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Monday, December 23, 2013

A Christmas Story -- Reflections on What Matters


With Christmas upon us, I'm going to depart dramatically from my usual format, and share a true story from my childhood.  I'm spending the holiday with family (updates will be sporadic or non-existent for the next two weeks), and due to certain events which have transpired in my life over the past couple years, this weekend I've found myself increasingly lost in reflection -- and largely uninterested in the market.  This has left me with a strong desire to share something that goes beyond the market.

Though the true events recounted here began one spring many years ago, this is my Christmas story.


*****


It was an unusually beautiful spring; I was 11 years old, just about to turn 12.  Two years prior, within a week of my 10th birthday, I had been run over by a car and nearly killed -- but that's a story for another time, perhaps.  By the approach of my twelfth birthday, I had pretty much healed up okay from the car accident, and (for a change) my mother was the one going to see the doctor and I was accompanying her. She had some small, inexplicable lumps beneath the skin on her left arm.  The doctor decided to run some routine blood tests. None of this seemed like a big deal at the time.
A couple weeks later, my father sat me down and explained that my mother had leukemia. He told me this was a type of cancer that affects your bone marrow; he described it as "cancer that infects your whole body." He explained that there were two main forms of leukemia: acute and chronic. Apparently acute leukemia was the grimmer of the two, and virtually incurable.  It was also the form my mother had just been diagnosed with. She was 35.
Not long after, my mom was admitted to the hospital to undergo aggressive chemotherapy. She was to remain in the hospital full-time for several weeks; and the doctors inserted a catheter directly into her heart, which fed her a constant-drip of chemicals from an IV bag.  Apparently, this treatment weakened her immune system considerably, because when we visited her, we had to wear surgical masks and wash our hands a lot. The first time I saw her, it was a difficult sight: My mom was a kind, loving woman, but she was also very strong and tough. To see her pallid in a hospital gown, with needles and tape stuck all over her... it broke my heart.
One visit which stands out in my memory involved my little sister, who was five at the time. After we went up to the hospital room and said hi, I took my sister down to the gift shop and we purchased a tiny stuffed bear for my mom. When we returned to the room later, my father was virtually screaming at one of the nurses, and there was now a great deal of blood on the floor and sheets: my mother’s blood. My dad saw us and told us to wait in the hall -- but later he explained to me that the nurse had been changing my mom’s catheter and had made a mistake somehow, so that her blood was pumping directly out of her heart and all over everything. This must have been a frightening sight for my mom. No wonder dad was so angry.
Another vivid memory I have is when they let her out on a day trip to come visit us at home. She had to wear a surgical mask the whole time, and I still have a picture of her standing in the living room, just like everything in our lives was normal – except she’s wearing the mask, and her hair is very, very thin. At the time, she begged me not to take the photo… but today, I’m glad that I did.
Throughout this ordeal, my father would remind me that my mother’s disease was terminal and virtually incurable, and that I would be wise to begin accepting her fate. I refused to. I felt that giving up hope would be an act of betrayal of my mother – as if giving up hope meant giving up on her. Deep down, I think I secretly believed that my positive thinking might somehow make her better.

A few months later, the doctors announced -- with much fanfare -- that her leukemia was in remission! She had miraculously beaten the odds. My father seemed as surprised as the doctors. The only person who wasn’t surprised was me, and I still remember my father remarking, “You knew she’d get better the whole time, didn’t you?” I was glad that I hadn’t given up hope, as if my hope had somehow aided her recovery.  
Everyone was elated, and the entire extended family got together to celebrate.  In the midst of that happy moment, it was hard to believe that life could get any better. Of course, none of us could have foreseen that even though mom’s leukemia would not return, she would be dead before the year was out.
*****


It was December 23rd – the eve of Christmas Eve. The tree was lighted and trimmed, the house was decorated, and the overall mood was very festive. My aunt Lori (my mother’s sister) and my Uncle Jack had taken my parents out to dinner, while my favorite uncle, John, was staying at home with my sister and me. My mother, at thirty-five years old, was the eldest child of my grandparents, while John was the youngest, at fourteen. The end result was that John was only two years older than I was, and we had spent a ridiculous amount of time together since the day I was born.  We felt (and treated each other) more like brothers than like uncle and nephew.
Ostensibly, we were supposed to be baby-sitting my now-six-year-old sister, but we'd spent the majority of our time ignoring her, and were instead choosing to play around on my dad’s new IBM PC.  This was in the days before Windows was invented, and I had become quite the self-taught programmer of Basic A.  We were working on creating a “choose your own adventure” style fantasy game. The computer was in the basement, where my dad kept his home office, so we had quarantined my sister to her room. We hoped she wasn’t getting into any trouble.
When my parents finally came home from dinner, my mom announced their return from upstairs, and I shouted my quick hello back up to her, from the bottom of the basement stairs. Then we resumed our programming.  We were in the midst of a storm of creative genius, after all, and could hardly be bothered to run all the way upstairs just to greet everyone.

