I was searching for a vocabulary with which to make sense of death, to find a way to begin defining myself and inching forward again.
Paul Kalanithi, 2016, When Breath Became Air, p. 147.I.
An important question that emerges alongside the diagnosis and spread of cancer is: What makes a life worth living? Faced with imminent death, the question takes on significant dimensions. Yet, it is a question not limited to the cancer patient only. Family and close friends also struggle to answer this question as well.
What makes a life worth living? What do we most value?
For late stage cancer patients, like Rob, for whom no cure existed there is a dynamic that emerges as the illness progresses that alters responses to those questions. There is no single consistent answer. Across the last six months of Rob's life we each grappled with this question and I witnessed the enormous struggle he waged as he edged towards death. Facing death when he had fought so hard to live required a courage I had never seen.
There's an appointment I must keep, he told me a week or two before he died. I can't recall what it is.
I'm dying, Mary Ann. I'm dying, he said to me with such acceptance that I just rested my head on his bed and cried.
The combination of the surprising stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis we learned this past September and the immense and constant pain from metastasized spinal lesions and then the spread of cancer across the entire right side of his body shifted our priorities--invited us to look past what we once felt was important, and allowed us to rest our eyes more on the goodness we have sent and wanted to send into this world.
We are what we give. I learned that watching my husband die. So much of what we accumulated in our 28 years together was more burden than beauty by Rob's end.
Now that Rob has died, answering the question, What makes a life worth living? nags at me--demands my attention. Why am I here?
A life worth living is connected to the quality and quantity of goodness we produce, the brilliance with which we live our lives, and all of this is complicated by the often difficult understanding that conjuring a memory of my past life as a substitute for the new life I must now compose will not work. Such acts dishonor each of us. Wanting a life that cannot be had is not an answer to what makes life worth living for it denies life, and keeps me from embracing the ambiguity of what might be made.
So what am I seeking? What life is worth living?
I want to live well by giving more to others, using the handful of gifts and talents I have to do good acts. I want to be a terrific mom to Devon--to champion him and support his dreams. I want to be a loving sister to my brothers. I want to love fully.
Mostly though, I want to honor my husband and the love we share by living deliberately. He'd celebrate that.