me that the time to make memories is now. Making memories while living with advanced cancer isn't just reserved for children. I made wonderful memories with my best friend, too. After my stage IV diagnosis, she arranged for us to rendezvous in San Francisco for a Girl's Weekend. It was a place we had always wanted to go to, and we had a very Carpe Diem attitude about finally making it happen. We hiked the Redwoods, went to the Haight Ashbury Street Festival, took a Volkswagen Hippy Bus Tour, and posed in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was one of the best weekends of my life, and I hope that long after I am gone when my best friend sees San Francisco again she thinks of me with the utmost happiness.
I will be celebrating my 37th birthday soon, and birthdays are a big deal for us cancer folks! My boyfriend and I are going away for the weekend. We will be staying at a simple air BnB accommodation, roaming the national forest by day, and the plaza by night. It will be a wonderful memory for us both, a road trip with playlists and coffee pit stops, exploring a new and exciting place together. Every year when I have a birthday I think, "If this was one of my last one, was it a good one?". Because in our world, no matter how well your treatment is going, no matter how good you feel, you really just never know.
Capturing the memories
There are also resources out there to turn your beloved memories into a legacy piece. Legacybox is one such site, where you can send your Legacybox kit filled with tapes, films, old photos, and audio recordings to be digitized.
Shutterfly is another resource to get memories off of your phone and into an album or other medium, and they often have great deals, too.
In the digital age, I also like to be a little old school with my memories. I keep a memory box for my family, with little notes attached to pine cones and seashells from our various adventures together, and a few of our favorite family memories can be found in frames around our house. The Christmas after our San Francisco trip, I made my best friend a resin pendant with a piece of clover from our Redwood hike. I try to keep preserving our memories simple and meaningful.
Making memories together
When I flew and stayed with my aunt, I got to see her house for the first time since I was a young woman. She cooked my meals, washed my clothes! I felt like a kid again, and it made me realize I hadn't been "mothered" that way in a long time. I loved spending quality time with her at her home. Another time I drove and stayed with my old friend in a neighboring state. I got to see his home, chicken coop, garden, meet his family and friends, go to his favorite local places. My kids came along, and we all had a fantastic time making wonderful memories together.
Connecting and reconnecting
It made me think when I am dying one day, reflecting on my final years, I will be content knowing I had that I took the opportunity to connect and reconnect with the important people in my life. That I got to eat dinner at my Aunt's house one last time. See the Golden Gate Bridge with my best friend. Walk the canyon with my kids, laughing along dirt trails on mountainsides with a muddy Barbie doll in hand. (Especially that.) When I was younger, I rode elephants in India and kayaked mangroves in Thailand. I've seen the Colosseum, heard a symphony perform in Belgium, stood in awe at Stonehenge. But when you know your life expectancy might be shortened by decades, for me, anyway, none of that matters. It really doesn't matter.
Making memories with my family and friends, that's what matters. Wherever, and however, that may be.How do you make memories with your loved ones? How do you preserve those memories? What is most meaningful to you? Share with us!
Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to share that on Friday, October 29, 2021, Danielle Thurston passed away. We know that Danielle’s voice and perspective continue to reach so many. She will be deeply missed.
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