In October of 2003, my stepfather was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died 37 days later.
During that 37 days, I helped my mother care for him at home, since he wanted to die there. Never having been around someone dying before, I didn’t know what to do. When my father died, I was just 19 and sitting in the intensive care waiting room. No one asked if I wanted to be with him; they just asked if I wanted to see him dead after it was all over. It was the beginning of a long realization of how intensively we avoid death, at least in this culture.
But, back to 2003. It was at once profound and awkward, as if I were visiting in a place I ought not to be, hearing things I ought not ever hear, and dispensing morphine as if I knew how. He very soon lost the ability to speak, which made it both easier and harder. I was scared and anxious all the time, not knowing what was coming next. There was no manual that I could find, no prescription for what he was feeling and doing, how his insides were eating him up. I couldn’t tell, and very soon into it, he couldn’t tell me either.
Everything I could possibly think to talk to him about was so petty as to be painful. Would he like to watch a movie, I would pantomime? What? And have Hugh Grant be the last thing he might see on earth? The newspaper failed, the ads for supermarket bargains not relevant – but what was?
At night, I could hear the oxygen machine making its move in and out as I waited for it to stop. And, finally, it did, after his feet started turning blue and we watched the blueness march all the way up the 6-feet and 4-inches of him.
The timeframe of 37 days made an impression on me. We act as if we have all the time in the world – that’s not a new understanding. But the definite-ness of 37 days struck me. So short a time, as if all the regrets of a life would barely have time to register before time was up.
And so, as always when awful things happen, I tried to figure out how to reconcile in my mind the fact that it was happening and the fact that the only thing I could do was try to make some good out of it. What emerged was a renewed commitment to ask myself this question every morning: ‘what would I be doing today if I only had 37 days to live?’
It’s a hard question some days.
But here’s how I answered it: Write like hell, leave as much of myself behind for my two daughters as I could, let them know me and see me as a real person, not just a mother, leave with them for safe-keeping my thoughts and memories, fears and dreams, the histories of what I am and who my people are. Leave behind my thoughts about living the life, that “one wild and precious life” that poet Mary Oliver speaks of. That’s what I’d do with my 37 days. So, I’m beginning here.