(Delivered at UUSF on November 5, 2017. Listen to the audio here.)
The first significant death in my life was my grandfather. He died at the age of 90 after a tough year, so it was hard, but it was about as easy for me as it could have been. He had lived a great life, and his best years were clearly behind him. I was a junior at Stanford, and he was living just 20 miles away.
As so happens for many of us, when he passed, I couldn't help but feel some regret, of missed opportunities.
First, it was the missed opportunity of seeing him near the end. He died around midterms time of a very busy term for me, and while he had entered hospice, there was no clear timeline on when we would lose him. So I hadn't been up to see him for around a month when he passed.
Two months later, at his memorial service, the regret intensified. Some of the speakers were friends and colleagues of his whom I had barely ever spoken to, who shared glowing descriptions of his character. I'm sure that all funerals paint their subjects as above average, but still, hearing people tell of my grandfather with descriptions like “unmatched integrity” made me feel like I had missed some stories, missed a chance to have a deep understanding of how he had lived his life.
A year and a half prior, I had lived with him for the summer. It turned out to be his last year living independently, and while I had visited from the East Coast every year or two for my whole life, I knew this was my best, and quite possibly last, chance to really get to know him.
All told, I was a good grandson to him that summer in a number of ways. I woke up earlier than I've ever maintained in adulthood, 7am!, so that I could be home from work in time to make dinner most nights.
However, our relationship largely fell into the very fact-focused conversation dynamics that are so common among people who have not yet made the leap to true intimacy. Grandpa was a reader, dating back to when he read every single book in his one-room schoolhouse in Wisconsin. In his retirement, he had thousands of books all over his home, and received and read at least three newspapers and 20 magazines. So we would often talk about news that summer. He would cut out tech news, and every article about Stanford. Meanwhile, I would do my best to give him updates on how my software job was going in a way that he would understand. So we were trading facts and safe stories without opening up and taking the risks needed to help each other really get to know each other better. I've found that this kind of relationship is maddeningly common, especially in my friendships with other men.
When I dig into what makes it hard for me to break through this pattern and work toward deeper friendships, my answer is a fear of vulnerability. Trying to level up a friendship, for me, invokes my anxiety in big way. What if I share something and then they don't like me anymore? What if they don't know how to respond and so say something hurtful, and this attempt at getting closer to them makes me not like them anymore?
But living life driven by fear, prioritizing safety over connection and my other values, is something I always regret. And that has never been clearer to me than when my grandfather died, removing any fiction in my mind that I might get to the deeper stuff later.
Later. That's the word that my inner voice uses to convince me not to take leaps of faith. Later there will be the perfect opportunity. Later it will fit into the conversation more fluidly. Later I'll be in a slightly more ideal mood. Later I'll have just the right thing to share, that pushes my comfort level by the perfect amount, but isn't too risky. Later. I can take risks and be vulnerable and work toward what I know I want. Later.
Mortality, for me, is the best counterargument to later. Sometimes there is no later. And eventually, we'll all lose our later. So now, I cultivate a little more fear of running out of time, and a little less fear of taking risks before then.