Maybe twenty minutes later, my dad came racing – sprinting – down the stairs and grabbed the phone on his desk. His hands were shaking, and he was crying as he dialed the line.  John and I had been laughing about something when my dad bolted into the room, so were literally frozen mid-laugh and instantly tense, trying to figure out what was happening.  Then my dad started speaking urgently, in a rough and trembling voice I didn't recognize as his: “I need an ambulance right away, my wife just dropped to the floor…” John and I didn’t hear the rest; we were already running up the stairs.

We got to the top of the stairs and stood there in the kitchen for a moment, confused about what to do next. We heard a horrible sound coming from the next room – a loud, raspy sound that was part groan, part rattled breathing. I didn’t know what to make of it. To me, it sounded like someone choking on the air in their own lungs.
Walking very cautiously now, frightened of what we might find, we rounded the corner that led to the family room. We stopped in the threshold, and my mind tried to make sense of what I was seeing. My mother was lying on the floor, and my Uncle Jack, who was a medical intern, was kneeling next to her. As he pushed down on her diaphragm, the horrible choking sound I had heard earlier escaped from my mom’s motionless lips. I couldn’t understand this at all; at first I thought Jack was intentionally hurting her. My brain didn’t register this as CPR. We watched, stunned, for a few seconds before Jack looked up, saw us, and shouted, “Jesus Christ, Lori, get the kids out of the room!” My aunt looked as shocked as we were. She wandered over, her eyes glazed, and led us back to the kitchen. My sister joined us from somewhere, and the four of us sat down at the table.

“What’s happening?” I asked Lori, “Is mom choking?”

Lori paused for a moment before replying, “Your mom is having a heart attack." I'm tempted to say this was stated as gently as possible, but it was clear Lori was badly shaken-up and it was said more with a tone of "this-can’t-be-happening" disbelief.

I wanted to know if mom would be okay; Lori hoped so. I wanted to know how it had happened; Lori said they weren’t doing anything, just watching TV, when suddenly my mom fell over, off the couch and onto the floor.  
I wanted to know why.  Lori said the chemicals from the chemotherapy had weakened my mom's heart.

Shortly thereafter, the paramedics arrived. We couldn’t see what was happening, because someone had shut the parlor doors that led out of the kitchen. So we sat there without speaking, almost holding our breath; we were all listening intently, trying to catch clues that might tell us how the situation was progressing. 
There were broken bits of sound coming from the other rooms -- sounds that didn't belong in our home at Christmas: strangers talking in urgent voices; the wheels of a gurney humming across the wooden floor; the occasional static-beep of a walkie-talkie.  
I have no idea how much time elapsed, but throughout this entire ordeal, none of us spoke a single word.

After a time, we heard what sounded like hundreds of loud footsteps: first pounding, then muffled over my mom’s prized oriental rug, and then pounding again across the wood floor and out of the house. Finally, the ambulance siren: loud at first, but gradually retreating... and eventually swallowed completely by the cold winter night.
The house was suddenly very quiet and lonely.

My dad opened the parlor doors from the other side, and it was almost a shock to see the doors could be opened at all.  They had become a wall in my mind -- the impenetrable barrier between those who could do something to help, and those who waited helplessly.  

My dad sat down with us briefly.  Then he announced he was headed to the hospital, but that everything would be okay: The paramedics had gotten mom's heart beating again! I breathed the most heart-felt sigh of relief I'd ever experienced.  We all did.  Then we looked around at each other and smiled in reassurance: Everything was going to be alright after all!  I imagined that tomorrow we'd get to visit mom at the hospital (a scene I could picture with ease), and things would be fine -- maybe my sister and I would even buy her another stuffed teddy bear.  It could become a family tradition!


