My cousin passed away twelve days after celebrating his 30th birthday, exactly one year after he was diagnosed with cancer. During those 365 days, his eyebrows fell out and his muscles melted away to reveal a wiry frame. The doctors removed his right arm–the home base–but the malignant army had already invaded every continent of his body.
He and I were close, but I never visited him in the hospital. There was a sign on his door, something along the lines of: Happy place, no tears allowed!
And I couldn’t make that promise.
My childhood best friend–the person I had climbed trees, played football, and caused mischief with was dying. I didn’t know how to face it. Four years later, I still haven’t come to terms with the fact that he’s gone.
I often wonder how he was able to face his fate with such courage and grace, how he was able to be strong when everyone around him was falling apart.
I often wonder why bad things happy to good people–healthy people. My sister’s lifelong best friend passed away the same day as our cousin at age 19, also from cancer.
I can’t begin to understand. I can’t even pretend.
I often wonder why, after eons of evolution, death is still such a challenging topic for most people to face. Whether staring into the eyes of our own mortality or that of a loved one, acceptance seems like such an insurmountable request.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my cousin over the last six months. When he was my age, he was holding a countdown timer. The outlook was grim, but his was not. He spent time with family, friends, and his dogs. He laughed, smiled, and truly enjoyed his last days, despite chemotherapy, an amputation, and excruciating pain.
Lately, I’ve been considering whether–if I was diagnosed: terminal–I would feel as if I had lived life as fully as possible. And the more I muse on the question, the more certain I am that my answer is “No.” I have loved deeply, served others, and tried to stay true to the best version of myself. Yet, there are many times I’ve shrunk back in fear; times that I’ve said “no” to personal growth and selfless service to others. And, on some level, I’m deeply ashamed of that.
Though anyone who knows me would say that I’m the kindest person they’ve ever met, I’m not certain that it’s enough to satisfy my own expectations. I’m proud to be a kind person, but I want so much to be brave, as well. I want to not only listen to my heart, but trust it’s guidance. I long desperately to quit my job, rent an RV, and travel to National Parks while writing.
I want to run away. Not away from myself, but back to myself.
My cousin was the epitome of adventure-seeking, always challenging friends to achieve new feats: “Prove it!” I used to see his pictures and think: He is absolutely crazy, and I wish I had the courage to try that.
The closer I get to thirty, the more I long to do something extreme with my life. I just want to drop a big fat “No” bomb on the things that aren’t working in my life and clear space for the things I would like to experience and explore.
Over the last year, I’ve saved enough money to quit working for a year. I could walk away and live my life as an adventure, if only for a little while. I could write a novel, witness the splendor of nature, and tap into the depths of universal wisdom. Yet, there is an overwhelming sense of fear surrounding the loss of security, the loosening of responsibility. Taking a few months off from contributing to my retirement accounts isn’t going to kill me, but it’s one of the many excuses my mind keeps presenting to keep me here, stagnant.
Though I can say that I’ve lived a good life, thinking about my own mortality makes me realize that I should be doing more. I can be doing more. I’m beginning to sense that I have a responsibility to live more fully. It’s my own choice, but a choice made on an unconscious level.
I miss my cousin so much–going out for drinks, talking about terrible dates, and reminiscing about our shared childhood: that time we built a Halloween maze furniture fort and got in trouble for dumping goo on the carpet, our goofy puppet shows, the ash mustaches our grandpa painted on our faces, and belting our Al Yankovich’s “The Night Santa Went Crazy” year-round because it was our favorite song.
If he were still here, I would go visit him. I would cry, despite the sign, because they’re tears of love. We are family and we have a history, and I couldn’t apologize for that. Looking back, I think he would have understood that when he was still alive. I regret that I didn’t go visit, that I was ashamed of my sadness, my fear, and my sense of loss. I think he would have understood my sensitivity and imparted me with his own strength.
I realize now that I’m allowed to feel those things. I realize now that we all feel those things and it’s just harder for some us to keep the bot from boiling over.
As I approach thirty, I feel that I have not done enough in my own life. I have not reached my full potential, and I know that it’s my own fear and insecurity that is holding me back. Thus, I’m making a commitment to myself today to practice courage this year, to accomplish something in the next six months that would make my cousin proud; a feat that–if I only had six months to live–would make me feel satisfied with my efforts to live my best life, be my best self, and help others along the way.