Lessons and Living
I met Jon in kindergarten. I have no memory of that meeting, but the class picture proves we were in the same kindergarten class. In the years that followed, we traveled in the same circle of boys who roamed our neighborhood on bikes, played baseball in the spring and summer, and football in the fall and winter. We went to each other’s birthday parties and those of our other friends. But I don’t know that we were particularly close. We were just in the same circle of friends, and at some point we grew slightly apart.
In high school we re-connected when we were on the high school newspaper staff for a couple of years. After graduation we remained friends, developing a good friendship within the circle of a larger group of college friends with whom we spent a lot of time. As I was about to graduate from college, I had a small personal crisis and needed a place to live. Jon stepped in and offered me a room, loaned me a couple thousand dollars just to make sure I had something, and our friendship developed further.
There are lots of stories from that time, but one will always stick out. One evening I came home and he broke the news that his cat had been killed by a car and he needed to get drunk. So we did. And life went on.
Until it didn’t anymore.
The summer of Jon’s 32nd year, I got a call one afternoon around 2:00. It was his girlfriend. Jon had died. Completely and totally unexpectedly. He went to work that morning, wasn’t feeling well, and ended up going to the emergency room, where he waited in the hallway for a couple of hours because he was young and in good health. Only he wasn’t. He had a massive heart attack and died. After the fact, his parents came to the belief that he had Marfan’s Syndrome, a congenital disorder that causes muscular weakness and can eventually lead to a heart attack like Jon’s. So, maybe that was what he had.
What I didn’t have any more was my best friend. Dead at such a ridiculously young age, before really his life had yet to begin. At the time, his girlfriend had a little boy and if things had worked out differently, they probably would have ended up married and he would have been an incredible father to the boy, and maybe more. Jon was a good and decent man.
Those college friends we spent a lot of time with a decade earlier got together for his memorial. We cried and told stories, laughed and supported each other. And we all promised that this was a wake-up call. That we would enjoy life more, take care of our bodies better, and we would spend more time doing the things we wanted to do.
Only we didn’t. As these things always seem to do, we got distracted by the hard cold facts of living our lives and couldn’t master the art of living. In our moment of sadness and grief, we made promises to ourselves and to each other most of us couldn’t even begin to comprehend let alone keep.
Fast forward about ten years. I’m working as the General Counsel for a government agency. I supervise a couple of attorneys. One of them is a woman only a year or two younger than me. She had two boys who were slightly younger than my own. We shared experiences of our boys playing their sports – baseball and basketball for her kids, baseball and soccer for mine. Kristin was a tough nut to crack. She didn’t show a lot, but I know this. She was a simple person who only wanted to do her job and then go home and take care of her family. She didn’t want any grand experiences or to make a significant mark. She was happy with the small stuff and raising her boys.
And then one day, she came into my office and gave me the news. She had been diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. I hugged her even though she was not a hugger and assured her as best I could. Once she left my office, I went on-line and researched. The survival rate for people with Stage 4 colon cancer was – less than 15% survived for five years after the diagnosis. Kristin fought it as best she could, but it wasn’t enough.
About a year after the diagnosis, Kristin passed away. She left behind her two boys and her husband and a life that had filled her with happiness.
And as these things go, the people she worked with shared their sadness and grief and promised to learn from this. One should not die that young. It could happen at any minute. We should get out there and be happier. We should do more good deeds. We should experience more that life has to offer. We would learn the lesson this time and live our lives.
Only the sadness and the grief eventually dissipated, the memories got a little fuzzier, and the lessons we thought we had learned faded away. We continued to live our lives as we always had done. Putting one foot in front of the other, moving forward. But forward to what? Who had the time to stop and think about that?
Fast forward another ten years and we’re here now. My father-in-law, after years of poor health that deteriorated significantly in the last year or two, passed away a few weeks ago. This one is easier for me because he was 86 years old and none of it was a surprise, but still there are lessons in living to be learned from the passing of those we care about.
My wife has struggled with some aspects of his passing that I will not disclose here out of respect for her privacy, but as much as it was his time, there are still questions about the “right way” to go about these things. When the end is near, when the end is obvious, when the end is something that needs to be, what is the right when and how?
And even when it is expected, there are still lessons to be learned, aren’t there? I think so.
Before his death, my father-in-law wrote a letter he asked to be read at his funeral. Among the pearls of wisdom he shared were:
You have no promise that you will see all the seasons of your life … so live for today and say all the things that you want your loved ones to remember…
Life is a gift to you. The way you live your life is your gift to those who come after. Make it a fantastic one…
LIVE IT WELL! ENJOY TODAY! DO SOMETHING FUN! BE HAPPY! HAVE A GREAT DAY!
It’s not what you gather, but what you scatter, that tells what kind of life you have lived.
Once again, I have the opportunity to learn from death. And I find myself convinced that I will do what I have done in the past. Pay lip service to the lessons. I love that last line about scattering instead of gathering. I want that to be me. But I know that as much as I want to commit to doing something about it this time, I won’t. Because the act of living my life deprives me of the opportunity to experience the art of living. The job and the kids and the marriage and the house and the pool and all of the responsibilities I have taken on in my life conspire to prevent me from putting those lessons into practice. They prevent me from mastering the art of my life. They get in the way of me even approaching anything close to the what and the who those lessons point me towards.
A couple of months ago, I got a tapestry to hang on the wall in my office. It contains a quote from Henry James. “It’s time to start living the life you’ve imagined.” The reality is that I already have in some respects. Twenty-five or thirty years ago, if you had asked what I imagined for myself all this time later, I probably would have said something along the lines of … working as an attorney, got a couple of kids, married, house in the suburbs, an occasional vacation, and living in relative peace and quiet. And I have all of those things, so maybe I already am living the live I imagined and maybe I should be happy with my life and believe that I have done what I was meant to do.
The only problem with that is this. Somewhere along the way, I realized I want an Act II. There is another life out there I am waiting for. The one where I eliminate all of these responsibilities. My kids are grown. The job is no more. And I will be able to experience a totally different life than the one I have lived as long as I can remember. It is my Act II that I think about whenever somebody I know passes away. It scares me. Time is running out.
My greatest fear? That I will die before I ever had a chance to live.
Mark Paxson is an attorney in California. He has several blogs, including KingMidget’s Ramblings, which chronicles all the things he wants to shout to the skies; MarkPaxson.com, which chronicles his life as a writer of short stories and novels; and The American River, his newest blog which chronicles his quiet moments along the American River. Mark has self published two novels and two short story collections and continues to struggle through the worlds in his head to produce more stories.
Written for the On Living and Dying series. If you’d like to be a part of the challenge, find more info here: 365 Days On Living and Dying. But first leave a comment and let Mark know how you feel about what he said, and be sure to visit him over at KingMidget’s Ramblings when you’re done.
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