We do not remember days, we remember moments. Cesare Pavese
When I was a kid, my favorite book was The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Jester. If you aren’t familiar with the book, it’s the story of a little boy named Milo who longed to be somewhere else. When he was in school, he longed to be out. When he was out of school, he longed to be in. On his way somewhere, he thought about coming home. When he was home, he thought about going out. Then one day, this bored, discontented little boy finds a magic tollbooth, drives through it in his toy car and finds himself on an adventure with The Humbug and The Spelling Bee that will change his life.
I loved Phantom Tollbooth for a lot of reasons. One of the main ones was that I saw myself in Milo. I wasn’t so much discontented and bored as I was eager for the next thing to happen. I enjoyed being where I was much of the time, but I looked forward to what was next — the end of the movie, the headliner at a concert, the final outcome of a game (assuming, of course that my team was winning ..).
When life handed me a wake up call in the form of Jimmy’s diagnosis with brain cancer, I learned to be better about being present. It wasn’t that I thought he would die in those early years. I just got really conscious of how precious life is and how wonderful our time is with the people we love most. But as Jimmy finished his year long treatment and moved into what we thought would be his cancer-free life, I lapsed back into living more like Milo.
Jimmy’s cancer recurred a year after he finished treatment in 2008 and again in 2010. In 2011, we walked into his quarterly meeting with Dr. Nicholson expecting to be told that the scan still looked clear, only to learn that the cancer had come back with a vengeance and had spread into Jimmy’s spine for the first time. After that, I fought to be present, but it was easy to get distracted by a load of laundry, a dirty counter or an unmade bed. It wasn’t until those final weeks, when we knew Jimmy was dying, that I put everything aside and leaned in hard to those moments.
For almost three weeks, our house was full of the people Jimmy loved most. We laughed, cried, spent time together, told stories, ate delicious food, held each other close. I remember just about every one of those moments. Loving Jimmy the way we all did freed us to have the kind of conversations we don’t have enough in everyday life — about what really matters, about how precious someone is to you and why you love that other person so much.
Three years later, I confess that I’m too often back to my Milo ways again but I haven’t forgotten what I witnessed and what I learned during those three weeks. Sometimes at night, Buster and I will go outside and stare up at the stars, looking for Jimmy and my mom and dad. When a hummingbird hovers near me in the garden, I’ll stop what I’m doing to look at it and wonder if it’s my mom checking on me. And for that moment, I’ll just be there. Breathing in and out, thinking of all that I have lost and remembering all that I still have.
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