There comes a point in your life when you look mortality straight between the eyes and square off outside a saloon on a dirt road. Hands on the holster, feet firmly planted shoulder width apart, with a slight bend in the knees, you tilt your 10-gallon hat backwards, and with a drawl, you say: "Sooooo, how will you live your life, pardner? Now draw!"
Last December I was invited to a friend's Christmas lunch. After introductions were made to the six women in the room, conversation soon turned to the topic of death. A guest just arrived from a funeral and wanted to share the gravitas of the moment with us.
The clergy talked about the year of passing and how it is preceded by a dash and the year of our birth. It's a blank canvas upon which we plan our life and plot out our hopes and dreams. Therefore, how we live our dash will determine the content of our eulogy.
However, six months later I am still lost in my thoughts, thinking of the chat. Recently I attended a children's production of The Little Prince. In the puppet play, the Prince meets interesting characters in his pursuit to uncover the truth about life, true love and loyalty. So I begin to contemplate lives lived by others and how they may have said it best.
The Bucket List
How you live your dash may boil down to the bucket list, first coined in 1785. The film The Bucket List, starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, is a story about a billionaire and a car mechanic who are complete strangers until fate lands them in the same hospital room with terminal cancer. The men find they have more in common than they first thought. The two strangers leave the hospital and set out on the adventure of a lifetime before they die. The Freeman character believes: "You measure yourself by the people who measure themselves by you." How profound. So I continue in my quest for truth among the sages.
The Career Path
This month Canadian film producer Robert Lantos received the Governor-General's Performing Arts Award at a National Arts Centre gala in Ottawa for his Lifetime Achievement. In a recent story, Lantos ponders the things "that I have wanted to do with my life that I haven't done." At 67, he is thinking more about his mortality, but still hungry for the buzz of his film-making craft. But the yardage ahead must now seem like a shorter sprint to the finish line, than the road just travelled. Perhaps I am onto some kernel of truth, so I explore the movies.
From The Mouths of Babes
In the Academy-winning film, Birdman, Michael Keaton plays washed-up actor Riggan, whose better days are behind him. His daughter, Sam, played by actress Emma Stone, is a recovering drug addict who doodles her time away by penning dashes on strips of toilet paper. But in a heated father-daughter moment, Sam tears up two panels of the toilet roll and hands it to Riggan: "These dashes represent the six billion years the planet has existed. Each dash represents 100 years," she states emphatically. But Riggan now destroys the entire human race, plotted out on bum wipe, by wiping the mustard off his face with it! Riggan is indifferent. Sam is incensed. And I am confused by this film. But I carry on in my search to hear from real people.
On my Facebook news feed, I meet 101-year-old Leo Goodman, a Torontonian who is reflecting back on his life. Leo states the obvious: "I don't have a damn thing to worry about. It's done. It's over with!" Meaning, he's lived a life fulfilled and let's just enjoy the moment. But make no mistake; Leo is no slouch waiting for Father Time to stop ticking. When he watches TV or makes toast, he doesn't lollygag... he exercises by stretching against the wall or channeling David Carradine with his walking stick. What are his life lessons to pass down? "Be good to people. Be good to the children." Wise words from a century well lived; Kung Fu would be impressed.
The Last Wish
While watching the evening news, I come across the extraordinary story about a California couple who died in each other's arms on their 75th wedding anniversary... just as they always wanted. When the 95-year-old husband passed away, his loving wife said goodbye to the children and got into bed next to her beloved. She turned to the deceased and spoke: "See this is what you wanted. You died in my arms and I love you. I love you. And wait for me. I'll be there soon<." Twenty-four hours later, she dies, too. Maybe how you live your dash can be framed by the convergence of ambition and luck in the cross hairs of what life throws your way.
The Last Word
One day when visiting the grave site of my grandmother, I took careful notice of her surroundings; I was curious as to the eternal neighbourhood she was now living in. Nearby, one married couple who had been together until old age, were buried side-by-side. I take notice of the wife's headstone proclaiming: "I did it my way," with the husband's adjacent monument in agreement: "I did it her way, too!" It was the most inappropriate place for laughter, but the most insightful advice I found so far.
I then turned to that omnipotent place of knowledge, Google, and after months of thinking about this brief Yuletide conversation, I found a hauntingly beautiful poem that said it best.
How do I want to live my dash? With the same sense of curiosity, passion and focus that has always driven me towards the finish line of whatever I pursue.
So ask yourself: How do you want to live your life, gunslinger? Time is on your side... for now.
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