I asked my friend, Laurie Foley, to speak on the topic, “The Courage to Be Mortal,” at the first Camp I hosted, in September 2013, thirteen months after she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It just so happened–as I learned during her speech–that she was diagnosed on the evening of my 53rd birthday as I was turning the age my father was when he died, while nursing my husband, John, a week after he had been diagnosed with kidney cancer. There were a lot of balls up in the air on that day in history, but none so heavy as Laurie’s.
She wasn’t sure she could be at Camp, because of her health, and I told her there would be a space for her if she could, even at the last minute.
What she brought that gathering was a perfectly constructed speech, and more heart and wisdom than our souls could absorb in one sitting. Hers is a message we can all learn from. May it be shared widely, because it changes lives. I have seen the truth in this talk, for myself and many others who heard her speak that day.
Laurie Foley has entered hospice care this week, and in her active dying continues to teach all of us about the power we all have to transform the energy of terror into commitment, and entitlement into hope. If I had to choose five friends to be in my lifeboat as the Titanic went down, Laurie Foley would be there. So this week leaves me feeling bereft, and in her honor, I will transform that into molecule-rearranging love as she departs this earthly existence. She will never be far from me.
A transcript of her talk is below the video.
The Courage to Be Mortal
by Laurie Foley at
Patti Digh’s Life is a Verb Camp, September 2013
Patti, thank you for inviting me.
I’m Laurie Foley.
And thank you for choosing a light, pre-lunch topic, “The Courage To Be Mortal.”
I can’t promise it will be appetizing, but I’ll do my best.
What were you doing on Thursday, August 16, 2012, a year ago, at 6:32 in the evening? Maybe you were having a rather ordinary moment. I was. I was with my husband and my son and we were sitting in our family room thinking about what to make for dinner. It was a very ordinary moment.
But five minutes later, I was going to get a phone call that was going to change my life forever.
Five minutes later I was talking to my doctor on the phone and she was explaining the results of a CT scan that I had had earlier in the day. She thought I had diverticulitis, it hadn’t responded to antibiotics, and she said “let’s check it out.” But on this phone call, she said, “Laurie, this doesn’t look good.”
I’m like, “well, how not good?” She said “really not good.” She said, “You have implants all throughout your abdominal cavity. And ‘implants’ is really just a sanitized word for ‘tumors.’”
And I said, “In my stomach?” She said, “No, pretty much everywhere.”
And at that point, I was just…I could hardly hear anything she was saying after that, and I put her on speaker phone, and I asked her to repeat it, so my husband and son could hear what was going on, and she said, “This is consistent with ovarian cancer.”
And she said, “We’ve already booked you in to see an oncologist as soon as possible, and in the meantime, I want you to stay off the Internet.”
Well, she didn’t know that I already had my medical degree from the University of Google, or that I actually do have a PhD in computer science and helped build the Internet.
I said, “I’ll try.”
But what was really going through my head was, “Am I going to live ’til Christmas?” Because really, if anybody is told that you have a pretty bad cancer, that’s probably the first thing you think about. “Am I going to die?”
So, yes, I am going to die. And you’re gonna die. My milk carton, as I like to think of it, has definitely been moved closer to the front of the shelf, but I don’t know my expiration date, and neither do you.
I think we’ve all heard the story about death and taxes–that they’re both inevitable. I know some people who don’t pay taxes, so I’m not so sure that’s true, but death? That’s gonna get us.
Death is part of what makes us human. So let’s talk for a minute about what makes us human. Used to be that scientists thought that what makes us human is our ability to use tools. but now we know that primates, and even birds, use tools. Then scientists thought maybe it’s communication or language. Well we actually know that animals like dolphins and even dogs have a form of language.
So, the very interesting proposition to me about what makes us human is our ability to transform states of energy.
Our ability to transform states of energy.
For example, freezing water into ice. Or even mixing flour, sugar, eggs, milk to make a cupcake for a birthday party. Which brings me back to that night on August 16th.
I was terrified. Would I see my son’s 16th birthday? Would I celebrate my 25th wedding anniversary? All of these things were racing through my head. My husband and I had just begun to talk about his retirement a few years out. Would I get to enjoy retirement with him?
Would I ever hold a grandchild? I was only 51 years old. I also wondered, would I ever see my son graduate from college? He was only 15 the night of that phone call, and two-thirds of the women who are diagnosed at my stage, 3C, and by the way, there are only four stages, die within 5 years.
It was a bad night.
It actually got worse. Two nights later, I woke up in absolute panic. I’d had panic attacks in the past. This was über panic. This was waking up in the middle of the night trying to trip your clothes off screaming terror, “I can’t do this. I can’t do this. How did this happen?”
Of course, this woke up my husband, and he reached over and squeezed me as hard as he could, and he just held onto me, and in that moment, he transformed the energy of terror into the energy of presence and love.
A few months later, after a lot of stuff had happened–chemo, monster surgery, more chemo, failing chemo, having to restart chemo, lots of things had happened, I asked him. “How do you deal with the anger about this situation?” because I’d seen very little of that from him. And he said, “I have my ways. Don’t worry about it.”
But he said, “The main thing is, the morning after we got that phone call, I woke up and I told myself “I will never give up.'”
And in that moment, he transformed the energy of despair into the energy of commitment. He may be the most amazing human that I know.
So, another awesome human is my dad. My dad is 75 years old. He’s very sprightly for 75. He’s very cute. If you follow me on FB, you’ve probably seen my picture with him because he’s my favorite chemo buddy.
