Tag Archives: Death

How Fragile We Are: A Temporary Life in a Vulnerable Body

“Nature of life is fragile. Uncontrollable events happen all the time in life.” –Kilshore Bansal

Hello friend,

I had quite a health scare last week that left me physically weak and emotionally rattled. It never fails to amaze me by just how little we are hanging on.

My pain came on quite suddenly Monday afternoon. I had lay down on the sofa with a mug of cocoa to write in my journal. By the end of my entry, my stomach felt so overfull that I was disgusted with what a glutton I was. I figured that I would get up and move around, maybe use the bathroom, and things would settle down and be fine. They were not. The pain increased, but I was managing, and by the time I went to bed, I convinced myself that I would be fine in the morning and that my Tuesday would be as ordinary as ever.

How wrong I was.

I did all I could to get myself going in the morning and off to work. I felt horrible but told myself that I wouldn’t think about the doctor unless I still felt bad on Wednesday. After all, I didn’t have the fever and other symptoms of the nasty flu that has been such demolishing people all Winter, so I did not worry about infecting anyone else. It was just my own pain–constant, knee-buckling pain–in one localized area of my body. However, by late afternoon, I had begun to believe that I was not going to make it anywhere on Wednesday. I needed immediate help.

When the doctor at Urgent Care seemed confounded enough to send me home with some Maalox, I began to worry. I knew it was something serious, not just a bad tummy ache. As a last resort, she ordered a blood test, the results of which had her ordering me to go directly to the Emergency Room.

It was a quiet, solemn ten minutes in the car. “So this is how my story ends, eh?” That was the first thought in my head. I thought of all the people who have unwittingly embarked on their final day or final chapter of existence under the most ordinary circumstances. They got up and went to work that day as usual, and by the end of the day, they had been crushed by a car or had a stroke or received a diagnosis that would signal the their demise and final destiny. I thought I might be in that last category. I envisioned the ER doctors, after a series of scans, informing me that a malignant tumor had taken over the organs of my abdomen and that there was nothing more they could do but try to keep me comfortable until my certain death arrived, all of which I then had to explain to my wife when she arrived at the hospital. I wasn’t scared or panicked on that drive, but I definitely had a good cry. Maybe it was that awful vision, maybe it was the pain, and maybe it was that I was all alone. In any case, I wept for the final few minutes of the drive. Then, when I pulled into the parking lot, I got myself together to face my new reality, whatever that would be.

A couple of lonely and painful hours later–with a few more cries mixed in when the nurses would leave my room–after those envisioned scans were completed, I lay there contemplatively and awaited the results. I marveled at how, at any moment, some news would casually enter the room and either shatter my entire existence (as well as the lives of my wife and kids) or grant me a temporary reprieve. I pondered disbelievingly at how nonchalant that Fate can be, how lives get snuffed out and turned upside down in the most ordinary moments.  

Drunk driver. Aneurysm. School shooting. Diagnosis.

All day long. Every day of the year.  

Was the coming moment–the one that was so ordinary to everyone but me–about to be my moment? I wasn’t fretting, but I wasn’t forcing optimism, either. I think I was mostly in awe of the absolute powerlessness I felt. I was supremely aware of the blunt fact that Fate could do whatever she wanted with the fragile vessel that was my body, that it was completely out of my control and always would be. I served at her pleasure. There was the sense that the IVs and other tubes and machines I was hooked up to were there simply to administer helplessness. It was palpable.

I had never felt so insignificant in all my life.

So, what did I feel when the doctor came in with her sober face and her “I’m sorry to have to tell you this…” tone and told me that I had an appendicitis and would need to have surgery immediately? I felt relief. Relief that I got to go back home in a day or two to resume my normal life of pretending that I know how each day will go and that I have some control over the outcome. Relief that I got to go chase my kids around again and act as though we will certainly have all the time in the world together. Relief that my wife and I could resume our happy assumption that we will grow old together. Relief that I got to write another book and more of these letters to you. And ultimately, relief that I could feel like, “OF COURSE I will do all of that.” Of course.

I suppose it is an amazing privilege to live in a place and time that we can so easily delude ourselves that all will be well for the foreseeable future. I live in American suburbia in the 21st century. In spite of the nonsense in Washington and the regular mass shootings around the country, it is my privilege to drink clean water, have access to quality medical care, and feel physically safe where I live and reasonably certain of what comes next.

But let’s be honest: it’s still an illusion of safety and certainty. Those things aren’t real. We are at the whims of Fate. That aneurysm or drunk driver can hit at any moment.

That was the sobering reality that hit me on the way to the Emergency Room and remained on my shoulder as I waited for the doctor to deliver the news. I knew that she could just as easily speak the words “stomach cancer” as “appendicitis” when she walked through the door, and that Fate’s flip-of-the-coin might bring the other answer to the person waiting in the next room. We were both powerless to change her verdict.

Even after I received the “good news” and felt that big exhalation of relief, that peek behind the curtain of Reality left me rattled emotionally. For the next few days, I was a raw nerve.

When my kids came to see me the next day in the hospital, it was all I could do to keep from bursting out crying. They were the thing I stood to lose on that coin flip, after all, and I had shuddered even more at the thought of them losing me at their age. If they weren’t already wearing Fear on their faces at seeing me hooked up to all those tubes, I know I would have let out an involuntary sob. As it was, I fought it back and just told them I loved them and missed them terribly in the day that had passed. I was the same way when my Mom called. I could hardly breathe–much less speak–in my effort to keep the floodgates closed.

The thing that finally burst the dam was a movie. On the morning I was released from the hospital, I went home to nap in my bed. When I woke, I started a movie that I had long wanted to watch on Netflix, “Fruitvale Station.” It is based on a true story of a young man’s last day on Earth, ending in his murder. On a different day, I might have finished watching and been angry at the injustice of the murder and sad about the loss to the young man’s mother, child, and girlfriend, but I think I would have moved on without much drama. Not this day. No, I lay in bed and sobbed and sobbed at the random and senseless cruelty of the world and how we walk daily along that razor’s edge between a happy normalcy and a completely shattered existence. Shortly after I stopped crying, my wife came home, took one look at me, and asked what had happened. I couldn’t even get the words out; I just sobbed and sputtered some more.

That peek behind the curtain had broken me. It was Life and the unfairness and uncertainty of it. And it was the sheer recklessness of Fate. How it could take that young man with the beautiful daughter and his newfound resolution to be better. How it could casually erase the lives of children in the middle of a normal school day. How it could nonchalantly shake the Earth and crumble the homes in one town but not another, then turn around and scatter terminal diagnoses all over the planet. And it was the absolute clarity that, despite the fact that I got off easy this time, it could just as easily have gone the other way.

All of that reality caught up to me in that moment, and I let it all out through my eyes.

In the days that have followed, my body has grown stronger, and with it I have rebuilt my illusion. I no longer spend the day thinking about how completely fragile each of our existences is. I am getting past that jarring sensation I felt upon realizing how temporary and random are our lives and deaths. I am planning for the future again, even as I am reminding myself to be present and enjoy each moment I have here with these beautiful people that I call mine. I am telling myself that waking up early for the gym each morning will let me live a longer, happier, and healthier life. I am trying to be “normal” again.

