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I just learned I only have months to live. This is what I want to say (bostonglobe.com)
164 points by pineconebutt 8 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 55 comments

That was quite nice. The writer seems to be in relative peace about the whole situation, or at least as peaceful as one can be knowing that the end is near.

Unrelated but related: How do we keep stories like this in the "middle" of our minds? I've noticed with myself--and many others--that we read articles and essays like this, contemplate them for a moment or two, think about how we should be more {appreciate, grateful, thankful} for what we have, but then--inevitably--somebody cuts you off in traffic, or the plumber is late, or your coworker does something annoying, and just like that, everything comes flooding in.

Is this just human nature (or my own nature)? While reading this essay, I became much less frustrated about a delayed shipment I'm waiting for, and thought to myself, "ah what the hell! It's just a small package! Life is too short to get worked up about things like this." But I know that tomorrow morning I won't feel that way.

Anyways, I'm rambling. It would be helpful to somehow keep these things somewhere in our minds for longer periods of time--not the forefront because we need to get on with things, but probably not the dark recesses either, where we'll inevitably forget them until we come across another one in a few months.

I was born with multiple heart defect. I've had so many surgeries I wasn't sure I'd wake up from, in fact my first surgery was at 3 and is my first memory, for a couple weeks out of every year I practically live at a cardiologist.. it's funny talking about waiting for a package. Most things roll off my back but waiting.. for packages, waiting in line, etc. drive me nuts.

I could die at any second, I want to experience all the things, I'm eager to live.

I think when you really are inescapably a dead man walking your priorities change but not in the same way as a healthy person who is freshly confronted by their mortality. It's two distinct paths of human experience.

Life goes on and nothing has meaning unless you ascribe meaning to it. It feels to me that most people forget to live, they don't even know what they value, they don't know what life or world constitutes a beautiful life/world to them.

Geez--that sounds rough. I literally cannot imagine what that must be like (and hope I never have to). Good luck with everything.

Haha--I'm glad you also brought up the packages and waiting in line. It's such a strange annoyance. Like you said, you experience multiple surgeries per year, yet you still experience the same frustration with the packages! I find that incredibly...reassuring is the word that comes to mind. That hopefully means I'm not just some impatient, sulky person, and that we all experience similar day-to-day annoyances, no matter who we are or what our situation is.

Has having the heart defect had a noticeable "outcome" in your life? I guess what I mean is: Do you feel you've made different, better, more conscious choices about school, career, friendships, relationships, etc. due to your having this condition? I think most of us imagine that if we were suddenly diagnosed with a terrible illness or condition, we'd probably start immediately prioritizing things, maybe even quit our jobs, etc. But I'm also suspicious if that's really true. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

The short answer is as far as I can tell, fundamentally yes, in almost every facet. I guess I could give the cliff notes otherwise it would be a 10 page wall of text to unpack.

Been in and out of operation theaters all my life too but the latest one had the largest impact on how I see the life.

Hours before my spine surgery which had 50-50 survival and was needed to stop me from becoming a quadriplegic I was typing documentation for strategy for my startup products to my share holders in case I die.

After I woke up from surgery, The first major decision I took was to close my startup.

A lot of human life is dilluted in our group/system.

Trying to reach out for more is high risk high efforts and I believe our biology mostly tailored us to coast.

Less work more safety sounds like an obvious evolutionary benefit.

That said it's not necessarily the best way to live.

I recently downloaded an iOS app called WeCroak. It sends me 5 reminders per day that I’m going to die and if I choose to open one of those notifications it has an interesting quote on life/death. I’ve found myself several times on social media when the notification comes in and I immediately close it and get back to do something better. So far the I’m really enjoying the reminders and finding them useful for bringing me back to the moment.

I like this idea. Five seems like a lot, but I like the general gist of it. One of my friends keeps a web page open called "Mori Clock" or something along those lines. You input your birthday and it shows you how many weeks, on average, you have left remaining. I'm not sure how useful it's been for his day-to-day experience, but it's an interesting idea, like yours.

IIRC the culture Bhutan is to think about death 10+ times a day.

You're not rambling, you're just living your life aloud.

What you have described is simply life, life at it's best.

