I Live Until I Die


I had breakfast with a friend who was diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer.

She was told that she has about six months to live.

She wanted her bagel toasted, and decaf coffee. As long as she’s alive, she is alive. Toasted bagel is about living. Making a choice between decaf and caffeinated is about living, about hope.

stumptown coffee, brooklyn bagel

stumptown coffee, brooklyn bagel (Photo credit: goodiesfirst)

She talked quite rationally about what the future holds for her.  A very short future.

No, she doesn’t have a bucket list, but she looks forward to maybe visiting a dear and beloved friend in Salt Lake City. Hopefully, she’ll be able to make the trip. No other wishes before her death … just to be in touch with family and friends. That’s all.

She has always been very organized and methodical, so it wasn’t surprising to hear she’d thought about everything. No burial.  Cremation.  Maybe ashes in the desert.  Maybe not.  She loves the desert, but her deceased husband ashes were cast in the ocean, so probably the ocean. She doesn’t believe in life after death, so for her – this is the end. Everything is in place – the hospice and financial decisions, inheritance and the like.

She didn’t cry, but from time to time her eyes seemed moist. This was a good week, no chemo. We reminisced about working together years ago at the counseling center.  This brought a smile to her face. It was nice to be able to make her smile. She has good memories of our work together.  Yet, she is still upset about some past disappointment – I wish she’d let it go.

I wish she’d only have good experiences and enchanting recollections before she is not here. I wish she’d forget about those who annoyed her or disappointed her. I wish for the upsettedness to be swept away, and to have her soul filled with pictures of flowers and the beauty of nature – like those pictures she often emailed to me. I wish these would be the only images she would carry with her.

Flowers 4

Flowers 4 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was difficult for me to see her agitated. I felt very protective of all the minutes she has left. The minutes should only be filled with peace.

Is it possible?

On a recent Sunday, I came home after leading a group for family members of cancer patients. I was down and sad, and couldn’t stop thinking about how unfair everything is. Unfair?  Unfair isn’t a word I use. Things were unfair until my early thirties, and then I understood that the world and its machinations has nothing to do with fairness. Fair has nothing to do with our lives.

And yet, on that Sunday night coming home from hearing devastating stories … feeling utterly helpless, I was struggling with the unfairness of it all. I said to my husband that the next time I complain about anything he should remind me how fortunate I am. He smiled and said fine.

But is it really possible?

The next morning someone annoyed me. I called my husband and complained. He didn’t remind me of my request the previous night, either because he had compassion for me, or he may have been preoccupied at work. He sounded sympathetic, and tried to be understanding. When I hung up the phone I remembered that I asked him to remind me how fortunate I am when I complain about trivial stuff.

My dying friend was complaining too, despite the fact that it doesn’t (or shouldn’t?) make a difference to her anymore. I guess we do that till our last living breath.

René Descartes comes to mind …

I complain, therefore I am.   Or, is it – I am, therefore I complain?

Portrait of René Descartes, dubbed the "F...

Portrait of René Descartes, dubbed the “Father of Modern Philosophy”, after Frans Hals c. 1648 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


About rachel bar

Psychotherapist and supervisor.
This entry was posted in cancer, Cremation, Death, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to I Live Until I Die

  1. Marie-Michelle says:

    A truly amazing person. I continue to see her very much as a living friend and not a dying friend, she is so full of life.

  2. Stephanie Lawson says:

    Rachel, you are truly an inspiration……..I am glad that our paths have crossed. I only wish you lived in your house in Olive Branch Mississippi!

  3. Jackie Rosenson says:

    Oh Rachel, you are so right (again); we all have react/respond to some of life’s disappointments and irritations, again and again. However,
    each sadness that reminds us all of the fragility of life gives us yet another opportunity
    for holding on to that perspective of “not sweating the petty things and not petting
    the sweaty things.”!
    Carpe diem,
    With compassion for your friend,

    • rachel bar says:

      Jackie, that’s a new one for me: “not sweating the petty things and not petting
      the sweaty things.”
      Your are right as well. Each and every time the the disappointments and pain remind us of what’s truly important.

