A Few Questions Worth Knowing The Answer To – Post Revisited

… objective reality and the truth do not matter to the brain and do not need to be factored into the simulation that is running. If knowing and keeping them in mind will improve evolutionary fitness they will be, but if they do not contribute to this, and they do not, it is actually better that they are never known or, if they are uncovered, ignored.

The human brain is able to and will automatically begin to run different experiences on the simulation in an effort to figure out what is going on or what WOULD need to be true in order for a possible outcome to be achieved.

A number of years ago I was talking to a friend who had gone to speak to a therapist. Their reason for going was mostly just curiosity, but they were also motivated to some degree by the unused portion of their company group benefits.

I wrote about this in the December 2012 post titled A Few Questions Worth Knowing The Answer To and focused specifically on two of the questions that my friend had found compelling enough to remember. These questions were:

  • What did you go without because there was no suffering in an experience?
  • What was it like to have things go bad around you without warning?

At the time my thoughts about the questions were that they were reflective and introspective. Anyone who was willing to take the time and put in the effort to answer them would stand to learn a great deal about themselves. I have not moved off of this view in the years since, but this view has expanded dramatically and I have a much better appreciation of what the therapist was trying to cause to happen by inviting my friend to consider these questions.

The brain is a very remarkable and slightly funny thing. Remarkable in just how well it creates the experience of being alive and in how it goes about doing it. The brain is an organic computer that is running chemical and cellular software that makes EVERYTHING possible. The software is a bunch of processes, which take input and generate output. One of the processes is consciousness. It receives input from a variety of sources – everything we experience, know, think, believe, feel, and understand – and the lived experience of consciousness is the output of this process. It is slightly funny because most people never notice that it is happening.

Which is a shame because when you actually notice what is happening as it is happening, it feels really good. And the more often you notice it, the greater the influence you can exert upon it.

Instead, we spend nearly all of our time on one of three different things: narcissistically obsessing about the world in terms of us being the absolute center of it, seeking out reward in terms of triggering dopamine releases in the reward centers of the brain, or spending time in a state of mild discontentment – bad enough to prevent feeling content / still / peaceful and yet not bad enough to actually do something about.

These three states, or the taking of the actions that are required to create them, are completely understandable. We ARE the center of the universe. The brain, the software it contains, the information that our senses provide, and the content of our memories combine to create a simulation of the world that is completely focused on us. I’m not sure that anyone could come-up with a better approach if tasked with finding a solution to the problem of staying alive, reaching a point of being able to reproduce, and then keeping our offspring alive long enough to become self-reliant and independent all while trying to manage the thousands of things that are simultaneously occurring and battling for scarce resources.

No matter what else life might be about, the undeniable fact, and one that is shared among all living beings, is that every single individual MUST be motivated to maintain life and to reproduce. If either one of these is missing, the individual will either die or will not pass along their genes to the next generation. The outcome is the same regardless, their genes cease to exist and the diversity of the species gene pool will be reduced.

Digging in deeper here, it becomes clear that believing that we are the center of the universe is a very effective way of ensuring that we will try to continue to live and will take the physical actions that historically lead to reproduction. The fact that we are one of 7.75 billion people alive on the planet at this moment in time, that every individual gene we have is also located in the genetic code of other human beings, or that the universe is so big that it has the effect of rendering every location in space statistically empty – three things that can also be known as fundamental and objective truths about the world – need not ever be considered. In fact, objective reality and the truth do not matter to the brain and do not need to be factored into the simulation that is running. If knowing and keeping them in mind will improve evolutionary fitness they will be, but if they do not contribute to this, and they do not, it is actually better that they are never known or, if they are uncovered, that they be ignored.

By believing that we are the center of everything, we increase the changes that we will act in a way that ensures that our genes continue to exist.

The second activity, that of seeking out the experiences that trigger the release of dopamine in our brains reward centers, is much easier to understand, at least early on in our life. Somewhere along the way, a mutation occurred in the genetic code of our ancestors that had their primitive brain release dopamine in response to the things that promote survival. Our operating system still contains the code that has us seek this out because activation of this part of the brain is associated with improved survival. Sex, eating (particularly fat and sugar), solving a problem, pattern matching of sensory information to something in long term memory, learning, and social connection are things that will trigger the release of this neurotransmitter in the reward centers of the brain in all people. These things are innately rewarding and it is easy to see how each one of them is linked to improved survival outcomes and generational gene transmission.

The reward system is an innate system and it is precoded by the time of our birth to become activated in response to certain physical interactions with the external world. However, it can be programmed to release reward chemicals to practically anything. For example, while going hungry has historically been something that will reduce the chances of surviving and is therefore not one of the innate stimulations that will cause the activation of our reward centers, we can train the brain to release dopamine in response to the sensation of being hungry IF we manufacture a meaning that we perceive as being worthy of reward. The discipline high is an example of this novel pairing.

Always keep in mind that the innate purpose or function of the reward centers is to serve as a reinforcement mechanism which will increase the reoccurrence of the activity that caused the release. Sugar and fat are high in energy and since life requires a lot of energy, it behooves us to seek out and consume as much high energy food as we can. There is a direct relationship between sugar and fat molecules and the release of dopamine making these substances at least potentially addictive. This does not mean that we are powerless to NOT eat them, just that when they enter the body, the brain will react by releasing dopamine. However, there are other innate activities that trigger the release of reward chemicals, so we can train the brain to release them in response to anything, so long as we trigger the release in close temporal proximity to the thing we want to find rewarding. This is why people can find the most banal and meaningless things rewarding. While I am not a fan of musical theatre, some people love it simply because they have trained their brain to release dopamine when they watch them.

The final thing that human beings tend to do, spending time in a state of discontentment that isn’t just enough to get them to do anything about it but is sufficient to prevent them from feeling content / still / peaceful, is more of the same. Ensuing survival is about taking specific actions quickly whenever those actions are required. Feeling fantastic or the reasonable possibility that we well feel this way – which is effectively the way we feel when whenever our reward centers become active – serves as the motivation / incentive to take action. The opposite feeling, that of physical or psychological pain, serves as the disincentive for NOT taking an action; in the case of pain, the individual is motivated to STOP any action that the brain believes is causing the pain. From a fitness perspective, the objective is the same, to trigger action that will increase the likelihood of survival. Reward is approach, expansive, and repeat while pain is retreat, constrict, and avoid.

While it is true that there can be degrees of reward and punishment, we can view both as being on or off. If reward is on, the brain learns an association between a behaviour / action and feeling good. If pain is on, the brain learns an association between a behaviour / action and feeling bad. After the learning has occurred, the approach / avoid determination will be available to the simulation that is running on the brain. This ensures that when it perceives a similar or same situation it will initiate the corresponding approach / avoid action behaviour. When neither one is perceived, no approach or retreat action will be initiated which will help the individual conserve energy; or at least not waste it by taking an action that has not been demonstrated to improve fitness outcomes. Feeling “bla” is the second most desirable state for a human being to achieve because it indicates that things are safe, survival will continue and that there is no need for any action to be taken.

In 2012, when I made the initial post, I didn’t have a clear understanding of the critical role that reward, bla, and punishment play in the brain and life of people. The cool thing is that my knowing or not knowing will make no difference in the operation of the computer and software. The brain does not get wrapped around the axle with these things and conscious awareness of what is going on is not a requirement for the system to work perfectly.

The power of the questions is their ability to cause the person to consider the incentive / disincentive that the situation represents to them. They accomplish this by taking advantage of another quality of the brain, which is the tendency for it to assume that there is an answer to every question it encounters and to automatically and unconsciously begin to try to answer it.

