A Piece of Advice from my Dying Mentor Changed My Life

When I heard that my dear friend Bo had brain cancer and only three months to live, it was hard for anyone to comprehend. She was in her early 40’s with two kids and was one of the most full of life people I knew. She was someone I aspired to live my life after. Not because of any career aspirations she had had but because her outlook on the world was so wise. She was older than I was and I had gone to her many times for counsel on anything from marriage, to children, to the meaning of life.  But now she had a maximum of 3 months to live. My only mentor was dying. Bo was one of the most honest people I had ever known. I could talk to her about anything and her infectious laugh grew ever louder the more outrageous and philosophical my questions were. So the phone call to talk about her imminent death was going to be a hard one. And yet, once I heard her voice, I knew, I could be as honest as I always was. I knew she would appreciate that. After we finished the formalities about the doctors and the chemo and the inevitability of it all, we moved into something deeper. She was ready for the life questions. And in respect to her, I asked her what I really wanted to know. Was there anything she wished she had done? I imagine one thinks about these things when facing the end. Did she wish she had written a book or gone somewhere or lived some way she hadn’t? Her kids were in their early teens at the time, and she had been a stay at home mom all of their lives. This was partly because she followed her husband around for his job and partly because she had chosen to. Her kids have grown up to be extraordinary contributions to humanity so her hard work was not in vain and she knew this. What she told me was that she didn’t wish she had written a book or had a big career or done more in the doing sense.  She was proud of being a mother and that really was the most important thing for her. I hesitated before asking the question I really wanted to know. The question I imagine would be on anyone’s mind who knew they were dying. “Is there anything you regret? “ She paused and was very quiet for a long while.  I understood she was thinking a lot about this and wanted to tell me as truthfully as possible what came from her heart. She finally responded with a deep sigh. “Yes, there is. There is something I regret very much” I had a knot in my stomach waiting for her to continue. “I wish I hadn’t worried so much.” She said.  “I spent so much time worrying about so many things. And what I know now is that everything in life has a way of working itself out. Until it doesn’t. Until you are sick. And so I regret wasting so much useless time and energy on worrying. Because in the end, things always work themselves out.” I didn’t cry on the phone but I broke down after we hung up. We lived in different countries at the time and although I booked my tickets immediately (I was 9 months pregnant) I only made it up for the funeral two days after she had passed. Her husband welcomed us into the room where they held the wake. “And then there is new life” he said stoically, gently stroking my baby daughter’s head as he exited so we could say our goodbyes. That was 7 years ago now and I still think of Bo every day. But what I especially think about is what she said. On those sleepless nights fraught with worries about bills or work or kids or husbands or even more trivial things than we care to admit. All of those worries. All of those useless worries about things we can’t control. That steal us away from our loved ones or the present moment or just being in our own skin and seeing what is around us without being frazzled.  “Because everything works itself out until it doesn’t.” So I think about Bo and I hold my children a little closer and squeeze my husband’s hand and I try to let it go. I breathe in the day and close my eyes and listen to the wind, I feel the sun or the rain on my face and I think of her knowing she was dying. And I think it is good advice for all of us. Let’s stop worrying so much. It could just become our greatest regret in life.

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