Monday, December 24, 2007

Witnessing a 'Last'

It’s Christmas Eve – the kids are tucked in and the presents are wrapped. As I sit next to the glowing fireplace, I reminisce about the years of Christmas photos taken in this very same spot. There was the scene over 10 years ago – my just-turned-three-year-old daughter trying desperately to keep her new baby brother in an upright position for the camera. Then, a couple of years later when she struggled again with her new baby sister. My favorite was the one where all three wore matching Rudolf outfits. And I can’t possibly forget the one where my four-year-old son didn’t want to have his picture taken and insisted on covering his eyes with his hand. So as I sit her tonight, part of me giggles as I think about the wonderful memories we’ve made in this spot. But the other part of me feels weepy in the knowledge that in four short years, my oldest will go off into the world, making a life of her own and will likely have her own Christmas picture in front of her own fireplace. All of these thoughts remind me of just how quickly my life is flying by and how very important it is to cherish ever second if it.

I was reminded of this fact again last week. My kids had begged me to take them to our neighborhood ice rink. “Ice skating,” I thought. “That sounds like fun!” But reality smacked me in the face as I remembered all of the shopping I still needed to do, all of the cookies I still needed to bake and all of the presents I still needed to wrap. So, my first instinct was to say, “No, I have too much to do.” “Too much to do.” Honestly, there’s always too much to do though, isn’t there? But what good is all of the “doing” if we don’t have time to do the things we want to do – the things that make us happy? I wanted to take my kids ice skating – it would make me happy. What exactly was the point of all of the shopping, baking and wrapping in the first place? We do these things for the sole purpose of making others, and ourselves, happy. Ice skating would make my kids and me happy, so why would I sacrifice this happiness now for happiness hopefully gained in the future from all of the shopping, baking and wrapping?

Holiday happiness was looking me in the face, asking me to take them ice skating, so I took them ice skating. And I was glad I did for I was reminded once again to enjoy and cherish every second of my life.

The kids had just been skating for about an hour when they noticed Santa arrive.

“Santa!” I heard them cry. “Let’s go see him!”

While I expected this enthusiastic response from my seven-year-old daughter, I was surprised to hear equaled excitement from my 10-year-old son.

The kids hurried off of the ice and up to where Santa sat, greeting children. When it was my son’s turn, he eagerly approached Santa and settled himself onto Santa’s knee. My mind was thrown back eight years ago as it remembered delighting in the sight of this same child sitting on Santa’s lap for the first time. I remembered feverishly snapping photos, wanting to capture every aspect of this ‘first’ for all eternity. The ‘firsts’ always seemed so very important – the first step, the first bite of real food, the first time without training wheels. But what about the ‘lasts’? The last time using a fat pencil, the last bath in a baby bathtub, the last ‘Mommy’. We don’t know to cherish the ‘lasts’ because as they are happening, we don’t yet know that they are a ‘last.’ But as I watched my son, my big 10-year-old son whose feet used to dangle playfully at the side of Santa’s legs but now rested comfortably on the floor, I realized that I was very well witnessing a ‘last’. My son was thoroughly immersed in the magic of Christmas and the thought of shopping, baking and wrapping almost caused me to miss it. Feeling as I had just been given the biggest gift of the season, I blocked out every sensory distraction except for the scene of my son with Santa. I watched, trying to etch every detail of the scene into my memory – the way my son nodded hesitantly when Santa asked him if he’d been good this year, the way he looked down at his shoes while reciting his wish list for fear of looking overly confident by looking directly into Santa’s eyes, the way the corners of his mouth turned up in a little smile when Santa patted him of the back and said that he was sure my son was a very good boy, and the look of gratitude my son gave as Santa handed him a candy cane and wished him a merry Christmas.

My son slowly stood up and while walking back to me, he glanced once over his shoulder and saw Santa, saw the magic, perhaps for the last time.

Warm pools of gratitude and love formed in the corners of my eyes. The shopping, baking and wrapping could wait. This was happiness. This was joy. This is what Christmas is all about. This is what life is all about – enjoying and cherishing every moment, valuing every moment for what it holds. Sometimes it’s a simple request to go ice skating that reminds me to experience the joy of today instead of planning for the joy of tomorrow. For the joy of today may never present itself again. Merry Christmas.

Sonya May
President, Choose Joy, Inc

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Know How Good You Have It - Even When Things Seem Hard!

I have an Electrical Engineering background and in the past did technical sales for a Silicon Valley-based software company. Every year the Sales organization got together in a different city for meetings and team-building activities. These events served to educate us on new products, taught us how to beat the competition, and reinvigorated our minds and attitudes as we strived for that all-important-goal of making revenue numbers. We left focused on business and I suspect most of us simply didn’t have – or make – the time to think much about all the joyful things in our lives.

In July 2000 our yearly meeting took place in San Diego, California, on the other side of the country from my home and family in Cary, North Carolina. After spending a week with hundreds of fellow employees working and playing hard I’m always anxious to get home, although it always seems to be an ordeal. This year was no different than others, with a plane breakking down, being bumped off a flight, missing connections, running - really! - through the airport, and ulmitely getting home 8 hours late at 3:00am.

But I was jazzed and savoring life as I pulled into my garage in the wee hours that morning! Why? THAT is the important part of the story...

On my flight from San Diego to St. Louis there were all these kids - probably in the 10 to 15 year old range - who had matching white shirts with something like "TWA San Diego Teen Trip 2000" silk-screened on them. Additionally there were lots of different personalized handwritten notes written all over each one's shirt - things like "Bonita, you're the best... it was a pleasure getting to know you... keep that smile going for all the world to see…." You get the idea. I immediately assumed it was some sort of youth conference, maybe associated with student government, or perhaps some sort of church-related activity, or even an event to expand the horizons of youth somehow related to TWA (after all, St. Louis is a big TWA hub and the shirts did have TWA on them). A few adults also wore the shirts and helped ensure the kids were all situated before take-off; naturally these would be the chaperons for the bunch I assumed.

