In 2005 Eugene O’Kelly was the CEO of KPMG, one of America’s top four accounting firms. At that time, it was a $4 billion dollar company with over 20,000 employees. He had been at the firm for over 30 years working his way steadily to the top. Then, out of nowhere, he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain cancer and told he had about 3 months to live.
Eugene was only 53 years old at the time. There was no history of cancer in his family. He was physically active and hardly ever sick in his life. How could this have happened to him? Chasing Daylight was the book he wrote during these last months of being alive. Of all the books I have read on this subject of dying, and I have read many, I found this book especially moving. Eugene writes as only a man with nothing left to lose can. He bears his soul in the hopes of helping others confront their own mortality.
The denial of death is pervasive. We would rather carry on with our lives, go on pretending the Reaper won’t come knocking on our door any time soon. Eugene felt the same way until he wasn’t given much of a choice in the matter:
“Of course, almost no one thinks in detail about one’s actual death. Until I had to I didn’t – not really. We feel general and profound anxiety about it, but figuring out the nuts and bolts of how to make the best of one’s last days, and then how to ensure that one follows the planned course of action for the benefit of oneself and one’s loved ones, are not typical habits of the dying, and most certainly not of the healthy and hearty.”
Dying can seem like a foreign concept to those of us who are quite healthy and preoccupied with the daily trials of living. As Eugene’s wife, Corinne Kelly observed: “When you’re living your everyday life, with no sword dangling over you, it’s easy to get lost into your own orbit, as does everyone else.” Yet we all know that death can happen at any time. It will most likely happen when we least expect it.
Eugene was certainly not expecting it:
“My days as a man at the top of his game, vigorous and productive, were done, just like that…A week before, I was living my life. Now I was contemplating my death.”
Should we not be better prepared then?
What astounded me the most was Eugene’s ability to quickly digest the bad news and create a definite course of action that he would commit himself to during his final days. His experience as a business leader and training as an accountant likely made this a little easier for him, though he well admitted dying would be the most difficult project of his entire life.
In his own words, here are the three goals he made for himself:
“I’d always preached commitment to goals: setting them, pursuing them, completing them. Now that we’d completed our fact-finding with doctors, I resolved to do three things:
(1) leave my job and
(2) choose a medical protocol that allowed me to…
(3) make the time remaining the best of my life, and as good as it could possibly be for those most affected by my situation.
While I made the decisions quickly, it was even more important that the decisions be utterly clear, to both me and others. I had to commit to them. I imagined that other people in my situation had often known the right course to take but were fearful of sticking with their plan. I don’t mean to sound as if they were weak and I was strong; I just knew that it was in my best interest to continue to live by the rules I’d followed in my business life. There, clarity of mission, commitment, and execution had always been critical.”
Eugene also openly shares his regrets. Though he was admittedly passionate about his career at KPMG and his role as CEO, he is regretful of working too hard and not spending enough time with his family. Like so many of us, he was busy paving the way to a brighter future. It is not long after his death sentence though that he realizes the folly of his big plans that would now never come to fruition. He describes these shattered dreams that he spent hours working towards as a tease:
“All the plans I made as CEO were shattered – at least, as far as my seeing them come to pass. While I believed we’d made great progress on my vision for the firm, someone else would now have to lead the effort. All the plans that Corinne and I had made for our future had to be junked. It was hard not to lament that one of the big reasons we’d sacrificed so much time together, across so many years, as I traveled the world and worked ungodly hours – namely, retirement together – had been a tease, only we hadn’t known it. In my wallet I even carried a photo of the dream spot to which we planned to retire – Stone Canyon, Arizona – but that dream was gone now. Same with all my personal goals for 2006, 2007 and every year after that. “
In light of all these disappointments, Eugene still considered himself lucky. He recognized that he was in a unique position of knowing approximately when he would die. This gave him a chance to plan for death in ways that most never do. He was also suffering from a relatively painless condition as compared to other possible terminal illnesses. Most importantly, Eugene realized that the knowledge of his forthcoming death was a gift that he had no desire to relinquish:
“I was not a man given to hypotheticals – too straight-ahead in my thinking for that – but just for a moment, suppose there had been no death sentence. Wouldn’t it be nice still to be planning and building and leading and cage rattling like I had been, for years to come?…But I also say no. No, because thanks to my situation, I’d attained a new level of awareness, one I didn’t possess the first 53 years of my life. It’s just impossible for me to imagine going back to another way of thinking, when this new way has enriched me so. I lost something precious, but I also gained something precious.”
There are many wonderful lessons one might learn from Eugene O’Kelly’s wonderful book. I am grateful he took the time to write it especially given the little time he had left.
Though I wish all my readers a long and healthy life, I do encourage everyone to think long and hard about how short and uncertain our lives are. Despite how uncomfortable this exercise may be, I can promise you that doing so will focus your priorities in life.
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