I Miss You and Thank You

To my parents: Thank you for everything. Your efforts throughout your courageous battles have made me better. I promise I will continue to improve. I wish you were here to see it. I'm so grateful and proud of you. I love you and I miss you.

This post is for my personal reference, and anything I suggest within is directed at myself. You may agree with the suggestions or not, but please understand they are not my outward advice. The perspective I've reached at this point in my life can never again occur under the same circumstances. If similar events never refresh this perspective (I hope similar events never occur), then I hope this reference will keep these thoughts from fading too far below what I may consider more important in the future.

General advice from those who are likely closer to the end of their lives than the beginning is golden. Review it frequently. Understand, however, that those who offer that advice often do so knowing that it will become part of a public list and/or the advice given will contribute to their social image. I was given the fortunate and unfortunate but immutable opportunity to observe and infer some wisdom through the actions of two very different people that I love very much.

This next part is to provide some context to the blast of profound events and emotions that rocked my foundations and formed the perspective I now have. I will try to be concise to avoid detracting the post from its purpose. Please do not confuse that with a lack of sensitivity and compassion.

My father was diagnosed with lymphoma when I was struggling through a very low point in my life and felt like a complete failure. He was my lifeline when it seemed I had support from nowhere else. We were very close before his diagnosis, and we remained at least as close throughout his courageous battle. Statistically, he had about a 65% chance to survive, and even beat it into remission, but the lymphoma returned and took his life about two years after his initial diagnosis. Geographically, I was his closest child, and fortunately I was able to accompany him to appointments and otherwise support him where he needed help.

A few months after he died, my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. It had advanced too far, and her oncologist informed us that it was terminal. My mother asked me to be her pillar of support the same way she believed I was for my father, and to accompany her to appointments. I was glad to. She fought bravely and remained optimistic, but the cancer took her life about two years after her diagnosis as well.

During those four years, I also lost my last remaining living grandparent. I became a father, and our first son was almost six months old when my father died. I helped my oldest brother deal with marital troubles and a tough divorce. And my wife and I endured the high risk pregnancy of our second son who was born healthy four days before my mother died.

Many of the lessons I've learned in these past four years are repeated in popular lists of life lessons and advice. Here are some that weren't quite so obvious until I observed my parents' transitions in the final two years of their lives.

1) At least some happiness can be found in realizing how much we truly have to be grateful for. We, unfortunately, take too much for granted too quickly after we have it. Remind yourself every day of something different that you are grateful for. If you can read this at all, then you were probably born into a better situation than half of the other people on this planet. Be grateful for that, and do something to help the other half catch up. If someone has earned your gratitude, then clearly and directly express your thankfulness to that person. Try to earn the gratitude of others, whether you believe they deserve it or not.

2) If you'll regret not having expressed your affection toward someone you deeply care for before they're gone, then do it now.

3) Listen, especially to the stories about the lives of those you love. Their eyes have a wonderful glow when their minds are engulfed in a nostalgic euphoria. Listen more and talk less to everyone. Discover their true interests, not just the stuff they're willing to share publicly.

4) Help someone who needs it at that moment without expecting anything back. When you genuinely expect nothing in return, you'll feel the satisfaction of knowing how grateful you would've been if the tables were turned.

5) Treat everyone the way you would like to be treated if you were in their shoes and shared their perspective. You may not always know what to do or say, but always be kind.

6) Waste little time lamenting unfairness. You don't have much time left. Use it to advance even if the first step is to begin clawing your way back from a deep pit. If you can spare others from injustice, do it.

7) Leaving your comfort zone will make you feel...uncomfortable. If you don't feel uneasy and out of your league, you can go faster. The satisfaction isn't felt during the struggle, but after you've tried. Stay curious and keep getting better. Advance fast enough to consider yourself foolish and naive in your recent past.

8) Some excuses will seem very convincing. Don't believe them, and don't try to make anyone else believe them. Dig down to find the real cause of the failure, and address that.

9) Never lose hope. Find a way to make it work. In the tough situations, it may take a lot of tries along many different paths, but don't give up. If an early try works out on a difficult problem, don't celebrate your ability. Be grateful for the time you've saved, and move on to the next challenge.

10) Don't give yourself any new reason to think back and say, "I wish I had tried."

The next part is about 'playing house' in the sense that Paul Graham describes in his essay and talk 'Before the Startup' [1]. This was the most telling revelation that occurred to me as I watched my parents rearrange their priorities when they knew they would be dead soon. Each began to shed the fakeness built up throughout years of their lives via playing house. It was a steady transition, but both seemed to be unconscious of it.

I don't know enough about it yet to completely understand why playing house is so important to people in our society who live without knowledge of their imminent death. It fascinates me though, and I'd like to find out why it has become seemingly essential. I presume it's meant to build protective barriers around any truth that would be interpreted negatively by too many within one's society, and display a more acceptable image instead. I noticed that almost everyone (myself included) plays house to some degree. It would seem that pure honesty would be very valuable in a society like ours that puts such importance upon relationships. However, the facades fiercely upheld by so many put the honest ones, who often seem like outcasts, at a disadvantage. This discourages others from being completely honest, sometimes even with themselves.

I continue to gain respect for those who are different than myself, especially if that difference makes them a minority. Don't shun difference. Seek it out and thoroughly explore it as objectively as possible. Then, decide if it's better than the alternatives you're aware of. If something genuinely piques your interest, explore further regardless of how different that makes you than anyone or everyone else.

I understand that many people will initially hide or even lie about their true selves. Some of them may not even realize they're lying, as they consciously believe the lies. I find myself more and more attracted to people who seem to feel at least slightly uncomfortable with playing house. In an effort to rid myself of barriers that I may have erected that prevent me from consciously realizing what I really enjoy, I pay a lot more attention to how I feel when I'm focused on something. If I'm so enthralled by an activity that I feel irritated to have to stop in order to eat, sleep, or any other necessary function to retain my desired lifestyle, then that's a good indicator. If I look back on the time I spent focused on that activity and feel a sense of accomplishment, then it's something I should consider doing more of regardless of what anyone else may think.

One of the fortunate outcomes of this very difficult time is that I discovered Hacker News (HN) after I lost my dad. While my father was alive, I would often discuss my thoughts and doubts with him; I'd generally seek him for answers and guidance. I wasn't exposed to many different perspectives up to that point, and my worldview was far too narrow. When he was gone and I had to be my mother's support system, I was lost mentally. I'm so grateful I stumbled upon the collective of very thoughtful and different individuals that make HN great. It's the best place I've found so far with a high density of minds I'm attracted to. HN, you have been an amazing resource to learn from and lean on for mental support. Thank you.

Thank you to the founders of YC, and thank you PG for building HN. Perhaps it was an unexpected consequence, but I can't thank you all enough for the positive effect the things you've built have had on my life so far.

[1] http://www.paulgraham.com/before.html