You get the diagnosis you didn’t want. The life expectancy is five years for only one in three people, and shorter for the others. Your life changes in an instant. What do you feel? What do you think? What do you do?
This is exactly what happened to Verlena Collentine in October 2014, and many others I’m hearing from. Her first reaction was “Why me?” of course, but then it changed to “Why not me?” How does hearing you have Stage 3 ovarian cancer move into an acceptance and willingness to want to live in the richest way possible for the remaining time?
Verlena could be my best friend: She’s my age, works out, is active in social and community activities, travels, knits, lunches out and lives the Durango lifestyle. She has adult kids, grandchildren, a partner and a meaningful life she of course wants to continue for as long as possible.
Her priorities are changing, though. What makes a life meaningful? Her family, partner and friends are the most important now. She’s developed a deeper appreciation of what’s around her, and she’s coming to terms with death. “It isn’t scary, it’s part of life,” she says.
Is this a new sense of freedom? A newfound goodness of life itself? By examining death like Verlena has had to do, perhaps we can open and deepen our present lives in miraculous ways. We can bring the awareness of impermanence into our present days.
“I plan to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can,” said Oliver Sacks after his diagnosis. Jimmy Carter on his discovery of brain cancer: “I’m perfectly at ease with whatever comes.”
Difficulties arise: The monthly tests to mark the cancer tumor and communicating with her kids – one of Verlena’s hardest things. The more she talks, the more comfortable they become with her situation, and they totally support whatever choices she makes.
Verlena feels that if her discomfort would prohibit her from having purpose and joy in her life, she would want to end her life peacefully at home, having had the opportunity to say her “I love yous and goodbyes” to loved ones, as opposed to being in a hospital hooked up to tubes and wires, and having her life prolonged. She wants to make the decisions about her life, illness and death. She participates actively in the End of Life Options cause.
I think we all want this, and Verlena so clearly is living it. She also thinks we are all much stronger than we think. She ends with how this journey has catapulted her into finding the real meaning of life, sharing what she can offer us all with her situation, and maintaining her underlying attitude of positive joy.
We are all visitors here, passing through a great mystery. Every moment of life, including the final one, is a gift – a chance to appreciate, grow, love, connect and give back. How to end this with grace and dignity is the choice we all must make.
Thank you for sharing your story with us, Verlena. Blessings to you.
Martha McClellan has been a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus now to the other end of life, and has written the book, The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.