On death and the meaning of life

He looked like one of those wax figures at Madame Tussauds, where the cloned bone structure and lifelike features could fool you if not betrayed by a peculiar yellow skin tone. Aside from the slight puffs of air that escaped from his lips, my warm, witty, larger-than-life father-in-law was nothing more than a shell of a human being.

We held vigil at his bedside in hospice in the days leading to the end, watching him wither away, placing our hands on his chest, feeling every single one of his rib bones beneath the thin blanket. I held my husband's hands and his father's limp, lifeless fingers as we timed the pauses between his breaths. Waiting with eerie expectation for the moment he would finally slip away and leave behind the scarred, worn-out body that carried him for 70 years, a lifetime of memories spread over generations of family and friends, and a ghost of a future filled with grandchildren he'd never meet, family trips he'd miss, Thanksgivings and Christmases he wouldn't attend and a retirement spent traveling the world with the love of his life that he'd never enjoy.

We knew the end was coming for months, a steady decline with chemotherapy being the last bleak hope of an upswing that never came. My husband, an only child, left his job in January to go back and forth to North Carolina to be with his dad, knowing that their days together were numbered. Wes had a complicated relationship with his father, made more so as he watched his mother transform into a primary caregiver, shuttling his father to doctor's appointments, carrying him and his wheelchair and his anger, holding and feeding and rescuing and counseling her thankless charge, administering medication to her unwilling patient while losing part of herself in the process. My husband and his mother had watched helplessly for years as the rock of their family lost himself, his mind, his ability to walk, and finally, his will to live. It was messy, marked with daily battles and marred with regrets on all sides. The end was a mix of acute sadness at the loss of the man who once was, and a dull relief to surrender the human being who took his place.

How the value of a life is determined

My father-in-law, the man who once was, can only be described as a character, the kind of man who went through the trials and suffering required to have such strength of soul, clarity of vision, and inspired ambition. He was adored as a true original, a salt-of-the-earth pragmatist and a scrappy, self-made multimillionaire who built several businesses in Los Angeles using his Southern accent as an asset in negotiations with what he referred to as "slicks" (which we interpreted to mean "businessmen in expensive suits"). He used his quick wit, common sense, sound judgement and ability to outwork anyone, anywhere, at any time to his advantage. I could spend paragraphs describing his shrewd ventures and dogged determination to succeed, but in the end, all who knew him described the value of his life in terms of service: to the United States Navy, to his friends, family, employees and customers, and to the son he adopted and raised as his own. In the context of this service, his humility, sense of humor and unusual intelligence set him apart.

He taught me skills I'll use for life - like how to service a car engine and change a light fixture - but the biggest gift he gave me was his practical wisdom, shared in tidbits over the past seven years we’ve known each other.

I wish he'd have stuck around long enough to tell his future grandchildren that it's a gift to be underestimated, because your competitors will never see you coming; that there's no need to rush, because you've got the rest of your life to get where you're going; that becoming successful requires you to do things no one else will, because if it were easy everyone would be doing it. I wish he'd have stayed here a little longer so I could tell him how much he inspired me with his strong sense of self and conviction that everyone is a Jeff Gordon fan even if they don't know it yet; his utter disregard for popular opinion, his deep belief in the power of a dissenting voice, and his passive resistance against waste and abuse in government; his abhorrence of pretentiousness and associated love of Sutter Home Sweet Red; his dichotomous personality, including his penchant for wearing a $15,000 Rolex with Carhartt coveralls, work boots, women's reading glasses, and an ancient cell phone on a lanyard around his neck; his mental shortcuts that Wes and I will forever quote, including referring to all women whose names he could not recall as "Petunia" (as in, "I saw Petunia from the school board in line at the bank") and referring to all persons whose competence may be in question as "Nematodes" (as in, "Let me tell you what that Nematode married to Petunia from the school board did this time"); and his joyous, boisterous bouts of laughter and genuine love of all people (minus the aforementioned slicks and nematodes, of course).

