19 weeks into their pregnancy, Keri and Royce Young found out their daughter suffered from anencephaly. It’s a rare, prenatal disease, which prevents the child from developing a big portion of its brain, skull, and scalp.
The odds of survival are zero. Lives with anencephaly are counted in hours, days at most. After 48 hours of deliberating the impossible decision to lose a child or a pregnancy, they decided to go through with the pregnancy, so they could donate their daughter’s organs and save another human being.
“We decided to continue, and chose the name Eva for our girl, which means “giver of life.” The mission was simple: Get Eva to full-term, welcome her into this world to die, and let her give the gift of life to some other hurting family. It was a practical approach, with an objective for an already settled ending point.”
As pragmatic as it looks in a paragraph, think about how much respect this choice deserves. Such a noble decision, one most people could never bear. But decisions, good or bad, have no say in how time works.
“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” — Woody Allen
Right when Keri hit the two-week window for Eva’s birth, the baby’s brain functions gave out. After life had cheated them out of their initial plan, death cheated them out of the backup. No daughter, no hello, no organs to donate, no goodbye.
In a lucky turn of events, Eva’s eyes helped save someone else’s sight, but the story just goes to show: we can’t prepare for the unpreparable.
The Prison We All Share
In The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, one of Stephen R. Covey’s key tenets is “begin with the end in mind.” He suggests a thought experiment called ‘the funeral test,’ in which you imagine what four speakers would say at your burial. One is family, one a friend, one from work, and one from a community.
“What would you like each of these speakers to say about you and your life? What kind of husband, wife, father, or mother would you like their words to reflect? What kind of son or daughter or cousin? What kind of friend? What kind of working associate?
What character would you like them to have seen in you? What contributions, what achievements would you want them to remember? Look carefully at the people around you. What difference would you like to have made in their lives?”
These are all important questions. They’re great in helping us adjust how we behave today. What’s bad is that they inevitably trigger long-range planning and you can’t do that without estimating time. Even if we’re building our plans around the best intentions, they’re still built around a big construct of expectations.
In 2017, Scott Riddle was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. He’s a guy like you and me. A father, an employee, a husband, a friend. He is 35 years old. So far he’s recovering, but his plans? They’re all gone. Because no matter how smart it is to think about your own funeral, no one would put it just two, or five, or ten years into the future. That’s Scott’s big takeaway.
“Stop just assuming you have a full lifetime to do whatever it is you dream of doing.” — Scott Riddle
The only guaranteed path we take in life is one we cannot control; we’re all hurling towards death inside our little cages of time. And to add insult to injury, life makes sure to knock on the bars along the way.
In 2008, we lost my grandma to lung cancer. She was 66. In 2016, my uncle died in his sleep. He was 52. Knock. Knock. Everyone loses someone. They need not be people we know, but they’re always people we care about. Like Chester. Or Tim. Time is the prison we all share. No reminders needed, but we get them anyway. Lest we forget.
A Stubborn Illusion
We go through life imagining that when death comes, we’ll somehow be ready. We’ll lie in bed at 103 years old, surrounded by our loved ones, say our final goodbye and then fall asleep. That’s a beautiful vision, and I wish it for anyone, but it’s really dangerous to get attached to it. We’ll never be ready. We’ll never be done. When the time comes, nobody wants to go.
This isn’t to say all long-range planning is useless. There’s a balance. But mapping out your life until the end, including the end, is a futile fight against time. Maybe a better way is to think of life in cycles, like Seth Godin does when he describes it as a series of dips:
“There isn’t just one dip. It’s not like ‘let’s get through that dip and we’re done.’ Steve Jobs helped invent the personal computer, helped launch the graphical interface, helped launch the mp3 business, helped launch computer animation at Pixar. He’s not done. Just like skiing, the goal is not to get to the bottom of the hill, the goal is to have a bunch of good runs before the sun sets.”
In 1948, Albert Einstein was diagnosed with an aneurysm in his abdominal aorta. A ticking time bomb, impossible to defuse. He chose to hold it patiently. Seven years later, just after his 76th birthday, his friend Michele Besso passed away. Aware of his own time running out, he shared an insight in his condolence letter to Besso’s family:
“He has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubborn illusion.”
Einstein himself died a month later. In Einstein: His Life and Universe, biographer Walter Isaacson describes his last moments:
“At his bedside lay the draft of his undelivered speech for Israel Independence Day. “I speak to you today not as an American citizen and not as a Jew, but as a human being,” it began. Also by his bed were twelve pages of tightly written equations, littered with cross-outs and corrections.
To the very end, he struggled to find his elusive unified field theory. And the final thing he wrote, before he went to sleep for the last time, was one more line of symbols and numbers that he hoped might get him, and the rest of us, just a little step closer to the spirit manifest in the laws of the universe.”
What Einstein showed us, both in his words and behavior, is that there is no such thing as time. Just a giant current of the unknown that carries us into the wind. And all we can do is live our lives, whether we surrender to it or not.
Even if you’ve made your peace with it, death will be an interruption.
One day, you’ll be out skiing, working, reading, writing, skateboarding with the other kids and changing the world. The sun will set and you’ll realize “oh, I won’t be able to finish this today.” The question is can you go to bed and say “I’ll do it tomorrow?”
In the end, the Youngs learned a similar lesson:
“None of it went as we planned. We’re trying to rest on knowing we did the best we could. We always said we wanted to limit our regret, and I think in 20 years or so as we reflect on this, there’s not much we’d change. Because anything we would change was already outside of our control anyway.”
The only thing we can really do is accept not being ready. Accept being naked. Prepared to be unprepared. And maybe, just maybe, letting go won’t hurt so much.
“It’s a weird thing to say that in probably the worst experience of my life was also maybe the best moment of my life, but I think it was the best moment of my life. The timing of it all is just something I can’t explain. It wasn’t what we planned or hoped for, but it was everything we needed in that moment.”
No matter when it happens, I imagine a peaceful death will be just the same.