October 10, 2014
That dreaded moment. That moment when someone of your generation dies. I can’t think of an event in my life that has struck me quite so profoundly as this one. He wasn’t a close friend, though was someone I respected tremendously and someone who admired me for some reason. He was quite a bit older than I am, but was the life partner of a close friend nearer to my age. I feared going to his funeral, not just because I was sad and am usually reduced to a heap of water at these things. But because it was the first send-off I’ve experienced of someone who was associated with people I associate with every day. So there I was in my car, on my way to honour his life, also thinking about how very short life is no matter how many years we’re here, and how foolish some of our daily or hourly worries are. A few of my own here…
“Will anyone come to my concert?”
“Why am I working harder than ever and making less money?”
“I don’t have time to walk the dogs tonight.”
“I’m too busy to cook supper or have a date night out with Joan.”
“What can I post on Facbeook next that will get a lot of ‘likes’?”
As I was driving to the gentleman’s funeral, I was feeling a bit empty and those sorts of worries seeming pointless. Not to mention that I was distracted by a hearse coming towards me. Another funeral procession. Great. What a joy this day is shaping up to be. Because all traffic headed in my direction ground to a halt out of respect for the soul in the back of that hearse, I had a brief moment of fearing I’d be late for the funeral I was headed to of the important Gentleman whose reputation as a cultural scholar was immeasurable. All of the important people were going to be there and I was about to traipse in late. But while I was physically stopped in my tracks by the funeral cortege coming towards me, I was also emotionally stopped in my tracks. Directly behind the hearse was a huge procession of the entire fleet of a local taxi company. Dozens of cabs with their flashers on, driving slowly, the drivers all looking sombre. Quite honestly, I got all choked up. I had no idea who died, but he or she was obviously important… very important… to a lot of people from another walk of life. These taxis weren’t hurtling through the city to get their customers to a destination on time. This was a very noble, respectful, powerful honour guard. When I was finally able to start moving along, I was thinking only about that total stranger and not the person I was going to honour. I wondered what he/she did to earn such enormous respect. How old was this person? Did he/she have a family? I wondered if this person ever gave me a lift to the airport or downtown and I just sat as a silent passenger without giving him/her the respect or attention that might have been deserved.
So anyway, I made it to the funeral I was attending. I ran up the hill, arrived just in the nick of time. And there it was… an honour guard of academics. All wearing their university robes. Dozens of them very slowly, sombrely making their way up the aisle behind the urn. Somehow, after seeing the cavalry of taxis a moment earlier, this honour guard seemed less moving. Less powerful. I don’t mean that disrespectfully at all. On the contrary. All I’m saying is that I sat through the service still thinking a lot about the deceased taxi driver and how his/her honour guard of taxis was every bit as meaningful and representative of one life well-lived as this honour guard of professors representing another’s life. Which one is more important? Neither. Which one accomplished more? Again, most likely, neither. They both clearly did things in their lives to command a huge amount of respect and attention. About 45 minutes later, the service was over and I overheard one of the honour guard say to another, “Let’s go across the street for a coffee. I’d love to catch up.” The sad farewell was over. Time keeps passing. The world keeps spinning. We pick up where we left off. Off to the next appointment.
Just a few days earlier, I was playing music at my church for a Sunday morning service. One of the members of the church band asked me if I know the chap who’s funeral I would be attending a few days later. I said I did and that I’d be going to the funeral. The band member paused and recounted his observation at the funeral of a local media mogul who also recently passed away at an old age after a long life as one of the most influential figures in the province’s media, culture and politics. The band member said, “You know… When his casket left the church, everyone just left and went back to their daily lives. No matter how rich he was, he was here. Now he’s gone. And that’s that.”
Well now that I have you all depressed, I should say here what I should have said at the start. I didn’t have one moment of depression through any of this. If anything, I was experiencing a bit of introspection I suppose. I’m slipping quietly and surely past middle age and simply taking stock of people and things. Those three passings impacted me in this way: I realized that it is absolutely pointless, worthless, a complete waste of emotional energy, to worry about the small stuff. It’s a sometimes tired, overused, old cliché, “Life is too short.” But, is it ever true. It’s not too short in that we all want to live to be 500 years old. I think it means that it’s way too short to get annoyed at the weather, worry about who likes us, or allow yourself to get mired in work you don’t enjoy anymore. There’s not a damn thing any human can do about the weather, so there’s no benefit to anyone in complaining about it. No one needs a thousand Facebook friends and it’s highly arguable if we need any. It’s a great life if we can get from start to finish with just one or two people who like us a lot.
Last month, shortly following that flurry of funeral experiences, I MC’d a wedding of two close friends and had the most fun I’ve had in front of an audience in my life, and there wasn’t even a piano in sight. I made a point of reminding everyone that no matter how messed up the world is these days, how lucky we are to be in a place where we can get together, have some laughs over a few drinks, party our faces off, debate, agree, and talk about anything we want without dodging bullets or being tossed in jail. I’m sure my two young newlywed friends are worried about job prospects, money, how the heck they’re going to afford this & that, etc. Joan and I went through it too. We still do sometimes. But the work they desire will come. So will the money, for whatever that means in the long run. Along the way, they’ll work with and get to know hundreds or thousands of people who’ll come and go, but there’ll be those few who’ll be there from now on.
Dad just directed me to a fabulous website of a retired friend of his who now dedicates his time simply reflecting on what’s important to all of us at the end of the day. Ken Connelly (www.kenconnelly.ca) focuses on “the necessity for everyone to reflect on the basics of life – how to live a decent and authentic life while struggling to survive financially with all the pressures of work, love, parenting and personal morality.” So, whether you’re a cab driver, an accomplished academic, a wealthy entrepreneur, or a young newlywed who fears what lies ahead, the only things that matter (in no particular order) are to be satisfied in your work, to have just a person or two around you over the long run who can be counted on to be with you for your journey whenever you need them, take care of your mind and body, be friendly, be loyal, be patient, be generous, and be comfortable without feeling the pressure to be extravagant. Think about the biggest moments in our lives for a second. When people gather to celebrate you, whether for a wedding, birth, graduation, birthday or end of life, no one is counting your money or measuring the square footage of your house to see if you’re worthy of praise. At least I hope not. Quality trumps quantity. Always.