Smith: Valerie Harper has a lesson to teach

Actress Valerie Harper was diagnosed earlier this year with leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a rare form of brain cancer.

Harper's doctors told her she had about three months to live. About the time you read this, her life expectancy will be about half that.

Imagine that you were given the same death sentence. What would you do?

Perhaps there is a favorite place you would like to see one more time. There may be a few people you'd like to visit and, even more important, tell them how much they have meant to you.

Some of us have mistreated people. If so, the end of your life is a good time to say, "I'm sorry," which will mean far more to them than it will to you and that's why it is worth doing.

Some of us will want to go into hibernation and do nothing. Others will spend those three months volunteering somewhere or trying to give back to the community or the world in some way.

Valerie Harper is spending her final days trying to tell you that most of what you worry about or get upset over is not worth the time.

"I don't think of dying," she said in an interview with People magazine. "I think of being here now."

Harper has ignored death because she can't do anything about it and therefore doesn't feel it warrants her attention.

The concept of "being here now" is an extremely difficult one to understand, let alone practice. Ultimately, though, those who understand and practice it have peace in their lives.

Those people know that since they cannot change the past and cannot predict the future, the only time worth considering is the current moment. When we live in that moment, we let the little things go and focus instead on appreciating the people and things in our lives that give us joy.

For parents, being here now means that we stop worrying about the wrong things, such as our teen's messy room or some other habit they've got that rubs us the wrong way. There are millions of good kids in America who are doing well in school and who are kind and generous but whose parents can see only the messy room or the nontraditional clothes or the odd hairstyle. They harp on these meaningless symbols and miss the opportunities to appreciate their children for who they are.

What should matter most to parents is their child's heart. Even kids who have made mistakes, even serious mistakes, can have a heart worth appreciating.

Unless you die suddenly, you will likely one day face Harper's fate — a medical condition that leaves you with a fixed amount of time. Some of us may be too old or too infirm to do any of the end-of-life things we'd like to do; that's why it is important to do them now.

But you won't. You will finish reading this and go on with whatever it is in your life that you usually do. You will do that day after day, week after week and month after month, until it becomes years and you look back and wonder where the time went. You will wonder what you have to show for your time on earth. If you have spent that time wisely, you will have no regrets.

STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer. Send story ideas to

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