The day that Jeff found out he was going to die — really die, and soon — it was mid-October. The PET scan results from two days before were in, and Barb, Jeff, and I drove downtown to hear them.
We didn’t talk much that morning. We drove on Lake Shore Drive, and from the back seat, I stared at the familiar statues and signs and bridges, and wondered how life had taken us here. I half expected the statues and signs and bridges to turn themselves inside out in front of me, or suddenly upend themselves… that would have made more sense than what was happening to Jeff. To us.
And as we sat in the clinic room, and the doctor said, “There’s nothing else we can do,” time stopped. The world outside of that room didn’t exist… even our kids. I wanted to hug Jeff and reasoned that if I held tight to his body, I could keep him here forever.
Jeff was admitted to the hospital that afternoon, for infection. I didn’t want to leave, but Barb and I drove home on his request.
I don’t know what Jeff was doing or thinking in that hospital room alone. But in the car, I was sobbing. I called Jeff’s hepatologist. She had given me her cell number months before. She answered.
“I’m so sorry, Jessica,” she said.
“I told them that he’ll want to go for a trial,” she said.
“But right now, he should think about how he wants to spend his time. What does he really want to spend his time doing?”
What should he spend his time doing.
Jeff chose to spend his time exhausting every option, leaving no clinical trail unexplored, no medical center of excellence unvisited, no detail unnoticed and no bile drainage unrecorded. I sometimes hated this. How he chose to spend his time affected how I spent mine. I wanted my husband and my kids at home together. I wanted to stop feeling like we were fighting a ghost, stabbing spears into something with no flesh and nothing that would stick or make a difference. As time passed into November, I wished Jeff would accept hospice care. He would have died sooner, but is life for the sake of life any kind of living? Would his shortened time have been better spent?
The answer for Jeff is no. Jeff died how he had to die. And because of how he spent that time, he said to me, when he finally did accept hospice care, “Jess, I’m relieved. I just want to feel better.”
From Jeff’s diagnosis until his death, here is how he spent some of this time:
231 days living with diagnosis
125 days (54% of time with diagnosis) at a hospital or doctor visit
64 nights (27% of time with diagnosis) in the hospital
15 emergency department visits
5 days home on hospice
If Jeff had seen those numbers and known the outcome in April – when he was diagnosed – would he still have chosen to spend his time that way? I suspect the answer is yes. Jeff would’ve taken the ‘over’ on any bet for his life expectancy: he would’ve doubled-down on his tenacity because it served him well so many times before. But the answer doesn’t matter for Jeff now.
The answer matters for me. And it matters for any of us who were shaken to the core by Jeff’s death. Because how we spend our time says everything about us.
In a few days, the ball will drop and a new decade will begin. When the last decade began, Jeff and I had been married for five months. We were four years away from having our little Jake. Six years away from meeting our little Kate. Eight years away from a cancer diagnosis. In 2010, Jeff and I bought our first house — the house we live in now. Life seemed beautifully complicated and amazingly simple. We were in love, and grew more deeply in love — we had the kind of love that is friends with appreciation and admiration. We worked hard at our marriage… and we were also lucky.
But how I spent my time in 2010 is not how I spend my time now.
I don’t know where I heard it or read it, but at some point, I came across the idea that we “make time for what’s important.” It got me thinking. Is that true? What if I don’t have time? What if everything is important? Don’t I have people in my life and plans to keep because they’re all important?
The answer is no. We all have the same amount of time. There is no, “I don’t have time.” Everyone has time. It’s an equal opportunity provider. We all get the same amount of a day, quantified the same way. Nature, in partnership with our choices, decides how long we get. Life is about making time. Instead of saying, “I didn’t have time,” I now say, “I didn’t make time.” Totally different meaning. Totally different ownership and responsibility of my time.
Now, my time is mostly spent at work or with my children. I wake up early to run on my treadmill downstairs, watching shows like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or Modern Love or The Crown or Bachelor in Paradise. I put each of my kids to bed separately: they each get their own books, own songs, own routines. Bedtime – from baths to walking out Jake’s door – takes a good hour. Then, I clean the kitchen and maybe grade a few papers.
