I Want to Die Smiling

"You're going alone? Why?" That's usually the response I get when I tell people I'm taking another solo trip. This time it's Puerto Rico, and it is my birthday. Today I'm 28. To me, my birthday is the perfect milestone to reflect on my life. It's an opportunity to think about my priorities and what my goals are for the future. I usually find a restaurant, where I enjoy sitting alone with a notebook and I just write. So, I wrote down a list of several key insights I've had about my life and picked, what I think, is the most important one.

I want to die smiling. Literally. There is something weird about our society in how we are scared to talk about death. We are afraid to make other people uncomfortable or we think it's just too horrible to bring up. The closest we ever get to even touching on the subject is when we use phrases like "I could get hit by a bus tomorrow" and yet we don't really live like life is really that precious.

I had cancer as a kid. It was stage 3 Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, and I was 5 years old. At the time, I had no idea it was life-threatening because no one was going to tell a 5-year-old that "there's a chance you could die." But my parents knew, and it was often their tears and the way they would wait so anxiously for my blood work to come in that made me realize something was wrong with me. I remember losing all of my long, brown hair. I remember how much I hated getting a spinal tap. I remember the faces of the sick kids in the emergency room and in the hospital.

Ironically, I don't try to forget these memories. In fact, I do everything I can to hold onto them. I've asked my parents what it was like for them. I ask them about some of the darkest moments. I want to know everything that happened. I figure that the more I know, the easier it is to be grateful that I have survived. It gives me even more incentive to live a life with purpose and to take in as much as I can while I am here. And I know that others haven't been so fortunate. But for some reason, I was given my life back, and I must not take it for granted.

When I tell people I had cancer, they usually feel bad for me. Yet, I feel that I'm lucky because the fragility of life has been woven into the fabric of my being. Most of the time, it takes a wake-up call, a near death experience or illness for us to start living life with a real sense of urgency. So what about the majority of people who haven't had an experience like that? It makes me wonder, how can we re-create that same sense of urgency without a traumatic event? How do we make our life feel finite?

Here's an exercise that we can all try. I use it often. And just a warning, it might scare you and make you uncomfortable.

Start with the end in mind. Get present to your death, and be OK with it. Think about your deathbed. How did you get there and how old are you? Did you die naturally? Was it preventative? Actually picture the whole thing in your head. Think about who will be there, and what they will say about how you lived. What were your final thoughts and how satisfied were you with all of your experiences? Do you have regrets? Are there things you wish you had said to someone you loved? Could you have taken better care of your body and your health? Do you wish you had taken more risks? Did you settle?

Then ask yourself, what do you have to do NOW so that when you do get to your deathbed, whenever that is, you are fully content? And if you were lying there tomorrow, how would you live today? Like really, how would you live today? Use these questions to guide you to make the changes you've been waiting to make, to take the chances you've wanted to take or to say the things you've always wanted to say.

I don't know how many more years I have. But if there's one thing I DO know, it's that I will die smiling. I hope you will too ☺