The Beginning of the End

That’s how one pro football coach described the moment to his players right before game 9 of 16 this weekend. Hearing that, I thought it aptly described my present stage of life. Then again, life is fragile, so who knows, I could be a little or a lot closer to the End than I realize.

If it’s hard to figure out how to approach the End, it’s doubly hard when married because everyone thinks about the End a little, or a lot, differently. The Good Wife and I are thinking fairly differently about how to live at the beginning of the end. It would be a lot easier if she would start thinking more like me.

How to Grieve

I don’t know. It’s been almost four months since my mom died. And this week, another gut punch via telephone. This time it was news that my wife’s former campus pastor who through three decades of friendship became a second, spiritual father of sorts to her, had died.

We are especially fortunate to have a foundation of friendship at times like this. After listening to and empathizing with my wife, she asked how I was adjusting to my mom’s death.

I told her I’m failing miserably at striking any kind of balance because it seems like I can either regularly stop and think about the permanence of my loss and be overcome with sadness or succumb to avoidance by filling my day with activities that distract me from thinking about her passing almost entirely. There has to be a large middle ground, I just haven’t found it.

Meanwhile, last Wednesday night I was sitting alone at an outside table at Vic’s Pizza while my wife went to the bathroom and gathered silverware and napkins. A three year-old boy at the table right next to me sized me up and then pointed right at me and said to his mom, “Does he have a mommy?” “Don’t point,” she curtly replied. When my wife joined me a few minutes later, he said to his mom, “He does have a mommy.”

Carol Byrnes and JSwanson would’ve laughed heartily at that and I love the image of them laughing together even though they didn’t know each other.

Besides a lighthearted story, I have one grief-related insight to share. More accurately, I have one end-of-life-related insight from Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward: a Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. “Death,” Rohr writes, “is largely a threat to those who have not yet lived their life.”

Carol Byrnes and JSwanson lived full lives. May you and I do the same.

In Praise of Literary Tussles

The week that was. Ukraine v Russia. Israel v Palestine. Syria v the Islamic State group. Too many lives cut short, too many families torn asunder.

If only we could substitute bloodless literary tussles for the violent ones that dominate the headlines.

For that to happen, we need provocative essay writers willing to ruffle readers’ feathers. Enter Tom Junod of Esquire. I’m guessing he was caught off-guard by just how many feathers his essay “In Praise of 42 Year-Old Women” ruffled.

I really, really, really liked Julie Checkoway’s clever and perceptive response to Junod. Checkoway convincingly hypothesizes that Junod is struggling with his mortality.

She writes:

Men have a lot more trouble, I think, admitting their fear of aging and death than women do. In my experience, women are more openly verbal, at least, about our terror. Typically, men either joke about it or have affairs or splurge on a sports car (these are stereotypes, so fill in your own experience of men here). But they rarely write about the terror of aging honestly. . .

But men are just as terrified as women of aging and dying. . . . How could they not be? They’re human. It’s just that they talk about it in a different way than women do. They talk about it by talking about women’s . . . fading attractiveness. And most men’s magazines—-unlike most women’s magazines—-aren’t filled with articles that expressly address aging graciously, painfully, or at all.

Men’s magazines, like Esquire, are filled with articles like Junod’s, articles in which men talk about how it’s okay with them for women to age. Just a little. And then a little more. And then a little more. Men are writing about death and aging, but they’re just writing about it by writing about us.

Checkoway’s response to Junod is direct, caring, specific, and philosophically rich. And her analysis rings true.

Long Live the Memory of Erwin Byrnes

I am Don and Carol Byrnes’s son. Don’s, Karen’s, and David’s brother. Erwin Byrnes’s nephew.

Long live the memory of Erwin Byrnes, 1928-2014. Read his obituary here. And an article about how he planned his death here.

“It took a lot of nerve on his part,” Tom Byrnes said. “He was like, it’s 10 o’clock, let’s go.” “We just know this is the way we want to get treated,” Erwin said a few days before. “People may not agree with us, but that’s our choice, not anyone else’s choice. We have to be kind of the driver of our own bus.”

imgresAnd on writing women’s obituaries.

The Great Equalizer

As this recent New York Times article poignantly illustrates, Horace Mann was wrong, education is not the great equalizer of men. Or women.

