Would you believe I met, shook hands with, and received a mini-apology from Muhammad Ali, aka “the Greatest”?
In 1970, when I was a college freshman, my best friend, Jackie, and I went to hear Ali speak at our Mansfield branch campus of the Ohio State University. We were excited to see him, so we arrived early and sat in the front row. The person introducing the former heavyweight boxing champion of the world presented a very large original painting of Ali to him.
The Champ looked around to see where he could safely set down the portrait and motioned for me to come forward. I jumped up and took the huge painting from him as he loudly announced: “Thanks, I always wanted a white slave!”
I thought it was a hilarious comment, but after his speech, Ali sought me out, extended his right hand, and said, “You knew I was just kidding, right?” And then the hand that would punch the likes of Sonny Liston, George Foreman, and Joe Frazier warmly clasped mine.
In 1984 Ali announced he had Parkinson’s disease, and if you watched that incredible moment at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when he shakily lit the torch, ( https://youtu.be/QEhNDUwksvU ) you could see what a painful turn the former gold medalist’s life had taken. No wonder he talked about making the days count before his death in June 2016.
Once we or someone we love has gotten a life-threatening diagnosis, we come face-to-face with our own mortality and often feel an urgency to make each day count.
My longtime friend Georgia, a double-cancer survivor and a licensed psychologist, says cancer helped her answer the question “What do I care deeply about?”
In 1989 she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 38 and had surgery, chemo, and radiation. But six months later the cancer was back. After her doctors gave her only a 2 percent chance of still being alive in ten years, she decided to undergo a risky bone marrow transplant.
Georgia survived the transplant, but she still faced an uncertain future.
“At the time I was in the process of really learning to know Jesus,” she says. “And as I prayed about what I should do [after the transplant], the answer was ‘Do what you love, Georgia.’
“But I honestly didn’t know what I loved—what I cared deeply about—because I had focused on pleasing others,” she says. “So I had to start paying attention to my life.”
It wasn’t long before Georgia found her passion.
“For me it started in the garden—God’s creation,” she explains. “That’s where I really feel connected to and loved by God.”
So she decided to do what she loved: gardening. With more sweat equity than money, she and some friends turned her drought-damaged lawn into a garden and a small fishpond.
“As I watched my dead lawn being transformed into a beautiful sanctuary, seeds of hope grew in my heart,” she recalls. “Like my life, there was so much I could not control in the garden (i.e., the weather), yet beautiful things happened—I remember one plant that looked absolutely dead and it totally came back!”
That garden started with a little pack of morning glory seeds from her aunt and ended up inspiring Georgia to write a book about restoring your life after loss, A Gift of Mourning Glories.
Then in the fall of 2013, Georgia received a second cancer diagnosis of stage 4 nonsmokers’ non-small cell lung cancer. Now a stunningly beautiful 67, Georgia continues to make every day count.
She has written several more books and become a credentialed life coach, and she speaks frequently around the country—all the while continuing on maintenance chemo and not canceling a single speaking engagement since her diagnosis.
“Life is a gift, so what am I going to do with it?” she says. “Live it purposefully and passionately, and make the time I do have count!”
If a physician has told you that your days or your loved one’s days are numbered, I hope you are not trying to count them. Do not embrace those longevity guesses and allow them to become self-fulfilling prophecies. I’ve lost count of the scores of cancer survivors I know who have outlasted medical predictions and aren’t “supposed to be here.”
And if you or your loved one is cured or expected to still live a long life, I hope you’ll ask yourself what you care deeply about and then allow that love to nurture your spirit and give you hope. If you have regrets, make amends where necessary and be thankful for the God of second chances. Seek out and enjoy the things that help you feel God’s peaceful presence.
The Bible doesn’t tell us to count our days, but it does say we ought to learn to “number” them. That doesn’t mean we should try to estimate how many we have left. Instead, we should realize that every person—sick or well—has a limited supply. Cancer or any life-threatening illness does us a favor when it reminds us that however long we live on earth, it’s a blink compared to eternity.
Eternal One, let me understand my end
and how brief my earthly existence is;
help me realize my life is fleeting. —Psalm 39:4, The Voice
Teach us to number our days
so that we may truly live and achieve wisdom.–Psalm 90:12, The Voice
Nobody really knows how many rounds we have left in us, but as long as you have this day, there’s no reason to throw in the towel. Ask God how you can make this day count in your life, in the life of someone you love, and for eternity.
Peace will happen when we remember everyone’s days are numbered, but we don’t need to count them.
(Excerpt from Peace in the Face of Cancer, Chapter 28, published 2017, Tyndale Momentum. Copyright by Lynn Eib)