If we consider for any length of time the question “what did you go without because there was no suffering in an experience?” we quickly notice that the question assumes that the listener went without something because the experience was neither good nor bad. If we assume that this is true, the narrative description of what occurred was that no approach or avoid lessons were learned because they remained in the bla or neutral state. The question implies that there was a fitness lesson to be taken from the experience, but that the brain did not pick-up on it because there was no reinforcement or punishment. The event unfolded, the person lived through it, and they remain unchanged in terms of their likelihood that they would repeat it or avoid it in the future.

This is the amazing thing about the human brain and language. Unlike living beings that have smaller brains and rudimentary or not existent communication skills, the human brain is able to and will automatically begin to run different experiences on the simulation in an effort to figure out what is going on or what WOULD need to be true in order for a possible outcome to be achieved. By listening to and hearing the question, the brain parses the information and then uses the relevant parameters to try and surface an answer. Whether or not there is an actual answer never gets considered because the brain just automatically starts the process and works on generating output.

The therapist was very aware that the situation my friend was talking about is historically a situation that people find very challenging and unpleasant. My friends experience of it as neutral or bla meant that there was not going to be much learning going on and this would amount to a squandered opportunity. The question served as a trigger for the creation of a lesson that may end-up being helpful in the future.

The question “what was it like to have things go bad around you without warning?” is the second half of the same process. The language implies that something negative occurred, which primes the listeners brain to consider the punishment / avoidance aspects of psychological conditioning. It also serves to validate congruence; if the answer is something positive or negative, there is a good chance that they did not answer the first question accurately. This is a situation that the brain will not allow to continue because it does not handle inconsistency very well. Even if nothing specific happens in the moment, the brain will be activated in an attempt to reconcile the lack of congruence between the two answers.

Years later, I still believe that these two questions are fantastic. They are helpful for anyone who takes the time to answer them as they force the brain to search long term memories, run various simulations in an attempt to solve the problem, and they provide valuable feedback about the quality and nature of the experiences in the past. They are introspective and manufacture reward and punishment states to allow the person to gain new lessons and move forward having harvested the experience more completely.

Some Thoughts On The Anniversary Of My Dads Death

8 Years ago today, my dad died.

If I was to say that I think about him every day, it would be a lie. There are days when I don’t think about him at all and there are days when I think about him a lot. I am sure there is a pattern to when I become aware that I am thinking about him but the only real predictor is that I am doing something new or particularly interesting – I am more likely to think about him when I have travelled somewhere for vacation or am at the cottage trying to fix something that he would take care of quickly and almost without thinking about it.

This makes sense given my dads curious nature and drive to figure-out how things work. He first moved out of his parents house and to a different country when he was 16 – London, England – and moved around a fair bit until we moved to Canada when he was in his mid thirties. Having children meant that he needed to put down roots in a place that would offer them the best opportunity to lead a safe, productive, and happy life. Ontario Canada was a great choice. Other than the occasionally brutal cold periods in the winter, this part of the world has a lot going for it.

Canadians are an eclectic bunch. We have a shared identity that is not well defined as most of the people who live here are either immigrants from another country, or are first or second generation of people who were. We all have an idea of what it means to be a Canadian and most of these ideas are slightly different. There is not a strong nationalist aspect to it which is a huge blessing. We’d all rally together to make sure there was a strongly worded letter sent to anyone who was trying to do our country harm, and most of us would apologize for using a tone that was more harsh than what we are known to take. This works well because we do not represent any existential threat to the United States, the only nation that we have on our border. They don’t really think much about us, which is fine for us because we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves either.

So my parents made the decision to move to Canada to give my brother and me the opportunity to live the American dream. I believe that my mom would find happiness anywhere she lives, that is her nature. She has a peaceful mind, reasonable wants and needs, and is very low in negative emotion. You do the best you can and then you move forward, or you do the best you can while moving forward. Choose and do the one that works the best. Spend as much of your time paying attention to the things that are important to you, take reasonable steps to avoid harming other people, and be kind to animals. Her world view is not one that would trigger a family of four to move to another country let alone another continent, but it’s a world view that would not say “no” to the request, particularly when the reasons for the move were to help two young people achieve more of their potential. The fact that my dad was able to achieve more of his was likely just an unmentioned or unanticipated bonus.

My dad absolutely LOVED Canada. While this was almost a guarantee, based on the human need for consistency, he would have loved it if he had been born here or if his family had moved here when he was young. It is a comfortable place to be, a place that evokes a peace of mind or sense of security and safety for anyone who sets foot inside its borders. Most people are from somewhere else which gives everyone the ability to kind of blend-in as opposed to stick-out. This fact makes Canada a very interesting place to live. It eliminates the sense of there being a right way and a wrong way to live; the right way being what the average person does and the wrong way being anything else. The fact that there is no such thing as an average Canadian, at least in terms of how they choose to live their life, makes practically any life choice that does no harm to other people the “right way to live.” This means that there is no such thing as “Canadian values” there are only “human values.”

After we moved to Canada, my dad didn’t spend much time travelling. There were a few trips back to Ireland to visit, a few family vacations to the US, and a business trip to the Turks and Caicos Islands. He enjoyed these, particularly, Washington DC, but he never made any specific mention to them as being quests to find something that was missing. This was nothing like the way he talked about every trip including our emigration from Ireland. Canada was home, it provided all of the opportunities that he needed personally and wanted for his family. Here, he was with his people and it really worked for him. He had been a Canadian his entire life, so he never felt at peace in Northern Ireland, England, or in the Republic of Ireland. His values were mostly aligned with the people who lived in those places, but not entirely, and he knew this on some level. But in Canada there was a complete alignment given that so many of us are from somewhere else.

My dad’s curiosity and desire to make sense of the world did not stop once he realized that he had found where he was and wanted to be from. For the 30 years between our arrival in Canada and his death, he took advantage of every opportunity to learn and figure things out that he had. I believe that he had always gotten a lot out of learning and figuring things out, but began to actually NEED to keep learning and making sense of the world when my brother was born. He is remarkably bright and seems to absorb information effortlessly and almost without having to pay attention to things. He figured out how to walk before most of the children who were his age had mastered crawling, he skipped most of the baby talk going almost directly to speaking in sentences, and he entertained some of the people in the village we lived in by reading them the news paper when he was 3. This worked for my dad because there was someone for him to talk to and teach who was interested in just knowing things, but who learned at a lightening fast pace that forced my dad to keep hitting the books to make sure he kept a few steps ahead. It is kind of funny to think about now because most people know a lot about their jobs and a few other things, but my brother was way too young to bring onto any of the job sites my dad worked at as a carpenter. Most of the lessons took place at home, at the kitchen table or on the sofa in front of the TV. The Internet didn’t exist back then, so my dad would have to go to the library or take courses to learn things to teach. This worked for him because my dad enjoyed learning and got a lot out of teaching the information to others. He took electronics courses, moving over to computer classes when PCs began to find their way into more homes.

When my brother was around 10 or 11 my dad realized that he was fighting a losing battle. There was no denying it any more, the times of him being the smartest person in the room, at least when my brother was also in it, were gone. There was a sort of a reversal of roles when my brother began to teach things to him, but this was never going to last very long. My dad had a strong sense of responsibility to make sure his children had the opportunity to take advantage of whatever gifts or talents they had, his children did not share this sense of responsibility (or much sense for that matter). My brother tried to help him keep up, but it’s a disconcerting dynamic for a child to suddenly find themselves having to contend with. All at once and for no clear reason the teacher had become the student and the student the teacher and the incentives each had while playing these roles were not at all the same. While my dad was teaching out of a sense of responsibility to help his children and a sense to society to make sure someone with a good brain matured to become a contributing member of society and a tax payer, my brother was teaching my dad because my dad was interested in learning. My brother was a student because young people don’t know very much and need to learn in order to escape this state of ignorance. My dad was a student because he was curious about the world and knew that a lot more would be learned when you have to teach someone. However, at some point towards the end of high school, they both figured out that it wasn’t going to continue for much longer. My dad would remain curious and would lean on my brother to teach him things, but it was more of an independent learning approach with my brother in the academic advisor position.

