No longer “unremarkable,” Avril met with her doctor who insisted upon a battery of tests. The lump, the doctor indicated, was, in truth, remarkable. Unfamiliar vocabulary seemed to pour from the doctor’s mouth and Avril could only hear snippets of it…random bits of her diagnosis…
“Skin cancer,” he said… “…it’s spread to your lungs and liver,” he went on…“Stage Four,” he said… Bringing her attention back to the stark office, the doctor’s words became mind-numbingly clear: “I’m so sorry, Avril, you likely will have less than a year to live.”
At the time, Avril was 27 years old.
Avril and I share a passion: weight training. Typically quiet and reserved, Avril and I train like beasts. Avril is averse to the “off-training day,” so while I train maybe only two or three days, Avril is at the gym for all seven. If she isn’t lifting some sort of ridiculous weight over her head, then she’s on the treadmill, running, sprinting. Long past her days as a Division I track athlete, Avril still loves training.
Wouldn’t you think that if you were diagnosed with cancer, you’d slow down, take it easy, do everything possible to maintain your health and wellness—consider maybe not working out so much, “save your energy” for chemo and radiation?
Avril’s diagnosis hadn’t stopped her; cancer wouldn’t take the athlete out of her, nor would it take away her competitive spirit. She kept running. In fact, she’d begun to take her training even more seriously, methodically preparing herself for entry into several Spartan races. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Spartan races, but they’re hard. Like really hard. I consider myself a pretty strong woman as well as an athletic one…but a Spartan race? No way!
Avril’s competed in dozens of them and added marathons and triathlons to her schedule, taking time off only for treatments. On her 28th birthday, Avril added travel to her bucket list. There were so many places she hadn’t seen and so much she wanted to do….so you know what she did? She went. She backpacked. She stayed in hostels. She stayed with friends she’d met at Spartan races.
She did what she wanted to do. And she kept on doing it and doing it and doing it…
Last summer, Avril turned 30. It was during that summer that Avril and I shared another interest: an employer. We held part-time jobs at a fitness center and worked together one night a week. Our jobs were simple, the kind that provides a little extra income and a chance to get out of the house, so we didn’t take “our work” very seriously, and quite often, we’d get hung up having deep conversations with one another and goofing off. For the two of us, it was more like “Social Hour” than it was “A Job.” Yet for every customer that walked in the door, Avril didn’t miss a beat– she’d offer a warm smile and encouraging words that were intended to make the person feel good.
During one of those nights– “Social Hour”– I witnessed Avril breaking down over her illness. Never before had Avril had such a moment; she was always smiling; chipper; upbeat. Avril was on her fifth or sixth experimental trial to fight the cancer and the protocol included some steroids which had caused incredible swelling in her face and joints. I was worried about her that night…she didn’t seem well, and she didn’t look well.
She began to cry.
I’d never seen her cry. She just didn’t do it. Many of us close to her often wondered if she was in denial of her illness because she just never seemed to get upset.
But on this night, she wept. She was disgusted with herself. She pointed to her swollen ankles and cupped the sides of her distended cheeks. She didn’t like how she looked, and she was growing frustrated over the nausea the treatments were causing. She admitted to me that she felt like shit. And then she kept apologizing to me. “I’m sorry I keep complaining,” she said. Over and over—”I’m sorry.” I told her to stop apologizing; that she was allowed to feel her feelings, all of them; that no one expected her to carry the weight of the world and cancer on her shoulders, let alone run a couple of Spartan races and a marathon. On that night, she felt those feelings– the frustration and disappointment– and when they passed…
She kept on running. She kept on competing. She kept on with her treatments. She kept on traveling. She kept on enjoying the few foods she could enjoy. This past fall, she went to every one of her Alma Mater’s home football games and tailgates. She just kept on going.
Avril dreamt of going to California. And who can blame her?! California is gorgeous, and if you’ve never been there, you should do everything in your power to get there… Avril wanted to see California and she longed to run a race in Big Sur– the Big Sur International Marathon, a 26.2-mile long race on Highway 1 along the Pacific Coast. Competing there would require grit, determination, and constant training, for much of the race, includes stretches of rugged terrain and an inordinate amount of hills.
She was “in!” She saw California. And she raced at Big Sur
When she came home, Avril was exhausted. Unable to “bounce back” like she’d done so often, Avril was rushed to the hospital where she would collapse into a coma. We learned that the cancer had finally spread to her brain – doctors had found 24 tumors. Avril died at the age of 31. She defied her “doctor’s orders” that she’d not make it beyond the year of her diagnosis. I do not tell you Avril’s story because I wish for you to be sad. Quite the contrary. I tell you Avril’s story to be inspired by it to live an extraordinary life.
There’s a scene in one of my all-time favorite movies, Dead Poet’s Society, where Mr. Keating (Robin Williams), a teacher at an all-boys school, gathers his students around him and asks a student to recite some poetry from their English textbook. The student reads from Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time”:
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
“Gather ye rosebuds,” Mr. Keating emphasizes, and he goes on to tell the boys that the Latin sentiment of Gather Ye Rosebuds is simply “Carpe Diem”—Sieze the day. Mr. Keating again repeats the opening lines, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” and asks his students why the poet writes these words to which one boy responds, “Because he was in a hurry.” “No!” insists Mr. Keating…
He continues, “Because we are food for worms, lads. Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day gonna stop breathing, turn cold, and die.” Mr. Keating encourages his students to be fully present and to “seize the day, boys; make your lives extraordinary,” he advises.
Make your life extraordinary.
Avril lived for only a short time…but she lived…and isn’t that the point? To live? To be fully present and to pack as much living into our daily existence as we possibly can? Avril was only 31, yet I am certain that she experienced more in her relatively short life than some people twice her age ever do. She seized the day. She seized all of her days. She created an extraordinary life.
American essayist and poet Henry David Thoreau once wrote:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…”
Live deliberately. With intention. Suck out all the marrow of life.
Hunter S. Thompson, an American writer perhaps more famous for his use of psychedelics than his experimental journalism, once said, “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a Ride!’”
Oh, I know life is tough…there are bills to pay, attempts– sometimes feeble–to stay in touch with family, savings to be collected for retirement, fears of not having enough money to be able to retire… and then on top of all of that, there is Pain, Loss, Suffering…we all have our own “stuff,” our “cancers,” if you will.
Cancer– “Stuff”– didn’t define nor defeat Avril.
Instead, she used her pain, her suffering, and her loss to transport her; to help her to engage with life; to be fulfilled; to create a meaningful and passionate existence, no matter the time she’d have left on Earth. She seized each and every day.
Stage 4 cancer. Given less than a year to live. She would live, truly live, for four more years beyond her cancer diagnosis. Avril sucked out all the marrow of life.
When she met her maker, I can imagine her skidding up toward the pearly gates, broadside, in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, “Wow! What a ride!”