  4. David Silber says:

    Quite a moving piece. Makes one wonder about mortality.

    David Silber

  5. Cameron says:

    How calmly does the orange branch
    Observe the sky begin to blanch
    Without a cry, without a prayer
    With no betrayal of despair.

    Sometime while night obscures the tree
    The zenith of its life will be
    Gone past forever, and from thence
    A second history will commence.

    A chronicle no longer gold,
    A bargaining of mist and mould,
    And finally the broken stem
    The plummeting to earth; and then

    An intercourse not well designed
    For beings of a golden kind
    Whose native green must arch above
    The earth’s obscene, corrupting love.

    And still the ripe fruit and the branch
    Observe the sky begin to blanch
    Without a cry, without a prayer,
    With no betrayal of despair.

    O Courage, could you not as well
    Select a second place to dwell,
    Not only in that golden tree
    But in the frightened heart of me?

    Tennessee Williams: The Night of the Iguana

  6. Barbara Cooper says:

    None of us really know when we will take our last breath. Even those who have been told by medical professionals that the end will soon be near, don’t really “know” for sure. People have been known to defy the prognosis. And the question is, would you want to know the exact time and date when you will leave your current existence? What would you do differently if you did know? I have a friend who jokingly says if she ever found out she had a terminal disease she would take revenge on those who have harmed her then kill herself. She’s got a hate list. But I know she’s only joking- it’s her method of dealing with hurt and frustration. When I lost my dad in the blink of an instant I wondered what his day had been like before he died. Did he do anything differently? Was he having a good day? The day was March 6, 1990, the worst day of my life. I started thinking about that date, and realized he lived through 68 March the 6ths before he died. We have all lived through our eventual death date- most of them ordinary days until one year, some year, it won’t be. I hated March 6th for a long time after he died, then one day, on a whim, I started looking through my date books of years past to see what March 6th had held for me in all the years prior to his passing. It turned out that March 6th had been a life changing date for me before, but in a good way. In 1973, my Dad, finally realizing I was going to be a professional singer no matter what other dream he held for me (that would be marrying a doctor or lawyer) arranged through a friend of his to set up an audition for me for an agent. Both of my parents and their friends were at that audition. And I got up in front of an audience in a night club, with a band who had not rehearsed with me, and with my knees literally knocking together, sang my heart out. And was hired- signed on with the agent and began my career as a singer. Two life changing events, one great, one horrific, both on March 6th. Coincidentally, I have had many life changing events in March. I appeared on the Merv Griffin show one year, got engaged one year, bought my dream house another. All in March. The point is, we just never know what life will bring or when. I’d like to try to live every day as if it is my last, but I don’t. I think the best we can hope to achieve is to try to be in the moment. To savor the good ones and to make the bad ones try to pass quickly. To be aware of the wonders and to “not sweat the small stuff” except that the “small stuff” sometimes, in that moment seem huge. To find our own strengths and weaknesses to deal with whatever shows up on our plate at any given moment. To just be. And yes, to complain if that is what I feel like doing. It usually doesn’t change a damned thing, but somehow, if someone is listening, it soothes my soul.

    • rachel bar says:

      Thank you Barbara for sharing so much of yourself and about yourself. You present another perspective and do it so well! I agree, of course, that we should all live in the moment, but sometimes I forget.

  7. Martha Carr says:

    Beautiful and poignant piece Rachel. When people inspire us through graciousness and courage in the face of death, as your friend does, I think it helps us grieve them when they are gone. They add to their immortality by touching our hearts so deeply, but it makes the loss so much more profound for those left behind.

    • rachel bar says:

      Thanks, Martha. I realize that none of the deceased people that were close to me, or that I have loved are dead to me. The only problem I have is that I cannot pick up the phone to call them and hear their voice.

  8. ermigal says:

    Thank you for sharing this story about your friend–life and death are such mysteries, to me at least. I always thought I’d understand such topics when I got older but that is not the case. I hope there is something after this life so we can understand why the hay we were here in the first place! Blessings and peace to your friend, and to you being there for her.

    • rachel bar says:

      Thanks Ermine. I so want to believe that there’s something after this life! I truly make efforts to believe, and somehow I can’t. I envy people who believe in the afterlife, because I think they believe that it’s not over when it’s over.