My brother has a lot of intellectual horsepower, which is both amazing and slightly frightening when you notice it in action. If you are not prepared for it, and even when you are, you can be left feeling kind of thick. I’m two years younger than him, so he was always going to be at least couple of years ahead of me in terms of development and knowledge acquisition as we grew-up. It wasn’t until I went to university and began to learn stuff that didn’t interest him that I began to gain an appreciation that we were different, that I wasn’t just a less powerful version of him. My parents always knew this and while they tried to make sure that they didn’t privilege one of us more than the other, they were NOT willing to handicap him. My relationship with my dad was more similar to the father son relationships of my friends and what you might see on TV. My dad was a carpenter, and I took a greater interest in this area of his life than the abstract things my brother found rewarding to consider and spend time on.

I’d like to think that my brother and I were the perfect complement to my dad’s curiosity and sense of parental responsibility to teach your children how to be useful and contributing members of society. Being a carpenter in Ireland is very different than being one in Canada. Their different climates necessitate different building methods and the flip flop in humidity levels plays havoc on wood in a way that the constant moisture in Ireland doesn’t. The early years in Canada put my dad behind the 8 ball in terms of becoming a Canadian carpenter who was able to deliver the high quality results that had become second nature in Ireland. The gap is a large but not insurmountable one, and he had closed it within a few years. I have little doubt that had the gap been larger, things would have turned out a little differently. The truth is that there isn’t enough of a difference between being a carpenter in Ireland and one in Canada to keep it interesting for 30 years and my dad had already grown tired of it a few times BEFORE we moved to Canada. The teaching role that my brother’s brain obligated my dad to play afforded enough of a balance to the carpentry work that he was able to keep at it for a while. The need to learn the rules of being a Canadian carpenter extended this time frame. However, after a while there stopped being enough new stuff for my dad to keep doing it, which was great because it happened to coincide with my brothers need for more information and a deeper understanding of everything. Carpentry was something that my dad loved to leave behind and then learned to love getting back into.

This became the rhythm and cadence to my dads life for the last 25 years. He would move back and forth between dealing with things and dealing with ideas. It didn’t really matter to him which role he was playing, he was capable of both and since there was a lot about the world that he didn’t know, there were opportunities to learn from both sons. I believe that I am more curious about why the world is the way it is and how the world works while my brother is more curious about things that do not yet exist or are on the bleeding edge of what is known. When my dad would find his way back to carpentry, I would spend more time with him and probably spent about a year total working with him on various jobs. When he was sick of carpentry he would begin to pursue something that was in the realm of ideas or vapour and would spend more time learning from my brother.

For example, I have a very clear series of memories in my head of walking in on a conversation between them. The bulk of the conversation had already taken place and they were closing in on the home stretch. It was obvious that my brother had explained a new concept or idea to my dad and my dad was struggling to figure out what to do with it. The look on his face told me that he had understood the essence of it but was not having any luck with answering the “so what” or “what good will that be” questions that tend to accompany new ideas. I’d estimate that this was in 1993 because my brother and I just happened to be home from university at the same time.

“I can’t answer that exactly, insurance, research, education, and communication obviously. No one really knows and that is the cool thing about it, it’s real, it’s here, and it is going to be everywhere soon enough.”

My dad, looking slightly pensive, like a person who is driving a car in heavy fog, “it’s not like I don’t believe you, I’m just not sure I’ll ever understand it.”

Well he did come to understand it and found it to be one of the most useful inventions that he ever had the good fortune to be alive for. And this conversation with my brother came to mark the beginning of the final phase of my dads learning, one that lasted nearly a quarter century.

When my brother left I asked my dad what they were talking about and he did his best to teach me. He took the idea, the vapour, that my brother had shared and converted it into a thing that I might be able to understand better. In doing so, he also began to understand it.

“He called it the Internet. It’s a thing that you can connect your computer to and it will let your computer connect to other computers. But it’s not like a phone line that connects your computer to another computer, it’s more like your computer becomes the telephone company and everyone else’s computer becomes the telephone company, so everyone is able to connect with everyone else, all at once, and share information instantly.” I obviously had no idea what he was talking about because, at the time, the Internet was not much of a thing, let alone the thing that it is today. I do however have to give him a solid B+ for the description. The Internet is a thing that is very much like what he described.

If I had to list off some of the things that I am glad my dad got to live through, I would put the creation and spread of the Internet very close to the top of the list. He really took advantage of it in a way that added tremendous value and satisfaction to his time on the planet. It gave him access to mountains of information and knowledge that he always suspected was out there and knew would be better written to his brain. Whatever curiosity he had could be indulged at will, meaning the joy / reward he got from learning became available to him, endlessly, effortlessly, and constantly.

On this day, the eighth anniversary of his death, I am thinking about him a lot. I am grateful for having had him in my life for as long as I did and while I would like to be able to talk to him still, I don’t think I would change much about any of it. It would be nice to say “thank you” for believing in me, for letting me know that it is fine to not be satisfied and that it is right and noble to imagine a future that is better than today, and for modelling the making of great sacrifices to turn that vision into the reality we know as here and now. As time rolls on, many of the lessons he tried to pass along continue to work their way through my brain and find their way to the surface. As one of my first and most influential teachers, his words remain and continue to help shape my understanding of the world. In this way, he is still alive and continues to be an amazing father.

Almost 6 Months Later – Post Revisited

The brains response and adaptation to death is logarithmic and not linear. Most of what it has to deal with occurs very early on, then there is a very rapid drop off. However, it has a non convergent property meaning that your life will never meet back up with the normal that once was. It will be new and it will be fine, but never again will it be the same.

Author Reading Blog Post

Seven years ago I wrote the post Almost 6 Months Later which contained some thoughts about the things that had happened in the six months following my fathers death. I believed that at that point I had moved most of the way through the grief process. 90 months later, I am certain that the process doesn’t ever have an end point. Instead, we get better at dealing with it as life moves on and our brain adjusts to create a new normal.

I am not sad and I do not believe that this is a pessimistic view. The fact is that we never stop developing and adapting to the stimulation we bring into our brains, so there is no reason to believe that adjusting to the death of a loved one ever stops. Our brains grow from the beginning of life and probably continue to grow for a few minutes after we take our last breath. They are complex organic computers that spawn and prune connections between billions of neurons to form long term memories and create processes that allow it to handle the world more effectively the next time the world brings it the same type of stimulation. They are never still and the only time they ever go dark is when we die.

In the original post, I spoke about someone who I met whose father had been given the diagnosis of a very slowly developing cancer. She was upset and having a tough time processing the news while her dad was very matter of fact about it. He was well into his eighties and didn’t really care all that much. He was old, had lived a complete life, and since he wasn’t actually running out of runway, he didn’t think it was worth the energy to worry about or to consider the diagnosis. He felt that there was as good a chance that old age would take care of things before the cancer did and since he wasn’t worrying about old age, it didn’t make any sense to deal with the fact that the doctor had told him that he had cancer.

A year later, Heather’s father was diagnosed with a few different types of cancer – no one was sure where the original tumor had been, but it had metastasized to the point that it was in his bones, throat, and possibly his brain. They said possibly because while he did have a brain tumor, it didn’t seem to grow at all between the scans; unlike the other tumors that ate his spine and began to close over his throat. Unlike my dad, who stood to gain very little from treatment, her dad was able to under go radiation and chemotherapy. The radiation worked wonders on his throat, opening it up again and allowing him to eat and drink anything he wanted, which he did. The chemo was less well tolerated, and he stopped it a few weeks in because of the side effects. After the tumors, the skin is the next place to begin to show the side effects of the chemicals – most of the chemotherapy medication that has traditionally been used in treating cancer works by killing tissue. It is reasonably specific in so far as it will primarily target the type of cell that makes-up the tumor, but it is not perfect and is not isolated to JUST the tumor cells. With chemotherapy there will be collateral damage and with him it began to take a toll on the skin of his lips and neck. Given that he was never going to be cured, he made the decision to stop the treatment and put an end to these awful side effects. He was close to seventy and had more or less made his peace with the life he had lived. He died the following July.

