My Last Christmas

As some of you may know, this holiday season has been a real milestone for me because this is the tenth anniversary of “My Last Christmas,” as in my final Christmas on earth.  Ten years ago, the week before Thanksgiving, on the day before my 45th birthday, I was told that I would not likely live to see another Christmas because I had terminal kidney cancer.  I spent the entire holiday season – and beyond – in doctors’ offices and hospitals, reading medical journals, finding hope, then losing hope after having tests that always seemed to bring worse and worse news.

Now, at this point, let me say, I can hear you thinking.  And what I hear is:  “Well, this is certainly uplifting.  What’s THIS got to do with the Happy LIFE?”  Well, please bear with me just a bit longer because here’s what I hope:  that thinking about what kind of Christmas you’d have if you knew it was going to be your last one, might help make this the best Christmas of your life.

Here are the top ten things I learned from my “last” Christmas:

1)   When you don’t know what else to do, go for a walk.  Or, take a bath.  Depending on how cold it is outside.  And don’t confuse the two because good walking shoes are not waterproof – and the neighbors won’t appreciate seeing you naked

2)   It’s OK to pray for healing but you’d better pray for strength and acceptance, too.  And the simplest act – from cleaning the kitchen to walking around the block – can become a prayer of gratitude for each moment that you have

3)   No matter how hard it is to wait for the right time, and no matter how far away they are, deliver bad news to the people who love you in person

4)   The people you’ve always laughed with before, may – or may not – be good at finding the humor in dying.  And the people you least expect may end up being the most comfort

5)   As hard as it is, dying is a lot harder on your family than it is on you – and they will become a whole lot closer to one another over the prospect of losing you

6)   A final family portrait is a good idea – and giving each other rabbit ears in a photo booth is the best portrait of all

7)   When it comes to spending your time, “who” is far more important than “how”

8)   Happiness really is a choice – and we can make a different choice every second of every day

9)   Christmas is about what’s in your heart, not what’s under the tree

And the biggest thing I learned from being told – ten Christmases ago – that I’d never live to see another Christmas:

10)  Don’t believe every freaking thing you hear.


Note:  This post is adapted, just a little bit, from the remarks I was asked to give as “Holiday Sunshine” at a local Kiwanis Club (of which I am honored to be a member).  This is something I’ve been thinking about since I realized, around the time of my birthday this year, that it was the tenth anniversary of my “Last” Christmas.  Since this is also the year of “The Happy LIFE” project, it occurred to me that the Happy LIFE isn’t always sunshine and lollipops, either – so this is what came out when I sat down to write my Holiday Sunshine remarks.  And, in the interest of full disclosure and painting the fuller picture of the things I learned during that time, I’ll add this:  according to our daughter, one of the things I learned is how NOT to be such a [jackass] about putting up a Christmas tree.   I’m not fully cured of that one yet, though. 


The Real Lights of LIFE

I’ve confessed.  Yes, I am a recovering Grinch.  Where holiday hoopla is concerned, no, thanks – I’d just rather not.  But, as far as the meanings – the heart of the holidays – I do get that part.  And, I have my fellow members of the Life University (LU) community to thank for reinforcing the heart of what I’m going to call the “winter holidays” last December, also demonstrating they “got” the Happy LIFE, even before it became a “thing.”

 In the workplace, it’s especially important to recognize that not everyone comes from the same tradition.  The winter holiday, for the majority of Americans, is of course Christmas.  Other Americans and international residents of America honor traditions that include other winter holidays like Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Eid-el-Adha, and Bodhi Day (and all the others that I don’t even know enough to know that I don’t know about them).  And, pretty universally regardless of one’s holiday traditions, the end of the year is also a time for celebrating the completion of another year and reflecting on its events and how we lived them. 

