A Year to Live

Last week I picked up Stephen Levine’s book, A Year to Live, a gift from one of the women who attended the retreat. I read the introduction, thought, What a great idea, and put it down. Actually, I dropped it like that cliched hot potato and it sits, mocking me from the corner of the coffee table.

I’ve thought frequently about death in the last year and a half. I worried about a blood clot when my leg was broken and my daughter spent hours laying on my lap, watching Mary Poppins. I wasn’t sure I would come home when the bleeding wouldn’t stop and I rushed to the hospital the night of Ben’s death. I’ve laid awake nights since then, terrified that either my daughter’s heart or mine would suddenly stop beating, leaving me childless or  her motherless.

The thought of a grand experiment, living the next year of my life as though it were my last, touched a nerve still so raw that my breath caught in my throat. Even now, as I write, I can feel the ache in my chest as my mind plays quietly with different scenarios in the background.

I’ve been watching my friend Roos and her husband Kenji prepare for his stem cell transplantation which began today and left him too sick to speak. They do not know if he will live through it and if he does, there is a chance he will never be the same person. She’s written of funeral wishes, of having to learn how to do the things he takes care of in their lives, of talking through how much they need to tell their young sons. I think of all the tasks my husband takes on that I’ve stayed ignorant about. I think of everything in my head, in my home, that would have to be figured out or sorted through if I were suddenly not here. I’m not sure I want to leave that to someone else.

On my bookshelf is Patti Digh’s wonderful book, Life is a Verb: 37 days to wake up, be mindful and live intentionally, inspired by the 37 days her stepfather had between diagnosis and death. It’s full of insightful stories, creative prompts, poignant quotes and beautiful art, and one day I’d like to go through the whole thing, start to finish. There’s something about the simplicity of Levine’s book, the black type on a white page, the starkness of the words, It is my last New Year’s Eve, that brought the fear home. As much as I believe that the essence of who we are lives on, that we return to light and energy and love, I am not ready to go. I have too much to do, too much to learn, and far too many to love.

I wonder if I will have the courage to do it, to jump in on the experiment, to think every day as I wake up, Since my days are numbered, what’s the most important thing I can do today?. Am I willing to face the tenuousness of life in every moment? I wonder what would change. I know that fourteen and a half months after Ben’s death, I am losing touch with some of what was so beautiful about grieving – the permission for massive self care, the refusal to let “should” dictate my day. My inbox overwhelms, the need to pay bills sits at the forefront of my consciousness, the actions that feed my soul begin to take a backseat to what’s right in front of me.

Meditating last night in the office that hasn’t recovered from retreat preparations, I was overcome by the big items on my to-do list that didn’t get done. That is an old habit, an old way of life. I spent years ending the day unsatisfied, beating myself up for not being or doing enough. I sat with the pain of it for a moment and then chose to go over what I had accomplished, to celebrate and feel grateful for the steps I had taken. I know enough to press stop on that particular mental tape but I continue to learn kindness and compassion for myself. I trip and fumble and slide toward what makes me happy, what makes me feel alive, what makes me feel like me.

I am challenged by the sacred juggling act of life and I am beginning to settle into the awareness that I am perfectly lovable just as I am. I can choose to accept my life or resist it in any given moment. Sometimes gnashing my teeth and beating my chest is the choice I want to make. Most times it isn’t.

As I live and play and grow into this life that I’ve created, this beautiful, powerful, heartbreaking life, maybe it’s time to add something else to the mix. Everyone talks about living each day as though it was our last and I’m curious what that really means. I’m not sure I want to wait until I’m taking my last breath to find out.

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5 Responses to A Year to Live

  1. Roos says:

    Thank you for your sweet words my dear friend!!

    Actually, what Kenji (and I) did and does, is not living each day as if was his last. That might sound strange, but he didn’t want to have death lurking around the corner of his mind all day long. Doing this just because you think you cannot do them anymore was besides the point we found out. Such an important lesson, which you maybe only see the minute the days might actually be numbered..
    So what did we do? Live the good life. The life that is right in front of us: tasting a good cup of coffee, building a huge Duplo car with the boys, cuddling up on the sofa with a lousy movie. Not the paragliding, swimming with dolphins kinda things 🙂
    Trying to make each day a good day. And if it didn’t work out: hoping that a new day is is given to us tomorrow.

    So when I come to think of it: honestly, one doesn’t need any of those ‘work’books. Just look within, sit and listen. You know how to do that, of that I’m sure!

    • Alana says:

      It’s funny you say that actually, because that’s part of what he talks about in the beginning of the book. It’s not necessarily about doing those things you think you should do before you die, though for some that might be part of it. It’s about going deeper, living in a more present way, doing what’s really, truly important – exactly like that good cup of coffee, or that cuddling on the couch.
      I think though that it’s easy for us to get caught up in the busy-ness of life, the feeling pulled in different directions, the job that we don’t want to go to and resent. We yell at our kids because we’re worried about the new car payment and we didn’t get enough sleep the night before. We forget to spend quality time with our loved ones because we’re more concerned with that report that’s due/that college application/that kitchen floor that needs washing. Not that those things can’t be done mindfully and with love. It’s that we usually forget that’s an option, until we don’t have that freedom anymore.
      As you know well Roos, it’s being confronted, every day, with life’s fragility and mess, that can either bring us to our knees, or make us powerful beyond measure, make us more truly and deeply ourselves.

      Thank you for your comment – it’s perfect 🙂

  2. pamela says:

    Thank you so soooo soooooo much Alana. Tonight is a gnash my teeth night so this post was a huge gift to my soul. What spoke to me most was:

    I am losing touch with some of what was so beautiful about grieving – the permission for massive self care, the refusal to let “should” dictate my day. My inbox overwhelms, the need to pay bills sits at the forefront of my consciousness, the actions that feed my soul begin to take a backseat to what’s right in front of me.

    This is what I forget as well, or maybe what I haven’t learned well enough yet – how to stay in touch with my own broken heart by caring for my soul. I haven’t done this in some weeks and am stretched out. Thank you for this gentle reminder to stop the mental tape and practice compassion. It’s amazing how my compassion for other people expands as a result.

    I also loved Roos’ comment. The simple, little things. The missing teeth, the 4 bumble bees sighted on a walk, the jump into the leaves. Such power there for us to create a life from that.

  3. jojo says:

    beautifully written Alana! i did a office clean up recently and threw away a bunch of to do lists. i know i will make more. but seriously it felt so damn good. like a clean wash. i know the important things are in my head. and if they are not and i am not forgiven for what i may have forgotten. my life will still simply go on. and i have many more to love! including myself. thank you for the beautiful reminders. xo

  4. What a lovely post and comments. I’m centered just for having read them.

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