Marcella: Well we all have to go sometime, sir, but we can choose when.
Martin Blank: (Standing up to disconnect the call) Nobody chooses when.
– John Cusack, Grosse Pointe Blank
Imagine: You’re a 53-year-old CEO of a well-respected international consultancy that spans the industrialized world. As a matter of profession, you socialize with and advise chieftains of multi-billion-dollar firms, and your life is scheduled out eighteen months in advance, optimized to the nth degree from dawn to midnight, juggling the obligations of a family and the demands of a job where your thoughts and insights are constantly sought by colleagues, subordinates, clients and compatriots. Retirement to a golf resort is still over a decade away – until then, every moment brings new challenges, new opportunities and you are primed to handle them with the same energy and focused attention that got you where you are.
Life is good.
Now imagine: a doctor’s visit. You’ve been in excellent health your whole life and expect your recent headaches to be a minor annoyance to be chased away by time or the right handful of pills.
“I have bad news. You have inoperable brain cancer. You have three to six months. I’m sorry.”
Like a rain of lit kerosene on a well-manicured garden, Gene O’Kelly’s meticulously-planned, ordered life was torched in an instant, and he now has to compress the balance of his life into 100 days.
What would you do?
What would you do?
On Ben Casnocha’s strong recommendation, I picked up a copy of Gene O’Kelly’s haunting memoir, Chasing Daylight, which chronicled his final journey into oblivion, beginning with his diagnosis, and ending with his wife writing the last chapter of a book he was unable to finish.
In one measure, he was fortunate – the cancer that afflicted O’Kelly would not compromise his mental facilities; he would have the presence of mind to be himself right up until the end – and in this, he considered himself blessed, as he wrote in the opening lines of his book.
In his final 100 days, O’Kelly brought the methodical, organized ethos that made him an effective executive into the realm of settling his interpersonal affairs: drafting a plan of how he wanted to say goodbye to friends, colleagues, family – in the right order, and in a manner that preserves the best parts of their memories without maudlin moments of regret or anguish.
Every decision was weighed with an eye toward making the best of each of his remaining days (refusing chemotherapy, for instance, since the putative benefits of extending his life by weeks came at the expense of wracking him in distracting pain), chasing the remnants of daylight left in the accelerated sunset of his life in pursuit of “Perfect Moments” where he and the person he was saying goodbye to had full presence of mind in the now, with no room for useless ‘what-if’ dwelling in the past or idle speculation of a future that he can no longer be a part of.
Everybody draws different things from such a powerfully personal story – what took my breath away about the entire account was its supporting character who made sporadic appearances, Corinne O’Kelly … Gene’s wife, upon whom the burden of his decline and demise must fall the heaviest. Right at his side the whole time, faithfully transcribing his notes for the book chronicling his final days to share his journey with others, all the while channeling her own grief, her sadness and her love into this, their final project together.
If I am allowed a criticism of the book, it is this: O’Kelly did not give his wife nearly the space she deserved, her quiet devotion and running interference on the background that gave him license to fully explore what it meant to die well and on his own terms. But perhaps this, too, was intentional and as it should have been, a long-winded tribute to a beloved wife is something more fitting for private reading – and the book, like Gene O’Kelly’s business life, is the public man than he chose to share.
Thank you, Gene – for a thoughtful and soul-stirring read. I hope to raise a toast to you one day in Valhalla, but if it’s all the same to you, I hope that day is far off. And thank you, Ben, for the recommendation.
Off to work.
Related Reading: Twilight of my Years (musings on mortality)