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The gift of a tough diagnosis

Though a doctor performed a miracle on my husband, we live differently now.

The insurance agent was describing the terms of a policy I was thinking about buying.

"Now, if you were to die . . . " he began.

I stopped him. "I will definitely die," I said. "No 'if' about it."

Had we lived in Central America, we could have tackled this one easily. Once, on Day of the Dead, some friends brought my daughter and me to the cemetery, where we feasted on tamales and danced to music from a portable radio, and someone in the family even set a portable TV on the grave of an uncle who loved football.


Here at home, we don't talk much about death. In particular, we don't discuss our own death if we can help it. And so many of us live as if all of this stuff we're involved with — our jobs and our houses, our family meals, our vacations, our petty inconveniences even — will go on forever. Same as it ever was, as David Byrne put it.

The man selling me a new roof tells me it's guaranteed for 50 years. Never mind that I'm 57. When I say, "That probably won't be necessary," he looks as shocked as he might if I'd just uttered an obscenity.

A little over a year ago — two days after my 61-year-old husband had picked up our mountain bikes from the shop, where they'd been tuned up in preparation for some serious riding — the two of us sat in the office of a doctor who put a hand on Jim's shoulder as he told us my husband had inoperable pancreatic cancer.

That night I Googled the statistics — the percentage of patients with Jim's diagnosis who make it through six months, a year, two. By the five-year point, the graph line seemed to be skimming the bottom of the chart. Survival rate: 2 percent.


Fifteen months later, the picture looks better. A brilliant Boston surgeon managed to get the tumor out after all, along with 38 lymph nodes, 36 of which were clear. Six months later, the most recent MRI reveals "no evidence of disease."

Many friends called it a miraculous recovery. "Thank God you can get on with your lives," one said. And, of course, in certain ways we do.

We also know there will be another scan in three months, and another after that. We speak of grandchildren not yet born, a bike trip one day in the future. On trash day — when we have to wheel our three large, heavy receptacles down our long driveway and up a hill — I say, "This will be good exercise for us when we're 80."

But we are always on the lookout, too, for the gray area on the CT scan. My husband lives with a sword over his head now.

Here's the thing, though. That sword was always there over Jim's head. Same as there's one over my own. We are all of us dying here. Some simply carry more awareness than others.

I would give just about anything for my husband and me to be back in that simple, innocent place we used to live, where we could pretend that everything we love would go on forever. But even if we were back there, if there had been no spot on the scan, no tumor, this life of ours would have been a finite one.


The gift of the diagnosis — and it's a tough one to embrace, but what choice do we have? — is to dedicate ourselves instead to embracing every day with the particular passion that comes from knowing the number is finite. I am just as glad I don't know the number of days remaining to either one of us, but I know every day, I have one less. I had better make the best of them all.

Joyce Maynard's latest novel, "Under the Influence," came out this week. For a schedule of appearances, visit joycemaynard.com. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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