Mary Jo Hebert lives, writes, and misses her cousin Dave in Clifton Park, New York.
Reflections on a Life Well Lived
It’s not easy to be around people who are dying. We don’t like to be reminded that one day death will come for us, too. But sometimes there is something to be learned. Dave was dying and I had come to say goodbye.
A favorite among my litter of cousins, suntanned and windswept from long days spent outdoors, Dave was cowboy handsome with a stockbroker’s instinct for Wall Street and investments, the one to round us up for reunions, to remind us we were family and that family was important.
Married at 20 and a father at 22, Dave did what few young people do today – he got an early start. With his Army Reserve Unit activated, news of his daughter’s birth came not from the delivery room but the Red Cross who tracked him down in Vietnam.
Father of two daughters, he often lovingly referred to his six grandchildren as his greatest return on investment. Ask any financial advisor and they’ll tell you: it takes time for investments to mature.
Time is something we assume we always have plenty of. The promise of modern medicine encourages us to live as if we’ll live forever. With little sense of urgency, we often lack incentive to move forward. Follow your bliss, we advise our young people, but before they do they have to find it and that takes time – lots of it.
Rather than wait to find his, Dave followed his effort instead. Working on an automotive assembly line and serving in the Army Reserve, on nights and weekends he drove a dump truck and hauled gravel.
By his late 20’s he had scraped together enough savings to purchase several country acres and spent the next 30 years clearing the land, building roads, and creating a homestead surrounded by mountain views. At an age when the rest of us are refinancing our mortgage, he was burning his.
Many couples today postpone starting a family until they own a home. Not Dave. His daughters remember the early days of sheetrock walls and plywood floors as their father literally built their home around them. And taught the value of hard work in the process.
They are the same lessons he instilled in his grandchildren who worked alongside him during summer vacations. Paid according to their years of age, to the five year old earning five dollars for picking up stones or the ten year old clearing brush and earning ten, getting older meant not just more responsibility, but greater reward.
By making your life an example, Dave showed me, it will continue to influence others years after you are gone.
When Dave’s health began to fail, there was little left on his bucket list, no mad dash to make up for lost time. His imprint was already everywhere.
At the age of 65, by today’s standards, Dave would die a young man. But his was not a life shortchanged. Despite an early end, he still enjoyed the fullness of life and the best of old age: 45 years of marriage and an abundance of grandchildren. Looking back, it’s as if he lived his life with the end in mind.
Not all good lives are long lives, I learned. Good lives, it turns out, come in all lengths and widths. Despite our best efforts to exercise and eat well, much of living to 100 is beyond our control. When the goal becomes not length but width everyone is a contender. Fullness of life, days that are plump with meaning and intention, is something we can all aspire to.
Growing weaker, Dave summoned his daughters and grandchildren home and invited their parish priest to celebrate mass. At the sign of peace, Dave offered each his final blessing: peace be with you.
“Thank you for everything you gave us,” said his daughter. “And thank you for everything you didn’t.”
None of us knows what our departing words will be – we run to the store for a quart of milk and never return. And death will always be in the words of the poet “the great perhaps.”
In a bed overlooking the acres of cleared land that had been his life’s work, Dave lay peacefully under a blanket imprinted with an image of the grandchildren who had been the joy of his life. A full life. A good life. No perhaps about it.
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