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  • Writer's pictureJaime Pollard-Smith

I Am Not Afraid

"I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship."

-Louisa May Alcott

I went on a walk with a close family friend last week. We are incredibly grateful for the way she has acted like a grandmother to my kids, who are missing that presence in their lives. She is a financial planner by trade and also happens to be a straight shooter. We never wonder what she is thinking. While on our walk, we discussed my mom’s situation.

Friend: Did anyone else in your family have it [Alzheimer’s]?

Me: Yes. Mom’s parents had it.

Friend: BOTH of them!?!

Me: Yes.

Friend: Well, listen, when you turn 40, you need to invest in some good long-term care insurance.

I smiled. Her frank nature is endearing and comes from a place of concern and love. I respect and appreciate her honesty even if this news would sadden most people.

It happens quite frequently. The topic of Alzheimer’s pops up around every corner. Many people squirm and shift awkwardly trying to avoid the conversation around me. Others want to make sure I don’t miss a thing. They send me articles on Facebook or recommend books to read. At least a half dozen people told me about the recent 60 Minutes piece on a family in Columbia with a genetic mutation that could help scientists find a way to prevent Alzheimer’s. “The entire family is developing early onset Alzheimer’s in their forties! Isn’t that terrible?” Yes, indeed.

People frequently express concern for my future. It is a fair assumption to believe I would live in fear. Am I afraid this diagnosis looms in my future? In twenty years, will my husband be taking care of me as my dad cares for my mom? Will I know my grandchildren?

I would be lying to say I have never thought about it. My dad has reminded me that Mom has the type of Alzheimer’s that is “genetic.” He also believes in being prepared. Some might think I am predisposed and doomed to travel the path of my mother. My best friend lost her dad to Alzheimer’s and, on occasion, I admit we have joked that we will ride off into the sunset like Thelma and Louise when we feel it creeping up on us. But these statements are just that - jokes.

People might think I am naive. If you know what to expect, you can make better preparations! I would respond to that comment by saying that I am already doing everything I can to stay as healthy and active as possible. I eat a nutrient-dense diet, get outside whenever possible, lift weights, do five CrossFit workouts per week, and practice yoga. We joke in CrossFit that we train for the unknowable. Expect the unexpected! The truth is, none of us know what life will throw our way, so we should all be prepared.

I just finished reading Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds by Olivia Gentile for one of my book clubs. The author chronicles the life of Phoebe Snetsinger who, at age fifty, was diagnosed with cancer and told she had less than a year to live. She spent the next eighteen years of her life traveling the globe and breaking world records as a bird watcher. She was told to expect death and decided to see 8,500 species of birds instead. In some ways, her death sentence taught her how to live.

I might not know how/when I will die, but I do know how I want to live. I do not live in fear of a diagnosis. It is simply not on my radar, and there are too many other things out there that could get me anyway. I choose not to spend my energy worrying about a future I cannot control. But I can control how I live my life in the here and now. I can build the best possible physical, mental and spiritual version of myself.

I do hope for a lucid mind for all of my days. I hope to be squatting and deadlifting until the very end. I hope to be hiking to mountain tops with my husband, children and grandchildren defying any expectations of age. But if I am not doing all these things, I will cross that bridge when I get there. I could never have written the story of my life as it has turned out. It has been so much better than anything I could have imagined. Likewise, I will not let a genetic predisposition dictate or limit my experience in this world.

Fear could cause me to focus on what “might” happen and rob me of what is actually happening - my life. I plan to savor each moment of health and vitality. I vow to look for the magic, find beauty in the ordinary, and fall in love with as many things as possible. I might not be a bird watcher, but I do bathe in the wonder of this earth and want to make each moment count with the ones I love.

Instructions for life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

-Mary Oliver

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