I went to West Virginia to see my grandfather, because he told my mom that he wanted to see all of his children at the same time. I read between the lines, and drove down with her.
He’s been in and out of the hospital for transfusions in the past few months. He’s started canceling future appointments. And for the first time in his 88 years, he’s shuffling.
He freely tells people that he does not fear death. He sees it as something natural, and that he’s proud of the life he’s lived and what he’s accomplished.
Even so, it’s like seeing a great tree uprooted by a storm. Before you could marvel at how high it reached, or see the vast shadow it cast. Now you see gnarled roots sticking out above ground, unable to cling to the soil.
On the bad days, the days when he needs the medication he gets from the local pain clinic, he takes a 10 milligram tablet of Endocet. It’s a combination of acetaminophen and oxycodone. An opioid.
It makes him more talkative than usual. Cuts out the inhibitions.
There’s a thin barrier between the calm exterior and the years of frustrations and disappointments. It’s a wall so thin that a single tablet pokes a hole big enough to let all of those things burst out in a stream.
I heard about some of the more dramatic grievances he filed on behalf of his union when he was working, in minute detail. I heard about family members and friends who he thought had made bad choices, gone down the wrong path, and met an early end. And I heard a boisterous running critique of the current federal government, catalyzed by his daily MSNBC binge.
Side Note: if I was going to guess my grandfather’s D&D alignment, it would definitely be Lawful Good).
It’s not really possible to divert these monologues right after he’s taken his prescription, because of both the potency of the drug and his hearing loss.
So I sat. I witnessed this moment. I knew that I would rather have any additional time with him than have passed up on this trip, even if this was part of the bargain.
But listening to that open faucet of grievances got me thinking.
I know it’s not entirely possible to control for something like this, but I don’t want that to be how I make my way toward the end; full of regrets and disappointments bubbling up under the surface.
The things that we do in the here and now resonate for the rest of our lives. One best case scenario is that we live a long, healthy life, but even that comes to an end eventually. Even the best case scenario for a person’s life ends in decline and death.
And a long life comes with a long catalogue of memories. A history of choices and reactions.
I’m not foolish enough to make this into a call to throw off responsibilities or live selfishly; to isolate yourself and do exactly what you want to do all the time. Even people who live simply and only for themselves can still have regrets.
And one thing that resonated so clearly from listening to my grandfather was that so many of the things fueling his anger had to do with the people in his life who mattered the most to him. People free to make their own choices. Perceived mistakes that weren’t his own.
Now would be a good time to start making things right with yourself and the people around you.
You can’t prevent anyone from doing something hurtful to themselves or to you, but you can take the time to remind your people, the ones who are Your Phone Call, Your Late Night Text, Your Long-Winded Email of Despair and Desperation, that they matter to you. What they do matters to you.
Now’s the time to make lists.
Not about the things you wish you could do, but the things you can do today to start making those larger things happen. The things you can do right here, right now, so when it’s over you can tell yourself “I gave it my best,” or “I made use of my time.”
Now is a good time to care deeply and purposefully, because what you choose to care about now may very well be what comes out of your mouth twenty, forty, or sixty years from now.
What you fill yourself with now is what will come bursting out at the moment you can no longer control it.
Now’s the time to make sure that the things you store inside yourself are things you’re not going to mind saying later.
Austin Kleon gave a talk where he tells a story about Virginia Woolf’s husband, Leonard.
In the months before World War II, Virginia called to Leonard while he was in the garden to tell him that the radio was broadcasting another of Hitler’s speeches. Leonard, fed up with listening to Hitler called back:
“I shan’t come. I’m planting iris, and they will be flowering long after he is dead.”
There are many reasons I love that story, and have been re-telling it as often as possible when the situation calls for it. In this moment, it means something else to me.
I want to plant my iris. I want to do the good, lasting works that I will be able to look out on if I’m fortunate enough to reach 80 or 90 years. I want to cultivate a life that I can speak proudly of, even if I feel my tongue loosening under the pull of a prescribed opioid.
But if I want that, I know it means a change in attitude. A change in action. A commitment to efforts made to last instead of snap reactions. Playing the long game.
Or put another way:
Keep your thoughts positive, because your thoughts become your words.
Keep your words positive, because your words become your behavior.
Keep your behavior positive, because your behavior becomes your habits.
Keep your habits positive, because your habits become your values.
Keep your values positive, because your values become your destiny.
– Mahatma Gandhi
And this is hard. It’s hard to do when there’s a pull in the everyday toward outrage, schadenfreude, and simple distraction. Every day is a test of your convictions not only in how you do The Work that is truly important to you, but to how you relate to the people most important to you.
But it makes sense that carving a path toward the future based on acting kindly toward your future self, and the future selves of the people in your life, could be worth the effort.