What would you do?

If you knew that you may not be here next week, next month, or next year, would you do things differently?

Would you slow down and hug your kids more? Or would you speed up and try to cram more joy into the day? Would you stop work, or would you work harder to leave something to be remembered by?

Would you do anything different today if you knew that you might not be back on Monday?

As I slug through this week of recovery, pain, and exhaustion from the chemo, these questions echo in my mind. They are a good sign, on the one hand, in that I’m able to think broadly and have the energy and interest in doing so. But on the other hand, they weigh on my mind and linger around the corners even as I try to take joy in the moments that I have this week.

What am I leaving to be remembered by?

All my life, I’ve believed that I could do anything. And, to an extent, if I worked hard enough at something, that’s been true. I left my friends in Mississippi and went “up north” to college. I was accepted to Harvard. I went to graduate school. I earned a Ph.D. in physics. I went to work for NASA straight out of school. I married the man of my dreams, right on schedule, and, after a few years, had a beautiful baby boy. I pioneered telecommuting at my agency as I juggled new space missions and nursing a newborn. I ran big projects, and I ran them well. I started a fellowship for young scientists.

I did good things.

But what I’d like to be remembered for there is something different. I hope that I’ll be remembered for the way that I worked with people, not against them. That I built consensus. That I did my homework and talked with those who had come before, learning what they had learned, seeing what they had seen, and, when it was time to make a decision, that I brought both a sense of past and future to the table.

Because I was the young one. The intern. One who stood to, someday, potentially, inherit the agency, with all its potential and all its problems. And I was determined to increase the former and limit the latter. Because decisions that were made today would affect me twenty years down the line. Thirty. Forty, when my generation would be the elders of the agency. And I would still be there.

Things have changed now.

My priority is my family. My time is spent on my little boys. They will inherit what their father and I have built for them. They will grow and learn and live on this planet that we, and all of those around us, have created for them. And it matters to me what kind of place we leave.

If I were at work today, I think I would do things a little differently. I would still take the time to coax stories out of the longtime civil servants. To mentor the interns, and to introduce new hires around the office. To greet the security guards by name, and chat up the historians working in the library downstairs. But I would take more lunches, and I would make it a point to encourage my colleagues more than I did when I was there. I would fight harder against becoming jaded and seasoned, and I would give more people the benefit of the doubt. I would call the young scientists more, just to chat, and follow up with the ones in my field more than I did.

I would write the history down so that it is not forgotten. And I would focus on the people that made the agency great.

Because what we leave behind us is not our resume. It is the way that we accomplish what is on our resume. It is in every email, every interaction, and every weary smile.

When my fight with breast cancer has eased, I intend to start work again. Not because I need another line on my resume, or because I feel that I need to accomplish this or that. But, for a time, I was a part of something quite amazing, and it would be good to be part of that again. It would be good to see people every day again, and to learn from each other and work together to increase the nation’s knowledge and potential.

I wonder if I will do things differently.

49 Responses to What would you do?

  1. Susan K says:

    You already are doing things differently! You are questioning, you are placing value on things you might not have before.

    You HAVE made a difference. At your former place of work and HERE, in your blog, by the many you reach, the hope you give, the strength you show.

    And when this is over, when your hair is long and flowing again, when you are running with the boys, and when you are “back to work” (like you ever left), you will continue to make a difference.

    Don’t doubt it for a minute.

  2. Oh, Whymommy… Leave it to you to be a “rocket-scientist”… And I’m not just talking about your profession. I’m talking about your everyday life.

    Your words make me want to try harder to be a better person.

  3. You are making (and have made) a huge difference, both professionally and personally.

    Hugs to you.

    PS What year did you graduate? The hubs went where you did.

  4. Susan K says:

    The goal is to live every day like it might be your last.

    To have no regrets.

    To leave nothing unsaid.

    To have friends.

    To find joy and beauty in unexpected places (yes, even at work).

    To be kind to others.

    To help a stranger.

    And to be able to say, at the end of the day, “I did good”.

    Then you never have to ask the ‘would I do anything differently”. Because the answer can only be “No”.

  5. Jennifer says:

    Forgive me for my completely off-topic and self serving thought, but when you’re done kicking cancer’s butt I’ll have to pick your brain because I have a son who dreams of working for NASA one day. In the meantime I’ll dig around in your blog for any tidbits you may have left there. 🙂

    Praying for you still, by the way, AND walking for you and others next weekend!

  6. Binky says:

    You’ll find out when you return to work, and I hope you’ll let us know. I enjoyed this post for, among other things, the insight it gives into your professional life. You are such an exceptional woman.

  7. kgirlto says:

    We should think about these things anyway. Thanks for the reminder.

  8. heather says:

    I just found you today. Reading this entry and others here make me rethink the way I will approach my weekend and the days to come. Thank you for your strength and wisdom.

  9. MammaLoves says:

    Them those folks up at Har-vard sure were smart to take you in.