I have to admit though, that there is a thin veil over my normal now. I got spooked last week on my way to the hospital. Spooked by Reality. You know that traumatized feeling you get when someone just about rams into you with their car as you are driving–that freaked out, breathless, sobering kind of spook? It was like that, but instead of dissipating after a few minutes, it stayed. So I am wondering: will this gun-shy feeling go away with time, or will every moment of joy and freedom and planning and dreaming be tinged with that peek behind the curtain, that look into Fate’s eyes, the same way that Death has a way of leaving that tinge on every moment thereafter? I will have to wait and see, I suppose.

Still, I can’t help but think that it will become harder and harder to shake the truth that our existence–my existence–is a temporary and uncertain one in a body that is vulnerable to the whims of Fate and random chance. I’m not sure that will ever quite sit well with me.

How about you? How do you make peace with the vulnerability of your body and the random and uncertain nature of Life in general? Open up your journal and go deep as you pull back the curtain on this topic that we typically keep ourselves in denial about. How often, if ever, do you allow yourself to fully absorb how vulnerable your body is to any number of potential destructions? Does it take a personal crisis, such as a car crash or medical emergency? Do you feel it when there is an “act of God” that makes the news, such as an earthquake, hurricane, or tsunami that kills lots of people? How about things nearby, such as when someone in your community is stricken with cancer or killed by a drunk driver? Does it hit you at all when you hear of tragedies further away from home, such as a famine in Africa or a genocide in Syria? Do you brush those things quickly past your awareness, or do you allow them in? How does each of these types of peril affect you? What makes one type more staggering than the other? Does it have to happen directly to you to affect you deeply, or is your empathy enough to be shaken by these occurrences in others? When you feel it, how quickly are you able to get back to your illusion of safety and security? Is that a healthy and necessary denial? Is it also healthy to have these periodic reminders (read: scares) to help you to see that life is to be cherished and not wasted? Overall, how free are you of the shadow of this near-death existence that you live every day? How has that changed as you have aged? Leave me a reply and let me know: How do you navigate life in your fragile and temporary body?  

Spread sunlight,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please share it on your social media channels. Let us grow and thrive in community!

The Belated Summer Reading List

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” –William Styron

Hello friend,

You know those Summer Reading Lists you see in the magazines and on websites around Memorial Day? I love those lists! You know the ones: they assume you have unlimited time in the Summer, so they tell you all the cool books to read by the beach or pool as you chill your way through the season. They give you some hot new authors and some literary giants, some fiction and some nonfiction. Everyone has one of these lists: Oprah, Amazon, Goodreads, The Washington Post, PBS, you name it. They always get me so excited about my favorite thing: books!

Well, I am sorry to say that you will not find one of those great Summer Book Lists on this page next May!

I have never been one to plan my reading. I go by intuition. When I finish one book, I just scour the shelves and the lists and choose the one that feels right to me. Before I look, I cannot tell you if I will be choosing a title in Teen Fiction, New Age, Classics, Self-Help, History, Humor, or Memoir. I find something to love in all of them as long as I trust my gut in the choosing.

So, my apologies for not providing you with yet another prescription for your Summer reading. Because guess what: September is here, and Autumn is knocking!

Thus, the best I can do for you is to tell you about all the great stuff I read over the Summer. Like the usual lists, I have a mix of genres for you and a mix of authors new and old. So, lets get started!

I came into the Summer reading Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. I had seen the movie years ago when it came out, not knowing it had been a book. Thankfully, though, by the time I got around to the book, I had no recollection of the movie, except a few of the stunning visual images. I always enjoy a book that has something of the spiritual woven into the story, so this was a good start to my Summer reading. It also helped that much of it took place in hot climates and on the water, which put my mind in the right spot for the season.

Alongside my personal reading, I also read every night at bedtime with my daughter, who just turned nine during the course of the Summer. Our very first book of the season was Roald Dahl’s Matilda, which was fun. We then moved into the complex web of people and places in Middle Earth with J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Lord of the Rings. The book is enormous and not exactly in my genre wheelhouse, so I was relieved when we finished the second of the six “books” in the book—enough to get us through what would have been the first of the three movies—and my daughter decided we should move on to something different. Maybe some day we will return for the rest. It won’t bother me if we don’t.

The next book for me was James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain. I had recently watched the magnificent and moving documentary about Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro”, and was eager to get into his writing. I knew he was famous for his nonfiction essays and his fiction, and though I figured the nonfiction would be just my speed—I was drawn to The Fire Next Time–I decided on this more famous novel. I should have gone with my gut. Though I certainly appreciated his writing and very much liked certain chapters, the subject matter just didn’t hold me very well. I was ready for something new.

It was not lost on me that perhaps I was striking out because I was trying out novels. Though I enjoy all genres, my go-to areas tend to be autobiographies and nonfiction (self-help, spiritual, or anything that expands my knowledge). I generally spread out my fiction attempts.   For whatever reason, though, I was in the mood for more fiction.

After these misses and with my determination to find a novel that I loved, I was beginning to wonder if my Summer reading was going to be a giant FAIL. How wrong I was!

It was just at that moment of doubt that I struck literary gold (er, purple). It was Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. I had seen the film version many years before—it is my wife’s favorite movie—but had forgotten most of it (which I always think is a godsend). It was brilliant on so many fronts and I was completely moved by the story and the complications of social injustice. It is a true masterpiece for any season.

I thank Alice Walker for starting my Summer hot streak, because I came into some wonderful words after that one. I always love when someone gives me a book, because I know it is, quite literally, meant for me. So it was with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, a book about keeping curiosity and artistic expression in your life forever. I don’t know if everyone would connect to this book, but I surely did. It helped me to put my writing habit/passion into perspective with my bigger life. Truly, it changed my thinking. Behold, the power of books!

As I read that one, I also started a novel recommended to me by my teenage nieces: Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay For Now. It may have taken me a couple of chapters to warm up to it, but then I was in. It is books like that one (probably aimed at early teens) and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars (both categorized as Teen Fiction) that prove to me that “great books for kids” are truly great books for adults. I will read Okay For Now with my daughter in a couple years, no doubt.

Speaking of my daughter, we moved from The Lord of the Rings to Island of the Blue Dolphins. It was interesting, not mind-blowing. Then we went to the Deep South with perhaps America’s signature novel, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. I had last read it in high school and—surprise, surprise—had forgotten what the story was all about. Though we both liked it, in hindsight I would have also waited a couple more years to read this one with her. It forced some discussions that would be better suited for the light of day rather than in a dark room at bedtime. But still, a great book.

While that was going on, I was engrossed in an absolute gem of a book, Between the World and Me. Written in the form of a letter from the author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, to his teenage son, this book is simultaneously enlightening and devastatingly sad. And the quality of the writing is unparalleled. It is an essential read for anyone trying to deepen their empathy, and particularly trying to understand what it feels like to be a Black man in America. It gripped me completely and remains with me weeks later.

So grateful for this beautiful stretch of reading, I moved into the final days of Summer with three of my pet topics: death, religion/spirituality, and the Holocaust.

My niece, also a student of religions, gave me a copy of Peter Rollins’s The Orthodox Heretic, a book of modern parables and commentary. It touches on a topic that often riles me up, which is the incongruity between the teachings of Jesus and the actions of his followers. I am plodding slowly through this one and am only halfway there, but I quite like all of the things it stirs in me. It is wonderful fodder for journal entries.

