Scared to Death

DSC_1150“When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.” –Stuart Scott (1965-2015)

Hello friend,

I am a total mess today. I just learned a few hours ago that longtime ESPN “SportsCenter” anchor Stuart Scott died this morning after a long battle with cancer. Even though I knew that this day would come, since I don’t watch much television, Stuart had been off my radar since his moving speech at the ESPY Awards this Summer, a speech that culminated with him calling his daughter up to the stage for a big hug. So, when I turned on my phone this morning and saw the headline, it was a gut-punch.

I sat there on my sofa with slow tears falling down my cheeks as I read the long tribute to Stuart and his astounding impact on those he loved and on the world of television sports journalism. Then I gathered myself and headed up the stairs, yelling to the kids that it was bathtime. Then, I crashed. I broke down in uncontrollable tears. I stood there in my bathroom and thought that I should mention Stuart’s death to my wife, a casual sports fan, in the other room. But when I tried to bring the words, I just sobbed harder, the tears pouring down and the breaths hyperventilated. Eventually I settled myself down enough to greet the kids with giant, hard-as-I-can-squeeze-you hugs as they came up the stairs. I asked them both to stop for a moment and look into my eyes so I could tell them with all my heart that I loved them and would always love them no matter what happens.

As I held tight to my two little angels, I couldn’t help but think of the two daughters that Stuart Scott left behind this morning when he finally let go. They were the reason he fought through three different bouts with cancer over the last seven years of his brave life. Seven years. That is a lot of surgeries, a lot of chemotherapy, a lot of pain, but, even more important, a lot of extra days with those two girls. Long enough to see one become a high-schooler and the other a college student. Precious years full of priceless moments.

It was those years and those miraculous moments between a father and his children that had me sobbing in my bathroom this morning. And it was cancer. Yes, it had much less to do with Stuart Scott, the man—whom I had always very much enjoyed and respected on ESPN over the years—than it did with fatherhood and cancer. I cannot stomach this combination. It terrifies me. More specifically, it haunts me.

A few years ago, my sweet cousin Heide died after another protracted battle with cancer. Still in her thirties, the disease simply devoured her, leaving her loving husband and two young daughters behind. This incident shook me on so many levels. Beyond the loss of someone I loved dearly, it completely rattled me regarding my own death and planted an obsession in my brain regarding cancer. I have gone over and over in my mind how Heide must have gone through her process, especially the latter stages, when her fate became not an “if” but a “when”. How did she talk to her children? How did she talk to herself? Where is that transition point from hope to no hope, and how did she navigate it? How much did she actively lament the loss of years with her children and husband, and where did she find the strength to accept that loss? How sure was she that her kids will remember her?

These questions haunt me. I agonize over them. Eventually and inevitably, they lead to vivid daydreams—“daymares,” I call them—in which I am the one riddled with cancer, and I have the task of navigating my dying months with my children. All sorts of dramatic, heartbreaking scenes play out in my mind, and I take myself through the experience of the anguish and devastation over the loss of time together, of me missing out on raising them and them missing out on their father for the rest of their beautiful lives. Tears flow, both in the vision and in reality, as the vision feels so vivid and raw. It tears my heart into bits. I cry even now as I write this to you.

I can’t say for sure how much of this stems from Heide’s death from cancer, how much is from the birth of my children, and how much is from something pre-existing in me. Whatever the combination, I believe that I am drawn to the visions—and to today’s death of Stuart Scott—because I think it is going to happen to me. I do. I hate to even say that, because I don’t want to put that idea out into the Universe. I don’t want the Law of Attraction to kick in and draw cancer to me just because these cases so persistently stick to my soul and my mind. It seems so morbid. But I also want to be honest with myself. I feel compelled to own up to this extreme dread I feel about cancer and the end of my own life. Those visions are just so real!

I desperately hope that my premonitions are wrong and that I will live to a ripe old age, watching children and grandchildren grow and flourish in health and happiness. I know, too, that there is no guarantee of any of it. I could have an aneurysm before this sentence ends. (Whew!) I could be hit by a car tomorrow. Worse yet, my kids could get hit by a car tomorrow. There are no promises here.

I know that the very best I can do is be fully absorbed in each moment and love them with all that I have, to not waste time and energy dwelling on the future or regretting the past. The present is the gift. So, I will do my best to wipe my tears and bring myself fully to the present with those I love. I will enjoy every moment that I am blessed with. I will live well. I will do my best with what I can control. The end will come when it does, so I will just take the ride. I know how lucky I am. Thanks be to God. Life is beautiful.

How about you? How do you envision your death? Get out your journal and expose yourself. Do you have premonitions of your end and the process leading to it? How vivid are they? Do they bring out strong emotions in you, like my sobbing? Do you become obsessed or preoccupied with these thoughts? How crippling is that? Do you have specific visions for the manner of your death (e.g. my cancer vision)? How old do you think you will be when you die? Are you okay with that age? Would you like to know the real answer—the date of your death? How would that affect the way you live right now? If you knew you would die one year from today, what would you change? If you have a long list of answers to that question, do you think that means that you need to make some changes anyway? Would you rather a loved one die of something protracted so you had a chance to prepare for their passing (e.g. saying what you wanted to say), or would you rather them go suddenly so you didn’t have to dwell on it while they lived? How do you accept the news of the death of others? I used to just say “Good for them!” and wish them well on their journey, then let it roll off of me. Now I am more prone to days like today, when a stranger’s death can really break me up. How much do you fear or dread your own passing? Has that changed as you have moved through life? How has it changed relative to new relationships in your life? For example, my mindset was “Take me anytime; I am ready,” right up until my kids were born, and now I cling desperately to life on Earth. Do loved ones give you not just a reason to live, but also a reason to dread dying? Does one particular way of dying (e.g. Alzheimer’s or ALS) seem particularly unappealing to you? If you had a choice, what would take you? It is a big topic: Death. And since none of us is immune, we must all make our peace with it at some point.   Or perhaps not. At the moment, I am in the NOT category, particularly if it is soon and cancerous. I cannot accept that combination. How about you: What makes you feel scared to death?

Give us your best today,

William

1 thought on “Scared to Death

  1. Mom

    I think we all fear what will happen to us but as they always said at Hazelden “Don’t waste your life worrying about those things over which you have no control, instead do what you can with those things you can control and know the difference between the two. That’s all we can try to do. I love you honey!!

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