While at the time of my dads death, I was unable to find anything good about it; the possible exception being that since his GBM wasn’t painful, he got to enjoy the final 6 weeks of life as much as anyone can enjoy any six week period. The post I wrote six month later, I made mention to feeling useful to my friend because of what I had just experienced. With the sad news about Heather’s dad, I was able to be even more useful. This was a good thing, and it did, in a way, give my dads death a little more meaning or value. It wasn’t that I knew what Heather, her sister, and the rest of the family were going through, I didn’t, I couldn’t possibly know what their experience was like. But I did have experience with the process. So while I lacked the specific knowledge of what they were going through, she had someone to talk to about the feelings she was having and the thoughts that were popping into her mind with someone who was a little further along in the grieving process. I was able to talk to the very odd sensations and feelings that accompany your loved one seeming to improve with whatever treatment they receive and how there are feelings of disbelief that there is actually something wrong.

This is like an emotional time bomb that makes normal living close to impossible. No matter how good you feel, there’s a monkey on your back that at some point in the future something very crappy is going to happen. When you feel bad about what is going on, there is the thought that you need to cheer-up and enjoy your remaining time together. No matter what you are feeling, a thought pops into mind to tell you that you should feel something else. It’s a destabilizing experience, as though you are gas lighting yourself, and over time you begin to not trust how you feel or to simply allow yourself to experience whatever is occurring from moment to moment from any place other than the certain future when your loved one has died.

Her dad, just like mine, did his best to address this thing by encouraging his children and the rest of the family to go about their life’s as well as they could. There wasn’t any point in cycling on the future because it was going to happen when it was time. Until then it was just something to deal with later. On his advice, Heather and I took a trip to Mexico, our first big trip together. I don’t recall any specific moments of overwhelming sadness and the trip was a lot of fun.

Years later, Heather and I both have moments when we think about our dads. Speaking to my moments, I don’t get sad anymore, although there can be times when I wake-up feeling stunned that my dad is gone. These I know are just the emotional chemicals that my brain has released in response to some mental process that my brain has drawn a connection between and thoughts about my dad not being there. There have been a number of times in my past when I had these feelings, and they seemed to link-up to conscious thoughts relating to something that always was but was now no longer. Adjusting to dramatic change is tough and the brain isn’t very good at doing it all at once. It needs a lot of time and stimulation to eventually land in a place that doesn’t feel painful or register as loss, but is just a feeling of “offness.”

Of course, I have done a lot of stuff in the meantime that has had a big impact on how I approach the experience of being alive. There is no doubt in my mind that how I handled my father’s death served as another example of how some of my ways of operating were not helpful or were contributing to the level of difficulty I was having living from day to day. I accept this, and realize that dealing with death is not something that we are taught or that most people have much experience with. Improvements in healthcare, food availability, sanitation, safety regulations, and vaccinations have boosted life expectancy, meaning that the initial experience with the death of a loved one do not occur until much later in life. This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it is great that people are living longer. Being alive is at least something, so the fact that more than twenty years have been added to the average life span in North America means twenty more years of that something. But on the other hand, it means that, statistically speaking, the first exposure to the death of a loved one is going to occur twenty years later than it would have before.

The significance of this delay is best understood when considering the compounding effect of experience over time. Someone who has been writing for twenty years is going to be much better at it than someone who has been writing for five years. In the case of physically writing, the fifteen extra years will give them much better physical control over their hand and finger movements, allowing them to become an expert in terms of handwriting. In the case of writing words that capture ideas, those extra years of practice will mean that the brain will have adapted more completely to whatever the mental stimulation that brings those ideas to consciousness and then to paper represented. This is much more to the point. The grief process is long, possible permanent, and it does represent one of the more significant things that a human being will have to deal with.

Death is real, it’s a thing that happens, but it is less significant than the experience of grief would have you believe. My view of it has changed over time, as I mature and my brain works its way through the grief processes that have been triggered in my life. When you are in it, it feels awful. You are almost incapable of thinking about it in real terms, and will instead deal with the abstract aspects of it. This is not good or bad, it’s just what happens with most people. But it is not a pure reflection of reality.

Consider it from a materialistic point of view. People are bags of molecules but a “person” is a rich narrative understanding that is a collection of things. My dad married my mom and they had two children. This is a biological thing and it can be measured. But the relationship that I had with him cannot be so easily understood. He did do a lot of stuff to change the physical environment that I lived in – he worked to make money so that we had food, shelter and clothing – he took physical actions in the world to make sure that the family was safe, secure and mostly free of worry, and he talked to me to teach me things and to alter some of my decisions or actions – the ideas that he had were captured by the air flow that left his lungs and passed over his vocal chords allowing these ideas to be generated in my head when that air vibrated my eardrums, creating the electrical activity that my brain converted into the understanding of the words from which the ideas were created. That is no small feat. Make no mistake about it, my dad did a lot for me and he did almost all of it through the same methods that human beings have been using throughout their entire history.

My present understanding has nothing to do with trying to diminish anything about the important role he played and that all parents and caregivers play. But when you detach from the whole thing and break it down into the material or objective reality, it all becomes so much less than the story we are living when we are gripped tightly by the hand of grief.

When my dad died, I lost my father, yes, but he had already completed 98 percent of the “father” things that he had the potential and willingness to do. From this point of view, his death makes almost no difference to my playing the role of “son.” The role I get to play is not the same as it would have been had he not died in 2012, but that doesn’t actually mean anything. Only one thing happens, so there is only an alternative experience or outcome when we take the time to think about it. Any notion about what it would have been like if he had continued to live for another twenty years is immaterial. It can only exist as a thought and even then, it can only exist in the brain of the person who is thinking it. This is vastly different from the 98 percent of the things that he did that contributed to his playing the role of father. Some physical matter was impacted by those actions and that makes these actions real and of material consequence.

Sure, we can make an argument that, by him dying, he was no longer able to take action and that therefore is a material difference. This is true, but we’d be hard pressed to say with complete certainty what those actions were. Okay, I have every reason to believe the family would have continued to enjoy Sunday dinners, so his passing very likely marked the end of them; or at least him eating dinner with us. But the truth is that this is only the most probable outcome. Something else could have happened that put an end to the Sunday dinners. We’ll never know, and that is the point of it. While someone is alive, we can say with certainty the material impact that their actions have on the world – what molecules they put in motion, which ones they stopped moving or prevented from moving, and which ones they impacted to change their direction and velocity. When they are dead, or did not exist, we can only engage in a game of speculation about how they would have impacted the physical universe.

The initial phases of grief are awful, not because the person is dead and they are no longer impacting the physical world in a way that make their loved ones feel good which is perceived as bad. The intensity of the early part of the grief process is magnitudes larger than that. The reason, I believe, why it starts off at such a high level is because their death is interpreted as the loss of EVERY SINGLE possible impact they could have had on the physical world. It has very little or nothing to do with the present moment. The genesis of the feelings is an unconscious and automatic loop that has the brain cycling on all of the future possibilities that are now off the table. This happens fairly quickly, and unless the person has the ability to clear negative emotion faster than the brain creates it, they can find themselves getting overwhelmed.

