Monday, December 17, 2012

The Gift

It's often said that you should live every day as though it's your last. That always seemed a little impractical to me. But when my brother died, I felt like I had missed my chance. Life could never be the same again. Part of me was already dead. I had always understood death intellectually, but now I felt it at a visceral level, and that's completely different. Death was inside of me now. 

Steve was 33 when he died, and I was 27. Statistically, there does not appear to be much of a genetic component to pancreatic cancer, but still, I worried. How much longer do I have? Could there be a tumor growing inside of me at this very moment? 

These doubts led to an interesting question. What would I do if I had only six year left to live? 

You can live a lot in six years, but you can just as easily waste six years doing things that don't really matter. I wanted to make the most of whatever time I had left. At first I thought that meant pursuing some audacious goal, like curing cancer, but over time I learned that it simply meant being mindful of how I'm living my life. The question evolved. It may not be six years. I could die at any moment.

Is this how I want to spend the rest of my life?

The answers can be surprising. Cleaning the kitchen is relaxing, and it creates a pleasant and healthy space for my family and friends to gather. Not a bad way to live. But sitting in a windowless conference room while people I don't really love debate things that I don't really care about? No, that's not how I want to spend my life. Of course others may find meaning in that. It's very much a personal decision.

Death strips away everything that doesn't matter. It's incredibly painful, but it also brings a kind of clarity. People matter. Everything else is noise. Several months after Steve died, we made a big life decision. It was time to have kids. 

The pregnancy went smoothly. My wife, April, seemed so happy that she glowed. I was almost envious of her. She was experiencing a kind of closeness that I never could. We were taking the opportunity to go on a couple of final vacations before the baby arrived. Then, around midnight, she started to bleed. We were in a small town in northern New Mexico. We went to the local hospital, then waited while they called for a doctor to come in (there weren't any there that night). The doctor immediately saw that she was in labor, and said that if there was any chance of saving the baby, my wife would need to be airlifted to Albuquerque.

The doctor also remarked that I seemed unusually calm. I didn't bother to tell him that I was still processing my brother's death, and that this seemed relatively small in comparison. I had never met the baby. April didn't even look that pregnant. I was a little surprised to hear that survival was even a possibility.

There was no room for me on the helicopter, so I had to drive several hours through the night, alone, not having any idea what I would find when I arrived at the hospital.

The nurses took me in to see the baby. There she was, 1 pound and 10 ounces, on a ventilator, her eyelids still fused, born 100 days early. But I felt her energy. She was a little ball of fire. The attachment came on like I never could have imagined.

The doctors said it was still too early to know if she would survive or not. Every time we saw her, and every time we left, we knew that it may very well be the last time we ever see our daughter alive. I never knew what it meant to live every day as though it's my last, but suddenly I was living every day as though it might be her last.

I finally understood the meaning of unconditional love. This little person couldn't even breathe on her own. She may not survive the day. The future was more terrifying than hopeful. All we had was now. All we could do was to love her, and to expect nothing in return.

A few days after she was born, the doctors did a head ultrasound to make sure everything was ok. The results were not what we had hoped for. There was bleeding in her brain. The doctors said that if she survived, she would most likely be disabled. The next week I noticed a disturbing trend in her charts -- her head was growing too fast. The bleeding in her head caused hydrocephalus, an accumulation of fluid in the brain. She would need brain surgery. 

The following months were the most terrifying ride I have ever experienced. The complications kept having complications. First she had to be flown to San Francisco, because there are no pediatric neurosurgeons in New Mexico. Then she had surgery. Then more surgery. Eventually she came off the ventilator. Then she got meningitis and stopped breathing. Then more surgery.

The hole was deeper than I ever could have imagined. Sometimes, the fear and darkness were unbearable. It felt like death would have been easier. It was all I could do to breathe. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. The future was too terrifying to imagine. The past was a reminder of all that I had lost, a life of hope and joy. But most moments, on their own, were ok. I could sit in the hospital and hold my baby. I could appreciate every moment with her. I could love her unconditionally. We were together, for now, and we were both breathing. 

Eventually she was well enough to go home. The first year was very difficult, but in time she grew strong, and today she is a healthy, beautiful, and fiery seven year old girl. Every day, her presence is a reminder of what truly matters.

In every tragedy, there is a gift, if we are able to see and accept it. From my brother, I received a personal understanding of death, and a constant reminder to live my life as though it may end at any moment. From my daughter, I learned what it means to love unconditionally, without expecting anything in return, a true gift.

These gifts were delivered at great cost, but still I often struggle to retain them. Life gets busy, and I forget what matters. But the reminders are all around us, if only we can open our eyes.

When our lives are smashed to bits, and it feels like the ground has disappeared from under us, we look for guidance, for our North Star, for a light that can provide meaning and direction to what remains of our life.

For me, this light lies in unconditional love. This is something that I wish to remember not only at an intellectual level, but at a more visceral level as well. I want to feel truth.

So I made a simple story, a fable. Stories are powerful because they engage our imagination, bringing abstract concepts to life inside of us. This one uses the familiar characters of God and the Devil, but you needn't believe in anything supernatural to understand it.