    But darn I wish you’d stop being so brilliant. You’re making the rest of us feel bad. 😉

    Beautiful sentiment. As always.

  10. jojo says:

    When people ask, “What would you do if you only had six months to live?”, we tick off lists of places we would go and things we would do, yet so often, those six months are spent simply trying to live.

  11. binkytown says:

    They’ll be lucky to have you. Your body might be feeling crummy this week, but your mind, as sharp as ever my friend.

  12. urban-urchin says:

    I struggle with this everyday. Because honestly we never know what will happen from one minute to the next. I had an uncle diagnosed with cancer, but he died from a massive heart attack unrelated to his cancer- go figure. So yeah- I have to remind myself that this is all I get- right now. Thanks for the reminder.

  13. Ally says:

    Wow. This inspires me to take a long hard look at my own life and figure out how I can do and be better in this world. You are such an inspiration to all of us, WM. Keep up the good work.

    PS– I wish I had more co-workers with your attitude.

  14. You already are doing things differently. Can’t you feel it?

  15. This may sound creepy, but I read an obituary four years ago that made me want to live my life in a way that it would lead to my obituary being as wonderful and the lady who had passed away.

  16. Linda Sue says:

    Your life is the sum total of the love you leave behind – wordly achievements can always be topped by someone else younger, brighter, faster, stronger – but nobody can be the mother to your boys and the compassionate heart for all your audience. Life is what it is – this is NOT a dress rehearsal. You are doing a whiz bang job already!

  17. Alice C says:

    Hi Whymommy! You have done more in the first half of your life than seems possible. Now I wish you an endless succession of ordinary days when you trip over toys, go for coffee with your friends, wonder whether to wash your hair and watch TV with your husband. When you are tired of living these ordinary days you can pick up where you left off and run for President. I’d vote for you!

  18. Delilah says:

    Thanks for making me think today. You are already making a difference and will continue to do so!

  19. Sanne says:

    And I would totally want to work with you. Thank you for the inspiration.

  20. Patty says:

    I just stumbled onto your blog, most might say, “by accident” but I don’t think there are many accidents like that in life. I enjoyed reading your insights and will be keeping you in my thoughts and prayers. Life is really quite profound even when things we are facing are difficult

  21. Leigh says:

    This sort of reminds me of a conversation I had with my mom years ago as my father lay recovering from a majorly serious illness and I told her she was doing too much. Before my father became ill, she was teaching full time, held the most senior position of responsibility in the church – the list was long. I told her that she spread herself too thin and that she would get sick too if she didn’t give herself a break. I told her she needed to learn to say no. Her response was that giving of herself kept her strong. And that, my friend, is you. During this time in your life, you continue to give of yourself to everyone you come into contact with and you are so strong it’s amazing. In the face of something extremely frightening, you haven’t folded up and kept your heart to yourself – you keep sharing with all of us. It’s that kind of strength that triumphs over all. You’ll win no matter what.

  22. Danielle says:

    This post was espeically touching to me. I’ve been feeling the same way lately. I’m a teacher and there are times that I just hate my job. I have a teaching partner this year who is brand new to teaching. She worked at a job for 25 years that she hated, but it paid the bills for her family. She’s now doing what she has always wanted to do. A job that I often hate and try to escape. I’m trying to take this year to smile more. To mentor the new teachers and develop my craft. To laugh when I can and cry when I must. To live this life the way that it is supposed to be lived. I’m spending much longer hours at work but I’m also playing much harder when I’m at home. I want my kids to remember me as being a loving mother. Someone who was caring toward strangers. Someone who was funny and happy and someone that they knew loved them above all else. I want to be remembered by my students as a teacher that was there for them. That pushed them hard enough to really challenge them but that supported them when they needed it the most. Someone to bring new ideas to them and let them form their own ideas about it. If no one remembers me when I am gone, I want to die with the memories that I have done my best to change the world in the small ways that I can. That I am part of something bigger than myself and the small part of the world around me. I might not be remembered but that the legacy of loving and caring and working hard to help others will live one.

    Thank you for helping me remember that.

  23. You will of course do things differently when you go back to work. You cannot have gone through all of this suffering without creating something meaningful out of it, as you are doing every day with your remarkable blog. You add such a richness to my own life, and I am at such a distance.

  24. Jenifer says:

    You are….. amazing.


  25. NoMommy says:

    I’m sure that you will do things differently, because you will be different. I don’t think you could go through all of what you are going through without being changed.
    I’m sure you have made a difference in everyone who knows you. Just look at the difference you have made to the people who read your blog. You are awesome!

  26. I’m not really doing anything differently although…if I’m honest, I guess I’m more alert. I prioritize a little differently. I’m getting better at taking Me Time. Okay so a lot different, LOL.

    My treatment isn’t working so far. I’m moving on to a new specialist, seeking a new opinion. Maybe a new treatment. Because I keep thinking, if only I change X, then the potential outcome of Z is more likely. Y is the factor. I just haven’t found Y yet. But since I’m looking, I will, right.

