I’ve always thought that if I got a terminal diagnosis – a year, six months to live – I’d want to get busy living. I’d quit my job, cash in my savings and go off to see the world. I’d make a list of all the things I had always wanted to do and I would go off and do them, checking items off the list one by one. I figured if I was going to die, I might as well die happy.
Now I see things a little differently. And I think perhaps I had the wrong idea about what happiness is.
My mother died almost a year ago of pancreatic cancer. We knew from the time she was diagnosed that her days were going to be limited, though we hoped she’d have a year or more.
As it was she lived 8 months. During that time she had some low days, no doubt. But she also had some of the purest happy moments I’ve ever witnessed. It was the happiness you see in the eyes of a child, like she was looking at the world with a renewed sense of wonder.
She did take a few trips. One to Michigan to see her brother, one to Virginia to visit her lifelong friends, and another to Mexico with me just because. But she didn’t pack up her suitcase to go globetrotting. To my mom, eking the most out of whatever time she had left meant staying right at home, with the people who meant the most to her.
My mom found joy in working in her garden, watching the birds, and laughing at her grandchildren. She found joy reading, eating lunch out on her deck, or beating me at Scrabble. The same things she loved before she was diagnosed brought happiness afterward. Maybe even (dare I say it?) more.
When we went to Mexico, I spent our last day sitting on the beach alone. At the time, I wrote this:
I spent the morning on the beach, looking for treasures and watching sand sift through my fingers. I realized that this is it – this is what we have: sand. And just like sand, life falls through our fingers, no matter how hard we clench our fists. I have to learn to enjoy feeling it as it goes by.
It’s a little bit like the Buddhist concept of mindfulness. I wonder how many happy moments I’ve let slip by without even feeling them? I’m trying not to do that anymore.
I have learned that happiness isn’t necessarily found in big grand adventures. It’s more likely to show up in the little moments. The pieces of every day that make up a life.
Cancer stole a lot from us. There’s no getting around that. And I’m not one of those people who will say that it’s a “gift.” But I do know that now that I’ve had to think about life and death and health and happiness, the important things have been brought into sharper focus.
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