The Story of our Lives
We all think we have time, until we don’t. It’s amazing to me how different our outlook can become when a medical condition threatens to shorten the number of years ahead.
Thirty years ago, I found a lump in my neck, just above my clavicle. It changed my life for the better. It turned out to be a benign thyroid nodule and was removed with no further treatment necessary. But in the weeks between discovery, surgery and final diagnosis, I had plenty of time to contemplate my life and its possible end.
I took a leave from my job. I learned to meditate and practiced yoga to relieve the anxiety. I considered more carefully what I ate, what I thought, who I invited to share my days and made some very significant changes to my outlook on life, and death. All lifestyle changes that benefitted me emotionally, physically and spiritually then, and still.
I no longer squandered my time, realizing that at any moment, my reality could change and what I thought I’d get to one day would be out of reach and I’d be out of time. I began to cherish the simplest of pleasure more fully, became more fearless in my relationships, loving more deeply and being a better friend when I could. I took trips to new and intriguing places, pushed myself to accomplish what was important and slowed my pace, when I could, to experience the moments more deeply.
But all I’ve done to recalibrate my life over the years was nothing compared to Annie Wilkins, whose autobiography, The Last of the Saddle Tramps, I’ve recently discovered. Her story inspires me, amuses me and reminds me, once again, to live like I may not have plenty of time, even if I might.
Mesannie (Annie) Wilkins was a 63 year old woman, working alone on her failing family farm in Maine when the country doctor declared she had less than two years to live.
She had inherited the property from her mother, after a long line of relatives who had lived and died there, working themselves to death, as she put it. When she was told of her truncated future she decided to leave, walk away from it all and strike out on a journey to fulfill her mother’s lifelong wish to see the Pacific Ocean.
It was 1954 when Annie headed out on what would be a fifteen month sojourn across the US, riding a former racehorse, accompanied by a pack mule and her little mutt, Depeche Toi, which is French for hurry up, quite ironic under the circumstances. She packed warm clothes, what cash she had and not much else. She didn’t even have a map. She just started riding west and navigated as she went, counting on the generosity of people she would meet along the way.
She became a bit of a celebrity when her story became public. She was given provisions, money, places to stay and even a marriage proposal, which she declined. She dined with high society, met with statesmen, mingled with local characters and was admired and encouraged along by nearly everyone she encountered. She granted interviews to local and national news outlets, and television celebrity like Art Linkletter, who even bought her a second horse to help her complete her long journey.
She never looked back or regretted her decision even though there were times when she wondered if she would survive the harsh existence of blizzards, scorching heat, and injuries to her horse and herself. As she traveled, she found she grew stronger and healthier.
She completely her journey and went on to live another two decades, apparently having been misdiagnosed as terminal. She published her book based on the journal she kept along the way. Returning only briefly to her home town for a visit, but found it too confining so she moved on, living out her long life with a dear friend she met along her travels.
Life can be short no matter how many years we live. Or it can be so packed with experiences, emotions and connection that we won’t feel cheated even if we don’t get enough time. From what I can gather, the choice is ours.