Scarred for Life
My father was just shy of sixty-one when he died. I was twenty-seven at the time, and to my mind, that meant almost half of my life was gone. The lesson I took from my father’s death is that life is finite, and if there is something that is important to you, it’s best to pursue it as hard as you can right now, because you never know what the future might bring.
It’s remarkable how well I’ve been able to hold onto that life lesson. I have almost single-mindedly pursued, at times to a fault, the things that have been most important to me in my life. I’ve lived by the idea that when you find out you are dying, your bucket list should have nothing left on it because you’ve already done the things that matter most to you. People spend years, studying meditation, yoga, going to silent retreats, working hard to grab a transitory piece of the experience my father’s death gave me; the capacity to live in the present, to “be here now” (Dass, 1978).
Unfortunately, even the most transformative life experiences have a tendency to fade over time. Like most of us, I’ve grown more cautious as I’ve aged, become more focused on the bogey man of potential consequences, and more hesitant to strike out towards the unknown horizon of my dreams. In short, I have a gradually lost touch with the life-giving lesson I learned from my father’s death.
My father’ death was forty years ago, and this year I noticed a mole on my face that was growing and changing rapidly, as was the level of my concern. I went to the local health center where the doctor told me that my mole met all five of the criteria indicating a potential malignancy. I went into a panic. I assumed I had cancer and began to internally rehearse the end of my life. Would I be able to continue to work if I was in treatment for cancer? Would I want to? Would my wife be OK financially? How would I spend meaningful time with my children? If I knew life was finite, how did I want to spend the end of my life?
When I finally got to see the dermatologist, he examined me closely and then told me that he thought I had a non-malignant skin lesion. It took me a minute to process that he was telling me I probably didn’t have cancer! I wasn’t going to die, at least not from that.
The doctor recommended removing the mole during the same visit, and started to talk about the scar that would likely remain because the mole was quite substantial and very visible on my face. Without thinking, I told him that I would like him to leave at least a small scar. Puzzled, he asked me why I would want a scar on my face. I told him that I thought it would be very helpful to me if every morning when I woke up and looked in the mirror, I saw a visible, and difficult to avoid reminder of the lesson that my father taught me forty years ago: that my life is finite and that I had better spend this day doing the things that are most important to me. I expect that I will be “scarred for life,” meaning that I will have a scar on my cheek for the rest of my life. At the same time, I will be “scarred for life” meaning that my scar will remind me that I am alive and need to stay focused on living life to its fullest.
L’Chaim! (to life).