The Legacy of a Life in Four Words: In Honor of Valerie Harper

Learn from the legacy of an amazing woman.

I lost two weeks the summer of 1969 while backpacking in Europe. I had just finished reading Love Story and certain that like the protagonist I, too, was dying of leukemia, missed Rome entirely while I fixated on every ache and pain. Turns out that I was fine, but I’ll never get those two weeks back.

A month ago, while waiting for the results of some serious medical tests, I would have lost more precious time out of my life worrying, but for words of wisdom from a most unlikely source: the front cover of "People Magazine". It was a cover photo of Valerie Harper who caught my eye. Recognizing her as my old friend Rhoda from the Mary Tyler Moore show, she looked wonderfully vibrant and full of life.

From most perspectives, I would have seemed to have missed the mark by a mile. For upon closer inspection, I saw that the headline beneath her photo read: “Valerie Harper’s Brave Goodbye.” Harper, it turns out, is facing terminal cancer and had but months to live. But as I opened the magazine and began to read, I realized that despite her grim prognosis, I hadn’t been wrong about her at all. In many ways, I encountered what may well be one of the most vibrant and fully alive woman to ever grace the cover of that magazine. In fact, in a quote from Valerie, appropriately set in bold, I had the privilege of reading the four most important words I had ever and I venture to propose will ever encounter: “Don’t Miss Your Life.”

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For me, it was bad enough that I missed two weeks of Rome. But in the face of my medical exams, spotlighting my life in the bright beam of mortality, I wondered how much else of my life I’d missed out on over the years. How many hours, weeks, months had I allowed fear to call the shots in my life, herding me to make safe choices rather than go for what I really wanted? How often did I just catch glimpses of my real life as I sped through on the fast-track, fueled by anxiety or responding to external pressures? Psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom, in his insightful classic Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Dread of Death, has the answer. Most of not only my life, but most of our lives, are lived in both conscious and unconscious reactivity to fear of dying.

When we’re not dwelling morosely on death, allowing our fears to take us under, we’re seeking to squash our feelings by throwing ourselves into relationships, to money, even to success and good works, to deny death’s terror. “But in spite of the staunchest of our defenses, death anxiety is never completely subdued: it is always there, lurking in the hidden ravines of our minds.”

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Carol Orsborn, Ph.D., Fierce with Age
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Related Topics: Love And Family, Aging

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