In addition to all of the things that made my father-in-law an extraordinary man, he was a teacher. Through his career, he mentored the development of thousands of young doctors. He not only taught them about medicine, but also about compassion (while perhaps trying to pass on a legacy of wearing bow ties).
I’m far from perfect. And, plenty flawed. I’ve had my share of mistakes and made my share of bad choices – some MUCH worse than others. As a result, these last couple of months, I haven’t had my weekly cigar with Felix. We had become somewhat estranged. Talk about regrets. A day won’t go by for the rest of my life when I don’t regret not having the opportunity to “make good” with him. It absolutely rips me apart from the inside out that he passed away with our relationship in flux.
As G said, however, nothing brings perspective on life like death. And, in my soul-searching and attempts to overcome the crushing guilt that I was feeling (I was a threat to burst into tears for what seemed like no reason at all), it was Felix who set me free. Even in his passing, he was still teaching those lessons of compassion…and forgiveness.
While gathered around his bed in the hospital, the Rabbi read a prayer, which offered forgiveness to anyone who felt they had wronged. I could hear Felix’s voice in the Rabbi’s words and I just knew that, although he couldn’t respond, he heard my bedside apologies.
The most important lesson, however, is that life is short. Simple, yes. And, while 86 years may not seem so short, it is. Felix was constantly reminding us how precious life is. He was always talking about the virtues of peace, family and getting along. He didn’t always deal with any conflict head-on and oftentimes merely brushed things under the rug (which isn’t the ideal way to handle things), but the message was clear: You just never know.
It’s always a shame when death provides us the greatest insights about life. We finally learn these crucial lessons – that might actually stick for once and for all – and the very person who taught us that lesson (and whom we’d like to thank for said lesson) isn’t around. It’s a very difficult way to learn. But, sometimes it’s the only way to learn.
In his book, Surviving a Health Crisis: How to Live Through a Life-Threatening Health Emergency, Felix wrote about making the most of one’s “second lease on life:”
“The period after you get a second lease on life, having escaped a life-threatening illness, is the time to plan to reconnect with members of your family and with former close friends. We all have had our spats and differences with some, while being closer to others. Now is the time to pick up the phone to call an estranged son or daughter, or a brother, cousin, or friend, to whom you had not spoken for some time because of fallout…Life is short and precious, and your close relatives and loved ones are your insurance against isolation and loneliness in old age. If surviving your critical illness can accomplish these reconciliations during your remaining years, it may have been a worthwhile experience.”
Felix lived through a number of such emergencies in the last few years, but now we are left to live on for him. It is up to us to use his life to gain a second lease on our own. It is up to us to take these words to heart and to forgive and to mend. It’s what he would have wanted. And, it’s a lesson that I will never forget.