Note to reader: This blog was originally posted in my October 2020 newsletter but did not land on my blog postings as intended. It is, therefore, reprinted here now.
Life, as imperfect and impermanent as it is, is what we have. Death, as inevitable and mysterious as it is, is also what we have. It’s unimaginable that we could talk about the wonder and awesome beauty of life without acknowledging the presence of death. The force of life commands our respect as does the unrelenting role of death as the Great Equalizer. As a teacher in my hospice training wryly put it, “No one gets out of life alive.”
The coolness of the last few days, heralding the onset of autumn, is not what prompts my reflections, although the chill in the air does make me think about taking refuge in my warm house. No, the unexpected, quick succession of serious illnesses in a trio of friends is the catalyst. They are my peers; their battles with cancer serve as the most recent of my “memento mori” moments (a Latin phrase that translates to “remember you must die”).
Everything changes with cancer; I know because I myself am a cancer survivor. There’s no going back to the person you once were, so it is best to surrender to the new life, to embrace it and to grow from the process. A successful life, it seems to me, is one in which we learn to adapt, to be flexible, and to make the best of our life experiences, in particular, the painful ones.
A good death, as I have been blessed to witness now on four occasions, involves a similar shift in attitude. At a certain point in the journey, there’s no turning back from death’s approach. As their prognosis worsens, I have seen people deal with their decline by doing the best they can each day, living as fully as possible within the limits of their endurance. Personalities soften as they grieve what they have lost, in order to be able to move forward and celebrate what remains. I have seen people experience joy, even bliss, as they yield to leaving everything they hold familiar and dear, while basking in the beauty of a sunrise, or in the perfection of a long-stemmed rose. Forgiveness features prominently, as does compassion and love – love of life, and love of others.
For my friends and for all of us, there is an important lesson to be gained from facing our mortality: the truth is that with, or without, cancer or any other life-threatening illness, our happiness comes from choosing to focus more on what is possible now, rather than focusing on what once existed and will never come again. Our happiness is up to us: it’s our choice and our responsibility.
The new rules, routines, relationships and skills we develop as the result of living with a major illness can bring contentment because they are based on realistic possibilities rather than wishful, mournful thinking. By drawing from our inherent creativity we are able to decide how to answer the key motivating questions, “What do I want my new normal to look like?” and “What would make me happy?” (And, as some of you are thinking right about now, this philosophy applies to living through a pandemic, too.)
It turns out that having a new normal is not always a bad thing; it can bring a renewed appreciation for what we once took for granted, and a commitment to making every day a special day, a day to notice what we are grateful for, a day to give thanks for our blessings. “Each day is a gift – don’t send it back unopened.” (author unknown)