The awareness that one day we’re not going to walk this earth anymore.
Not exactly dinner conversation, but, for lack of a more gentle way to say it, mortality is everyone’s reality.
We face this reality at different points in our lives. Some are frighteningly young, and others are blissfully old. But, eventually, that awareness either creeps in or hits us like a speeding train. (Figuratively, or course.)
In my opinion, so much of the rest of your life is defined by what you do with that realization, that understanding that there is no promise of tomorrow on this earth.
For me, my solace, my comfort, and my focus, come from my faith. My deeply held belief in God, and that life does not end, merely changes, as we are welcomed into Heaven.
Whatever your own belief, is, your own reality, my hope is that it brings you comfort, solace, and gives your life on this earth purpose.
As a daughter of a cancer survivor (18 years and counting!!) I watched my Mom grapple with her own mortality at an age I consider very young. (young for her, and for me too!) She got it. She found clarity, but it was a few tough months. And even then as close as I was, I knew the significance of what I was watching, but I did not get it, not really.
I like to say my breast cancer was found, “by accident” or “divine intervention,” whichever you prefer. But, the moment in the surgeon’s office, that day in March of 2012 when I became a “survivor” by default, started my own journey with mortality. I was 10 years younger than Mom was at the time of her diagnosis. I had just undergone what I had prepared in my mind to be a “prophylactic” mastectomy to battle astronomical cancer statistics associated with the new diagnosis of a PTEN Mutation called Cowden’s Syndrome, that Meghan and I had received less than 6 months prior. When the word malignant was read, there it was; laying thick in the air for my husband and 8-year-old child to process with me.
And there was reality. Unable to ignore. Cancer had lived within me. Could it live again? Would it? When? Why was I going to be OK when so many others were not? Was I going to really be OK? What if they missed it, something bigger?
I was fortunate. Fortunate in the sense that a double mastectomy removed the encapsulated stage 1 cancer. I needed no treatment, no medication. But, my status had changed. In the eyes of the doctors, I was now an even greater risk. Every single lump and bump would be scrutinized, scanned, poked, prodded, and usually removed. The loss of my uterus and ovaries weeks later were a testament to this new-found realization that I was a risk. A significant risk.
Cowden’s Syndrome is one of those diagnoses that forces you to face down your own mortality at sometimes alarmingly young ages. An internet friend just made a jubilant post today that her youngest was now 10 and cancer free, a title she did not have herself at that tender age. The things we celebrate…
My Cowden’s Syndrome people are known to me mostly through the internet. We live across the country and across the globe. We navigate through different time zones and support each other through scans, scares, surgeries, reconstructions, and cancer. While this syndrome does not manifest itself the same in each of us, there are alarming similarities that make us kindred spirits. There is that “Sword of Damocles” hanging above our heads. There is that constant sense of not knowing, of hyper-vigilance, of bi-annual screenings, and worry. We stare at our own mortality each time we look in the mirror.
We have an extra bond when it connects to our children. A universal acceptance of the unfair nature of these young ones even needing to understand a bit of mortality. We have juggled the questions, inevitable after MRIs, CT scans, and biopsies galore. We have gently answered questions about family, and future, that have no real answers to date. We ache for them. We wish to take it all away. We have some guilt in the knowledge that in most cases this disorder, (whether we knew it or not) was passed from us.
Mortality will bind you, and if you’re not careful it can blind you. That is why there are support groups, for cancer patients, and others who have come close to losing their lives.
This weekend I spent some time in West Virginia with another group of men, bonded by their grapplings with their own mortality some 48 ish years ago in the Vietnam War.
I will protect their privacy here, and tell their story as generically as I can.
I connected with Alan, about 6 weeks after my father died. Dad had earned a Purple Heart in my mind, for an incident that occurred while he was serving in the United States Marine Corps. The award was never granted, and I wanted to pursue it on his behalf. So, I sent some letters to Marines, whose contact information I obtained from a reunion Dad attended in DC in 2006. I wanted to know who remembered him, and his story.
Alan contacted me first, verified my information, remembered the story, and has been in touch with me since.
My Dad, the “Irish Marine”
I sent 20 letters out. EVERY SINGLE MARINE responded to me. EVERY ONE. Whether they knew Dad or not, whether they could help or not, they ALL reached out to express their condolences. Many shared some funny anecdotes. And as hard as I’m sure it was, they all connected with me.
I had heard about the Brotherhood of the Marine Corps. I could not have fathomed the depth of that bond. One after another, they all left me with the same heartfelt sentiment. “You are the daughter of our brother. We will help you always in whatever you need.”
Now, I knew, or at least I could infer that their lives had not been any type of peaches and cream, on the island of Vietnam, or when they returned. My Dad battled his own demons for many years before our relationship began to form. But the offers of these Marines were sincere, and genuine.
Alan proved that to me through regular conversations, and almost heroic efforts to get someone to listen to the story of my Dad’s injuries. In the end, we lost the battle on a technicality. Although “The statements provided clearly establish that your father was injured as a direct result of enemy action, the available information fails to establish that your father was treated by a medical officer…Wounds not requiring treatment by a medical officer at the time of injury do not qualify for the Purple Heart Medal.” The letter was cold. The case was closed.
We lost the Purple Heart but gained so much more.
I was sad, mad, angry and disappointed. But I was so grateful for the Marines who wrote letters of support. I was grieving the fact that my Dad had carried this close to him for so many years, and lived with chronic pain as a result. I wanted this for him, because he never fought for it himself.
And as things go, it was not to be, but Alan did as he promised and remained in constant contact with me. He heard my sobs as I glanced at Dad’s headstone for the first time. His were the comforting words that started my healing.
So, this weekend I headed to West Virginia to thank him myself. I met a group of Vietnam Era Marines, several of whom had served with my father. I watched them together, in awe an amazement. I was welcomed into their group with instant acceptance. And as I sat and watched them laughing together, I noticed the war stories were sparse, and funny when they were told. Surely a contrast to the realities they had faced as young men years ago. But, the bond between them was unbreakable. There indeed was the Brotherhood of the Marines, but there was something else.
They faced it in the most horrendous of ways. They lived it daily. They buried their brothers. They knew their return home was not a guarantee.
And once you’ve faced that kind of life altering lesson in mortality together, you are bonded for life. As Alan said to me, “If you weren’t there, there are no words to describe it, and if you were, there are no words needed.”
I was among a group of people who had faced their own mortality almost a half century ago. And they have a bond that can not be explained. It is amazing.
And among the most amazing to me was the woman I met. She was not local either, but she, like I, had traveled for this celebration. It was not her first time. She had been around for almost 10 years. About 10 years ago the woman, who was an infant when her father died a hero in Vietnam, met the men he served with. She had never met her father, but here were father figures galore ready to embrace her. And they did.
A bit ago her father’s diary surfaced from his time in Vietnam. She shared it with me and the last entry written before he died was about the thought that so many of them must have had daily. His diary ends with, “When will it be me?”
Once you have looked your own mortality square in the eye, you can not walk away the same person.
But, it is up to you what you do with the rest of your life.
As for me, I choose bonding with people who “get it,” be they old friends or new.
I choose focusing on what we can do, not what we can’t.
I will not choose reckless living, but I will daily live with the knowledge that there is no guarantee of tomorrow on this earth.
Whether facing your mortality is something you endured, something you will live with daily, or something you are yet to face, how it changes you is really up to you.
As for us, in this house, we choose to remain focused on
WHILE CELEBRATING ALONG THE WAY.