I happen to have a perhaps-unhealthy fascination (maybe obsession) with death, especially “premature” death and how to come to grips with it. With that, I selected Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which tracked the strange tricks her mind played on her in the year following her husband’s sudden death. I came away with more empathy for those who have lost loved ones and a greater understanding of the enormous power, longevity, and unpredictability of grief.

Staying with the Death theme, I moved to Tell My Sons, by Lt. Col. Mark M. Weber. I was drawn to it because it was written as a letter of advice and guidance from a father who was dying of cancer to his three sons. That is the kind of thing I imagine myself doing if such a dreadful diagnosis arrives at my doorstep. I am still in the middle of it, but it has already led to lots of morbid daydreaming.

The last book on my Summer list, which I will finish today, is Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry. I am reading it with my daughter, as the protagonist is a girl only a year older, whose family is helping their friends, a Jewish family, to escape the Nazis during World War II. It is well done, another “kid book” that is appropriate for adults.

That’s it! That was my Summer of Reading! Well, of course, I read hundreds of articles to keep me informed on the madness that is our world today, too, but I love the books so much more. I learned from each one and would recommend each (but to different people). If you made me choose the ones that impressed me the most, I would go with The Color Purple and Between the World and Me, for both their ideas and the quality of the writing.

I don’t know why I chose so many fiction titles—nine of the fourteen—compared to my usual pace. Perhaps it was the spirit of the season, the way those Summer Book List articles glamorize the “page-turner” novels as poolside reads. I don’t regret it, though. It was fun! I don’t have a clue as to what I will read and suggest to you for next Summer. Tell you what: I’ll let you know next Fall!

How about you? What have you been reading all Summer? Open up your journal and make a timeline and some book reports. What is on your list? Did you read mostly fiction or nonfiction? Is that normal for you? How did you decide what to read? Did you take any recommendations from the “Hot Books for Summer” lists from the magazines or websites? Did you use your social media community? I always love when I see a post where one of my friends asks for book recommendations, because I then scour the Comments section for ideas. Did any of your books open your eyes to the way other people live and see the world—The Color Purple and Between the World and Me did this for me—or change the way you look at the big things in your normal life, like Big Magic did for me? What else did your Summer books do for you? Give you an escape? Teach you a new skill or idea? Remind you of what is important? Make you treat yourself better? Make you treat others better? Frighten you? Inspire you?  Which will you recommend the most?  Which is your favorite?  Aren’t books just totally amazing??? I love them! Is there something different about Summer reading? Leave me a reply and let me know: What is on your Summer Reading List?

Live a thousand lives,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. Let’s get our lists together!

LIFE IS SHORT: What are you going to do about it?

“Almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” –Steve Jobs

Hello friend,

Last weekend, my wife’s family had a reunion. From the pictures on Facebook, it looked like a fun and festive time for all. The next day at the hotel, check-out time came and went, but her cousin had not come out of his room. Finding no answer at the door, the hotel staff let themselves in. He was dead. Massive heart attack. He was only in his forties, a few years older than me.

Talk about a gut-punch. Even though I didn’t know him, all the photos I ever saw showed what looked like a healthy, vibrant man with a mega-watt smile that lit up the whole scene. He looked like a guy you wanted to get to know, wanted to be around. Good energy. And just like that, he is gone.

I know that death strikes a blow to each of us differently, obviously depending upon who the person was to us, but also playing a role are what age they were, how similar their circumstances were to our own, how they died, and the legacy they are leaving behind based on how they lived.

Clearly, when a person we know and love dies, there is an intensely personal process of grieving to work through, a process that pervades every aspect of our lives during that period and colors our lenses a different way.

Something quite distinct happens—at least to me—when someone I do not know well dies.   I go inside myself for a while. I feel hurt by it. Deeply hurt. Not necessarily because of that individual and the pain their loved ones are feeling—though I certainly sympathize, we are talking here about people I am not so personally involved with—but hurt from a different source.

I guess you could say that death causes me to feel hurt by the Universe. It’s a philosophical thing, I suppose. I am pained—tortured, even—by the unfairness of life on Earth and how, in the tiny moment a gun is shot or an artery closed, a beautiful life comes to an abrupt end. As deeply as I have probed the spiritual realm and as prepared as I have many times felt to be taken to the next realm, I somehow still come back to this place where the brevity of life–and the nonguaranteed nature of the next moment—just don’t sit right with me. It feels unfair. And anyone who knows me well knows that unfairness burns me to my core.

But that is life. Short, uncertain, and unfair.

Yes, it is amazing, precious, and littered with beauty everywhere you look, too. I know, and I see it that way, believe me. But in certain moments, like when a smiley young man dies of a massive heart attack in his hotel room, the short, uncertain, and unfair side sure delivers a blow to my psyche.

After I go through my process of feeling sad about that person’s loved ones and the life left behind, inevitably I drift into this patch of days where that death—and “Death” itself, the concept, with a capital D—begins to play on the strings of my soul. The reality of how quickly my own life is passing, not to mention the very real possibility that it could end at any moment for countless reasons beyond my control, gets into my core and really stirs things up.

The bigger questions of my existence here become front-and-center issues in my consciousness. How well am I using your time? What positive impact am I making on my world? Am I using my gifts? Am I allowing my soul to emerge, or is my ego keeping it at bay? Am I living the life I want to live, or the life my parents or society think I should live? Am I making the most of every day? Am I in this moment, or am I stuck in the past or future? Am I sucking the marrow out of life or just drifting by? Am I making a LIFE or just a living? Am I being brave enough? Loving enough? Optimistic enough? Empathetic enough? Forgiving enough? Kind enough? At the end of my days, when my life flashes before my eyes, will it be a show I enjoy and am proud of? Am I living my Truth?  

These questions sometimes elicit sobering answers from my mind. Because they are tough ones. Sure, they can be wonderful tools of motivation, serving to remind me of what is most important. But they are also tools of torture. The questions sometimes haunt as much they inspire.

Because, you see, somebody else didn’t get to ask themselves these questions again. Somebody didn’t get another reminder that it is time to make good, time to be bigger and more authentic. I hate that part of it.

When someone my own age or younger than me dies, it is particularly haunting. It makes me start to think it is all borrowed time from here on out. I have to live the kind of life that will allow me to answer those big questions affirmatively precisely because that person didn’t get a chance to. They weren’t allowed the golden opportunity of this day to do something greater, to love bigger, to chase their dreams longer and harder. I get this day that they don’t, and I feel like I owe it to them to do my absolute best, both in my heart and in the world.

I have to stop limiting myself. I have to claim my dreams and give myself fewer excuses for not getting them done. I have to rid my life of the things and people that waste my precious time and energy so that I can devote those resources to doing what I love with the people that I love in the service of this world that I love. Nothing less than that. No compromises. I simply have to be more brave and more disciplined with the life my soul calls upon me to live, for all of the nonguaranteed moments I have left. Death will come for me one day, unbidden, and I would like to be in the midst of something magnificent when it does.

