On a glorious fall day in 2016, I stood before an audience of cancer survivors and wondered, “What can I possibly tell them that they don’t already know?”
The event was a “Celebration of Life,” hosted by United Hospital Center in Bridgeport, W.Va., to honor oncology patients and to remind them that they were not alone.
I had no degrees, no expertise at all to offer. But I’ve raised three children and buried my share of loved ones. I lost my mother, my stepfather, my brother’s wife, and my first husband, all to cancer. I’ve been a daughter, sister, wife, widow, mother, grandmother and a student of life. And I’ve learned a few things along the way.
So I told them my story, hoping it might be their story, too. Here, in part, is what I said that day. It’s still as true as it was then.
My first husband wore a lot of hats. He was “Dad” to our three children, a high school teacher, basketball coach, marathon runner, Young Life leader and a handyman around the house.
He loved doing those things and kept doing them, even after he was diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live. By the strength of his will and the grace of God, he stretched those six months into four years. And along the way, we learned several lessons.
The first lesson was kindness. We were swamped with offers for help. So many casseroles showed up at our door I thought I might never need to cook again. Friends and even strangers said they were praying for us and that their children were praying for our children.
Kindness heals. I watched it heal the Coach, even as he was dying. I watched his spirit bloom with the realization of how much he was loved.
The second lesson was how to embrace change. As the cancer took its toll, he adapted. When he could no longer run, he went for walks. When he could no longer hike, he took photos of mountains and put them in scrapbooks. When he could no longer coach, he sat on the sidelines and cheered for his former players. When he could no longer teach or walk or change channels on the TV, he lay on the couch and welcomed a stream of visitors.
One by one, he let go of things that once defined him. Instead, he focused on what he could do, rather than what he could not.
We were fortunate to have friends who made us laugh and reminded us to be thankful. That was the third lesson: Gratitude. Near the end, I gave the Coach a journal.
“I want you to use that,” I said, “to make a list every day of five things you are thankful for.”
“What if I don’t do it?”
“I’ll hide the TV remote.”
So he did it. My name often showed up on the list, but never at the top. He always listed God first. He said God never threatened to hide the remote.
After he died, I learned yet another lesson from the words of a friend who wrote: “The challenge for you now, having lost your loved one, is to live a life that is honoring to his memory, while at the same time that life moves forward, so only one person has died, not two.”
I don’t know why some people get to live longer than others. But I believe that those who do, owe it to those don’t, to live well; to keep moving forward; and to be more, not less, alive.
From my grandmothers, I learned I was loved. From my blind brother I learned not to fear the dark. From my children, I learned there are things I can do, and things I have to leave to God. From my late husband, I learned to let go. From my new husband, I learned to believe in second chances. And from my grandchildren, I’ve learned I will live forever in their hearts.
If there is any art to living, it might be this: Be kind. Embrace change. Be thankful. Live well. And always celebrate life.