One year ago today I became an orphan. My father died of multiple myeloma last year, following my mother’s death from acute myeloid leukemia in 2008. Since then I’ve done a lot of thinking about life and death. I’d like to be able to say I’ve learned some grand eternal truth that I can now reveal, but if I did I don’t yet know what it is. They both taught me more than I will ever realize, and in reflecting on their lives they will probably continue to do so for the rest of my life.
I think for the most part Mom got what she wanted from life. Raising a family seemed to always be her biggest goal and greatest reward – though she said having smart kids probably helped a lot in that regard. In 2007, after years of what she termed torture being treated for successive recurrences of lymphoma, when presented with the treatment options for acute myeloid leukemia she choose to refuse them all. I don’t think she ever regretted it. I had to admit, looking at the odds of the different options, it appeared to be the best trade possible. Five months later she died, on her second day in the hospice, having toughed it out at home as long as she could. Dad and my sister had taken her a TV the night before so I told Dad, “Well, I guess she really must not have liked that TV.” It got a laugh despite the circumstances, but in reality it was the only thing I could think to say.
Blinded by the ignorance and arrogance of youth, and having been a crime against nature from age six when I was diagnosed with Type I diabetes, I used to think I would fight death every step of the way, by any means necessary. But after going through kidney failure and being so drained of energy I sat for four hours without the resources to muster even a single thought, I understood her choice. With enough age or illness you reach a point where the only choices that remain are how you want to be tortured, and where the step from being to nothingness no longer seems that significant.
Dad had an ischemic stroke less than two months before Mom died, and his Parkinson’s symptoms got sharply worse after the stroke as well. Unsurprisingly, when Mom died his motivation and frustration both took big turns for the worse. It was the only time I ever saw him cry, for which he needlessly apologized. But even with the effects of the stroke, Parkinson’s, and the rapid loss of energy and coherence as the multiple myeloma rapidly progressed, I never got the impression he was ready to call it a day. In contrast to Mom, I think he had significant regrets about how he had lived his life. He grew up in a very small town, leaving for the first time when he joined the Navy, and the love of travel and adventure he felt escaping its confines never left him. But with marriage and children he felt he never had much chance to act on it.
The most shocking thing he ever told me was that he admired me for walking away from my first real job and moving to Hawaii. It was so much at odds with the way he had lived his life it had never occurred to me he might feel that way. He said he wished he’d had the guts to do something like that when he was young. Instead he stayed more than 35 years in a job he found so frustrating and stressful he developed a heart arrhythmia and an assortment of other health problems. Almost all of them had disappeared within a year of his retirement and that unintended lesson was one of the biggest I learned from him. Some things people assume they have to do just aren’t worth it. Choices may seem daunting but they always exist.
It’s easy to assume a near death experience will change your life. Beyond the death of my parents, I’ve had a few of my own and they can certainly shake things up, but only temporarily. Without realizing it you soon drift back into something uncomfortably similar to your previous routine, in both thoughts and actions. When a revelation about your life hits, for fuck’s sake do something about it. It may be years before the combination of awareness and motivation comes along again. Make a change that lastingly alters your course before mean-reversion forces you back into the rut.
After my mother died I made some significant changes in my life. All she wanted was for me to be happy so I quit farting around on a number of fronts and finally did something about them. I quit working, I sold my house, and redoubled my efforts to find the right woman. All have turned out well. My father’s death has had more subtle effects, mostly in pushing me to always watch that my actions reflect my priorities in life. But I’m also trying to complete a circle of sorts. The first house they ever bought was a custom mid-century modern (with a pole lamp that I still have) that I think was always his favorite. He taught me a lot about building and remodeling when I was young so we’re looking for a place to put all those skills to use and do an updated version of that house for ourselves.
That someone like my mother should ever have to die is a great tragedy. She was a genuinely good person and a truly great mother, and the world could certainly use more of those. But, despite his relative shortcomings, I still feel my father’s death was the greater tragedy because he felt part of his life had been squandered and no matter how long he lived it could never be recovered.
For whatever reason people have often asked me about the meaning of life. Maybe because I don’t talk much they assume I must know some big secret. My answer is always the same: The meaning of life is whatever you make it. Not the sort of answer anyone wants since it lacks the panache of “42” and just leads to another question: What do you want to make it? But, if you look inside, you probably already know that answer. Have the guts to act on it.