How do you know when you are finished with life?
by Nancy B. Loughlin
Published in News Press on June 14, 2016

saint barbara

Saint Barbara

In May, a physician’s assistant in the emergency room told me I had a three-centimeter mass on my left ovary.  She said I had to schedule a follow-up appointment within 24 hours to arrange a biopsy.

Ovarian cancer was on the possibility table.

I left the hospital, shocked and shaken, and I stood in the parking lot. I raised my eyes to the blue Maxfield Parrish sky.

Convinced I was going to die sooner rather than later, I wailed, “But I’m not finished yet!”

My time limit just got real.


After alerting my support system and Googling “ovarian cancer,” I paced.  I was surrounded by unread books, half-finished projects and a white board scribbled with to-do lists and dream travel destinations.

The threat of my imminent mortality reminded me I was non finito.

What creative imprint was I going to leave on this world before I left it? I always thought I had time.

Where were my masterpieces, the fruit of my presence on this planet, evidence to validate my short existence? All I could see that afternoon were marinating dreams and piles of almosts and big, unrealized aspirations.

True, the character of a life isn’t in the grand, public-ready performances because every fool can be a hero at one time or another.  The end product is meaningless and, frankly, ego driven.  Life is about the intention and integrity of action.  So we detach from results.

A rich store to mine in order to Know Thyself is in our unfinishedness.  What have we abandoned?  What are the signposts of our finest interruptions? When have we withdrawn our efforts prior to the completion and presentation of the final product?

It’s in the unfinishedness we can witness our hands at work, the labyrinth of our struggles and the compass of our curiosities.  We can study our erasures, cross-outs and do-overs.

We can pinpoint our nervousness, when we feared the reactions of other people and why we quit to bypass failure.

We can look for patterns in our points of stoppage and recognize they are not points of shame. Incompleteness can be exhibited and explored rather than hidden.  It takes a certain wisdom to know when to pull away our hands.

I recently drifted through New York City’s Met Breuer and its mesmerizing exhibit “Unfinished.”  I hovered over Jan van Eyck’s Saint Barbara, the Christian martyr who was imprisoned, tortured and eventually beheaded.

With a book, she sits floating on her folds of robe before a massive cathedral under construction.  It’s filmy yet detailed, and it has fueled debate as to whether the work’s dreamy feel of unfinishedness was deliberate.

Rembrandt said, “A work is complete if in it the master’s intentions have been realized.”

Maybe we are always finished, whether the form be masterpiece, draft or notion. It’s fine to be less defined, a sketch to inspire wonder and contemplation.

The fantasy phone call

I had been home for two hours when the physician’s assistant from the hospital called me.

She told me she “misread” my report.  The mass was, in fact, a cyst and likely nothing to worry about.

For two hours, I had been planning my death, and now I could stop. I could stop the regret, the resentment, the grieving.

I could stop.

For every person who has ever received a dire diagnosis, this is the fantasy phone call, the answered prayer.

And I got it.

I’m still trying to figure out what to do with it, if anything.