How about you? How can you go about living so as to make your death, whenever it may come, more palatable to you? Open up your journal and make an honest assessment of what you need to do to make the most of your remaining days on this Earth. In what areas are you currently falling short of your standards for a life well-lived? Are you aware of ways that you can right the ship? How much work will it take: is it tweaks or monumental shifts? Are you committed to making the change? Are you like me and sometimes need something as shocking as a death to wake you up to the ways you have gone astray and the need to get back to your Truth before your time is up? What other moments have you had that were reminders of how short this life is? What can you do to keep your priorities front and center, to not waste a day? Is the prospect of death enough to embolden you to live your dreams? I encourage you to go back up a few paragraphs to the italics and ask yourself those questions of existence that are pressing upon me now. I hope your answers to those questions are motivation enough to point you in the direction of your True North. Leave me a reply and let me know: What must you do to make the most of your dash, however short or long it may be?

Be unapologetically you,

William

P.S. If this got you to consider your existence, and perhaps imagine some new possibilities, I encourage you to share it. We all need a little reminder sometimes. Be well!

The One-Item Bucket List: what MUST you do before you die?

IMG_1171“I’m the one that’s got to die when it’s time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to.” –Jimi Hendrix

Hello friend,

Did you ever come to an important realization about yourself, only to smack yourself in the head and say, “Well, that was obvious! Why did it take me so long to figure this out?” If your answer is YES, then you are in good company, because that is totally me right now!

I have been lately working every day on what I call TJP, short for “The Journal Project.” Essentially, TJP is a life review, using my 20+ years of journals, in an effort to better understand who I have been and how I have come to be the man I am today. But it’s also much more than that. It’s a book in the making. I am attempting to construct a readable story using only journal entries. It was originally intended just for me, but then I thought I might make it for my kids so they would understood who their old man really was. Finally, I decided to see if maybe my thoughts could be helpful to a wider audience. So, that’s how I am reading the entries now, with an eye toward a real book. I won’t know until I finish the project if it has value for anyone besides me, but I hope that it works out that way. If not, just going through the process will have at least taught me one important thing that I didn’t know before: that I am a writer.

You see, it was around the time I was starting The Journal Project that I was coming up on my 40th birthday. Somehow, whether it was the approaching milestone or just coincidence, I began to obsess about finding my true purpose in life and doggedly pursuing my dreams. As I read through my first few volumes from around 15 years before, all sorts of references to my desire to write books jumped off the pages at me. Examples:

October 20, 1997: “…but I just want to write all the time. I stop myself so many times in the day from pulling out the pen because I know I haven’t really anything to say. It’s all I want, though, it seems.”

December 10, 1997: “When I think of the concept of writing a book, it just seems so big and daunting. But the thing is, I know I can. I have no doubt that it will be a ton of work, but that aspect excites me to no end. I want to be up to my ears in it. I love the image of writing through the night on some incendiary ideas which evolve into world-changing passages.”

May 3, 1998: “Perhaps I should begin to organize my first book.”

August 23, 1998: “I was just thinking, I think I should write for a living.”

July 3, 1999: “I wonder how many of these things (journals) I will fill up before I finally write a book and publish it. Thirty? Fifty? I think this is the fourteenth one. Shoot, maybe that number will be 100. It is coming to me, though.”

September 27, 1999: “I really want to write books one day. I want to be an author and a lecturer, a teacher to all.”

October 4, 1999: “Wow! I cannot wait to start writing. The time is approaching when I explode onto this world with love and hope for all. I feel it in me.”

These passages seemed to stand out in bold to me as I read them. Why? Because I had almost completely forgotten how badly I had wanted to write books. I mean it. I fell into a long phase of life during which I was focused on my “realistic” career and marriage and parenting, and the thing I was most passionate about doing faded out of my mind. I took my eye off the ball, fell asleep at the wheel.

Fast forward all those years later, from my mid-twenties to almost 40, and the search for my passion, my true calling, finally woke me from that phase that I now call “Sleepwalking.” Suddenly, my journal entries began to be littered with thoughts that had disappeared those many years ago:

September 14, 2012: “I will write a book. I will. Hopefully it will be sooner rather than later. I am excited.”

September 19, 2012: “I am fairly clear now that I will not be a novelist. My books will be non-fiction, most likely involving self-help/confidence, spirituality, or tennis, or perhaps all three together.”

September 27, 2012: “…I have often thought of writing an autobiography, or trying to piece together an interesting story of a man—me—told only through journal entries. Probably it would only be interesting to me, but it may be very satisfying to work on anyway. Who knows? There may be something there. I will keep this in my head.”

October 3, 2012: “So I will be a writer instead. I am going to keep telling myself that—I have just recently giving myself permission to announce my dreams, at least to myself—at least until it comes true. The more I say it, the more it pushes me to start doing something about it. That is, to start writing, or at least researching, brainstorming, and jotting notes about what I want to write. It is a first step in the right direction. This is going to work.”

October 13, 2012: “With this ‘announcing’ thing on my mind lately, and me making my ‘Write, William. WRITE!!!” sign for my desk, I thought it fortuitous when I received this quote on Thursday from one of my greatest idols/inspirations, Henry David Thoreau: ‘A single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we must walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.’ I am a writer. I am a writer. I am a writer. I share myself with the world in order to educate the world. By giving of myself, I can make the world better. My thoughts are worth sharing. I am a writer. I am a writer. I am a writer.”

Even though those entries were almost four years ago now and you still don’t have a book of mine in your hands, I am pleased to report that this time, I have not forgotten. The book has sometimes had to be put on the back burner for long stretches as Life intervened, but it has never left the stove. And lately, I have been pushing hard on it. It is far from complete—probably there are years of work left—but there is no longer any doubt that I will complete it. And if my first one isn’t worth publishing, I will write another one. And another.

My bucket list—you know, those things you plan to do before you die—has only one line on it: WRITE A BOOK. Oh sure, there are other things I want to do before I kick the bucket—learn to snowboard, take my kids on a National Parks trip, get back on a surfboard, learn the guitar, live on a beach—but there is only one thing I need to do in order to die satisfied. It’s the thing I once knew, then forgot about, and then was reminded of again, thanks to my journals. I need to publish a book. Sure, I plan to publish many, but one is the absolute minimum standard before I go. That’s all I need to do.

How about you? What one thing do you need to do before you die in order to leave satisfied? Open up your journal and flesh out your deepest need. This is a tough one, because it forces you to separate needs from desires. Start off more generally, making a list of everything on your wish list of life experiences or achievements. What types of things come first to your mind? Are they career goals, like promotions or raises? Learning a new skill, such as a musical instrument or a language? Travel? Physical achievements, such as weight loss or running a marathon? Adventures, like sky-diving or swimming with dolphins? After you have your list together, see if something stands out and speaks to your soul more forcefully than the others, something you are unusually drawn to. Would that experience be enough to allow you to die satisfied? How risky is it for you to pursue this most important endeavor? Risky in what way—financially, physically, emotionally, or something else? How far out of your comfort zone is it? Is it something you have always dreamed about? Have you verbalized it, even if only to yourself (your version of my “I am a writer” mantra)? How difficult is your item to achieve? Do you need help from anyone to achieve it? Are you willing to ask for that help? How long until you will be reasonably able to knock this off your list? What will it mean to you to have done it? Will it bring more excitement or relief? How badly would it disappoint you to not do it? Leave me a reply and let me know: What one thing must you do that will allow you to die satisfied?

No day but today,

William

P.S. If this letter helped you put some things in perspective for your life, pass it on. I encourage you to sign up to receive each week’s post in your email inbox. Now write!

