I hadn’t heard of Amy Krouse Rosenthal until last week, when I read her New York Times Modern Love essay along with 4.4 million other people.
At first I scanned it on my phone with a writer’s inherent Google-jealousy: Damn. Someone else got an essay in the Times, and it’s going viral. Who is this person? Oh, look, here’s her adorably designed website! She’s a sassy memoirist with a bunch of books. Kids’ books, too! She has the career that I want! Lucky Amy Krouse Rosenthal! (I’m not alone or vindictive: Nearly every writer I know does this. We get over it.)
Then I actually clicked on the article and read it. Not lucky Amy Krouse Rosenthal. The article was a goodbye letter to her husband. Amy Krouse Rosenthal was only 51 years old, with three kids and an apparently amazing marriage, and she was dying of ovarian cancer. She went to the hospital thinking she had appendicitis, and she was handed a terminal illness. When she wrote the essay, she only had a few days left to live.
And now she’s gone.
Her death sent an icy pang of shock deep into the gut of every mom I know. Scratch that—every person I know. What would you do if you swung into the ER with something random, a headache or a stomachache, and left with a death sentence? It could happen to any of us.
Do you ever scroll Go Fund Me pages and read the stories? I know lots of parents who do that. We read about a happy dad of two, a busy mother of three, who suddenly got a headache. Or maybe felt a strange lump in her breast. She brushed it off, the essay says. She didn’t worry. Life was busy, full of soccer practices and carpools and uneaten lunches and PTO emails. But then she went to the doctor during a routine checkup. And then things changed, and now she’s fighting and needs your help. My friends and I text these stories to one another, or Facebook chat them, complete with links and “Oh my God” and “Isn’t it horrible” bookended with the unsaid: It could be one of us, tomorrow.
Most parents I know flirt with mortality from time to time. We wonder what would happen to our kids if we left them. We reread Marjorie Williams’s essay about getting stage four liver cancer with two young children, a cancer she discovered while idly chatting on the phone in the prime of her career.
When we’re young, we don’t typically think anything truly horrible can happen. We do stupid things, we drink stupid drinks, we stay out too late and eat bad food sometimes. We make risky choices, because we’re cloaked in the blissful innocence of youth. But as we get older, we realize that bad things can happen and do happen. The friend who gets breast cancer, the dad killed by a drunk driver, the sister whose cough really is something more sinister. It’s mortality whack-a-mole. When will it be my turn? When will it be yours? Tomorrow? In 50 years? Who knows? Do you even want to know?
Amy Krouse Rosenthal had so much left to do. She was talented and busy and fulfilled. She had years left. So do all of us, in theory. But reality is more cruel and more mysterious.
And so, after spending an indulgent 20 or so minutes Googling “ovarian cancer” and picturing myself in her position, hazily trying to peck out my final words on a laptop in between drug-induced naps, I stopped myself because I felt disgusted. Why was I wasting my life reading about how it might end?
Rosenthal wrote in her essay about a “Plan Be,” a plan to simply exist in the present during whatever time she had left. Maybe that sounds trite. But I know that cancer, or any illness, can impart a sense of beatific resignation, a shroud of calm that springs from inevitability. There is no more wondering, no more mystery, when you know your style of exit. There’s just life, minute by minute, however much longer it might last.
So what can her death teach us? My first instinct was to think that it should teach us how unfair life is. That each of us is marked for some unpredictable end, and we never know quite when the calloused noose of fate will descend to yank us from our humdrum lives and drop us into tragedy.
But that isn’t fair, and it’s not helpful. The lesson of death isn’t “be scared.” It’s to live. Live every minute. Be grateful. Be grateful that you’re stuck in traffic. Be grateful that you’re alive on this insane planet to pluck ground-up crackers from your milk-stained rug. Be glad that you have too much to do and not enough time, that you’re sleep-deprived and going gray, that your fragile work schedule has been overthrown by a pathetic snowstorm.
I’m sure that I’m going to continue to Google devastating illnesses and read Go Fund Me pages and personalize essays like Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s until I spin into a hypochondriacal mess. (I hope my therapist isn’t reading this.) But I’m also going to try something new. Instead of thinking: “This could happen to me,” I’m going to go one step further. I’m going to think: “This could happen to me, so how can I make my life even more meaningful right now?”
Maybe it’s small: letting a few emails go unanswered and playing Monopoly Jr. with my son instead. Maybe it’s big: finally getting the volunteer organization I’ve been meaning to launch off the ground. Maybe it’s about choosing the burrito instead of the salad.
But it’s not about being scared. It’s about being thankful. It’s not about wondering what can happen next week: It’s about enjoying what happens right now.