Guest post by Justin Harter.
You know that feeling when you have a single loose hair that just flutters around wistfully in the wind? The sort of strand that’s just clumped together enough to bend gently under the air vent and tickle your scalp? I felt that all day yesterday. Except I just got my haircut and there wasn’t anything out of place. Just a single spot on my head that felt tingly all day.
For most people that would be the sort of thing you find curiously annoying and move on from. But coupled with a headache from this past weekend I can’t help but think one thing: this is it. I have a brain tumor. I’ll be dead soon.
My other irrational party trick: noting that mother died 15 years ago today from a brain tumor. She was 36 when she was diagnosed and 38 when she died.
I turn 30 in April and naturally I assume I have about six years to live. This has framed everything I do in a crystal-clear haze. I have to start a business and be successful because I’ll be dead soon. I have to meet someone and get married because I’ll be dead soon. I don’t have time to do this because I’ll be dead soon and this other thing is more important. It’s both helpful and debilitating at the same time.
Steve Jobs was right when he said “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.” I just assume he and everyone else figured that meant “after the age of 60.” As if life is supposed to come with an asterisk and a limited lifetime guarantee. Death doesn’t’ care so much about that.
I don’t remember what my mom’s voice sounded like. She died just before the Internet revolution that I make my living working with today started. There aren’t any videos of her. She destroyed many of the photos that existed of her. I was 14 when she died. I think she was trying to push me forward by removing memories.
I don’t remember how she walked or what her perfume smelled like or what her handwriting was like, exactly. Notes I saved from her show a marked decline in her handwriting ability as the tumor choked off her brain stem.
But I remember the seizures, the stokes, the look on her eyes before one was about to strike and what sounds she made at 4:24 a.m. on January 20, 2000 when her first seizure struck. She died two days short of that mark two years later.
It’s that hazy but clear memory that has stuck with me. It’s probably framed more of my life than I give it credit for. I don’t fear death like some people do. I think nothing of riding a bicycle in the middle of a street as one example. Most would fear getting hit by a car. I figure the car’s a much quicker harbinger of death than a brain tumor, so let’s go with that.
This is probably why as part of new clients that sign on with us for website and design services I usually ask, “And do you have an idea of what should happen to this website if you should die?” No one’s ever been put off by that question, but I’m sure it’s the least expected right after, “Do you have a domain name reserved?”
I’m now double the age I was when mom died. In 2002 I was somewhat relieved when she died. After two years of radiation, three brain surgeries, and a battery of pills and tests and strokes and seizures and loss of senses and motor control, it felt like a relief. Now, as I age into my 30’s and approach her age the stress is building again.
Of course, I don’t know when or how I’ll die. I’m in better shape and health than mom was. I don’t eat as much processed stuff, or soda, and I exercise way more than she ever did. But I still work off the general assumption that I’ll be dead in 6-8 years.
It’s hard to imagine anyone that hasn’t been impacted by cancer by now. It touches everyone differently, even when it’s not touching you. This is how cancer touched me and continues to do so.
Justin Harter is a web designer, developer, and author. He and his company, SuperPixel, are based in Indianapolis, Indiana where he lives with his husband, Jeremiah, and a ridiculous number of pets. His work has been seen and viewed by millions online. You can follow him on Twitter at @jlharter or read more of his personal work at justinharter.com.