Tag Archives: Mortality

If I Die Before I Wake

(Image/fbccoverstreet.com)

(Image/fbccoverstreet.com)

I think about dying sometimes.

I think about dying because sometimes people die.

I can’t decide how afraid of it I am. I tend to feel a little afraid of any situation in which I have no prior experience, or am missing a lot of information and don’t know what to expect. So I guess I’m a little bit afraid to die, which I like better than three years ago when being awake hurt so much that staying alive too long feeling that way seemed much scarier.

One of the worst things about being a divorced, single father is that there’s no one around to document life with my son. My little second-grader, thankfully, has several family members on his mom’s side who he sees pretty regularly.

But because we live far from my extended family, and I’ve been single for three years, there’s this huge chunk of my son’s life that only exists in his memory and mine. If I die today, he’ll only have a few pieces of visual evidence documenting our life together.

He curled up next to me on the couch last night. He wanted to look at old photos of him and us. Even though I’m an infrequent Facebook user, it’s still my largest repository of old photos.

It’s a time warp, because there’s close to nothing from the past three years.

If you judged and measured my life in terms of Facebook activity, it’s not hard to see the world turned upside-down in 2010, and stayed that way. My son didn’t recognize some of his friends from today because they were so young in the photos.

We got to Fourth of July photos from 2010.

“Look dad! That’s when mommy still came with us when we go to visit grandpa’s,” he said.

“That’s right, bud. You’ll see mommy in a lot of these photos,” I said. “See? There you both are. Look at that face.”

“That was one of my happiest years.”

“What do you mean?”

“When I was 3, and mommy still lived here.”

That sort of thing used to make me cry. I’m tougher now.

“Do you remember when mommy still lived here?”

“Yeah. I remember.”

We flipped back to Christmas 2009. There was a photo of him standing in the middle of my in-law’s old living room, a place he spent much of his first three years before the whole world changed.

“Where is that, dad?”

“Are you serious? You don’t know where that is?”

“I just don’t really remember,” he said.

I think about his grandfather—my father-in-law—all the time. We lost him unexpectedly one day, and some of us went into an involuntary tailspin afterward.

I don’t presume to know what happens after we die, but if it’s possible for him to peek in on his grandson, I know he is. He was an awesome grandpa.

I wonder what he thinks of me. Maybe he feels like I failed his daughter, and considers me a major disappointment. Maybe he hears me sometimes when I get upset with his grandson, and wishes he could tell me to chill out and maintain perspective.

You know?

Because we’re all going to die one day. And really? Who gives a shit about a few crumbs on the dining room floor?

Sometimes, I think about dying in my sleep.

I hope my son is with his mom if that happens any time soon.

She and I rely on mobile phones to communicate with each other. Sometimes when one of us is particularly busy and distracted, or we have our phones plugged in and away from us, the other worries that something bad might have happened after we don’t get responses to texts, or our calls go unanswered.

If enough hours go by, I start concocting potentially terrifying stories and possible explanations in my head, because that’s what I do sometimes in the absence of facts.

At my son’s age, even though he’d be really upset and afraid, I think he’d be able to use my phone to reach his mom. I think he knows to go to the neighbors for help in an emergency.

I hope he’ll be okay.

I hope my life choices didn’t add up to a freakish moment where a young child has to face the body of his dead father and try to figure out what to do next, and then not even have very many photos of our good times together to look through afterward.

I worry about my parents. I don’t call them enough, so maybe they secretly think I don’t love and appreciate them as much as I do.

I worry about my family, friends, neighbors and co-workers. I hope they know what they mean to me. They probably don’t. It’s probably my fault. But I hope they guess correctly.

I worry about you. Most of you won’t care or notice. But some of you will. If you’re still reading this meandering, self-indulgent post, you’re probably someone who cares. You’re probably someone who might notice when the updates simply stop. Hopefully by design. But maybe not. Maybe one day there just won’t be any more heartbeats. Then, no more posts. And maybe some of you will wonder what happened. Maybe some people will think I quit, or ran out of words.

Maybe some of you will guess correctly that I died, and be frustrated that there may never be a way to know for sure.

I might not die today. I probably won’t, since I’ve never died any of the other days I’ve been alive. But maybe I will. Maybe this is the day the top of the hourglass runs dry. That’s the point, really. We never know.

If I’m out of time, what is it that needs to be said, and to whom?

Is that really worth feeling upset over?

Shouldn’t the things people think about in their final moments be the things we put most of our focus on?

I think so.