How do we behave better? It's pretty simple, alas simple doesn't mean that it's easy. Here we go:

1. realize that we are indeed powerful, and we can stop things from degenerating.

2. Forget meditating, too short and restrictive practice. Practice "mindfulness". We can all practice mindfulness 24/7; my mantra is simple: "One, Two, Three, Four" over an over, counting my breath, or counting seconds, or counting my steps (Kinhin). Do it long enough and when life throws you a curve ball (someone cuts you off, plumber is late...) it's almost automatic that after a few minutes (or seconds for those more advanced, but not me) 1,2,3,4 comes to mind; 1,2,3,4, come back to the present moment.

While #2 seems elaborate, #1 is actually the most important one, realizing that we indeed can do something. It got me out of decades of depression.

Also, related, probably not applicable to you, but it was applicable to me: I read an article linked here on HN or "stop being a victim", the implication there is #1 above.


P.S.: writing this stuff helps me with my own garbage in my own head.

> How do we keep stories like this in the "middle" of our minds?

I practice interrupting myself between stimulus and reaction, and at least noting that I paused, and better if I take a breath and notice what I’m feeling. Ideally I then choose what to do next. So far this is working for low-threat stimuli that I can laugh about. Much more challenging to interrupt are the deep-cut grooves of reaction to my spouse, and concern for her well-being (and mine and everyone I interact with) motivates me to keep practicing.

When I stop and notice, a long, deep nasal breath, 5-6 seconds in and out each, helps me feel more like my immediate needs are met. If it’s big, gnawing thing and I’m not currently embroiled, a cold shower helps put things in perspective, maybe because it shocks my system with a physical threat that overrides the perceived threat? Anyway, feels really good afterwards, and then I’m ready to be an adult again.

For me, blinding pain as an every day reality for decades of my life and a long period of unemployment after college makes everyday I’m painfree and employed sweet.

I found a similar attitude reading Dostoevsky and “one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich (sp?)”. They epitomize what I call embracing the struggle and are sort of a take on existentialism. Ie realize you exist in every moment (until your death) as a given and maintain the ability to separate your reaction to a moment for just long enough to consider your reaction to it.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a short novel by the Russian writer and Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, first published in November 1962. The story is set in a Soviet labor camp in the early 1950s and describes a single day in the life of ordinary prisoner, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov.


I don’t think it comes naturally to most, at least not at first.

Practicing mindfulness and instituting a habit of expressing/feeling gratitude are two intentional things that can help maintain perspective.

But to your point, if you don’t practice this intentionally, I think it will always fade.

Well said, especially the part about being intentional. I try to maintain perspective now and then, but I find that it goes away pretty quickly at the first sign of something frustrating. I guess that means I have to practice it a little more.

In Victorian England, memento moris were a thing. Little skeletons you'd keep on your desk to remind you of your own mortality.



Your more general enquiry seems to be around how to be more grateful and less neurotic and I think that mindfulness meditation should help improve those areas.

Being more mindful helps you become more self-aware. Thus, when you feel frustrated you are more likely to objectively notice the emotion which somehow makes it unravel.

As for the gratitude I don't know how mindfulness meditation helps with that but experientially (n=1) I can tell you that it does.

Thanks for the suggestion. I've tried meditating before but, if I'm being honest, have never really given it a proper and earnest effort. Neurotic is definitely the perfect word to describe how I feel most of the time, so maybe this will finally be the kick-in-the-ass I need to give this a shot.

Well, I'm rooting for you and hope that you get what you need from it!

> How do we keep stories like this in the "middle" of our minds?

I hope this is helpful. A part of Stoicism can be remembering death. There is a nature walk that I often do and I see two cemeteries on my way. I'm reminded that I need to do what I can each day and take responsibility for myself. If I smile at another person and help someone, then I've done what I can and that's enough

The cemetery exercise is interesting. How long do you find that it helps you for, if that makes any sense? Suppose you're frustrated about something that happened in the morning--let's say something "innocuous" in the grand scheme of things, like the wind knocking your fence down--do you find that seeing the cemetery takes a little bit of the edge off? And if so, for how long?

