iTunes offered a free music video download of John Mayer’s “Say” a couple of years back. Even though it was essentially a promo for the movie “The Bucket List,” I like John Mayer’s music and the words resonated with a resolution I made about ten years ago when life felt like it was at its nadir: from this point forward, live life without regrets. Despite the critics’ opinion that the film was sappy and sentimental, I thoroughly enjoyed it, albeit with a tear or two in my eyes. Yeah, color me sappy and sentimental. Guilty, as charged. The movie is about two men who meet in the same hospital room after receiving a diagnosis of terminal cancer. They make a list of things to do before they ‘kick the bucket,’ hence the name of the movie. Suffice it to say, the film resonated with my resolution.
The prospect of a ‘bucket list’ is a bit abstract to me in that while I have made lists of personal and professional goals, my own mortality just hasn’t been something I’ve given much thought to, even when I was an active duty Navy pilot flying off the coast of the former Yugoslavia during its mid-1990s conflict. We joked about having our life insurance current, but we never thought our number would actually come up. That’s just it, though, isn’t it? Unless we have managed to get one of those unsolicited invitations to join AARP or earn those senior discounts at Denny’s, very few of us think about our own aging body and its impending demise and we certainly don’t think our time has come when we’re actually looking it in the eyes. OK, shoot me for mixing metaphors…or don’t. I don’t think it’s my time yet!
I have had to face the death of others rather infrequently over the years. Perhaps I’m lucky on that point or it’s simply a matter of my age and living in a time where medical advances have extended our lives. Maybe it’s as simple as having precious few friends and acquaintances who are out to get a Darwin Award for successfully cleaning the gene pool of ‘stoopidity’ or my Scandinavian ancestors who have made us a very serious, rule-following people. Any way you look at it though, death is just a part of life. We all die. No surprise there, but if you think about what people do and say at funerals, wakes, and memorial services, you’ll find people not talking about death, but rather celebrating lives.
Far from being a morbid topic, it seems to me that death teaches us how to live. Move past the platitudes and pithy little euphemisms to mask a topic that people often feel uncomfortable with. Focusing on how one lived eases the loss and because we tend to suppress or outright choose to forget the negative, the best memories flood up like a wellspring. I’ve really not had the opportunity to attend many funerals, but the ones that have done justice to the memory of the recently departed and given closure to the bereaved have been those that have a lot of laughter, in bright, wide, open spaces, and allow people the freedom to express themselves. I recall the memorial of the partner of a high school classmate of mine. She died very suddenly of a brain aneurysm—no warning, no symptoms. It was the classic bad thing happening to a good person, yet she had collected such a sea of friends and acquaintances that the place was overflowing with laughter as we recalled how she had filled our lives with smiles and great memories. It was held in a garden in the foothills of Salt Lake City, a fitting backdrop for a blossom having shed its last petal. Sure, there were tears, but it truly was a celebration of life. Judging from the crowd of friends, family, and acquaintances, I don’t think she was a person of faith, but she had lived her life well and was indeed surrounded by a great ‘cloud of witnesses.’
Regardless of what one believes awaits us on the other side of our passing, living life well is an imperative and nothing drives that point home more than its end. My grandparents are in their 90s and still rather active. They tell me that each day is a ‘bonus,’ recognizing that they are approaching the day when their figurative warranties will expire. They’ve made plans and communicated their final wishes, something that is not only wise from the standpoint of having their own wishes honored, but saving those left behind from having to make some rather difficult, emotionally-charged decisions. It’s a gift of love in terms than cannot be measured. Estate planning is indeed a gift to our survivors, but we can also plan for that day by living fully and well today. If genetics are any indication, I could have another 50 years ahead of me or driving along the infamous 405 freeway, I could meet my demise just in the blink of an eye. If you haven’t seen the legendary Southern California traffic, just imagine eight lanes moving at 80 mph at a distance from each other that would make any Driver’s Ed teacher put out his hand and stomp the imaginary brake on his side of the car. Anyone who had their parents teach them to drive knows what I’m talking about.
The story goes that no one, on their death bed, regrets not spending more time at the office. The regrets come from not doing what’s important, from not doing the things that had meant the most, from not fulfilling the dream in one’s heart, from not saying, as John Mayer sang in his song, “what you need to say.” I’m not suggesting quitting the job and taking a hedonistic holiday, but rather to live with determination, moderating the daily grind with hope and making an impression on those around us that will assure that the day we face death, there will be no regrets…and no room for people to sit because there are such a great number of people who we’ve touched. Don’t wait until it’s convenient, live that full life devoid of regrets today. Make a positive difference.
This posting was originally published July 17, 2011. I've split my writing into different blogs: Opinion, The Leukemia Chronicles, and other Freelance Writing.
I've left this posting in the Leukemia Chronicles because it's similar to other postings I've written about the topics since. It's also posted as opinion.