I hope this isn’t the last thing I ever write. That they don’t find the plates I left in the sink. The stack of mail on my desk. The unmade bed. The unfinished Pinewood Derby car on the bench downstairs.

The last father-son project. Unfinished, like this life.

We probably don’t wake up one day feeling ready to die—feeling like we got it all right, and accomplished all we set out to do.

Maybe the best we can do is whatever’s in front of us today.

Offering to help.

Forgiving them.

Forgiving ourselves.

Trying hard.

Loving harder.

Choosing hope.

Choosing courage.

If I knew this was the last thing I would ever write, I would finish with a note to my son (Love you, kid.):

Thinking about dying is only awesome if you use it as motivation to take nothing for granted. I did many bad things. But I always chose hope, and it has never failed me. I hope you will, too.

I don’t spend most of my life thinking about dying. I promise.

I spend most of it thinking about living.

I spend most of it thinking about living because sometimes people really live.

Be one of them.

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A License to Live

“Les, that license in your wallet, that’s not an ordinary piece of paper.”

Within the first week of getting my driver’s license in 1995, I let a woman with two children in her backseat who had just crashed into my rear driver’s-side quarter panel drive off without calling the police or making an insurance claim, and I ran the front-right corner of my car into the back-left corner of a high school classmate’s car while backing out of my parking space at school.

No one had ever told me what to do in a car accident. It was probably only my third or fourth time driving alone. I was just worried about the kids. They were fine. I figured I’d drive home and my parents would make an insurance claim.

Doesn’t work that way, it turned out.

Oops.

My classmate Jill was in her car next to me when I backed my car out and spun the wheel too fast without clearing the front while leaving school my sophomore year.

I scratched her paint pretty significantly. She was really cool about it. I was really embarrassed.

“Les, that license in your wallet, that’s not an ordinary piece of paper. That is a driver’s license. And it’s not only a driver’s license. It’s an automobile license. And it’s not only an automobile license. It’s a license to live, a license to be free, a license to go wherever, whenever and with whomever you choose.” — Dean, License to Drive

Freedom. That’s what turning 16 and getting my driver’s license represented. Next to moving out of my parents’ house and into my college dorm room, nothing in life has ever rivaled the taste of freedom one feels behind the wheel.

I made the mistake with the mom who crashed into me because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I made the steering mistake while backing the car out of the parking space at school because that was literally the first time I’d ever backed out of a parking spot with cars on either side of me.

I hope it goes without saying that neither situation has come even close to happening again. I’m generally pretty good at not making the same mistake twice.

20 Years Later

At 4:37 a.m. Central Time tomorrow, I turn 36.

There are so many parallels between that time in my life and where I now find myself. Rapid change is occurring. I find myself in uncharted life territory with so many new experiences to have and life lessons to learn.

Freedom.

Not freedom I wanted or asked for. But freedom, all the same.

What are you going to do with it, middle-aged guy?

That’s the question we all have to answer about the precious time we have. I mean, maybe I’ll live to be 80. I hope so. But I might not. A heart beat seems like a fickle thing. Many people younger than me have had them stop without warning.

What are you going to do with the time?

One of my favorite writers Austin Kleon always reads a few New York Times obituaries every morning. About the lives of people who don’t have a today or tomorrow to plan for.

He doesn’t do it to be morbid. He does it to every.single.day remember to live. We all have an hourglass constantly getting emptier with no knowledge of how much sand remains in the upper half.

Today better count.

Learn more. Do more. Be more.

Not later. Now.

The divorce changed everything. It’s because divorce changes everything. A little good. A lot bad.

All the sand in the bottom of the hourglass is just going to sit there now. Days that already happened. Will never matter again. Can’t matter anymore because the sand never flows upward, even if we shake it up a lot.

After divorce or some other traumatic life event, you’re just trying to tread water. Just trying to stay alive.

But it’s nearly two years later now. Life can no longer be about treading water. Now, it’s got to be about choosing a direction and going that way. About lifting the sail and steering as best I can.

I’m a little like that 16-year-old again. Capable, but unsure. Bound for mistakes and missteps. But climbing toward good things. Always climbing.

Because this birthday isn’t an ordinary birthday.

It’s my 36th birthday.

And it’s not just my 36th birthday.

It’s the 20-year anniversary of freedom.

And it’s not just the 20-year anniversary of freedom.

It’s a license to live. A license to be free.

A license to go wherever, whenever and with whomever I choose.

Let’s go.

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Who Am I?

man in maskI glanced at the calendar.

The year is more than halfway over. That was fast.

