How My Dying Friend Taught Me How to Live


(If you double tap on each picture, it gives you a description.)

I recently had a coffee date with my dear friend, Rich. We were mistaken to think that after six months of not seeing one another that we could simply do coffee. Coffee turned to lunch because it didn’t take long after we got caught up on our lives that “She” came up. Rich told me how this birthday he would turn 62 years old. He pointed out that “She” would have turned 62 this past September. Funny that when someone passes they remain that age. “She” is always one day short of 57 to me.

“She” is Barb. Rich’s late wife, and my late dear bestie. Barb is the late sister to my best friend, Robert. (Barb told me she was gifting me Robert and to look after him. We’ve been close friends since. Robert is my partner on many of my work projects and business travels.)

It’s been five years.

At lunch Rich and I retold our Barb stories. They never get old, just funnier. I left our lunch date nostalgic and grateful for this beautiful woman that graced my life with wicked humor and loads of unsolicited, but welcomed, advice. Barb was her own brand of unique. She was classy with her own sense of style. She admitted, unapologetically, that she did not posses a filter between her thoughts and what came out of her mouth. She was the straightest shooter I’ve ever met. We once had a huge argument about whether a public figure was a sociopath, and she was really mad at me because I didn’t agree with her. I wanted her to support her argument with provable facts that this person was indeed a sociopath, and she thought it was obvious and that I was being naive. After extreme frustration on both our parts, we went and got a pedicure. So us.

I like to think I learned more about how to be a friend, a real friend, from Barb. She taught me how to service friendships, and she let me be her friend, just as I was then, when she needed one at the end of her life. Barb had a sweet place in her heart for my husband, Jon, and she adored my children. Barb’s oldest granddaughter is my son’s age, so Barb and I did fun things with the kids.

In the five years since we lost Barb, my life has transitioned into a life that though Barb, from her hospital bed, predicted and encouraged me to live, even she wouldn’t recognize me in. Not just physically but professionally, emotionally and spiritually.

Barb gave me the gift of living, even as she was dying. She allowed me to be in a very personal and private place with her–making her transition into her next world. I was the one the family asked to work out with Barb what “plan B” would be if her doctors couldn’t save her from the onset leukemia that resulted from the chemotherapy used  treating breast cancer. Barb had a resolute optimism that kept her from understanding the crushing devastation of her prognosis. It was left to me to begin to prepare her for what was to come because if any member of her family tried, she would shut them down. Somehow, I was close and distant enough to work with. She in turn nurtured and loved me like a big sister would. There, many late nights in her hospital room, we sat and planned each other’s next adventures. We told one another secrets and we made big promises.

Barb encouraged me to change many aspects of my life. She felt I was too disconnected from the world and from people outside a very tight circle of friends. She wanted me to connect in a bigger way, and felt I would live a more meaningful life that way–best advice ever. She wanted me to get healthy because, though she was the one with cancer, she felt that I should thrive after she passed. “Fuck cancer, Mari! Please be beautiful and healthy. I want you to wear my jeans when you get thin enough and you need to rock them! Promise me, Mari.” I promised. I promised that and so much more. She promised me she would be nice to her family in her final days. She was being difficult because she was scared out of her mind. She kept her promises, and her kids and husband each thanked me. Then Barb thanked me. It went something like this: “Thanks, Mari for (insert expletive) straightening me out.”

I think when someone allows you to correct them, or influence them for the better, they give you a gift too.

Sadly, I don’t have pics of Barb and me because I didn’t do pics of me then–a huge regret on my part, and one I’m no longer experiencing as I take pictures every chance I get with family and friends. Barb was a 5 foot 10 inch red headed ball of fire. A perfect match for this feisty Mexican girl from a tough barrio. Although, Barb thought I was too nice. She felt I needed to toughen up, and I needed to quit letting people walk all over me. That was Barb. No filter. Lots of unsolicited advice.

Barb transitioned peacefully, and I went on to thrive in my life. She helped me so much. I don’t think I would have had the confidence or felt brave enough to make the dedicated choices I made in my life, shortly after her death, without her encouragement.

Out of nowhere it seemed that brave and tough and strong I became.

As hard as it was, I took Barb’s advice and walked away from the circle of toxic friends I was slowly dying in, and I never looked back. She would be proud to know that no one walks all over me and I’m not so nice. I have this great need to have adventures and to connect with people in a meaningful way, and I do every chance I get. My life is currently rich with people, activities and love. And I’ve never been healthier.

Thanks, Barb.

A couple of years ago, at one of our lunch dates, I wore the jeans Barb left me, to meet Rich. Of course, I had to have the tailor cut three inches off of them to work with my 5 foot 7 inches. But wore them, I sure did. Because: fuck cancer, Barb! I modeled them for Rich, spinning around and all. We had our Barb moment. I know Barb would roll with laughter if I told her that her ($200.00) size 12 Paige jeans were too big for me now. {Rich, if you’re reading this, I’m sure Barb only paid $50.00 for the jeans ;), as a matter of fact, I’m certain of it.} Maybe she’d laugh her raspy laugh, and tell me, “Fuck cancer, Mari.” She would be so happy for me. In my heart I feel she is.

A few days after my recent lunch with Rich, I found the book I pictured above, When Breath Becomes Air. The author, Paul Kalanithi, spun gold when he wrote it. He, too, died of cancer. He was on the verge of a promising career. He left his wife and their baby behind. This brilliant book was released two months after the Paul’s death. Somehow Paul chronicled how he kept his humanity and his deep-seated compassion for people while becoming a neurosurgeon, dealing in many cases with death–even deciding whether someone should be kept from living in a vegetative state and allowed to die without his interference. Paul dealt with his own mortality, and he did it with gravitas.

Until I read this book, I never understood what Barb and I were all about in those last few months of her life–because it was almost magic what we did for one another, especially what she left me with–and why she was so influential in how I changed my life. I just knew I needed her as much as she needed me.

I took in every word of Paul’s book. He showed me through his brilliance, proved to me, how the dying are the ones on whom we sometimes depend to teach us how to live–how to go on, and how to thrive.

I loved this book, written by a man with a real understanding for the human spirit and how it interacts with science and life.

I recommend this book to anyone seeking meaningful answers to living, or even to dying.

Thank you, Barb. Thank you, Paul. And fuck cancer!