She was seventy one years old, had never had a physical in her life, and ten minutes into the examination the nurse practitioner knew she would have to tell her some very bad news.

The nurse practitioner went into the hallway and grabbed one of the nurses.
“Call upstairs to radiology and schedule some X-rays,” she said, “Like yesterday.”
The nurse looked at the nurse practitioner. “That bad?”

The lump in the woman’s left breast was about as big as a squashed orange.
“What were you thinking?” the nurse practitioner said to the patient.
The patient eyes the nurse practitioner. “If it’s broke don’t fix it?”
“I wish I could say something good,” the nurse practitioner said, putting her hand on the woman’s elbow, “but I can’t.”

Radiology revealed that the cancer had metastasized to two lymph nodes. Not good. Sometimes if you want to fix it, it’s good to know as soon as possible that it’s broke.
Two weeks later, the nurse practitioner was by the woman’s bed as she groped out of anesthesia after the double mastectomy. The woman didn’t feel too good. She had a horizontal incision the length of her chest as she returned to the world from the place where there is no world, no anti-world, no halls of light, no epiphany, no bells, no old guys with beards. Just nothing, followed by the very deep realization that the will to live is so strong that it will drive you, even against all the odds, out of nothing into a very very miserable life characterized by extreme pain, partial sedation, and a very successful revolution of the nervous system.
After a while the woman asked the nurse practitioner how she should handle it; the diagnosis, the surgery, the recovery, the treatment; oh, yes, did she say the treatment?

“Call your family,” the nurse practitioner said.
The woman was hesitant. Her husband had died a while back. The children weren’t close. She didn’t want to bother them. They had their own lives, jobs, children, the last thing they needed was to be worrying about the medical complications of an old woman…

“Bother them,” the nurse practitioner said, “I’m not a doctor, but that’s a medical order. Bother them today”

Reluctantly, later, the woman called. She called Arizona and she called Michigan and she called Texas. To her surprise, they all got on planes and came right to her, they came right home. They weren’t resentful or petty or overwhelmed. They seemed genuinely glad to be there, and even her son, who didn’t know how to make a hamburger, was ministering to her needs as she went through the chemotherapy. In a funny way, it appeared to make them happy to help her, their faces seemed lighter than she had seen in years, in her brief visits out west. Suddenly, again, she saw the child in them, she saw how they were when they were just babies, laughing and running around the house, waving their hands and screeching with joy. She saw the light in their eyes, yes, and she saw something around them that told her that, even after all these years, they were the same people she had given birth to and had struggled to let go of so long ago.

It was late, she knew, as she went through chemotherapy and the children enjoyed gathering around her, it was late but suddenly she was learning a different way to live. Ever since she came out of the surgery, which some part of her had deeply believed she would not survive, she had realized that certain things were important and other things, a lot of things, weren’t important. How much money you had wasn’t important, or how successful you were, or whether something you said upset someone’s apple cart a little bit. Now, as if it was written on a huge bulletin board in her head, she realized how irrelevant those things were. It really wasn’t the what that mattered, it was the how. She wondered, really wondered, why she hadn’t understood this earlier.

But it didn’t matter. What mattered was that right now, as her daughter brought her tea and she looked out the window at how the raindrops glistened as they fell off the leaves of the tree in her yard, the same yard she had trooped around yanking up weeds for thirty years, the same yard she had rushed out of so she could do the dishes or vacuum or pay the bills or, back when Ed was dying, to feed him or turn him or give him his medicine, what she saw as she looked at that old tree was so beautiful that she smiled and at the same time tears came to her eyes, tears of wisdom and joy and sadness and acceptance. And her daughter, who was so lovely, put her hand on her arm and asked, “Mom, why are you crying?”

And she just looked at her daughter and smiled through her tears and there was no need to say anything, and for some reason then her daughter smiled and started crying, and they held each other and her daughter felt, truly, that she had been given the greatest gift that a person can ever receive.

When the surgeon had finally come to her bedside after the surgery he said he was “hopeful.” That was the word he’d used; “Hopeful.” It was ironic, because she knew that the doctor’s use of the word meant that he wasn’t very hopeful but that was exactly what she was filled with: Hope. She only now realized what hope was; it was being alive right now, it was not accepting any excuses for worrying away precious minutes or hours or days, or burning up precious life energy in resentment or anger. Those were the things that were a waste of time.

And she wasn’t going to waste any more time, not her. However much longer her now extended she was going to walk through it like every moment was forever. She had her children beside her, she had her family, and she was alive.

Two weeks later when she came to the office for a checkup, the nurse approached the nurse practitioner in the hallway. “You know what,” she said to the nurse practitioner, “I never noticed it before, but she is really beautiful.”

“Yes she is,” the nurse practitioner answered, “She certainly is.”