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Last month I found out that I have stage 4 uterine leiomyosarcoma, a rare and aggressive cancer. Doctors say I may only have a few months to live. The treatment could buy me a little more time, but not by much. My illness is advanced and incurable. My prognosis left me shocked, sad, angry and confused. Some mornings I wake up angry at the universe, feeling betrayed by my own body, and counting down the years and milestones I wanted to enjoy with my family.
I leave behind a husband and 14-year-old daughter that I adore, and a writing and teaching career that I’ve worked so hard to build. I’ve thought a lot about my life and, in addition to the horror, a surprising feeling has spread: I’m dying at the age of 49, without regrets for the way I’ve lived my life.
I’ve learned that lasting love is about finding someone who’s there for you
As a teenager, I fell in love with a boy who broke my heart not once, but half a dozen times. It was an obsessive first crush that made me stop eating and sleeping. He broke up with me and we got back together a lot in high school.
The feeling was addictive even though it made me miserable. Even after I graduated, I couldn’t get him out of my head. His story ended tragically – he took his own life at the age of 21. His death was heartbreaking, but my strained relationship with him and the traumatic aftermath taught me what I ultimately wanted in love – security, support, fun, and adventure.
I needed a partner who would help me feel good, someone stable, reliable, and free from all the romantic drama.
A few years later I met my future husband who was insecure and struggling with his own concerns. Dan was smart, literary, funny, and kind. His love for me was constant and never in question. He was a writer, but instead of competing with me, he supported my career. Dan and I have been together for 25 years and have never broken up or even broken up for a day.
I pursued my dream job with passion
“No one can make a career out of writing.” It was a statement I heard from almost everyone I knew, from teachers to parents to concerned friends. I was told I was in for a life of rejection and begging for late paychecks.
To relieve my depression, I volunteered to help dying people
But I knew I couldn’t survive waking up to the commute every morning and making my way to an office job under the neon lights from 9am to 5pm. I like being in charge of my life and schedule.
When I wanted to write a story about ice cream in America, some people laughed.
“I can see it as a magazine story, not a book,” an agent wrote to me.
And yet I landed a contract with Penguin Random House to tour the country, eat ice cream, do research, interview Jerry from Ben & Jerry’s, and ride the streets of Bensonhurst, NY in the back of an ice cream truck. The book deal was over lucrative and the release of Sweet Spot: An Ice Cream Binge Through America” It opened up opportunities for me I never expected, like being on NPR and teaching creative nonfiction writing.
Family adopts abandoned babies and years later learns they are biological siblings
In recent years I have been able to mentor and coach dozens of promising authors. In turn, these students, with their sincerity and fast-paced ambition, helped revitalize my own writing and reminded me why I got into this business in the first place.
I’ve never had a bucket list; Instead, I said yes to life
I’ve always tried to say yes to the voice that tells me to go out and do something now, even when that decision seems utterly impractical to me. A few years ago, without much planning, my family and I got in a car and drove 600 miles to a goat farm in central Oregon, where we camped for four days to watch a solar eclipse. I once flew to Germany two days in advance to spend a week exploring Dresden and hiking in the Black Forest.
“Money always comes back, but if you miss an experience, the opportunity may never come again.” That’s been my mantra since I met Dan. Even when our bank account was running low, we decided to move to New York City to pursue our writing dreams. It was incredibly difficult at first, but it worked out because we didn’t have any other choice.
I’m a good saver, but things like retirement accounts have never been important to me. When faced with the choice of taking a family trip to Kauai or investing in a 401(k) degree, I always chose the islands.
I have found people in my life who can accept me for who I am
I don’t try to hide who I am or apologize for it. I’m a bit of a recluse. I’m sure that at times I’ve hurt other people’s feelings with my behavior, such as getting out of parties early or choosing not to go to happy hour. I spent very little time thinking about it. I think it’s more important to find people who understand and accept me than to want to change me. I’ve done my best to avoid people who approach me with unreasonable expectations. And because I don’t have to spend time hiding the real me, my friendships are real. Since my diagnosis, I’ve had the opportunity to tell my friends how much I love them. They told me so too, and I feel it deeply.
I live where I want, even if the numbers are never right
I love spending time in the redwoods and by the sea. Just a few months ago I was running four miles a day along the expansive seafront off West Cliff Drive, where I could see surfers and otters frolicking and watch humpback whales feeding just offshore. That became my everyday routine.
My favorite places are within a 10 minute drive of my house and most are still accessible even though my energy levels continue to drain as the cancer spreads through my body.
The downside to this dream life is the cost. My family and I live in one of the most priceless places in America.
Rescued baby walrus was cuddled around the clock in its final days
Dan and I have spoken about uprooting dozens of times, but my friends and our writing community are in Santa Cruz, and my daughter loves her friends and her school, so my husband and I decided to stay. My family will never own a home–at least not in my life–but at least I die surrounded by people who love me and bring me food when I need it. These are people who are willing to stand up for me no matter what. And I know that they will be there for my husband and daughter even after I’m gone.
The end of my life comes way too soon and my diagnosis can be unbearable at times. But I’ve learned that life is made up of a series of moments, and I plan to spend as much time as possible enjoying each and every moment, surrounded by the beauty of nature and my family and friends. Luckily, I’ve always tried to live my life that way.
Amy Ettinger is a creative writing author and educator based in Northern California.
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