Maybe my life is, too. I’m 35. Many men die before turning 70.

Uh-oh.

I look in the mirror.

Who are you?

I don’t know anymore. But I want to. Need to.

I think we go through a bit of an identity crisis after divorce. Maybe not everyone. Maybe just me.

For so long, I was Matt—husband, newspaper reporter, fun guy.

Then I was Matt—husband, dad, fun guy.

Now? Part-time father. Wannabe writer who doesn’t write.

The most-important lesson I learned in a decade of newspaper reporting—bar none—was that if you want to find answers, you need to ask the right questions.

I Am My Mother

My mom is the oldest of eight children—the first four of which were born in four consecutive years. Eighteen years separate my mom from her youngest sister, who is just four years older than me.

What does that do to a person? When they spend their entire childhood expected to help with all of the younger kids, and getting less than a year of undivided attention from their parents?

She grew up in a small farm town in Ohio. Less than 5,000 people. Everyone knew everyone. People have stopped me on the town streets to ask me which family member I belong to because my facial features resemble my uncles’.

Maybe that’s why mom moved far away after graduating high school. Escape.

About 500 miles from home.

That’s where she met my dad.

I Am My Father

My dad is the oldest of four children.

His father was an alcoholic and I think his mom was, too. She died just before I was born.

When my dad and his siblings were children, their mom started sleeping with the neighbor guy and their dad started sleeping with that guy’s wife. The two women switched houses and married one another’s husbands.

My dad once spent a night in jail after riding a wheelie on a motorcycle through his city’s downtown.

He’s a high school dropout who smoked a lot of pot, and drank and partied often. He joined the U.S. Navy as a teenager and traveled the world for four years.

Mom left him when I was 4. Probably because he smoked a lot of pot, and drank and partied often.

Are We Our Parents?

I don’t know what it’s like to grow up with both of your parents together. I vaguely remember one Christmas with mom and dad. And I remember the day of my parents’ custody hearing which would determine which parent I was going to live with nine months out of the year 500 miles away from the other.

Maybe when you live with both of your parents at the same time and observe them, it’s easier to identify the bits of you that come from your mom versus the other parts that make you like your dad.

My mother was a domineering wife and overprotective parent that had me craving freedom in ways that always had me at friends’ houses. It caused hurt feelings for my mom because I would avoid bringing friends around. Mom didn’t know who I was.

My father (and the closest thing to a hero I ever had) spoiled me because he only saw me two and a half months out of the year and seemed to walk on water because he was the dad I was constantly being deprived of seeing, even though that’s unfair to my mom and a romanticized version of the truth.

Mom remarried right away and committed to making my entire childhood the best and safest and most-nurturing she could. She’s a deeply religious woman, and her only priority is that I get to heaven after I die.

Dad filed for bankruptcy after my mom left and took me far away to Ohio. He kept partying and grinding at work.

Today, my mom is on her third marriage and struggles financially.

My father eventually bought the company he worked for and is now a well-deserving member of the 1%.

He was committed to helping me become the smartest, most-financially successful adult I could be.

Both of my parents are kind and decent people.

Both would go to the ends of the Earth for me.

Both, in very different ways, are great examples of what it means to love.

One of These Things is Not Like the Others

I don’t have brothers and sisters like my mom and dad.

I am—biologically—an only child, with two stepsisters about my age and a half-sister born when I was in high school. I love all three. But we have very non-traditional sibling relationships.

And I don’t really know what that means. I don’t know what that makes me.

Want good answers? Ask good questions.

Who am I?

I don’t know.

Single? Divorced? Father? Who makes bad decisions?

Aren’t we whoever we choose to be?

Yes.

Who do I choose to be?

Someone kind. Someone fun. A good father. A writer.

Aren’t we defined by what we do?

Yeah.

Am I kind?

I really do try.

Am I fun?

I really do try.

Am I a good father?

I really do try.

Am I a writer?

*shrug*

Today, I am.

*Publish*

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The Greatest Generation

willow-tree

After my parents came back to the house to tell me which one of them I was going to live with, everything’s a little fuzzy.

I just know the judge picked mom.

So, I said bye to dad—see you in several months!—and mom drove four-year-old me 500 miles east to her parents’ house back in Ohio.

I have memory flashes of sleeping and bathing at my grandparents. We lived there for a while. Celebrated my fifth birthday there.

My first life-reset.

My grandparents lived on a 43-arce farm in the Ohio countryside. A big, white farmhouse with black shutters.

A huge concrete porch where I spent countless hours playing. Barbecuing with my grandfather. Staring at the majesty of the vast night sky.

