The call came as we pulled into Boulder. Day 73 of our 100 day journey. Doug’s mom was admitted to the hospital. A 28 month fight against stage IV cancer metastasized on the brain now required full time care. It was uncertain how much time she would have left. But it was clear by her state, clear by her deterioration, and clear by the first mention of timeframes, after years of doctors so meticulously avoiding them, this time was different.

Our decision was as easy as it was obvious, and as it was wild. Once we settled our affairs, we drove the 31 hours straight to Philadelphia. We cut our trip slightly short and returned to one of the places we call home. Arriving with gratitude for our ability to spend as many days together as possible, not just with my mother-in-law, but with our family during this time.

When she’d first been diagnosed, years earlier, our thoughts were all over the place. Mourning her before she’d even gone and a future with her in it that would never belong to any of us. Celebrating her life and ours intertwined. Understanding the reality of a terminal illness, the science behind disease, and the torture behind choosing a quality of life and the fight for survival. Life suddenly felt stripped down; its meaning both abstract and crystalized.

We only get one life. We better live the hell out of it before it’s gone.

For some, I imagine that is a dire proposition. A reminder of our mortality. A countdown of our ultimate demise. It can feel bleak. But somehow, I feel quite the opposite. The finality of life has become immensely empowering.

Yes, we have absolutely no control over the fact our lives one day – any day, today even – will come to an end. There’s no changing that. But we have something in our complete control – always – and that changes everything.

How we approach life is ours and ours alone. We have a lifetime of moments to spend anyway we choose. Why let it feel anything less than extraordinary?

It’s easy to dismiss this. There are endless reasons for why we believe our lives simply can’t fit the mold we have in our minds.

As I took the wheel during my portion of that long drive back to Philadelphia, it was the middle of the night in Nebraska. The moon hung low and bold and bright, a huge ball against the blackest of skies. With my husband and my daughter asleep in the car, it was just me, The Shins and my thoughts for hours. Nothing but time and a moon that took my breath away. I thought back over our trip, and even further back to everything that led us to all be in that car at that very moment. It became clear an 100 day road trip does not make a life extraordinary, although a million moments along it made my heart burst at the seams, leaving parts of me scattered along the 9,740.4 miles we traveled. Just like becoming a mother or a photographer or a wife or any of the labels or actions we could ever possibly take would never be the one, singular thing that creates the greatest memories of our lives. I’m sure the universe has laughed kindly at my attempt to grasp the answer of what makes a life worth living. A life proud of living. But that same universe gives me many chances to try again and again to figure it out.

So here goes.

There is a life I want to live. It’s a far cry from the one which in the not-so-distant past was bookended by punching the clock. By buying hook, line and sinker into the consumerism so prevalent in my world, where I kept a job to buy the things that I could only maintain with the job I didn’t really want in the first place. Where it was frighteningly easy to slip into a person who felt jealous and greedy of superficial things and of people who had so much inspiration to give. No. The life I want to live is actually on an entirely different planet than that life.

An extraordinary life to me isn’t defined by any one thing you have or don’t have or any one thing you do or don’t do. It instead is something you feel more than any other feeling in the millions of moments you’ll experience. It’s in gratitude, seeing each day as a gift to fill with simple moments and terrific adventures alike. It’s in cherishing the experiences that make your heart beat faster and chasing them with abandon. It’s in the happiness of others, watching them and feeling nothing but joy as you celebrate the ways they live their lives. It’s in the struggle and the satisfaction you feel remembering that both time and love, above all, are our most valuable commodities with the greatest returns. How we choose to spend them will truly define how rich our lives feel and how rich our lives are. And it’s in realizing we hold the key to our own freedom, to allow ourselves to feel equally lighter and fuller at the very same time. It’s been inside us all along.

Our family’s journey across the country and back was filled with so many of these moments. But many of them could have happened wherever we found ourselves in the world. We just happened to have a new backdrop each day reminding us just how special life can be. Wherever we are, we have the choice each day to look for beauty in this world, to search for those feelings of greatness and to become the person we admire. Those chances are there in grand adventures, sure, but that’s not where they live. Those feelings are born out of moments so small you’d miss them if you lived too fast. They are right there, waiting for us to notice them. Waiting for us to chase them. Reminding us if your life doesn’t feel extraordinary, change it. Make it so.

For we only get one life. Wherever we are and wherever we’re going, we better live the hell out of it before it’s gone.