if only

Phil recently phoned a woman who’d cleaned our house in Newport, RI, to see if she was available to tidy up after the tenants vacated (and before the new renters arrived). "It’s that time of year again," he said after pleasantries were exchanged. She paused for a moment, then responded, "Well, I’m not cleaning houses anymore. I have inoperable cancer."

Do you sigh, apologize, let on in some way that you know they’re going to die? Do you address it? Ask how her family is doing? "Gosh, I’m so sorry to hear that. If there’s anything I can do… I certainly wish you and your family the best…" What do you say?

It of course got me to thinking, not just about decorum but about death. Then I played the "if only" game. "If I only had five years to live (and knew it) what would I do differently?"

Here are the notes from my handwritten journal (which means I felt them at the time): It’s a circumstance that says, "This is your last chance. What are you waiting for?" I think the key to answering that, for me, is doing whatever I could to experience the broadest range of emotions and circumstances. I’d move. I’d travel. I might divorce and even remarry. Or maybe renew my vows. Something to recreate the emotions and excitement that come with falling in love. Make videos for my children on different topics, offering unconventional wisdom. I’d spend time with family more, let everyone know I loved them, assigning each of them a song. Tell them each time they hear it after I’m gone will let them know everything is going to be okay. We don’t want to be forgotten. I think it’s one of our biggest fears.

I want to touch lives. I want to feel alive. And for me, that means seeing many things, trying new things, and living out loud, even if it’s sloppy. I want imperfection, highs and lows. For my heart to break, only for it to soar with joy it’s never before known. We all want to leave our mark on this world, to contribute, to change the lives of others. Legacy. I’d want to make certain my children were emboldened to live their best most courageous lives, following their passions and hearts, and knowing that they can never go wrong with the truth.



  1. This really hit home. The owner of the company that I work for was diagnosed with liver cancer last November. He hasn't been "living" since then. He spends his days in deep sorrow for the wife and four grown chidlren he will leave behind, sorry that he hadn't forseen this and planned for it.
    He has pushed us all away, trying to make us hate him because he has done nothing to treat his body, mind or soul. No hate, just anger towards him with a dose here and there of pity.

  2. That last paragraph sums it up perfectly.

    I have a friend with a terminal illness that is not life-threatening, but still pretty miserable, and she has since become so negative, so pessimistic, so "I am a victim of my disease" that it is hard to be around her. I feel so guilty for being unsympathetic, but I truly believe it's all in the attitude.

    To quote my very favorite movie, "Get busy livin', or get busy dying." I'd like to think that presented with the same situation, I'd do the first.

    Thank you, Stephanie, for giving me some food for thought.

  3. I'm stunned. Lady, you have a way of nailing me where I'm at far too often! With my husband's cancer has come this whole death thing. In order for us to deal with treatments right now, we're opting for the morbid humor to get us through this. He chose the path, I'm going with the flow. You have me in tears, that I'm going to take as a sign to deal with this.

    I'll be back, when I can straighten out my thoughts regarding the topic we've chosen to ignore for the time being.

    What I will say, is I started blogging to leave a peice of me behind for my kids. A chance for them to really know me, not just as their mother, but as a human being.


  4. Five years? Yes. Five months? There wasn't time. It's much, much more complicated when it's for real and staring you in the face.

  5. This is a beautiful post. As I get older, I am learning that I am not invincible, that I will die, that those around me will die, and it's up to me to make sure I've lived a life that I'm proud of and that I've touched others. I would rather live sloppy than live too safe…you know?

  6. Holy crap! It is really crazy, though, isn't it. You just never know. I deal in death every day and sometimes it still just shocks you. The client that you were working with a joking with last week is dead the following week without any warning – dead in an airport bathroom on his way to Israel.