He travels 300 miles each way to go with me to chemo very often. He brings a little backpack, he wears a funny baseball cap, he brings an inflatable pillow, he brings an extra jacket; while the little magical medicines drip into me, he reads blogs on his little iPod Touch, not even an iPad. And he is infinitely patient. He holds my hand, and he tells me to breathe.
Recently we had finished one of those chemos and he was headed home, and I was feeling so thankful – as I always do, and a little guilty as I always do, that he goes to all this trouble to come to be with me, and I just said, “You know, you don’t have to do this. I appreciate it so much. Thank you for being with me.”
And he held me by the shoulders, and he looked me in the eyes, “Don’t ever ask me not to come.”
And with those seven words, “don’t ever ask me not to come,” he transformed the energy of an terrified little girl into the energy of a beloved daughter.
And in that moment, I felt a massive wave of love that felt like it was rearranging every molecule in my body.
It was one of the most healing moments I’ve ever felt in my life.
So my question for you is “How do you want to use this amazing power that we have as humans to transform energy—for yourself, or for the people that you care about?”
My husband and my father did it through their commitment and their love. And I believe that that is what is healing me today, even if just for today. And that is enough.
How do I use this power? I have three ways that I want to share with you:
One is when something like this happens, and I would call it a catastrophic diagnosis, very quickly you are plunged into a world that is like going to a foreign country. You don’t know the language, the customs; you don’t know any of it. And it is exhausting. And then they start cutting you open, and they start filling you with poison. I said that my treatment plan was “poison me, fillet me, poison me,” and that’s pretty much we’ve done.
What happens in the course of that is that you have very low energy. Very low energy. All your energy is being used by your body for healing and for dealing with everything that’s coming into your body. So I began to see this crisis as an energy management event, because I have a technical background.
So to me, it really came down to a simple question that I use over and over and over again. Any decision that I needed to make, any choice, is really the question of “is this energizing, or is it draining?”
Is it energizing or is it draining?
This has turned out to be a pretty good metric. if a friend wants to visit and it’s a really low day, I can make the energizing choice, and say, “let’s do it another time.” These are not always easy choices to make, but the priority is clear. I have to choose what’s energizing, and really, I think living for anybody is about making choices that are energizing.
I had a successful solo coaching and consulting and coaching practice that was running at the time of my diagnosis. That was a very hard decision. What do I do with this? I didn’t have a team. I didn’t have people to delegate it to. But when I applied that question, “Is it energizing or is it draining to try to work at this same pace?” it was a very hard choice, but the choice was very clear to pause that business for a while.
I think the question of “is something energizing or draining?” is ultimately an extremely personal question. What would be energizing for me wouldn’t be energizing for somebody else. One of the decisions that we made as a family was to be very open about what was going on, and especially to be completely open with our son.
He’s old enough that we believed he could handle whatever information would come along, and he, like me, loves data and loves information, so it seemed natural to do that. And now when he comes in from school and he knows I’ve had a doctor appointment that morning, he’s like, ‘How’d it go Mom?” And boy is that ever transforming, to see this boy becoming a loving man.
So I believe that this question, “is this energizing or is it draining?”, is really the ultimate question that we can ask to manage energy in a crisis.
The second way that I use the power of transforming energy was really to recognize what really made me suffer the most early on. And it was my desire for control and certainty—to want to know what’s going to happen.
Because I didn’t stay off the internet. I spent many, many, many hours on the Internet scared the crap outta me, and it just made me want more control. But what I learned in the process of all that suffering, through wanting control, was that what felt better was to make a choice. So the power – MY power – lies in making a choice, not in having control. And for the Meta thinkers among you, yes, that is a form of control, but it’s always available.
I chose the power of choice. I choose the power of choice. I choose to be in present time. I choose to come back to my body and to breathe if it starts to feel hard. I choose to examine what I am trying to control when I start to suffer.
The third way that I use this power of transformation really goes back to all my fears that I felt that first night, all the fears of the things that I thought I might miss, and ultimately the fear of dying.
Painfully, I came to realize that I felt entitled.
I’m still struggling with this. I felt entitled to live 80 years. I felt entitled to have a long and happy marriage. I felt entitled to see my son grow up and have a family of his own. But I am not entitled, and I never was.
So, learning and examining how to transform this energy of entitlement has been a huge challenge. But what I discovered is that I can transform it if I shift it into the energy of hope. I hope for a long and abundant life. I hope to witness everything that brings joy. I hope to be there for my husband when he has a crisis some day. I hope to experience love and connection as long as possible.
I never would have chosen cancer. Cancer chose me. I am no longer enjoying the illusion of entitlement, but cancer is not entitled to my sense of hope.
So I invite you in this moment, I’m not sure exactly what time it is, but to take a moment and pause. I feel extraordinary gratitude for this moment, and for each of you, and especially for Patti.
We don’t know what is coming in five minutes or five weeks or five years, but I do know with all my heart that whatever comes along to challenge you or the people that you care about, that you will have the power of choice.
You can choose and transform despair into commitment. You can choose and transform entitlement into hope. You can choose and transform mortal fear into molecule-rearranging love.
So, I’d like for you to remember this little cupcake. (This is where we burn down the room.)
So with this little cupcake, I hope that you’ll remember whatever really raw ingredients life may bring your way, you have the power to choose and transform them into something sweet, into something loving, and profoundly hopeful.