The feelings the person is having are real. The chemicals that cause the body to experience the emotion can be measured and the increased brain activity in the areas that are responsible for processing negative emotion can be observed with an fMRI machine. BUT since these changes will not occur in the bodies of people who did not know the deceased person, their cause is purely perceptual and the result of specific mental activity in the brain of the bereaved. So while death is real, and the emotional response to a death of a loved one is real, this response does not have a direct physical cause. It is an abstract interpretative reaction that is triggered in the brains of almost all human beings and many animals. It is a part of the genetic code that evolved over millions of years and is a deeply seeded part of our operating system.

Now given that it is a natural and genetically coded process, we are innately equipped to handle it. It is a mechanism that evolved because it improved our fitness in terms of survival and reproductive success. This is the problem we are running into now, because as life expectancy grows, the necessary experiences that trigger and shape gene expression are delayed. This delay is at least twenty years – given that life expectancy has grown by this amount over the last century – but it is almost certainly longer. Regardless of the time frame, every previous generation of human beings lived much shorter lives and had to deal with infant mortality rates that were in the double digits. This means that exposure to the early death of a loved one was a way of life not so long ago, and it was a fact of life for every ancestor (prehuman) in our evolutionary past; even if they were not capable of relating to someone as a “loved one” many of their species died young ensuring that those who survived long enough to reproduce had figured out how to get back on their feet again.

Maybe a more concise way to phrase this would be to suggest that only recently and only within our species, that death has become increasingly more abstract as our direct exposure to it has been delayed for decades. The positive is that we are living longer, the negative is that for many of us, our first exposure to it comes well after our brains have fully developed. While this may seem like a bonus it isn’t because children and adults do not process stimulation and information in the same way. The prefrontal cortex of a child is much less well developed than that of an adult meaning the younger a person is, the lower their capacity for thinking about the future and for generating timelines. As a consequence, children do not have the same grief experience as adults.

So returning to the compounding effect of experience over time comment, it’s very easy to imagine a child 2000 years ago having their first experience with death and grief at age 10. It means something to them, but it cannot mean the same thing as it does to their 30 year old father because they do not have the same hardware. However, the child has the experience and the process runs its course. Meaning that, over time, their brain processes and reprocesses it, and as their brain fully matures, they have been working through the experience for 10 or more years. And they have probably had other death experiences that influence and play their part on the grief process. By the time they are 30, they will have a level of resilience that is the result of wisdom and NOT the result of willpower or wishful thinking. They know it sucks but they know that in time they will feel better because they will have gone through it a few times and have become aware and desensitized to it.

Even when their brain is fully formed and capable of peak levels of abstract thought, their life experience will have populated their long term memory with sensory information that reflects the truth about death. When compared to their contemporary counterparts, their reactions will not be the same in terms of magnitude and may actually differ completely in terms of content.

My first exposure with the death of a loved one was when I was 21. There is no comparing this to the second experience I had almost 20 years later. Yes, there was sadness and a sense of despair, but there was also a wisdom of knowing that I didn’t need to think about it all of the time and that I was actually free to NOT think about it if I didn’t want to. The first month was tough the second time round, but things were only as bad as they could be for a couple of weeks, and even then this was only when I thought about it; or when I was not able to NOT think about it.

And that is really the value of what I went through. I knew what it was all about in terms of the human experience of grief and its innate emotional experience. It’s intense and rough at the beginning as the brain works its way through the list of EVERYTHING that is lost, but then it calms down and starts to get a grip. Over the weeks and months it narrows its assessment to what might have been lost and focuses on what was actually lost. What begins as thousands becomes 4 or 5 things that you can honestly say are gone because you know you would have done them. For example, I miss talking to my dad about things. He was curious and kind, and he had a lot of life experience that helped to provide perspective about what those things actually meant or what they meant 20 years ago when they happened, and 40 years ago when they happened. I miss his laugh, not because it was a particularly good one, although it was, but because when you hear someone laughing like that, you know with absolute certainty that they are in the moment and it is a great moment to be in. And I kind of would have like for him to meet Heather because she’s awesome and he was awesome and I think they would have become good friends. But none of that stuff is worth crying about and even if it does make me sad from time to time, it does not make me death date +2 days sad.

Which is the point of all of it. Had I known what I would miss and be sad about and focused only on that stuff, I would have had a much easier time with it and would have been a lot more use to my mother, brother and sister in-law, and whoever else was negatively impacted by his passing. But technological progress has liberated us from having to have the experiences that make human beings effective grievers. We have the genes to make us good at it, we just don’t have the experiences to bring about their expression.

At this point in my life I do not think much about the future deaths of the people that I love. It is something that I am capable of doing but choose not to because it makes me feel lousy. I know I will be subjected to grief again unless I’m the first one to go, so I’ll deal with it when it comes along. What I do know is that most of what the older people say about death and how to navigate through the first couple of months after the loss of a loved one is solid advice. Look after your health as well as you can. Do your best to stay nourished. Take the time to do the things that you know work for you. Put in the effort to reestablish your sleep schedule as soon as you can. And go easy on yourself, no matter how you feel. It is fine to not think about it, just as it is fine to take some time to bawl your eyes out. Over time, you will feel better and adjust. The brains response and adaptation to death is logarithmic and not linear. Most of what it has to deal with occurs very early on, then there is a very rapid drop off. However, it has a non convergent property meaning that your life will never meet back up with the normal that once was. It will be new and it will be fine, but never again will it be the same.

Visit to the Juravinski Cancer Centre – For Glioblastoma Multiforme (Brain Cancer) – Post Revisited

In December 2011 my family took a trip to the Juravinski Cancer Centre in Hamilton. The trip was taken just to cross-off a possibility from the short list of possible actions that is given to you when you have been diagnosed with cancer. The list was my dad’s, which means the cancer was his. GBM, the most common type of brain cancer. It was a primary tumor, it grew very quickly, and it was located in a part of the brain that made it difficult to operate on and there would be very serious damage to the surrounding tissue. Surgery could be performed but since there was no chance that they would be able to remove all of the tumor it would grow back, likely at the same speed it grew in the first place.

My dad was 67, which placed him on the do nothing side of the surgery decision matrix. He was remarkably healthy for a man of that age, still very lean, strong, and in possession of all of the markers of good health. Apart from the cancer he was in great shape. During the conversation with the oncologist he said that they would be willing to perform the surgery because it was low risk in so far as my dad would live through it. The decision was my dad’s to make, but only after sitting down with the treatment team of doctors who would look his case over and give their honest assessment of what should happen next.

What struck me at the time and what I still remember very clearly is the flatness of each one of the doctors. They were nice, seemed kind and were honest. At no point did I or my family get a sense that they were being anything other than truthful. There was stuff they could do. The surgeon said that there was no way to get rid of the entire tumor without leaving the brain as a complete mess, but he could de-bulk it and doing this would give my dad a little more time. The radiation doctors knew they could destroy a lot of the remaining tumor, and this would buy some more time. The oncologist wasn’t confident that there was anything more that could be done because the blood brain barrier prevents most chemo therapy drugs from entering the brain. While there were some experimental medications that showed promise, getting into a drug trial was unlikely given my dad’s age. We were free to source and buy the drugs elsewhere but he wouldn’t be able to offer any support or advice. The feeling we all got was that they would go to bat as hard as they could, in the event my dad decided that he was going to treat it.

My brother asked what it would look like if my dad decided to take whatever treatment options were available and each doctor spoke dispassionately as they gave their best guess. The radiation doctors said 5 treatments a week for 6 to 10 weeks. Possibly a few courses of them over the remaining time. The first week wouldn’t be too bad, but from there it would get tougher as the tumor cells died, along with any other tissues that were impacted. It would start like a cold, then move into the realm of a flu and effectively become the worst sickness he had ever had. A week or so after the final treatment the body would begin to show signs of recovery, and my dad would start to feel better. After a few weeks he would be back to feeling cold and flu free. They avoided saying back to normal because that was never going to happen because radiation was only going to be used if surgery was performed. Whatever version of my dads brain existed before he went under the knife would be gone forever, so the radiation was going to be destroying the tumor along with a portion of whatever brain tissue remained.

