Yesterday my oncologist told me I have only a few months to live — six months to a year was his estimate. This is news that at once alters nothing and changes everything. I’m still the same man today that I was yesterday: I’m feeling pretty good and functioning fairly well. What has changed, big time, however, is my perspective. Life’s horizon is suddenly delimited and two big questions now emerge, ‘What shall I do in the days I have left?’ How shall I live before I die?
It’s a matter of the value I must now place on things. I no longer have time to waste in avoidance or denial. Every moment is precious. Precious, that is, but not pressured. As to pressure, certainly, the doctor’s prognosis has the effect of speeding some things up. It does come with a fairly robust ‘things to do before I’m done’ list. But it also opens up a precious time to experience things richly and to savor them deeply. Already I find myself thinking, ‘That could well be the last time I’ll see this beautiful thing: pay attention.’ I shall think of these days as a privileged moment to spend time on the important things; this must not become a period for wallowing in fear, melancholia or self-pity.
Now it’s a matter of shifting the emphasis from asking, ‘How do I live well?’ to ‘How do I die well?’ Easily asked, of course, but tough questions to answer. I never was very good at mastering the final third of a game of chess, the end game. I’m tempted to hide behind the fact that I’ve really never done this before, but that’s just an excuse. It’s time to face this moment and carry through with it as humbly and faithfully as I can. One way or another I’m destined to play out this last act, so why not carry it off as well as I can before I myself am carried off altogether?
Admittedly, the news that I’m approaching life’s end stage shocked me at first. I’ve always been a ‘can do, we’ll get through this’ kind of guy. But now I’ve become that once-resilient fellow who’s coping with a time of inevitably diminishing resources. The secret to it all, I think, is acceptance— accepting the fact that there is still much that I can accomplish and take care of in the days I have left. Accepting, too, that my powers are on the wane and there is much I will probably have to leave undone. I intend to cultivate what really matters and to let go of what’s not worth caring about anymore. I’ll be grateful for the gifts I’ve been given and can still exercise and I’ll try to let go of things that I really can’t control. I want to embrace the love that’s all around me and to trust deeply that, in the end, all will be well.
My plan is simply this: to live with joy and die in hope.