  7. Wow, as moved as I was by the post is as fast as I was angered by the first few comments. I am currently battling Cancer for the fourth time. I am only 35 and have been in this fight off and on for six years. There has been mindnumbing grief at the thought of dying, Elation at the thought of beating it for good and about every other emotion you can describe. Until you have lived through it and had to function I hardly think you can understand or know what you would do, say,or think, that while a good attitude is key. It sure as shit ain't going to save you.
    It's a devastating thing to go through and for your family to go through. To go to your child's end of the year Kindergarten play and nearly lose it in tears wondering if this milestone will be your last. My child is wonderful and polite and creative amd smart. More then I could have ever asked for. I want more then anything to see him grow to a man. And while I love my Man/Boyfriend to pieces I left him a few years back thinking the "life is to short" line of thinking. As thrilled as we are, to all be a family again, He, I and our son. I force us to all live in the moment. To always take advantage of a sunny day or a great meal, or a spontanous romp. Once my treatment is through this time we will talk about our next adventure. Because I want however long I have, be it a month or 40 years to be sucked bone dry. That marrow is what leaves behind our legacy. The who and what we are. It is the retelling of a good or a poignant time shared with another. But don't even think for a minute that those good times can chase away the hard ass fear and anger that this is the hand you have been dealt. If we all lived like we were dying, emotionally at least, think of what a different world it would be. I love my hair when I have it, even on bad hair days. I never bitch anymore about the extra ten pounds.
    I eat that 5000 calorie dish, ummming and moaning the entire time. I drink more wine then I should, I stay in touch with all of my friends and I enjoy my parents. Most of all I never
    ever ever have a "Headache" I cherish each and every time.
    So for all Cancer has taken from me, it made me a better person.

  8. I think you nailed it. I don't want to be forgotten, particularly by those I love. Our legacy is a testament to what we have done with our lives. I have always had aspirations to become a philanthropist who contributes in some large way to the world before I die. That is still my goal and will be until I achieve it. Some have said that I am seeking fame, but that is not true. I do not want Hollywood fame and paparazzi chases. Rather, I want to do something to help others and be remembered for that. I cannot eloquently explain it, I suppose, but in any case, there you are. Living with passion is the only way to live. Be well.


  9. Sometimes I think you're braver than the rest of us when it comes to all-out honesty. Other times, I wonder if you and Phil have conspired to create tension for the readers in order to make the blog more entertaining.


    The same way one responds to any news of another's tragedy, which is to say from the heart with a consultation from the head. "I'm so sorry to hear. Is there anything I can do?" is a perfectly fine response. "Well,do you know anyone else who cleans houses?" would not be.

    me, I took divorce and then remarry to mean she would divorce and then remarry Phil. Still really odd to me, though.

  11. You have this uncanny ability to always bring up topics I'm dealing with. We found out 2 weeks ago my grandpa has terminal cancer. He's chosen to do the chemo and they say that could give him about a year or maybe a year and half. I have my first baby on the way and am terrified he'll never get to see him/her. There's no guarantee the chemo will give him that amount of time…he's just started so we just don't know yet. There's so many don't knows and so many emotions going through all of us but somehow he's got the best outlook! He's ready and prepared and my grandma will be well taken care of…now we all just have to realize we can't stop it from happening so we just have to love and treasure every minute we have with him until that time comes.

  12. What a beautiful post. You are certainly leaving your mark and touching people every day with your blogging. Thank you.

  13. What can you do? Say you're sorry. Only ask if you can do something if you mean it. They'll probably say no but you can contribute to "chores," have food delivered, the house cleaned…

    As to what you'd do? No point playing that game, like having kids, you have no idea until you're there. You'd be surprised how unimportant things like "leaving your mark" become.

  14. "I might divorce and even remarry." Doesn't that fall under the heading of "been there done that?" I hear Disney World and skydiving are big fun.

    Speaking personally, I'd eat nothing but pie till the hospice comes a-knocking. To quote (or possibly paraphrase) Gail Parent in "Shelia Levine is Dead & Living in NY": "…let them buy a bigger casket. What do I care?"

  15. Stephanie, if you want to really do the right thing, send $100 and a note. Her family will be very strapped for cash — she will no longer be bringing in income and her care and treatment will be expensive. Not everyone has health insurance. And not everyone can afford at-home care. Do the right thing.

  16. I agree with 3rdtimesacharm(3T). . . I was totally into your post and found some similar themes with my own personal journal musings, until I read that line. Really? Poor Phil, indeed. It hit me in a knee jerk type of way, because if faced with a certain time limit until death, wouldn't you want to squeeze out every moment of life – with him?

  17. Of course I know intellectually that everyone is different, but to really see the details in what makes people different can still sometimes be mindblowing.

    If I had five more years to live, I'd work my ass off trying to pay off my credit card debt until I couldn't work any longer, and then I'd sell everything I owned, and then kill myself after leaving a note to my family apologizing if I've left any debts that I wasn't able to repay before stopping work.

    You on the other hand, are so confident in yourself that you believe you'd go out and marry someone else if you wanted to.

    Sometimes the differences really just blow my mind.

  18. My father died of cancer when I was 20. No one ever knew what to say. Their eyes would glaze over and they'd just sit there – stunned. Then they'd start at us kids, the orphans, like we were weird. All I wanted was someone to talk to me about the weather – anything but death.

