How would you spend your final days if you learned you had developed incurable cancer and had only about six months to live?
Michele Baldwin, a 45-year-old mother of three who discovered recently that her cervical cancer was advancing rapidly through her system, is going to make a pilgrimage to India and embark on a 700-mile standup-paddleboard expedition down the sacred Ganges River. It might very well be her life's final journey.
"It's not so much as want, but something I feel I must do," she said in a story posted this week on the SUP magazine website (SUP stands for standup paddling). "I have maybe six months to live -- maybe less, maybe more -- but if I do live long enough to come home, if I have a miracle, I'll continue to fund-raise and maybe even plan another trip."
Baldwin, a practicing Buddhist and a canoeing-kayaking guide from New Mexico, will depart Monday and begin her river odyssey a few days after arriving in India. She'll paddle aboard a 12-foot inflatable SUP board in two four-hour sessions per day, from Rishikesh in the Himalayas to the hallowed city of Varanasi. She hopes to cover 25 miles per day and complete the voyage in about a month.
The ordeal has been difficult for her family and especially her children, two college-age sons and a 12-year-old daughter. But they're behind her, 100%.
In fact, Audrey Baldwin, the daughter, has helped plan her mom's adventure and even spoke to her seventh-grade class this week about what her mom was enduring, where she was going, and why it's so important to get Pap tests and take other measures to detect cancer early.
(With proper education, regular screening and vaccination, cervical cancer is almost completely preventable.)
"The older ones are handling it in their own ways but always loving toward and proud of their mother," Michele's father, Kendrick Frazier, said Thursday via email.
Michele learned she had the cancer in early summer. Soon afterward she rejected a scholarship to attend the University of New Mexico's Emergency Health Services Academy. Instead, she decided to plan a special mission in the hope of raising awareness about a form of cancer that claims 250,000 lives each year.
The Ganges idea came like "a little secret" whispered in her ear, she told SUP.
The mission became more pressing recently when she learned the cancer had spread into her lymph nodes and was increasingly sapping her strength and causing more pain and nausea.
"Although I'm prepared to die during the expedition, I don't want it for my kids," she said. "I don't want them to have a negative view of India ... I just want to inspire them to live in a way that is strong."
That part of her mission, most likely, already has been accomplished. If Michele has her way, though, many more people will learn about her story and become inspired to enjoy life to its fullest and to remain courageous when the going gets rough.
As for allowing hope for a miracle when the going gets really rough, that's OK, too.
-- Images of Michele Baldwin are courtesy of Michele Baldwin. Top image shows her paddling on the Rio Grande north of Albuquerque, N.M.