It had been a long, exhausting evening, and it was pushing on toward midnight. John and I retired to my room, and I fell asleep almost instantly.
*****

A few hours later, I was awakened by my father's presence. He was sitting on the edge of my bed, in silence at first.  Only a thin sliver of light seeped in through my slightly-open bedroom door, yet I could see that his eyes were moist.  I became aware of the murmur of other voices coming from the living room.  It was still dark, so I knew the sun hadn't risen yet; I glanced at the clock: 3:15 a.m.  It was officially Christmas Eve.
“How is she?” I asked, “How’s mom?”

He put his hand on my shoulder, and his hand trembled.  It was obvious he was in pain, and wrestling with exactly what he should say.  Finally, he said simply, “I’m sorry, Jason." His voice cracked as he continued, "Your mom didn’t make it.”
I wasn't ready to hear this, and my heart certainly wasn't willing to accept it immediately -- so my mind feigned ignorance and pleaded misunderstanding.  
I asked him, “What do you mean?”  As if there could be any different meanings to his words. 
There had to be some better meaning -- a good meaning.  My question was a delay tactic.  It was a way to live one final instant, however brief, in a world where everything was the way it should be.  Our family was going to celebrate Christmas tomorrow!  
I began picturing it immediately, before he could answer and destroy everything:  Mom would unwrap the humble presents I'd give her, while graciously pretending they were exactly what she’d wanted... and actually, I was pretty sure she'd genuinely like the tea pot I bought her (with my own money), because it matched her favorite tea cups.  I'd waited anxiously since Black Friday to find out if she would like it -- finally I would know for sure!  Then in the afternoon, we'd drive over to see grandma and grandpa...
“Your mother died at the hospital,” he said softly.
And with those six quiet words, there was no further escape.  The good world I so desperately wanted to keep living in began to crumble, reducing itself to pieces at an alarming speed.  I was left grasping at its remains, as my twelve-year-old mind recoiled from this new reality and sought frantically to put the old world back together. 
But as you learn in those life-shattering moments, those broken pieces of your old world are ice-cold and razor-sharp; so the tighter you try to grasp them, the more they cut you and make you bleed.   You are reflexively forced to release everything you once held so tightly, and you end up watching helplessly as the dearest parts of your life fall from your grasp and shatter.  In the end, you are left staring at a pile of shards -- the remnants of your broken life.

It is during this moment that you begin to realize your old, familiar world will forever remain beyond repair.

Feeling as if someone just pulled the chair out from under you, you begin a sort of internal free-fall into the fresh hole in your heart where your loved one used to be.  And while you may not yet grasp the complete and utter finality, the cold reality does truly begin to hit you -- and with gale force.
Your first instinct is to deny the situation, but deep down, you understand there is no escape from this new reality.  There is no way to fix it.  What is happening is not optional.  It does not even qualify as the "only choice" -- you are given no choice at all.  

I suddenly realized there was no way to avoid this new fate.  The life I recognized was gone.  Forever.

At twelve years old, I didn’t have a reaction for this realization.  In my struggle to process these intense feelings, my emotional gears were exceeding their design capacity, and they began to grind together in a horrible, increasingly unbearable cacophony.  I searched frantically for an internal escape valve, an overload switch, an emergency shutoff -- something. 

Then suddenly, almost as quickly as it had begun, my emotional machinery jammed entirely.  Everything froze up.  It turns out some feelings are so intense as to be self-limiting. 
There was internal silence, and an unusual sort of peace crept over me. I was shocked into a deep, hollow numbness.  I gradually became aware that I was still lying in my bed, in my dark room -- and it was still Christmas Eve. 
I felt as if I'd just traveled a thousand miles over a hundred years.  But my dad hadn't moved and, despite my rapid and intense internal journey, he, too, was still there on the edge of my bed.  Nothing had changed from a minute ago.  
Everything had changed.  

He asked if I was okay, if I needed to talk, and I said flatly, “No, I'm fine. I’m going back to sleep.”  My complete lack of observable reaction probably confused and concerned him, so he continued sitting there for a while, trying to be reassuring.  I wanted him to leave so I could fall back asleep -- maybe when I woke up later, life would have magically become normal again. I noticed that John was no longer sleeping on the floor.  There were still numerous voices, and the sound of someone crying loudly, coming from the living room. Eventually my dad stood up reluctantly and walked out of my room, softly closing the door behind him. 

I was alone in the darkness.  I remember lying on my back and staring up into the dark void where I knew my ceiling was.  I didn't want to believe my dad; it just didn't seem possible.  How could life change this dramatically in the span of only a few hours?  But I knew it was true -- intellectually, if not emotionally just yet.  
And when I finally did shut my eyes, the dark void remained. 

