The Story of a Life

This morning’s commute to work took me over two hours — four for others. The cause was a hit-and-run on a major highway where two innocent motorists were killed. A road block was set up to enable investigators and police to do their work. Detours and alternate routes were bumper-to-bumper. The situation got me thinking…

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I first became aware of death when I was about five years old.

It was hot outside. It was July of 1966. My mother and aunts took me with them to downtown Boston; shopping at Filene’s Basement and Jordan Marsh. Suddenly, the fun day changed. Something had happened. We quickly hopped into a car and rushed to my grandparents’ house in Milton.

As we entered the house, I could hear wailing. It was coming from my great-grandmother who was slumped over on the couch. A lot of other relatives were there too; talking in hushed tones, looking upset, and even crying. I learned that my first-cousin-once-removed, a boy who was my age, had died. I felt bewildered and confused because no one told me how or why. In retrospect, I guess it didn’t matter. He was gone and officially became the first person I ever knew who had died.

That was all a very long time ago. At this point in my life, however, I’ve known many people who have passed away. Some were young; some old. Some died of illness; others by accident. Some took their own lives; others were killed. And, despite the age or means of death, the sense of loss and the finality of it are never easy to accept. For some reason, we never are really ready or prepared to say goodbye to a loved one; yet we must go on with our lives and remember that lessons (whether good or bad) that she or he left behind…everyone can leave some type of legacy.

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I often think about the people I’ve known who have passed away. How would they have summed up their lives? What would they say or do — what gift would they give us — if they could come back and live one more day?

Dr. Randy Pausch, a Carnegie Mellon University professor, died of pancreatic cancer in 2008 at the age of forty-seven. He knew he was dying and wanted to leave some messages behind. In a book that he wrote for his children, The Last Lecture, he summed it all up by stating: “It’s not about how to achieve your dreams, it’s about how to lead your life. If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself, the dreams will come to you.”

Although I do not yet know how I will die, Randy – in part – inspired me to start writing this blog as a means to share my own values and ideals with a generation who may never get to know me in person. In addition, his words (along with those of my brother-the-rabbi) motivate me to focus on making the most of each and every day I have on this earth.

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I confess that I’ve taken to reading obituaries. A recent, very lengthy one announced the life and passing of a ninety-nine year old woman, Molly Blank (z”l); mother of successful, well-known businessman, philanthropist, and owner of the Atlanta Falcons, Arthur Blank. It was clear that this independent, driven, energetic, smart, and engaged lady made a huge impact on her sons and those around her. “I’m convinced my father’s [early] death was a huge turning point for my mother,” son Arthur said. “From that point forward, Mother seemed to turn her energy toward ensuring that no day would be wasted. She became even more focused on taking charge of her goals and seeing them through.”

The ways in which Randy and Molly lived their lives offer many good and different lessons from which to learn. Life is not about how much time we live. It’s about how much we do with the time we live.

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