Thursday, January 26, 2006


The book has now progressed through Eugene O'Kelley's terminal diagnosis. Unanticipated aspects of his character are emerging.

As a driven career man, Mr. O'Kelley's first reaction is to tackle his impending death as another project. He doesn't seem to flinch at the reality of his condition. Once it is clear to him that he is well into his final year, he works to formulate a plan. After a very brief transition he makes a clean break with his career and turns to face death on his own terms.

He abandons chemotherapy after three days because he finds that it's not worth the side effects. He continues radiation because it relieves some of the symptoms (not pain - that isn't a problem so far). Here we see a new aspect of his character - empathy, and some reflection.

Just months before, and for my whole life before, I had been used to - and expected - people operating at a very high standard. If they didn't, they might lose my confidence. That's just the way the business world worked. I don't mean to say that I or we lacked all compassion; it's just that our index for evaluating people was competency. Proficiency. Quality. It had to be. If someone said something that in my opinion was carelessly conceived -- whether it was one of the firm's senior partners or my teenage daughter -- I was not above telling him or her that it was "a stupid thing to say." I expected the most from myself too. I was known to flash a temper.

My daily experience at the radiation clinic made me realize that proficiency was not the index I could always use anymore. Or even usually use anymore. Not everyone can perform at the level you'd like. Or that they'd like. They simply can't, try though they may.

For the first time we see a spiritual side - a side which implicitly acknowledges that there are things in life beyond management by objective. He goes to church, only to hear that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven -- surely not a comforting thought for a successful and dying executive. I hope the preacher added the follow-up, that "things that are impossible for men are possible for God."

One passage strikes me as of unusual wisdom:

The business of dying is hard. The wrapping up. The paperwork, the legal work. The stuff that's boring and maddening about life when life is going well. Of course, the other stuff that's happening when dying -- the physical stuff and the huge emotional stuff-- can be unspeakably awful. But if paperwork is enough to break your spirit -- and it is -- how can you have anything left?

A longtime client, one of the smartest and wisest businessmen know, is fighting brain cancer. He's about two years into the six months they gave him when he was diagnosed. I can't help but feel I've been inadequate in sheltering him from the paperwork hassles that don't go away just because you have brain tumors. If I get nothing else from this book, I'm going to make sure to take care of this client and shelter him from spirit-breaking paperwork; the other clients have time to wait.

Prior posts on "Changing Daylight" here and here.

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