I spent my final semester of college getting sicker, and no one knew why, or how, or what it was. On my 21st birthday, I was finally diagnosed with a liver disease, dysautonomia, and lifelong incurable autoimmune diseases.
One of my diseases manifests differently in each individual. Prognosis varies significantly. Most people have normal lifespans, but potentially fatal complications from this disease are renal failure, pulmonary infections and Non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
While my peers were celebrating happy hour clinking frothy half-priced margaritas, I was sitting stiff and alone in my one-bedroom apartment on my couch, hands folded in my lap, staring at a baby photo on my wall.
In the picture I am four years old; I’m wearing a cotton candy blue tutu and holding a paper towel roll microphone. Before my diagnosis I used to look at the picture and think, “I wonder if my daughter will wear tutus as much as I did, or twirl around her aunt’s deck singing an off-pitch show tune.”
After my health starting failing, I looked at those pictures differently; I wondered if I would ever be able to have a baby girl to hold close to me, and cup her little fingers and toes in my hands. Would I be able to roll my eyes at a son tracking dirt into the house because he left his dirty sneakers on again?
In the chance that I do, will I make it to his high school graduation? Will I get lymphoma and miss my daughter’s wedding day? Will I get lymphoma and miss my wedding day?
When you know your lifespan could be limited, you develop an appreciation. You love harder and faster. You wake up earlier and go to bed later. You stop making excuses, and you start making checks off your bucket list. You travel, visit, forgive, laugh.
I’ve quickly understood why I was diagnosed with these diseases so young. Someone didn’t want my life to go by without me seeing and feeling it. My eyes were pried open, and I am loving the sights.
I am blessed and thankful for a sister who is my best friend and better half, for a father who redirects my negative thoughts into optimism and shares late, sleepless nights with Oreos and milk by the TV.
I have a mother who fights my battles as hard as I do, turning her life upside down to keep mine as normal as possible. I’m thankful for a future husband who is everything I wish I could be and has enough love in his enormous heart to fuel us both through the hardest days.
For all of this, I thank God. I’m grateful these diseases picked me to be their host, because they’ve sent me on a journey I would have completely missed. They define why I am me, and how hard I will keep fighting for that giddy girl in the blue tutu.
I urge anyone reading this right now to just open your eyes every now and then. Look at what you have, how much you have, and how long you get to keep enjoying it. Send a random text to your parents saying that you appreciate them working so hard all these years for your family.
Call your grandmother and ask her about the first time she met your granddad, and could she use a visit sometime?
Move to that dream city, adopt that dog, and buy that humidifier that’s been sitting in your Amazon cart.
Don’t wait for a disease to change your outlook on life. Take it more seriously. Or better yet, don’t take it seriously at all. Have a blast, and make no apologies for exploring your happiness and fulfillment.
I may have fewer life stepping stones than I planned for, but I can promise that I’ll make the stones I do have into boulders. I challenge you to join me.
Katie Madison of Spanaway is a soon-to-be-military wife and one of six new reader columnists writing for this page in 2017. Reach her by email at email@example.com or visit her blog kmadsblog.wordpress.com