This Life & The Afterlife: Torn Between The Two

IMG_2404To die, to sleep – To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub, For in this sleep of death what dreams may come….” –William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Hello friend,

Here’s the deal: I am so desperately eager to get to the next life, but I also simply cannot let go of this one any time soon. Huh? How can I reconcile that? Allow me to explain.

I believe that the state of being that comes after this life is going to be absolutely amazing. Not just amazing, though; because we throw around the term “amazing” all the time about pretty much anything we like: a gym class, our new yogurt, shoes, etc. What comes after our physical death, I believe, will be beyond amazing. Indescribably peaceful, blissful, and aware of our complete oneness with the Divine Source.

Now, let me be clear: I don’t claim to know what exactly comes next (and I am suspicious of anyone who does). I believe that we are all completely divine, that we existed prior to our appearance in this human form, and that we will continue to exist in another form(s?) when we are done with these bodies. I am attracted to many of the ideas of Buddhism, and reincarnation is one that I have played with. I am open to that possibility but not necessarily sold on it. I also don’t really buy the traditional vision of a Heaven with pearly gates and all of our friends and relatives who look exactly like they do now, a view that I think is common. I definitely don’t believe in any sort of Hell in the afterlife. But I definitely do believe in continuous existence, that we are not just going to cease entirely when our hearts stop beating.

I guess if you pinned me down and made me pick a description using our limited human ideas, I would say that I believe that when we die, we become fully aware of our pure divinity again. We lift the veil that we wear throughout our human journey, the one that allows us to believe that we are somehow separate from God and separate from each other. Unbound by our physical form, we join the stream of pure consciousness of All That Is. We are pure Love, and, more importantly, we know it. To me, that is who we are now, but we simply don’t recognize it, aren’t aware of it, and so we continue to act out of ignorance throughout our time on Earth.

You could probably say that is the foundation of my spiritual beliefs: that we are all One—all God, if you like—and thus, the end is not in doubt.

So, needless to say, I am pretty darn excited to get to the end of this ignorance and onto that plane of Bliss and Conscious Union with The All. {I don’t mind if you translate that to “Heaven” and “God” as long as you feel what I mean.} Indeed, I would love to be there now. I can’t wait!!!

BUT…..

You cannot take me now! No way, I need to be here forever! Well, not exactly forever. Just until I reach a wise, old age when my kids have successfully navigated their way into middle adulthood (and hey, grandkids would be cool, too!). I need to be here for them. I guess it is two reasons, really. First, I want them to have their Dad to help shepherd and support them through the trials of this world. I wish that for any kid, and certainly for my own. And secondly/selfishly, I simply don’t want to miss a thing! Seriously. These kids have completely rocked my world, and I am addicted to my life with them. I sometimes have daydreams about being diagnosed with a terminal illness with only a short time to go, and I get to the point of actually sobbing when I think about saying goodbye to them and how many things I would miss out on. It crushes me. I have gotten to the point where I am absolutely clinging to this earthly existence.

I was never this way before I started this family way of life. In fact, before my wife and kids came along, when I lived a solitary (by choice) life, focused intensely on my spirituality and connectedness to the Divine, I felt both blissful and completely ready for death. Eager, even. Often, in my happiest, most fulfilled moments—on the top of a mountain or in the middle of a clear stream—I would hear myself saying aloud, “You can have me any time, God!” I absolutely meant it.

But a funny thing happens when you get invested in particular Earthlings. Suddenly, you don’t want to leave this place anymore. Like the Hollywood stories of people who had given up on life until they meet someone to love, my wife and kids somehow made me want to stay here (a lot!). They didn’t’ make me happier or more at peace. No, they just made me feel responsible and desirous (desperate?) of squeezing out every possible moment with them. They took me out of the next world that I was reaching for and grounded me fully in this one. They made me think Heaven can wait.

So, what gives? Was I crazy then to want so much to move on to the afterlife, or is my mind warped now in thinking that something from this life—even my darling little angels—could be worthy of making me prefer this life to the next one? I don’t know if there is a right answer to this.

I guess the way I am approaching it, I see myself as an infinite being, so the next life is always out there and won’t be any shorter for my stay on this floating rock called Earth. So, despite its uncertainties and cruelties, I am going to take this portion of the ride for as long as it will have me. I know I am wearing the veil of ignorance and disconnect while here, and while that is frustrating at times, I just need to return to my foundational belief occasionally to remind myself: We are all One, and thus, the end is not in doubt. So, I will make the best of this veiled part of the journey, soaking up the magical moments with my family on this beautiful planet. And then, when my day comes—though they may have to drag me kicking and screaming—I will remove the veil and float blissfully away, fully aware of my divine and infinite nature. One moment at a time….

How about you? Are you more clinging to this life or longing for the next one, or, like me, a little bit of both? Open up your journal and take a deep dive into your beliefs about God and the nature of reality. I must admit, I found it quite challenging but wonderfully invigorating to try to put into words how I envision the afterlife. So please, make the effort on this one. I suppose the underlying question with this topic is: do you believe in a Higher Power? What do you call it? Is that Higher Power judging how you are doing in this lifetime in order to give you a sentence for the afterlife? Do you believe there is some sort of afterlife? How would you describe what you think happens to us after we die? Is it different for everyone? What do you think of concepts like Hell or Purgatory or Limbo? How about reincarnation? Pearly gates? Choirs of angels? Do you think you get to “meet” a personal God? A life review? Judgment? Is what comes next dependent upon what happens here in this existence? Do you think that what you get then depends upon what you believe now (i.e. different results for Atheists, Hindus, Christians, etc.)? How much of your view of the afterlife is dictated by a religion? Were you born into that religion, or did you adopt it when you were old enough to decide for yourself, or somewhere in between? How sure are you that your belief in the afterlife is correct? Does your belief make you want to get to the next world as soon as possible, or would you prefer to stick around here for as long as you are able? What are the things in this world that make you want to stay? Do we owe it to ourselves/our loved ones/our Higher Power to stay here as long as we can? Is that just part of the deal of being born? To what degree are you clinging to this world? Is that more due to what you have here—loved ones, etc.—or more due to your uncertainty about what awaits you when you die? Is it normal to not want to die but also to very much want what comes after death? Leave me a reply and let me know: Which life do you want more: this one or the next one?

Embrace it All,

William

P.S. If this one made you dig into your core beliefs and your psyche the way it did for me—I found this topic highly engaging—pass it on. Self-awareness is a gift!

Death and the Unfairness of Life

LukeKathyLynch“If you gave someone your heart and they died, did they take it with them? Did you spend the rest of forever with a hole inside you that couldn’t be filled? –Jodi Picoult, Nineteen Minutes

Hello friend,

I opened up Facebook on Monday morning, and I have been filled with sadness ever since. In any quiet moment, when I cannot use the distractions of my work or my kids to chase away my thoughts, my heart just feels so heavy. I feel hurt. It’s more than my heart, though. My mind, too has been shaken. I have not been able to make good sense of the whole thing, and that greatly disturbs me. All told, my entire system has been down, cloaked in sorrow. It is the kind of sorrow that can be summoned only by Death.

