Dear Loved Ones,
The time has come for me to say my goodbyes and my thanks.
Several months ago, after 3.5 years of constant treatment with countless different chemo drugs, the doctors shared the devastating news that I was out of treatment options; all we had tried had either been ineffective against my cancer or had almost killed me or both. For several months now, as the cancer grew and I became more symptomatic, we remained hopeful for a miracle or for some new drug to be created. But my condition has worsened and it is time to focus on dying well, and that includes taking the time to say my goodbyes and thanks to all of you.
As I approach the end of this journey, as always, it is the fierce love I have for my husband and son that drives me forward. There is no battle I wouldn’t wage, no suffering I wouldn’t willingly embrace, to be here with them. Through each difficult moment these past almost 4 years, I’ve kept my eyes on the prize of having even one more day with them. And this focus has eased my burden.
My love for Adam and Kalman is my purpose, and, in turn, their love and support buoys and strengthens me each day. When one person in a family gets cancer, the whole family gets cancer, and Adam and Kalman have been impacted, have suffered, have made necessary changes, right along with me. Adam has been my steadfast daily partner and Kalman has done the impossible juggling act of having one foot in the camp of his mother’s terminal cancer and one foot in the camp of living the normal life of a college student, balancing all incredibly well and with love and devotion. Throughout it all, they have been my rocks
If Adam and Kalman have been my rocks, it is so many of you, my loved ones, who have encircled me with uplifting love and light. The conversations I have enjoyed with so many of you these past few years, deep and true, focused vulnerability and love, have uplifted me tremendously. They are the sorts of connections I’ve spent my life trying to cultivate and enjoying them now is a gift beyond measure. Life is too precious and time too short to be wasted on superficiality and artifice; that is always true, with cancer or not.
As difficult as my battle has been these past (almost) four years, it has brought me countless precious gifts. In the past four years, I have fought my way to seeing Kalman turn 18, graduate from high school, get his driver’s license, vote for the first time, start college, become a solo world traveler, develop wonderful college friendships, spread his wings and soar. In the past 4 years, Adam and I have become empty nesters, packed up our life in Chicago, explored the woods and the rivers that surround our new house in Massachusetts, leaned on one another through countless unexpected challenges, watched our marriage age into rich wine and not vinegar. In these past four years, I have been here for loved ones’ bnai mitzvah, weddings, first babies, graduations, recitals, starting college, first jobs. In the past four years I have deepened friendships and familial relationships and had countless long, discursive phone calls and visits which have left me wiser, lighter, empowered, connected, grateful. In the past four years, I have enjoyed countless precious every day moments—hugging my son goodnight; listening to the sounds of Adam and Kalman playing basketball in the driveway; watching fireflies dance and listening to barred owls call on a summer evening; family evenings of playing Scrabble and Rails and Sails; taking walks with Adam, hand in hand, just being together; the kiss of a raindrop hitting my cheek or the smell of pine needles released by my steps; cooking and eating dinner together every night, just that, just that, just that a total gift.
Finding gratitude in all these small and everyday gifts continues to be a source of strength and happiness for me. It is not a magic power that I have, it is a choice that I’ve made and cultivated for years before I had cancer. Anyone can do the same. When I find and appreciate the beauty in each small gift I am rewarded with a slippery slope of gratitude; I lift my head from the miniscule to find an infinite number of gifts that surround me. It is true that my life has been limited and simple these years, lacking travel and gatherings and restaurants, but there are so many things I can do, so many gifts I do get to experience each day, that my gratitude fills me up and pushes out any possibility of despair. There is an old activist saying that if you are not angry then you are not paying attention. Well, perhaps if you are not grateful, then you are also not paying attention.
And yet, of course, I have my bad days; there are days in which the pain and darkness threatens to overwhelm and when all within me wants to sink into a bed of misery and self-pity. On those days I remind myself that I have not chosen cancer, and I have not chosen suffering, and I have not chosen pain, and I have not chosen to put my loved ones through this, and I have not chosen a shortened life, and I have not chosen so many other difficult things going on with my loved ones and with the world. And so it is that much more important to try to find the strength to choose the one thing that I can choose no matter what: my attitude. How empowering to remember that ultimately happiness is my choice, my attitude is my choice, gratitude is my choice. It takes me out of the victim mentality and reminds me of my agency. And taking agency in any small way, whether it is choosing to shift my attitude, or reframing how I perceive a challenge, or simply choosing what socks to put on for chemo, returns me to a place of strength, of living, of power, and of possibility.
I’ve been thinking lately about how silly it is that we so often postpone our happiness until we get to the light at the end of the tunnel. I did this for years, putting my head down and getting through a hard time and only then looking around and finding some happiness.
