Over the last few years, as part of my job, I’ve led groups of 5 or 6 employees at a time through The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. I pass out books to everyone at the beginning and assign reading. Then we meet weekly and discuss each habit. (I am well aware that many most of them don’t actually read the book. Being an avid reader, I don’t understand that, but I can accept it. I make sure to explain enough that they have a basic understanding, and we discuss it anyway.)
Habit 2 is “Begin with the end in mind,” which is one of my favorite habits to discuss. In the book, Covey introduces the habit by challenging readers to picture showing up at their own funeral someday and imagine what they would like people to say about them. The purpose is to help people clarify what is truly important to them and use those as guiding principles for decision making, both on a daily basis and long-term.
Last November, when I started describing this exercise, I looked across the table and had to pause. In that group was Larry, who had been first diagnosed with cancer 7 years prior and had been actively battling cancer for nearly 3 years. This was not a hypothetical, many years down the road consideration. This was something that was actively on his mind.
Before that group started, Larry had joked with me that he would read the book if it was about fishing. I found a vintage Field & Stream cover photo online, printed it out and pasted it on the front. When I gave it to him, I told him that I had an extra special copy of the book just for him. The first time we met as a group, he looked at me in all seriousness and said, “You know, Mary, you can’t judge a book by its cover. This book doesn’t talk about fishing at all.”
He participated in the discussions each week, sharing stories about his wife, his sons, and his grandkids. He talked about the things that were important to him – doing his job well, his wife, his sons, his grandkids, restoring antique tractors, hunting and fishing. He played jokes on the others in our group.
A few weeks ago, Mike and I visited him in the hospital. We talked and laughed about tricks he used to play on his co-workers. He talked about how much he loved his job and he wanted to come back to work. He again talked about the things that were important to him – working hard and his family. He looked at me and said, “Mary, that book wasn’t about fishing, but I read it anyway. I thought it was pretty good.”
Yesterday, Mike and I attended his funeral.
Larry had asked his long-time friend and hunting buddy Gary to share some words that he wanted to make sure his wife, kids, and grandkids heard when he was no longer to say them himself. They were lovely words of gratitude and encouragement.
Gary also shared a few words of his own about their times together and the things that made Larry the kind of guy who will be terribly missed for many years to come. Gary said that he looked long and hard to come up with the perfect saying or poem or story to sum up Larry’s life. He came across the perfect one, which was perfect for two reasons. First was that it described Larry so well, and second was that it was short and sweet, which Larry would have liked.
“Don’t count the days, make the days count.” -Muhammad Ali
That’s what Larry did. Only 5 weeks ago, Larry was still debating whether or not he was going to retire at the end of this month when he was to turn 62. He worked until 4 weeks before his death. He only took off work for appointments and treatments as necessary. (He saved a few vacation days for fishing trips and tractor shows. He definitely wasn’t “all work and no play.”) He told me that he tried going to a cancer support group a few times, but he quit going because he felt like everyone wanted to talk about dying, but he was still alive so that’s what he was going to do. That’s what he did. He lived his life.
I could tell a dozen stories about how great a guy Larry was. I heard stories about him long before I met him because he and my brother Zach shared a love for tractors. Zach loved talking tractors with Larry, and I think Larry equally enjoyed talking tractors with Zach. My brother has some special needs, and I notice when people take the time to take an interest in him. Larry was one of those guys. At work, there are tales galore, all completely true, about him playing jokes on people – sending new employees on a hunt for a pallet stretcher, telling people they could make extra money by picking marshmallows off the marshmallow trees, convincing them that spray paint was boot waterproofing spray. He knew a lot about hydraulics and machines, and he would gladly share his knowledge. The one time I saw him truly be angry was when he felt like someone had disrespected one of his boys. His friend Gary said that he was one of those guys that leaves an impression on people, and I agree.
I think, though, that more than remembering him for a great guy, he would rather have people live the way he lived.
Figure out what’s important. Figure out what matters to you. And then just do it. Don’t wait for something better to come along. Don’t wait for the perfect situation. Don’t sit around worrying about the next bad thing to come. Just live. Live your life while you still have one.