Life Is For The Living
Reflections on my father's life and what I've learned the last few weeks
My dad died six weeks ago, unexpectedly.
When the name Maria popped up on my cell phone at 5:54 a.m., I knew life was about to change. My sister was going to tell me that we would soon be spending time in a hospital or a funeral home.
So before I touched my screen to hear what she had to say, I felt dread.
Maria and I share a wavelength. She knew to say it directly and economically.
“We lost Dad this morning.”
But with those five words, my dread took on new tones: pride, relief, even joy.
When your dad has long shared private premonitions about his death, your mind prepares. You are ready. Being ready gives you pride. Having a part to play and being prepared gives you joy.
Within that cluster of conflicted feelings, I felt responsible to Dad. So did my brother, Tim, and Maria, who worked together to plan the memorial service with his wishes in mind. I composed his obituary in the same spirit, trying to reflect his sense of his own life. I had helped him with writing projects before, and his thoughts about what was important — gleaned from many conversations — guided me.
We picked the casket he would have wanted, with a U.S. Navy insignia and a sparkling Navy blue finish — as a retired officer, he would be buried in his dress whites and have “Taps” played by a military bugler, with the Stars and Stripes folded graveside and presented to my mom on behalf of the president.
But my sense of responsibility to Dad felt finite. I had expressed my appreciation to him while he was alive. Had I left things unsaid? There was no time to dwell on that. I would do my best with this new opportunity to demonstrate my love and admiration. This immediate response would require an intense few days, but only a few days, with a defined set of duties I knew I could perform.
At the same time, my sense of responsibility toward others felt infinite, or at least open-ended. There were so many warm thoughts from so many people — text messages, Facebook messages, emails, voicemails, calls — coming at all hours. People close to him and my mom stopped by the house. My dad, in his 25 years as a college professor and nearly 30 years as a church elder, had affected so many lives. People needed to express their thoughts and feelings, and needed something from me in return.
Most importantly, my mom remained very much alive, the same cheerful soul she’s been every day of her life. But no matter how sturdy her disposition, I knew she would need everything we could muster.
So that week, a million thoughts ran through my head.
That includes five words that kept me moving forward, and reminded me about the roles I needed to play:
“Life is for the living.”
My dad lived a full life, yet didn’t always embrace living.
When he retired, he made plans — and abandoned them. He focused often on his health woes, and on his own death. As a Christian, he believed eternal life stretched out before him, and would bring joy, and that was a comforting thought. But he also believed that he should’ve made the most of his time on Earth, and he doubted that he had.
He told me life had passed him by. He felt deep regret over what he hadn’t done, and decisions he hadn’t made.
I told him gently that I took a different view of his life. I reminded him of his many good decisions, his myriad accomplishments, the ways he had shaped my life and the lives of others, and what he could still do.
Fortunately, rays of light came through for him, too.
In May, my dad sent me an essay called “If No Oak Ridge.” In it, he reflected upon a huge bit of luck in his life: When he was a teenager, his family had moved abruptly from rural Alabama to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where his dad would have a better job. Those key, formative years in the Atomic City, a hotbed of learning and innovation, sent my dad’s life on a new, more exciting trajectory.
The essay he sent me was my dad’s way of expressing appreciation for his own life, for all the living he had been able to do because of his dad’s decision. Late in life, inspired by those memories, Dad would frequently wear Oak Ridge High School garb he had recently bought. On days like that, he knew he had lived, and was living.
On the final weekend of his life, he looked after his beautiful backyard gardens, watched football and baseball, attended church, and spent time with the family cat. No doubt some dark thoughts came to mind, too. But he was living his life.
The site you’re reading was supposed to launch on Oct. 16, eight days before the NBA season. That felt poetic to me, as I had started as ESPN.com’s NBA editor on Oct. 25, 2004, eight days before the season. (That was suboptimal, but hey, that’s life.) And I was eager, as I had been preparing to get this site going for months. It would be my new job.
But my dad’s death on Oct. 9 changed everything. All of a sudden, I had a more pressing job.
I knew more than I ever that — as soon as possible — I had to throw myself into this work. Sailing off into the sunset was not an option. My dad’s later years had shown me the sunny horizon was fraught with rough seas. I would chart a different course.
My dad disliked basketball, much preferring football and baseball. That's OK. He was plenty proud of me. His collection of ESPN hats proved it.
That, too, brought me urgency. His pride in me while he lived was often my fuel. His death only reinforced the sense that my clock was ticking. It was time to throw myself into the kind of new endeavor that he often did, when he was at his best.
Getting the site off the ground while dealing with so many family matters hasn’t been simple. But life isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be lived.
Sixty years ago this week, on a sunny Friday afternoon, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas. The nation was shocked, and went into mourning. Two days later, the NFL played its full slate of games. For that decision, the league was condemned for decades.
The horrible events of 9/11 came just 11 days after I arrived at ESPN. On that sunny Tuesday morning, we watched on our office TVs, stunned, along with the rest of the world as a second plane crashed into the World Trade Center.
Of course, we still had jobs to do, which included posting the news at ESPN.com because all the sites based in New York had gone dark. But we were also aware that this would bring a halt to sports. And when it came to determining exactly what the sports leagues should do, the NFL’s 1963 decision was on everyone’s mind. This time, indeed, the NFL called off a week of games, as did Major League Baseball.
But that week, I talked to a friend who strongly disagreed with those decisions. His reasoning?
“Life is for the living.”
Was my friend wrong? At the very least, his suggestion that life continue as usual that week was impractical.
But I grasped his point. Understanding life’s urgency — its brevity — is a key to living well. So his words have stayed with me for 22 years and counting.
I’m writing this on Sunday, five days after undergoing surgery for the third time in my life — the result of injuries from basketball, cycling, and trail running.
Being forced by a surgeon’s incision to stay on a couch all week is not death, even for someone who makes it a point to be outside and moving as much as possible.
But it is purgatory. Your body is no longer you. It’s suddenly an alien being — a weight you carry, painfully, rather than a way to carry yourself joyfully through your day. You don’t want to move. You want to do something, but there’s little you can do.
As I carried on in my very circumscribed way last week, my wife and daughters went on living, as did everyone else. They headed in and out the door at will. I no longer felt part of their world, for the moment, and while I loved seeing them, their sympathy didn’t help. Their help didn’t help. It only enhanced my sense that my life was limited.
But gradually, things got a little better. And Saturday evening, I finally had the energy to get off the couch.
I walked out the front door, gingerly at first, then more confidently. As I’ve done hundreds of times, I strolled randomly through my busy city neighborhood. Nothing was different or remarkable. But everything felt different and remarkable.
Just moving forward felt good. Suddenly I was smiling at everyone, and no one in particular. Every song on my headphones resonated with new tones, deeper meaning. Every emotion from the most intense six weeks of my life seemed to surface at once. Tears welled up, went away, and rose again.
I felt like a survivor. I relished seeing all the other survivors. I was back among the living.
A few days ago, my mom and I reflected on her three losses — in a few weeks, her husband as well as two of her closest friends, a married couple, had passed away. She had been close to the three of them for almost 200 years, cumulatively, and spent countless hours with them. They were cornerstones of her life.
She talked about how much she missed them. She talked about how she cries each morning. She talked about how these three dear people were together now in the afterlife.
But she wasn’t ready to go.
She expressed her joy — to be here, in this moment, with us, the survivors.
Joy to be living.
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