Long ago, the Devil boasted that he could easily gather more followers than God. God's way of gathering followers was simple: give everyone Unconditional Love and Forgiveness, nothing more and nothing less. Naturally the Devil was more devious. He knew that most people would not knowingly follow the Devil, so his plan was to lie and claim that he was the One True God, promise his followers a great reward in the afterlife, and threaten that those who didn't worship him would be sent to hell when they died. God was betting on Love, but the Devil believed that Greed and Fear are stronger than Love, and therefore even good people could be tricked into following him.

The God of Unconditional Love and Forgiveness brings union through love. The false Gods bring division through fear and greed. If a God promises to reward you with 72 virgins in paradise in exchange for flying an airplane into a building, it's a false God (or a false image of God, if you prefer). If a God threatens to send you to hell for loving the wrong person, it's a false God. If a God tells you to coerce people into worshiping him, it's a false God. If a God promises protection in exchange for doing his bidding, it's a false God.

Genuine, unconditional love is a gift that must be freely given and freely accepted, with nothing expected in return. Love can not be delivered at gun point, or with the threat of eternal damnation.

In this winter of fear, suffering, and division, the God of Unconditional Love gives comfort and direction. His spirit is reborn in our hearts when we give the gift of unconditional love and forgiveness to others and, most urgently, to ourselves.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Eight years today

The car in front of me kept hesitating. The driver couldn't seem to decide where to turn. Up ahead I could see that the light was green, but that I wasn't going to make it through in time because this car was in my way. I started to feel slightly agitated, but reminded myself to simply accept the current situation. I can't even see the other timelines, maybe this one is somehow better. It's a practice that I had started while my daughter was in the hospital. Accept. Accept. Accept. Slow drivers are a rather minor stress relative to a having a baby that may not survive, but the practice is remarkably similar. And the key to practice is repetition, every day, every moment. Traffic provides me with plenty of opportunities to practice. 

Finally she turned in to the parking lot at Trader Joe's and I proceeded to the light, which was now red. It soon turned green, I crossed El Camino, and then stopped for the passing train, which was immediately in front of me. After it passed, I saw his body on the ground just to the other side of the tracks. I saw other things there too, but I'll spare you the details. I tried calling 911, but I got a recorded message saying that they were busy. Obviously I wasn't the only one calling. The police soon arrived, and directed us to turn down a side street, away from the scene. 

I then turned left on Waverley St, and slowly drove past my brother's old apartment, pausing to remember all that had transpired there. But my mind was still preoccupied with what I had just seen, and it didn't even register what day it is today. 

The winter of 2004 felt so cold and rainy, the coldest I can remember it ever being here in California. The cold had a kind of depth that you can't quite escape. But on March 9th it was sunny and starting to get a little warm. Winter was over, and my brother had just died that morning. We left the hospital and returned to his apartment in Menlo Park. It felt so wrong. He was gone, but his belongings were still there. Eventually we would have to pack them all into boxes, keeping some for ourselves, and donating the rest. It does not feel good to pack up the remains of your brother's life.

It had only been three months since he found out. We had dinner Sunday night at a Chinese restaurant in Mountain View. Afterwards, he was feeling a little nauseous and went home early. After a few days of not being able to keep any food down, he went to the doctor. He had an intestinal blockage. Caused by a tumor. Pancreatic cancer. The very bad kind. It eats you alive, and in his case, it also blocked his own food supply. Although his death was rather quick, it was also very slow. Three months of torture, but I'll spare you the details. He was only 33 years old. Steve was a very good person. He did not deserve that. Nobody does.

After the funeral, I returned to work. Sometimes, it's wonderful to be able to focus my mind on something simple, something I can control, like computers. A few weeks later we launched Gmail. Later that summer Google had its IPO. Life is unfair. Very unfair.

Eventually my parents finished packing up Steve's apartment and drove back home to New York. I didn't even begin to understand what they had gone through until the following year, when my daughter was born 100 days early. There were many complications, and it often seemed like she wouldn't make it, but I'll spare you the details. The pain is worse than you can imagine. It's worse than I can now imagine. Luckily she survived and is doing well. She has the strongest spirit of anyone I've ever met.

And that brings me back to today, March 9th, 2012. Eight years since Steve died. I keep looking for meaning, but all I've found so far is that in order to be at peace with the present, we must be at peace with the past, because the present is a product of the past. Accept. Accept. Accept. Learn to love the present moment. What happened, happened. It's difficult to understand the big picture when our lives are mere brush strokes on the canvas of reality. Trusting that it all fits together to form something beautiful is the purest form of faith. Anything else is a dangerous distraction. No contracts with God, no expectations of reward, just trust.

On a more practical level, what matters most in our day-to-day lives is that we're good to ourselves and to each other. It's actually not possible to only do one or the other -- we must do both or neither, but that's a topic for another time. Sometimes, when I write about startups or other interests of mine, I worry that perhaps I'm communicating the wrong priorities. Investing money, creating new products, and all the other things we do are wonderful games and can be a lot of fun, but it's important to remember that it's all just a game. What's most important is that we are good too each other, and ourselves. If we "win", but have failed to do that, then we have lost. Winning is nothing. This doesn't mean that we can't push ourselves or stretch our own limits. Those things can be very healthy, but only when done for their own sake. Ultimately, the people who learn to love what they do who will be the ones who accomplish the most anyway. Those who push only for the sake of some future reward, or to avoid failure, very often burn out, sometimes tragically. Please don't do that.

Please be good to each other, and your self.