The surgeon went next. His version was more intense because his intervention involved gaining direct access to the tumor. The radiation was a beam generated by a machine that penetrated the flesh and bone; which is kind of like shining a flash light on something. Surgery involved cutting the skin, peeling back the scalp, sawing through the skull, cutting a path through the top layers of the brain to get access to the tumor and then cutting and burning away as much of the tumor as he could while trying to avoid cutting away viable tissue and damaging the thousands / millions of tiny pathways connecting different parts of the brain to one another. Once the debulking was complete, they’d close-up, join the piece of the skull that was removed to the rest of the skull using metal plates and screws, flip the scalp back and stitch it back together. There would be antibiotics to prevent infection, pain killers to help deal with the pain associated with cutting through the skull and scalp – there wouldn’t be any pain from the brain because it doesn’t have pain receptors – and a few days of recover in the hospital.

There was an enthusiasm in how he described what he would do, and I was confident that he would do it really well. But whatever sense of optimism his enthusiasm created crashed when he talked about the recovery.

“We have no idea what we will have to do once we get inside. We’ll do more imaging before we go in, but there is no way to know exactly what the tumor looks like, what other tissues it involves and how it will have grown between the scan and the day we do surgery.” He paused to let this sink in before continuing. “Given all of that, the tumor is still be there and it will grow again. And it is brain surgery. We’re cutting into your brain and we will be removing pieces of it. No matter how careful we are, and I am very good at this and our team is excellent, your brain is never going to be as it is right now.” Another pause and then, “even as the tumor continues to grow now, you are still you. You won’t be after surgery. Removing pieces of the brain changes who you are and we have no idea what that will actually mean until after surgery and about a month and a half of recovery. There is a chance that surgery and radiation will buy you another 9 months, maybe 11.” Looking at the oncologist, who nods, then back to my dad, “great, you’re healthy, maybe 15. But it isn’t you who will have them, it will be the post surgery version of you and there is no way to predict who that will be, what they will be like and what they will still be able to do.”

The next few moments were longer than any before or since. The silence hung in the air, most uncomfortably.

He was very good at his job though, and took a brave next step. “If I had a relative who was just like you, and this was their brain scan,” holding up the printed image of my dads tumor, “I’d help them get their affairs in order and then go and spend a month or so somewhere hot and sunny with them.”

The oncologist spoke next, not giving much time to let what the surgeon had just said sink in. “There were a couple of things they could do in terms of medication, but the powerful chemo therapy drugs that have a strong track record of destroying cancer sell couldn’t cross the blood-brain barrier, so there wasn’t anything that he knew would work. We’re looking at surgery, radiation and whatever medication makes your remaining time easier.” And that was more or less that.

My dad decided against surgery and that was the end of it. There wasn’t going to be a cure so why bother with all the hassle of having to recover from brain surgery, maybe having to relearn how to walk or talk or think only to die in a few months anyway? Didn’t seem to him to be worth the inconvenience. He was still himself and would be until he died, so he got after enjoying whatever remained.

I haven’t been back to the Juravinski Cancer Centre and haven’t spent any time thinking about that day until about an hour ago when I reread the original post. What hit me was the paragraph about how we filled the half hour or so between the initial conversation with the oncologist and the group chat with the treatment team:

Some food at the cafeteria / lounge that had a piano but no singer. The family chats back and forth about stuff. I’m looking around and starting to feel strange because as I look at each group of people I’m trying to guess which one of them has cancer. If you haven’t played this game, you don’t really win when you guess correctly. There’s a table of 3 people, one is dying, the two that aren’t are going to be grieving their asses off soon. You can’t guess who is who without looking at their faces and when you do, you see a 21 year old son with his mom and grandmother, mom’s in a wheelchair because she has cancer. I felt rage deep inside that made me want to wreck something for what’s about to happen to this poor kid. I suddenly wonder what type of cancer killed the cafeteria singer and as I do, my eyes meet Des’ and he’s just seen the kids future too. I glace away towards my dad unwittingly winning another round of the stupid game my brain is playing.

I do not remember writing that nor do I remember thinking it. In fact, I have no recollection about that moment whatsoever. I can relate to it, it sounds very much like something that my brain would do and the words are almost identical to the ones I would use to describe such an experience.

I remember a conversation with my dad about art. I was sounding off about a painting being really expensive for just being a picture of something and he said “son, you have no idea what that picture actually represents, or what it represented at the time. Sure, it’s a picture of a scene, and to you and me it is a really good picture. It looks like what it is a picture of. But imagine that this was the first time someone did that, would that make it more important?”

I didn’t know what he was talking about and he knew it so he continued, “before that picture was painted, people didn’t paint pictures like that, they painted pictures like how they painted pictures. That artist saw that paintings didn’t look like real life and that real life didn’t look like the paintings and he changed that. He saw something that was always there but no one else had ever seen, and if they had, they had never painted it.” He could see that I was still kind of lost so he added, “art is a strange thing son, the artist who created that was the first to paint that way and he was probably laughed at for how bizarre it looked compared to everything else. But it was art because it captured something about reality that no one had ever captured before and after he did it, it could not be unseen.”

That is how I consider the paragraph I quoted above. I wasn’t the first person to have that experience, and I am probably not the first person to put it into words. But I feel good knowing that I captured a moment of humanity that is uncommon but likely experienced by everyone who sits in a cancer center, life on pause, waiting to hear from a team of doctors who are there to offer up their advice about what they can do in response to the cancer that has taken hold. It’s peaceful, still, and extremely short lived. Life starts up again as soon as we gather in the room, and this moment fades into the stew of memories that shape who we become, even if time causes us to forget that it happened.

Reasons To Not Be Afraid – Post Revisited

About seven years ago I wrote what I still regard as the most honest, vulnerable and personal thing I have ever posted. The title of the post was Reasons To Not Be Afraid and it represents as close to bottom as I hope I ever go.

At the time, it had been about six weeks since my father had died and after taking the month of February to rot, drink, overeat, smoke, and basically spiral down, I had a moment of clarity. It was around 4:55 AM on the morning of Wednesday February 29. For some reason, probably because my brain had stopped enjoying the experience of being inside my body, I was snapped awake with the realization that my dad was dead. While this was obvious and something that I was clear on, given that he died on January 29, a part of me had been pushing it away. But through the fog my brain was able to do its thing, reconcile all of the sensory information, interrogate my long term memories and force into my consciousness the painful reality that he wasn’t on vacation and that he was never coming home.

I lost my shit! Waking-up angry is one thing, this was an entirely different animal. My body was already filled with a chemically induced rage courtesy of my medulla dumping the previous months share of adrenaline into my blood stream a few moments before my eyes opened. The worst part was that my eyes opening was not the first action I took that morning. My body had been up and moving around for a while before I joined the party and it was my joining in that slowed everything down; not right away though. I was along for the ride watching my body wrecking things as I tried to get a handle on a tsunami of grief, a growing pain in my right foot and the feeling that something should be ringing in my ears that people get when they are smashed awake by a threateningly loud noise.

There were a few things wrecked in my room, nothing of much value and nothing that was ever missed, but destroyed nonetheless. A fan, a pair of old headphones, a plastic water bottle, stuff that had been near my bed when my hands decided that those items needed to be as far away from me as possible and the rest of my body agreed. The predawn peace had been shattered by things exploding against the wall that had done nothing but try and hold up the house. Its answer? Make sure everything stayed on the inside of the room by providing the perfect surface to convince a few million molecular bonds that their partners were not worth holding on to. It was the noise of their scream as they let go that was responsible for waking me up.

