Every day, I think about life...and death. Every day.
There's not a day that goes by in which I don't look up at the sky and thank God for giving me another day of life. Each day, I drink in the surrounding world. Each day, I know what I want to accomplish. Each day, I determine who I want to connect with. I realize that each day is all I have. And that's when I think about death.
I'm more aware than ever these days of people who are sick or suffering or dying. I'm sure it's, in part, because I'm middle age that I'm more sensitive to how vulnerable we all are. Facing your own mortality also awakens you to death being imminent, and possible at any moment.
I wasn't always this way. I was a planner. I made elaborate goals and set time tables of reaching them in a year, 5 years, 10 years down the road. It was hard to concentrate on the present. I was too focused on the next trip, the next job, the next adventure. As a result, I reached many of my goals: Study photography! Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro! Secure that promotion!
Goals are fine. But they aren't necessarily the end-all, be-all. In fact, sometimes, they get in the way. They don't substitute for the daily routines and nuances that bring meaning and substance to who we are and our significance.
You know the question that gets asked in various circumstances -- whether it's a work retreat or a church sermon or a girls' getaway weekend -- what would you do if you had only one year to live?
Well, when you are truly faced with the reality of that question, you may be surprised at your answer. Given one year to live, I always thought I would take off and see all the exotic places around the world.
However, when I was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer with no guarantee that treatment would save me, I received clarity quickly and powerfully. My day-to-day existence meant more than I had realized. Simple things like the wind moving through the trees. A hot mug of coffee first thing in the morning. Taking a leisure walk at sunset. Snapping butter beans on a screened-in porch on a summer afternoon. Wading in a cold, North Georgia trout stream. Receiving a hand-written letter.
Then, I thought of the people who enriched my life. I wanted to see my 6-year-old niece grow up and have an impact on her life. I wanted to build a solid marriage with my husband (we were newlyweds at the time). I wanted to experience an adult friendship with my parents and be there for them in their old age.
Recognizing what really mattered set me on a different course. Since cancer, I now take pleasure in the ordinary-- whether it's selecting basil at my favorite nursery, or going birdwatching with a teenager on a Saturday morning, or laughing with my 94-year-old great aunt on the phone.
If I reach another goal or fulfill a long-held dream, then yay-rah. But if I never step far away from my home or achieve anything noteworthy, I will still take joy in celebrating each day. Because connecting to the people I love and carrying out the tasks that make up daily life is enough for me.
One more thing. People ask if I'm mad at God for getting breast cancer. While I admit that cancer is an overwhelming ordeal with terrifying consequences, it's not like I'm the only one who's going to die and no one else is. I'm just more aware of my short life span on earth because I've had to face the reality of death sooner than later.
My friend, Casey, pointed out that every breath we take is a gift from God.