The note on Facebook was a simple one. It read, “Thank you for all your love. We are missing this great man.” Under it was a picture of my brother’s former fiancé—a woman I haven’t seen or heard from in twenty years—and her husband, looking happy and healthy on a snowy mountaintop. My heart immediately sunk. It couldn’t be what I thought! I combed through the comments, only to get confirmation of the worst, most empty feeling that had settled in my gut. He was dead. My heart just seemed to shatter, and everything inside me emptied out. I felt hollow, like an empty shell. I later learned that he was ski mountaineering with friends when a small avalanche swept him off his feet and down the mountain, killing him instantly.

His name was Luke, and he was, by all accounts, an amazing man of outstanding character and charisma, a wonderful father and friend. I read an article that he had recently written about balancing family and adventuring, and I read all of the comments and condolences. With all of that—and, just remembering how much I thought of his wife, Kathy, so many years ago, when I knew her and believed that the man to win her love would be a worthy one—I couldn’t help but wish I knew him. I sat at my desk that night and sobbed.

So, why was I so devastated by the death of a man I had never met, whose only connection to me was a woman I had only known briefly and so very long ago? Why have I grieved this loss so deeply, when I seem to have no stake in it? I have been doing my best all week to both get through my pain and to better understand its source.

My most immediate connection is the parallel life situation, in terms of being a parent to young children. I look at Kathy, who is now left without her best friend and with three little boys to raise without their Dad. I simply cannot fathom it from her perspective. How do you shoulder the burden so suddenly of being mother and father-figure, and being without your life partner? The sudden and unexpected nature of it just puts it into a totally different stratosphere than, say, regular couples who divorce or people who have been single parents the entire time. It is just different with this shroud of LOSS hanging over. There will always be the “Your father would have loved to see you do this,” or “Your Dad would be so proud” with the kids. And there will always be the “This would have been our Xth anniversary,” or “I always thought we would do this together,” in a way that just isn’t there with other kinds of break-ups.

It is all just different. Sad. There is a sadness, an emptiness attached to even the happy moments. Even the best, most celebrated moments—the graduations, the weddings, the births—become necessarily tinged with the shroud of LOSS. It makes complicated what should be pure and simple. I hate that about LOSS. And I suppose that is my biggest beef with it. Of course, I know Kathy and her little boys will go on, tough though it may be. They will probably become happy, successful people. But they will always be tinged, will always wear some form of the shroud. I despise the unfairness of that. I hate it.

Life is not fair. That is a concept that I understand intellectually but still have a very difficult time accepting psychologically. It grates against the very fabric of my being. It is miserable to me, to the point that I had to sit at my desk on Monday night and sob about the damned unfairness of Death. It is my personal struggle.

This issue of unfairness is the one—other than my haunting fear that my wife could die suddenly and I would be faced with shepherding my kids through life alone and wearing the shroud of LOSS—that has resonated with me most in my week of grief. I have never been able to stomach unfairness done to me, and I have the worst time letting it go. I think of my repulsion to a neighbor kid cheating me on the tennis court when I was little. The thought of that kid still riles me up. More recently, I was dealt a gross injustice in a work situation, and I cannot let it go. It comes in my dreams to haunt me, waking me in outrage. Even worse, I catch myself daydreaming about it—every day—imagining conversations that would expose my betrayal and set things right. I chide myself every time for it, too, because I know it is unhealthy and unproductive.

I just don’t handle unfairness well. This situation with Luke’s untimely death–and leaving Kathy and her three young boys behind–is just an extension of that. Even though I can see the difference between an act of a petty human being against me and an “act of God” like the avalanche that killed Luke, I still find myself railing against both. I envision all of the wonderful family times Kathy and her boys were due to have with him, and I can’t help but feel they were robbed in the worst way. Interestingly, I don’t think about Luke being robbed of all of that. That is perhaps due to my views on the afterlife (a topic for another day). No, my focus seems to be entirely on the ones left behind, the ones who have to somehow carry on despite this gaping hole in their world. It just feels so darn unfair to me, and that really hurts. I ache for them with all of my being.

I also feel bad that unfairness of this sort is rampant in our world. I think I block it out most of the time because I am so sensitive about it. It is for self-protection (I can’t just sit at my desk and sob every night, right?). But when I let one slip past my defenses, my heart really breaks. I feel that way this week about this tragedy. Grief has been my constant companion. Grief for the loss felt by Kathy and those little boys. My heart is in pieces for them. They have been dealt an indescribable unfairness, and with no recourse. “March on,” says the world. “Draw that painful breath in, and exhale. Now repeat.” That is all there is to do. That is cold comfort to me. I still can’t wrap my mind around it.

How about you? How do you handle the many injustices of this thing called LIFE? Open up your journal and write about what shakes your core. Are there things you simply cannot stomach? Are they things that happen to you personally—being cheated somehow—or are they big events you see on the news, like earthquakes or terrorist attacks? Are you better able to accept the unfair things that humans do to each other (e.g. abuse or rape), or “acts of God,” such as accidents or weather events? Do you look to God for answers why, or do you just accept that we live in an unfair world? Are there injustices that have been done to you that you still cannot get over? How do you handle Death? Do you feel that the person who died was dealt an unfairness? Or, are you like me and focus only on the blow felt by the ones left behind and the hole in their lives? Does it make a difference if it was an “untimely” death, such as a child or the young father in this case? How sensitive are you to all of the examples of cruelty and unfairness in the world? For me, I cannot watch the news and must put on blinders to even the small stuff around me, because it hurts my heart so much to let it in. What is your strategy? Do you think that because examples of Death and Life’s unfairness are in our faces and all around us every day, we mostly become numb to them? Is that a bad thing, or perhaps necessary for self-preservation? All week long, I have been wondering if there are any wise and comforting words that I could say to Kathy right now, something to help her to make sense of her loss and move on in Peace. I cannot find those words. Can you?

Cherish every moment,

William

Scared to Death

DSC_1150“When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.” –Stuart Scott (1965-2015)

Hello friend,

I am a total mess today. I just learned a few hours ago that longtime ESPN “SportsCenter” anchor Stuart Scott died this morning after a long battle with cancer. Even though I knew that this day would come, since I don’t watch much television, Stuart had been off my radar since his moving speech at the ESPY Awards this Summer, a speech that culminated with him calling his daughter up to the stage for a big hug. So, when I turned on my phone this morning and saw the headline, it was a gut-punch.

I sat there on my sofa with slow tears falling down my cheeks as I read the long tribute to Stuart and his astounding impact on those he loved and on the world of television sports journalism. Then I gathered myself and headed up the stairs, yelling to the kids that it was bathtime. Then, I crashed. I broke down in uncontrollable tears. I stood there in my bathroom and thought that I should mention Stuart’s death to my wife, a casual sports fan, in the other room. But when I tried to bring the words, I just sobbed harder, the tears pouring down and the breaths hyperventilated. Eventually I settled myself down enough to greet the kids with giant, hard-as-I-can-squeeze-you hugs as they came up the stairs. I asked them both to stop for a moment and look into my eyes so I could tell them with all my heart that I loved them and would always love them no matter what happens.

As I held tight to my two little angels, I couldn’t help but think of the two daughters that Stuart Scott left behind this morning when he finally let go. They were the reason he fought through three different bouts with cancer over the last seven years of his brave life. Seven years. That is a lot of surgeries, a lot of chemotherapy, a lot of pain, but, even more important, a lot of extra days with those two girls. Long enough to see one become a high-schooler and the other a college student. Precious years full of priceless moments.

