With the exception of an ill-conceived “fact of the day” experiment (lasting all of two days), this blog has been all about professionalism. That’s fine, but I write for clients almost daily, so keeping this “professional” feels too much like work. And if we’re being honest here, that’s the No. 1 reason I write so sporadically.
Inspired by a recent blog post by my friend Rob Gould, I’m changing that today.
The story I want to share in very personal and has been a long time coming because, well, I’m not so good at expressing touchy-feely personal stuff. But I feel compelled to pay tribute to a remarkable woman to whom I’m proud to be related and blessed to have known. Here goes nothing…
Early on the morning of June 12 (my dad’s birthday, by the way), my wife and daughter and I walked through our front door after flying back from a vacation in Florida. Around that same time, my aunt, Nan Hinds, lost her battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 59. Hers was a brief but incredibly intense battle that ended a day short of five months after her initial doctor’s visit.
Within two weeks of that visit in mid-January, she went from wondering what was causing her shortness of breath and general discomfort to learning that even with aggressive chemotherapy, the prognosis was that she had less than a year. Her oncologist told her that a lot of people in her situation opt out of treatment, which itself can be devastating to one’s health, but not Aunt Nan. There was no way she would go down without a fight.
She and her family and friends not only adopted the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s “Fight Like Hell” slogan as their own, but they lived it as well. One of her sons, my cousin Todd, started a blog to keep everyone updated on Nan’s condition and share photos of NSH (Nan’s initials) stickers people shared from all corners of the U.S. (Quick aside here: I learned through this process that Todd is a phenomenal writer, especially given the extremely difficult circumstances. You owe it to yourself to at least read through a few of his posts.)
That Nan still went on a family trip with my uncle and cousins and their families (planned before her diagnosis) speaks volumes about her character. More about that in a minute.
After two and a half months of rigorous, exhausting bi-weekly chemo, the prognosis actually got worse: less than six months. As much as I’ve tried, I simply can’t wrap my head around what it must have been like to be in her shoes. Or those of my Uncle Dave and cousins Scott and Todd and their families. All I had to go on was what they shared on Facebook and the blog, and that was incredibly (surprisingly?) positive. Never once was there any sign of a “woe is me” mentality.
As I touched on above, I learned a lot about Nan’s character in those short five months. The courage, poise, grace, strength and outright positivity she showed during that time were truly inspiring.
In my family, we expressed our love for each other through teasing, which was my grandfather’s specialty. It was good-natured, and you knew that if you weren’t teased, you weren’t loved. Hence my difficulty in expressing the “mushy stuff.” And there were signs of that throughout Nan’s ordeal. At her funeral last week both Scott and Todd delivered eulogies (which you can read here, in a post titled simply – and beautifully – “Mom”). In his, Todd shared a story about Nan’s complete disgust with a smartphone that she’d finally broke down and bought during her battle. She couldn’t hear anyone and they couldn’t hear her. It was an Android phone, he said, and after providing her with tech support for a while, he convinced her to get an iPhone and let him sell the troublesome phone on eBay.
When he received the package in the mail, he said, the problem was instantly clear: The phone was still wrapped in the protective plastic, which covered the microphone, earpiece and internal antenna. This despite the pull tab clearly marked “Remove before use.” Needless to say, he wouldn’t let her live that down, teasing her regularly about it. In other words, rather than dwell on the fact that Nan was dying, it was “business as usual” – as much as possible, that is.
For three months, I remained silent, never knowing what to say. I liked some of her Facebook posts, but didn’t reach out. I simply didn’t know what to say. Imagine that: a writer at a loss for words.
Finally, after the less-than-six-months prognosis, I knew I had to get over myself and reach out. But I still didn’t know what to say. My wife, who’s a pretty remarkable woman herself, gave me the kick I needed. “Just do it,” she said. “If you’re sincere, you can’t be wrong.” So after agonizing over the” perfect” wording for a while, I sent her a Facebook message. And I’m so glad I did.
What I received in response was a thoughtful, touching and appreciative message (see above) that I will cherish forever. The gravity of her situation hit me when I read the closing words: “I love you.” That’s a sentiment I’d never heard from her – or any of my aunts, uncles, cousins or grandparents. I’m not ashamed to say I had a good cry (one of many) after that.
I learned about Nan’s passing in an email my mom sent from her work address. Before January, I’d never received a message from that address, and over the next five months, every time I saw it, I knew the news wouldn’t be good. Before reading it, I knew what it would say, no matter how much I hoped I’d be wrong.
I was honored when Dave asked me to be a pallbearer. I was even more touched when I learned that it had been Nan’s specific wish to have her eight nephews fill this role. It was a sobering experience, but one of my proudest moments. During the funeral, I more or less held my emotions in check, only tearing up when I saw someone else break down.
The hardest part came at the cemetery following the funeral service. As the eight of us placed the casket on the mechanism that would lower it into the freshly dug grave, the finality of the situation hit me. I’ve never been one for expressing emotion publicly, but as we filed across the planks next to the casket to join the rest of the onlookers, I kissed the tips of my fingers and touched the top of the casket. I did it without thinking as a final goodbye to the aunt who’d taught me – and countless others – one of the great secrets of life: no matter what hardships any of us face in life, any day you wake up is automatically a good day – and should be embraced as such.
I’m working on it.
“Carpe diem” and “live like you’re dying” have become clichés, but either or both is the best way to describe Nan’s philosophy, knowing that each day could be her last and being grateful for the gift of waking up in the morning. Imagine what good could be accomplished if more people could adopt that frame of mind.
The world is a slightly less cheerful place without Nan. She touched a lot of lives in those last few months and her outright refusal to be anything but positive and optimistic was a lesson for all of us.
Thank you, Aunt Nan, for teaching us all not only how to die, but how to live. Rest in peace.