There’s nothing like having a near-death experience to put things into perspective

Written by Linda Kirkpatrick on .


Unable to find a creative writing class that fit my schedule and that of my friend Beth, we decided to take on our own writing project based on one Beth had been through 30+ years ago in college. In a class on death and dying, students were charged with writing a paper on the subject “If I only had six months to live.” Beth was curious how her perspective might have changed in the past three decades, and I thought it would be an interesting exercise.

Being the methodical person I am, I began with jotting down bullet points under five self-designated categories and learned many things at the end of two weeks.

I discovered I had no “bucket list” of things yet to see and experience. I’m fortunate to have seen and done lots of things/places around the world; and although I’ve not been everywhere, I really had no burning desire to have to travel somewhere I’d not yet been.

I concluded that expressing gratitude and making amends are two areas I tend to deal with along the way, generally not procrastinating nor taking for granted. But there are some people like spouses who always deserve more appreciation than already delivered. And there are some people who’ve not been responsive to attempts to build better relationships thus far, so I decided I wouldn’t devote any more energy to making that something to be achieved in my last six months. What would be would be.

Nearly every entry fell under the category of things to do, and all were quite practical – cleaning out drawers, designating this, finalizing that, setting up an education fund for the youngest grandchild, etc.

Writing a profile on Greg Dobbs was the closest thing to a bucket list entry. Greg, highly accomplished but rather modest, had previously declined an invitation. All that he’s done for Evergreen needed to be documented – or at least acknowledged – before I could shut down

Reality sets in

Coincidentally, about the time I finished the exercise, I was hit with the need for a followup CT scan that determined the likelihood of a tumor on my pancreas. Having known two people who’d died within five to six weeks of a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, my methodical tendencies kicked in during the four days between receiving that news and the time of the biopsy that would determine whether the tumor was one of two kinds: always cancerous or sometimes not cancerous – neither of which was anything to be overly optimistic about. That was last week.

My hypothetical six months suddenly became six weeks.

Reading that the success rate for surviving pancreatic cancer found early was just 25 percent after five years was an eye-opener. My pace quickened. I made more lists and arrangements than I would have made in six weeks, disposed of more clutter and junk than the trash removal service had seen in two months at our stop, and passed along important bits of advice to my husband, John – things like taking a trash bag and emptying my underwear drawers without any consideration when the time came. They're simply of no use to anyone else, and resale shops won't take them. I’d heard that advice from my friend Dianne awhile back and had filed it away as good to know.

I began washing clothes and (partially because of an anticipated season change) folded them nicely in containers for delivery to EChO to make it easier for my survivors.  Otherwise, they'd just be put away for the season.

In the absence of a network that most people have, just getting word out for my family would be a challenge. Facebook is the closest thing I have to a network, so I made arrangements for my friend Linda to have my password in order to post a death notice on my page to reach friends and family near and far. Convincing my husband that, even though he wouldn’t want to hold a memorial service for me because he’d have to talk to a lot of people he didn’t know, other members of the family might appreciate one just for closure. Ruth volunteered to work with John to organize the event.

There were lists for automatic charges to various credit cards and the repercussions of discontinuing each of those services. And there were newly purchased items with the tags still attached that should be returned.

Shutting down a business – even a one-person operation – takes some thought. It’s been important for me to have the profiles of people archived for future reference – especially those of historical significance. Certain provisions would need to be made to keep hosting in place and specific components accessible online. And coincidentally, on Day Three Greg Dobbs called me to solicit a sponsorship, so I told him of my bucket list entry on the essay project (without telling him of the reality of the situation); and I’m happy to say you’ll be reading about Greg soon.

Then there was the list of people I wanted to have certain items. Not only would John not be able to locate or identify the items I noted, he wouldn’t know the people designated as recipients, nor how to reach them. This may seem strange to some, but anyone who lives with a man who can’t find a jar of jam that’s eye level on a shelf in the refrigerator knows what I’m talking about. I began packing items in boxes to be labeled appropriately, left only to be mailed when the time was right. He could handle that.

John, who was still grieving the loss of our dog just a couple weeks earlier and his two best, lifelong friends in the past six months, would need all the help I could provide.  I dismissed the idea of trying to train him how to sell things on eBay.

It had always been assumed that I would outlive my husband, who is significantly older than I. How would a reversal affect our wills – and if not the wills, our financial planning and beneficiaries?

Four days was not a very long period of time to address all these things and more while getting out last week’s edition of this publication. The doctor had indicated surgery soon after a diagnosis. Surgery would keep me from purging anything except what was in my stomach or having enough of my wits about me to make arrangements for anything while under the influence of drugs during “recovery.” Simply getting to the bathroom could become my biggest priority within days. There was no time to waste.  I might only have a week or ten days I could count on.

Pancreatic cancer shows no symptoms, so I wasn't "not feeling well." It's discovered only when doctors are looking for something else.

Sharing all this with others was premature, but I did need to enlist the help of a certain few and do it earnestly, dodging some family members in the process, ones who didn’t know the severity of what I was facing.

There was a series of notices of anticipated absences, cancellations, rescheduled engagements, resignations from committees and the like – all shrouded with a media-like choice of words to skirt reality.

The big day at the hospital

The day came for the biopsy – an outpatient procedure that involved an endoscopic tube down my throat into my stomach. With the proximity to the pancreas giving a better vantage point, an ultrasound device fed through the tube took pictures of that portion of the organ deemed suspicious. An ultra-thin needle was to penetrate the stomach wall and the tumor on the nearby pancreas, extracting tissue to be brought back up the tube for viewing under the microscope. Such a process!

The closeup ultrasound determined there was no tumor, causing the doctor to surmise there was just a cluster of blood vessels that had caused the contrast dye to be concentrated in one area during the two CT scans.

Making use of what I'd learned

The experience gave me a real understanding of the phrase "a new lease on life."

No efforts had been wasted, and I actually felt reassured that I could handle an end-of-life situation with composure and peace, which really seemed to have been comforting to those around me.  It had been a practice run like the time we had to evacuate because of a wildfire, packing up those things near and dear to us.  On biopsy day John even likened the experience to having a wildfire rage in our direction but having it miss our house at the last second.  And, like in Beth's experience of revisiting her views of "six months" 30 years later, I have a chance to revisit mine.

Being able to talk about things most people find difficult to talk about made all the difference.  Taking the lead on those talks made it easier for others.

Having gone through the essay assignment was so beneficial that I’m considering putting on a workshop to help others be similarly prepared. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. me if you think you might be interested in participating in a trial run.