What Is the Greatest Unit of Time for Living?
In this specific increment, I find my strongest self
It’s been about eighteen months since lockdown first started. A year and a half. Not quite enough to repeat a full rotation of annual holidays but enough to settle into the rhythm of a wall calendar.
I love living in eighteen-month increments. It feels like I’ve finally landed on the right lens at the optometrist that makes the entire eye chart easy to read.
I first started living in rolling eighteen-month horizons about two and a half years ago, when my husband was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer with thirteen tumors in his brain. The day of his diagnosis, we learned that the standard prognosis for patients with brain metastases was four months. Four months was alarming. Our children were fourteen and seventeen, and it was January. “The kids won’t even be out of school yet,” was one of my first thoughts. It was as if I were grasping for any available branch of understanding while careening down the steepest slope of sheer ice.
Burton visited his mother in North Carolina and bought her a car. We cried, we embarked on our “three-way” with the Headspace guy, lying in bed together but in our own ear buds, breathing to his soothing pan-Commonwealth accent.
The ice slope softened when Burton responded to the targeted therapy meds, which produced a dramatic but known to be short-lived reduction in his tumors. But it bought us time. Now we had at least a year. When the targeted therapy meds stopped working, even if the immunotherapy didn’t work, we could swing to the next branch of radiation and eek out at least another twelve months. Compared to four months, this was better news. Burton said hearing this made him feel “as light as air,” but I still felt as light as concrete.
Then he responded to immunotherapy, and the slope got even gentler. Now we are gliding along in rolling eighteen-month increments from every good scan. At this new pace, we can take in the scenery as we go.
In the choices we’ve made since then, we are answering the question: How would we live if we could only count on having eighteen months left? Admittedly, this is a fallacy — we, of anyone, should have learned that no time is guaranteed. But I am human, and I can only learn so much at one time, so I find comfort in eighteen-month-long horizons.
It turns out that if we have eighteen months left, we don’t pull our kids out of school and cacoon together in Hawaii. That’s what I would have done if we only had four months.
Living in rolling eighteen-month increments, we are surprised to find that we don’t quit our jobs. In fact, I launch a new company. I make choices, deciding to fund it myself and not waste time looking for external investors. I want to do more of what I enjoy and less of what I don’t, and I’m fortunate enough to have the resources this time around in a way that I didn’t with my first company.
Living in eighteen month increments, I only work with people I enjoy and admire. If I spend even a month working with an asshole, that is too high a percentage of my remaining time. It is too high a price.
But with only eighteen months left, I get busy and tell everyone I love how much I love them. I tell a new friend that I wish I had known her in college, that I’m sure she would have made a huge impact on how I turned out. Plus, it would have been so much fun.
I organize a reunion for my uncle’s seventieth birthday, pulling him out of Toronto and bringing him to Seattle for the first time in his life. We catch buckets of crab at our Whidbey Island beach house and use the same cake to celebrate five other birthdays, changing seats, relighting candles and singing all over again. Because my sisters have always loved like we only have eighteen months left. And when my aunt passed away this year, it was just over eighteen months from when we last gathered, all together like that.
I call old friends from high school, college and law school, many of whom I haven’t seen for over a decade. With eighteen months left, I want them to know how important they are to me and how much I think about them every day.
It’s the year before lockdown, so we take weekend trips with friends at least once a month. I call it “Cancermoon,” and we don’t worry about the budget. We have friends fly to come visit us. At first Burton wonders if this is too much to ask, but then we realize that we will only invite people who love us so much that they will not be mad if he’s still around even after eighteen months.
We sing karaoke. I try pot. I sing karaoke while trying pot. (I don’t even know the right verb for this, as I am just getting started in my late forties). I can admit to this kind of behavior because in the next eighteen months, I’m not likely to be nominated for any civil service for which THC gummies would pose an obstacle.
Now that I know that I might only have eighteen months left, I give more generously to every cause I’ve given to up until now. I do more to show how much I believe in the broader collective “us” by flying to Michigan to volunteer for voter protection efforts. If I only had a week, my focus would have narrowed more exclusively to my most beloved. But with eighteen months, my circle of love can be broader while remaining urgent.
There is no waiting for later. There is just writing to everyone, everywhere. Scattered pieces of “I love you,” and “Thank you,” and “Did you know how much this meant to me?” litter my sent email folder and the bottom of my purse. Sometimes I feel like I have to fold and hide these notes because I’m not the one with cancer.
I know this, but somehow I’m still the one with the urgency. Maybe it’s because I know down to my bones that life can turn out this way for all of us because it did for my Burton.
With possibly only eighteen months left, I write almost every day. I can’t write fast enough. I start a book, and begin a podcast. I am living like I’m running out of time.
But I am also hiking with girlfriends, swimming in Puget Sound in my wet suit, and sleeping more than ever. My days are magically more full and more calm now that they are meted out in eighteen month increments.
My children being older helps a lot. I don’t need another eighteen months to know that they have the strength they will need in life, because they are making the friends they will need in life.
I wasn’t awake like this when I was living in the land of the indefinite tomorrows. When I thought I had tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, I tried on different designer futures looking for the very best figure flattering color, size and fit. Is it made of sustainably harvested unicorn eyelashes? I demanded to know.
But what I know now is that eighteen months is the perfect amount of time to summon up my strength to live as myself, in my own skin. Eighteen months at a time.