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|Subject: Loss and Living on Your Terms||Date: 5/1/2001 10:28 PM|
|Author: 1HappyFool||Number: 37267 of 740113|
I've been planning to write this for a long time, but I've been postponing it for two reasons. Just thinking about it hurts. The pain is still too fresh even though it happened three years ago. The second reason is that while it has Financial Independence and Early Retirement significance for me, others might not see the link. It's deeper significance is one of living more of your life on your own terms.
Three years ago I had a typical day at work. I left for work at 7:30 AM. I endured my one hour commute into the DC suburb of Fairfax, I spent nine hours at work and I endured my one hour return commute to western Loudon County in Virginia. I arrived home after 6:30 PM and my life was soon changed forever.
When I came in the door, my wife was visibly upset and I knew she had bad news. I had no idea how bad it would be. My best friend Paul had died at the age of 41. My wife started to tell me when the funeral would be and how she would go with me if I wanted and my analytical brain immediately started to do it's logic thing. It rejected the idea of going to the funeral because the project load at work was too heavy and the logistics of getting a ticket on short notice was difficult and the airlines would probably charge a mint and the drive is too long and lonely for one person and if both of us went we would have to take the dog because we wouldn't have time to find a dog sitter and wait, wait, WAIT.
Paul was dead. I had known him since fifth grade. I was a groom's man at his first wedding. He was my Best Man at my wedding. I hadn't seen him in nine years. I hadn't even talked with him on the phone since he had called to tell me about his second marriage six years earlier. We had done nothing but exchange Christmas cards in those intervening years. I knew he had a young daughter from a photo included in a card. Something was terribly wrong. We had both let our careers and families and time and distance get between us and now we would never again have an opportunity to fix it. And it would have been so easy to fix it. Just a phone call once each year would have sufficed.
As I flew back to Detroit, it really hit me that Paul was the first significant peer that I had lost. We had already been friends for years when we made our first skydives together just before my seventeenth birthday. On that day we had both flown the finger at society's definition of sane behavior and proved that we both knew how to live life on our terms. If anybody would have told me that we would ever have six years in the future without even a phone call, I would have told them that it could never happen. You don't go through an experience like that with a good friend and not develop an incredibly powerful bond. We had other friends with us on that day, but my friendship with Paul was the strongest. How had we let an ordinary conventional life lead us astray?
When my parents had retired and moved away from the Detroit area, I had stopped making the regular visits to my old stomping grounds that would have given me the opportunity to hook up with Paul for dinner or a night at a bar. I never went there on business trips and he never came to DC. That explains why we hadn't seen each other for nine years. Distance is an obstacle that takes effort to overcome and I could forgive myself for not seeing him. Unfortunately I couldn't forgive myself for not at least calling him. I hoped Paul understood that my not calling wasn't something personal. I hoped that his not calling wasn't something personal.
I went to the funeral with three other friends from high school. We were disappointed that we were the only high school friends who had come, but we discovered later that our notification network worked even worse for funerals than it did for class reunions.
After the eulogy I passed through the viewing line. The man I saw in the casket was ravaged by time and radiation and chemotherapy and didn't look anything like the Paul I knew. Paul's kidneys had failed when he was in his late twenties. He received transplanted kidneys, but since he refused to take a kidney from a family member, he had to take strong anti-rejection drugs that eventually compromised his immune system and made him susceptible to a type of cancer that we all have and routinely overcome. When the cancer got bad enough, his doctors stopped the drugs to recruit his immune system to help fight it. When his body rejected the donated kidneys, they were removed and Paul went back on dialysis. When the cancer still wouldn't succumb and it became clear that all reasonable hope was lost, Paul made his peace with his family and then took an option that most cancer sufferers don't have. He refused dialysis and his life ended three painful days later when his blood became fatally toxic. He went out on his terms with the support of his immediate loved ones; sparing them further expense and several inevitable months of watching him waste away.
I said goodbye to his spiritless remains and then went over to offer my condolences to his family. I had known his parents and brothers for years and they were glad to see me. For the first time, I met his lovely wife Angelina and his beautiful four year old daughter, Melina. It was heartbreaking to see such young people suffering such a great loss. When I stepped awkwardly in front of Angelina to introduce myself, she recognized me immediately and told me she had seen my picture on Paul's desk for years and almost felt she knew me. She hugged me and told me how much it meant to her for me to be there. I sensed she wanted to say more, but somehow couldn't.
After the funeral, Angelina found us in the hallway and told me almost apologetically that Paul hadn't wanted his old friends to know he was dying. She gave me a small giftwrapped box and told me that Paul wanted me to have this gift to remember him by. This really tore me up. I had never heard of anybody doing this before. I found out later that only a very few people had received similar parting gifts from him. I opened it to find a practical multi-purpose stainless steel plier tool. Engraved on the side were the words "Love, Paul". Paul had found a way to say goodbye on his terms. It is one of my most treasured possessions.
We were invited to a nearby restaurant for a farewell banquet. Paul had wanted this instead of a traditional wake and had even selected the menu and the wine. Most of the people were Paul's friends from his work and his community groups, so the four of us found ourselves seated at a table that seemed to collect most of his friends from years back. I found myself reminiscing about his first wedding with his first mother-in-law. She had remained good friends with Paul despite her daughter's divorce from him. Seated next to her was one of Paul's former lovers. This woman was 32 when Paul was 22 and I remembered his stories about their vacation trip with her twelve year old daughter and how difficult it had been to sneak some quality time together. She had remained friends and investment partners with Paul ever since. It became clear that despite his illness, Paul had done a commendable job of living life on his terms and from the grave he called on me to do a better job with my life.
Angelina had asked at the funeral if Paul's friends would send stories of Paul's life to her so that Melina would have them when she was old enough to appreciate them. I relished the opportunity to do this for her. I wrote a long, long letter telling Melina not only what her father had done, but who and what he was and how he had touched my life. I hoped that in some small way she would be touched by Paul through my inadequate words.
So now I tell you all this in the hope that you will appreciate that through your association with me, your life has been touched by Paul. I doubt I would have found this forum if Paul's premature death had not made me examine my life through new eyes. You will convey a little bit of Paul to the people whose lives you touch from now on. Hopefully you will find it easier to live more of your life on your terms. This experience helped me to pull the plug on my career last year, but I did not wait for retirement before contacting other old friends. Unfortunately, I lost forever the opportunity to keep in touch with the most valued of my old friends. I'm comforted by the fact that Paul seems to have acknowledged that we both bore responsibility for the breakdown in communication. He also found a way to show me that it didn't diminish the importance of our friendship. We hadn't let the bond grow weaker. We had just missed the opportunity to make it richer.
If I have inspired you to renew old friendships with a phone call or a visit, then the pain of reliving this will have been insignificant in comparison. If I've given you the strength to take one more iota of control over your destiny, then I hope you will share that strength with others so that perhaps it will one day become routine for people to achieve a better balance in their lives without waiting for someone they love to die first. I'm not naive enough to think that my experience can spare you any pain from the inevitable losses you will face when loved ones die. I don't think I could have done anything that would have decreased the pain from Paul's death. I just know that I could have lived my life better while he was still alive and I hope that by sharing this with you I can wring some good from this missed opportunity.
1HappyFool -- who thanks RainbowRider for helping him find the strength
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