In the summer of 2012, I sobbed for three straight days on a beach in Dennis, Mass., while I read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.
There’s a paragraph in the book, almost a throw-away, really, in the John Green-scheme of things:
“One of the less bullshitty conventions of the cancer kid genre is the Last Good Day convention, wherein the victim of cancer finds herself with some unexpected hours when it seems like the inexorable decline has suddenly plateaued, when the pain is for a moment bearable. The problem, of course, is that there’s no way of knowing that your last good day is your Last Good Day. At the time, it is just another good day.”
This idea of the Last Good Day stayed with me. It doesn’t just apply to “cancer kids,” you can bring it with you through life, sticking it like a Post-It note here and there. As you age, as you enter that phase of life where it seems like more things are coming to an end than they are beginning, it comes up almost too often.
Of course, the flaw with this concept is that when you realize you’ve had a Last Good Day, it’s too late. Hindsight is 20–20 and all that. Hindsight is also annoying as hell. Who needs clarity when the moment has passed? So you are left with the nagging question, was it enough?
Was it enough? Did we do enough? Laugh enough? Hug enough? Did I even say “I love you”? What was the last conversation we had?
In the social media world, your “Last Good Days” are literally served right up to you, time stamped and geo-located. Sometimes that memory is so welcome, and sometimes it’s a jarring reminder of a Last Good Day. Which you were unaware of in the moment, and so you sit there for a few minutes and wallow in the “was-it-good-enoughs?”
The photo at the top of this page hangs in my dining room and for the last 10+ years it has been a daily reminder to me of how life can change in an instance. From left is my best friend’s husband, Jay, my husband Joe, me, Jay’s wife Leanne, my other best friend Karen, and her husband Paul. Leanne and I went to college together; Joe and Paul went to college together. As we each added on a partner-then-spouse over the years the group became solidified: we all liked each other, we all liked to have fun, we all liked to vacation off the beaten track, we all liked a frosty adult beverage.
This photo was taken in 2007, on a beach on Jost van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands. This beach was down a steep hill, almost a cliff really, from the insanely fabulous villa we booked for a vacation for the six of us. It had become tradition that the three couples would take a trip every November, someplace tropical.
On this beach was a bar called Ivan’s, where you could grab cold beers out of a cooler and write your name down in a spiral notebook, noting how many you had grabbed, and before you left the island you were expected to pop in and settle your tab. We were hanging out one afternoon when we came across this boat on the sand, and we took this group shot. Jay was the master of the self-timer, prided himself on positioning, timing, composition, etc. Leanne had it blown up and sent it to each couple for a Christmas present that year.
Soon after that Christmas, early in 2008, Jay would be diagnosed with colorectal cancer. He would undergo surgery, and treatment. That November we all returned to Jost for a “Jay is cured” celebratory trip. And there were trips after that as well, but there was also more cancer for Jay, more surgeries, more treatments. In August 2018, it returned for a fourth time, with a vengeance. On June 21, 2019, the day my son graduated from high school, Jay went into hospice, and on June 23, the day me, Joe, our two kids, and Paul and Karen left for a trip to Ireland to celebrate that graduation, Jay died. He was 53. He and Leanne were married for 21 years, and they raised two amazing children, Jared, 20 and Emma, 18.
That photo reminds me that life can turn on a dime; that a healthy person can become a sick person in the blink of an eye, and that we are all so, so mortal. Subsequent to Jay’s first diagnosis, we had more trips together, to really fun places. But that moment, in front of Ivan’s, cold drinks in our hands, perched in an abandoned boat, I think of that moment as our last, best moment. It has a purity to it that both warms, and breaks, my heart.
The other photo was taken on Cape Cod in August 2014. That’s me and my dad, Miltie, sitting on the porch of our family’s vacation cottage. Everyone else was at the beach. Miltie, at 91, couldn’t make it to the beach that summer. It was a long walk. He had been having a tough summer in general, had been hospitalized in July. A broken hip the previous November had really taken a toll.
Since he couldn’t make it to the beach, he and I would “porch it” as I called it, setting ourselves up in the sun on the deck, snoozing, reading, and every once in a while, doing his exercises. And we’d talk. About everything. But a lot of the time we talked about dying. Miltie had dying on his mind, because he was pretty sure he was.
I have a lot of selfies of me and my dad. I like to tell people I invented the selfie, way back with my Kodak Instamatic camera that I got for my birthday sometime in the early 1970s. Back in those days it was all guesswork, of course, it took real talent. Not like today’s point-and-shoot selfies.
So there’s zillions of closeups of Miltie and me. But the thing with this one is, it’s the last one. He was gone 6 weeks later.
Lately, I’m melancholy. There’s been a lot of letting go this year, and it’s stacked up. It chips away at you. I’ve spent a lot of time looking backwards, hoping whatever “it” was, was enough. I hope I hugged enough, and laughed enough, and appreciated whatever moment it was enough. I hope, in the end, it was all good enough.