Oh, and I had kicked something.

What does bottom look like? Well, it depends on the person I suppose. For me though it was kind of unremarkable. Bottom was sober. Bottom was clear headed. Bottom was a profound sadness. There wasn’t regret, my dad and I had been very close. His death wasn’t the shock that him getting cancer had been. When someone is given 6-12 weeks to live you know full well what is in the mail.

I was just tremendously sad.

Hitting bottom didn’t look anything like the view on the way there either. And in fairness, even the journey there wasn’t something that would make anyone shake their head in disgust. In the month between his death and me finally accepting it there had been a lot of drinking, over eating and too many cigarettes. Too much sleeping and too much time spent by myself working on a Morrissey flavored depression that was equal parts self indulgence and self pity. But there had been a lot of writing, a lot of insights and a lot of unconsciously coming to terms with the reality that my life was unworkable and had been for a very long time.

With my dad gone, I needed to grow-up – I needed to grow-up anyway, his passing must forced the issue. And as I lay on the floor of my room bawling that morning I accepted that my journey had begun.

Writing the “why’s” and “what ifs” lists in the Reasons To Not Be Afraid was good therapy advice that I had been putting off because the thought of the pain looking that deeply at my life might cause seemed too much to bare. This was an inflection point, a moment when the polarity reverses and the pain of continuing along a path becomes greater than any conceivable pain that would come from seeing what I had made of my life. While I didn’t particularly like what I saw and I detested the fact that I had become someone so afraid of the world that I was compulsively avoiding it, I knew that these were just feelings. If things were different, I would probably feel different.

That was the switch flipping. I had no idea if the future was going to be better, if I would attack the world with confidence and become a man of powerful and pragmatic action. That post, and the lists contained within it, were a reflection and the manifestation of untested beliefs. By doing different things, I would be able to find out if the beliefs were accurate and I would be able to feel something different. That was enough for me. It was clear that I was the one who had been making the decisions and choosing my actions, so I was free to make different decisions and choose different actions. And that is what I did.

Life got better, much better. It turned out that I had been living a lie. While the world is every bit as bad as I thought it was, living in it and being a part of it is a lot easier than avoiding it. While the “why’s” list did contain some accurate reasons, it also included some ad-hoc justifications for indulging in compulsive escapist behaviour. We’re all very good at coming up with reasons to support doing whatever it is we think we should do. The gold though was in my lack of imagination in the “what ifs” list. I was right about most of the things. As I changed my behavior, life got easier and it changed for the better. But I had been negligent in my consideration of the outcome of sustained small actions. Any action taken eliminates an almost infinite number of potential futures while simultaneously creating the possibility of an almost infinite number of alternative ones. It wasn’t just that I would no longer be hiding away from the world, it would be that I was actually engaging it, and that meant doing things, things that I hadn’t even considered being things before let alone things that I would be doing.

Seven years on the only thing that I would change about the post is the last line “I’m not necessarily afraid, but I am anxious,” which was more wishful thinking about the future than anything else. It was too early to make a definitive call on what the experience of change was like. The truth is that I am both afraid and anxious of doing new things and of the unknown in general. And I think I always will be. Life doesn’t start being less scary. There isn’t a desensitization effect as a result of doing stuff.

The main difference now is that I accept that I am afraid and I do it anyway.

Three Deaths – Considering Legacy

There’s a saying, a version of which is attributed to David Eagleman, that details three death points for humans. The first is when the body dies. The second is when the last person who knew you dies. The third is when your name is spoken for the last time.

When I consider this as it applies to my dad, I wonder what he would have thought about it or if he had considered it, what exactly his thoughts were.

My dad was humble, modest and kind. I loved the heck out of him, respected him enough to disagree with his point of view and admired his tendency / passion / compulsion for learning. I tended to view myself as very different from him because there were things about him that I didn’t like. For example, he was always able to see the point of view of the less fortunate. Maybe I viewed that trait as a weakness, maybe I realized that those who roll over and crush people tend to acquire more things, maybe I really didn’t like this part of me. There were a number of things like this and over the last few years I’ve come to terms with the possibility that I just didn’t like that I had them too. I wanted, as my dad did for me, more than he had and to become many of the things that he didn’t, either through his circumstances or by his choice. It struck me that by becoming all the things he wasn’t it would be a good way to ensure that I didn’t live the same life.

Silly isn’t it? I wasn’t going to live the same life as him because he and my mom saw to it that I was given opportunities that he didn’t have. Moving to Canada, being raised as a socially tolerant liberal and getting the chance to attend university ensured that he and I would not live the same life. Plus, it was 30 years later and the world had changed enormously in the three decades between his birth and mine.

That is a big part of his legacy, his children may be like him, but they were not going to be the same as him. Whatever good we do, it is in large part due to his efforts to raise us and to lift our experiences into the realm of the things he never got to do.

Something that I hadn’t consider as being a possibility was the impact that my father had on people. During his wake, an event that I maintain he would have really enjoyed because all his friends were there, with lots of great food, drink and merriment, was a comment that an old neighbor made to me and my brother.

George lived across the street from my parents and was an unstoppable old Scot. A few heart attacks, a number of surgeries and various health issues associated for living fully couldn’t take him down. His doctors didn’t like that he just kept doing whatever it was he wanted but they were powerless to stop him. He didn’t play it safe, ever. 100%, all out, always was what he did. My dad liked him both because he was a decent and interesting man and also because he didn’t take short cuts and thrived on work hard.

George approached us at the wake and said “your father was a great man, he never said a bad thing about anyone.” I thanked him for saying that and muttered some other stuff that I cannot remember. The comment floored me because, while I had countless times heard my see the other side of everything and not just giving people the benefit of the doubt, but actually creating that doubt out of what I imagined was thin air, I had never considered that he was doing it because that was who he was. I always figured it was him being a good parent trying to instill in his children a rule of life that makes living with other people easier and more collaborative.

About a year ago I met another person who I did not know my dad had met. When she found out who I was, she told me that she had met my dad once and had really enjoyed it because he was kind and interesting, and that he had a great sense of humor, with a shameless roaring laugh. Hearing that made me happy, and I considered it a gift, one that I shared with my mom.

Now, as the time rolls on, it has been more than three years since he died, I’m starting to get a handle on what his legacy means to me. I am a lot like my dad, in many of the good ways and some of the ways I once believed were bad. I’m a little more passionate and a lot more dogmatic and single-minded at times. I enjoy learning and always have. I love laughing and can be enthusiastically joyful, a lot of the time.

But when I perceive a lack of fairness, it hurts me and I want to lash out and crush those who are slighting others. And I know this part isn’t working for me and has never. It isn’t helpful because it manufactures a sense that someone is wrong. My dad was able to identify that things were not right, but he was also able to understand that there was a good reason why someone would treat others unfairly. It wasn’t acceptable to do nothing about it, but crushing out of existence the perceived wrong doer wasn’t his way. And I have no problem admitting that I was wrong to view his approach as a weakness. It’s a strength to be able to allow people to be who they are and to try and work with them to change a situation from win:lose to win:win. He understood the important of other people and made the effort to get along with them.

This is a part of his legacy that I am going to try to genuinely emulate. Not just to keep my dads alive, but to keep alive the legacy piece of everyone who came before me who made this their way.

Some End Of Life Considerations You May Not Have Considered

Everyone dies. Until that changes, there is a very good chance that you will need to deal with the end of life of someone you care about; maybe even yourself.

The challenge in dealing with these issues is that death is an emotionally charged subject. As such, your logical thinking capabilities are going to be turned-down or off and your actions will be automatic. The goal of this post is to outline some of the things that can happen and offer-up an alternative possibility that will serve your interest more effectively. Keep in mind that almost everyone is selling something and there are people who will take advantage of your decreased resistance and get you to buy things you don’t want, need or have options about.

