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Living While Alive: Perspectives From Terminal Cancer

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Love of mine, someday you will die
But I’ll be close behind and I’ll follow you into the dark
No blinding light or tunnels to gates of white
Just our hands clasped so tight, waiting for the hint of a spark
If heaven and hell decide that they both are satisfied
And illuminate the no’s on their vacancy signs
You and me have seen everything to see from Bangkok to Calgary
And the soles of your shoes are all worn down
The time for sleep is nowBut it’s nothing to cry about’
Cause we’ll hold each other soon in the blackest of rooms

Death Cab for Cutie, “I Will Follow You Into the Dark”

In the year 2005, my husband and I were five years into our marriage and pregnant with our first child. Death Cab For Cutie’s “Plans” was on constant repeat. Our favorite song off of that record was “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.” This was a song that somehow managed to be simultaneously macabre and romantic:

“If there’s no one beside you, when your soul departs, I will follow you into the dark.”

At the time, I imagined this song being played at my funeral. I was going to be old and grey, and if I went before Abe he would soon be following after. I did not picture that there would be a span of decades between the two events. This breaks my heart so much, that I honestly really can’t bear to listen to it any more.

Be that as it may, the song still gets many things right.

The song speaks about religion in the context of fear and punishment. It evokes a state of mind that is so prevalent — especially in American culture. We get points for suffering. For working harder. For being busier than everyone else.

And love? It is earned, rather than being freely given. Some children never get any. Or they get conditional love. A love encased in fear.  If there is a god, love is the god, not fear.

Yet we so willingly jail ourselves into lives that don’t make us happy. That we feel like we can’t escape. We devote an endless trial of hours beside people we don’t really like and bosses we may never please. When we aren’t at work we still aren’t satisfied. We are annoyed that we are stuck in traffic. Or by a comment someone made. Or that they got our order wrong at the drive-through.

Doesn’t it seem like we are almost built to make ourselves miserable? Every hour that we worry about work, every hour that we worry about what someone thinks of us, and every hour we stew and work ourselves up about that comment is another hour of our lives that we submit ourselves to misery.

Now I am going to be blunt. When I received a terminal diagnosis. I stopped worrying about all of that crap. Because I learned what real problems actually look like.

But you haven’t been in my shoes. You can think about it conceptually, but you won’t get it, until you’ve had that fear. Until you are out of options. Until you stare it in the face.

The biggest cure for minor worries and proper perspective is a terminal diagnosis. To quote author Julie Yip-Williams (who documented her own experience from diagnosis to death from colon cancer in the book “The Unwinding of the Miracle”) “Life is wasted on the living.” You don’t have to imprison yourself. Roll down the windows, turn up the radio and sing during your daily commute. This is your life. Please live it. And leave the job behind when you leave for the day. When we live to work we lose far more than the brownie points we are hoping to gain. We lose time with our families, time spent on hobbies. We lose freedom and happiness.

Love openly. Love without fear. Those who reject you can be easily removed from your tribe. They aren’t worth your time.

You and me, have seen everything to see...

Experience life with your loved ones. Invest in experiences. Go on a date with your husband. Take the kids to an amusement park. Go on the freaking vacation. These build love. These build memories.

On various vacations with my husband, we swam at Trunk Bay. We went cave tubing in Belize. We zip-lined. We parasailed. We had breakfast overlooking Pike Street market in Seattle. We sat on an aft balcony of a cruise ship and watched St. Martin disappear (we also did other things not mentionable in this blog).

On various vacations as a family, we screamed on roller coasters, we went down cruise ship water slides. We danced to Caribbean music on a catamaran. We swam in the ocean and watched them play, scream and smile. We watched the sunset.

I don’t regret a single day or dollar that I invested in any of these experiences. Take the trip. Always take the trip.

But you won’t really do these things just because you read this blog, will you? You may file it away somewhere in your brain alongside inspirational quotes that you think of every now and then. You won’t really change.

Because death is now, and always will be, an abstract concept to you. Until someday it isn’t.

Getty photo by Punnarong

Originally published: September 20, 2019
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