    Keep these thoughts close to you always…

    Realizing that life really is too short gives you the power to enjoy every minute while you have it.

  19. Last Saturday, we visited the "cancer floor" (they get their own floor) to visit a lovely older lady friend (still, just 50, not enough) back battling Stage 4 a year after the first diagnosis took her bladder (this time it was the large intestine, much as they could). There’s still cancer in her, maybe more in bones. That day was the first time she said terminal. Said she needed to get home to make plans, maybe write letters to her grandkids. Clean the house. She knows we’re all sorry. I wouldn’t suggest she fight unless I was certain she wanted to any longer, and I’m not. So I said do whatever is needed to be done there, on the cancer floor, and get out and get home and do what we have to do there. She said she just doesn’t want it to hurt. I don’t know if it will. We'll find out.

  20. …oh, and the "if only" game? I wouldn't be so afraid to ask men out. Or ask them into my bed. Or let toxic people go. Or realize – at last – I'm beautiful and sexy and amazing just as I am in this state right now, not in another 10 or 20 pounds or when this odd pimple clears. I’d feed me and nurture me with care. I'd be more outside than in. I'd want to know everything about everyone. I’d finally say I’m worthy and mean it. I’d really try to fall in love finally. I wouldn't be afraid so much.

    I did every single one of those things when my Dad suddenly died in January. It’s the best time of my life.

  21. And you can only do the things you mentioned if you're dying? Why not move anyway? Spend more time with your family. Make videos for the kids. Assign songs to friends. They don't have to only think about you when you're gone. They can do it now.

    What a waste it would be to know you want to do the things you mentioned, but only if faced with the news that you have limited time.

    Your time is limited. Live it out loud and sloppily, as you say you desire. But drop the damn excitement thing already. Someone sold you a bill of goods on the heady rush of meeting someone. (Yes, science has shown there is a chemical change when we meet and it is a literal high, but it's replaced by other chemicals that leave us with an even better feeling, if we can recognize it.) True intimacy may not be as heady as falling in love, but landing on your feet is even better.

    FROM SK: Yes, of course. It's like every movie made about thinking you might die or have never existed. It's a Wonderful Life, Last Holiday, The Family Man, Click, Scrooged. It's always seen as a gift to be shown that. To know what you have before it's gone. Carpe Diem.

    I don't know that I agree with you about the "true intimacy feels even better than falling in love." When it comes to romantic love, I actually don't know of a better feeling that realizing you made the best choice, and feeling that over and over again, that rush of excitement, and the over-the-top high that comes with it. If you look at When Harry Met Sally… he finally realizes she's it for him. But that rush right there is the most exciting, most alive feeling ever. Yes, they live happily ever after, and there's a comfort in it, but it's hard not to call one sleepy. In City Slickers, where Crystal feels burnt out with his humdrum life, he rediscovers and becomes passionate about what he has, with the same excitement of someone falling in love for the first time, but without the fear of garlic breath. It's the alive feeling of realization that I think is very hard to beat.

  22. What happened to your previous post about what women want from a man? That was good too!

    I can understand both sides to the divorce and remarry part. On one hand, you know you'd never have another chance to experience the wonderful madness of falling in love/lust with a new person. You'd want to do that with a clear conscience. On the other hand, you'd want the people who love you and have seen you at your best and worst by your side.

    Now I'm all out of hands!

  23. I think "agirl" might be right about how SK blogs to purposefully createtension, otherwise divorcing and remarrying your husband is the most assine thing I have read. So, when I first read this, I thought SK meant that she might divorce and remarry someone else, because that is what you do when are in a lousy marriage. But, if SK is just talking about using a legal proceeding to bring the excitement back into her marriage, I almost hope for the twins' sake that "agirl" is right… that this is all hooey.

    Josh–that is a really excellent idea.

  24. Bee: your comments were breathtaking. I wish you emotional stamina and great medical care and the best possible luck in your fight. Most of all, I hope you kick cancer's ass once and for all and get 40 or more years to enjoy your man, your son and your life. If only we could gain such wisdom and insight without experiencing unspeakable pain first. You sound amazing! Sending healthy vibes your way!!

  25. When I was sixteen I was offered the chance to spend my junior year of High School in Mexico. My mother, I do believe was scared out of her wits, as was I (I later came to realize). She told me sometime later, after I was back from my amazing year, that she would never stop me from doing something she knew I could do. And right then I unappreciated that so much, and still do, to know that I have such a big support behind me in all that I do.