A short while later, I heard him yelling at someone, “You never showed her this much love when she was alive!” Then I fell asleep.


*****


At the funeral, all I could think about was how I never went upstairs to greet her when she came home.  I desperately wanted to see her smiling face again, to give her that one last hug. But I was too busy with some stupid computer program. I felt somehow cheated -- not by fate, but by my own doing.  She had been alive when she came home that night, and I had missed it.

And I had missed her last moments on earth not due to some circumstance beyond my control, but because I chose not to spend that time with her. I learned a valuable lesson about making choices, and living with the consequences of those seemingly-small choices. To this day, I still regret not going upstairs to see her.  My final memory of her is wanting: one last hello, echoed coldly up at her from the bottom of the basement stairs.
  
In the months that followed, when no one was around, I would sometimes sit at the bottom of that dimly-lit and slightly-musty staircase, listening intently -- hoping to hear the sound of her heels (the ones she wore to dinner that last night) clacking against the kitchen floor as she approached.  Or maybe hoping I would catch a glimpse of her shadow as it fluttered briefly into the stairwell when she passed by.  Or maybe just hoping that something, anything, would happen to fill the silences which grew deafening in her absence.

I waited for hours.  She never came. 
 
But in those moments, I vowed to never take the people I love for granted again.  

There was no way I could know this at the time, but twenty-seven years later, fate would test that vow. And the next time, I would pass that test. (Yet another story for another time, perhaps.)
*****
We all work to maintain stability in our lives, and once we achieve it, it's not unusual for it to continue for long stretches.  The trouble begins because it's human nature to take familiar things for granted.  Just like investors near the end of a bull market, we often become complacent about our lives during times of prosperity. 

Fate is fickle.  Lives can and do change in an instant.  I've personally never been able to put this concept down any more succinctly than Robert Herrick did in the 17th century, when he admonished us "to make much of time" and wrote:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
 

And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

 

Although we may feel the urge to become complacent about the future, life makes us one guarantee, and one guarantee only:  this exact present moment.  There really is no such thing as the future, except in our imaginations.  This truth is even echoed to us regarding equities: "Past performance is no guarantee of future results."  But in life's case, past performance is no guarantee of future. Period.  

My point is not to be fatalistic.  Quite the opposite: My point is that we should strive to avoid complacency in our approach toward life in general.  During times of prosperity, it's easy to fall into patterns which are based on assumptions of a future which may never materialize.  We put off phone calls, visits, and time with loved ones based on such assumptions.  We prefer not to consider that by the time the future becomes the present, it may no longer be in a form that's even recognizable to us today. 

If one wishes to avoid regrets, then the time to examine our complacency and challenge our assumptions is right now -- because while the future is always imaginary, with each successive tick of the clock "now" becomes part of the past.  And that past is immutable.

We're goal-driven creatures, so we're often tempted to focus on the future as some sort of reward for the present.  I think, in this regard, we can take a lesson from the end of the rainbow -- the "end result reward" is an illusion.  There is no true end, not in the sense we want to believe.  There's no perfection, no absolute completion, no "game over, baby, I beat life; can't wait 'til they come out with the sequel!"

If we can't find meaning right now, here in the present, then we never will.  After all, when you finally get to the future, what do you actually discover?  You discover it's still the present.  There is nothing else.

So how do we work toward our goals without becoming obsessed with the future and with end results?  These are questions which have challenged philosophers since the beginning of time, and I certainly don't have all the answers.  I can't promise my solutions are the best or only solutions, but I can say I've found they work when I can remain consistent in them. 

My solution starts with the knowledge that the future isn't guaranteed, only the present is guaranteed.  Since I know this to be true, I am thus able to determine that ideals which place the future ahead of the present, such as "the end justifies the means," are completely backwards.

What I believe is: The means justify the end.

In other words, if you do your best, live your life with as much honor and integrity as you possibly can, treat others as well as you can, and still fail in the end -- then that's okay. You have done what you were put here to do. The "end results" are out of your control, and in essence, none of your business. 


If you value doing things right above results, you will generally still be a great achiever, but you will not do so at the expense of other people.  If it can't be done right, if it can't be won fair and square, then forget it; you don't need it.  Life has something better for you, you just haven't recognized it yet. 


And there's another factor which tells us why we must value right action above results, which is:  Doing good things does not guarantee good results.  An obvious example would be a fireman who charges into a burning building to save a child, but loses his own life in the process.  

