Choose to Live

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At a recent writer’s retreat I attended, I was sharing my published books with another new writer friend. An author has to be able to say what his or her book is about in under 30 seconds, one or two sentences at the most. My keynote for my first book is “10 – A Story of Love, Life, and Loss, is an inspiring cancer story. It may uplift and encourage you to live your best life.” I often say “It’s an inspiring memoir/cancer journey/love story.”

Then, my friend asked me a simple question, one I had never been asked before so succinctly.

“So, how do you continue to live a quality life when you’ve been given a terminal diagnosis with no hope of a cure?”

Her succinct question demanded a succinct answer. She wanted to know in a few sentences how my husband and I did it.

I answered her this way, in list form: change your focus to ‘living’ rather than ‘dying,’ live in the moment, live with gratitude, and focus on your abilities, not your losses.

  1. Focus on ‘living’ every day, rather than ‘dying.’ You try to fill your day with as many life-fulfilling activities and people as you can, and you focus on those positive messages and feelings, rather than negative people, circumstances and thoughts.
  2. Live in the moment, with mindfulness, tapping into all your senses. Taste that juicy apple, smell that scented rose, look up at the sky and the clouds floating by, feel the softness of your child’s cheek, listen to the sounds of nature all around you. Often, the simplest things are the most meaningful.
  3. Live with gratitude. Say thank you. When you awake, be grateful for another day given, and when you go to sleep, say thank you for all you received.
  4. Focus on what you can do, rather than what you can’t do. In spite of impending losses, you still are capable of many things. Use your time to enjoy doing those things you can still do.

“10 – A Story of Love, Life, and Loss’ is a story of struggle, pain and loss, but at the heart of it, it is a story of love, hope, and strength. It is a story that may help others who have been given a life-debilitating diagnosis, as well as helping their caretakers and loved ones who journey with them.

My book can be purchased at The Bookshelf, Guelph; BookLore, Orangeville; Hannelore Headely Old & Fine Books, St. Catharines and Tamara’s Esthetics & Reflexology, Guelph. It can also be purchased directly from me by messaging me. Buy it online at amazon.ca.

 

Sometimes I Climb Mountains

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Sometimes I climb mountains and stand on snow-covered peaks and watch a rolling panorama of clouds drift by all around me. Down in the valley the world sits, a miniature grid of rivers and roads and towns, people busy in an existence that doesn’t involve me as I stand in heaven detached from it all. I stretch my arms wide open into a clear blue sky and inhale deeply the pure bliss of it all.

. . . But it’s not home.

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Sometimes I swim in aquamarine oceans, floating, bobbing gently over waves and watch a world of colour bubble below me. Coral in rainbow hues, shapes and sizes that stretch the imagination with brain-like humps, tree-like projections and wispy tendrils sway in the ocean current in oranges, pinks, blues, and purples. Fish, hundreds of them in every shade ever created, swim in undulating schools around me. Clams, lying on the ocean floor, display their neon-blue interiors to a watery world. Larger waving creatures swim lazily by, leaving dark shadows in the distance. I think I could float forever in this wondrous world of mystery and beauty.

. . . But it’s not home.

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Sometimes I wander the Garden of Eden, a tropical world of scented flowers, twisting vines and tall palm trees. The sun warms me as I close my eyes and let its rays penetrate my bones. I am unencumbered with loose, flowing clothes; the gentle breezes cool and lift my spirit. This is a world of turquoise, lime and pink, pastel colours that soften the soul. There is no rushing here, no hastiness to complete a day. Just quiet and gentleness that soothes and comforts and says, “Breathe. Relax. Rest in this tranquillity.”

. . . But it’s not home.

English countryside

Sometimes I walk cobblestone lanes lined with thatched roof cottages. Patchwork fields, edged in hedgerows and cows, stretch over rolling hills. Herds of bleating sheep compete for space as I wander down dusty roads and across fields of grass. Ancient stories reside here in monolithic rocks, rising in circles that speak of ritual and magic. Fairies dance in the morning dew and the dark forests hide secrets of beastly denizens. History is told over pints of foaming brew and pots of steeped tea as smiling faces invite me in to sit by the fire. I am welcome here.

. . . But it’s not home.

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My home is maple trees running thick with sap in the spring. It is flowers bravely peeping up through melting snow in bright slashes of colour. In the summer, I can float in a cool, clear lake and watch schools of fresh-water fish swim deep through underwater canyons. Here I stand in awe of a red, orange and gold vista that stretches across a countryside in autumn glory. Snowflakes fall gently on my hair and eyelashes, frozen icicles sparkle in the cool sun, blankets of purity coat a white world of winter wonder. Limestone escarpments, rushing waterfalls and towering pines compete with soaring skyscrapers and ribbons of highway that stretch from coast to coast. This is a big country, resplendent with natural wonders and a hard-working people comfortable in their own skins. This is where I belong, my birthplace. The cool waters run through my veins, granite and limestone form the bedrock of my soul. Canada.

This is home.

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Gratitude

Gratitude – a deep, heartfelt thank you and appreciation for what you have – can transform your life. It can change despair into hope, fear into love, and sorrow into joy. With gratitude, we realize that it’s less about your life circumstance and more about your attitude to it. Focusing on what you do have rather than what you don’t have, or what you can do, rather than what you can’t do, is the simple secret. It’s a matter of free choice. You decide. No matter how difficult or taxing your situation is, there is always something to be thankful for. And it’s usually the simple, everyday things that mean the most – the roof over your head, the supper before you, the sunshine, the raindrops, the smile of your best friend, or the laughter of your child.

