And when the crisis passes, we may learn a lesson, but we work towards finding the peace again. We overcome the crisis and fall back into the routine of doing life. You blink and your baby has just turned 16. What? Where did the time go?
When my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer 11 years ago, there was such an urgency to his care and in helping him survive. The process of working to advocate for him to have the best care and quality of life left me exhausted. The uncertainty of whether or not each day would be his last day alive gave me hypertension, anxiety and an indescribable utter sadness. I don’t remember my child starting kindergarten that year or if I was even there. Who cooked for him and played with him and read to him? It wasn’t me.
I would NEVER change the sacrifices I made to care for my dad. It was an honor to be there for him and grow closer to him than I had ever been and am so thankful I have a husband who picked up all the pieces of our lives I let drop. But thinking back to that experience I remember how long the days felt and how much I grieved and prayed and hurt every moment of everyday beside him. We were in our own cyclone of cancer fighting while the “normal” world revolved around us with PTA meetings and dinners and birthday parties and smiling and laughing.
I remember running errands and seeing “happy” people and thinking they shouldn’t be happy. My dad was fighting for his life! It was the longest 11 months and 21 days of our lives. Yet 10 years has passed in the blink of an eye! My dad has been gone 10 years! Man, I still miss him so much! The days were long, but the years have been so short. Where did the time go?
Did I learn anything about time and life and fully living from that experience? I think I learned empathy and assertiveness. I developed an emotional scale of importance and put everything else in my life underneath “fighting cancer.” Some people called it “focus”. But I had on blinders. I didn’t see anything else.
Three years later in the midst of a rare snow/ice storm in Dallas, my mom had a stroke while talking to me on the phone about the weather. I raced 18 miles over icy highways to get to her house, break into her bedroom door and take her to the ER. She died 8 days later.
In the blink of an eye and without any signs or warning, my mom, my best friend, was gone. Just like that. Did I learn anything about time and life and fully living from that experience? It was an experience so different than that of fighting cancer beside my dad. I developed emptiness and indifference for a while. Cancer wasn’t the only demon in life. Disease or dysfunction, we would all die of something and I had no control over any of it.
I functioned because people needed me to support them. But in truth I was lost.
It wasn’t until a friend pulled me from darkness that I began to learn the lessons that had been thrown my way. Life is not a sentence or a moment or an action, but a journey. It’s not just about fighting disease or lung cancer or inequities, it’s also about LIVING and learning to balance everything you put in your life.
It’s about dancing in the rain, even when it’s cold and you’re wearing silk. It’s about not having all the answers and being ok with that and laughing at something off the wall. It’s about getting pissed off and then letting it go. It’s about forgiveness and patience and sometimes throwing your hands up and saying, “What the hell??!!”
She forced me to talk. She made me laugh when I didn’t want to. She taught me how to grieve, while still living. She taught me to appreciate life and all the little things that were miraculous. She always reminded me of people who had it worse. She taught me about preparing to die because in her case it could have been a lengthy dying, or it could have happened quickly. She had lung cancer. She also had a very bad heart. Today or next year? When would it be?
I watched my friend Connie prepare to die when she was her most healthy. Two years before she knew her time was coming to an end, she began writing letters. She got her scrapbooks in order. She cleaned the basement and gave away things she wanted people to have. All the while having cocktail parties and traveling the US in a 5th wheel camper and everywhere she went she had a booming laugh followed by a few cuss words. She lived. She lived every day until she died.
Every time I talked to Connie she made me feel like I was the only person who existed in her world. She spent more time asking me questions and giving advice and support that I could image being her one and only friend. I wasn’t. She touched everyone like that in some way. Today, I try so hard to be like that with everyone I talk to.
I ask myself if I died today, would I have touched anyone’s life. Did I make a difference? Did I leave anything behind to be remembered by?
If I die in 50 years, will I be able to say I appreciated every single one of those 18,250 days?
Dad, Mom, Connie, all the patients in my support group and those I’ve met in the past 11 years who I have cared for and have passed away. They have taught me so many lessons about life by their deaths.
They’ve taught me that the days are long but the years are much too short.
Live and love, now.