There’s an old saying that New Yorkers leave without saying goodbye and Minnesotans say goodbye without leaving. Returning to my home state after a posting in Manhattan a few years back, I was able to see for the first time that this old saw is 100 percent true. Up here, the real conversations begin at any gathering’s end, when we guests stand waiting for our cars to warm up, and our hosts, finally done stuffing us with food, turn away from sink and stove to provide us with their full attention.
There’s nothing like an imminent departure to focus the mind on what really matters.
Last month, after 4.5 years of staring an early death in the face, after juggling chemo, kids and career, and putting careful plans in place for a future that wouldn’t include me, my wife and I heard my cancer doctors say something cancer doctors aren’t exactly famous for saying:
“You may need to start planning for a normal lifespan.”
It was startling news, as unexpected as the 2008 leukemia diagnosis that brought us there to Mayo Clinic in the first place. Once again, what the doctors had to say changed absolutely everything in our lives, except that this time, it had changed it all for the better.
Or at least that’s what I know it should have felt like. The truth is, even after several weeks getting used to The Best of All Possible News, I’m still struggling to feel appropriately ecstatic. Why am I not experiencing all the relief and thankfulness I ought to?
After giving that question some thought, in what may be the irony to end all ironies, I suspect I’m experiencing a fear of loss — not of my life, this time, but of the priceless perspective I gained over these past few terrifying, clarifying years. We’ve been having that conversation at the doorway for a while now, after all, and it’s been a good one.
I was raised to appreciate every blessing in life, no matter how small, and I’ve always managed to do so. Despite having lived on the East Coast and overseas, I’m a true Midwesterner who once, as a young man, reflexively thanked someone for stopping by to fire me.
During the dark times that followed my diagnosis though, I felt an entirely new, even higher level of gratitude for everything, especially the people around me. If I ever wanted to counter a despairing mood or moment, I needed only to look at my friends, coworkers or my enormous extended family to feel very, very lucky. With the clock ticking loudly, I was able to experience these people as the priceless collection of originals they are, each miraculously kind, hysterically funny and, for reasons I couldn’t possibly deserve, a regular part of whatever life I had left. Is it possible to retain my current level of appreciation for friends and family without the prospect of permanent separation from both hanging over my head?
I hope so. With any luck, I’ll only need to remind myself that my extended lifetime, like any lifetime, is still a finite arrangement. But just in case I end up needing a reminder that’s a little harder to ignore, I’m here and now jotting down the most important things I’ve learned, so I can cut them out and pin them up on our household bulletin board, where the chemotherapy schedule used to be:
1. We’re all temporary. We have to enjoy people and allow them to enjoy us, before it’s too late.
2. One question should determine any given day’s activities: On my deathbed, will I be happy I spent time doing this?
3. Work-life balance is a false choice. It’s all life. If you suffer at your job, get a new job. If you can’t, get a new attitude. And if your principal complaint is the people you live or work with, see number one.
That’s it, just three bits of learning culled from thousands of observations that visited me while lying there on the receiving end of a Cytoxan drip. Not a lot, I know, but that’s what happens when you separate the things that don’t matter from the things that really do. You end up with a big pile of nothing, next to a very small pile of everything.