People often say to me, “I don’t know how you do it all.” And the answer is easy. I don’t. My mother- and father-in-law help me several days a week. They have my house cleaned. My neighbor plays with my dog every day. But not only that: I can’t do it all. And none of us can. When Jeff got sick, I prioritized. At the top of the list were faith and family. Crisis works like a centrifuge: you take your whole life, spin it down, and see what’s left.
I recently finished reading Dare to Lead by Brene Brown. She begins and ends the book with the idea of time.
People often ask me if I still get nervous when I speak in public. The answer is yes. I’m always nervous. Experience keeps me from being scared, but I’m still nervous… People are offering me their most precious gift — their time. Time is, hands down, our most coveted, most unrenewable resource. If being on the receiving end of one of life’s most valuable gifts fails to leave you with a lump in your throat or butterflies in your stomach, then you’re not paying attention.
Paying attention. Man. How often I have not paid attention to how I spend my time! How often I have squandered or overlooked when others have given me their time!
And then she ends with this:
In The Gifts of Imperfection, I wrote about the importance of a “joy and meaning” list and the power of actually thinking through these questions: “When things are going really well in our family, what does it look like? What brings us the most joy? When are we in our zone?” For my family, the answers included things like sleep, working out, healthy food, cooking, time off, weekends away, going to church, being present with the kids, a sense of control over our money, date nights, meaningful work that doesn’t consume us, time to piddle, time with family and close friends, giving back, and time to just hang out — real white space.
What was shocking for me [and my husband] was comparing this list to how we had defined success: There was no time for joy and meaning because we were too busy achieving. And we were achieving so we could buy more joy and meaning, but those require time, and time — that precious unrenewable resource — is not for sale.
One of my devotionals had an entry with something like this: God’s gift to us is time… because he knows we couldn’t handle seeing our whole life at once. Time makes our life palatable. Time gives us our life in manageable pieces.
Time feels different as I get older. In elementary school, I remember getting to the end of a school year and being amazed that I had finished first or second or third grade. School years lasted forever. I could barely remember ever being in a different grade. Awe-struck, I would clean out my desk. Summers lasted forever.
Now, I’m 38, and school years come and go. Students come and go. I have been teaching long enough that some of my former students have finished graduate school or gotten married or had babies. Some have traveled or moved. School years move by in a flash, and summers equally as quickly. Time – while quantifiably the same – feels unequivocally different.
Time, personified, is difficult. It is a shape-shifter. Time is a wall with spikes, closing in and terrifying. Time is a shadow, always connected, but usually unnoticed. Time is a band-aid, healing wounds, but slowly. Time is a whirlwind. Time is a vise. Time is a boa constrictor, but it is also a deep breath and a warm bath.
New Year’s Eve is a time for making resolutions. And I will, because I believe in setting goals, and because I believe that reflecting on the past is one of the greatest gifts of being human. But I won’t do it just on New Year’s Eve. My planner has a section to set goals for each month, and it simply looks sad if it’s not filled out. I set three goals each month: one has to do with family/kids, which usually involves planning some experience for Jake and Kate or visiting family; one has to do with me, which usually involves exercise or planning time with friends; and one has to do with finances, which usually involves a goal to save extra money. I don’t always achieve these goals, and I’m constantly reflecting on whether or not the goals I set are reasonable and achievable. I need just enough of a challenge without always falling short. And if I achieve my goals? I give myself a pat on the back, and use that as input for the next month’s goals. Year-long goals are great; but I feel more success — and feel more in control — with shorter-term goals that are monthly or weekly.
Last year, my life not only felt out of control: it was out of control. I fear my life would feel similarly, were it not for setting goals and working toward something.
What a gift it would be – perhaps the ultimate gift I can give myself – to get to the end of my life, look back, and be satisfied with how I made time for what’s important. I’ve done the hard work of prioritizing. Now comes the equally hard work of putting my time where my values are.
So, bring it on 2020. I’m ready for you.