Birthday Blessings and a Straight Path

Somehow, being told that I was going to die brought me back to life.

 

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Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight. 

Proverbs 3:5-6

 

I was looking through a local magazine the other day and came across a page of memorials for people who had recently passed away.  Jumping out at me was the one for the only woman on the page.  Within the first couple lines was the statement, ‘she was a woman of great accomplishment’.  She attended an Ivy League school, landed an amazing job, and excelled throughout her career. Her resume was impressive, yes; but, I had to believe that there was so much more to this beautiful woman than her schooling and her career. I am sure she lived a full life but in death, she was reduced to a list of her ‘accomplishments’.  My heart hurt as I read it again and I looked at her picture.

Recently, I met a woman named Angi who also had metastatic breast cancer. Our families were chosen to attend a cancer retreat.  We introduced ourselves on the Facebook page for the families attending the retreat and realized we lived less than 30 minutes from each other.  In the months before the trip, we chatted about our families, our doctors and nurses at the cancer center,  and this dreadful disease. We talked about silly stuff…and deep stuff.  We messaged each other leading up to the trip and we were excited to finally meet once we got there. We had face-to-face conversations during the retreat but we didn’t worry about getting all of our visiting in that week because, unlike the others on the retreat, we lived so close to each other.  We made plans for when we got back home.  The two of us were going to meet for coffee and we were going to meet as a family too.  I was looking forward to it. I felt an instant connection. There was something about her.  She was strong.  She was funny.  She was sarcastic.  She was suffering but she was full of light and love.

Sadly, we wouldn’t get to meet for coffee.

A couple of weeks after our retreat, her suffering was over and Angi was gone…

I never talked to her about her education, her occupation, or if she had any career accomplishments.  We talked about the things that mattered — our families, our health, and the things we loved.  In the short time I knew her, I learned that she was a wonderful woman, a loving wife, and a devoted mother who loved her family.  She endured many different treatments so that she could have more time with them.  She was one tough woman but a woman who knew how to have fun and how to enjoy the little things. I think the love she poured into her family, her incredible strength, and her welcoming nature were what struck me the most.  She could have had a doctorate in astrophysics or won a Nobel Peace Prize. None of that mattered.  In the short time I knew her, she touched my life in a way I won’t forget.  Her ability to do that was a ‘great accomplishment’ and that was more important.

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, my priorities changed. My career goals seemed silly and I wanted to live the rest of my life differently. I used to spend long hours at work during the week and used the weekends to do more.  I missed my children and justified my time away.  I worked myself to exhaustion so that the time I spent with my children wasn’t as enjoyable as it should have been.  I was so focused on the finish line, I didn’t take in my surroundings.  As soon as I reached one finish line, I started running a new race.  Like that woman in the magazine, I might have had a few lines written about my career accomplishments too if I had kept up that pace — but I wouldn’t have had much of a life.

Did you ever think about what people would write about you, what people would say about you, what people would remember about you when you are gone?  Think about the way you treated people today, last week, this past year.  Think about what impression you have left on others.  Think about how you made people feel.  It is a sobering thought, isn’t it? No one wants to think about dying — but speaking from personal experience, it is only when someone accepts that they are dying, that they really start living.

When I heard I had cancer the first time, I changed my priorities.  It suddenly became crystal clear what was truly important. A couple of years later, when I heard my cancer was back and my prognosis was about 33 months; I changed the way I spent my time.  I didn’t worry so much about all those big things because that stuff seemed to work itself out.  I concentrated more on the little things  — the feel of my son’s head after a fresh haircut, the sound of my daughter’s giggle, the colors that splashed across the sky at sunset — those were the things that made life worth living.  Cancer often seemed like a full-time job; but when my chosen career was over, I filled my days focusing on my family and friends.  I spent my free time doing things that I used to enjoy as a child, but never found time for as an adult, like writing and art.

Somehow, being told that I was going to die brought me back to life.

This past weekend, I made the 30 minute drive I was supposed to make to meet Angi for coffee but instead, I drove to a funeral home.  That was Friday night.  I shed some tears for my new friend and her family, mourned the time we didn’t get to spend together and felt forever grateful for the time we did.  On Saturday night, my friends picked me up for what I thought was a typical dinner out to celebrate my birthday weekend.  Instead, I walked into a room to find a table full of some of the people I love the most.

I was surprised. I was overwhelmed. I was even at a loss for words.  I enjoyed myself but I felt a little out of sorts.  I hope I didn’t come off as rude or unaffected. It was emotional but I seemed to muddle through the night. I tried to talk to everyone but it never seems like there is enough time at things like that. At one point, in a quiet moment, I looked around and fought back tears.  My dear friend sitting next to me asked if I was alright.  I nodded yes.  She knows me well and asked, “You just taking it all in?”.

Yes, that was exactly what I was doing.

I was taking it all in ….

I looked around the room.  Surrounding me were some amazing women that I am honored to call my friends.  Surrounding me were women who took time out of their extremely busy schedules to celebrate my birthday.   I was touched that these women were all there … in one place … for me.  I felt so loved.  I felt so blessed.  I read their cards. I opened their gifts.  (Yes, gifts…as though their presence was not enough!) All of them personal.  All of them unique – just like them and just like the relationships I had with each and every one of them.  I scanned the room and quietly thanked God for them, for what they had brought to my life.  I quietly prayed for more laughs, more chatter, and many more birthdays to spend with all of them.

I also thought of Angi.  She wasn’t going to celebrate any more birthdays.  I felt guilty about that.  Why was she gone? Why was I still here? Even though she wasn’t there that night, she was a woman who touched my life too.  The short time we spent together on this earth further confirmed that I was getting it right.  It took cancer and a pretty grim prognosis to figure it out, but I was finally really living, and not just existing. Because of Angi, I understood even more that it could all be over in the blink of an eye.

It struck me right in that moment.

It all came full circle.

Right there, sitting around that table…

Along with my family, THIS was my ‘great accomplishment’. These women.  These friendships. These connections. The memories, the laughs and the tears we have all shared.  This was what I could have missed when I was focused on those finish lines.  I thanked God that I wasn’t running anymore.  I thanked God for my family and for my friends. Even though it took a cancer diagnosis to do it, I thanked God for my new perspective.

THIS is life.

I blew out all those candles on that beautiful cake that night.

I didn’t even think to make a wish.

I didn’t have to…


Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

(1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

 

 

 

Author: Jennifer Lilley Collins

I'm a Mom, wife, daughter, and friend navigating life with metastatic breast cancer while finding joy in the everyday and spreading hope, love, and inspiration along the way.

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