If we primarily focus on end results, all too frequently we will fail to take the risks which define a good life (most of the time these are emotional risks as opposed to physical).  We must thus take right action for its own sake, not for the end result, or we have no guiding principle and will quickly become lost in situational ethics.  
  
Despite earlier mention of failure, I've found this approach usually leads to less mistakes and improved performance -- partially because we're not wasting energy trying to control something imaginary which will never exist (the future).  We prioritize more accurately when we're focused on reality (the present).

And since the dual-focus is on doing the right thing at all times, we have a constant lodestar to guide us whenever there's a choice between two paths.  If fate steps in later and unexpectedly rips your life apart and leaves you exposed and naked with nowhere to turn, at the end of it all, you will actually still have everything you started with -- the only thing that's truly yours in this world: your own self-respect.  It will survive because you'll have very few regrets regarding your own actions.  To the contrary, you will find your past to be a source of strength.

Self-respect brings us to another concept which I believe modern pop philosophy has completely backwards:  "We must first love ourselves before we can love others."  This has become such common "wisdom" as to be cliche, and yet I cringe every time I hear it.  As I see it, it's a non-sequitur.  I don't know about you, but I love and respect myself the most when I'm a good person; and to me, that means being a loving person.  When I catch myself behaving selfishly, it often costs me a bit of self-respect.  So that tells me I cannot love myself "first" -- in fact, putting myself first is the very thing that can prevent me from loving myself.

I think the problem comes with our understanding of love; and I believe we over-complicate this issue because we have no separate terminology for emotional love vs. principled love.  As I see it: love is about doing what's best for the other person, plain and simple.  Sometimes this takes the form of romance, sometimes this take the form of empathy, sometimes it takes the form of discipline, or "tough love," etc..  Love is adaptable.  The common thread lies not in a specific action, but in the fact that love always thinks of the other's needs first and of its own desires second.

So when it comes to "putting ourselves first," I think love is the wrong ideal for that concept.  Where I partially agree is this: If we're not feeding our inner selves properly and on the right things, then we won't have the strength to truly love other people.  Ultimately though, I believe these concepts are inseparably intertwined, so would change the "love yourself first" concept to, perhaps: 

"Nourishing ourselves allows us to love and nourish others, while loving others allows us to love and nourish ourselves."  

It's a positive feedback loop; each step strengthens, and at the same time completes, the other. Simply advocating we "love ourselves before we love others" is to advocate the impossible.  To draw analogy from the physical world: there is no such thing as an "inside" without an "outside," and there's no such thing as an outside without an inside.  These components cannot even exist individually; they can only exist and function as a whole.

Anyway... as I see it, at the end of it all, what more can we really hope for but a loving life lived well and with honor?


So that's my Christmas story, and a few of my life-long reflections on the experience.  My hope is that there's something in there which someone else may find of value, too. 

Happy Holidays to all my readers, in whatever form that celebration means to you.  I'll return shortly after the start of the New Year (of course: barring the unforeseeable future!) with more charts and market projections.  In the meantime, best wishes to everyone for a safe and enjoyable holiday.

And if you're reading this from the next life somehow:  Merry Christmas, Mom.  



Follow me on Twitter while I try to figure out exactly how to make practical use of Twitter:
 @PretzelLogic  https://twitter.com/PretzelLogic



Reprinted by permission; Copyright 2013 Minyanville Media, Inc.

6 comments:

  1. Thanks, Jason. It's not easy to revisit those moments, I know. And to do it publicly...well, just thank you. A truly great and courageous post.

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  2. Jason
    Thanks for the personal story about the tragic loss of your Mother and life...Self acceptance then living ones life with renewal and purpose in the present...I lost my Mother to that same disease 6 years ago...Her birthday is dec 28th...Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday Mom !
    John

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  3. Awesome post. I truly enjoy dropping by because I never know WHAT I am going to find when I get here, but it is ALWAYS amazing and life altering. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Thanks for sharing.

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  4. This is heartbreaking -- and beautifully written. A reminder about what's important in life (even though we're all here to talk about money). I needed to read this TODAY. Thank you, Jason.

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  5. Hi Jason, thank you for sharing your story with us and highlighting the power of positivity even through the bad times. I'm so sorry about the loss of your mother at such a young age. Be here now - one of my favourite adages and your story really embodies the lesson you learnt and are writing about in the hopes of spreading the good message. God bless and Merry Christmas :)

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  6. Thank you to everyone for the warmth and kind thoughts below. Best wishes to you and yours this season. <3

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