He was laying in that hospital bed for several days. Stubborn, cantankerous.
He’d had difficulty breathing when they admitted him, but this eighty year-old man was a fighter, and while he hadn’t been eating well for the past few weeks, his strength was contagious. His children, gathered in the room, listened to him tell off the nurses, the doctors, and just about everyone that entered the room.
He talked about how he wasn’t done living yet. He just bought a new house. He just celebrated his 80th birthday. He had a grandson he wanted to watch grow up. He was a vigorous “old dude” that didn’t give up easily.
His vitals looked good, and no one knew what was causing the trouble. All signs pointed to stress, maybe from making that move, or not getting enough rest.
After a couple of days in the hospital, test results came back.
“You’ve got a tumor the size of a baseball on your lung. It’s causing pressure on your stomach when you eat too much, which, is presumably why you’re not eating.” the doctor said.
“Cancer?” said the old man. “Well, I guess that’s it.”
Less than a day later, he was dead.
I sat in that room, from the time he made that statement, until the time they pronounced him dead. Watching the life slip out of him with ever second that ticked off the clock. Watching the last, most difficult breaths. Hearing the last words he’d ever say to me.
“I’m proud of you, kid.” I think I even saw a few tears running down his face, but my Dad wouldn’t admit to that. The only other time I ever saw him cry was when my grandmother died.
They asked me if I wanted to leave while they were completing the “clean up” work of pronouncing him and what not. I couldn’t bear to leave until I knew for sure he was dead.
“Not until you pronounce him. It may sound weird, but I want to see what you’re doing and know he’s really dead.”
The doctors and nurse looked at each other for a moment during a somewhat awkward pause. They could tell I wouldn’t budge.
So I sat and watched and listened. They looked at his body, and they looked at the clock. They checked all the places they’re supposed to check. His legs had stopped circulating blood the night before. I remembered the doctor commenting on how his legs were turning colors and how it wouldn’t be long.
That was why I stayed the night. I knew this was the last night I’d see my Dad in any semblance of a living form.
And then there were those words. Words I had waited decades to hear.
Why is it that guys can’t just say what’s on their mind? Why do they have to wait until they’re dying?
But I digress…
I’ve been thinking about how our perceptions and expectations determine the outcomes of our life.
Dad was born in 1919 – and fought in WWII. He served in Hawaii, while my Mom’s dad was serving in Italy. I was a child from his last marriage (he had four of them). His oldest daughter was older than my mom. Yeah. Dad got around.
As you can imagine, someone who has lived through war, poverty, and many presidents, can become a bit set in his ways. He saw the world a certain way, and if you challenged that view… well, you may as well have been telling Galileo that the earth was flat! He would have none of it.
And cancer? When he was growing up, it was a death sentence. If the chemo or radiation didn’t kill you first, that is.
So when the Doc came in with the diagnosis, his brave talk about fighting, and coming back to his “new pad” to finish moving in – just evaporated.
His perception was that Cancer was inoperable, incurable, and ultimately the end of everything. So he quit.
I tried to tell him that there were options, he was healthy in all other respects, and that the Dr. thought he could survive the operation.
But he wasn’t listening.
And in less than a day, we were calling family.
Dad didn’t die of lung cancer, or malnutrition as the death certificate claims. He died of a broken heart.
He didn’t have the will to fight anymore, and he just quit.
It was the first, last, and only time I ever saw my dad give up.
My dad was a tenacious man. This is a guy who never finished high school, yet was one of the smartest men I knew at the time. And I’m not just saying that because he was my dad. I remember walking out into the back yard one day, watching him cut apart a Chevy blazer. He was a mechanic in the war and parlayed that into a lifetime of car tinkering. He even worked as a mechanic after her retired. But Dad wasn’t working on a tricked-out sports car or a classic. No. Dad cut the back end off that Chevy Blazer and made a wrecker. Yep. A tow-truck. THAT was my dad’s idea of fun. We should have bought stock in Bondo.
He would spend hours cutting, torching, shaping, Bondo-ing, painting and loving that truck. When the gas station closed a few years later, he tried selling it, but I think it ended up at the scrap yard. Dad knew he’d get money out of it some kind of way, and he did.
So to watch a person choose to die… a person that was fully invested in living until he was diagnosed with what he thought was a death sentence? Well, that sucked. It felt wrong. Like it wasn’t really happening. That wasn’t my dad. My dad wasn’t a quitter.
That’s why I stayed in that room until I heard them make the pronouncement and wheel him out.
Giving Up Before It’s Too Late?
More often than you may realize, your perception determines the outcome. How many times have you experienced a situation with another person who walked away with a completely different assessment of the experience?
I remember when my oldest boy got all excited at horrible car wrecks, and in the front seat, I’m praying for the folks involved in the accident. He’s not focused on the pain of the situation. Instead he’s caught up in the look and feel of mangled metal and the sheer power of the impact when two cars collide. Of course, when you remind him that people are hurting, he turns introspective, and realizes that there are more important things in the world.
Often, I’ll remind my clients that focus is a funny thing. If you’re too close to something, you can’t see it in the proper perspective, and the edges may be blurry or completely out of your line of sight. Likewise, if you’re too far away, you can’t focus at all on that “pinpoint” in the distance, so how do you know what you’re really seeing?
To an ant, we are giants, and skyscrapers are a whole world to explore.
Where are you in that spectrum? Are you an ant, looking at a skyscraper? Or are you on the top of the skyscraper, trying to see an ant on the ground?
Either way your perceptions are going to mess with your outcomes.
Right-size Your Perceptions
Here are some tips to help you take action and get clarity on your current reality:
- Recognize you’re not God, nor can you predict the future.
- Get ruthlessly honest about your present situation.
- Question anything that looks hopeless (because it’s probably not)
- Question everything that looks like a sure thing (again, it’s probably not)
- Decide what the very next step is to resolve your situation.
- Take that step. Do not continue until you take that step.
- GOTO 1
Sometimes the step has to be infinitesimally small. It might not even be the step you WANT to take, or think you “should” be taking, but step you must. Don’t let pre-conceived notions, ingrained beliefs or other “stuff” block you. Unless you absolutely KNOW something, you don’t KNOW anything.
Oh, and even if it seems ridiculous to question it, question anyway.
If Dad had stopped to question whether or not cancer was truly a death sentence? Who knows what untold adventures we may have had with him in the intervening years.
What do you really have to lose? Only beliefs that may not be serving your well-being anyway.
What do you have to gain? Maybe a whole new way of experiencing your world.
What are your thoughts? When have your perceptions hindered (or helped) your momentum? What did you learn? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and help your fellow readers on their journey.