It was those years and those miraculous moments between a father and his children that had me sobbing in my bathroom this morning. And it was cancer. Yes, it had much less to do with Stuart Scott, the man—whom I had always very much enjoyed and respected on ESPN over the years—than it did with fatherhood and cancer. I cannot stomach this combination. It terrifies me. More specifically, it haunts me.

A few years ago, my sweet cousin Heide died after another protracted battle with cancer. Still in her thirties, the disease simply devoured her, leaving her loving husband and two young daughters behind. This incident shook me on so many levels. Beyond the loss of someone I loved dearly, it completely rattled me regarding my own death and planted an obsession in my brain regarding cancer. I have gone over and over in my mind how Heide must have gone through her process, especially the latter stages, when her fate became not an “if” but a “when”. How did she talk to her children? How did she talk to herself? Where is that transition point from hope to no hope, and how did she navigate it? How much did she actively lament the loss of years with her children and husband, and where did she find the strength to accept that loss? How sure was she that her kids will remember her?

These questions haunt me. I agonize over them. Eventually and inevitably, they lead to vivid daydreams—“daymares,” I call them—in which I am the one riddled with cancer, and I have the task of navigating my dying months with my children. All sorts of dramatic, heartbreaking scenes play out in my mind, and I take myself through the experience of the anguish and devastation over the loss of time together, of me missing out on raising them and them missing out on their father for the rest of their beautiful lives. Tears flow, both in the vision and in reality, as the vision feels so vivid and raw. It tears my heart into bits. I cry even now as I write this to you.

I can’t say for sure how much of this stems from Heide’s death from cancer, how much is from the birth of my children, and how much is from something pre-existing in me. Whatever the combination, I believe that I am drawn to the visions—and to today’s death of Stuart Scott—because I think it is going to happen to me. I do. I hate to even say that, because I don’t want to put that idea out into the Universe. I don’t want the Law of Attraction to kick in and draw cancer to me just because these cases so persistently stick to my soul and my mind. It seems so morbid. But I also want to be honest with myself. I feel compelled to own up to this extreme dread I feel about cancer and the end of my own life. Those visions are just so real!

I desperately hope that my premonitions are wrong and that I will live to a ripe old age, watching children and grandchildren grow and flourish in health and happiness. I know, too, that there is no guarantee of any of it. I could have an aneurysm before this sentence ends. (Whew!) I could be hit by a car tomorrow. Worse yet, my kids could get hit by a car tomorrow. There are no promises here.

I know that the very best I can do is be fully absorbed in each moment and love them with all that I have, to not waste time and energy dwelling on the future or regretting the past. The present is the gift. So, I will do my best to wipe my tears and bring myself fully to the present with those I love. I will enjoy every moment that I am blessed with. I will live well. I will do my best with what I can control. The end will come when it does, so I will just take the ride. I know how lucky I am. Thanks be to God. Life is beautiful.

How about you? How do you envision your death? Get out your journal and expose yourself. Do you have premonitions of your end and the process leading to it? How vivid are they? Do they bring out strong emotions in you, like my sobbing? Do you become obsessed or preoccupied with these thoughts? How crippling is that? Do you have specific visions for the manner of your death (e.g. my cancer vision)? How old do you think you will be when you die? Are you okay with that age? Would you like to know the real answer—the date of your death? How would that affect the way you live right now? If you knew you would die one year from today, what would you change? If you have a long list of answers to that question, do you think that means that you need to make some changes anyway? Would you rather a loved one die of something protracted so you had a chance to prepare for their passing (e.g. saying what you wanted to say), or would you rather them go suddenly so you didn’t have to dwell on it while they lived? How do you accept the news of the death of others? I used to just say “Good for them!” and wish them well on their journey, then let it roll off of me. Now I am more prone to days like today, when a stranger’s death can really break me up. How much do you fear or dread your own passing? Has that changed as you have moved through life? How has it changed relative to new relationships in your life? For example, my mindset was “Take me anytime; I am ready,” right up until my kids were born, and now I cling desperately to life on Earth. Do loved ones give you not just a reason to live, but also a reason to dread dying? Does one particular way of dying (e.g. Alzheimer’s or ALS) seem particularly unappealing to you? If you had a choice, what would take you? It is a big topic: Death. And since none of us is immune, we must all make our peace with it at some point.   Or perhaps not. At the moment, I am in the NOT category, particularly if it is soon and cancerous. I cannot accept that combination. How about you: What makes you feel scared to death?

Give us your best today,

William

Not Ready To Let Go

DSC_0232“Death, the one appointment we all must keep, and for which no time is set.” –Charlie Chan 

Yesterday I got to hang out with my Mom on her 69th birthday. Just like every year, I felt blessed to be with her on her special day, and even more grateful that she is alive and kicking. Just a week ago, after all, she had paid me a surprise visit, as she had to drive her brother to town for an emergency open-heart surgery. I was reminded that, even though 69 is not exactly ancient, something—like an emergency heart surgery—could happen at any time. Obviously, none of us is ever promised another breath—we could all go at any moment—but, just as obviously, the odds go up with each passing year.

My father had a major heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery nineteen years ago, on the night of my Mom’s 50th birthday. Even though I wouldn’t have categorized our relationship as “close,” this incident shook me to my core. I remember sitting alone in the hallway outside of the Intensive Care Unit, sobbing like a baby. I had never lost a family member or close friend, and I was clearly not prepared to do so. Not much has changed on that front in the ensuing nineteen years. My grandparents and two cousins have died, yes, but those happened at times that were expected given their circumstances, and I had thus built up my emotional mattress on which to land comfortably enough. But, I am grateful to report that no one in my immediate family or closest friend group has died. I have to cross my fingers and knock on wood as I type this, because I am well aware that I have been extremely lucky on this front and that my number is bound to come up soon.

My parents are now 72 and 69, and, in terms of generations at least, they are next in line to go. That was the one realization that hit me the hardest when my Mom’s father—and my last remaining grandparent—died two years ago: how awful it would feel to not have (living) parents anymore. That would seemingly be soon mixed with the other potentially troubling pill to swallow: that you are the next in line to go. While most of us can go through most of our lives in complete denial of death’s inevitability, I am guessing that is not an easy trick to pull off when there is no generation older than you at the family reunion.

With the birth of my children, I definitely became more invested in extending my stay on the planet (see my “Clinging to Life on Earth” from May 30, 2014). But in general, I have a much easier time with the idea of my own death than that of someone near and dear to me. I don’t know exactly what it is. I don’t think it is about leaving things unsaid, as I have done fairly well in letting people know how I feel about them. I had the chance this weekend to visit my great-uncle–closing in on 90–and I told him that he is the most kind-hearted man I had ever known. I had long wanted him to know that, so it felt good to get off my chest. If I don’t see him again, I am glad I left it that way. I think I am fairly solid in that department with most of my loved ones. I am also quite clear that it is not about uncertainty or fear regarding what comes after life on Earth; I have no problems with that. I don’t dread what comes next, for me or anyone else. So what is it? Why am I so unwilling to let people die?

