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how would you live
if you knew you were dying?
by maigen thomas (@Maigen)
pop culture

Recently, a bit of gossip found its way to my ear: I overheard on a flight that Michael C. Hall (of Dexter and Six Feet Under fame) was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I’ve been a huge fan of both shows from the moment I started watching and I think he’s a brilliant actor, so I was shocked and saddened to hear that he was afflicted with what – to my understanding – is rarely a survivable form of cancer.

I have since learned that he actually had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and has already undergone therapy and things are looking great – which was wonderful news. But the question still remained in my mind, and I asked many of my friends and family what they would do.

The answers surprised me, honestly. Based on what I knew of these people, I felt that I had a decent idea of what they’d do, but nearly everyone managed to challenge what I knew of them and their desires. I thought I knew my friends well, which also made me dig a little deeper into my own reactions to the situation. What would I really do?

The hypothetical question is this: How would you live if you knew you were dying? I mean, we’re all dying, of course. It’s a part of life. But in this instance I wanted to narrow down the parameters. Imagine you got a prognosis from your doctor – you have six months to live. You don’t have super human powers, or unlimited money, it’s just you as you are. What you currently possess is all you have to work with.

What do you do?

The practical, rational left brain tells me to take the opportunity to process my own End of Life Plan. Am I going to be cremated? Buried? Tossed in an available dumpster? What debts do I owe that I don’t want my family to be burdened with? What do I do with my belongings? Do I have a will?

For me, it seems pretty straightforward. If I were to die in six months, my parents would survive me. I would want to make the process as easy for them as possible, though, so I would take care of everything I could. I don’t own much, but what I do own is meaningful. But once I’m gone, how meaningful will it still be?

My clothing (and all my fabulous shoes) would be donated to women’s shelters that help women help themselves, as would the absolutely ridiculous amounts of skin and beauty products I own in various locations. Someone could benefit from my frivolity.

All of my jewelry designs would be mailed or given in person to women who have inspired and supported me. I would want each of them to know what they meant to me, and I would hope that in wearing my jewelry, my joy for life would be remembered and honoured.

My books would be donated to the Living Library, tagged and passed out to forever wander the world like I feel I have.

My computers (after I clear out all the nude photos and terrible poetry, followed by a thorough hard drive wipe) would be given to NaNoWriMo.org to be loaned out to aspiring writers in the hopes that they would write an amazing novel (and actually complete the challenge, since I’ve never managed to).

My Special Things would be given to my friends to encourage them. My knitting supplies, my jewelry-making supplies, my camping and climbing gear – anything truly and quintessentially MINE – would go to people I know would use them.

Other than these items, I have nothing. I have no real knick knacks, other than what already resides at my grandmother’s house, which mean anything to me. I live a simple life, I think.

As for what’s to be done with me – apparently my father already purchased a burial plot for me beside him in a family location. That’s already settled. And as for the debts that I owed from something like the year 2000 – well, they’ve either fallen off my credit or I’ll file for bankruptcy. Whatever, because I’m dying, right?

Lastly, I’d send out the appropriate announcements via gmail and facebook. Shocking, yes, but I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to feel that I was ignoring them when I never replied back if they wrote me after my death. I feel like maybe I’d have a guilty conscience about that, posthumously.

Have I covered the basics?

Now that the practicalities have been observed, the right side of my brain gets fanciful. Last year I wrote my Life List. A list of things I want to accomplish before I die. Thus far, I’ve accomplished one and two/thirds items on the list. Having just turned twenty-nine, it is still an assumption (according to me, at least) that I have plenty of time to accomplish everything I want to do. But what if I didn’t? What if six months is all I get?

I had better make the most of those six months, hadn’t I?

I can’t say at this time that there’s any one person I’d like to spend my last days on earth with. What I honestly think I would do is use my flight benefits to go absolutely everywhere I could. I would take the opportunity to do the most ridiculous things. Riding an elephant in India. Bungee jumping in Iceland. Sky Diving in Hawai’i. Watching the Northern Lights in Alaska. Walking on the snow in Antarctica. Riding horses in New Zealand. Driving a Ferrari on a race track. Drinking snake blood in Bangkok. Dancing the tango in Buenos Aires. Snowboarding. Sailing. Climbing. Swimming. Praying. Laughing. LIVING.

As the quote from Shawshank Redemption goes: “Get busy living, or get busy dying.”

I’d take pictures, of course, but even as I write this, it seems meaningless. I don’t have children to leave a scrapbook for. Leave a stack of memories for the family and friends I do have? Ones who will eventually grow old and forget me themselves?

Making the list of things I would do seems pointless and selfish, but I honestly feel it’s what I would do. Why? I have no real idea. If I didn’t make the most of those six months, who would know? When I die, it’s not like I can take any of it with me, but it’s better than sitting around waiting to die, right? What else can one do?

As it turns out, there is something else that I can do.

In writing this column, I’ve actually been able to distill what is important to me. Money and possessions (as I’ve said for a long time) have no value to me; it’s the memories that sustain me. But I feel a sense of futility in trying to accomplish things on my Life List in the last months of my life. That Life List is a way for me to celebrate why I’m living, not why I’m dying. What I honestly want in the last months before my death is to feel that I made a difference for the living. I affected something in a positive way. I made life worth living for another creature.

But then, why wait until you’re dying to Do Good?

So here we are. I’ve learned something about myself: I want to Do Good, and I might even take the opportunity to start now. Put yourself in this situation, what would YOU do if you knew you were dying?


Maigen is simple. is smart. is wholesome. is skeevy. is spicy. is delicate. is better. is purer. is 100% more awesome than yesterday. She';s traveling the world and writing about her experiences with life, love, yoga, food, travel and people. Mostly people. Because they';re funny. hear more of her random thoughts @maigen on twitter.

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