In late December, while, like many of you, I had some real anxiety over the ramifications of that fiscal cliff thing, I also was reading those end-of-the-year reviews that are a staple of newspapers during the run up to New Year’s. Of course, one of these reviews was the 2012 necrology, a review of those who passed away so copious that my hometown paper had to split it into two days.
And, in that necrology, a lot of the names were those who lived what most would consider a long life — folks like Ray Bradbury (91), who I’m firmly convinced all former and current English teachers love; Lima’s Phyllis Diller (95); and Joe Paterno (85), who sadly slipped into the next realm tainted by what many perceive as not doing enough to bring a predator to justice.
However, as I read the lists on the last Friday and Saturday of 2012, I also saw so many who left us so very early, folks like Gary Carter (57), who carried the sobriquet “The Kid” all the way through a losing battle with cancer; football’s Junior Seau (43), who obviously had hurts no one could see, hurts he shared with no one before he took his own life; and Whitney Houston (48), who sunk into a morass of dissipation and whose incredible voice left her long before she did.
The thing that struck me as I read the lists was that, with some of the names, I had actually forgotten they had even died, even though their final moments had happened just months before. I had what I’ll call the “Oh, yeah, that’s right!” moment, as in The Monkees’ Davy Jones? Oh, yeah, that’s right, and “Welcome back, Kotter” cast member Ron Palillo, AKA Arnold Horshack? Oh, yeah, that’s right.
The fact is, unless it affects us on a very personal level, death doesn’t really impact us much. As for me, until my 50th birthday, I thought very little about that universal element we all share, except when I couldn’t avoid it, such as when my father died in 1978 and my mother 10 years after that.
However, since that 50th birthday, I will admit not many days have gone by without some thoughts about my own demise. And, I will admit, especially on my own rainy days and Mondays, there are times I’ve shed a couple of tears thinking about dying and the uncertainty of what’s on the other side.
I know that sounds a bit unreligious, but I look at it this way: If a paragon of humanitarianism and compassion like Mother Teresa could have had doubts about her own faith and post-mortal existence, really, what chance do the rest of us have when it comes to such matters?
The older I get, the more I admire those who seem to have maintained optimism in the face of their impending ends. One that comes to mind is fitness guru Jack LaLanne, who finally succumbed at 96 in 2011. It was LaLanne who once quipped, “I can’t die. It would ruin my image.” To celebrate his 70th birthday, LaLanne towed 70 boats holding 70 people a mile and a half across Long Beach Harbor. It’s kind of hard to make time for depressing thoughts involving dying when you’ve got that going on.
And what about George Bush, the Elder, who in 2009 jumped out of a perfectly good airplane at 10,000-plus feet and parachuted down to celebrate turning 85?
Perhaps the person I admire the most because of what he was able to do when he knew he had mere months to live is Randy Pausch. I think of him during my frequent trips to Columbus, either to work or see my kids or both when I pass the billboard on Route 33 many of you have probably seen. The billboard shows Pausch and has the words, “Wrote a book on living while dying.”
Pausch, who died in 2008 at 47, was a charismatic college professor. When he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given six months to live, he refused to curl up in a ball. Instead, he continued lecturing, caring for his wife and three small children while transitioning them for the time they would have to go on without him, and writing the book to which the billboard alludes, “The Last Lecture.”
While the book was written primarily as a legacy for his wife and children, it has been published throughout the world and has touched millions with its message that the only way to survive and to achieve one’s childhood dreams is to live each day with purpose, passion and, especially, with joy.
And, that’s my challenge, especially on my rainy days and Mondays, and it is also yours: to embrace each day, to re-channel the negative energy of thoughts of death and also never, ever to forget, every single day … to laugh.