A fender bender caused her to get the computed tomography (CT) scan that showed a temporal lobe mass, slightly larger than a lime, more the size of a lemon. Looks like a glioblastoma the oncologist said somberly. She knew more than enough to understand the magnitude of what she had been told. She was a medical professional—her role was to help people who were having a difficult time after being diagnosed with cancer—she helped them die, but she also helped them live before death. What would this journey be like for her? What would it be like for you? Me?
I am reminded of the experience of Peggy Battin, a bioethicist who found herself in the very nightmare she wrote and lectured about when her husband Brooke Hopkins became a quadriplegic after a near fatal bicycle accident. Their love story is one of intense learning and adjusting to an ever-changing life and death situation.
From John Lennon ("Life happens while you are busy making other plans”) to Mahatma Gandhi (“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”) wise words around life before death are spoken in an effort to help soften the sometimes harsh reality of impending death. It is a small consolation to hear that “you have some time to get your affairs in order…not everyone gets that chance,” but it is true nonetheless.
The reality of life and death is ultimately—intimately personal—the internal journey experienced beyond what watching eyes can see or outside minds can truly understand. Despite the logic that “everyone is dying”, until we are facing mortality's door, we can’t know how it will feel or what choices we will be willing or able to make.
Oncology nurses are among the medical professionals who see life and death situations played out on a day-to-day and month-to-month basis. We can be encouraged by the way people can grasp life, make lemonade, and seize the day. Alternately, we can long for the ability to say or do the right thing in a challenging and emotion-filled time in the lives of those we care for. Perhaps our immersion in this field can help us when the time is ours (if we are given that time) to embrace life before death.
He was told he had a very rare cancer, not much was known about it except—"it always comes back, and when it does, it is fatal". He was feeling fine after surgery and took hope in uncertainty stating, “If they don’t know that much about it…how can they tell me it is fatal?” As a result of his ability to see uncertainty as an opportunity, he experienced life before death; he put cancer on the shelf, visited places he wanted to see, and truly enjoyed the gift of time.
"And in the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years." —Abraham Lincoln
Is there life in your years? If not, why? How can you experience life before death?