 So, when we (the LU Staff Council) instituted a “Departmental Holiday Decorating Contest” (SUCH as catchy name, right?), the elements on which entries were judged were festiveness, inclusiveness, University exemplification (using LIFE and/or its values as a thematic element) and accomplishments (celebrating the departments’ top 1-3 accomplishments as another thematic element).  The contest, even though it was introduced on very short notice, turned out to be a big hit.  It also proved to be a real team building experience for the departments that were able to take up the challenge on such short notice.  This year, with more notice, the competition (and celebration) could be fierce (in a very good natured, Happy LIFE way, of course).

 But, we have to do something about that name!

 And, of course, I have a suggestion.  Here’s some background.  At Life University, we have a long-standing and pretty magnificent drive-through display of holiday decorations that is called, not surprisingly, “The Lights of LIFE.”  People from all over the Metro Atlanta region have been visiting the Lights of LIFE each winter holiday/Christmas season for decades now.  Even people (including me) who think they’re all Grinchy, are pretty impressed by it and, if visitors we’ve taken through it are any indication, will often laugh out loud at the fun they have driving through it. 

So, we already have a huge holiday decoration event going on each winter that is so cool  it has a “brand identity.”  Pretty much everyone in the area knows about the Lights of LIFE.  Still, even as impressively cool and fun as it is, the Lights of LIFE display is holiday hoopla.  More and more, I’m getting that the hoopla happens for very good reasons.  But, the REAL lights of LIFE are the people who make everything at the University happen, day in and day out.  They’re the people who care about each other, our students and our mission of preparing our graduates to create for themselves lives of success and significance – to be transformational leaders in a world desperately in need of change.  And, they’re the people who come to us as students, committed to becoming the change they want to see in the world.

 All of these people are the real Lights of LIFE – the Inner Lights of LIFE.*


* and that’s my suggestion for the departmental holiday decorating contest – other suggestions are welcome in the comments section.   

Hallmark Moments

The Happy LIFE is trying to teach me a lot of lessons – and I think I’ve got some work to do, becoming open enough to learn a couple of them. 

Even though I’ve been learning about celebrating and how important it is, I’d be forced to admit having become an old curmudgeon about holidays.  Oh, in my younger years, I did go through a spell of investing much time and talent into very tasteful and, dare I say, elegant Christmas decorations.  I’m kind of over it, though, partly because I’m all old and partly because, let’s face facts here, Christmas decorations are a pain in the buhdunkadunk.  This is tragically true when your family subscribes to the theory that, when it comes to Christmas decorations, too much is too much, but WAY too much is just right. 

And, it’s not Christmas that I have a hard time with.  It’s all the hoopla surrounding Christmas.  You know, for unto us this day a child is given, cut down a tree and get me an Xbox.  Sorry, Lord.  I hope you know what I mean.

And, as long as I’m ‘fessing up, I might as well admit that I’m especially curmudgeonly about holidays that seem to be pure inventions of the greeting card industry.  But, you know, even if it’s the most artificial and manufactured “holiday” or celebration ever in the annals of consumerism, it’s meaningful to someone and for good reason.

I need to learn to recognize that fact and here’s why.  First, some people are just so sweet they genuinely enjoy greeting card opportunities, both giving and receiving.  Second, others of us are not so sweet and could use reminders to express our gratitude.  Third, still others of us are very sweet and could use reminders to accept expression of gratitude.  And, lastly, there are others (thankfully few) who just want to hold it against someone because they didn’t get a card. 

 Fortunately, though, the first three are basically positive and only the last one is clearly negative.  So, numbers work out if that 3-to-1 positivity ratio that Dr. Barbara Fredrickson has researched holds up.  According to Dr. Fredrickson, in order for us to have a sense of happiness and perhaps even flourish, we need three positive experiences for every negative one.  Now, in no way am I implying this as a literal application of Dr. Fredrickson’s ratio, but I think it conveys the principle.  To “counteract” anything negative I put in the world, I have to put at least three times that in positives.  Here’s what I’m saying: Ain’t nobody got time for all that.  Act right in the first place, save lots of time.

As for celebrations, if it came printed or as a default holiday on the calendar, it’s important to someone.  If I can’t celebrate it, I can at least respect it.