My childhood friend Marisa would have been 44 this weekend. We had so many years of mischief and belly laughs.
Modern Loss has just published my essay about the last year of Marisa’s life, and the final gift she gave me without even knowing it. I republish it for you with their permission…
Living A Year As If It Were My Last
As my childhood friend was dying, I embarked on a 365-day experiment in living.
“Statistically my time was up at least a year ago. But I’m still here,” wrote my childhood friend Marisa at the top of her Facebook note “25 Random Things About Me.” I had read and re-read her list so many times I’d nearly committed it to memory.
Marisa and I met the day her family moved onto our street in suburban New Jersey. She was the curly-haired impish little sister in a gregarious Italian Catholic family. I was a stringy-haired bookworm — the oldest sibling in a family of reserved Protestants. Her brother was inseparable from my brothers, and our parents barbecued together while we played hide-and-seek in the woods on summer nights.
Marisa discovered the marble-sized mass in her left breast 10 months before her wedding to her college sweetheart, David. She was 30. After a lumpectomy, a dozen rounds of chemotherapy and 30 radiation sessions, Marisa and David said their vows while my mother passed a packet of tissues down the church pew. They donated a portion of their wedding gifts to cancer research and settled into a tidy brick home on Philadelphia’s Main Line.
Meanwhile I had married my own David. We had two sons and lived in a New York City apartment cluttered with books and toys. We were hectic but happy. I saw Marisa at our families’ annual Christmas dinners in New Jersey; mainly we kept in touch through Facebook.
By the time Marisa was 39, the cancer was in her liver, spine, skull, ribs, hip and lymph nodes. She responded by focusing on what made her happy. Small things, like her Facebook Random Thing #12 “I’m addicted to Us Weekly” and #15 “Raisinets.” David’s love warranted two entries: #6 “I think my husband is the funniest person I know. And the most loyal.” And # 25 “I believe my husband and I were truly meant for each other.”
Marisa’s struggle had made me profoundly unsettled. After reading her Facebook list, I began waking up at 3 a.m., trying to catch my breath. In our darkened bedroom, I’d sit against the headboard, knees pulled up to my chest, and think about mortality — Marisa’s and my own.
To ease the anxiety, I read. I devoured so many books about life’s purpose that my husband was left shaking his head every time the UPS man delivered a new one. I discovered that seekers and sages from Socrates to Thoreau, Rumi to the Dalai Lama have long implored us to live with the end ever-present in our minds. A psychological study claimed that thinking about death could actually be good for re-prioritizing goals and values. Even Apple’s Steve Jobs asserted, “Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent.”
In a move I thought would make Marisa’s playful eyes roll — that is, if I had told her about it — I decided to test this wisdom by living a year of my life as if it were my last.
To read more, click here.