A Birthday, a Funeral and a Centenarian

In the last month, I’ve been touched by significant moments in the lives of three dear friends.  Nick died too early, at 59; I attended his funeral. I was at Phil’s 70th birthday party. And I spent two days with Eric, who is three months shy of 100 years old.

All three had changed significantly in the last 5-10 years.  My question is—what do you call that thing that they all learned?

Nick Iversen

I knew Nick for 45 years. In his last five years he underwent a gradual transformation. He struggled with cancer, but I think the struggle ennobled him.

His funeral was in New York, on Lexington Avenue. Every speaker had the same intent message: Nick lived a great life, and shared it warmly. He was a raconteur, author, bon vivant, musician, party-goer and party-giver.

His daughter spoke. “I told him that my mom had said he was her best friend, and he was surprised.  ‘Why are you surprised?’ I said. ‘You’re everybody’s best friend.’”  His son spoke touchingly of the loss of his own best friend—his father, Nick.

I did not speak so well of my parents at their funerals; I don’t expect my kids to do so at mine.  But Nick’s story reminds me–that’s entirely up to me.

Nick was always a great guy. But in his last five years, he lost some cynicism; he became more open, more overtly cheerful, more in love with every minute of life. He had enough time to become the person he always had it in him to be.

What do you call that thing that Nick learned?

Phil McGee

I joined 100 fans of Phil at his lovely birthday party. Some people knew him as CEO of a small business; all of us knew him as a warm, genuine human being.

His brother may have said it the best:

We grew up Irish Catholic in Jersey City; a tough town. What that means is that when you get old and get Alzheimer’s, you forget everything but your resentments.

Except for Phil. He got reverse Alzheimers—he only forgot his resentments.

I knew what he meant. Phil was born to anger, resentment, and frustration boiling over into negativity. But he was also blessed with a strong will, and a remarkable ability to look inside himself and pull himself up by his own bootstraps.

Phil said the last 10-15 years have been his happiest.  I’ve seen him those 15 years, and I can believe it.  He now speaks of being unafraid to cry.

And while he still occasionally comes face to face with his old instincts of self-loathing and wilting criticism of others, he never gives into them anymore.  “Instead,” he says, “I now actually get a kick out of myself.”

What do you call that thing that Phil learned?

Eric Cunliffe (see p. 5)

I recently spent several days with my ex father-in-law, born in South Boston in October of 1911. Do the math.

He has been remarkably fit and spry all his life, though he’s been ailing lately.

For most of his life, he was a hard living, adventuresome, opinionated, curmudgeonly man. He had more opinions than careers, and he had tons of the latter.

He too, changed in the last 5-10 years. He became more mellow, reflective, curious, and solicitous of others. Since my last visit, he had apparently become something of a Christian. To my surprise, he credited several conversations with me as having helped the transition.

I don’t consider myself a Christian, but I remember the conversations he referred to; they did steer him to the spiritual. I was very touched when he hugged me, told me he loved me, and how much he appreciated my having come to visit him. He told his wife how he felt, and I got another set of hugs, hugs of appreciation, from her.

What do you call that thing that Eric learned?

It isn’t about age; Nick learned it in his 50s. It isn’t even about impending mortality; Phil is still alive and well.

It’s a glorious gift, whatever it is. I think I want it.  I’m just not sure what to call it.