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How My Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life
By Eugene O'Kelly
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. Copyright © 2008Eugene O'Kelly
All rights reserved.
Excerpt CHAPTER 1
I was blessed. I was told I had three months to live. You think that to put those two sentences back to back, I must be joking. Or crazy. Perhaps that I lived a miserable, unfulfilled life, and the sooner it was done, the better.
Hardly. I loved my life. Adored my family. Enjoyed my friends, the career I had, the big-hearted organizations I was part of, the golf I played. And I'm quite sane. And also quite serious: The verdict I received the last week of May 2005—that it was unlikely I'd make it to my daughter Gina's first day of eighth grade, the opening week of September—turned out to be a gift. Honestly.
Because I was forced to think seriously about my own death. Which meant I was forced to think more deeply about my life than I'd ever done. Unpleasant as it was, I forced myself to acknowledge that I was in the final stage of life, forced myself to decide how to spend my last 100 days (give or take a few weeks), forced myself to act on those decisions.
In short, I asked myself to answer two questions: Must the end of life be the worst part? And, Can it be made a constructive experience—even the best part of life?
No. Yes. That's how I would answer those questions, respectively. I was able to approach the end while still mentally lucid (usually) and physically fit (sort of), with my loved ones near.
As I said: a blessing.
Of course, almost no one thinks in detail about one's actual death. Until I had to I didn't—not really. We feel general and profound anxiety about it, but figuring out the nuts and bolts of how to make the best of one's last days, and then how to ensure that one follows the planned course of action for the benefit of oneself and one's loved ones, are not typical habits of the dying, and most certainly not of the healthy and hearty. Some people don't think about death because it comes suddenly and prematurely. Quite a few who die this way—in a car accident, say—had not yet even begun to think of themselves as mortal. My death, on the other hand, while somewhat premature (I was 53 at the time of the verdict) could not be called sudden (anyway, you couldn't call it that two weeks after the death sentence had sunk in), since I was informed quite explicitly that my final day on this Earth would happen during the 2005 calendar year.
Some people don't think about how to make the most of their last stage because, by the time their end has clearly come upon them, they are no longer in a position, mental or physical, to make of their final days what they might have. Relief of pain is their primary concern.
Not me. I would not suffer like that. Starting weeks before the diagnosis, when atypical (if largely unnoticed) things began happening to me, I had no pain, not an ounce. Later, I was told that the very end would be similarly free of pain. The shadows that had begun very slowly to darken my mind would lengthen, just as they do on the golf course in late afternoon, that magical time, my favorite time to be out there. The light would flatten. The hole—the object of my focus—would become gradually harder and harder to pick out. Eventually it would be difficult even to name. Brightness would fade. I would lapse into a coma. Night would fall. I would die.
Because of the factors surrounding my dying—my relative youth, my continued possession of mental facility and otherwise good physical health, my freedom from daily pain, and the proximity of loved ones, most of whom were themselves still in their prime—I took a different approach to my last 100 days, one that required that I keep my eyes as wide open as possible. Even with blurry vision.
Oh, yes ... there was one more factor, probably the primary one, that influenced the way I approached my demise: my brain. The way I thought. First as an accountant, then as an ambitious businessman, and finally as the CEO of a major American firm. My sensibilities about work and accomplishment, about consistency and continuity and commitment, were so ingrained in me from my professional life, and had served me so well in that life, that I couldn't imagine not applying them to my final task. Just as a successful executive is driven to be as strategic and prepared as possible to "win" at everything, so I was now driven to be as methodical as possible during my last hundred days. The skill set of a CEO (ability to see the big picture, to deal with a wide range of problems, to plan for contingencies, etc.) aided me in preparing for my death. (And—not to be over-looked—my final experience taught me some things that, had I known them earlier, would have made me a better CEO and person.) In approaching my last project so systematically, I hoped to make it a positive experience for those around me, as well as the best three months of my life.
I was a lucky guy.
* * *
Suppose I hadn't been given just 100 days. What might I have been doing?
Thinking about my next business trip, probably to Asia. Planning how to attract new business while managing the accounts we already had. Formulating initiatives for six months down the road, a year, five years. My executive calendar was always plotted out 12 to 18 months hence; it came with the job. My position demanded that I think constantly about the future. How to build on the firm's success. How to ensure the continued quality of what we provided. Yes, technically I lived in the present, but my eyes were forever focused on a more elusive, seemingly more important spot in time. (Before the diagnosis, my last thought every night before falling asleep usually concerned something that was to happen one month to six months later. After the diagnosis, my last thought before falling asleep was ... the next day.) In 2002, when I was elected chairman and chief executive officer of KPMG (U.S.), it was for a term of six years. But in 2006, if all went according to plan, I expected I might become chairman of the global organization, probably for a term of four years. In 2010? Retirement, probably.
I was not a man given to hypotheticals—too straight-ahead in my thinking for that—but just for a moment, suppose there had been no death sentence. Wouldn't it be nice still to be planning and building and leading and cage- rattling like I had been, for years to come? Yes and no. Yes, because of course I'd like to have been around for certain things. To see my daughter Gina graduate from high school and college and marry and have children and reinvent the future (in whatever order she ends up doing all that). To spend next Christmas Eve day, the day before my older daughter Marianne's birthday, in last-minute gift shopping with her, eating and talking and laughing the way we did every year on that day. To travel and play golf with my wife of 27 years, Corinne, the girl of my dreams, and to share with her the easeful retirement in Arizona we'd fantasized about and planned for so long. To see my firm, the one I'd been with since before I graduated from business school and had worked at for more than three decades, establish new standards for quality and success. To witness the Yankees win another World Series, or three. To attend the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. To see my grandchildren grow up.
But I also say no. No, because, thanks to my situation, I'd attained a new level of awareness, one I didn't possess the first 53 years of my life. It's just about impossible for me to imagine going back to that other way of thinking, when this new way has enriched me so. I lost something precious, but I also gained something precious.
One day not long ago, I sat atop the world. From this perch I had an overview that was relatively rare in American
Excerpted from CHASING DAYLIGHT by Eugene O'Kelly. Copyright © 2008 by Eugene O'Kelly. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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