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Endings and Beginnings

A man I’ve known for nearly 30 years had a heart attack last week and died, on the day before his 57th birthday. We were not always closely connected over the years, but we were both part of a village of people committed to a young adult in our lives who needs the support of caring grown-ups. Even though I hadn’t seen him in a year or more, we actually had a phone conversation a week or so ago about that young woman. “We love you,” I said to him as we ended the conversation. When I heard about his death a few days later, I thought of those words, and felt so glad that I’d said them.

I thought, too, of a million other things, as we do when someone dies, especially unexpectedly. I remembered the conversations he and I have had over the years and I thought about what a good man he was, and how many lives he touched. But I’ve also thought a lot about my own life, both in appreciation and in trepidation about how quickly things can change. It’s what we do—at least when we’re in our 60s and 70s—when we begin to yearn for more time, more precious moments, more conversations with people we enjoy, and more opportunities to tell someone how much we care about them.

If our legacy is that we saw or heard something in someone and helped them see it too, that is about as great as a life can be.

In the week since his passing, I’ve read many entries on my friend's Facebook page, wishing him a Happy Birthday and mostly thanking him for whatever thing he had done to make a life better. That’s the kind of man he was. Besides being a success in both vocation and avocation, he also seemed to connect with nearly everyone he met. He would tell amazing stories about the lives of the many people he knew, highlighting how heroic humans can be if they want to or need to. His tales were mostly focused on the wonders of someone's life, never on whatever he had done to help them, but it’s clear he did. In post after post, his friends expressed gratitude that he was always there for whomever needed something. As one person said, “Thank you for everything you have done for everyone.”

Anybody who knew him knew what this meant. He was one of those men who could quickly see what someone might need and then try to find a way to help them get it—always with the intention of building that person’s confidence and self-respect. He no doubt sacrificed a lot of his own time and energy to help someone reach the next step, but you could always see what living like that meant to him and to everyone he knew.

And then, the person is gone—like that—and we are all left with what we remember.

What I’m thinking about mostly right now is wanting not just to hold on to those memories, but to remind myself to live like he did in the ways that I can. If our legacy is that we saw or heard something in someone and helped them see it too, that is about as great as a life can be. And most of us have many opportunities to do that. Whether they’re people from work, our families, our neighborhoods, or our gym, everywhere there is someone who needs to be acknowledged and encouraged—or even just heard and seen.

I am also acutely aware this week, as I often am, of the ways I am racing through my life on my way to some unknown thing, missing hours and hours of whatever is right in front of me. Early this morning, when I raised the bedroom shade as it began to be light, I could see the deep yellow-orange of the rising sun through the leaves of the Chinese pistache tree across the street. “Look at that,” I whispered in my head. “Just look at that—don’t spend this moment worrying about the 10 a.m. meeting.” It was a break, and a relief, and a good reminder.

No one who has lived very long is under the misconception that we have time to throw away. The older I get, the more I wish I could swim in every moment of every day and slow it all down to a pace I could relish even longer. None of this will bring back my friend, and those who knew him will feel the pain of losing him for a long time. But I want to remember to live with his grace for as long as I can—to believe in people, to appreciate the light and the trees, and to tell stories always, so we will all know each other in some way, and appreciate the wonder as long as we can.

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