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Jackie McEntee: "If I hadn't know the pain of being told I had only a few years to live, I wouldn't have full lived. And would I trade this experience? The answer is no, I wouldn't go back."

 Note: Jackie McEntee, a family therapist, received a terminal diagnosis in her late 50s. Her response was to so transform her life that she said would rather have lived her new life for a few years than to have lived many more as she had previously. She was interviewed by Fred Branfman in the August 1996 edition of Salon .

How would you describe the difference between how you lived before, and how you've lived since your diagnosis?

Before I lived nice cotton -- clean, cool, healthy. But now I live velvet -- beautiful, purple, magic carpet velvet. I call this my "Year of Ecstasy." Sublime, incredible things have happened. That's why I wouldn't go back. Even though my previous life was good, it was not the bliss, the splendor, the ecstasy of how I live now.

How did you first learn you had a terminal illness?

My physician called, said I should sit down and told me on the phone. We then went in for a three-hour talk that night. He said that I shouldn't put off any trips that I'd always wanted to take. At that moment, I saw something like a piece of clear crystal go from my heart to wedge in his. I didn't think, "I haven't gone to Australia." It was, "The only trip I want to take is to love and be loved."

As I thought about it afterwards, I couldn't come up with anything I wanted other than a black leather jacket and to ride a Harley. I couldn't ride because my arms aren't strong enough to hold on. But I went and took pictures of the black leather jacket and me on the motorcycle.

What was the most important impact of receiving this diagnosis?

Like most people, I thought, "This is something I'll only have to consider when I'm 84." But getting a terminal diagnosis was, "You've got a limited amount of time. Now, really, what do you want to do? How do you want to be?" It hit me right here, in my heart.

I imagine that if I got a diagnosis like this, I'd be paralyzed with fear.

There's less fear in my life because I'm not in the loop of stress that most of us get into from working and worrying about money and the kids, rather than just being with what is. It's about acceptance rather than still struggling to make it your way. All the ego stuff, all the future fear -- "God, did I gain weight? Am I turning gray?"

Most of those things aren't important any more. It's like really downsizing to the essence. It wasn't things that I wanted. It was a way of life. And so I systematically set out to live it. A lot of the programming from my youth was still there before the illness, like "You need to be successful." You're in this prison. I've switched to what's important.

How do you do that?

Mindfulness. Being aware of how I spend each minute of the day. For example, I've been eating this sandwich. Before, I would have just packed it away, probably hardly known what I ate, because I'd be concentrating on our work and where I have to go next. Today, even though we've been talking the whole time, I've really appreciated the flavors and the texture.

I pause in all my life. I take time. That's key. This morning, I got up, and I was really pissed. It's the first day of summer vacation, Bob's home. I like my mornings by myself, thank you. And reservations hadn't been made for our trip, for a motel for next week. I was angry with him for not having done it sooner.

At that point, I sat down and did a "freeze-frame." First you stay with what you're bitchy about. Then you go into appreciation. And then you drop into, "What is my heart saying?" In this case it was: "Feel the feelings, it has nothing to do with him. This man has been an angel, and I'm going to get all over him because he didn't make a phone call?" Before, I would have gotten angry.

It's this type of awareness that we don't give ourselves. We just kind of go on neutral through life. It's, "Well, I'm tired, I guess I'll go to sleep." We don't see our options.

Have your relationships with people changed?

Definitely. First, I got very selective about the people I spend time with. I had to "divorce" from two women in my life who professed great love for me, but who were really operating out of neediness. What they wanted from me just wiped me out. I now surround myself with many people that I can love.

By "love" I mean being with people who I know have my best interests at heart, and whose best interests I have at heart. I rejoice when they rejoice. I weep when they weep. We play together. There's humor involved. I called a friend of mine the other day about coming over to fill out hospice papers, for my final days. She said, "Jackie, I will come to your house, I will sleep on your floor, I will do anything to care for you for as long as you need me." I know there are at least 35 to 40 people that would say the same thing. And they know that I would do the same for them.

How do you handle the sadness of realizing you'll never see your husband or other loved ones again?

There is a lot of sadness. I stay in it while I'm in it. And when I'm done, I come out of it. If I hadn't known the pain of being told I had only a few years to live, I wouldn't have fully lived. And would I trade this experience? The answer is no, I wouldn't go back. Of course, I'd like a miracle. And yet, if I had the miracle, would I the way living or slip back? You get back into the comfortable, the lack of mindfulness.

My son called on Father's Day, a few days ago. I wasn't doing as well with the pain, and he got quite upset. We had an incredible talk. Both of us were just sobbing. We talked about ways of him not losing me. I talked about how I used my (late) father as a "consultant" all through the years, and how he could use me that way after I'm gone. He's six-foot-four, very built and tattooed. And he's such a love, so sensitive, sweet and gentle.

I think we need as a society to sustain death in our consciousness. Death is a reality, by virtue of life itself. Our society has been in such a fog, evading death and dying, that I really think we don't live as fully because of that evasion. Well, I've learned to live fully now. And it's my deepest wish that everyone else will also -- and without having to go through this kind of illness.