What would I do if I had one year to live? Being so well-acquainted with the finality of life, this is a tough question for me to answer.
I lost my father to lung cancer when I was 15; I lost my stepfather to a bicycling accident when I was 30. Incomprehensibly, at 33, I lost my husband to brain cancer after one beautiful year of marriage.
So unlike most my age, I know what it means to live as if you’re dying.
I remember standing out in the driveway with my husband one night, before we knew he had cancer. It was a unique Washington night—clear enough to see the stars. We leaned against the car, admiring the beauty of the night sky.
It was so vast.
He talked about his job at Microsoft and how hard had been recently. He was a software engineer and his team was being evaluated based on stack-ranking. He’d need to work in isolation and against his colleagues instead of collaboratively in order to succeed in this model.
“What if you didn’t care about money? What would you do instead?” I asked him. He told me, in a split second, without even taking breath: “If I didn’t care about the money then I would go teach astronomy.”
He passed away within a year of that statement.
We all know the answer to the question: “What would you do if you only had a year to live?” In our hearts, in our souls, the answer is there. The real question is: “Are you brave enough to do it?”
Inside me there has always been an inner knowing, a persistent and unrelenting voice. It beckons me to be more than I am, to live out my life’s purpose, to follow my bliss.
Contrasted with this nagging and unrelenting voice is the more comfortable one – the practical and rational mind. The safe demandings that remind me to follow the rules, pay the bills, walk in line, and accept things for the way they are.
It’s a war between who I am and who I am meant to be. One of my favorite authors, e.e. cummings wrote it best: “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting.”
I’m a writer, a daughter, a sister and an aunt. I love the ocean, coffee, and lying in bed with a book. I have many fears, most of which keep me from truly living. Despite those, I wake up every day determined to be better than I was yesterday.
What does it mean to truly live? Is it the continual pursuit of better? Is it the dedication to success or the determination to experience joy? All of these things change—the rise and they fall like the ocean’s waves. How can I pin myself, my life, to them if they are fleeting?
If I had one year to live, I’d fly to France, visit my classmate Marie-Julie. I’d soak in the way the words sound and eat a real croissant. I’d visit England, and travel the canals that my step-dad loved so much. I’d feel the rain on my face and make new memories with my best friend Monique.
I visit Ireland just to see the look in my mother’s eyes. I’d sit next to my brothers, united despite strife: the three of us—Patrick, Michael and Colleen. I’d feel the history of the Collins family and embrace the richness of our homeland.
I’d see my Aunt Mo, on Alki Beach, and give her one last hug. I’d listen to any story she had to share and kiss her soft cheek.
If I had one year left to live, I’d stop worrying about my weight, the laundry, attributes of success—like the next race I’m competing for, and give up wondering if I’ll ever become a mother.
I’d dedicate myself to writing. I’d be grateful for every moment I was lucid and strong enough to write. I’d publish, even if it was self-published, and create children’s books to fill the gaps in elementary school libraries. I’d write about bravery, like the gift Beverly Cleary gave me through the character Ramona Quimby, when I was growing up.
I’d leave that good in the world.
I would read children’s books during story hour in the library.
I would listen. I would give others the gift of truly hearing them.
I would live without complaining. I would be grateful for each day, never let another one slip by me without being intentional.
One thing for sure, I’d let go of fear. It’s funny, knowing you are going to die, you have a lot less to hold on to. The fear of other’s opinions, the fear of what you look like, the fear of people or past relationships…it all seems less frightening, knowing you won’t be around for long.
Death, in a sense, is a gift. It reminds us to live.
Author: Colleen Deborah Simpson
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: via the author