A month ago, I wrote about my client, whom I witnessed being diagnosed with a brain tumor. (https://www.lisedeguire.com/post/why-your-therapist-can-t-be-your-friend ) Yesterday, I attended her funeral. She went fast. She wasn’t a young woman, but she wasn’t old either. Having worked with her for eight years, I knew her dreams for her future. She hoped to retire comfortably in 20 years, and spend the rest of her days traveling and seeing operas. She diligently saved in her 401K. She loved to read. She enjoyed fine dining. She had plans and she thought she had time.
Instead, her lifelong friends gathered in her honor, weeping and telling stories. They laughed at her quirky love of karaoke and sang praises of her cooking. They played her favorite music: Styx, Verdi and Sondheim, an eclectic collection which captured her essence. I can tell you that she was more beloved than she realized, and accepted exactly for who she was.
I wish she had known that more in her lifetime.
In my fifties, I hear more and more tales like hers. Sure, most Americans live to a ripe old age. And yes, that is still my expectation. But I have lost three close high school friends (two from cancer, one from a fire). Two of my cousins are dead (car accident, and cancer again). My whole first family is dead. The list of people I know who died too young grows longer and longer each year.
How do we balance long term responsibilities with enjoying the moment? How do you simultaneously plan for your future, save, and exercise, while also… seizing every damn day? How do you stock up your 401K as you buy those Rolling Stones tickets like you always dreamed? How do you simultaneously care for your body with great nutrition, while also enjoying every moment, which for me definitely involves potato chips?
I don’t have the answers but I am trying not to postpone my bliss too much. Almost every year, I plan an ambitious vacation. I’m a salesman, pitching endless exotic vacations to my husband, who would be just as happy returning to Ireland most of the time. “Let’s go to Africa!” I exclaim. “We can go on a safari and see the lions and elephants.”
“That’s fun. I’m sure that would be great. But how about we go to Dublin? You’ve never been there either. That would be a nice trip, and a lot easier too.”
I sigh. “We can go to Dublin at any age, and I'm sure we will. But if we are going to do rugged traveling, we need to do it now.”
Then I incant my magic phrase: “We are only one bad knee away from not being able to travel.” With this dark sentiment, I persuade my poor husband to embark on the next adventure. Honestly, he enjoys our travels too, very much. But I am more driven. I focus on the time ticking by. “We only have 14 years of active vacations left, most likely. How about Antarctica?”
Tomorrow is not promised. We all know that, but we are quick to forget. I can go from writing this piece to being exasperated with an email in ten seconds flat. Is the email important? No, it isn’t. But it is easy to lose sight of the big picture, so easy to get lost in the to-do list, and the worries of the day.
I think I know the big picture for me. I know what I want to be able to say at the end of my days. (Well, perhaps I am totally wrong, but I think I know.) Some of it would be about experiences. I want to set my feet on every continent. I want to see a lot of theater. I want to publish my book, and I want people to read it. I want to laugh joyfully and to spend time with all my beloveds. I want to see my daughters happy and settled into thriving adult lives.
I hope that, at the end, I will have been a kind and reliable friend. I hope I will have been a helpful psychologist. I hope my readers will feel that I improved their lives. I hope my daughters will feel they had a caring mother who was there for them. I hope my husband will feel he had a loving wife who had his back, even if I did drag his poor back to the ends of the earth.
I try to keep these life priorities in my mind as I go through each day, crossing off action items and adding new ones. I suspect these priorities are what makes my life worthwhile, in the long run. I ask myself, not infrequently, “If I dropped dead tonight, would I be satisfied?” Sometimes that thought helps me settle down and take more time with someone. (God forbid that someone’s last memory of me is that I was mean.)
Today’s resilience suggestion is to ask yourself these same questions:
What do you want to be able to say you experienced at the end your life?
What do you want others to be able to say about you?
Get your answers clear in your mind. With that focus, start prioritizing these answers as highly as you prioritize anything in your life.
If you want to be thought of as a kind person, make sure you are taking the time to show up kindly. If you want to be remembered as creative, be sure you are prioritizing your creative endeavors. If you want to learn how to fly a plane, sign up for the lessons. Do these things now, don't keep postponing. Your life goals are just as important, and arguably so much more, than work success, financial security and daily chores.
We have time, but we never get to know how much time we have. Tomorrow is not promised. Spend today well.
Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.