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Losing my mother and sister taught me to take charge of my life

New Year’s Day 2015 began at 3 a.m. with a phone call from my dad with news of my mother’s death. The loss of a parent is something a child fears their entire life, but in this case, it was welcome news. My mom had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for a decade, and it was time for the agonizingly slow deterioration, exhausting caregiving and debilitating sadness over the transformation of a vital woman into a helpless invalid to come to an end.

The bittersweet relief over my mother’s death never materialized. Just 24 hours prior, my family had received the news that my sister had stage 4 pancreatic cancer. There was no time to stop, take a breath, grieve and regroup because we were forced into a dramatic fight for my sister’s life.

Within the few seconds it takes for the doctor to deliver the news of a terminal illness, life is changed forever. A minute-by-minute fight for survival replaces mundane daily activities like deciding where to have lunch or checking out housewares at T.J. Maxx. Health care decisions need to be made instantaneously, research is ongoing and life as you know it… is over. You are thrust into a horrible nightmare, but the only catch is you never wake up.

Image: Jane Coloccia/SheKnows

In my sister’s case, obstacles arose fast and furious. Her cancer was so advanced that a few weeks in her own home, sleeping in her own bed and doing things like making breakfast or cleaning the bathroom were all that she had. After the first month, her body began to experience life-threatening breakdowns, which required weeks in the hospital, numerous medical procedures, an inability to eat or metabolize food, significant weight loss and muscle deterioration so bad she could no longer walk. Four months and seven days from her diagnosis, she was dead.

My sister told me this illness had philosophically taught her to slow down, cut back on work and enjoy life more. While she knew she was terminal, she always held out hope to be able to survive for at least six months or more so she could see a movie on a weekday afternoon, learn to meditate, read, relax and come see my new house with a view of the Pacific Ocean in California. She never got the chance to do any of it.

Seeing my mother struggle with Alzheimer’s gave me the impetus to start going after my fantasy life. Having a family history of the disease was a sobering realization that I could have the same fate, which is why I chose to pick up and move from New Jersey to California, just seven months before my mom passed away. Living in California was something I had wanted to do since high school graduation, and I never had the guts to make the move. Witnessing how life can be taken away from you so unexpectedly gave me the motivation I needed to make the transcontinental move — despite the objections of everyone around me but my sister.

While I was so proud of myself for finally making that move with my husband and dog, the reality is that I wasn’t living as fully as I could have. I was still working too much, enjoying life too little and not really finding out what it is that would make me truly happy and fulfilled.

What I learned in 2015 is that life can be unexpectedly cut short. We are all going to die, and yet we spend our days not truly living. We act like there is going to be this magical transformation one day off in the distance when we will have everything we ever wanted and yet we make no move to go after any of it.

Happiness for us is perceived as that time, some day, when we will finally lose weight, work out or find the perfect mate. We spend our days just going through the motions in jobs we might hate; zoning out with alcohol, drugs or food; paralyzing ourselves by wasting hours on social media or in front of the TV; and complaining about the things we hate in our life versus actually going after the life we truly want.

Yes, I am angry and sad that my sister no longer gets to live her life. Our grand plan was to spend our golden years sharing a room in nursing home and fighting over something stupid, like we did so many times over the years. I still spend days pissed off and sad that Thanksgiving and Christmas will never be the same. I am despondent I will never receive a birthday card from my sister or that perfect gift she knew I would love.

But the lesson I take away from my losses in 2015 is that no matter what, life is meant to be lived. Experiences await. Change is inevitable. We are going to have horrible days so we can appreciate the great ones. None of us can be sure we are going to have a tomorrow, so we owe it to ourselves to be willing to give up the comfortable and lazy life we lead today to have an amazing journey we never thought possible.

While I may be heading into 2016 kicking and screaming and wishing I had what I lost in 2015, I owe it to the memories of my mother and sister to live the life they can no longer have, taste the chocolate they both loved so dearly, uphold the traditions they treasured and not waste a single second on regret.

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