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What I Learned About Life During a Year of So Much Death

January 18, 2018

My dad always said that the greatest stories in life happen when things go wrong. “Ten years from now, none of us would remember that we had a crab boil one weekend. But we all remember that the lid fell off the cooler during the car ride home, and you were sure the crabs were going to crawl from the back of the station wagon to the front seat to sit in your lap.” Raised in a family with Irish roots, I learned very young that, whether born from joy or tragedy, happiness or sorrow, a good story is a good story.

I am not sure that I’m ready to turn 2017 into a good story yet. For now, 2017 will have to suffice as a good lesson about what’s important in 2018 and beyond.

Generally speaking, people on their deathbeds wish for more time with loved ones, doing things that feed their soul or that they perhaps missed out on - you don’t hear many asking for more time at the office. I agree in theory, but I wonder if the same holds true for those who were able to use their lives to find their true calling, their life’s work. My dad passed away last year, and while his life is the one that swirls in my mind and heart most intensely, for me two other influential lives came to an end in 2017. And they all got me thinking about life in the exact same way.

I wrote about Gord Downie earlier this year, and the role he played in my life. While it’s strange to include a Canadian rock star in the same discussion as my dad’s death, Gord’s enthusiasm for his chosen profession, and the poetry he wrote in his songs about the intensity of life, made him a magnet for anyone crossing his path. He was a Canadian national treasure, and also one of my husband’s favorite things. In “Wheat Kings,” Gord teaches us that “No one’s interested in something you didn’t do.” When Gord learned that he had incurable brain cancer, he didn’t retreat. Instead, he rallied the band for one last tour. He then wrote another album and devoted his remaining time, energy and money to increase awareness for the problems of the Canadian Indigenous peoples. All on a ticking clock. His work was his passion until his last breath.
Ruth Altshuler was 93 when she passed away in December. Anybody looking for a blueprint of what “help thy fellow man” looks like would be wise to read her obituary written by The Dallas Morning News.  Ruth’s community work was her calling, and she went about her work with the same responsibility and enthusiasm that anyone else with a storied career would. I have served some of the same organizations that Ruth did, and was fortunate to see her speak at two events last year. Ruth loved to tell stories on herself. While seemingly telling us not to follow in her footsteps, she taught us to lead with passion: “I would just write all these letters asking for money - which they say never works - then go hide under the bed until the checks started coming.” Still self-deprecating and inspirational, her heartfelt pleas always encouraged me to donate extra money to a cause that we already believed in and supported. If she lived to be 103, I know Ruth would still have been leading and inspiring the Dallas community to help others.

My dad was 79 when he died in November. His cancer diagnosis and rapid path to death was a surprise to all who knew him, and to him most especially. He still worked, serving a large number of clients, and thrived on meeting with them. When I meet with his clients now, they report what Dad taught them – yes, about money, but more importantly about enjoying life. My dad loved being a financial planner for so many reasons, but his favorite was hearing the stories from his clients about the lives they lived, the education they provided for their kids and grandkids, trips they took, or experiences they had. Dad knew that while his daily tasks may have looked like investment recommendations, the true work was helping people manage their money to live life the way they want. That opportunity and responsibility was profoundly gratifying to him, and he would have continued in his career until he died, no matter what that age was.

All three of these people lived from the inside out. They learned at some point in life what they were really meant to be, why they were put here. They inspired their community – music fans, people who want to help, families wanting to use their money well – to enjoy the moment, to make decisions, to change their lives.  

So I return to the idea of deathbed wishes, often structured around regret over time misspent (and almost never a desire to work more). I take my inspiration from three people who knew without doubt why they were put on the planet. Armed with the knowledge and confidence of “Why,” they spent their days answering the relatively easier question of “How?” without a moment of regret for a minute wasted.

We all come into the world as individuals with particular gifts and strengths. What if we spent our time in our specific gift, the kind of gift that we would want to put out in the world whether we had 20 weeks or 20 years left to live? As I look ahead to 2018 and beyond, I know that 2017 will be a good story if more of us can live like Gord, Ruth, and Dad, knowing our “Why” and simply focusing on the “How.”