  9. Martha says:

    What is there to do when people die —-people so dear and rare —-but bring them back by remembering? —May Sarton
    I think you’ll have plenty of occasions to bring your/our friend back.

  10. Shoshana Powell says:

    You are a good friend to this lady, Rachel, and bless you for that. Thank you for sharing your blog with me. I value your writing and your insights.

  11. ShimonZ says:

    I agree with your attitude towards such a heartbreaking situation. In the past, we didn’t normally know that death was close at hand till it was already in the process… and now, because of medical advances, we sometimes know quite a while before it happens. Still, none of us knows if something terrible and unexpected won’t happen tomorrow. The best course, is to take advantage of life as long as it is in our grasp… like yourself, I live until I die.

    • rachel bar says:

      Yes, Shimon. I wonder if knowing when we die is a blessing. Maybe for family members who can say goodbye? Maybe it can bring some closure? Not sure. I try to live until I die, and sometimes I forget.

  12. Joan LIpp says:

    Dear Rachel, you are so deeply feeling! Knowing that you are dying soon does change things. I no longer count the costs of doing kindnesses. The joy of it is the only cost I care about. I too love this friend, and celebrate the ways in which she has given so much of the best of her self away to help others. I think getting cancer actually has helped me — to relax, to savor the eternal moment, and to deeply, deeply connect with LIFE, especially the sweetness of loving and sharing evey part of myself with those I love. Surely, goodness and mercy are what death is really all about.

  13. Vasca says:

    Aah Rachel…such a touching, sweet post. You are a special lady, truly you are a gem. Michael (my sweet husband) and I are living ’til we die. I have been at death’s door twice; once I was actually half-way through the door and apparently God had more plans for me…so here I am. As for Michael? He survived two wars…always extremely healthy until SURPRISE! 2-1/2 years ago he discovered something quite awesome in his throat. An ENT surgeon did a biopsy a few weeks later and a bigger surprise was delivered. M has a very rare condition that can be diagnosed with only one test in the world. The Pathologist for some strange reason did that test and voila! While it sometimes takes years to properly diagnose this condition…Michael’s was pinned down in less than one month. The prognosis for this is anywhere from 12 months to 2 years. To say we were shocked/stunned/you name it…we were shell-shocked. BUT only for a couple of days! We have tremendous faith in God, our Father and we held on for dear life. M’s specialists are amazed at him; and they are all smiles when we visit them. It seems that while Michael has this extremely rare condition…he has an even more rare form of it and his is living quite nicely in her own private apartment in his throat…we call her ‘Amy’. One of his doctors said it was a miracle that Michael discovered it on his own…I said then and both of us still say, “This is a God Work”…and believe me, we are living ’til we die. Each dawn is a blessing in itself and you know, we even forget about what’s going on in Michael’s body. Every moment of this life is sweet and stands alone…we are living the beautiful life…day by day by day. Thank you again for such a lovely post.

    • rachel bar says:

      Thanks for sharing this Vasca. In the midst of reading your post about Michael’s condition, you write: “and his is living quite nicely in her own private apartment in his throat…we call her ‘Amy’.” What a great reminder of how to relate to life and its unexpected fears and pain. And a great sense of humor. As mentioned above, I envy people who believe! Thanks for being who you are!

  14. aFrankAngle says:

    Many emotions in this well-written post. In short, you touched much on want it means to be human … unfortunately, that also means to dwell on the negative more than the positive …. and to reverse that requires effort … much effort!

  15. Reading your great post reminded me of why I find Death saddening, frightening, and intriguing…Doughnuts live and die daily…being consume by the insatiable hunger of Death…But the thought of knowing the one saddens me, for who wants their kind devoured…the thought of knowing that I will share their same fate frightens me, for I don’t want to leave here-afraid I’ll miss something important or least funny, while knowing there are those who feel that they can actually escape death’s grasp fascinates me, you and run but he Will get you…No matter what one feels..Death is cruel because it’s the end for the living more than it is for the dead…

  16. A wonderful piece of writing, Rachel.

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