T is for thirty-seven
In 2008, I’m going to live each day as if I only had 37 days left.
Really. I’m going to wake up every morning and ask myself this question before I drink my lavender earl grey tea or brush my teeth or check my email or finally write that Tony award winning play: What would I be doing today if I only had thirty-seven days to live? Then I’m going to do that—as much as humanly possible—as a test, a challenge, a life’s requirement.
At some point in your life, you’ll only have thirty-seven days to live. Maybe that day is today. Maybe not. Each of us will come to that day, sooner or later. All of us. I wonder if I am prepared.
Such a day arrived on October 24, 2003, for a 6-foot, 4-inch tall man with a southern accent, a golfer's tan, and a forest green Lincoln Town Car. On that beautiful autumn day, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, dying just thirty-seven days later.
That man was my stepfather, Boyce. I helped him live—and die—in those brief days between diagnosis and death, a process that prompted me to ask, “What would I be doing today if I only had thirty-seven days to live?” That story is here, if you’re new to 37days.
If I had thirty-seven days left, would I spend my time cleaning the attic, purging computer files, or attending committee meetings? Would I have passed on my stories to my children and friends or would I spend those days regretting not having time to do so? Am I living fully now, or am I waiting until after the kids leave for college or until Billy Collins calls back or the Colts move back to Baltimore? It will be too late then.
Ten years before,
one of my favorite college professors died when he was only forty-six. A
brilliant physicist, Sheridan
Simon was a man with considerable charm and humor; we had stayed in touch
since my graduation over a decade earlier. Sheridan's doctors told him he had a year to
live. “Do whatever you want in that year,” they said. And so he did.
Sheridan's doctors told him he had a year to live. “Do whatever you want in that year,” they said. And so he did.
His friend and fellow professor, Jonathan Malino, eulogized Sheridan
at his death: “He continued to live the very life he had been leading before
his illness. This was his life. His account of his days, his heart of wisdom,
lay in the very passions and commitments which he embodied daily. Day by day,
this determination not to run away from his life took more and more courage.
The pain increased. The exhaustion mounted. And yet, just three nights before
his death, Sheridan knew the
point of his life.
Sheridan knew the point of his life.
I got a last
letter from Sheridan
just eight days before he died; he closed it with these words: “Be in touch, OK? Love, Sheridan."
Sheridan taught me we must live daily the lives we most want, our heart of wisdom, rather than realizing on our deathbed we didn’t. Our lives should be the embodiment of our passions and commitments, knowing death can come at any time, as the lovely and talented Billy Collins reminds us in “Picnic, Lightning”: “It is possible to be struck by a meteor or a single-engine plane while reading in a chair at home.”
Journalist Marjorie Williams died of liver cancer three days after turning forty-seven. As an “act of mourning,” her husband compiled her final essays in a book entitled The Woman at the Washington Zoo: “Having found myself faced with that old bull-session question (What would you do if you found out you had a year to live?), I learned that a woman with children has the privilege or duty of bypassing the existential. What you do, if you have little kids, is lead as normal a life as possible, only with more pancakes."
Like Sheridan Simon and Marjorie Williams, my answer to that bull-session question wasn’t about uprooting my family to take a world tour. It wasn’t about climbing Mt. Everest or learning Urdu once and for all or seeking enlightenment in a far away land. Instead, it was about living each individual, glorious day with more intention. It was simply about saying yes, being generous, speaking up, loving more, trusting myself, and slowing down. It was about more fully inhabiting the life I have, not creating a new one. It was about leading a normal life with a lot more (chocolate chip) pancakes.
One thing did become clear as I pondered my last thirty-seven days: I needed to leave some greater part of myself behind for my two young daughters. Without a doubt, I knew if today were Day One of my last thirty-seven days, I would write like hell, leave as much of myself behind for Emma and Tess as I could; let them know and see me as a real person, not just a mother; leave with them for safe-keeping my thoughts and memories, fears and dreams, the histories of what I am and who my people are. Leave behind my thoughts about living that "one wild and precious life" of which poet Mary Oliver speaks.
As Isaac Asimov said, “If my doctor told me I had only six months to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.”
I would explore what living means and leave them with a notebook of challenges, an instruction manual to guide them as they live their lives without me. Not where to get their hair cut or how to steam artichokes or combat static cling or change a tire or book the cheapest airfare, but the deeper things—how to know what to care about, how to treat others around them (and themselves), what to question, how to love, what to stand up for, and why they should tell stories and listen to the stories of others. This blog is that guidebook.
Writing my stories for them, teaching my daughters to live fully—and learning how to live fully myself in the process—that’s what I'd do with my thirty-seven days. As Annie Dillard said, “Write as if you are dying.”
I'm beginning here. Again.
Be in touch, OK?
Intentions: What does living with the end in mind look like on a daily basis? It looks a lot like not complaining, whining, and gossiping. It looks like spending time with people you absolutely adore and not spending time with people you don’t love. It looks like saying no to every possible task force and committee meeting. It looks like not reading People magazine or watching hours of television. It looks like squeezing in arm to arm with someone. It looks like giving away your treasures to others. It looks like walking in the rain instead of waiting for the sun to come back out. It looks like singing in the shower. It looks like dropping everything to play Bingo with a child. It looks a lot like telling people you love them, leaving no doubt. It looks like savoring the taste of a slice of Nittany apple or a strip of red pepper. It looks like holding hands more often. It looks like living out loud. It looks like watching every sunset and sunrise. It looks a lot like showing up more fully. It looks like telling yourself the truth about your life. How would doing that every day change our lives?
This poem, erroneously (and widely) attributed to the amazing writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez and later acknowledged as the work of ventriloquist Johnny Welch (a turn of events that makes me smile), sums up some of what it means to live as if you are dying:
If for a moment God would forget that I am a rag doll and give me a scrap of life, possibly I would not say everything that I think, but I would definitely think everything that I say.
I would value things not for how much they are worth but rather for what they mean.
I would sleep little, dream more. I know that for each minute that we close our eyes we lose sixty seconds of light.
I would walk when the others loiter; I would awaken when the others sleep.
I would listen when the others speak, and how I would enjoy a good chocolate ice cream.
If God would bestow on me a scrap of life, I would dress simply, I would throw myself flat under the sun, exposing not only my body but also my soul.
My God, if I had a heart, I would write my hatred on ice and wait for the sun to come out. With a dream of Van Gogh I would paint on the stars a poem by Benedetti, and a song by Serrat would be my serenade to the moon.
With my tears I would water the roses, to feel the pain of their thorns and the incarnated kiss of their petals...My God, if I only had a scrap of life...
I wouldn't let a single day go by without saying to people I love, that I love them.
I would convince each woman or man that they are my favourites and I would live in love with love.
I would prove to the men how mistaken they are in thinking that they no longer fall in love when they grow old--not knowing that they grow old when they stop falling in love. To a child I would give wings, but I would let him learn how to fly by himself. To the old I would teach that death comes not with old age but with forgetting. I have learned so much from you men....
I have learned that everybody wants to live at the top of the mountain without realizing that true happiness lies in the way we climb the slope.
I have learned that when a newborn first squeezes his father's finger in his tiny fist, he has caught him forever.
I have learned that a man only has the right to look down on another man when it is to help him to stand up. I have learned so many things from you, but in the end most of it will be no use because when they put me inside that suitcase, unfortunately I will be dying.
translated by Matthew Taylor and Rosa Arelis Taylor
What would you do if you only had 37 days to live? Really, what would you do? Why not do it?
From last alphabet challenge: T is for Them, U is for Us