Jeremy Statton

Living Better Stories

To Die is To Live

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This is an article previously published on this website. In case any of you missed it, I wanted to share with you the most important lesson about life and better stories I learned from my dad.

I was 21 years old when my father died..

His cancer was first discovered 8 years earlier. He had developed mysterious pain and swelling in his legs. Ideas and diagnoses were tossed around but the symptoms remained unexplained. When doctors don’t have the answer, they runs tests.

The CT scan of his abdomen would reveal the golf ball size tumor in his kidney.

The cancer was small and had not spread. The words we wanted to hear were being spoken by the experts. Surgery. Treatable. The possibility of a cure. Survival.

I don’t remember if anyone decided what caused the swelling, but we all viewed it as a gift that would save his life.

I had no idea how hard dad would have to fight in the remaining years of his life.

After removing the affected kidney, doctors declared him cured, and my fears of his death were alleviated. If the scare caused me to pause, then the cure gave me permission to move on.

I remember acting as if nothing significant had happened. We all carried on as if dad having his kidney removed for cancer was a routine part of life. A small little speed bump that would only slow us down for a moment.

On a routine checkup 5 years after his surgery a chest Xray revealed a new mass in his lung. A few days later a CT scan discovered even more.

For 5 years the malignancy remained present but dormant in his body. Our vocabular changed. Recurrence. Metastasis. Chemotherapy. Eventually we used the word Terminal.

photo by Trey Ratcliff (creative commons)

Dad grew up on a small farm in western Kentucky. His childhood was a story of cutting tobacco and cleaning cow manure. He was was a fighter and he treated his cancer no differently. The 3 years that followed included surgery, chemotherapy, hair loss, trips to the National Institute of Health and more CT scans.

But when the 10th round came, he had nothing left to give. He succumbed to the disease.

While the fight was still raging, we all believed he would recover, living in the hope that he would survive. I can still remember the day, though, when we both realized that he wouldn’t.

For the first time in our lives, both of us started living as if Dad was going to die.

Dad changed. He started to grab onto the precious moments of his life and stopped being distracted with the things that don’t really matter.

He stopped talking about investments and business ventures and started noticing the beauty of a sunset or a whispered secret. He stopped watching television and started having conversations with me.

It wasn’t just the conversations, but the topics. Dad started telling me how much he loved me.

It was something I had always known, but we rarely spoke of it. He prayed with me. We talked about God. We talked about my new wife. We talked about heaven.

In his few remaining days, with death knocking on the door, he was the happiest I had ever seen him. His happiness was derived from his sense of purpose.

Once he accepted death he stopped trying to hold onto life. And for the first time he started living. (Tweet that.)

He was choosing to live if there was no tomorrow. Because there wasn’t.

Embracing the truth of our mortality can change everything.

The point of this article isn’t to be morose. The purpose is to encourage you to be  fully alive.

  • To focus on doing the things that will matter forever.
  • To understand the value of time.
  • To silence distractions.
  • To focus on relationships.
  • To realize that some risks are too important not to take.
  • To stop worrying about failing and to start doing.
  • To love because in the end, there is nothing else.

Have you ever lived in such a way as if some day you will die?

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

About Jeremy Statton

Jeremy is a writer and an orthopedic surgeon. When not ridding the world of pain, he helps you live a better story. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook or Google +.

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37 Replies

  1. DDF

    A strong, good, poignant, thoughtful and touching word from my friend Jeremy Statton. To life! … And to a wonderful holiday with the Statton clan … The gift you can give your readers like me is to keep writing. Good stuff, Jeremy… You inspire me to live a better story.

  2. My dad was diagnosed with a rare blood disease in the early 80’s and given a 10% chance to live. I was too young to grasp it then … but when he was diagnosed with liver disease 20 years later (that he’s gotten back in the early 80’s before blood testing is what it is now) — it changed things for my family. We started not waiting until “later” to do things together or to be more intentional in our interactions. He’s still alive, and I’m grateful!!, but I’m also grateful we did things when we could because if we’d put them off, he wouldn’t be able to do them now. Oddly, his second diagnosis was a kick in the pants we didn’t want, but we listened to. Jeremy, thanks for the reminder to appreciate my dad all the more!