A red barn. Where I was chased by angry chickens. Where I would sometimes sneak into the hayloft to read books. Where I killed, cleaned and filleted untold numbers of fish caught by my grandpa and I.

Huge grassy expanses for unlimited running. Fields full of arrowheads and exotic-looking rocks to be found after the soil had been tilled. Tall maple trees I used to climb.

There were pear trees. Cherry trees. Apple trees. They attracted bees.

I was never afraid of them.

The flower beds were full of some of the biggest spiders I’d ever seen.

I was never afraid of them, either.

The surrounding fields and forest, highlighted by a gorgeous fishing pond and a one-room, non-plumbed cabin with a picturesque weeping willow tree represented my playground.

My new home.

Even when we didn’t live there, we lived there.

I spent more weekends there than not throughout my childhood.

That was a good thing.

My grandfather owned a mom-and-pop furniture and flooring store in the small town. A business started by my great-grandfather.

My grandparents have eight children.

My mother is the eldest of them. I am the first grandchild by several years. My mom’s youngest sister is only four years older than me.

What that means is I grew up in a big-family environment even though I am an only child.

Salt-of-the-earth kind of people. Barbecue chicken and hamburgers on summer nights. Fish frys. Chicken and dumplings. Hot dog and marshmallow roasting over an open fire.

These are the people who showed me how to love.

These are the people who taught me about family.

These are the people most responsible for me being whoever and whatever I am today.

My grandfather included me on his fishing trips. On his excursions to watch his beloved local high school football team vie for state championships. Running errands on the farm.

He taught me patience when the fish weren’t biting.

He showed me what it looks like to handle a life where so many people are pulling you in so many directions.

He has been a loving and faithful husband for the better part of 60 years.

As a child, I got lost two times.

Once, when I ran off to go see Santa at a relatively large shopping mall during the holiday shopping season when my mom wasn’t looking.

The police found me.

The second time, when I wandered off into the woods in search of a large waterfall like one I’d seen in a book or on television.

That time, my grandfather found me.

My grandmother often included me on trips to see her parents—my great-grandparents—about 45 minutes away.

My great-grandfather was a chess champion. And a very kind and gentle man. I can’t remember one visit where he didn’t do something very gentlemanly toward my great-grandmother. He ALWAYS helped her with her coat.

His funeral was my first experience with a family member passing with whom I was very close.

My great-grandmother could run in her 90s. Not, like, jogging. But I remember seeing her run from a doorway to a car in the rain. Things like that. One of the most-amazing women to ever live. She always had cookies. Always. Cookies.

Thick German accent.

My great-grandparents were so magnificent, it stands to reason that my grandmother would turn out so wonderful.

And that’s what she is.

I’ve shared many afternoons with just her.

We used to play Yahtzee and Boggle together. Boggle is one of the games that helped me find my love of words.

She hopped a plane with me on my first flight to visit my dad, once everyone decided me flying back and forth made more sense than driving back and forth.

Despite her unhealthy crush on Liam Neeson, my grandmother is a picture-perfect model of love, patience and forgiveness. For her husband of nearly 60 years. For her eight children. For her 19 grandchildren.

My grandmother had another surgery on Tuesday. Her legs are in bad shape after they were run over by a car.

While she was still knocked out from the surgery, my grandfather, who has had open-heart surgery twice, was admitted to the hospital due to chest pains.

Apparently his heart is only operating at about 20-25 percent. Every day we have him is a blessing at this point, mom says.

The Greatest Generation

Former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw coined the term “The Greatest Generation” to describe Americans born during The Great Depression who grew up in poverty, and then went on to fight, or contribute in some way to the war effort during World War II. My mom’s parents just missed the window, born just a few years after the generally accepted span between about 1914-1929.

I’m not going to get in the business of ranking generations of people.

We are all dealt the hands we’re dealt. We have no control when or where or to whom we are born. Whatever that reality is represents our individual “normal.”

Some people never knew a life with electricity and running water.

Others will never know a life without iPhones and self-parking automobiles.

Every generation’s job is to do the best they can with the resources available to them. So that the next generation can do the same.

There is a lot of neglect and apathy in this world. But I sure do see a lot of people choosing good. Choosing the harder path for their children and future generations.

More than a century ago, my great-grandparents were like me. They gave life to my grandmother. Who gave life to my mother. Who gave life to me. Who gave life to my son.

And maybe he will give life to my grandchild someday.

Everything is gone.

Youth. The time together. The big-family environment. My great-grandparents. The farm. The fishing trips.