  26. me wrote…..

    >I might divorce and even remarry.

    Poor Phil.

    …..But she did not indicate that she would remarry SOMEONE ELSE. I took it as a remarrying Phil to relive all the emotions a second time around.

    On the "assigning each of them a song" —- I think that's very touching. My uncle had two favorite Beatle's songs that were played at his funeral. He used to play them on his guitar when I was a little girl. Every time I hear the songs now, I feel like he's there….letting me know it's all going to be OK.

  27. Bee….There was such strength in your response. I agree with you about the first few comments. I also was annoyed with them. I had cancer 7 years ago. I was 31 at the time. 7 years earlier I was widowed at 25. I totally agree that you never know or can predict how you will react to something until you have been there yourself. My first thought when they told me I had cancer was that I was going to die. Facing your own mortality is something that almost cannot be put into words. I believe that a good attitude is important but Bee is right….it won't save your ass! Each person has to go through things in life in their own way. It is their own path. I had chemo and lost my hair, and a boob…and now I dont much complain about bad hair days anymore or that I I don't like my boobs! Now I am just glad to have kept one and have a new one…however scarred it may look. Perceptions can change …that is what happened to me. 3 weeks ago my dad passed away of pancreatic cancer. He was diagnosed last year and had surgery but decided against chemo. The rest of my family was upset about it and wanted me to tell him he had to do the chemo. I was the only one who knew how personal a decision that it was. And I knew it had to be his own decision. I wish he would have enjoyed more of this last year but he lived his life always on his own terms and that didnt change with cancer.
    I guess what all this boils down to is that none of us is getting out of this life alive so we need to do all we can to love, laugh, and live each day as much as we can!

    Bee…my thoughts are with you and I wish you strength and hope….keep kickin cancer's ass girl!!

    Stephanie, thanks for this post. As always you give us much to think about.

  28. I just wanted to second Bee and metoo, in case anyone missed it:

    what do you do? You say, "I am so sorry."
    That's all you have to say. It is comforting in its simplicity.

    you don't ask them to let you know if there is anything you can do unless you really mean it – because otherwise it is just crappy to say that – being fake-polite to someone in that situation is awful. Ideally, you still don't say it – you just do something for them if you feel like it, or you offer something specific that doesn't involve them having to "ask," because that also puts them in a bad position (and probably the person won't ask – we certainly never did).

  29. Bee, thank you for your comment, your spirit and joie de vivre sets an example to all of us.

    I only want to comment on the divorce/remarry/falling in love debate. The best weeks of my life were when I met my boyfriend, fell head over heels and went on a roadtrip to France with him, within the month. Now, exactly 4 years later, we have been apart for 9 months and just this week decided to get back together, to give us another try. I had to make a choice: forget about him, find another fantastic guy and fall head over heels again, or go back to the guy I know and love, and work at our relationship again.
    And I picked option nr 2. So I won't have the crazy-in-love thing now, maybe never again, but to be honest I don't know if I'd still want to. My naivity is gone a bit, I wouldn't do those crazy things anymore (like running of to France with someone I've just met last week), falling in love is exhausting!
    I do consider those feelings the most intense I've ever experienced, and that time truely the time I've felt most alive. And I'm grateful and very lucky that I had the chance to experience that. But I don't have to relive it again, I'd rather find out where the other road leads me.

  30. I think any time someone goes through something tough, there is this numbness that can wash over, take over, your life. You find yourself floating through your daily activities, there in body but not in spirit. It's almost as if part of you is already dead.

    It's those times when you may feel distant, alone, a blur in a world of crispness, to remember that you ARE alive. That you can still grasp on to something and still feel that wave.

    It is my 23rd birthday in 2 weeks. In my desperate attempt to feel alive again, I'm going skydiving. Call me crazy, but I can't wait to jump out of that plane and get that wind of life hitting me in the face and waking me up.

  31. Bee, that was wonderful. It puts life into perspective. Whether you watch someone die or are dying, you know it isn't all cut at dry. It is both mind numbing and breath taking to watch. I cannot imagine how you must feel. I can tell you though, that what you wrote really affected me.
    I'll be thinking of you and your family. You are in my thoughts and prayers.
    To echo Cathy Bueti, "Bee…my thoughts are with you and I wish you strength and hope….keep kickin cancer's ass girl!!" Very well put.

