Monday, February 07, 2005

A Year to Live

So what is going to change in my life? Will I travel more, write more, read more? Will I give up the regimented exercise routine and just eat the chocolate sundaes I crave? Will I stop the obsessive dental care and just let the teeth turn into dust as they seem to want to do? What about homeschooling? Will I continue to teach my own or send the kids off to school so I can have my days to myself? What would it feel like to be free all day long – free to go to the museums, to shop, to go for long walks, to make art, to write the book I’ve promised myself I’d write? Will I take the trip around the world that I’ve wanted to take for so long? Lie on the beaches of the southern coast of Spain and look over at Morocco and sail across the Mediterranean Sea? Will I take a trip to see and bid farewell to all the friends I have known and loved in my 39+ years or will I invite them all to come see me and throw the party to end all parties right here in Charlotte? With just a year to live, I have so many decisions to make in a very short time.

The first thing I want to do, in this my final year of life, is to learn to slow down and take life one day at a time. It’s far easier to plan for the future than it is to live for the moment. How many times have I postponed making a phone call or writing a letter because I expect to have more time to concentrate sometime in the future? How many times have I put off a necessary conversation or confrontation because it was easier to let things slide than to stand in the gap between myself and a loved one and try to stop the shift towards isolation that all relationships seem to move into? Why don’t I just tell him that I love him, tell her that she means more to me than she could ever know, and thank the many people I know whose presence in my life has brought immeasurable joy and laughter? Why can I not ask for forgiveness of all those I have offended and offer it freely to those who have offended me? When will I stop asking these silly questions and just get on with living them – and then living my way into the answers?

So I’ll slow down and make more coffee. I’ll slow down and dunk more cookies into hot tea. I’ll slow down this year, and I will listen to my children’s wildly imaginative tales. I will ask my husband to explain to me once and for all exactly what he does at Bank of America. I will send more postcards and email. I will make more telephone calls, but I won’t take “I’m really busy right now” for an answer. I’ll pop in unexpectedly to see friends, and I will have more dinners and parties here at home. I will read more to and with my children, and I will make more art with them. We will sing and dance and eat ice cream more often. We will take more days off from school and let life teach us what we need to know as we go along.

I’ll spend more time wondering about life and less time complaining about it. Isn’t it amazing that the sun rises every morning, that the birds sing every afternoon, that the moons fills out completely every month, and the flowers bloom every year regardless of what we do or what we feel or even what we want? It’s fascinating to watch a puppy run up and down our street greeting all the people and all the other dogs without a care in the world. Children, especially babies, are so responsive to the smile of an adult. Even the youngest ones learn early on that adults are pretty serious creatures most of the time, so when one of The Big Ones looks down and smiles, extends a hand, and engages them in conversation, most little people perk up and respond with a smile of their own. One friend in Spain told me that every night when he goes to bed, he looks back over his day and asks himself if he has made anyone smile that day. If so, it was a good day. If not, he hadn’t had a good day. Now that’s a great way to measure success. So I’m gonna smile more at kids and at adults. I’m gonna speak to strangers and wish them well on their life’s journeys. I’m gonna tell more people about how important it is to live everyday as if it were the first day of the last year of their lives. Ultimately I don’t know if I’ll be here a year from today to report on how “my last year” went; none of us knows.

Many people make up lists of things that they hope to accomplish before the end of their lives. There is a website (probably hundreds of them actually) devoted to posting the many lists made by ambitious and forward-thinking people of what they hope to do before dying. The lists are impressive, and so are the tales told by the brave souls who acted out their fantasies and lived to tell about them.

The sad thing is that most people make up those lists, but never live them out. They plan trips that they never take. They imagine conversations that never take place. They plan and build homes they never get to really live in. They buy clothes they never get to wear and enjoy. They plant the seeds for loving friendships and never take the time to water the soil, feed the young seedling, and reap the fruit of love well tended.

Who am I kidding? I ought to replace every “they” in the previous paragraph with “I.” Fortunately, I haven’t been given a terminal diagnosis and deadline – at least, not yet. Nonetheless I have no idea how much time I have left.

This afternoon, I started a book entitled A Year to Live, and the premise of the book is that we can best prepare ourselves thoughtfully and deliberately for life by preparing ourselves thoughtfully and deliberately for death. The author advises a radical approach to the common cold: The next time I get sick, I should take to my bed and pretend it’s my death bed. Let my life flash before my eyes. Lying there reflecting on the life I have lived, what do I wish I had done while I was still young and vigorous? What regrets do I have? When my nasal passages clear and my headache fades, I ought get up and do those things. When I am forced to await the results of mammograms or blood tests, I ought to ask myself what I would change if the diagnosis is not what I hope for. Then answer those questions with my life.

A year to live. Perhaps I have more time than that. Perhaps not.
The question is this: how will I live out these, my final days?

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