Innocence is gone.

But everything is not lost. The stuff that really matters tends to stick.

That stuff that lives inside us.

In our memories. And stories. In our personalities.

In our ability to love. To share. To connect. To be generous. Charitable. Forgiving. Hopeful.

It won’t be long now. Until I have to say goodbye to them.

Maybe this year. Maybe in a few years. But not long now.

The people responsible for getting me through my first life-reset after my parents’ divorce.

And now I’m going through life-reset No. 2.

My own divorce.

And everything’s mixed-up. Inside-out.

There’s no rock anymore. Nothing steady to lean on.

The world’s asking me to become my own rock. So I can be a good father. A good son. A good friend. And someday, a good partner.

The world’s asking all of us to do that as we slowly lose everything on which we once relied.

So we get strong. Because we must.

And we hold one another up.

We do it for ourselves and each other. And we do it for our children.

Because our ancestors mattered.

They gave you your grandparents.

And they gave you your parents.

And they gave you yourself and an opportunity to do something great.

Maybe that’s some great big thing that everyone’s going to see and hear about in our media-saturated world.

Or maybe it’s not.

Maybe it’s just making the world a better place.

Maybe it’s just raising a child who will bring a child into the world who will bring a child into the world who a hundred years from now will change the world.

Maybe that’s why you’re here.

Maybe that’s why I’m here.

Like my grandparents.

Like yours.

The greatest generation.

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How to Live a Regret-Free Life

Choose happiness. Choose love. Choose yourself.

Choose happiness. Choose love. Choose yourself.

You’re going to die.

Just like me.

It might be in 80 years.

It might be in 10.

It might be today.

Is there anything troubling you today that would matter on the last day of your life?

One of my Facebook friends posted this article yesterday. It was the first I’d seen it. It was written by a nurse who cares for dying patients. She takes those final days to talk with them about their lives. To ask them probing questions about what it all means. About their hopes and dreams and regrets. Then she took the five most common regrets mentioned by her dying patients and wrote them down.

I intend to spend a lot of time thinking about these.

I hope you will, too.

Live Like You’re Dying

“Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, ‘It might have been.’” – Kurt Vonnegut 

Life’s biggest regrets? According to one lady who knew more dead people than most of us, these are the highlights:

1. Live a life true to yourself; not the life others expect of you. 

This was the big one, the nurse wrote. We make choices every day. How many do we make because other people want us to? How many do we make for ourselves?

How many of you chose a particular area of study because you were trying to please one of your parents? How many of you choose your job or where you live or your hobbies because of other people?

This is a big one. This idea. Being true to yourself. What if you have three children who depend on you? A spouse who loves you? Can you pack up and travel the world because that’s your dream? To go cave diving? Or minister to the poor? Or work on a fishing vessel? Or study at Oxford? Or work part time at a beachfront surf shop? Or own a boutique bakery?

It seems almost selfish. This message is best served on the young. And I hope any teenagers or young adults reading will really think about what it means to pursue your passions and dreams and not what you think other people expect you to be.

But what about the rest of us? Those of us “tied down” to families or children or mortgages or other dependents?

These are tough choices. Tough conversations to have. Especially if the people we surround ourselves with are unsupportive.

My favorite writer James Altucher doesn’t mess around. You’re either with him or against him. And if you’re against him, he cuts you out of his life. Life’s too short to surround yourself with energy takers, he said. He only spends time with people who lift him up. Who make him happy. And as a result, he’s happy.

Ruthless? Maybe. Impractical? I can see how you might think that. That was my initial reaction too. But then I just kept thinking about it.

What if I spend the rest of my life NEVER doing things I don’t want to do? And ALWAYS doing things I want to do with people I want to do them with?

What’s stopping me from making that choice?

I’m not sure there is anything. But do we have the courage to choose happiness? To choose ourselves?

“Never look back unless you are planning to go that way.” – Henry David Thoreau

2. Don’t work so hard. 

This is one of my biggest crimes. Which will make some of you who know me, laugh. Matt? Work hard?!?! Hahahahaha! But I don’t really mean it in the context of how industrious or productive I am. I mean it more in terms of my mindset.

This was a common regret of husbands and fathers who toiled in careers their entire adult lives, missing their children’s entire upbringing, and often leaving their wives to fend for themselves.

