The Meaning of a New Year’s Day When You’re Terminally Ill

Taking stock is different when life is about to end
A tree leaning over a cliff in winter on New Year's Day


Today is New Year’s Day, the day when many of us take stock of our lives and make plans for the year to come. For some of us, this involves New Year’s resolutions — promises to ourselves about living better, happier, more fulfilling lives — that we almost never keep. We make to-do lists of tasks and behaviors that we think will help us reach our goals: join a gym; go on a diet; lose 10 pounds; give up smoking; apply for grad school; quit a dead end job; write a book; have a child. And very often we’re quite committed to accomplishing these things when we are looking ahead at 365 bright new days.

But then, of course, life gets in the way. The promises fade, and we fall back into our comfortable habits and routines. Because there’s always time, or so we believe.

But what is New Year’s Day like when you’re terminally ill, when the promise of another year is unlikely to be fulfilled?

David is a 70-year-old man with terminal prostate cancer. He has lived with his disease for nearly 20 years — long enough to know that he is now “officially done.” He wants no more hormones; no more chemotherapy; no more radiation treatments; no more experimental therapies. He is at peace with his decision to stop all curative treatments. He is on hospice care at home. And in his own words, he is “ready to go.”

When I spoke to David shortly before Christmas, I asked him how the holidays had changed for him now that he knew his life was coming to an end. Did he feel sad that this was in all likelihood his last Christmas? And how did he feel about New Year’s? Could he see himself making “resolutions” this year, and what would they be?

David answered that, of course, he was sad that this would likely be the last time he spent the holidays with his family. But he knew that they would be OK without him, and that knowledge made it easier for him. His children were grown. They knew their dad was dying, and they were all terribly sad. But they had talked a lot about carrying on traditions, and David felt confident that the joy of the season would be something they would have forever, even after he was gone.

Tree covered with snow on New Year's Day“I remember Christmas when they were little kids,” he said. “All the presents under the tree, and how excited they would be that Santa came! Now I look at those years of playing Santa as my legacy, in a way. I gave my kids a lifetime of happy memories, and I know they’ll want to preserve them by remembering the holidays as a happy time.”

Then I asked him about New Years again, and he surprised me by laughing out loud. “What am I going to promise to give up that I haven’t already lost?” he said.

But then he got serious again. “You know what this disease has taught me, Kathleen?” he said. “It’s taught me that most of what we try so hard to accomplish in life is absolute B.S. The promises we make to ourselves about being ‘better’ have nothing to do with being a better person or living a better life. They’re about living up to some dumb ‘standard’ that we’re supposed to measure ourselves against. Then along comes this disease and all of a sudden those standards don’t mean a thing. You don’t care about how much you weigh or what clothes you wear. You don’t care about the size of your paycheck of what kind of car you drive. All you want to do is live.”

“And when you find out that’s not even possible…well, then, if you’re lucky, you come to realize that the only thing left to do is figure out how to die. And since I don’t know anything about that, I figure all I can really do is live the rest of my life, however long that may be, the best way I know how.”

“So that’s my New Year’s resolution,” he said. “I want to learn what it means to live a good life. And since I know I don’t have much time left, I’m going to work really hard on finding out.”

After I left David that day, I felt as if he had taught me something, although I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. He hadn’t given me any profound insight into what it was like to be dying, or how I could use his experience to come to terms with my own eventual death. Nor did he tell me anything I didn’t already know about the futility of our society’s crazed “pursuit of happiness,” and the way most of us spend our lives.

But then, as I thought more about it, I realized that David had reminded me of something I already knew, but had forgotten at least a million times. And that’s that “dying” is a verb, just as “living” is. And when we live well — when we learn what that means for each of us — we will also, of necessity, die well. They’re no different, really. We live until we die. And we can choose how we do that until the moment comes when we close our eyes for the last time.

A tree branch with a single flower covered with ice on New Year's Day


So today, I made a single promise to myself and to the universe. To the greatest extent possible, I will live my life with the full knowledge that each moment I live brings me closer to death. Even more difficult but just as important, I will remember that everyone I love can disappear in a heartbeat. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed to them any more than it is to me.

If I can keep that in my heart, I will be far more able to live each day with gratitude and compassion. I believe that is probably the first step towards having a really great life.

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.
Now is the time to understand more, so we may fear less.
~Marie Curie

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