They all appeared quite friendly. Some listened to their Walkmans, others read books or did word searches, and many simply held bubbly conversation among themselves. As far as I could tell, all carried some sort of beverage, and the standard seemed to be green Gatorade. For the first hour of flight I simply made these various observations. I was in an aisle seat and the traveler next to me was neither associated with the group (at least she didn't have on the requisite shirt), nor awake to do much talking. I worked on my laptop, read some of a book, and occasionally took in what was going on in the aircraft around me. During take-off one of the kids about five rows ahead of me had apparently gotten sick, so the stewardess had to bring some paper towels. At one point they asked Nurse Smith* (I can't remember what the real name was) to ring their call button. Somebody instantly did, the stewardess pointed back to the where the sick child was sitting, a guy got up wearing the matching white shirt, and came and swapped places with person next to the boy. Okay, good idea, I thought, they even made sure one of the parents / volunteers / chaperons had some medical training.

Then the captain came on the intercom and introduced himself as Captain so-and-so. But he didn't follow it with any of the usual "I'm assisted by First Officer Jones," or "our flight time to St. Louis will be 4 hours 18 minutes," or " during our flight today we'll be passing over the Grand Canyon..." He said something I will never forget: simply "We have some special people on-board with us today." I stopped what I was doing and paid keen attention. He added "And I'd like to read all their names: Adam, Bonita, David,..." He continued on and told me the first names of about 15 people flying with me on that plane - 15 children dressed in white shirts with take-on-the-world hopes penned on them.

I wasn’t sure where this was going, but it sounded like he was going to fill in some details about what this group was all about... I only remember a few key phrases of the rest of his dialog to us: "... spent the last few days enjoying the sites and activities in San Diego...," "... program which helps to fulfill wishes....," "... won't be in this world as long as the rest of us..."

Yep. Apparently these vibrant people I'd been observing were terminally ill children. I couldn't hear specific words, but I could tell those seated two rows in front of me on other side of the plane were excited, pointing out to each other how the pilot had mentioned their names and was talking about them. They spoke and laughed about a few more things and then put their headphones back on or immersed themselves in the printed words before them. I, on the other hand, sat there kind of transfixed, my eyes focusing on nothing... I didn't know what to think or do. I did want to be home then. I wanted to see and hug my family more fervently than ever. I felt those feelings as strongly as I ever had, yet I was more at peace than I'd been for years.

That was over seven years ago, yet I think about it often enough that it seems like yesterday. I don’t know what became of any of the kids I flew with that day; I wish now I’d made a point to talk to some of them and I hope and pray they are all doing well. It was an event that helped super-charge my focus on striving to constantly look for the joy in life. With the experience were two key messages: (1) One's attitudes and choices really define the way a person lives and (2) Sometimes we need an awakening slap in the face to remind us of the much worse things a lot of people go through.

Life is indeed good and to be savored. Choose to make yours joyful every day!

Bill May
ChooseJoy, Inc.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Live Like You Were Dying

As I sit here in my warm house, wearing my snuggliest PJs, typing this entry, a very dear friend of mine sits at home, waiting. She’s waiting to wake tomorrow – that is if she is able to sleep at all tonight – and drive to Duke Medical Center where she will undergo a full hysterectomy. As difficult as this night will be for her and as apprehensive as she is about having the surgery, she’s ready to get it over with. She’s ready to get every female piece removed from her body that could be plagued with the evil enemy of cancer. You see, last month, she found out that she has ‘the cancer gene’. Not that I know much about ‘the cancer gene’, but I know it doesn’t sound good! And from what my friend tells me, it’s definitely not a good thing! So after she fully recovers from tomorrow’s surgery, the doctors will perform a double mastectomy on my dear friend.

While my thoughts this evening are heavy with concern for my friend and hopes that the surgery will go well, my mind wanders and thinks about the many other women who have gone through the same experience, as well as the women who’ve actually not just had ‘the cancer gene’ but had ‘the cancer’. Some of them became survivors and some lost the fight. But one thing is certain for all of these women – when faced with their own mortality, each second they have on earth suddenly seemed more valuable.

I love that country song, “Live Like You Were Dying”. It’s all about a guy who finds out he’s dying and decides to live the rest of his days doing the things he wished he had done before. I especially like the line, “I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter and I gave forgiveness I’d been denying…”

But why is that we wait until we find out that we have cancer or some other potentially terminal illness to live the way we wish we had lived? Why do we wait until we find out that our days on this earth may be limited to love deeper, speak sweeter and give forgiveness? Why do we wait until we are given the news that we may not be around tomorrow to savor the beauty of each day…of each second? Why do we wait until we’re told that we’re dying to live like we’re dying?

Let me give you a little pearl of wisdom and save you the trip to the doctor – you do have a terminal disease…it’s called LIFE!

Each and every one of us is dying, and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it! The terminal disease of life is nothing that a hysterectomy or mastectomy will cure; nor will chemotherapy or radiation cure it. No, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to change the ultimate outcome. But there is something you can do - you can do something about the way you’re living today – you can live like you were dying. You can love deeper; you can speak sweeter and you can give forgiveness you’ve been denying. You can live each second like you choose to. You can live the way you will have wanted to live when you look back on your life many years from now. You can make the choice to live that way today!

Every day, every second, you have a choice about how you live – you have a choice about what you say, what you think and what you do. What are you choosing to do with each of your days, with each of your seconds? Are you living life like it will go on forever or are you living like you were dying? Go on, live it like you were dying, because you really are!

Sonya May
President, Choose Joy, Inc