It doesn’t mean don’t work hard. We absolutely should work hard in whatever it is we’re involved with. What it means, is maybe we don’t have our priorities straight. Maybe making thousands of extra dollars so your child can join ski club or wear LeBron’s newest shoes or live in the nicest neighborhood isn’t as valuable as simplifying your lives and “needs” so that you can give them more individual attention. So, instead of one weeklong vacation each year in some wonderful place, the family is together all the time. Growing together. Communicating. Feeling loved. Appreciated. Connected.

Maybe waking up EVERY SINGLE DAY and going to work just so we can have houses to sleep in and cars to drive to our jobs doesn’t make as much sense as so many of us have been programmed to think it does.

I’m not advocating being a bum. I’m not sure I’m prepared to start slashing luxuries in my life. I’ve always been more of a fan of acquiring more money.

However, does any of this shit matter if we’re going to die today? Does it?

Maybe it’s time to ask yourself that. Maybe it’s time to start ridding yourself of burdens you carry that won’t matter when you’re gone.

Or better yet. Maybe it’s time to start ridding yourself of burdens. Period.

Because 99 percent of the stuff that ails you will hardly be an afterthought in five years.

Stop wasting time.

“With the past, I have nothing to do; nor with the future. I live now.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

3. Express your feelings courageously. 

This is the thing I’m learning how to do best in this new world I’m living in. I’m still MUCH more shy in person expressing feelings and showing courage, but I must say: Being as open and honest with you guys here as I try to be has really helped me show more courage when I’m looking someone in the eye. I’m not all the way there yet. But, give me time.

The truth is liberating.

And I don’t mean, spilling your secrets.

I just mean, being courageous.

You like that girl? Well, dammit, stop being a pansy. Go tell her.

Maybe you’ll get her. Maybe you won’t. I’m learning each day to give less of a shit about the bad things that might happen to me when I’m brave. And the good feelings I feel for being brave tend to offset any disappointment I might feel from an undesirable outcome.

The new me isn’t awesome. Not yet.

But as they say in the scouting athletes business, I have a lot of upside.

You do, too.

Say what you feel. Be as honest as you possibly can without hurting people.

That’s where peace lives.

That’s where happiness lives.

That’s where a regret-free life lives.

“I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret the things I haven’t done.” – Lucille Ball

4. Stay connected to friends.

I’m horrible at this sometimes. HORRIBLE. I wrote yesterday about being reclusive. And I have been lately as I try to reassemble all the scattered pieces of my life.

I love my friends. I love my friends more than they can or will ever understand because I can’t put them all in the same room and hug their faces in a world-record-breaking sweaty and really uncomfortable group hug.

But if you know me in real life, I love you. I do. And I appreciate you so much. And I’ll never be able to thank you properly for all the memories you’ve given me and all of the memories we’ll eventually get to make.

I might die before I see you again.

If that happens, I pray you’ll remember our friendship with fondness. And I pray you understand that my most precious memories unrelated to my closest family members revolve around you.

Yes, you.

Whether our interactions were few. Or whether you’re a fundamental part of my life.

Aaron. My best man. All those years. You’re family. Forever.

Z. You’re the best. Give me more time to figure this life out. I’ll be back.

SP. I’m probably not me without you. I’m probably an even bigger asshole. Thank you.

Ben and Andy. You anchor my other world. Love you guys.

Dani. I knew you for five minutes. But you were the pretty girl who let the new guy take you out once or twice. You don’t know how big of a deal that was to me.

SK. You’re my all-time favorite grumpy person.

O. My first friend in my hometown. Solid gold family. Solid gold man.

ATH2O. The next time I have a bad time with you will be the first. Same for you, RR.

Work people. You’re my now. You represent adult me. You keep me steady. Anchored. Balanced. Focused. All those hours we share together when we wish we were elsewhere. You make it more than tolerable. You make it pleasant. Appreciate you so much.

Florida people. You were the first life savers I ever met.

SC. I seriously had one of the best weeks of my life with you. Thank you.

CD. Remember when you got upset with me because a drunk girl named Jill crawled into my tent with me at Country Concert and you heard about it the next day? I swear, on my heart and soul, on the life of my son who is the very reason I live and breathe, that I didn’t so much as hold that girl’s hand. Because of you. Because you mattered.

If we went to grade school together, high school together (in Ohio or Illinois), college together (so many things I DON’T remember), or worked closely together, you can take to the bank that you matter to me. That I feel connected to you. That I’m sorry for any role I’ve played in any disconnection that now exists.

And if I die today, my biggest regret will be my failure to show you how much you matter.

The nurse wrote: “That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.”

Nothing matters more.

Focus on what matters.

It will be unselfish.

But you’ll really be doing it for yourself.

