health / self love

Like You’re Living or Dying or Somewhere in Between

"Dream as if you'll live forever. Live as if you'll die today." -James Dean

“Live like you’re dying.” We hear that a lot, right? Take the chance. Make the move. Make the mistake. Have no regrets. I lived like that in my 20s. In high school I had some medical scares that either consciously or unconsciously led me to believe that I probably wouldn’t live to see my 30th birthday. Because of my expected short mortality, I made a lot of bad decisions, racked up a lot of debt, burned a lot of bridges, and rarely made long term plans. This is romantic, to live like you’re dying, but it isn’t very practical.

While listening to Joe Biden read his new book yesterday, he recounted his son’s doctor saying “Live like you’re going to live. Make plans. Have a purpose.” “Live like you’re going to live” sounds a lot less romantic. It sounds like savings accounts, healthy diets and exercise, enough sleep and routine medical care. Unless, you’ve just been handed a fatal cancer diagnosis. Then “live like you’re going live” sounds hopeful and extravagant. To have cancer and plan a gubernatorial run seems flamboyant and nonsensical, unless it’s your life and it has always been your purpose, the duty you feel you were called for.

This afternoon I learned that a friend died. She wasn’t a close friend. I met Abbey a year into my divorce. She was young and bubbly and seemingly carefree. We both had just started doing things with a meetup group, “Single Parents of Young Children.” At the time I felt completely alone on the East Coast, no family nearby, only a couple of friends, and I was living on $75 a week. I had forgotten how to laugh and have fun. I envied Abbey. She was from the area, lived in the town she grew up in, came from a family with money, and seemed to have every opportunity to be young and carefree, despite being a single mom to a 4-year-old daughter. I was jealous. I wanted to say, “don’t you see how good you have it?!”

I came to find out that she did. She knew she had a great life. She traveled, she went back to school to get her graduate degree from Columbia School of Journalism. She smiled. That’s the thing that I will remember most about Abbey was that brilliant smile, and how much she adored her little girl. She wanted so badly to make her daughter proud of her, to give her a wonderfully happy life. And she did, I have no doubt. I can’t claim to have known Abbey very well, we were in very different places in our lives with different needs, but I always laughed and had fun when she was around.

Abbey was 29 when cancer took her life. I hadn’t seen her in a couple of years. I didn’t even know she was sick because she was too busy living. I think she always had it in her to live like she was dying by celebrating each and every moment, but she was clearly living like she was going to live. She was making plans and finding new love. But it wasn’t enough because now she is gone and now this beautiful little girl is going to face each milestone in her life and think “I wish my mom was here” and that breaks my heart.

Life is short. We can’t be certain how long we have and I can’t be certain that there is a right way to live, like you’re dying or living or otherwise. What I suspect is there is a way to do both. I think there is a way to make plans and live with purpose while taking chances and sucking up all the joy and wonder that you possibly can. I think that we can live lives filled with love and treasure every moment we have with our family and friends and let them know just how much they mean to us. Let them know that without them, our life wouldn’t be one much worth living for.

I’ve spent the entirety of my son’s life planning for his future by fighting to make today better. I’ve spent his 7 years scraping together the sanity to make the precious moments count and to defeat the horrible ones by saying “tomorrow will be better.” Every December I sing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to him at bedtime, truly believing that next year all our troubles will be far away. But the next year comes and many things are still the same or somehow worse. I cherish every moment I have with Aidan, to the point that I put so much pressure on myself to make them perfect that I sometimes lose the joy in them.

I’m preparing new court documents and praying that the struggle is almost over. Until then, we’ll have to muddle though somehow. And until then I will keep collecting my tomorrows and the “I love yous” and the bedtime snuggles, and I will keep hoping that we all make it to the other side. As I kiss his soft cheek I will try to remember just how lucky I am to have had that moment. Being truly grateful for all the beauty in our lives is the best way to honor those who left us far too soon.

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