  3. I like how you described it as a kick in the pants you didn’t want but still chose to listen to it.

  4. So many of your points resonate with me Jeremy. I lost my mom when I was 18 to breast cancer. She was diagnosed when I was 13. She had a mastectomy and chemo and was fine for about 4 years before it came back into her bones. Since my mom’s death I’ve lived with one eye constantly on eternity. I think watching a loved one pass away will do that to you. Life and the relationships we have are precious.

  5. What a powerful post! Thanks for sharing this!

  6. I’m sorry to hear about your mother. I know you must miss her.

  7. My dad passed away this year and even though we weren’t close, it provided lots of lessons. We talked about things we had long wanted to but were afraid of. I told him how much I cared, and how I didn’t have a grudge against him. The relief in his voice and eyes is something I still carry with me. We were fortunate that while he suffered through cancer, we were able to have various difficult conversations.

  8. I am sorry about your dad. It’s amazing how a shift in perspective changes our sense of fear. If only we can live without that same fear right now instead of waiting.

  9. This was beautiful, Jeremy.

  10. I think that is a tremendous life lesson, and would be of amazing value if just one reader took it to heart.

  11. I loved your list at the end, Jeremy. Been pondering a lot of those very same things. It’s as if God reaffirmed my focus on them through you. Thanks for doing the work.

  12. Thanks, Joe. To quote you, “You’re the best.”

  13. I am always needing my focus reaffirmed. Glad I could help.

  14. Greg Faulls


    I met you at the John Maxwell Conference this past summer. I was the Pastor from Owensboro. I want to thank you for your post. My father has stage 4 bone cancer. We have been living each day together as if it is our last. Cancer is horrible, but the quality of life inspired by imminent mortality is priceless. Thanks for sharing your story!

  15. Sabine

    I had a similar experience when my Mom died, 25 years ago. The time we spent when she knew she wouldn’t make it through her cancer was one of the most meaningful of my life. And yes, i agree with you, at the end, there is nothing else than love. Thank you for reminding us this.

  16. I like how you phrased this. “At the end, there is nothing else than love.”

  17. Of course I remember, Greg. Cancer is absolutely horrible. I didn’t describe any of the awful parts of it. One reason for that is I don’t remember those parts as much as what I wrote about. I’m sure you will find the same one day.

  18. Such a great message. My Dad lived like this as well while battling cancer, and my friend Jamie retaught me these lessons through her five year battle with cancer (from age 30 to 35) until she passed away. I try every day to embrace each day and learn to live and tell people how I feel about them.

    I’m really trying to focus on this one from your list as well. “To realize that some risks are too important not to take”
    Thanks for the reminders!

  19. Thanks for sharing your experience in this. Let’s keep encouraging each other to live this way.

  20. I lost my dad to diabetes and asthma at 13 and the experience changed my life forever. Somehow we find strength and courage in the saddest moments of our lives to live purposefully. Thanks Jeremy.

  21. And yet we avoid the sad moments at all costs? Not that we shouldn’t wish for our fathers to still be here, but there are times when we avoid pain and sadness when it might change us.

  22. Wow Jeremy. I couldn’t imagine losing my father at such an early age. Losing my dad still scares me even today.

    It’s strange though how much we hold onto “life” while avoiding the things that truly bring us life.

    I’ve been focusing on building relationships instead of holding tight to the money it costs or the time it takes. It could be going for coffee with a friend or going to the movies with my wife. Investing in those I care about while I can seems so important.

  23. I think you are right. The car or the clothes or the gadget doesn’t give us life. People do. Experiences with those people do.

  24. this was very poignant for me. I lost my dad at 20, 20 years ago almost to the day. It was out of nowhere. He was 44. He hada sudden brain stem infarction, and never recovered. Sure, he was in a nursing home and didn’t die for 11 years, but I never had the same father. We didn’t have that sort of urgency that you did with your dad. I was away at school when it happened and did see my dad since August.

    Thank you for writing this. Very important stuff. Maybe more important than anything we could write about. And terribly true. We have to live right now…not when life is coming to an end.

  25. Ryan

    Amazing thoughts. It’s quite something to think of everything we would do differently if we had this perspective in mind all the time. I’m guilty of treating time like a cheap trinket when it’s really a precious commodity.