Smiling at people and helping them--I love that! Sometimes in the mornings when I get Starbucks, I'll do the "pay it forward" thing, where you end up paying for the person next in line. I don't know how ubiquitous this practice is, but I'd say once a week someone does it for me at Starbucks, so I try to do the same. I've found that it puts a pep in my step for the next few hours, similar to your smiling and helping people.

> Unrelated but related: How do we keep stories like this in the "middle" of our minds? I've noticed with myself--and many others--that we read articles and essays like this, contemplate them for a moment or two, think about how we should be more {appreciate, grateful, thankful} for what we have, but then--inevitably--somebody cuts you off in traffic, or the plumber is late, or your coworker does something annoying, and just like that, everything comes flooding in.

Our habits seem to me to be like those of creatures who anticipate living forever, but don't really know what to do with all the time. It's interesting that suffering—not so much success—is what keeps this in our minds. A sibling remarked on Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, both men of profound sorrows.

Anger is a gut reaction, learned over time when you're young and likely to persist in muscle memory for a long time.

The way to get around it is the same as any other habit - mindful practice of your reactions. Let yourself feel angry, but take a breath and make the decision to not act on it and do the harder act of being kind or good as a response instead. Over time, it gets easier, but anger will never leave you completely.

It's easy to be angry, it's a lot harder and more rewarding to purposefully act better instead.

> somebody cuts you off in traffic, or the plumber is late, or your coworker does something annoying, and just like that, everything comes flooding in.

I heard Sam Harris talk about this, and his advice was something to the tune of: Think about something terrible that didn't happen to you today. You weren't diagnosed with cancer. Your spouse didn't drain yoru bank account and leave you. Your child wasn't murdered. There are myriad wholly life-altering things that could have happened to you but didn't -- and even if you do have a bad day, it can always be worse.

It's admittedly a sort of pessimistic/dark way to look at things, but if you think about how it could be worse, it seems easier to look at the guy that cut you off in traffic and go, "Well, at least I wasn't just run off the road into the ditch."

"EDITING THE FINAL DETAILS of one’s life is like editing a story for the final time. It’s the last shot an editor has at making corrections, the last rewrite before the roll of the presses. It’s more painful than I anticipated to throw away files and paperwork that seemed critical to my survival just two weeks ago, and today, are all trash. Like the manual for the TV that broke down four years ago, and notebooks for stories that will never be written, and from former girlfriends, letters whose value will plummet the day I die. Filling wastebasket after wastebasket is a regrettable reminder that I have squandered much of my life on trivia."

Hits pretty hard.

The last sentence is the one that hit me really hard.

What I have really mentally struggled with during the pandemic is this existential questioning of "What will I think, looking back at my life if it turns out I have a shortened life and what I have to show for it is that I've just sat at a computer 10+ hours a day my entire adult life?" This questioning has made me fully doubt everything. I certainly am not living life to the fullest as I'd always dreamed that I would. There's always the promise of retirement, savings, and traveling blah blah after your 50s/60s, but you can't do anything fun at that age(arguably, where I'm coming from here) and there is no promise we'll even be alive next year. Feel like I'm tricked into working my life away on stuff I do not care about any longer and spent so long to get here. Now I'm trying to switch to things I actually enjoy doing and figure it out. But, what if?

One thing that strikes me reading his and other accounts of the reaction to imminent death is that substantial changes in attitudes, perspective, and belief are rare. He’s dying but he’s still wasting time commenting about politics, even Nixon for goodness sakes! I think the lesson there is that if the way you live your life, or the attitude/behavior you display is inconsistent with your beliefs, or even if you only suspect something is wrong, then don’t wait for some deathbed conversion that probably won’t happen. Instead focus on change now, even if you struggle at least you’ll die struggling!

Fantastic insight! Thank you for your comment.

To actually read the text: https://archive.is/EwSWT

Why the down votes? Not everyone on this site has an active subscription and clearly the a author wants his message read. I'm really curious, please respond.

>clearly the a author wants his message read

More likely the author wants to be paid for his work. If he wanted to offer it for free there are plenty of alternative platforms to publish on.

I saw no requests for payment, i only saw a headline without a story. I have no patience to assume why a web site is broken.

