Published on Dec. 30, 2016
in the Los Angeles Times
Life and Death in a Bonus Year
I am just about through my first bonus holiday season. Last year around this time, my husband and I assumed we had decorated our final Christmas tree, and planned our farewell New Year’s Eve together. I’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer six months earlier and given a year to live.
But as I’ve written in earlier op-eds in The Times, a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral. Instead of growing, my tumors started disappearing. By spring of 2016 I was officially a “partial responder” to immunotherapy. Though still living with a disease that is trying to kill me, I am one of the fortunate ones to benefit from breakthroughs that allow some terminal patients to live longer and feel better.
The experience continues to be both exhilarating and humbling. And it’s made me consider how we measure time and if facing death changes how we choose to live life.
I’ve been hitting milestones I thought I’d miss. I didn’t expect to reach the age of 60, but I made it there in September. With my husband Dave’s birthday just a month before mine, our friends threw us a giant party with music, flowers, art and homemade tamales. People arrived from all quarters. Songs were sung, speeches were given. The occasion seemed lit with gratitude, mine above all.
What else have I gotten in my bonus time?
Lots more precious day-to-day life. Many extra family events — we make an effort to gather as often as possible these days, including a niece’s high school graduation in San Diego and a nephew’s college graduation in Oregon.
Dave and I were first in line for a “Star Trek” sequel I thought I’d never get to see. A friend took me to an unforgettable Paul McCartney concert on opening night at Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center, an arena I was sure I’d never enter. (I thought I’d live to see a woman become president, but let’s not talk about that.)
And then there’s the 2016-17 NBA season now underway. The list goes on and on.
But surely time should be measured in more than birthdays, sequels, graduations and playoff games, and a life signifies something beyond what lies ahead or behind.
Since the day I first learned cancer had metastasized in my body, I resolved to live more consciously in each day, hour, moment. It seemed the only suitable response to my forced awareness of the miracle of being alive in the first place. I am not always successful at this mindful living, however. For inspiration I look to our dog, Scout, who lives constantly in the here and now.
For more tips on how to consider time, I’ve turned to my friend Cathy Speck, an advocate for carpe diem if there ever was one. A cancer patient who has long dealt with an additional terminal health burden, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Cathy is famous for her infectious grin despite her unavoidable fate. Her illness, she says, “is just a wake-up call for me to get back on top of my game. To be with the sweetness of the moment, to be happy to the core and extend that out.”
Is the beauty and fragility of life simply more evident to those who are facing death? I think the answer is yes.
Some psychologists believe that human beings live in denial of their own eventual deaths and that civilization suffers from the same defiance. (Perhaps that’s why humanity seems more or less content to commit species suicide by doing so little to halt the coming devastation of climate change.) Living in the here and now isn’t the same thing as ignoring what is coming; refusing to accept reality is the exact opposite of what most dying people understand as crucial. It’s a repudiation of Cathy’s wake-up call.
Once in awhile, pop culture comes up with a way to reveal the nature of living in the now. In “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray’s character has to repeat the same day over and over. His redemption story concludes with Murray evolved into a wise man, capable of love, delivering this epiphany: “No matter what happened before or happens after, I’m happy now.”
I figure the best I can do, regardless of the world’s uncertainties big and small, is emulate that attitude. No matter how grateful I am to immunotherapy for the chance to live longer, I am determined not to take another moment on time’s continuum for granted. As an extension, I’ve promised myself to make some positive contribution to the future every day, though I don’t know how far I’ll get into that undiscovered country.
When my husband and I celebrate New Year’s Day 2017, I know there will be a depth of joy present no matter what happened before or happens after. We’ll recognize the experience for what it is — a gift of bonus time, an argument for being happy now.
Melinda Welsh is the former editor of the Sacramento News & Review.