When I grow up, I want to be Malcolm Gladwell. I don’t know much about him, other than what I hear him say on his podcasts or what I read in his books. But he has a way of looking at things… a way that is not my default. A way that makes me see the world like a book with all the important information already highlighted.
In David and Goliath, he turns on its head the traditional notion of bigger being better. He talks about why David won his Biblical fight, despite size and lack of resources. He uses the whole book to examine many situations that people would avoid, and he shows the advantage of “disadvantages”. He reframes them.
I think of Gladwell as I continue to reread On Life After Death. There’s a part where Kubler-Ross writes, “If you can accept your life as something you were created for, then you will no longer question whose lives should be extended and whose should not.”
Instead of seeing Jeff’s life as something cut short, maybe I could see it as complete. If I choose to think that Jeff lived the life he was created for, then maybe I could reframe my thinking.
I think about Jeff all the time. He’s in my children’s faces and in their words. He’s in my heart and the pictures on my walls. His clothes are in my closet, and his social security card is filed right next to mine. Many times, when I think about Jeff, I push it away. It’s too painful. It’s still so raw.
But sometimes, I let myself go: I let the memory take me wherever it wants to. Many times, I think about Jeff driving in his car, with the music blaring. Maybe it’s Rage or Pearl Jam. Maybe it’s Airborne Toxic Event or Alkaline Trio. But he’s alone, and he’s driving with the windows down. And the thought of it kills me.
But I’m trying to reframe it.
What if, instead of that memory making me feel sad and robbed and out-of-control angry… what if it made me happy that Jeff was happy? What if I could be thankful that Jeff loved life deeply, and really did suck the marrow out of it for his 36 years? What if I could be happy for the time he had, and for the time I got to share with him? What if I could do that?
Years ago, I listened to a homily: the priest discussed forgiveness, but he said something from a song lyric that I will always remember, “Forgiveness is remembering without pain.”
I don’t have anyone to forgive, but I suppose I have life to forgive for handing Jeff this deck, and for handing it to me and my kids and our families. If I can remember without pain, that will be something. I can remember my grandma without pain. I know it’s possible. But part of me is masochistic and doesn’t want to remember Jeff without pain… if I have pain, at least it feels like I’m doing something. Maybe that pain is addictive.
But I could reframe it.
I could reframe a lot of things.
My typical gauge for a life well-lived is longevity. What if I reframed it? What if the gauge for a life well-lived is how well you loved others?
My gauge for making my kids happy was having a mom and a dad who loved them. What if I reframed it? What if the gauge for happy kids is helping them shape adversity?
My gauge for self-worth was tied to my husband. What if I reframed it? What if that part of my self isn’t dead because Jeff is… what if it lives on in how I emulate Jeff in my choices?
It’s been one of those things: Now that I’ve started thinking about how to reframe things, I see it everywhere. In The Road to Character, David Brooks narrates a chapter on George Marshall, creator of The Marshall Plan. The theme of his chapter is self-mastery, but there’s a section on institutions.
“People who possess an institutional mindset, as Marshall did, have a very different mentality, which begins with a different historical consciousness. In this mindset, the primary reality is society, which is a collection of institutions that have existed over time and transcend generations. A person is not born into an open field and a blank social slate. A person is born into a collection of permanent institutions, including the army, the priesthood, the fields of science, or any of the professions, like being a farmer, a builder, a cop, or a professor,” says Brooks.
And then he goes on to challenge the very American mindset of doing whatever makes you happy. He writes, “Life is not like navigating through an open field. It is committing oneself to a few of the institutions that were embedded on the ground before you were born and will be here after you die. It is accepting the gifts of the dead, taking on the responsibility of preserving and improving an institution and then transmitting that institution, better, on to the next generation… Each institution comes with certain rules, obligations, and standards of excellence. In the process of subordinating ourselves to the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are. The customs of the institution structure the soul, making it easier to be good. They guide behavior gently along certain time-tested lines. By practicing the customs of an institution, we are not alone; we are admitted into a community that transcends time.”
When I think about my old life – the life before Jeff was diagnosed – I realize I did some things right. I answered the call to be a teacher. That, I truly believe, is my calling: to serve. It’s not something I thought I wanted for myself. But subordinating myself to the institution of educating the public has given me more gifts than I can reciprocate.
But in that old life, I also got a lot of things wrong. And those mindsets are still my default. Money gives you options, but it can’t give you happiness. Success might help you influence others, but it can also be used to influence for self-interest. I am trying like hell to reframe my thinking. That will be a life-long endeavor. I aspire to be like Jeff: he was very content with a lot of things. He wasn’t pretentious, and he prudently managed money, esteem, and ambition.
This Thursday would have been our 10th wedding anniversary. Jeff and I were going to take a vacation to the Florida Keys. We would’ve rented a convertible and chosen some less-than-popular Keys to visit. Jeff still planned it while he was sick. He was sure we could go.
I could choose to cry about all of the years Jeff and I won’t have together. I’m sure I will. And then I could reframe it. I could choose to remember the nine awesome years we did have. I could choose to be thankful that my grief is so uncomplicated, because I have zero guilt or remorse about our marriage. I believe we were both in it 100 percent. I told him I loved him, and he did the same. Cancer didn’t change much about how we showed our affection.
Next week would’ve been Jeff’s 37th birthday. I could choose to be pissed that he’s not here for it. Or, I could reframe it. Our family is having a tailgate at his grave. We’ll have snacks and food, and however irreverent that is at a cemetery, we’re doing it. Because we need to remember Jeff more for ourselves than for him. Jeff is fine, wherever he is (and he never feels far). We are the ones who have to make meaning of his death. And if that means that our kids go to the cemetery and roll down the hill; if that means that we drink a few beers at his grave and eat birthday cake, then that’s what we’re gonna do.
When I think about our kids, my rage often surprises me: Jeff should be here; he should hear when Jake asks about him, and when Kate says, “I miss Daddy.”
I could reframe that, too.
Today, I found something in my files as I was looking for something else: a handout from the American Cancer Society titled “Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer”. It’s part of a nondescript, black-and-white, stapled packet that a social worker handed me. And the first paragraph – I know now – is so true. And thank God it is.
“Patients with terminal cancer often worry that this experience will destroy their children’s ability to enjoy life in the future. Health care experts who have worked with many families dealing with cancer say that this is rarely the case. In fact, children can and do go on to live normal lives even with the impact of a parent’s illness and the loss they go through when a parent dies. This may be hard to believe, but most children, with the help of family and others, learn to be happy again and enjoy their lives. It may give you strength to know that you can affect how your children feel about your illness and how well they are able to move beyond it in the months to come.”
Turns out you don’t have to be alive to be a parent. You can influence your children even when you’re dying, and after you’re gone.
It seems that things aren’t always what they seem.
I’ve heard people say – and I think I’ve said myself – that if you don’t have your health, you have nothing.
Reframed, it’s this: if you haven’t accepted that you’re going to die, you have nothing.
Because man, when I think about that I will actually die – and life will go on without me, I am not beholden to things that used to seem important. In my best moments, when I can accept that Truth as much as I’m able, I am not afraid — I am free.