Clare Saumell VanderWeele

essays on living

The Lesson that Changed My Life

Did anyone else think they’d have life all figured out by the age of 27?

I did.

My shy, pimply 14-year old self thought 27 would be a magical age: I would be happily married, growing a family and publishing my first novel. We’d be living in our first house with a friendly dog and regular dinner parties. I probably would have figured out the meaning to life. Oh, and I’d have great hair (finally).

Instead, a year ago, I turned 27 and realized a harsh reality:

I was a widowed single mother to an only child.

I was burning myself out at work.

I owned a house that was far too big for 1.5 people.

I was sadly in need of finding my high-maintenance dog a new home.

And my hair was falling out with stress.

12 months later, I can honestly say the year of being 27 was the longest, most difficult year of my entire life.

Having said that, it was also the year I learned one of the most important lessons in my life so far.

Words Not to Live By

Live-as-if-youll-die

This quote, “live as if you’ll die tomorrow,” is typically attributed – with some dispute – to Gandhi and often pairs with the line, “dream as if you’ll live forever.”

And while many people might believe these words are inspirational, I honestly believe this quote is 90% bullshit.

If you knew you would die tomorrow, what would you do today?

It’s a trite, cliché question. I’ve heard a hundred answers without much variation. Quit your job? Go skydiving? Spend time with family? Sure, these are definitely admiral things…

But what if, every single day, you wholeheartedly embraced the very real truth that you could, in fact, die tomorrow – what would you do?

The real answer to that question was the biggest lesson I’ve ever had to swallow. It took me 28 years and the death of my husband to realize it.

What would I do today if I died tomorrow?

Encountering death at a young age inevitably makes you question your own life, and grief makes you look at that cliché question differently. Any answers I may have given in the past clearly came from an outgrown, dismissive, and hopelessly optimistic self.

My 27th birthday was exactly 3 months out from Chris’s death, and the thought of dying terrified me. If I could hypothetically die tomorrow, I better make every single day count.

And so I started out the year with grand plans. I had a vision board. I had goals. I was going to make this year count for something. I was going to change my life.

It became obsessive. I threw myself into my goals with a desperate, overwhelming urgency. I was writing novels, cooking new recipes, potty training my almost-2 year old son, practicing my photography, taking an online philosophy class, reading new books, decorating my new house, working out, counting calories, planning birthday parties and get-togethers. I didn’t stop moving. After all, every single day may have been the last.

I took me about 3 months to crash.

One Sunday night after a small St. Patrick’s Day dinner party, I found myself on the bathroom floor, regretting too many Irish coffees, and sobbing that I could not live like this.

I could not live every day as if I would actually die tomorrow.

Recognizing the Hard Days

cheerios
This disconcerting realization was hard to accept. I felt ashamed and weak for abandoning my goals. I felt like I was wasting time, and I hated myself for not being able to live up to my big dreams. I believed I was broken. My notebooks were left empty. My DSLR gathered dust. My two year old and I ate cheerios for dinner on a regular basis. I cried. A lot. I watched too much Netflix, and my house was a disaster.

It took months before I was okay with this. Before I accepted that there are hard days that won’t live up to your dreams.

And this is why I don’t think the saying “live as if you’ll die tomorrow” gives credence to the fact that daily life doesn’t always feel miraculous. There are simply days when shit happens. There are days when you have to cut yourself some slack. There are days when staying in bed is the best you can do.

This quote discredits the fact that some days life gets really hard.

Yes, part of the mess was thanks to the tornado of grief. But part of it was just a collection of long, rough days. I did the best I could. We were fed and clean. We survived. But those messy days are a reality.

Unless we are Gandhi himself, I honestly believe that to actually live daily as if we were to die tomorrow is almost impossible.

Finding the Balance

Of course, on the opposite end of this spectrum, I have a feeling there are far too many people walking around in passive denial of their own mortality. Sure, they know they’ll die one day, but it’s all too easy to assume that’s a long way off.

And so ultimately, I believe there must be a balance. No, I can’t dedicate every minute of every day to living like I’ll die tomorrow. But I’m also painfully aware of my own mortality. That there is a healthy middle ground between these counterpoints is the lesson that changed my life.

I’ve given up on my laundry list of arbitrary goals, and committed myself to the aspirations I’m passionate and joyful about. I run because I want to be a healthy 90-year old one day. I write because it’s the only way I can figure out what I’m really thinking. I read so I can write better. I take Nicholas on road trips because I want him to learn about the land and world around him.

I acknowledge that there are some long, rough days where I lose my cool, but I make a point to recognize what I’m grateful for each and every day. And when I’m losing hope or if despair overpowers gratitude, I listen to what my son is thankful for every night, because he gives the most magical answers: He’s thankful for faces and toes. For grandma’s house. For cheese and Thomas the Tank Engine. For walls and windows. For his nose. For mommy.

No such thing as magic

cupcake

For me, living as if I’ll die tomorrow means living with daily joy and gratitude. It doesn’t mean I have to commit my days to some grand gesture of living. All the small gestures count too. Even on the hard days.

So, as disappointed as my 14-year old self would have been, 27 has not been the magical age in which I’ve figured my life out. And neither, I expect, will 28. In fact, I hear from multiple sources there is no such magical year. Bummer.

Candles photo courtesy of Manuel Bahamondez H

Cheerios photo courtesy of Pewari

Cupcake photo courtesy of Laura Bernhardt

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you. Awesome read. I too, lost my husband. I was a widow at the age of 25 and a single mother of a 2-year old. I am now 29 and my daughter is 6. I can relate to the majority of the things you write about and I can honestly say that it takes a lot of courage to write about it. Thanks again. I look further to reading more…

    • Hi Erica, thank you so much for reading and commenting. It’s so scary to share this stuff, but responses like yours reinforce my belief that we are never alone in our situations – no matter how dark our days get. I’m sure you probably agree that single parenting is one of the hardest things you’ve ever done, and yet – at least for me – it is the joy of my son that keeps me going. Wishing you all the best 🙂

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