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The other night, I awoke at 3 AM with throbbing pain that radiated from the surgery site up to the top of my head. I thought:

Am I having a heart attack?
Am I dying?

It was unlike any pain I’d had before so my mind went … there. I wondered how long it would take for someone to notice I died and find me.

There’s nothing like emotionally entertaining death to make you rethink your life. After waking that morning, I thought: If I died tomorrow, how would I spend my last day?

So I made the following short lists:

• If I die tomorrow …
• If I die in a month …
• If I die in a year …
• If I die in five years …
• If I die in ten years or more ….

I know it sounds morose, but it was an incredibly revealing exercise that I recommend. It’s not that I don’t know myself and my priorities, but to clarify it in these types of lists cuts away at all the noise and mental clutter to see only what matters, how far daily life deviates from those things, and why.

If I die tomorrow doesn’t leave much time. Like most people, I’d spend it with the people I love most in this world. For me that’s my kids. I’d make a video so they’d have it to look back on. I’d tie up any quick practical matters to make life easier for them when they clean up after me. Finally, I’d instruct them not to describe me as having “courageously battled” whatever takes me out. If someone describes me that way to them, they are to enlighten the person that I was a whiny-assed complainer who endured whatever I endured because it was the only path that led to the exit. If I’d found another way, I’d have taken it. Last Supper: Pizza with mushrooms, olives, green peppers and extra cheese. Dessert: Chocolate gelato. Because, what does nutrition matter now?

If I die in a month includes everything above, but first I’d quit my job, immediately. I’d vacation in Hawaii. After spending my day lying on the beach and frolicking in the ocean, I’d email friends and other family to let them know how great it was knowing them. Italian food would rise to a predominant spot in my diet as would chocolate. Wow, just writing that put me in the mood for chocolate-covered pretzels… Last supper: Lasagna, with lots of mozzarella.

If I die in a year allows for some serious travel abroad, which I’d do in addition to everything above. When I wasn’t traveling, I’d spend my days writing at least one of the books that I can’t seem to find time or energy to finish now. I’d enjoy live theatre. I’d dance, especially since I’d have to burn off all the chocolate and Italian food. I don’t know about the last supper. I might be stuffed by the time it comes around, but sometime during the year, I’d visit friends in Los Angeles and go to Nicola’s Italian Restaurant. I’d order their Chicken Dijon or Special Chopped Salad.

If I die in five years means a major change in the game plan. I don’t quit my job because I’d run out of money well before five years. Perhaps I’d cut some hours knowing I won’t live to traditional retirement age. That knowledge could be useful. I’d make the necessary changes to fill my life with more meaning and pleasure. I wouldn’t waste time and energy on relationships that deplete my energy, although I’ve already pared those down as a result of cancer. I’d write and finish at least two of the books I have in mind. I’d eat nutritionally while allowing the occasional pizza and chocolate. For now, I’d forget about chocolate-covered pretzels. It would likely slip by me that I was eating my last supper when it arrived anyhow. I’d probably eat something like lentil soup.

If I die in ten years or more means I live life like I am now. I spend the bulk of my time on survival activities while pleasure and meaning take a backseat. I work in a stable but meaningless job where I spend most of my waking hours with my co-workers. I use most of the weekend to recuperate from the week and run the errands that are necessary to sustaining life, e.g., grocery shopping, etc. I try to get just one book finished, but I spend too much time fatigued and brain-dead. I feel like life is meaningless, but occasionally something happens that reminds me I make a difference in my small corner of the world, which makes me happy. Most people don’t do grand things in life. It’s all those little things we do that mean a lot to someone else.

I’m certain no one really knows what she’ll do in these situations hypothetically. Experience is the great clarifier. Still, the exercise was helpful and led me to a couple of conclusions.

Conclusion #1: I find ironic the amount of time and energy spent on maintenance and survival while we live. Add illness to the mix and you’ve got a person whose body is like a lemon of a car that spends too much time and money in the shop trying to get fixed while other cars go out for rides. A person’s bank account also determines when and how one is relieved from the survival focus to indulge in more pleasure and meaning, but it’s always of some concern when how long you’ll have to maintain yourself remains an unknown. My mother died at 80. A few years earlier, her doctor gave her a clean bill of health and said she’d probably live to 100. I said, “That’s great, Mom,” to which she said, “Why’s that great? Just my luck. Like I have the money to live to 100.”

Conclusion #2: It seems people who make buckets lists aren’t those who are dying, but those who still have lots of life left to enjoy the things living people like to do. Presumably, they not only have time, but health and energy too. I imagine when you’re waiting in line at the gate that leads to the final exit, bucket-list activities don’t matter so much anymore. Most things don’t matter when all is said and done. All that matters is who you love. Who loves you. Not much else. Not even Italian food and chocolate.

Reprinted with permission of Eileen Rosenbloom, The Woman in the Hat.

 

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