It’s Thursday, 4 July, 2019. Happy Independence Day! Both to the United States of America and to me. This is the first day of the next chapter of my life. As of today, I’m on long term medical leave from my job. Basically the first step toward retiring. Well, finally retiring. I’ve actually already retired twice. I guess I’m getting good at it. I served 20 years in the U.S. Navy and retired at age 38 with a small but reliable pension, which also provides me with a good medical insurance plan. I thank god for that while I’m dealing with this money sucking disease. After that, a few years ago, I retired early from a second career with the U.S. federal government. There is a story there. A long story having to do with the end of my marriage to my husband and my decision to create a new life. Anyway, as that was an early retirement it is also a small but reliable pension. In just over a year I’ll be 62. Then I can collect social security and fully retire. My last time, I promise! In the meantime, I’ll have to figure things out financially. But I’ve spent my life figuring things out financially. This is not new to me. I don’t know why but I’ve always had the courage to take a leap of faith, when necessary. Right now, it’s necessary.
So here I am, for all intents and purposes retired. This wasn’t my plan. I loved my job. I planned to probably work until I was 67, or even later, and then retire. But here I am, due to circumstances beyond my control, basically retired at 60. Now what will I do with myself? I’m not sure. I’ll go to chemo and doctor’s appointments. I’ll rest when I don’t feel well. I’ll cook more since I’m eating a healthier, fresh diet, requiring more time and effort to prepare. Actually, I’m kind of looking forward to that. There is something therapeutic about handing food. I’ll spend more time with friends and family. Coffee anyone? I’ll visit museums. I’ll get into a treadmill routine. I’ll read. I’ll play with my dog. Maybe I’ll write a book. Or maybe not.
It all sounds great, right? Who doesn’t want to be free to spend their days relaxing? Me, that’s who. I liked my job. My coworkers. My routine. I liked being part of a team. I liked contributing. But here I am, just taking up space.
Why not just keep working then? Well, it’s important that I try to avoid exposure to infection. I’ve had pneumonia four times in my life. Seems like I get it easily. Well pneumonia is the primary killer of people with myeloma. Beyond that, I’m healthy now but who knows how long I’ll be healthy. Perhaps once all of this treatment is done, the whole thing will just have been a bump in the road and I’ll get on with my life, living another 30 years. Or, perhaps the cancer will make my bones brittle and cause me to be in constant pain, never again able to do the things I do now. Or, perhaps I’ll die. Frankly, I don’t want to go from the office to my grave. This time, right now, is important for me. I don’t want to squander it. Nobody goes to your funeral and says, “He wrote great reports and he always filled out his timesheet correctly.” Other things are more important than work now. And so it’s independence day. It’s time to chart a new path for myself.
What is my life expectancy?
When you’re told you have cancer, the first thing you ask is, “Am I going to die? What is my life expectancy?” I won’t lie. I’ve thought a lot about that, as you can imagine. I’m grappling with the reality that I may not have long to live. Or that my life has been cut short. And those thoughts have led me to something more significant. A different kind of life expectancy. I’m fighting a possibly terminal disease. If I die in a year, or two, or five, will it have mattered that I was here? What have I accomplished?
I raised two beautiful, amazing women. That is without a doubt my life’s greatest accomplishment and I’m proud of it. I’m proud of them. Beyond that, I had a good military career, contributing to my country’s security. I’m proud of that. I got a good education, graduating from college summa cum laude. I taught an illiterate woman to read so she could keep her job. I learned to speak a second language. Proud, proud, proud. I’ve travelled a great deal, I’m a pretty fair cook, I can change a tire and paint a wall. I can recite the preamble to the Declaration of Independence and say the Hail Mary and the Our Father, all by heart. Pretty proud. I’ve also done plenty of things I’m not so proud of, but let’s not dwell on that. There’s enough of that for another blog. Maybe some day. Anyway, I don’t have many regrets. I’ve learned from my mistakes. Well, mostly.
But looking forward, what is my life expectancy? What do I expect from myself now? What do I want to accomplish in whatever time I have left? I don’t have a bucket list. I’ve never had one. Actually, I’ve always had a “fuck it list.” Rather than a list of things I want to do before I die, I’ve kept a list of things I don’t want to do. My philosophy is to let life take me along and offer me experiences spontaneously, by surprise. I don’t need to keep a list for that. But, there are things I’ve planned, or hoped, or promised myself not to do. I can’t say that’s worked out real well for me. I’ve probably ended up doing half the things on my list. Like singing karaoke and going to France. Sometimes things are just out of our hands. But I’ve never dressed in drag, parachuted, or gone on The Maury Povich Show to prove the kid isn’t mine.
Joy matters to me
So what now? I don’t want to climb a mountain or take a world cruise. I don’t feel the need to read War and Peace, or solve the Rubik’s Cube. Then what? What matters to me?
Joy. Joy matters to me. Feeling joy and bringing joy to others. Making people laugh. Smile. Grin. Even smirk! Just give me something.
I’m the guy who tries to say something funny on a crowded elevator and comments on somebody’s nice shoes in a waiting room. I like to break the ice. I like to create a pleasant atmosphere. I like to improve the place where I am while I’m there. I think this has gotten easier as I’ve gotten older. When you’re young you fear rejection, the loss of coolness, embarrassment. When you get older, those things are less intimidating. You care little about what others think of you. That said, however, the other day a friend of mine, someone much older than me actually, was telling me he is introverted and he doesn’t have the courage to strike up a conversation with a stranger the way I do. Except, he noted, with cashiers in stores. He said he always feels safe chatting with them. And he offered a theory why. He thinks it’s because, are you ready for it? It’s because they get paid to be nice to him. So I concluded that by his logic, cashiers are basically, “friend prostitutes.” They take money to be friendly just like, you know, those other prostitutes do. Hey, whatever gives him courage. But he tells me that now he can’t get the term “friend prostitute” out of his head when he talks to cashiers. You’re welcome.
Anyway, here it is. You know how you go through your day, commuting, working, running errands… Not really thinking much about it. Running through your routine. But once in a while, out of the blue something happens that makes you smile. Or laugh. Or just feel good. Maybe somebody tells you a joke. Or maybe you see something you find amusing. Whatever it is, for just a moment all that routine stuff fades into the background and you’re happy. Smiling. Chuckling. Calm. I want to be that moment. That’s my life expectancy. Trust me, it’s not always easy. I’m still learning. Sometimes my own stuff gets in the way – body aches, nausea, a headache, worries – and I have to remind myself that my attitude makes a difference. In myself and in others.
When I wake up in the morning, I have this “thing” I do. I sit up and put my hands together. That’s right, like a prayer. Get over it. And I say out loud, “Joy. Feel joy. Bring joy.” No, don’t laugh. I really do this. I remind myself right from the start of my day what matters most. Joy. I remind myself that that’s my life expectancy. As long as I do that, that other life expectancy won’t overtake my thoughts.