  26. Jeremy, nothing “morose” about the article. Just a good, honest discussion of one of the most obvious and important facts of life. Also, I like all the points you listed at the end of the post especially this one “Some risks are too important not to take.”

    I lost my youngest brother to cancer after 4 years of treatment. I remember when he was a baby and first came home from the hospital, when he learned to ride a bike, when he got married, and a million other stories. What he went through has been a constant reminder of how valuable time is. A reminder that life goes by in the blink of an eye.


  27. I’m sorry about your dad, Lisa. Your affirmation of what I wrote means a ton to me.

  28. Thanks for sharing about your brother. I only knew my dad as my dad, not as a little boy. When he died my grandmother was still alive, and I could watch her deal with the same type of images and grief. It was very hard on her even though her baby was 52.

  29. Your writing of this means a lot to me. More than you could probably know.

    Blessings in your sorrows, and during this blessed Advent, my brother.

  30. When it comes to my earthly father, whom I called “Pop” (no relation to the word used for carbonated non-alcoholic beverages), my story always seems to be different … though not that much different from many.

    Pop discovered his colon cancer in 1990, as a result of excruciating pain. It had to be excruciating, because he would’ve blocked it as he had for 2 weeks. When he finally could ignore it no longer, he called me at work in tears. He didn’t know what to do. He was scared out of his wits. It would take me 15-20 minutes to get to him, so I tried to tell him to call 911. I also told him to call his best friend, my mother’s father (who was 6 years his elder), for help before I could get there.

    The pain, as too many doctor’s visits and tests would show, was colon cancer. It was surgically removed, but in visiting the surgeon’s office, it was obvious his mind wasn’t all there. That was normal for him. He was deathly afraid of hospitals and doctors. It was obvious when he assumed that the surgeon, a Dr. Patel, was related to the internist, whose last name was also Patel, were brothers; in fact, it’s a common name in the medical community here.

    Pop’s cancer had grown into the abdominal wall, so a 5-week course of combined radiation & chemo was ordered. The first & last weeks would be administered in the hospital, so the chemo would not hurt his system much. By about lunchtime, I was called to come pick him up, as he had pulled the IV from his arm and walked down the hall, bleeding, because he “had to go home.” The chemo would be administered in the oncologist’s office instead. By the 3rd week, he was anemic, so he was told to “do nothing” for the week. The back yard needed mowing, though, so that was “nothing” enough for him. Unfortunately, it was enough to jostle loose the incision inside, and he started bleeding internally. He made it through that on his own, but the oncologist told me treatment would have to stop, or else he’d kill himself.

    On January 29, 1993, he died of internal bleeding as a result of the cancer returning in full force throughout his body. He didn’t realize what was happening, though, because some form of senile dementia had also set in, forcing me to put him into the “low stimulus wing” of a local nursing home. He was well-liked by the nurses there, a feeling that I did not share, but he didn’t realize he was dying … or I don’t think he did. I finally had to stop visiting him for his sake and mine. Even in the hospital, he would beg me to let him loose from the straps that held him in place, since he still thought he “had to go home” for something.

    No, he wasn’t a Christian, as far as I know.

    On the subject of dying, I look to page 127 of Anne Jackson’s book, Permission to Speak Freely. The creator of the picture chose to use a darkened cemetery background, with old English script letters that read:

    I am not afraid to die
    I am afraid to live
    I am afraid of failing in
    My God-ordained responsibilities.

    God, are You there to heal the damage?

    Those are literally my words. I contributed that to Anne’s book. Sometimes it still feels that way. Something to live for? I’d rather “go home early,” thank you.

  31. Greg Faulls

    Thanks for this blog, Jeremy. I met you at the Maxwell conference last summer. I was the Pastor from Owensboro. Your post meant a lot to me. My father currently is suffering from stage 4 lung cancer and is on very limited time. We have found that knowing mortality is upon you helps you prioritize life with a much richer focus on relationships. My father and I have spent more time together in the past year than we did the previous twenty. Thanks again for your post!

    Greg Faulls

  32. Jesse Hoover

    Jeremy, thanks for this reminder…too often I get busy with the little unimportant things. Thank you.

  33. Powerful truths Jeremy, thank you for the reminder to be purposeful and grateful with every breath. I want to be the way you Dad was with you at the end for the entirety of my life with my son. You have strengthened my resolve.

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