A Road Map to a Life Well-Lived

March 12, 2010

It’s curious how we live life in denial, disregard, or even defiance of the one thing that is certain to occur to all. Death.

It’s been 12 weeks since I got the phone call I’d strangely never anticipated. My husband, Ted, bearer of seven stents and survivor of a previous heart attack, died on his way home from the health club while I was out of state. He had promised his friend John McDonald that, “barring a catastrophe,” he would join him for dinner.

With my daughter home alone, I needed a surrogate to be there when I broke the news to her by phone. Ann McDonald stepped in. She has been my steadfast companion ever since, helping me to navigate tasks that in ordinary times would be simple to accomplish, but in a grief-stricken, sleep-deprived state feel insurmountable: preparing meals, dealing with Social Security, submitting life insurance claims, changing vehicle titles, accessing on-line account passwords and more. We’ve spent hours talking about my children, my fears, regrets, memories, joy, and sadness. We wondered why people don’t plan better for the inevitable, leaving emotional decisions such as burial versus cremation or casket selection to the bereaved.

Yet, 76 days later, she was no more prepared than I to have her husband, John, with nary a warning sign, succumb to a heart attack mere inches from his treadmill.

What are we to make of this surreal situation? Together, we have six children between 16 and 28; young people who matured light years in the cessation of a heart beat, having lost the two gregarious men who weaved in and out of each other’s lives for more than two decades. Ted and John stood up for each other, first at John’s wedding, finally at Ted’s funeral. Beginning in the ’80s, they whetted their political appetites over martinis and meals in our dining rooms, often boring their wives but always entertaining themselves. They were friendly rivals at their respective law firms, both Irish men with big egos and the skills to back them up. Yet, they are gone.

In roughly the same period, two earthquakes rendered thousands of other women widows and children fatherless. News reports of those events are horrific to watch but, absent a personal connection, render one a voyeur of another’s grief.

Ted and Johnny’s deaths have caused a tsunami in relatively small Mendota Heights, where our daughters attend high school together, as well in the larger legal community in which they both practiced for decades, for many people had personal connections to our families. We expect some fatalities to occur, in combat or on the freeway. We do not anticipate that seemingly sound foundations — bridges or hearts — will fail and prevent our loved ones from returning home at night. When two men oft described as “larger than life” die in their 50s – before or after exercising — the impact sends shockwaves. Our faith is rattled. Questions plague us. Consequently, scores of women are turning to husbands who hold high-stress jobs, imploring them to get a physical, cut back at work, get their affairs in order. Our children’s peers are wondering if their dad will be next.

We are now proprietors of our own grief.

While Ann, our children and I are tethered forever by our tragic losses, we are also buoyed by the love and kindness of others who share our heartache and confusion about this sequence of events. Many can imagine our guys “working the room” together in paradise, kibitzing about politics, the Twins, or the Rolling Stones, elbowing each other to be the first to chat with Ronald Reagan. Yet those thoughts provide meager comfort from thoughts about the “big moments” that are on the horizon. It is incomprehensible that we will go through graduations and weddings and welcome grandchildren without our men.

As parents, it is difficult to know whether our kids pay attention to our lectures or take note of behaviors we try to model for them. The eulogies of Daniel, 25, and Will, 19, left no doubt that these sons had been listening, watching, and learning.

Daniel observed about Ted:

In a world where many are content to just be, my father wanted to BE everything. Whether he was part of the pit crew at an Indy car race or sailing in the Apostle Islands; bone fishing in the Keys or opening the door to the law practice he loved, he made it count and he did it with faith.

He shared three lessons he learned from his dad:

First, it is un-American to drive by a child’s lemonade stand and not buy a glass.

It was my dad’s belief that a strong work ethic, the stomach to take a chance and a little moxie could take a person a long way in life and that we should foster this atmosphere whenever we can.

Second, you can learn a lot about a man and how he will conduct his business with you by the way he treats his spouse. If this is the case, my dad was loving, incredibly generous, thoughtful, understanding, and lucky.

Lastly, always spend the money on a nice pair of shoes.

Dad, he concluded, today I am wearing a pair of yours. Black Cole Haan, size 11. They are too big for me right now, but I hope to grow into them.

Will said of John:

I learned more from my father in a single car ride to our favorite restaurant, Davanni’s, than I ever did from any textbook or classroom. He taught me how to walk and to talk, how to dance and to sing; how to laugh and to celebrate, how to cry and to grieve; how to think and to study, and how to embrace life’s gifts and tragedies. He taught me the value of a strong work ethic, and the rewards and respect from others that comes with having it. He taught me that life isn’t worth living if you can’t enjoy it. He taught me how to be a son, a brother, a husband and a father. He taught me how to cheer and to mourn, how to love and to NEVER hate. He was my ultimate teacher, and to put it simply, he taught me how to live.

We may never understand these or be prepared for future unexpected deaths. Yet Daniel and Will confirmed that, although we cannot spare them from heartache, we can provide our children with a roadmap to a life well lived. If we measure the success of one’s life, not by its length, but by its impact on others, the jury should not have to deliberate too long about Ted Sullivan and John McDonald.