As always at the end of the year, most major newspapers list the most newsworthy deaths of the calendar year. Some provide a few paragraphs about each person. The “newsworthy deaths” compilations are a nice reminder that death is the great equalizer. Of men and women. The rich and poor. Hawk and dove. Religious and secular. Well known and anonymous. Prepared and unprepared.

I imagine most people who read those “famous deaths” compilations think to themselves, “Wow, a lot of famous people died this year.” That’s the thing about death, it’s kind of consistent. A lot of famous people die every year. In the United States, in 2013, someone will be born every 8 seconds and die every 12 seconds.

Poor form I know, but I can’t help but wonder if the comrades—Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro—will feature prominently in next year’s “famous deaths” lists. And what about Mugabe, Bush Sr, and Mandela, all quite skilled at postponing the great equalizer. Will they make it to 2014?

More importantly, will you and I make it to 2014? Psychologist Russ Harris suggests a simple exercise for being more conscious of The Great Equalizer (as described in The Antidote: Happiness for those Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking). Imagine you are eighty years old—assuming you’re not eighty already, that is; if you are, you’ll have to pick an older age—and then complete the sentences “I wish I’d spent more time on. . . ” and “I wish I’d spent less time on. . .”

Whatever your age, that wonderfully simple exercise will improve your chances of reaching death having lived life as fully and as deeply as possible.

I hope this isn’t your year or my year, but just in case, let’s live it like it could be.

Thank you for making time to read my writing this year. Peace to you and yours.

Breakfast With Marvin

Mother Dear just moved into a very nice apartment building for seasoned citizens in Tampa, FL. My Betrothed and I are ensconced in a guest apartment on the third of five floors.

Mother Dear isn’t answering her door and the Gal Pal is on a walk. So I’m recovering from my “hot as Hades” morning run by watching the Olympics in the internet cafe. Next, I head to breakfast with the Tampa Tribune sports page. Dallas Clark, the Bucs new tight end, is healthier than expected.

I eventually glance up, and when I do, there’s a grey haired man staring blankly at me. I set the paper on the floor and chat up Marvin, a former technical writer from New York City. He’s happy to answer my questions, but doesn’t ask any. Come on Marv, work with me.

On one level, Marvin is living large. There’s about four or five women for every man in this joint and he’s more mobile than most. But on the other side of the ledger, his memory is failing him. That, in combination with being surrounded by elderly people, makes me think about getting older.

I ask Marvin how old he is and the wheel in his head spins wildly just like when I asked about his apartment number and what his daughter teaches. He was embarrassed he couldn’t remember either one. He also couldn’t recall his age, but he knew he was born in 1933. I told him he was 79 and that brought a smile of recognition. In hindsight, given all the eligible women he’s constantly surrounded by, I should have written his apartment number down for him.

The end of life isn’t really funny. The body breaks down. And the mind. The past, a source of strength for most people, inevitably blurs. Friends die. Loneliness looms. And there’s no promise of watching future Olympics or seeing grandchildren marry.

But with the support of family and friends, it doesn’t have to be overwhelmingly sad either. My sister has pressed pause on her own life and taken my mom under her wing for the last month. Spending day after day wading through her too many possessions, the move would have been impossible without her. My sister’s daughter, my niece, decided to attend the University of Tampa in part to provide Mother Dear moral and practical support. She’s partnering with my sister to smooth the move.

Sitting here, post-waffle, back in the internet cafe once again watching NBC commercials interspersed with athletic competition, I can’t help but think about my own future. How long will I live? How about my Betrothed? Will I lose my ability to walk unassisted? To drive? To live independently? Will I lose my memory? The answer to the last four questions is most likely yes. The passing of time is the great equalizer.

I don’t want to be a burden, but when the time comes that I can’t remember my age, will my daughters press pause on their lives long enough to help me pass into the final chapter of my life as peacefully as possible? More importantly, will I live this next week, month, and year to the fullest given the limits of time? Will I take risks, teach well, love deeply, live purposely?

A sunny, early August Tampa morning filled with many more questions than answers.

Beautiful, Powerful, Markedly Different End-of-Life Celebrations

The on-line description of Mount Rainier Ranger Margaret Anderson’s memorial service was moving. As was the on-line retelling of Southern California surf-tech pioneer Sean Collins‘s recent memorial service.

Pictures of Anderson’s memorial are here. And here are more from Collins’s service.

One regimented, formal, set in a university auditorium, steeped in tradition. The other, free-flowing, informal, set in the ocean.

Notably different, yet equally beautiful and powerful celebrations of life.