How would you live differently if you were only given one year to live? We’re all going to die one day. It’s a painful lesson that most of us will learn at some point in our lives. In today’s episode, Danielle talks about what the death of her mother taught her.
Hello and thanks for joining me! I have a pretty vulnerable episode planned for you today…I’m going to talk to you about a painful topic…my mom. She died from her second battle with cancer when she was just 50 years old. I was 23 years old at the time.
Today, March 29, 2020, marks 7 years since she passed, which is bizarre to think about. But it’s the single event that has impacted me the greatest.
I want to honor her memory by talking about what I learned since I had to say goodbye to her, but first I want to give you some backstory.
I was 12 years old, in June 2001. I remember vividly my mom yelling for me to call an ambulance. She had the worst headache she ever had in her life. Shortly after, she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. It was a stage four glioblastoma multiforme, and her doctors gave six months to two years to live.
Glioblastomas are extremely rare. According to webMD, the survival rates for glioblastoma are:
- One year: 40.2%
- Two years: 17.4%
- Five years: 5.6%
Only 5.6% make it past 5 years. But after surgery, and some intense months of chemotherapy and radiation, the doctors were stunned to find that her cancer was completely gone. She defied the odds. She was a fucking warrior and a viking.
I got 12 extra years with my mom from the time she was first diagnosed.
Then a day came in January 2013…she texted me, and it was very jumbled…and it said, “I’m not feeling well.” I called out of work that day and rushed to her house.
We went to the emergency room, and that night the doctor came in and told us she had two large masses on either side of her brain. I will never forget the look on her face at that moment – it is forever burned into my memory.
Turns out, she had cancer again, but not the original brain cancer she started with. She had lung cancer that had metastasized to her adrenal glands and her brain.
Despite surgery and treatment again, the cancer moved to her brain stem, and that was the end. A short eight weeks when she was rediagnosed, to the day that she died.
I got the call shortly after 4AM from my dad, who was spending the night in hospice with her. On the way to his house, I remember walking into the convenience store that morning, to get coffee and fuel up for what I knew would be a very tiresome day ahead, and as I poured my coffee a gentleman came up and said, “Such a beautiful day, isn’t it?”
All I could think was, “How dare you? My mom just took her final breath a couple of hours ago…today is anything but beautiful.” But all I could do was nod in agreement while holding back my tears.
Since that day, I’ve learned a lot, and I want to share three of those biggest lessons with you today.
Lesson #1: There is very little we have control over.
I turned 30 last year. I turn 31 in about a week. And while getting older is a reminder of our mortality, this is the first time I’m mentally aware of how young I actually am. Every day I have is literally the youngest I’ll ever be. While that’s scary, it’s equally powerful.
Because I could very well have two more lifetimes on top of the one I’ve already experienced. Or I could drop dead tomorrow. Either way, I know tomorrow is not guaranteed. I’m no longer willing to waste time, to simply go through the motions or subscribe to someone else’s idea of success and happiness.
We give WAY too many f#&ks about things that DO. NOT. MATTER.
We hold onto petty grudges; we argue with our significant others about dumb shit. We stay in jobs or relationships that suck the soul out of us.
In those moments, losing my mom helps me to level set.
I could be arguing with my wife and I think to myself, this is temporary. What if these are the last words we ever spoke to one another? It has offered me so much perspective.
I often remind myself that my mom first got diagnosed with terminal brain cancer at age 38. Like I said, I’m 30. It’s recentering when I ask myself questions like: what if I only had 8 years left?
Or 8 months?
Or 8 days?
Or 8 hours?
One of the hardest things about my mom being sick was that she had aphasia, which is the loss of ability to understand or express speech, because of where the tumors sat on her brain. She couldn’t express directly what she was thinking or feeling during the last two months she was alive. For example, if she was feeling overheated, she would say the word “sun” to try and get her point across. What a terrible thing, to know that you’re not going to survive and not to be able to articulate how you truly feel or what you’re thinking. That haunts me to this day.
We all have that ability, right now. You can control what you say, what you mean, and how you act. So why wait?
Losing my mom taught me that all we really have is today.