“A man has cause for regret only when he sows and no one reaps.” – Charles Goodyear

5. Give yourself permission to choose happiness.

Give yourself permission to choose yourself. To be happy. To let go. To not give a shit what that person thinks. I worry SO MUCH about what people think of me. It’s likely my greatest personal weakness.

When you choose other people’s feelings about you over your own feelings about you, you always lose. Your life will be dissatisfying. You’ll constantly be chasing approval that doesn’t matter.

No one’s opinion of you matters except your own.

Today, you decide who you are. Not your friends at school. Not those people at work. Not those guys in the car next to you. Not your parents. Not people on television. Not your boyfriend. Not your wife. Not your kids.

Your past doesn’t define you.

If you’re the kind of person like me who chooses to behave sometimes out of fear of what others might think of you, then you have a bad habit.

Like smoking. Like eating poorly. Like biting your fingernails. Like belittling your spouse even when you’re “joking.” Like procrastinating.

Bad habits can be broken.

And I hope you’ll try to break this one. I’m going to try.

Because all I want in this world is happiness. I don’t even know what that means. I don’t know what it looks like. It’s just a word. But it describes how I occasionally feel. And I choose to pursue that feeling. To pursue happiness. With vigor.

I choose myself. And I choose to feel good. Not shitty.

Sometimes I’ll succeed. Sometimes I’ll fail. But I’m going to keep trying.

Because practice makes perfect.

Because I know we can do it.

Because choosing happiness can be habit forming.

I make bad decisions.

But not all the time.

“Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.” – Oscar Wilde

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The Hourglass Theory

hour-glass

Great. This guy again, I thought.

It was Joe. A guy I used to work with.

He was a newspaper reporter just like me. Only he worked for a different business publication in the same office building.

I liked Joe. And I didn’t always hate when he’d stop by my desk and talk my ear off.

But I did much of the time.

People think I’m really nice sometimes when I’m actually not. I’m not always patient. I’m not always kind.

I just don’t say anything because I’d rather feel stress and discomfort than tell someone to their face that something they’re doing is bothering me. I’ve always been this way.

On the days I didn’t want to talk to Joe, I’d pick up my phone and pretend like I was calling someone or listening to a voice mail if I saw him approaching my desk.

Despite being a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, I don’t have anything bad to say about Joe. He was just one of those guys who talked to you a lot longer than you’d prefer sometimes.

He was a really nice, friendly guy.

It would almost surprise you, because he looked intimidating.

Broad-chested. Long, dreadlocked hair, usually pulled back in a ponytail. Lots of tattoos. His look earned him the nickname “Voodoo Joe” in the running community.

Joe ran a lot of marathons. He traveled throughout the country to run in various races.

His travel stories were great. But I sometimes wasn’t too interested in hearing about the finer points of his training regimen.

I don’t run, Joe! I don’t care! Stop telling me about it!

Sometimes he’d be talking to me and the phone at my desk would ring.

Thank God, I’d think.

“I gotta take this, Joe,” I’d say. “I’ll catch up with you.”

My First Lesson in Unexpected Loss

I was 17. A senior in high school.

I was working as a cook at the local country club.

The kitchen phone rang.

“Matt, it’s for you,” someone said.

I grabbed the phone. “Hello?”

It was my father, 500 miles away in Illinois.

My uncle David was dead. My father’s only brother.

He was 37.

I didn’t get to see him very much. He lived in Wisconsin where he had a good job working for an airline. I’d be lucky to see him during one of my two annual visits to Illinois where my dad lives.

He and his fiancée were road-tripping to Chicago in a Chevy S-10 pickup truck to attend a Chicago Bears game. Uncle Dave was obsessed with the Bears.

During the drive, a white Pontiac Grand Prix was weaving in and out of traffic and sped by them from behind. The driver was being an asshole.

He did something to upset Uncle Dave. And my uncle, being my uncle, sped up so he could express his displeasure with his middle finger.

The white Grand Prix swerved into him in response.

My uncle lost control. The small pickup rolled violently and eventually ended up on its top on the side of the highway.

The white Grand Prix never stopped.

The roof of the truck caved, trapping my unconscious uncle until emergency personnel could pull him out. His fiancée Trish in the passenger seat didn’t have a scratch on her.

Oxygen had been cut off to Uncle Dave’s brain for far too long.

He was gone.

It was the first time someone close to me died unexpectedly.

My dad and Uncle Dave had stayed up really late talking on the phone and drinking beer the night before.

Lots of “I love yous” exchanged, something these two men hadn’t said much to one another throughout their lives, growing up in impoverished and dysfunctional conditions I might write about someday.

