Facing Mortality: Live Life to the Fullest

Menopause & Aging Well


We've all heard that we should live each day to the fullest, because there's no guarantee how many days we'll have. Coming face to face with mortality reinforces that lesson. My sister is facing that reality after her recent diagnosis with ovarian cancer. And those of us who love her are facing it along with her.

We all know life is random. Bad things happen, even to good people.

So, what do you do? Live life to the fullest! That, however, takes different forms for each of us. To some, it may mean traveling and having all the adventures you can have. For others, it may mean deeper connections with the people you hold close. For some, it's as simple as enjoying the beauty of nature or eating good food or caring for a beloved pet.

Writing Our Own Stories

Atul Gawande, author of Being Mortal, says it's about being "the authors of our lives," no matter what limits and travails we face. If we can retain some degree of autonomy by holding on to the responsibility for shaping our own lives, we can continue writing our own stories. The kind of autonomy we often think of—living completely independently, with no coercion or limitations—isn't realistic for most of us. Life has limitations.

But there is another kind of autonomy—the one that lets us retain our true selves. As philosopher Ronald Dworkin writes in his 1986 essay on the value of autonomy: "Autonomy makes each of us responsible for shaping his own life according to some coherent and distinctive sense of character, conviction, and interest."

In Gawande's research, this kind of autonomy is a huge factor in happiness as people grow old and face death—or, sadly, face death at a younger age, in some cases.

I observe that in my sister as she begins what we hope will be a long fight against cancer. She has railed against—and sometimes felt defeated by—situations and institutions that took away even her minor control over her life and health: meal trays that weren't what she requested, thermostat settings she couldn't control, nurses who didn't show up when buzzed, snow that forced rescheduling of appointments, and the many uncontrollable factors encountered in sharing a small rehab room with a stranger.

But she also cherishes those elements of life that are important to her and reflect her character and convictions. She relishes that, before she got cancer, she finished writing a book about her special 104-year-old friend. She completed the book in what seemed record time, worried that her friend might not live to see publication. There is irony in the fact that the book is published and her 104-year-old friend visited my sister in the hospital; still, it's part of Marie's character that she's proud of what she did for her friend.

Just days after Marie's emergency surgery, where the cancer was discovered, one of her best friends called her. This friend told Marie to think about her "bucket list" and choose what was at the top of her list. When she is well enough, the friend promised that she and her husband will make that "bucket list" wish come true. In my sister's case, that will likely be a trip with her friend to some new place she's never traveled.

Realistically, my sister knows that her health and the timing of her treatments may circumscribe what's possible. But, this promise lets her retain some of her true self—a woman who is adventurous and excited about new experiences. She's traveled Europe as a newlywed, taken a sunrise hot-air balloon ride over Turkey, trekked through the ruins of Rome, sunned on beaches in Greece and the Caribbean and experienced the rice fields and villages of Asia. 

Connections to Others

But my sister is not self-centered or self-indulgent. She loves helping others. Many of her trips were school trips, which she organized to help expand the horizons of her students, some of whom had not previously traveled outside their state, much less to foreign countries. She also has organized trips closer to home, so her students could travel to regional and state competitions. Through these competitions, she helped bring Latin alive for her students, while emphasizing that it would help them score better on college entrance exams and expand their lives through further education.  

Many of the visitors who crowded her hospital room every day were her current or former high school students. They repeatedly told tales of how she had influenced or changed their lives. Some of the students' parents said the same thing.

My hope is that my sister will continue to live each day to the fullest. Even before she has started cancer treatments, she's trying to figure out how she can get back in the classroom and finish teaching the semester.

Each year, the students at my sister's school, award superlatives to their teachers. Last spring, Marie was selected the teacher with the "Best Life Stories." My wish for her is that she accumulates many more exciting life stories. I wonder what's next on her "bucket list."

What's on your "bucket list"? How do you live life to the fullest?

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