“I have colon cancer and it has spread to my lungs – two small spots,” my new friend explained after I point-blankly asked her about it. “Because it’s on the outside of my lungs, they can’t operate.”
I just sat there. I didn’t know what else to say. Since I was so confident with my initial question about her disease, you would have thought I had an arsenal of follow-up questions ready.
The reason: I’m an idiot when it comes to cancer. The ripple effects of this disease have thankfully never impacted me. I’ve never had to ask a family member or a close friend these difficult questions. I’ve never had to ask a doctor to slow down and explain it so I could completely understand.
Words can’t begin to describe my gratefulness for my naïveté, but “inoperable lung cancer” left me speechless in this situation. I can only hope and pray that I had a look of support on my face – not pity, defeat or fear.
I finally broke the awkward silence by asking the only question that popped into my head – thanks to TV and movies, I’m sure: “Did they catch it early?”
The question I really wanted to ask this sweet lady, whom I had only met 2 months before … “is it going to kill you?”
I didn’t think that was appropriate while we were getting our “toes done.”
– – –
I first met Brenda on random night out in Bastrop, Texas.
I was out with a buddy – no wife or kids – and we ran into Brenda and several of her friends at a local taco joint. We were all sitting on the patio, enjoying some adult beverages, hot salsa and live music.
The excitement and energy coming from their table, which was right next to us, was contagious. They were laughing, dancing – enjoying life. It made it easy to engage them – we just all started talking.
Confession: I don’t remember how Brenda’s battle with cancer came up that night – I blame that on the cold beer – BUT it did. My liquid courage took over from there, and I started asking unswerving questions to this complete stranger.
“Are you a quitter or a fighter,” I asked her loudly over the southern rock blaring from the house band. I got the answer I was looking for.
“I’m a fighter, honey! I’ve beaten this once before, and I’m going to beat it again.”
Her friends around the table confirmed her confident statement with assertive head nods. It was like they were saying, “stupid question!”
I asked a few other questions, but the Dos XXs kept me from remembering them. (I’m sure they were poignant.) It didn’t matter – no one wanted “cancer talk” to consume our evening. We decided that laughing and dancing would be a lot more fun.
We all had a wonderfully great night.
As I drove home from Bastrop the next day, Brenda was in my heart and on my mind. Her flair for life had touched me in a powerful way. The fact she was standing toe to toe with a life-threatening illness made her even more audacious.
I was thankful that I had traded business cards with one of her friends, because I decided to send him an e-mail first thing Monday morning.
I just wanted to say thanks for the buying us a beer on Saturday night at Viejo’s. That was unexpected, but greatly appreciated.
I also wanted to let you know what a wonderfully great time we had hanging out with you guys. Everyone’s energy was very contagious. We had a lot of fun.
I had one other thing that I wanted to run by you. I’m working on a concept called the Live the List Project – which puts people goals, dreams and aspirations in the spotlight by focusing on their life lists. It’s my goal to turn this into a book some day.
I’m not sure if Brenda has a life list…but if she DOES, I want to help her mark something off her list. If she DOESN’T have a life list. I’d love to sit down with her and help her put one down on paper (and then help her mark something off).
I know this might seem a little random, but the Live the List Project is about living a bold, adventurous and intentional life. In the short amount of time we spent with you guys, I could tell that’s how Brenda lives. (And I love it!) That’s why I engaged you guys at the restaurant, and why I asked Brenda some hard questions that night.
I’m sure you have questions – fire away.
Again, thanks for the beer!
I look forward to hearing back from you.
– – –
It took 2 months of coordinating, but we finally set-up a time to sit down and visit again. After a 3-hour trip back to Bastrop, I met Brenda and her friends at another restaurant in the area. Just like the first time we met, we were drinking cold beer on a patio.
Thankfully, this time there was no loud music, because I was determined to…
Confession: I wasn’t exactly sure what I was determined to do. I had laid out a game plan to Brenda’s friend, Scott – but I wasn’t sure how I was going to pull it off. I wasn’t sure what I was going to ask her. I wasn’t sure if she would be receptive.
I had never had a conversation about Live the List with anyone battling cancer. (I had always wanted to, but never had the guts to do it!)
On my way to the restaurant, I said a small prayer asking for God’s guidance.
“I know that I’m going down here for a reason,” I told Him. “I’m just not 100 percent sure what that reason is, Lord. You’re. In. Control. I’m just going to follow your lead.”
I took a deep breath as I pulled into the parking lot. Then I heard the slightest whisper, “No expectations.”
I instantly felt a sense of peace and confidence come over me as I shut the car door and walked towards the restaurant.
They were already sitting on the patio – a round of beers in front of them. I recognized them immediately. Brenda looked the exact same, despite the six rounds of chemotherapy she’d battled through since the night we met.
It was her zeal that I remembered the most.
“No, but I’m sure you’re going to tell me.”
Everyone around the table laughed at her directness. I smiled a nervous smile and started explaining the Live the List Project. I hit the highlights:
“An informal road map to living a bold, adventurous and intentional life…”
“A call to action to focus on other people’s goals and desires…”
“Providing hope in the lives of people going through the motions and not truly living life…”
I’m sure I was talking fast and not making a whole lot of sense. I finally just stopped and asked her, “Do you have a life list?”
