I met a guy a couple of years ago who at that point was an active, accomplished, and engaged man. Let’s call him “Greg.” He is still active and engaged and successful and driven, but things have changed a bit since we first met.
If you were to ask Greg, he might humbly tell you he would prefer to not be labeled with words like “accomplished,” words that some consider egotistical. While I have never run this by him, he might like it if I used the word “fertile” to describe him, as in a beautiful field from which good things grow. He would jokingly argue that the male reproductive prowess meaning of the word was more applicable, but that’s just him chest puffing for the ladies.
Greg got sick and is dying. Or, he got sick and keeps on living. You hear stories all the time of people who get the devastating diagnosis and change their life in order to squeeze into their remaining ___________ (fill in the blank with days, weeks, months, years) what they had not done over the previous ___________ (fill in the blank with years, decades, lifetime).
You also hear of folks who may not have lived the most ________ (ethical, moral, giving, compassionate) life. Realizing what matters after the doctor delivers the news, they seek and hopefully find God or gratitude or grace. They change their __________ (conniving, untoward, apathetic, selfish) ways in hope that years or decades of being so can be reversed in what little time is left.
From the stories I hear from him and others, the photos on the walls of his home, the casual mention of this childhood friend who is up visiting or that beautiful grandchild playing outside, the loving banter between he and his wife, and just how he carries himself today, Greg has long filled his days with incredible moments, as a good man. He is ethical, moral, giving and compassionate. Greg has positively impacted those around him in ways too many to count. I don’t think he knows how much he teaches us about doing good and doing right, because he is not a teacher. He is simply a witness and a doer, and we learn from him by listening to what he says, watching what he does, and, remarkably, feeling what he feels. This is possible only because there are no layers on his heart to refract its message.
When one struggles with failing health and is limited by a frayed body it can be difficult to keep a good perspective on life, to continue to bring and feel good cheer. I once spent eight straight months on my back unable to walk more than 100 feet due to a lumbar disc that was crunching spinal nerves. I was constrained, physically and spiritually. I learned empathy but did not laugh or love much. It was a daily battle to be fun or friendly. It was easier to be woeful and despondent. I wondered back then if I had built up more of a good-spirit reservoir from a life more purposefully and compassionately lived before I was hurt, could I have drawn on that during tough times to be more hopeful and nicer.
Greg is giving and lighthearted and kind—and full of life, even as his body is not, now. I believe that his spiritual vitality is intact and shines through because it has been this way his whole life, and his muscle, brain, and soul memory will never forget this. He has built reservoir of remarkably positive attributes that continues to overflow. He has taught me the importance of being generous and honorable, just to be that way, but to also be that way so that it is part of your core—your essence—and cannot be stripped away no matter how tough things get.
This is not to say that Greg is holier than thou. He’d be the first to admit he made some mistakes along the way and that he ain’t no Buddha or Mother Teresa or Dalai Lama (although rumor has it he dressed liked Buddha one Halloween). He once wondered aloud if his condition today is due to too hard living. But what he stands for makes this possible regret relative. We should all heed this: the distance from bad to good is far greater than the distance between good and great. If you perpetually live doing what is right—or very, very close to it— then lament from not always hitting that mark is mostly meaningless.
Being confined to a wheelchair with joints that ache all the time would make it tough—no, nearly impossible—to be lighthearted and to laugh. In addition to his honor and dignity, Greg has maintained his ability to find humor in every situation. I ask myself about myself “Why, with no aches and no diagnosis of dying, can’t I do this as well as he does it?” This question remains unanswered but, as Greg illustrates, maybe I should find something positive within my reach right now, and just enjoy the ________ (company, sunset, ice cold beer, moment).
I have learned so much from Greg in the last two years that I consider him to be a lifelong, good ol’ friend. I have learned from him that while our time here is limited, the impact we have on others and the world is not. Whenever I hear this Sleeping at Last song (and I play this song over and over these days) I realize that it is Greg they are singing about, and I get tears in my eyes. Not just because I am losing my new old friend, but because I am blessed to know him:
“You taught me the courage of stars before you left.
How life carries on endlessly, even after death.
With shortness of breath, you explained the infinite
How rare and beautiful it is to even exist.”
I hope to spend more time with Greg; a lot more time. I want to keep witnessing love personified and be a part of that.
Every once in a while I feel cheated because I have not been friends with him for decades, as countless people have been. But then I remember a conversation with him just yesterday and another a few days ago, in which he unknowingly shared a lifetime of wisdom. I live today knowing that I am and the world is better because of him. I honor his gift by modeling him, by endeavoring to always do what is right. His star helps light my life and always will. And, I am one of the fruits borne of his fertile field. I owe it to him to help make the world as he does: a place where good things happen and where doing right matters.
Thanks, Greg. I am excited to talk with you later today and tomorrow.