Last night I watched Time to Live from BBC2’s Life Stories series. Twelve people who have a terminal diagnosis share what they have learned about themselves and about life, knowing that it is short. They are people of all ages who have managed to find positives in their terminal prognosis and are making the most of the time they have left.
It is a fascinating, beautiful and uplifting, but also heartbreaking film. We can all learn something from these twelve people who live life with an intensity few of us experience, and who appreciate and celebrate the life they have. They have accepted themselves with all their quirks and flaws, have cut out things that are not important to them, and spend time and energy on things that matter. What this looks like is different for each person. Some go vegan and teetotal, some drink more alcohol and eat more steak. Some travel, dance, or paint. Some quit work, others throw themselves into it. Some reaffirm their faith, some lose it. Some reconnect with estranged family or friends, some leave their husbands.
These people do not talk much about death, they talk about life. They become tearful when they talk about what they will miss when they are gone such as family events or milestones for their children; and when they think about how those they leave behind will cope. What they share is an acceptance that they will die, a refusal to let this dominate their life, and the need to plan, to soften the pain of loss for the people they love.
After watching Time to Live, I thought about what I want to do with however much time I have left, and I revisited my bucket list. In 2012, this was my list:
- See the Northern Lights.
- Make the perfect blueberry muffin.
- Fall in love. Again.
- Read Les Liaisons Dangereuses, in French.
- Have a photograph I’ve taken published in a weekend newspaper.
- Be interviewed on BBC R4 Woman’s Hour.
- Donate 50 units of blood.
- Stay in a jungle treehouse in Peru.
- Have my portrait painted, naked.
A lot has changed since then. I have changed. My understanding of myself, my priorities and outlook have been shaped by my experience of anxiety and depression. In therapy we talked about my need to fulfil the expectations of others, and my expectations of myself, and how this contributes to my anxiety. I do not extend the same compassion, kindness and forgiveness to myself that I offer to others. And so, looking at this list I immediately worried that I had not achieved enough, and that I might be judged if I have changed my mind about some of the plans on this list. But CBT has given me a structure to challenge these reflexive negative thoughts, and reframe my changing priorities as maturity and personal growth.
- I still want to see the Northern lights and, like many people, want to travel more, see the world, and meet people living different lives to my own.
- I have made many blueberry muffins, but I think this morning I achieved perfection. This is in part due to the fact that my definition of perfect has changed. I recently went vegan, and have found it genuinely exciting to try new recipes and work out which dairy substitutes work best. This morning I made a batch of vegan blueberry muffins which were light and fluffy, sweet, delicious and cruelty free. Tick!
- Unexpectedly I fell in love this year. I hope for the last time.
- My french is no better than in 2012 so I have not yet attempted to read Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but it remains on the list. I’m going to Paris later this year, so maybe that will inspire me to brush up.
- None of my photographic masterpieces have yet made it into a weekend newspaper, but apparently print media is dying, and I have acquired a number of instagram followers with my pictures of streetart, cake and craft. And an article I wrote was published in The Guardian, so perhaps I can call this one a win!
- Several of my friends have been interviewed on BBCR4 Woman’s Hour but I am yet to get the call from Jenny Murray. Perhaps I need to do something more outrageous (although still acceptable to a middle class audience) to justify the airtime. Ideas welcome….
- I am up to 22 units of blood donated so far, and will need to live for at least another 7 years without visiting a malarial area or getting ill to get to 50. I better book my next donation.
- Earlier this year I went to Peru. I did not stay in a jungle treehouse, instead I did something a little ‘off brand’ and trekked the Inca Trial. It was incredible, and I am so glad I pushed myself and did something active. I met lovely people, saw indescribable sites and got some valuable distance from the minutiae of life. I also fell in love with Llamas.
- I used to think that having children would be a given, something that would happen as part of the normal path of life. But these days I’m not so sure. The world does not need me to procreate – there are enough people to sustain our communities. And I have begun to think that perhaps pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting are not for me. I love visiting people with newborns, and hugging the tiny new people who have just entered the world. I love spending time with my friends’ children, especially as they get older and we become genuine friends too. But I like my life as it is, and do not feel it is incomplete because I have not made a human. I like being part of my community, and having the time and flexibility to take on projects, volunteer, and step in when friends need me to. Who knows what will happen in the future, but for now this is not a priority and has dropped off the bucket list. And that is OK.
- If I find the right artist, I’m still up for a naked portrait. But perhaps this one should be left for my later years – if I get there. My favourite paintings in the National Portrait Gallery are always of older people, their bodies displaying the wear and tear of life. I would like to acquire a few more battle scars and laughter lines before I’m immortalised on canvas.
I really encourage you to watch Time to Live. It is wonderful. And if you’re able to, go and grab a bit of intense and beautiful life today.