Ana Veciana-Suarez: Valerie Harper’s prognosis prompts end-of-life pondering

Maybe it’s my age, time galloping at breathtaking speed after the mid-century mark, or the news that two people I know received a dismal health prognosis in the past two weeks. Whatever the prompt, I find myself musing about a subject often ignored.

Faced with imminent death, the deadline circled in red on the calendar, how would you choose to spend the end of your days?

“Traveling,” said a dear friend. “I’d want to go to all the places I haven’t been.”

“Eating,” said another, who is usually as calorie-conscious as any diet doctor. “Anything I want to, whenever I want it.”

I hesitated when my turn came, not because I didn’t know what I truly valued but because it suddenly occurred to me that I would have to choose carefully among competing passions.

So I prioritized: I’d cancel all my appointments and spend time with my family.

If I lucked out with a few extra days — luck being something that has eluded me for a while — I’d make sure to finish editing my latest lengthy project. For a writer, there is nothing more frightening than knowing an unfinished draft might stumble into the world without benefit of correction.

Such ruminations aren’t random rhetoric, a conversation shared with girlfriends over a cup of coffee. Ever since actress Valerie Harper, best known for playing that lovably flawed Rhoda Morgenstern on TV, announced she had incurable brain cancer, the idea of how to spend your time on this good earth has become a favorite subject of morning TV shows.

Last month, Harper went public with her illness, saying she may have as little as three months to live. Those of us who grew up with her on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda were shocked at the news. Another childhood icon passing. Yet Harper’s prognosis turned out to be a footnote to a larger story. Her approach to dying has become the true narrative.

Despite undergoing chemotherapy, Harper hasn’t missed a beat. She was expected to appear on an episode of Hot in Cleveland, a reunion of sorts for The Mary Tyler More Show cast, and she has spoken openly and eloquently about her newest challenge.

I’m alive. I’m feeling good. I’m trying to live every moment as much as I can.

Don’t go to the funeral until the day of the funeral.

I’ve never been a fan of the good ol’ days. For me, the best day has always been this one.

I don’t think of dying. I think of being here now.

It is an often overlooked verity that all of us are terminal, our birth the first step in that long — or short — journey to the end. Overwhelmed by the inexorable pull of daily demands, we don’t live as if this should be our guiding truth. We postpone, we delay, we put off. We invariably think we have plenty of time, an abundance of opportunities.

To travel. To learn Spanish. To enjoy time with family. To fulfill a dream.

Then we can’t.

Harper, who at 73 has lived a long, productive life, reminds me in a roundabout way of a young man, a soon-to-be college graduate working hard to launch a business. His mother, my pal, worries about how he’ll make a living, how he’ll succeed. I’d worry, too. It requires an inordinate amount of courage and faith to take such a risk, to open oneself to public failure.

But if not now, when?

Follow Ana on Twitter @AnaVeciana.

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