It was the last thing my father ever said to, or felt, about his younger brother.

That phone call got him through the funeral. That phone call is why my father could fall asleep at night.

They never caught the driver that killed my uncle.

He might be out there somewhere. Right now. Maybe he still drives recklessly. Maybe he told his buddies over drinks about the time he ran some asshole off the road for giving him the finger. Maybe he knows that asshole—my uncle; my father’s only brother—died in that accident. Maybe he doesn’t.

It always bothered me more than it did my father. That no one ever found the guy.

My dad is phenomenal at only worrying about what he can control, and taking the rest as it comes.

What he could control was telling his brother that he loved him in a rare and touching moment between the two.

My father displayed immense strength and grace during the funeral. Being the rock for his two sisters. And for me. And for Trish, who lost her fiancé.

“How did you do it, Dad?” I asked.

“Because we shared that phone call,” he said. “Because I got to tell Dave that I loved him.”

A Second Lesson

Nobody knew where Joe was the next day. The day after he’d annoyed me by being friendly and talkative. The day after I was relieved when he finally stopped talking to me.

Joe never called in to let anyone know he wouldn’t be coming to work. He didn’t live far away, so someone drove to his house at lunchtime.

His Jeep was there. But he didn’t answer the door.

The police were called.

They found Joe’s lifeless body in bed.

He died in his sleep. Heart attack. He was 37.

I made the two-hour drive to his hometown a few days later for the funeral visitation.

I hugged his mother.

She was so appreciative that I’d made the effort to drive down.

I didn’t tell her about her son bothering me a few days earlier.

I shook hands with his father.

He thanked me for being there.

I didn’t tell him his son—his wonderful, good-hearted, nice-to-everyone son—was someone I would intentionally avoid some days, just because my work schedule and writing habits were sometimes more important to me than kindness.

I cried for Joe’s parents.

I cried for his siblings.

I cried for his friends.

I cried for his girlfriend.

I cried for me. Because I’m selfish. Because a person I genuinely liked was gone.

And my final act toward him was one I’m not proud of.

It was polite. It was well-mannered. But it was bullshit.

Because I wanted him to go away.

And then he did. Forever.

And now I wish he was here. I wish he’d gotten to marry his girlfriend. To be a dad. To pass along all that kindness to a new little person.

I wish I could get a do-over for that final conversation. To listen to Joe’s story about running, through the prism of knowing it was his final day.

To respect his passions and interests.

To appreciate his kindness.

And to hold those feelings in my heart while I watched and listened to him in his final moments.

Live Every Moment

I try to remind myself and those I care about to Take Nothing For Granted.

Because I think it’s important to be mindful of the fragility of all this.

It’s why I need to call my mom more.

It’s why I need to visit my grandparents.

It’s why I need to maintain perspective when my son is frustrating me.

Everything changes when we’re reminded of our mortality. On the inside.

We’re just—different—in those moments.

You’d never flip off that asshole driver if you knew he was going to die in 30 seconds.

You’d never call your boss a psycho bitch if you knew she wasn’t going to wake up tomorrow.

You’d always remind those who matter most how much they mean to you if you knew this was their final day.

The bottom of the hourglass is always filling up.

Do I really want to sit in a cubicle 40+ hours per week?

Does my child’s behavior really warrant this reaction?

If today’s my last day, where do I want to spend tonight? And with whom?

Who needs reminded of my love?

Who should I thank?

Who makes me happy?

But we shouldn’t be passive when we ask ourselves the hard questions.

What can I do right now to make someone’s day better?

How do I want to be remembered when I’m gone?

What must I do to achieve that?

What behaviors am I least proud of?

What can I do to change them?

Does my behavior hurt others?

Am I who I want to be?

What actions can I take immediately to be the best version of me possible?

I don’t like that I take my family and friends for granted.

I don’t do it in my mind. But I do it with my actions.

I do care about people. I care about my family. My friends. You.

But I don’t always act like it. Is that curable? Or is this simply who I am?

A guy destined to regret inaction and the missed opportunities to remind people of their importance?

To fail and hurt, only to fail and hurt some more.

Maybe.

But I’m going to try not to be.

If tomorrow never comes, I hope the people who know me best remember whatever good I had to give.

I hope you know how important you are and how much power you have to shape lives and bring joy to others.

And I hope you try hard to be kind. To everyone. Because the top of their hourglass is getting lighter too.

Dear Joe:

Thank you for your kindness.

You were a good man.

And you are not forgotten.

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