I was sixteen when my mom was diagnosed with cancer.
The tumor was in her lung (she’d been a smoker), but it appeared operable. One of the best cancer hospitals in the country was located just across the street from her office. Her prognosis was good and we were all pretty positive about the final outcome.
She bravely went to every treatment her doctors ordered: surgery, chemo, radiation. She listened to positive thinking tapes while recovering, pausing every so often so she could throw up over the side of the couch. She carried a rabbit’s foot in her purse.
And somehow, while dealing with all of that, she found the energy to try to shield me from much of the reality of her situation. She fought to live of course, but I think she fought harder so I wouldn’t have to watch her die.
After a year, she was given the all clear. She’d beaten cancer, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. The treatment was agonizing, but we all felt it was a small price to pay to have her back in our lives for good. I went off to college, secure in the promise of the future.
Until the cancer came back.
She told me the news when I came home on Christmas break my sophomore year. The tumor had now threaded itself through her spine. Her words were the same: I’m going to fight. Everything is going to be fine. I can beat this.
But the zest was gone. She was tired. She knew this was a much bigger fight. I was now a thousand miles away and her relationship with my father was an emotional drain.
A few months later, I called to wish her a happy birthday. Our birthdays are separated only by a day, and more than ever, it felt like a double celebration.
As soon as she answered, I knew something was wrong. Her voice was childlike, confused, and her speech slightly slurred. I yelled at her to hang up and call the doctor, but she couldn’t understand me.
That evening, she fell into a coma. My father had her put on life support, even though she had expressly said she didn’t want it, to give me enough time to get home and see her one last time.
She was almost unrecognizable.
To treat the spinal tumor, they had shaved the back half of her head and inserted a shunt, allowing them to drip the chemo agents directly into the spinal column. Her body was painfully swollen and her hands were tied to the bed in case she woke up and tried to rip the breathing tube from her mouth.
I knew this wasn’t how she’d envisioned spending the last moments of her life.
I stroked her cheek and walked her through my memories of the years we’d spent to together. I called her my Mommy Swami, the nickname I used as a child, and miraculously watched a tear roll down her cheek. She could hear me.
And then, far sooner than I ever imagined I would, I picked up the rabbit’s foot from her bedside table and said good-bye.
On Legacy Projects and Dying Young
As I’ve gone through my career change journey over the last couple of years, I’ve asked myself one question to help me decide if I was on the right path: if I won the lottery tomorrow, would I continue the work I’m doing today?
In the past, my career choices had been largely motivated by money and, like an addict, I’m always worried I’ll slip up. Over and over again, the answer came up yes, I love my work. I’d continue my blog. I’d relaunch No Regrets Career Academy.
That isn’t to say what I do isn’t sometimes filled with frustration. Sometimes I am so very, very tired by my need to achieve, and I wonder if I can continue. But then I get a good night’s sleep, and I’m ready to dream and do all over again.
I thought a better question to ask myself might be: if 2012 were the last year of my life, would I continue the work I’m doing today?
Now time has entered the equation. Money issues are still off the table, but there’s a new sense of urgency that doesn’t result from a monetary windfall, a call for some serious prioritization.
Chris Guillebeau recently tackled the urgency question in his manifesto The Tower.
It’s clear, however, that there is often a gap in our lives between what could have been and what actually is. Because of choices or circumstance, some people are limited to a life less than they hoped for, or less than they were capable of.
Chris argues we should look at what we would do with our lives if we had enough time and money. And it turns out that getting a death sentence is better at giving you that than the lottery. As Steve Jobs says
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.
The truth is, most of us don’t get an early warning. Even for those that do, many experience what my mother did: years filled with a mixture of fear, hope, agony and sacrifice.
To get the most out of something like The Last Year of Your Life, you have to consciously choose what you want, and then find the courage to go live it. And I have to say, I’m just not convinced a legacy is all it’s cracked up to be, at least not for me. Because when I hear things like this from Chris
Instead of knowledge, pleasure, or happiness, the purpose of life is to create something meaningful that will endure after we’re gone.
I have to say, that sounds an awful lot like the pursuit of fame to me, the voice of vanity disguising itself as something more altruistic.
Finding your own answers to the meaning of life
Make no mistake, the voice of vanity is as alive in me as it is in anyone else.
But given the last year of my life, would I really care what endured after I’m gone? Would my focus be on legacy, or would it be a catalyst to connect more deeply and meaningfully with my friends and family? Let’s be honest, the vast majority of us will be remembered solely by the generation right before and after our own. What’s wrong with that?
You get to define the word “legacy” for yourself of course, but I don’t think my mother would have claimed she had one beyond her relationship with me, her family, and as a nurse, with her co-workers and patients. It’s true, after her death, the clinic where she worked put up a plaque, naming the patient recovery room in her honor, a “legacy” she earned by simply doing the work she loved.
But what I remember about her most fondly is not her work or achievement, but her willingness to drive me to far away tennis matches, even when it was more than a little inconvenient. Or the times she relaxed enough to reveal her funny side, like the time she spontaneously mooned the dinner table (now there’s a legacy!).
I don’t claim to have this all figured out. In fact, I think this may be the greatest question of our time.
As technology has enabled us to spread our work and message further and to more people, it’s also ironically allowed us to retreat from real connection. One of my best friends recently told me she was jealous of my blog readers. She felt I gave them more of my time (and she’d be right). It’s not just kids who spell love as T-I-M-E.
I worry a lot about the burden of greatness implied by words like legacy, and how this might be forcing a greater divide in life outcomes: either you feel overwhelmed by the task, leading you to do less than you’d dreamed, or you drive yourself to exhaustion trying to become the next Michelangelo, never feeling like you’ve achieved or delivered quite enough. I think there’s a reason, and not necessarily a good one, why productivity and time-management seem to be our greatest struggles.
Editor’s note: In light of this idea, I am taking a two-week vacation to rest and recuperate, and spend some serious quality time with family and friends. The next post, which will discuss the relaunch of No Regrets Career Academy among other things, will be published on January 3. In the meantime, do read Chris Guillebeau’s manifesto for yourself as well as Leo Babauta’s book The Effortless Life, which, while not free, offers a valuable counterpoint.