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23 December 2007

T is for thirty-seven

37mile Live ever in a new day. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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.

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 was still in the classroom, still reaching out to others, still using every bit of his energy to make the lives of others better.”

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:

The Puppet

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


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I would play Guitar Hero II with the kids and watch a lot of really silly comedy. I would make brunch and lupper more often than breakfast, dinner and supper. I would drink Jack Daniels straight up with close friends. I would invite people over despite the hole in the dining room ceiling, the broken windows, the door without doorknob in the bathroom. I would write my life story out in longhand on yellow legal pads, and I would be honest. I would write to my mother and tell her I forgive her.

Whoa! Something to really think about. I'm not so sure I would do anything "differently" from what I am doing now. I would tell me family that I love them and make sure all my "stuff" is in order. I might create a few layouts and write some of my memories. But most of all, I would say, "I love you" to my husband.

Isn't it amazing how having someone die makes you think these things? I used to never have an answer of what I would do...but when someone close to me died, I felt like my heart was pouring out all these realizations of what was really important for me. I decided that I wanted to use my eyes to see the good in others. I wanted my voice to bring people support, not just criticism or advice. Things like insecurities, misunderstandings, jealousy,etc. sometimes get in the way. I'm not perfect. But having the realization of what is important helps me be gentle with myself, bypass futile occupation and come closer to leading a meaningful life.

After a Near Death Experience, almost leavign my 2 yr old at the time (now 18) an orphan, a dear friend asked, "what message would you leave"
My answer was "ONE"
and I've elaborated slightly since, while remaining very succinct for quick -in a moment before heading out the door- reading naming it, the Gospel of Thomai

I'm looking forward to sharing copies of 37 days when it is printed. The way you go into depth, the challenges & the introspection is exactly what I would like to share with loved ones.

Having suddenly just lost someone very dear to me, I've been asking this very question (and other big ones!). In one of our last conversations -- just days before she made her transition -- Jil and I talked about 37days, the concept behind it, and what we would do if we only had 37 days left to live. How ironic, huh?

I'd be a better friend, and appreciate what I have more. I'd make more art. I'd love my husband, my family, my friends more, express it more, I should say. My house wouldn't be any cleaner, though, and my thighs wouldn't be any thinner.

you know, I used to avoid the questions like 'if you only had one year to live' because I would think to myself-well, of course, I'd want to (read: should want to) travel the world and get enlightened and see this and that and...and....but I know I wouldn't (at least not to that extent) if I had a year left to live so there's no point in trying to do all those things without a death sentence.

and then I'd feel overwhelmed and guilty and fuddy-duddy. But now I realize that the reason I wouldn't go on a whirl-wind world tour is because really, I'd be busy doing as much hugging as possible. And it's okay to not want to see the world if I knew I had limited time on earth. It is okay to, as Jerry Spinelli's Stargirl says, 'love and love and love again'.

and THAT, I can certainly do more of, starting today.

thank you for this post.

i love the idea that living as if you only had a short time left doesn't necessarily mean tackling those big things like traveling to such and such place, but it more likely means to live each day full out, slowing down, enjoying it all and expressing what needs to be expressed. i think we all have so much inside us that wants to be expressed and we hold it back thinking it not worthy or thinking that we have plenty of time to get to that later. but how rich would our lives be if we spent at least a part of every day sharing what we have within us. and who knows what places it would lead us to if we did?

my intentions for the coming year include stepping out of that space of thinking "there's plenty of time to get to that later" and into the space of "the time is now."

Cat - I love your list and want to come do all those things with you. And, I wonder, why not go ahead and write your mother now?

Victoria - I don't think I would change a thing about my life, either. It's good to know where love belongs, isn't it?

Jeris - fantastic food for thought - it's important to know what gets in the way - many thanks.

grace, T - I'm glad your story had the outcome it did and that you are still with us and, more importantly, with your child. many thanks for your note...

cindy - oh, my. I'm so sorry to hear about your recent loss. I hope you can find some peace in that last conversation. As for your list, I had to laugh because my house wouldn't be any cleaner and my thighs wouldn't be any thinner either... love to you

dandelionseeds - oh, how I love that phrase: "love and love and love again." many thanks for that...hugs to you

leah - you've inspired me.... "n" is definitely for "now" - many thanks!

When it comes time to say goodbye to this life, one reflects on those sweet, innocent moments spent with love ones . . .that is what really counts, what really matters.

Blessings to all for an amazing 2008!

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