But I have not had that luxury with my disease; there is no light at the end of the tunnel of incurable metastatic cancer. There is treatment and suffering, and growing cancer and suffering, and then death. Please do not get me wrong; I am not trying to suggest that there are not plenty of good days within all that, there are days of feeling relatively normal and healthy and pain-free. But those days are hard to predict, they cannot serve as lights at the end of the tunnel but rather gifts that bubble up randomly and you grab and hold on to for as long as you can until the difficulties return. So, what does one do when there is no light at the end of the tunnel? One has to choose to find happiness and gratitude right now, even in the midst of all the difficulty. What if today, filled as it is with struggles and pain and arguments and suffering, is also the best day you were ever going to have? We have to choose to find happiness right now, no matter what is going on. We cannot delay our happiness for some perfect moment, for the light at the end of the tunnel, because it might not ever come.
As many of you know, upon hearing of my original diagnosis of a terminal illness, after first being grateful that I had had as much time as I had had, my next thought was to be grateful that I had lived my values. This thought, so spontaneous and unexpected, was a complete relief. I have since learned that regret at not living one’s values and following one’s own path is one of the top 5-6 regrets of the dying. How grateful I am that in these past four years, with all the struggle to fight the disease, I was not also burdened with regret at how I had lived. The fact of the matter is, living my values was hard; I faced judgment and marginalization and paid a cost within countless relationships. But when push came to shove, I did not think for one second about any of that cost; I was only grateful that I had had lived my values. I offer that to you now in the hopes that it will free some of you from the burdens of others’ judgements and expectations and the desire for popularity or fitting in. When you face your death, nothing gives you more peace than knowing that you lived your life.
It disheartens me that so many people face judgment about the paths they choose. Actually, judgmentalness generally disheartens and confounds me. To me, judgmentalness is the antithesis of love. When we judge we create a wedge and not a bridge to another person. When we judge we lay a brick of disdain and dislike and disrespect on the road of hatred and tribalism. The roots of the violent tribalism we are experiencing start within each of us and within each of our families. Can you imagine, can you imagine, can you imagine what a world it would be if we just responded to people with love? Martin Luther King taught that only light can eradicate darkness and only love can eradicate hate. And that starts within each of us and our families and friend groups. Life is so short. So short. Please don’t waste it on judging people who are in your life, different than you, and still deserving of total love.
Perhaps this all sounds a bit woo-woo. Well, as I have gotten sicker, as I have gotten close to death on several occasions over the past few years, I have become more open and more aware of the great mysteries of life. I have no answers, but my openness has allowed me to experience things even more deeply than before (which says something because I was already a lifelong highly sensitive person and empath!). When I used to take my daily walks through the woods there were moments that I experienced: a flattening of time as if I could be anywhere in history; a feeling of being deeply connected to the nature that surrounds me and to all life everywhere; a profound understanding of the great oneness of all; a recognition that the energy of love never dies and is of primary importance.
Love is all there is. All there is is love.
Love is the one thing that will never die.
Nothing has given me more peace as I approach death in knowing that I lived. I lived fully. I lived my values. I poured my loved freely and without judgement nor restraint on those around me. I poured love out of an open spigot and not drip by drip. I have lived a good life. And now I am at peace as I approach death and the great mysteries beyond. I have lived as I have died and so I am completely content. My life has been so packed full of love and appreciation and living and gratitude and spirit and connection that I feel I have lived many, many more years than I have. I am truly grateful and truly at peace.
I implore you all: do not wait until you get sick to start living. That is not the time. The time is now. The time is now to boldly live your values. The time is now to lead with compassion and humanity rather than judgement. The time is now to look around and feel grateful for the multitude of gifts that surround you each day. The time is now to choose happiness and choose agency and choose gratitude. The time is now to express your love and your admiration and to apologize and forgive. Do not wait for some Hollywood death moment to live. Live now. Love now.
If you are receiving this letter, it means that you have been important to me. You have enriched my life and I thank you deeply. (And this remains true even if this letter was forwarded to you since our email distribution list remains overly haphazard…). As Helen Keller said, “What we have once enjoyed we can never lose, for all that we love deeply becomes a part of us.” You are all a part of me. I hope that I will remain in your hearts as a loving part of you. I hope that my memory will be a source of strength and gratitude and acceptance and love for you all.
I ask that you all keep Adam and Kalman in your hearts in the months and years and decades to come. Grief is as unpredictable and individual a journey as cancer. Please give them grace if they do not grieve the way you think they should or if they do not return your texts as quickly as you’d like. It is not about you. This is their journey and I ask that you support and love them through it.
I ask you to treat them as I have always tried to treat all of you: with no judgement, with total acceptance, with thoughtfulness, and with love, the all-important love.
I offer one more thought that has helped me immensely as the dark clouds of illness and war have been on the horizon. The future is unknown. This lands so differently than saying the future is uncertain. The latter gives me a pit of nerves and anxiety in my belly. The former melts into and expands my heart, giving me feeling of potential and possibility. However bad things seem, the future is unknown. I hope that brings you some peace as it has brought me.
I hope that this letter is not as disjointed as I fear. Writing has become exceedingly difficult. So let me be brief with my main message:
In the end all I really want to say to each of you is thank you for being a part of my life. I am grateful to have known you. I love you. And my love will stay with you forever.
I am sending you all love and light and thanks, today and always,