If I Should Die Tomorrow; Let My Love Not Die on A Napkin.
Imagine what your life would be like if you said what was unsaid? If you took the actions you have been dreaming about tomorrow, today?
What kind of courage would it take from you? Would you be sharing in hopes of getting something in return, or would it be an unconditional gift; a raw expression of who you are in standing for someone else?
I’d like to share with you some lessons I learned from my father. Lessons about the courage to live, from confronting the death of that which we love the most.
My favorite guy to spend time with is my dad.
I am lucky in that sense. But you would understand if you met him, he is quick to laugh and doesn’t have a judgmental bone in his body. My dad is the kind of guy that if I said you were flying into town, his first question would be what time can I pick them up? Wouldn’t matter if it was 2am, or what your name is. He would be there. Thats the think about dad, he was always there.
My dad didn’t grow up with an easy life, at 16 he was spooning gasoline at a dude ranch in Wyoming and his friend spread a fire that caused third degree burns across his entire lower body, he spent 6 months in intensive care had skin grafts to reconstruct his legs, and was told he would never walk again. That was his definitive moment, but I never heard him complain or be a victim.
He overcame a great deal of adversity in his years. He was relentlessly teased in high school as a burn survivor on crutches, he served his country and confronted bouts of loneliness, he’s faced heart attacks most recently a battle with cancer, but I think the thing that affected him in the most was his own father never told him he loved him.
My dad told me the story once of his truth telling, where he took his dad out to lunch and told him all the things he loved and appreciated about him. He looked over the table and told his father, a stoic veteran himself, that he loved him with all his heart. The only way he knew it meant something was his father took the napkin from the table, folded it neatly, and put it in his pocket as a keepsake.
Perhaps because of it, my fathers commitment to me was to always know I was loved. The way he did that was by showing up and being there, by having my back. I remember him driving me home through the night from boy scouts because I was cold, showing up at my soccer games, and stuffing peanuts in our pants and a thermos of hot chocolate as we watched our hometown bears in sub zero temperatures. And I remember our travels. We didn’t live an extravagant life, but we lived a life rich in education and in travel.
In large part because of the values instilled in my by my father, I’ve devoted much of my life to building momentum for causes focused on social justice. I think that stems as well for the value my father instilled in me to always root for the underdog, growing up in the 90’s as a Chicago cubs and bears fan, there were plenty of opportunities.
For the better part of the last 6 years I spent my time building a music festival and movement to end extreme poverty called Global Citizen.
What few knew at the time that we were building Global Citizen, was that my dad was fighting cancer. While the vision was to build a global movement, my heart also yearned to create a legacy my father would be proud of, for him to see the gestation of what he taught me and know the sacrifices he made for my education were not in vein.
I short, I wanted him to be proud of his son.
One day, while I was working another 12 hour day in lead up to our 3rd festival, I learned that in addition to caner, my father had just been diagnosed with dementia and was in a fairly rapid state of cognitive decline.
Dementia, for those that do not know, is a terrible disease in that robs us of the things we value most; our memories, our mind, our families, and ultimately our lives. Upon hearing the diagnosis I was sent into a tail spin.
I said to my dad then, Dad I will take you anywhere in the World you want to go. Being humble, I knew he wouldn’t want me to make a fuss or spend my money so I said dad stamp your passport I am taking you on a trip. That thanksgiving, just prior to the great Nelson Mandela’s passing, I took my dad to South Africa. As a lover of nature and of history I knew he would love the country, and to say that it was the trip of my life would be an understatement.
We visited Robin Island and were enchanted by stories of the freedom struggle, we drove from the Indian to the Atlantic ocean to watch the sunset and share stories, and rode on elephants rescued from Zimbabwe under african skies. On that trip I made one of the hardest decisions of my life, to leave what I had put heart and soul in to help build, Global Citizen, and spend more of the limited precious time with my father and trying to stave off a disease that will lead to his death.
These times are sacred to me, because they were moments where we were fully expressed, even in the tough times confronted with the frailty of his experience, they were moments that were true, memories no one can take away.
On our return I gave my father Nelson Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” for Christmas. He spent then next year, as he lost much of his memory, relishing in the moments we shared and sharing the stories of our trip to any stranger that would listen. During that year he would huddle up in the basement, behind the desk where I use to watch him work as a kid, and he would read and reread that incredible story of the great Nelson Mandela.
The following year for Christmas, wrapped under the tree was the same book I had given him a year earlier… my father had spent the year with… A Long walk to Freedom, every page and every word highlighted from being read and re read so many times. Its as if he was holding on to those words, those memories, and that triumphant story of an exalted struggle to freedom.
There are many things we admired about the great Nelson Mandela, but I think what in many ways is so profound about his legacy was his ability to create new life for himself, and his nation, through forgiveness. To think of the resentment most would feel after 27 years of imprisonment and inhumane treatment, yet he know to experience true freedom once he left the cell he would have to leave the resentment behind.