Even though my hands got sweaty, I stayed confident. “Can I help you put a list together – a handful of things you want to do or experience – and then help you mark something off your list?”
“I don’t need anything,” she said with a confident smile. “I’m happy. I’ve got a great husband…great friends…I really don’t need anything.”
I wasn’t rattled. I had had many conversations just like this. I knew it was going to take a calculated conversation – packed full of poignant questions – to get anywhere. It was a process.
“There is nothing you want to do? No where you want to go? Nothing you want to experience?”
She replied with another confident no, but after a couple more beers and a lot of healthy dialogue, we finally started making headway.
Brenda shared her dream of going to Australia and packing into the backwoods of Colorado to hunt mule deer. I loved it, but those were “big-ticket items” that weren’t going to get accomplished during my 24-hour trip to Bastrop County.
What else? I went down my list of thought-provoking questions. Examples:
– “Is there a food you’ve always wanted to try?”
– “Is there something that scares you?”
– “Is there something you failed at before that you want to try again?”
– “Is there something you want to do with
your husband? Your friends? Your kids?”
She mentioned going on a girls weekend, attending a Houston Texans football game and “living outside.” With every adventure she threw on the table, my mind started going a 100 mph. I would ask myself, “How can I help her accomplish that goal?
• Girls weekend…come up to my parents’ property for the weekend?
• Football game…I actually called my buddy who works for the Cowboys, who happened to be playing the Texans that weekend. I wanted to see if he had access to tickets.
• Living outside…build her a tree house?
We kept talking – everyone around the table was engaged in the conversation. We laughed a lot, shared stories and brainstormed.
It was good. Real good.
Then Brenda said something very matter-of-factly out of the clear blue: “After all this over – and I beat this again – the first thing I’m going to do is get a pedicure.”
“Hold on. What?”
“I want to get a pedicure after I’m done with my radiation and all of this is behind me.”
“Why do you have to wait? Let’s do it tomorrow!”
I was firm and direct, and everyone at the table had my back. One of her friends even said she would take off work and go with us. I started to get excited – almost to the point of tears.
“I can’t,” Brenda said, just as matter-of-factly as before. “I have too much to do tomorrow.”
The smile was temporarily erased from my face, but her friend, Scott, came to the rescue.
“Like what,” he rebuked.
“I need to pick up my prescriptions, go to the liquor store…”
“I’ll do that for you,” he quickly said.
“Are you going to go grocery shopping for me, too?”
“Sure,” Scott said with a wink.
She was running out of excuses, and she knew it.
She finally agreed, and before we called it a night, we had a game plan for our pedicures: We’d meet at 1 o’clock at the nail salon – me, Brenda and two of her friends were going to “get our toes done.”
Scott was going to run Brenda’s errands.
– – –
Our feet were soaking in the tubs when I got permission from Brenda to write about her, the disease and the last 24 hours.
“As long as it’s true,” she said.
I told her I had a couple follow-up questions. She didn’t mind.
“If I can say one thing that will help someone else, that will make me happy.” (I think she said “happy,” she was starting to giggle from the nail technician scrubbing between her toes. “That tickles!”)
That’s when I asked about the cancer. That’s when “inoperable lung cancer” interrupted our conversation. After she explained that they did catch it early – AND she reiterated that she was going to beat it again – I finally asked the million dollar follow-up question.
“What’s the one thing you want to say to impact someone else,” I asked.
“Live life to the fullest. Don’t waste a single day.”
“Have you always had that perspective or just since your diagnosis?”
“I’ve always lived that way, but when you’re diagnosed with cancer it makes it real.”
I completely understood, and I think that’s what intrigued me about discussing the Live the List Project with her.
Then, Brenda said something wonderfully great and extremely compelling:
“I’m not scared of dying. I’m scared of not living.”
She turned attention back to her feet. “That feels so good,” she said smiling at the nail tech. “I’ve never had this done before.”
– – –
Brenda and her two friends got their toes painted bright orange for Halloween. I was going to join the party, but my nail technician didn’t ask me what color I wanted.
As we walked out of the nail salon, we snapped some pictures and hugged.
I left Brenda with two challenges:
“First of all….as soon as you’re done with your radiation – and you feel up to it – mark something off your life list. Anything. Something.”
She agreed, and her friend, Val, gave me a promissory glance, implying she would hold her to it.
“Secondly…you have to pay it forward. That’s what makes Live the List so impactful. I want you to help someone mark something off their list.”
You could see Brenda’s wheels turning, and she started talking about another cancer patient from the hospital.
“I think I’ll invite her to lunch,” she said.
I smiled and ended the adventure with another deep breath – a thank you to God for the last 24 hours.
– – –
As I began my 3-hour drive home, I thought about something that was said the night before on the patio. It was a one-off comment, but it was like throwing gas on the Live the List fire. I would be remiss not to close this post with it.
Towards the end of the evening, Brenda was having a conversation with one of her friends. They were planning an outing and indirectly going to mark something off her friend’s life list.
Scott caught it before I did. He reached across the table and gave me a high-five.
“What?” Brenda asked.
“You’re talking to her about marking something off her list,” Scott explained.
Brenda quickly turned to me: “Look what you started!”
“Yes, ma’am. Live the List.”