Gratitude, practised daily, brings an unexpected life change. Try it. Close your eyes and focus on the benefits, the good you have in your life. It doesn’t have to be outstanding or unique to be appreciated. It’s often the things we take for granted. Do you have your eyesight? There are those who don’t. Can you breathe freely without assistance or drugs? There are those who can’t. Do you have a home, food, family, or friends? Freedom of speech and movement are basic rights for us in Canada. There are those who are denied these simple human needs or comforts and yet, even they can find something to be thankful for. Perhaps it is their health, their families, or the simple gifts that are there for all of us – clean air to breathe, water to drink, sunshine to warm our bodies and spirits.

Focus on what you have today. Don’t let worries about the future affect your thoughts. Choose what you are thankful for and then say it out loud, or write it down in a daily journal or on slips of paper for a gratitude jar. If you do this every day, you will soon have a host of things. Doing this every day begins to change your world view. Instead of negative thoughts, you become focused on positive thoughts. You begin to feel good about yourself and your life. You begin to look for the benefits of every situation rather than the trouble it brings you. You begin to feel good about others and look to their strengths rather than their weaknesses. You choose daily activities that build you up, give you enjoyment, and add to your life, rather than take it away. This is something we all can do. But we have to practise it every day. Let feeling good about yourself and your life become a habit.

I have a friend who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. At first, all he could think about was the negative effect it would have on his life as he envisioned losing more and more of his taken-for-granted strengths and abilities. He began to fear the future. Bit by bit, he began to realize that he still has many capabilities and circumstances. He owns his own home, his family live close by and want to help in any way they can. He has begun to write his life story. He bought himself an adult-sized three wheel bike. He began to take dance classes. He joined support groups to meet with others who were also facing this life-debilitating disease. He still has much in his life. The last time I spoke to him I was impressed with his calm, inner acceptance of his disease and the enjoyment he has in his everyday life.

A family member has been told his cancer is at a palliative stage and that no more can be done for him to regain his health. He has accepted that, withdrawn from all his drugs except those that relieve difficult pain, and has made the choice to begin to live, rather than just curl up and die. He has been honest and up-front with his family and adult children and still partakes in family activities, weddings and other celebrations while he can. His family have gathered together in love, letting their father know how much he truly means to them. Too often we hear these words of praise at our loved one’s funeral, after they are gone. The children assist their father in any way they can, using their own strengths to help him begin to close his life. This involves selling his cars, reviewing his paperwork, cancelling his subscriptions and memberships, and delivering fresh-made meals on regular visits. He still has much to be thankful for. He still laughs everyday, his loud boisterous one-of-a-kind laugh that is his unique signature sign.

Start practising gratitude in your daily routine. You will be happier. It will enhance your life. It won’t have the power to remove negative conditions and experiences from your life but it does have the power to lift you up and give your life meaning and purpose, in spite of those difficult circumstances. Why not start today? What are you grateful for?

Choosing Beauty

In my present research and writing for a book I will be a part of dealing with grief, I have read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” In it, he often quotes Nietzsche with “He who has a WHY to live for can bear almost any HOW” as he explains that it is not the circumstances of life that give us meaning and purpose, it is our attitude and choices we make that give us meaning and purpose. We cannot stop suffering in our lives, but we can choose not to suffer. We can choose to be responsible for our lives, even in taxing circumstances, and seek out the beauty, the small moments, the sensory gifts, that make the moment not only bearable, but even glorious.

Dr. B. J. Miller, in this Ted Talk video, speaks of dying and death. We can’t stop dying. But we can choose how we spend our last days. We can’t solve for death, but we can design towards it by making the life we have left more wonderful, rather than less horrible, He states, “You can always find a shock of beauty or meaning in what life you have left. If we love such moments ferociously, then maybe we can learn to live well, not in spite of death, but because of it.”

Frankl and Miller speak of the same things. Living and dying well is our responsibility. Rather than becoming a victim to our circumstances, we can direct the quality and beauty of our lives to the very end. Frankl quotes the Jewish scholar Hillel the Elder with:

“If I do not do it – who else will do it.  And if I do not do it now – then when?”

Tragedy and Martyrdom

At the recent wedding of my daughter and her new husband, the room seemed to be immersed in love and positive feelings. It was a room filled with large and close family groupings. One of the extended families consisted of 63 adults, another included five siblings and their parents and partners. All the guests seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely and there was a deep sense of community, family, and love among them. I knew that it was a room filled with people who had experienced pain and deep tragedy in their lives, but they didn’t come across as tragic figures or martyrs.

I watched with pleasure as six adult sisters dressed up in costumes and goofed around at the fun photo booth set up in a corner of the reception hall. I’m sure each one of them had experienced deep tragedy in their lives; they had lost their beloved mother in the past year, one of them I knew had lost a child at a young age, but there they were laughing, embracing and sharing the deep bond they obviously had for each other. At another table, a family member, who is dealing with cancer and is in active chemotherapy treatments, was there laughing uproariously with his large family as they shared stories and love. Most important of all, both families were having fun.

Life should be fun. When bad things happen or things make us unhappy, we can wrap ourselves up in it, cut the tragic figure, “Oh, woe is me!” Sometimes we can even take great pride in our tragedy: “Look at me. Look at how wonderfully I am handling my pain, my loss. Aren’t I wonderful?” We become the great martyr.

The sisters didn’t do that. The father, sick and weak with cancer, didn’t do that. We can’t stop the pain in our lives, but we don’t have to let it become our identity, the suffering martyr, the mourning tragic figure.

To live a life well-lived, let us remember that we are not grief itself. We experience grief. It is not my cancer. It is just the cancer. Don’t make pain your identity. Let it not define who you really are.