  32. 'I might divorce and remarry'

    Was this a raw statement to show the desire for intense emotions to be felt before the end of life? Just curious mainly. I'm amazed at the sheer honesty, even when your husband reads these. :)

  33. I'm 40 and currently on chemo (no hair, limping with a cane) because of what my doctors tell me is an aggressive, "probably incurable" recurrence of a sarcoma. I NEVER thought of myself as being the kind of person whose life would take this direction — especially this young. For God's sake, I was *pregnant* when I first found out I had cancer, and I'd just had my second baby a few weeks before I found out it had returned and metastacized. My time to be a mother is being usurped by all this cancer stuff. Yet and still, I fight for my mother identity. And that's hard. Like Bee, I find myself breaking down at inopportune moments (like the middle of the playground) when I start to wonder how much time I'll have left with my sweet boys and my amazing husband.

    I will get down on my knees and weep tears of joy if I am still alive in five years. In the meantime, the most important thing I can do with my life is to live it fully by staying present to every moment and everything that happens around me. I soak in the laughter of my children. I take them to play group when my white blood cell counts aren't too low. I sip tea in the shade on our back patio. I celebrate the birthdays and pregnancies and new children and good fortunes of people I love, and I grieve with friends over miscarriages and parents' deaths. We take small trips if we can't take big ones, and we don't stop planning for the future, even as we do take some time to prepare for the worst-case scenario. We're making videos, and I'm creating little boxes for my sons, where I'll leave letters and birthday cards and graduation gifts and other special mementoes. I want them to know how much I love them. I want them to know who I am.

    None of us can say with absolute certainty that we will be alive in five years. Or tomorrow. We may have a day, we may have fifty years. We don't know, and we can't really, truly control it. But we can control how we live each day. For me, it means staying present to each moment and embracing life and loving my family. Which sounds like a cliché, I know, but if you should ever get cancer yourself (and I pray that you don't), you will know what I mean.

    And just so you know, you respond by saying, "I'm so sorry." And then, instead of asking if there's anything you can do, just figure out something to do and do it. Does this housekeeper have a benefit fund? I'm sure her medical expenses are weighing her down, so a donation is always nice. If you're in Newport for a while, drop off a fabulous, home-cooked meal. Tell her you're coming over some Saturday afternoon to help her clean her house. If you don't know her well enough to do something tangible, then tell her you're sorry and that she will be in your thoughts and (if applicable) prayers.

    FROM SK: Very well said. All of it. Beautiful, actually.

  34. What if it is already over?

    There is nothing to gain, to accomplish, to fix.
    Nothing to keep. Nothing to do.

    We can just enjoy what is going on right now, live it fully, play out completely, having fun with what ever happens, go in action for what ever game shows up.
    Going with the energy, aliveness.
    Soundtrack: 'Live Like You Were Dying' by Tim McGraw

  35. I found myself pondering mortality a few weeks ago, at the very moment I heard the words I'd want to be said about me when I'm gone.

    Not sure what I'd do with 5 years or any set timeframe. But I did learn this: I don't fear so much dying one day as I do that I won't have had enough time to earn having those things said, believed [the harder part] and learned by my children.

  36. You think you'll do all these things if you were diagnosed with terminal cancer, but you don't take into account the amount of pain, side effects from the drugs, etc. Having watched my husband die from cancer, I can tell you the "terminal illness" you are imagining in your post is a pipe dream.

    And to the commenter who is so judgemental about her boss's way of handling his diagnosis–until you have walked a mile in his shoes, shut the hell up!

  37. I used to play the "what if?" game all the time. I worked as a nurse and saw many situations that left me absolutely terrified. I decided then and there how I would handle every single what if that came along.

    Then one came along for real and guess what?

    All those resolutions were nowhere to be found. They had vanished into thin air, like that one night stand that you could never quite figure out exactly what had happened. Instead of a game, I was standing right in the middle of an altered reality.

    A year ago I was told that I probably wouldn't be alive today. So, I feel pretty lucky that I've made it this far beyond my expected date of expiration. I'm also pretty ticked that Ted Kennedy joined our ranks, except that he was lucky enough to have an operation. Most of us aren't that lucky. I always wanted to have something in common with him, just not cancer.

    I love my husband and I love our children. There are days when all I want is just one more minute to hold them close or laugh with them. I've lost my hair and my coordination. Seizures are part of my life and it breaksmy heart that my seven year old knows what to do when it happens because no child should know early on just how hard life can be.

    I'm blessed beyond belief. If I die tomorrow, I will die not having seen Paris or opened the bed and breakfast I swore I would, but I will die knowing that I have loved and been loved.

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