I think that it must be rooted in the potential richness of future experiences. I am so deeply and unapologetically about living life to its fullest and “not, when I came to die, discover that I have not lived,” as Thoreau said. With that, I think I have an unrealistic need for the winds of Fate to blow just the right way for me, for everything to come up aces. My vision of The Best Life for William has all of my loved ones in it and thriving for a very long time, and my children getting to know their grandparents the way I knew mine. As a constant chronicler of my world—both through my journals and photographs—I adore looking back on the pages and pictures to find images of a life blessed with a happy, healthy family and good friends. It pains me greatly to even imagine these days and years passing without a key ingredient in this idyllic scene that is my life. It would just seem so much LESS to visit my Mom on her birthday and have Dad not be there, or to walk my kids through this world without my wife’s hand holding up the other end of our chain. LESS. Less rich. Less joyous. Less unstoppably beautiful as I believe Life to be. I don’t want Less. I reject it for my world.

I can see as I write this that I am in for a mighty fall some day. Neither Fate nor I have equipped me very well to deal with a loss like this, and I seem destined to crumble like a house of cards. Probably I should begin to prepare myself mentally and emotionally, but I don’t want to diminish any of the richness of these wonderful moments in the process. My parents have aged pretty well. I don’t expect something bad to happen to them any day now—I save that for the decade of their 80s—but I suppose I have begun to become a bit leery of these years. As my 64-year-old uncle’s surprise heart surgery reminded me last week, something could happen at any time. My Dad had a major heart attack nineteen years ago, so I suppose I have been on borrowed time with him for a while now. Am I just a fool in denial for not expecting the other shoe to fall at any moment? Probably so, but it is not in me to live expecting the worst. I will cling to my unbridled, irrational optimism of long and prosperous years to come, and I will savor every happy, healthy moment of our togetherness. It feels better to me this way.

How about you? How prepared are you for the death of a loved one? Open up your journal, and write yourself to clarity. Have you had a member of your inner circle die? How have you handled death up to this point? Have your coping skills changed as you have aged and moved closer to the front of the line? How does your view of “the afterlife” affect this process for you? After a loved one has passed, does it make the occasion more sad when the rest of your gang gathers together, or do you feel more of an obligation to each other to make each moment together as rich and joyous as possible? Which person’s death in your inner circle are you best equipped to handle, and why? Which one’s passing would devastate you the most? How well do the people you love know how you feel about them? Do you still have things you need to say so that you can live without regret if they died tomorrow? Maybe today is a good day to share. Are you like me, living mostly in denial of the inevitable loss of your loved ones? Is that okay? Leave me a reply and let me know: Are you ready to let go?

Live out loud today,

William

Clinging to Life on Earth

IMG_1029Hello friend,

I used to feel really prepared to die. I did. I didn’t have a death wish, and I wasn’t necessarily eager to go, but I definitely felt ready. Lately, though, I have swung completely the other way. I obsess over the possibility of my death. And it is not only mine; it goes for my wife and children as well. I think about it way too much. Worry. Fear. Dread. They are all part of the package. But why? How did I go from welcoming death to obsessively dreading it? How did I get this way?

When I was a kid and young adult, I didn’t think much about death. Like most people at that age, I felt pretty bulletproof. It simply didn’t occur to me that I might die at any moment. In my mid-20s, I went through a spiritual overhaul. I spent a lot of time contemplating God and my place in the Universe, and I became much more clear about what I believed. I felt intimately connected—united–with everything. It was a beautiful way to live, really. During those years of blissful union with the Divine, in particularly rapturous moments, I found myself saying out loud, “You can take me now, God, if you want. I am ready any time.” I guess I was just really solid in my belief that, no matter what form we are in, it is All God and will never be otherwise. The end is not in doubt.

With that thought as my foundation, it really just didn’t seem to matter to me whether I was “alive” or “dead”. The difference was only a superficial one. I loved the life I was living here on Earth, but I figured the next part was at least as good, so why not? I could go either way. When I heard of people dying, I thought two things: 1) Good for them; and 2)Bless their loved ones. I went along that way for a lot of years, loving life but welcoming death. The Grim Reaper was certainly not my enemy, nothing to fear.

That all changed suddenly on a hot Friday night in August of 2008. It was not a car accident, terminal diagnosis, or some other brush with death. No, it was, in fact, a brush with LIFE. My daughter was born. My whole world changed in a flash. The sun rose and set in her eyes. I hung on every breath, and the slightest smile from her could carry me through the day. But it was not this immense joy that she—and later her brother, too—brought to my world that completely turned my relationship with death. Rather, it was the responsibility. Yes, suddenly I was completely in charge of raising and nurturing this magical little creature to adulthood, and it needed to be the most loving, joyous upbringing ever. In order for me to insure that she had her greatest friend and protector, I needed to stay alive.

In that instant, death became my sworn enemy and greatest threat. It is true that my spiritual foundation did not suddenly fall to shambles. I still believed that All is God and that the end is not in doubt. I still believed it was going to be beautiful on the other side. And I knew that everyone on Earth figures out a way to carry on no matter what the circumstances, so they would make it without me. But I couldn’t have that. The idea of leaving them behind is a torturous one for me. Everyone always says that the worst thing imaginable is having your child die. I can see that so clearly at this point, which is why I have come to obsess in my dread of my children’s deaths. I have been reading and re-reading John Green’s novel, The Fault In Our Stars, lately. Its leading characters are kids with cancer, and I am just sick the entire time, not just in imagining my own children suffering from something so awful, but also in thinking about their parents.   What an awful, helpless feeling!

But I think that not so far down the ladder from that pain must be the idea of dying yourself and leaving your kids without you to raise them. Talk about helpless! A couple of years ago, my cousin Heide died of cancer. She was the mother of two amazing little girls. I have thought about her and her family a million times, both during her battle and, of course, after it ended. I can’t stop imagining how helpless she must have felt, knowing that she was not going to be there to nurture and watch her girls grow up and become women. I would be absolutely shredded by it. Just thinking about it knocks me into a state of shock. Unselfishly, I want to be of the utmost service to my kids every step of the way. Selfishly, it would absolutely eviscerate me to miss out on their daily magic. I want to be the shepherd, but I also want to be the witness.

It is also for these reasons that the thought of my wife’s potential death haunts me as well. As I said, I need my children’s upbringing to be the absolute best, most loving experience, and she is a crucial part of that. The kids need their mother, and she needs to be their mother. We have a vested interest in living this earthly life for a while.

Does this mean I will stop freaking out about death and return to my “Take me any time, God!” mode when they reach adulthood and no longer need the shepherd? I imagine the dread will diminish some, but not entirely, because the witness will still want to witness. I have no doubt that thoughts of missing out on their lives (and potentially the lives of their children) will keep me wanting to stick around to a ripe old age. Still, I think I won’t be as clingy to this life as I am now. My seeming desperation to live right now will more likely become a mere preference for life over death. Hopefully I can always maintain my focus on the present, secure in the knowledge that the best way to make the most of my time here is to stay in the moment rather than obsessing over the past or future, a future which certainly will include all of our deaths.

How about you? How desperate are you to keep living? Grab your journal and pen, and dig in. How do you react when you hear of someone dying? On a scale of one to ten, how peacefully do you think you would accept the news that you have only a year to live? How much does your family situation play into that rating? How much do your spiritual/religious beliefs affect your feelings regarding your acceptance of death? Has your acceptance of your mortality changed over the years? Do you think you would accept a terminal diagnosis better for yourself or for a family member? Obviously this topic is a deep and challenging one, but I believe it is very revealing and thus highly worth your while. So write! Then, leave me a reply. I want to know: Are you clinging to life on Earth?

Live like you mean it,

William