Lesson # 2- There is a such thing as a “new normal”
I want to start this lesson with a quote by John Irving. He said:
“When someone you love dies…you don’t lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time—the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers. Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone. Just when the day comes—when there’s a particular missing part that overwhelms you with the feeling that she’s gone, forever—there comes another day, and another specifically missing part.”
What this quote boils down to: There is a void inside of me that will never be filled. It’s my new normal.
On this day over the last seven years years, I go through the pictures I have of my mom and try to recreate that exact moment in my head – how she felt, what she was doing, the sound of her voice, the way she smelled.
There are so many things that are now bizarre to me – I now have to search deep down to remember what her voice sounds like. I think one of the strangest things about losing someone is how they almost become frozen in time. She will never age past 50, and there will never be new photos taken of her.
I’ll never know what she thought of my wife. I’ll never know how it felt when she told me that I looked beautiful in my dress on my wedding day.
If I ever dream about her, I notice that it’s a dream right away, because something in my subconscious reminds me that she’s not supposed to be there.
Whenever that happens, waking up never gets easier. I want to stay there and spend time with her just a little longer.
Her memory is all that I have left. Even though I’ll never necessarily be okay with those things, and wonder those “what ifs?” I’ve accepted those as my new normal.
Another thing I wanted to mention is, when someone you love initially dies, you get flooded with messages of love and support in those first couple of weeks. But after a while, most of the phone calls and texts stop. It’s a lot to navigate. Just last year, I opened a bag of her old t-shirts, and her scent came through immediately. A flood of tears started immediately.
This is my normal. Some years, I’ll be sad to the point I feel paralyzed when this day comes. Other years, it feels like a normal day. And other times, her absence hits me like a ton of fucking bricks on a random Wednesday at 2pm when I pick up the phone to call her and realize I can’t.
That’s why it’s so important to find your core soul family – the people who accept this “new normal” that has become your life, the people who will love you for it and who will continue to help you process the way that you feel. I am lucky to have found those people.
I now realize that, grieving is a lifelong process. Which leads me to my last lesson…
I felt so much misdirected resentment toward that man in the convenience store that morning, but now I realize he was right.
So the third lesson I have for you is,
Lesson #3: Every day can be beautiful if we let it.
Death is the only thing we have in common.
We basically live on borrowed time. We live for the weekends, or our next vacation, when we can mentally check out rather than being present. And we convince ourselves that we can eventually buy ourselves the time or freedom to do the things we want later in life.
My mom defied the odds…she was a fighter. And I know I have a lot of that in me as well. It’s also ok to recognize the good and the bad. When I look back at her life, I want to remember the good parts but I also want to keep it real and not paint a picture that blatantly leaves out the bad stuff that happened, that should also teach me valuable life lessons.
For example, my mom let a lot of her initial diagnosis define the rest of her life. I think she let a lot of her identity as a cancer survivor hold her back, out of fear.
Bronnie Ware, A palliative nurse in Australia compiled the top five regrets of patients she counseled during their final days into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing. She found some common themes among how they would’ve chosen to live differently, if they could go back and do it again, and I want to share those with you:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
I wish that I had let myself be happier.
None of us are invincible, and we shouldn’t take these reflections lightly. It took my mom dying to teach me all of this, among many other lessons.
I still have to be reminded of these things daily, even after losing her.
She was the catalyst that made me reevaluate my entire life – how I spend my time, who I spend it with, and my everyday reasons for being. I do my best to live my life to honor her and make the days that she didn’t get count.
Her death made me see life through a different lens, and I am proud of what I’ve learned and who I’ve become because of her absence. But I’d also give all that back, if it meant bringing her back.
So, if you woke up tomorrow morning with only one year left to live, how would you live differently? What would you want to be remembered for?
Whatever your answer may be…be it volunteering, raising a family, creating art, owning a business, or traveling the world. Go do that thing. Go be that person. Don’t wait. Because this life is yours, and it’s the only one you get.
Friends. Life is short, so do your best to make it a darn good one. Call the people closest to you today, and tell them you love them. Do that thing you’ve putting off. Make today count.
Thanks for spending your precious time with me today, and I’ll catch you next time.