A Few Good Moments Before You Die

09/26/2007 04:31 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I see them everywhere. Everywhere I turn I see or read about these books encouraging you to see things before you die. 1000 Places to See Before You Die, 1000 Places in the U.S.A. and Canada To See Before You Die. There is also one called 500 Places To Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up. That one caught my attention. Actually I thought it was called 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before You Die. Or 500 Places Your Kids are Dying To Go. Or 500 Places That If you Take Your Kids You'll Die. Actually, I'm considering a book based on own vacation experience - 500 Places To Take Your Kids Where You Are Likely to Kill Them.

Eileen has bought a few of them. In her endearingly obsessive compulsive way, she has turned over the pages of the places we have been. In her inimitable style, she found herself bouncing between being excited about all the places we could see and beating herself up that she hadn't seen more of them. Not to worry. She's making lists. This always makes her very happy.

The books have had special significance for me recently. For the past few months, we have spent a lot of time with a dear friend who lost her battle with cancer late last week. Once Hospice arrived into her life, there was much open and thoughtful conversation about death and dying. I sat one day for hours and listened to Linda tell stories of the characters who had been in and out of her life. She was a funny person. Even without morphine.

Until early September, Linda held out hope. There was a new cancer drug - in fact it had just been approved by the FDA. She and her husband had retired to Prince Edward Island but came back to the states for the treatment. She figured she would be here a long time. She packed most of her clothes. Even her bathing suit. When she arrived she talked about places she wanted to see. She talked about them with the optimism that defined her.

But in very short order it was clear that there would be no trips. She had something she called "the big wish pile" and she put trips into that pile.

Once it was clear that "the big wish pile" would be untouched, it no longer became about places to go. It became out places to be. It became about moments.

There was the moment her son and his son sat on her bed looking through cookbooks (she brought cookbooks too) (I guess she was figuring she could whip up a great meal after she went for a swim) to find her biscuit recipe. They found it. And together her son and her grandson made her biscuits. Maybe she had a bite, maybe she didn't. But all her other senses were brought to life that morning. And no doubt she told her grandson that they were the most delicious biscuits she had ever had in her life. Because they were.

There was the afternoon our daughter Scout went to visit her. Linda had mentioned to Scout earlier that week that she wanted a manicure. Not sure why. We didn't think much about it but Scout did. On a Sunday afternoon, Scout and Andrew ("the boyfriend") arrived with all the fixings for a manicure. Linda had been barely conscious before Scout arrived but they spent several hours in manicure-land, enjoying each other's company and the time they spent together. Linda told Scout that it was "the nicest thing anyone had ever done for her in her whole life."

Linda said words like these so many times in her last 3 weeks that it became comical. "That was the most amazing plum cobbler," "This is the most delicious sushi I have ever had" (she even attempted the use of chopsticks - next time you have your wisdom teeth pulled and are given percoset, try chopsticks. You will amuse your friends and family to no end). "This is the most delicious cheese I have ever tasted."

I thought at one point that she was prompted to say these things because she knew they may be her last cobbler, sushi or cheese. But now I don't think so. She was, in each case, in the moment.

Right smack in the middle of all this, I picked up the New York Times and read a powerful editorial - "The Bad News First." Written by a physician, the piece explores the importance of more thoughtful and accurate prognosis in terminal cases:

Doctors often say they worry that predictions about survival may become self-fulfilling prophecies or cause patients to lose hope. But a realistic assessment of how long a patient has to live need not cause either the patient or doctor to become pessimistic. It should only refocus attention on the quality of the patient's life. Sometimes living life to its fullest requires knowledge of its finitude.

By all accounts, Linda's oncologist was a gem. Linda beat the odds for her kind of cancer for a long while. Linda's life was extended in a big way thanks to her oncologist and her knowledge of new treatments. But what if, as the author suggests, Linda and Jack knew earlier. Would the "big wish pile" have been smaller? Maybe she would have gotten down to the Chesapeake to sit and have ice cream on that bench looking at all the beautiful boats. Maybe she and her husband would have take a trip to one of those places in one of those books.

Who knows? But what I did learn during these past few weeks in which I had the honor and privilege to be a part of the village of people who helped to escort Linda from this world onto the next is that maybe it's not about places at all.

I'm going to pay a lot of attention to the books Eileen bought. There are places I want to see. But I am also going to start thinking about moments. If I am lucky enough to be given a heads up even a few weeks in advance, I want to squeeze every little bit of juice out of every moment. For example, I am just sure I will want to eat the most delicious clams on the half shell I have ever had in my life. Even if I don't take a bite. It will give me a moment about the beach, about my childhood and about my dad. In fact, I can hear him shucking the clams right now.

My list will not be anyone else's list. It will never be published. It will also never include a manicure as I have been biting my fingernails since I was a kid. But it will be mine.

Although as I think about it, some of those moments will just happen. You can't plan them or predict them. I can go ahead and make my lists and Eileen can make hers but maybe part of the message in Linda's final weeks is that its a combo platter. You can intentionally create moments that have meaning or you can find meaning in the moments that happen. And that insight, Linda, is one the most amazing gifts anyone has ever given me in my whole life.