>I saw no requests for payment

It was published in the Boston Globe, a commercial organisation. I think it's a reasonable conclusion that the author gets paid for their work. He has been at the paper at least since 1979 according to the article.

It's not reasonable to conclude that going out of my way to pay money will make a page suddenly populate with a story. If there's no offer for more content, I don't assume it's there.

Man, imagine writing a memoir, pouring your heart and life into it.

Then it's behind a goddamn paywall, lol.

As a newspaper man, I imagine he would prefer that people support the newspaper.

It wasn’t paywalled for me. I just had to click “read full article” to expand it

They must have just taken down the paywall within the past 30 minutes. It was still paywalled at that time when I checked.

The first time I loaded it, a "Please subscribe" popup came. I could click cancel, but underneath the banner picture there was just links to other articles. After coming here looking for the archive.is link, reloading the article fixed it.

I was ready to make the snarky comment "This is what I want to say: Pay $1 for 6 months subscription!"...

Or use lynx.

Reminds of this piece by the founder of Cloudinary about the unexpected death of his 8-year old son. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/its-later-than-you-think-j-r-...

Oh my. Wonderfully written piece (and so is his wife's).

As the father of a 5 year old, I cannot fathom going through they. They are very strong people.

Agreed. It’s devastating to read but also beautiful and vulnerable in a way that makes its message hard to ignore.


My wife and I have reached an age (1 month apart) where death has become “when” rather than “if”. My mother, father, and three siblings have all died around an age I am rapidly approaching. My sister experienced a similar death to this, she was given only months to live. Others have died suddenly and without warning. My wife has already lost a brother.

So between us we talk sometimes about which of us will die first. Of the two of us my wife thinks I would manage best if left alone, I definitely think the opposite. Would we stay in the house we have lived in for 30 years? Should we move now into a place more suitable for one person? But what remains largely unspoken is the sheer pain we can anticipate in being left behind. Part of me would want to go first to avoid that, part of me wants my wife to avoid it. There is no good outcome.

So when I read this article I read between the lines. He says how much he will miss smiles and hugs from his wife. But I know he will be crying out in his heart for her grief, and the smiles and hugs she will be missing, not just now, but probably every day for years to come. And his children. And all who know and loved him.

It’s a personal thing, but I don’t think we will take anything with us, not even memories. And history will certainly not remember me. And I have written no books. So what do most of us leave behind? Only our place in the hearts of those who have known us, and how we may have, possibly inadvertently, affected their lives.

So TLDR – your footprint will be the shape of how you treated others.

Fwiw, I have learned for myself that we can be with our beloved family members forever, if we and they want, and do what is needed for it. All the best. (slightly more in my other comment on this page; thoughtful comments appreciated with downvotes...)

I expect to live a long time yet, but have chronic illness that severly limits me, and life can be good, and it can be hard. I have also learned for myself that God is real, cares, life has a purpose and extends before & after this mortality, questions have answers, each person including you is of infinite worth, and you never truly have to be alone. And there is a way for us to be with our families forever, if we & they want.

(I enjoyed the article, and many have posted nice comments. Thoughtful comments to this are appreciated, if downvoting.)

A beautifully written piece about a life well lived.

Death is the world's change agent. It's never pretty but it must happen.

At least reading this is a reminder to me to not stress too much, enjoy life and be good to your family and friends.

has anyone here read 'Not fade away: a short live well lived' ? I was deeply moved by that book

By Laurence Shames and Peter Barton. One of the more entertaining end-of-life memoirs. "When Breath Becomes Air" by Paul Kalanithi is also recommended.

Memento mori

The first that comes in my mind is: he lived 70 years, born and raised in a rich country, he had a lovely family. He had a good life reason to be happy and he should start thinking about others with less luck like him, E.g. children dying to underfeeding, genetics diseases, war, etc.

He’s dying and writing about how he feels about it. It doesn’t bother me that he has his own death at the forefront of his mind.

Agreed, it's not like he would all of sudden have time or resources to solve the aforementioned issues so what would be the use.

Either use your expertise and skills to make as much meaningful impact you can or just take the time off and enjoy what you have left. Both are fine to me.

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