On July 12, I attended the Silicon Valley Junto meeting on “dying well.” It was a particularly moving meeting, with attendees sharing incredibly personal experiences. Check out the meeting page to read some of what was shared.
At the time, I argued against the romanticization of death and dying. Death, I told the attendees, didn’t change the nature of life. When the family gathers around the bedside of the dying loved one, the faultlines of a lifetime don’t magically disappear. Death doesn’t magically make everyone behave differently than they always had.
After the meeting, while I was moved by the many different speakers, I still didn’t feel I was any closer to forming my own opinion on dying well.
Ironically enough, that very night, my uncle Ben, whose illness had given me a close look at death, finally lost his long battle with cancer.
Yesterday was my uncle Ben’s funeral. It took place on what would have been the 44th wedding anniversary for him and my auntie Mayling.
Speaker after speaker came up to talk about the things that Ben had done for them, a curious parade of high-energy physicists there to mourn the mentor who had been responsible for so much of their careers, and young extended family members who remember him as a second father in their lives.
He truly was a great man, not just for his accomplishments (for 38 years, he was a professor of physics of UC Riverside, and as professor and longtime chairman of the department, he personally recruited most of the current faculty), but for the way he lived. He welcomed everyone into his life, and was always quick with a twinkling smile. He was the life of the party, and always led the family onto the dance floor for a rendition of the electric slide at family weddings.
Almost 30 people spoke about Ben, and it was apparent the impact he had on their lives. My favorite stories were the ones that showed how he refused to let his illness dictate his life.
One old friend recounted how he had visited Ben a week before his death, and seeing him seemingly in a coma, shouted in his ear, “Don’t worry Ben, we’ll take care of everything!” Uncle Ben smiled, opened his eyes, and said, “I know you will…you don’t have to shout. I’m dying, not deaf.”
Another friend, his oldest colleague in the physics department, talked about how even during his illness, Ben had been pestering him to help him place an order to restock his wine cellar, picking out an extensive collection of fine wines. He finalized the order just weeks before he died, and never had a chance to place it. After his death, his friend completed the order, and his favorite wine (the finest Cabernet I’ve had the privilege to taste, a 2004 Phelps) was served to us at the reception.
I saw how so many friends, colleagues, and proteges had looked to Ben for guidance throughout their lives, and realized that they still would in the future, relying on his memory and asking, “What would Ben do?”
In the end, the words of the great country song, “Three Wooden Crosses,” performed by Randy Travis came to mind: “It’s not what you take when you leave this world behind you/It’s what you leave behind you when you go.”
What Uncle Ben left behind him was a legacy of love and wisdom. People saw and admired the way he lived his life, with both gusto and generosity. Those who knew him became better people as a result, trying to live up to his example.
In the end, the secret to dying well is simple: living well.
How you spend your final months will have little impact on your legacy; that is the work of a lifetime.
Uncle Ben lived well, and in the process, showed a lot of people how they could live their lives better. If that isn’t a summary that covers every great spiritual leader throughout history, I don’t know what is. It’s something we should all aspire to.
Goodbye, Uncle Ben, and thank you.