What death tells us about how to live our lives

He passed away on Saturday, after a years-long struggle with an illness that not only ended his life but absorbed what they say is supposed to be the best years of it. Sitting next to his bed in his final days, it struck me how we exit the world in much the same way that we enter it, surrounded by friends and family in waiting, anticipating the brief presence of some higher being that both gives and takes away life, focused on the potential and value of the life in question. In death, we recognize our own mortality and it brings into sharp focus what we should be doing with each day we're given, making us conscious of the fact that we're not guaranteed another one. If there's any silver lining to an early death like that of my father-in-law, it's the salient reminder to those left behind on why we're all here. Whether you believe in God, or Universal Intelligence, or simply feel that there must be something beyond this life, we're all judged in the end not by our worldly accomplishments or what we may pride ourselves on, but by how we've touched and served others. 

Someone who my father-in-law deeply touched left a beautiful note on his obituary with a quote that I think says it best: 

"Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?" - Clarence the Angel, It's a Wonderful Life.

I think that awful hole is related to the meaning of life. It's a concept that I've been struggling to define for myself recently, after coming to the stark realization that I've allowed years of my time and attention to be absorbed without taking a step back to examine what it's all for, anyway. If evidenced by nothing other than reflections on my father-in-law's life with the people who knew and loved him, the key to a meaningful and fulfilling life is directly related to how you've channeled your talents and abilities to make the world a better place. There's a quote jotted in one of my journals, captured when I was first starting out in my post-college life. It found me today during a hunt through memory boxes for photos of my father-in-law, inviting itself to be added to this post for it's perfect articulation of the criteria for evaluating a life:

"To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty; To find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Although the last years of his life were blemished with the heartache, regret and grief that accompany a protracted decline, my father-in-law was a living expression of joy and kindness who left all those who came to him better and happier. (In particular, a 24-year-old girl who will never forget how she was wholeheartedly accepted by him the moment they met, despite her being the daughter of a slick Yankee Catholic lawyer and having a dubious appreciation for Nascar and Southern cuisine.) His legacy lives with those of us left behind, especially in his only son Wes, who has more of his father in him than he knows. My husband and I have our work cut out for us to honor the life of this man, to follow his footsteps in fostering, adopting and loving unconditionally a child in need of a family; to listen to his guidance and use it to build something of importance and significance; and to internalize his wisdom and teach our future children everything they will need to learn from the life of their imperfect, incredible Grandpa Walt. 

How to define the purpose of your life

My father-in-law's final lesson, shared through his death and the gaping hole he left, was the importance of living a purposeful life: to define what makes you unique and what you're naturally good at, to seek ways to use it to help others, and to strive to be the best version of yourself every day. Easier said than done, of course, as it wouldn't be a worthy venture otherwise. There's a little prayer that I say when I feel lost on that purpose, and thought you might find it to be a helpful reflection whether you believe in God, Universal Intelligence or something else bigger than ourselves:

"What would you have me do? Where would you have me go? Who would you have me be?" 

Somewhere deep down, you probably already know the answers to these questions. Because of my father-in-law's example, I'm convinced that figuring out those answers and finding the courage to act on them will lead us to live purposeful, fulfilling lives; to use whatever challenges life throws at us to develop strength of soul, clarity of vision and determined ambition; and to help us to be the best versions of our unique selves to serve the world in our own way.

To my father-in-law, who among everything noted above also made sure to tell me he loved me every chance he had; who started calling me "Annie Oakley" instead of "Darling" after teaching me to shoot targets fashioned out of rival Democrat campaign signs; who raised my incredible husband and gave him a sound work ethic, strong character and a side-splitting sense of humor (and bragged about him behind his back to keep him humble); who married and loved deeply an extraordinary, intelligent and virtuous woman who reciprocated his love until the end, quietly and nobly honoring her marriage vows as they relate to sickness and health, even when it seemed futile and impossibly strenuous to continue; who we'd hoped would grace us with his company, his laughter, his stories and his wisdom for the next 20 to 30 years of our lives: I forgive you for leaving so soon. I'm sorry I didn't call more often, visit more often, and sit through the races with you more often. I love you more than you will ever know. We will miss you forever.

If you've made it this far, thank you for reading and I hope you took something away from this post (even if only a newfound love of the name Petunia). I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.