[Life Back West] June 2010: “Never Can Say Goodbye”

My 96-year old mother died last week after a 12-month bout with dementia, and a much briefer tussle with pneumonia.

While I had been fortunate to spend good time with her in Portland earlier this year while she mostly remembered who I was, I missed her passing by an hour Thursday. The flight that I had scrambled to move up a day from Friday due to a steep decline in her health the previous afternoon was landing at the PDX airport when she passed away peacefully in the presence of my sister and my younger niece.

One of the tasks I generally have executive coaching clients complete is to write a letter to their (fictional) grandkids. “Tell them about your life, and what you accomplished, or tried to accomplish during your time on earth” I instruct them. The power in that exercise is to see where you want to be, and then look back, enabling that vision to pull you  (like front wheel drive on a car) toward your aspirations.

It’s the same message – one of being mindful of gifts and choices – that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently delivered to this year’s graduates at his alma mater, Princeton University. Bezos proposed that you can be seduced by your gifts – the things that are given to you – and that choices can be hard. Bezos also suggests that people should think of the story they’d want to tell when they are 80 years old and reflecting back on life.   He adds, “In the end, we are all our choices. Build yourself a great story.”

Building yourself a great story is the meaning of “Your life is not a dress rehearsal,” one of those ubiquitous adages that all of us have heard. The phrase is the title of several books, it’s stamped on t-shirts, and it’s even the name of a blog or two. And though I have more than a passing hunch that there may be merit to the idea of reincarnation (credit Alan Watts: as an impressionable freshmen at my alma mater Willamette University I bumped into and spent the afternoon in a small group discussion he was leading), I also think that a smart bet is living your life the way you’d want to be remembered – whether you come back for another shot at life or not. It may not be “one and done” as in the Christian model, but savvy folks frequently leverage their bets by taking the best position(s) possible.

The fact of the matter is that we never really can say goodbye to our parents and past, biological or otherwise.  From my father, who passed away a few years, ago also at 96, I inherited some of his common touch, and a lot more of his goofiness. My mom passed along her sense of striving; she was a pilot when that was rare for women, and the first female bank manager in Oregon. She also passed along a sense of being overly responsible as well as a certain joy deficit; while reviewing pictures the weekend following her death my older niece reflexively noted that a picture of her was unusual – my mom was smiling. And even if it’s not your biology, as in the case of my son who was adopted at birth, humans are informed by their upbringing. My son has picked up any number of ways of doing and saying things that are carbon copies – both pleasing and sometimes painful to witness – of things I do.

What you can do, as I suggest to my coaching clients, is be present in the moment and make conscious choices about how you want to act – shorthand for how you want to behave. While the goal of the “letter to my grandkids” exercise is to set some lighthouse vision for your life, it also liberates you to stay in the present knowing you have something that will pull you to a desired future. After Harvard professor Richard Alpert dropped acid with Timothy Leary in the 1960’s and later dropped out to spend time in India, he returned to the States as Baba Ram Dass with a message for the masses contained in his best seller Remember Be Here Now. In part he could do that because he had a much better sense of that possible future – a future that had been informed by his experiences in India.

Part of Ram Dass’ belief is that you’re presented with lessons to learn, and you keep getting them until you get them right. While I’m not clear about that aspect of life, I do know that when you’re mindful in the present – the be here now part – you make better choices about actions that serve you well, and choices that are not so helpful. And as a confirmed behavioralist, I believe the work of good coach, executive, team or otherwise, is helping you identify those choices or options in the way you act, and getting you to a point where any new behaviors are actionable and part of your personal, well informed, routine repertoire.

I will miss my mom, just like I miss my dad.  There is peace in knowing my mom had a good long life, and she passed away without pain or agony. I also thank her for informing my life so that I could get to a point of understanding the importance of living in the present, and being mindful that we all are faced with any number of choices on a daily basis about who, how, and what we want to be.

That gift – the be here now part – is one I hope I give to myself and my family around me every day. And it’s why when all is said and one you never really can say goodbye.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.