    If I tried to cram all that is me and all I wanted to say into a finite amount of time that is known, it might drive me crazy.

    So I keep on keeping on as I am.

    Which, of course, means continually trying to improve or experience or do better, which sounds perfectionistic and might be to a degree, but I actually prefer to call mindful. 🙂

    And speaking as a NASA brat in a NASA world in NASA town with a NASA family and NASA friends in my NASA neighborhood (LOL)…they’ll be lucky to have you back. 🙂

    Absolutely awesome post, as always.

    I hope…day shave been better for you, more than less. Hang in there, chica.

    Ravin’ Picture Maven

  27. deb says:

    You’re a physicist, wow! The way you describe how you want to be at work, how you want to treat people and think about life, it all sounds good and I think it does make the world a better place for everyone.
    I met a doctor in July, Dr. Ron Gill. He’s heading up the Diabetes Research Unit at the University of Alberta. He was kind, compassionate, warm, and looking to build a team, not with him as the leader, but with him as one of the team. Seemed like a wonderful way to do research.
    Get well.

  28. I’ve kinda been waiting for this post. The clarity thanks to cancer post. Good for you.

    All my family and friends whom have or had a cancer diagnosis have a common thread – the clarity they gain as a result of their cancer.

    P.S. My brother works as an EE for NASA (on the shuttle payloads) so I can attest the work is thrilling and see why you miss it.

    Still sending positive thoughts your way . . .

  29. Astrid says:

    Whymommy, I won’t be able to tell you my whole story here, but I can relate to what you’re writing now. I have CF and a year and a half ago I had a heart and lung transplant. I was very sick at the time of the transplant and they didn’t think I’d live for another week. It has always been very important to me to have my family around especially as I was getting sicker (and when I left the stroppy teenage years), and in the end I wanted them to be with me as much as possible. But also, while I still could, I’d try to cram as much as possible into my life. You can read more of the story here (if you’re interested.) http://spockwithabeard.com/bb/viewtopic.php?t=9131

  30. Gidge says:

    My mom says that our true immortality is in our children. That they carry us forward, and change the world because of what we make them………

  31. Bon says:

    i am always humbled by your spirit and the way you give of yourself, Whymommy. i needed this reminder that i can bring better and more to all i get to do…because, ultimately, i want the same legacy you do: that i used my time well, to foster others and leave something for the future.

    thanks for this.

    keep taking good care of you.

  32. rimarama says:

    “Because what we leave behind us is not our resume. It is the way that we accomplish what is on our resume. It is in every email, every interaction, and every weary smile.”

    Amen to that! Isn’t that what it’s all about?

  33. Kristi B. says:

    I just discovered your blog today. I had seen some Team WhyMommy’s around, but had never clicked on a link (I’m new to blogging). You are amazing! Absolutely unbelievably inspirational. I am stunned. Thank you, thank you for your posts, your insights, your strengths. You are amazing.

  34. Damselfly says:

    Thank you for that reality check! 😉

  35. Marie T says:

    You are amazing — I’m reading this and feel like you’ve given me a kick in the pants to be and do now in the moment because this is really what I’ve got!
    Bless you!

  36. Erin says:

    I recently had a medical situation myself. My Gallbladder ruptured and my body was flooded with toxins.

    While I was sick I didn’t have the time to think about anything but after I was ok my mindset changed.

    I almost lost everything. When my time is over I may not have any warning. What do I want out of this life and what do I want others to remember me for?

    The answer for me is very simple. Family. I want to enjoy every moment with my husband and children and If I leave I want them to never doubt how much I loved them.

    It’s an individual experience for everyone.

    My prayers are with you on your fight.

  37. Jenn says:

    Already you are doing things differently, just by being so aware.

    Here you are, in the battle of your life, for your life, and you are planning on conversations with the door man.

    You’re changing the world, little by little already.

  38. WhyMommy-I would do as you have done. I would not travel the world but love on the ones I love. I would change the way I treat people. This post was lovely, and it was great to learn more about you. A rocket scientist, huh? As if you hadn’t impressed us all enough.

  39. whymommy says:

    Sorry, SM, I didn’t GO to Harvard. It was exciting enough for this girl from Mississippi to be accepted. After achieving that dream, I balanced all the other factors and chose another school that offered me a full scholarship instead. Good thing too — I met my husband while working hard at the OTHER school!

  40. Redsy says:

    Honestly? I’d probably do what I do now… but maybe workout more.. and take better care of myself… Oh and? have WAAAAAAY more sex.

    Thanks as always for the thoughtful post

  41. shauna says:

    You are amazing, and all that you’ve done to help us be more aware WHILE fighting cancer is a legacy in and of itself. In fact, my post today references your blog and just how amazing you are. Thanks so much for that!

  42. Anna says:

    What an inspiring post, Whymommy!

  43. K8V says:

    Those are questions and thoughts that I always hope to have in my mind–but it’s so easy to let them go sometimes. Thank you for using your experience to share with the rest of us the importance of reminding ourselves about what really counts.

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