The end of apartheid proceeded through a truth and reconciliation period, a saying of the unsaid, often the most painful truths enables rebirth and new possibility, in the case of South Africa a new Nation and beacon for what is possible in the world.
I believe that struggle for freedom through forgiveness resonated with my father. He had made peace himself through his own truth and reconciliation process with his father, and those who had trespassed against him. The degree to which that made him more quick to laugh, to connect with others, and to express himself as he truly is was palpable, and a beautiful site to behold.
The thing is my father’s words no longer make much sense. But his way of being is loud and clear. He is joyous, so grateful for everything, and so quick to laugh that people love him. Recently I took him on a hike, and while he would stop everyone to share a story they couldn’t understand, they would still leave with a smile on their face because of his liberated way of being, his smile. “84, 26, see you in the parking lot!” Its like you want to be on his team. Thats the thing about dad, he is in a perpetual state of almost childlike wonder, and his favorite things to say are ‘thank you’ and ‘great work.’
A few months back my dad forgot who I was for the first time. Several months before that he forgot my mother, his wife of 46 years, for the first time. The resilience required through these times is not insignificant, as the burden falls to the family, and my mother as his principal care giver. Every time I say good night, or say goodby I have to prepare for it to be my last.
For my mother, his partner, its a daily consideration. At times the stress is too much for her, and on one occasions recently she lashed out at me.
Instead of doing what I wanted to do in that moment, react…. I spent a weekend reflecting and then wrote her a letter.
I was flying to California, on a flight with a particularly generous amount of turbulence, and decided to say the unsaid, to write what I call a ‘if I should die tomorrow’ letter, and instead of speaking from a place of being right and mounting a case against her, I took the exact opposite approach and read the words she had always longed to hear, the things I saw in her, acknowledging the hardships, her dedication.
I acknowledged the women she is, the gift she has been to my life, and the sacrifices she continues to make today. We both balled our eyes out, and she said to me in tears, Michael… you will never know how much that meant to me.
I would venture to guess that we all have some of those conversations in our lives, the really hard ones that seemingly can’t be had.
I chose to see her, and speak with acknowledgement into the yearning for the words she had always longed to hear. What I discovered was that in saying the unsaid, I birthed an entirely new possibility in my relationship with my mother.
There is often a great burden when we live with truths unspoken or damaged relationships, which are unfortunately all too common and keep us from our full expression.
It is within all of our power to speak courageously to those most significant in our lives.
Stanford Medical School recently started a “What Matters Most” Letter project in 2015 based on startling findings that many people don’t have the hard conversations before dying. In collaboration with the American Medical Association they have forged templates with the central questions common to those need to consider when confronting the end of their life.
The most powerful possibility was forging a sense of closure with someone you care bout. No regrets, nothing left unsaid. It takes courage — but that is why we are alive right? Maybe the most important letter you ever write.
Ira Byock, one of the most formative Palliative care doctors in the world in reflection on dying says there are four things that matter most in communicating for closure: Thank You. I love you. Forgive me. I forgive you.
With these words we are able to forgive, appreciate, love, and celebrate one another, enabling us to live life more fully. We can experience a sense of wholeness even in the wake of family strife, personal tragedy, or divorce, or in the face of death. “It gives us language and guidance to honor and experience what really matters most in our lives every day.”
My dad taught me these lessons through his way of being.
Legacy of Freedom born from the courage to live life fully expressed.
In our digital age, there is something so powerful about a hand written letter, the deliberate nature of an intentional acknowledgement. We all have a mother and a father, some of us brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. Some may have passed, some are living. Regardless of whether we are close or estranged, weather we have weathered the wounds that only those closest to us can inflict, they have given us the greatest gift of all — life.
In confronting the unsaid, and speaking truth to those we spent the most time with.
My father did not receive what I am sure he had hoped for in sharing his heart with his own father, he never got the words of love he hoped for, but he gave it, and in so doing he was liberated in the process. He knew his father wouldn’t die without knowing exactly how he felt about him.
Imagine for a moment you were diagnosed with a terminal illness and were given a week to live, how would you spend that week? Who would you spend it with and what would you say? What ‘if I were to die tomorrow’ letters would you write?
As Harriet Beecher Stowe once said, “The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.”
Freedom looks different to all of us. For Nelson Mandela it proceeded through forgiveness, through truth and reconciliation process that birthed an entirely new possibility for a Nation and the World. For my father, it meant surrendering the legacy of stoic restraint, it meant showing up in a way that had never been modeled for him, it meant forgiveness, and it meant the courage to fully love.
Don’t let your stories, your unsung songs die in you; hearts are broken by words unspoken. The world needs your music, your people need to hear your song.
Imagine you had a week to live. I invite you to take a week (all of us can carve out a week) and give yourself the gift of this life as you want to live it, and to write a letter to those who need to hear your words most. If you are lucky, you will get a reprieve, and another week to live, where you can apply the insights garnered… and the freedom to stack your weeks towards a life more fully expressed.
Just make sure you go all the way, that you don’t let your love die on a napkin.