1) Parking – for some reason the parking garages of many hospitals are now regarded as profit centers to help bridge the gap between costs and funding. This may be true, but it is a poor justification for charging the loved ones of a terminally ill person $16 a day to park. This cost can grow very quickly and may eventually become a reason for NOT visiting. $112 a week is money that can be better spent.

What To Do: If you cannot get a ride to and from the hospital consider finding a parking lot that is close-by and does not cost anything. If you do need to pay for parking, look for a weekly / monthly pass. These passes may be transferable so you can share it among your relatives and other loved ones.

2) Bringing your own casket / urn – in Ontario you are allowed to supply your own casket / urn and the funeral home legally must use them. This can save you thousands of dollars because you remove another tier of profit takers.

What To Do: Google “casket outlet” and check out some of the sites. You’ll quickly notice that the caskets look great; the same as the ones you will be offered at the funeral home. The outlet will deliver the casket to the funeral home so after you buy it, you can focus your energy on the more important things that need to be addressed.

3) Embalming is not necessary if there is only going to be a single viewing. The tips of the fingers and the finger nails won’t look the same, they’ll likely appear slightly discolored and a little shriveled, but the face will look effectively the same. Having seen both the embalmed and un-embalmed it is a fair statement that neither looks like a living person.

What To Do: If there is only going to be a single viewing, talk to the funeral director about not embalming. They’ll likely try to sell you the service, but they’ll be able to explain the visual differences.

4) You can barter with almost everyone involved in the end of life industry. There is a huge mark-up in everything associated with funerals so you are free to ask for discounts, ask for different vendors and to supply your own. There are a few items / processes that must be taken care of by government regulated companies – there is no DIY cremation for example – so anticipate “no” on a few items, but there is no good reason to pay a 400% mark-up on flowers or catering.

What To Do: Know your budget and be firm with it. Tell the funeral director your budget and always be aware that the amount of money spend on a service has no connection to the life the person lived or the amount of love you feel towards them. The directors are going to suggest more expensive services, upgrades and add-ons that will balloon the cost in no time. They want to create a beautiful experience so their suggestions are probably fair. But only YOU know the experience that is appropriate so stay firm with that. Paying more money for the same experience may not make sense so take the time to consider all of the options and to ask for a lower price.

Every life will come to an end. It can be sad but this sadness should not mean that you get ripped off. Knowing what you want for yourself or for your loved one will arm you to make good decisions that mean you pay only what you need to pay and that you get only what you want. The intensity of the grief will fade and, when it does, it doesn’t need to be replaced with regret or hours of work to pay for stuff you were sold unnecessarily.

Death Of A Loved One – Revisited

A couple of years ago my father died from a brain tumor. It was a very quick process, just over 6 weeks from the first inkling that something wasn’t right to the morning he died. It sucked; it’s going to suck when someone you care about dies, that is the grief process.

My aunt died last week. We weren’t close and hadn’t spoke for a very long time. I’m not sure of the nature of her illness, but she spend the last 16 weeks of her life in hospital and the last few weeks of them basically in a coma. I’m sad for her life ending and for her family.

Heather’s dad has cancer. He was diagnosed in late October of last year with stage 4 esophageal cancer. There is nothing they can do to cure it, only treat the symptoms. He has just finished off his second round of radiation to reduce some of the swelling and improve swallowing. We’re hopeful that he’ll stay around for a long time but the death march has started and a growing number of cognitive cycles are being devoted to processing the inevitable.

Death is not the same for those who are left behind. A friend Ben, who lost his mom to cancer a few years ago, mentioned once that he can’t honestly say to people who are suffering from grief “I know how you feel” because he doesn’t. He explained that everyone has lived a different life so how they experience something isn’t likely going to be the same – and even if it is the same, we’re never going to know that it is the same.

With that, when Heather asked me what it is like when a father dies all I could say is that it is going to be hard in ways that you think it will be easy, easy in ways that you think it will be hard and a whole lot of unknowns. That is rather trite, but is the truth. There are times when I feel terribly sad that my dad is gone. There are times when I’m filled with gratitude for having grown through the experience. There are other times when I feel lost having no idea what the correct way to move forward is, because I can’t ask my dad how to do it. Before he was gone I understood that he played a huge role, after he died I realized exactly what this role was.

I can only imagine what my uncle and his family are going through right now, as I can only imagine what is upcoming for Heather and her family. But I can’t ever know, the journey for them is their own. The only thing I can know with certainty is that their experience will be different from how they can imagine it to be.

Boundaries – Create Them and Keep Them

A challenge some romantics have is to create and maintain boundaries within the context of a relationship. The fantasy / fairy tale view of romantic love is that each partner becomes the other, everything is shared and you are both in simpatico.

The issue with this is that it can create expectations that are not communicated between the partners which can put a lot of pressure on the other person to reciprocate things that may not occur spontaneously. This pressure can cause the partners in the relationship to behave less organically and change to a small or large degree. Overtime, this can lead to friction, resentment and diminished attraction as some of the things that were viewed as attractive in the first place disappear.

Existing in a relationship that does not have boundaries is usually unworkable because each person does have a unique identity and ways of being that serve them well and will be, in some instances, different from that of their partner. Each person has arrived at this moment in time though their experiences and is correct in viewing their path as being a good one since they made it this far. When partners forfeit their identities in favor of a singular shared identity, they sacrifice the lessons from their experiences and move into the world ill-equipped to handle challenging life situations.

By creating and respectfully maintaining boundaries, each individual is able to function to the best of their abilities and decision making is tabled to the most qualified person;this affords each partner the dignity of feeling listened to and heard. A relationship between boundaried people who also serves as an example to other people (children) of what is more effective at lasting success and happiness than some “happily ever after” thin slice of life that is passed off as a child’s book.

Over time there will be a blurring of boundaries, the things that impact one partner will impact the other, but they won’t impact both people in exactly the same way. One will remain strong giving the other someone to lean on for support and as a beacon of normality as change is processed. They’ll be there to make decisions, offer advice, shift focus and keep life going. The challenge of one will not mean the destruction of the relationship because the other will be there to keep life on course.

Cancer – It Takes Over Your Mind Too

I have never had cancer so I have no notion of the first had experience of the disease. This post isn’t about the first hand living and dying of cancer, it’s about the second hand experience of cancer – being alive with someone you love who has it.

The thing with cancer is that it never goes away, even when it is gone, it isn’t ever not there – it just isn’t there right now. A piece of your peace dies with the knowledge of this diagnosis. It is a flash-bulb moment marking the end of that life and the beginning of this new one.

It is the start of a new mental process that runs unstopped until your loved one dies. It’s a process that is mostly in the background, out of the consciousness, yet very taxing on the finite mental resources that exist within each of us. It’s a process that has it’s biggest impact exactly when you forget that it’s there – it reminds you that someone you love is sick and that the blissful moments you knew before are gone forever.

It’s like having a monkey on your back – sometimes the monkey is sleeping allowing your to live a cancer-free existence, like everything is fine and life is good. The rest of the time that monkey is drunk, playing a trumpet and spilling drinks all over your happiness.

And all the while, life goes on. There are bills to pay, dreams to have and life to live. It was coming all along, maybe not the cancer, but the death. The clock of life has been ticking down. Just because some doctor tells you with more clarity that it’ll be arriving sometime soon doesn’t change the fact that it has always been rolling towards us.

This is the piece that I have the least enjoyment with. You put on your game face and try to pay complete attention to the one you love, marked for death, yet not at all different from how they were a few weeks ago. And it is always close by, the though that says “they have cancer and they are going to be dead soon,” spoken with your own voice. Words you couldn’t have imaginable last year when you were all eating at Christmas and they said “hey, who invited this turkey to dinner?”