Closing The Circle

I found this article about Eugene O’Kelly and was very moved by the way he writes, not to mention his message itself. Three months before he died Eugene O'Kelly was one of the most powerful businessmen in America. Then he was told he had brain cancer. In a moving memoir he describes what his preparations for death taught him about his life:

One day not long ago, I sat atop the world. From this perch I had an overview that was relatively rare in business, a perspective that allowed me access to the inner workings of many of the world’s finest, most successful companies and the extraordinary minds that ran them. At times I felt like a great eagle on a mountain top — not because of any invincibility I felt, but for the picture it afforded me.

Overnight, I found myself sitting in a very different perch: a hard metal chair, looking across a desk at a doctor whose expression was way too full of empathy for my liking. His eyes told me I would die soon. It was late spring. I had seen my last autumn in New York.

The verdict I received in the last week of May 2005 — that it was unlikely I’d make it to September — turned out to be a gift. Honestly. Because I was forced — at the age of 53 — to think seriously about my own death.

Which meant I was forced to think more deeply about my life than I’d ever done.

As CEO and chairman of KPMG, the $4 billion (£2.32 billion), 20,000-employee, century-plus-old partnership, one of America’s Big Four accounting firms, 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, building and leading for years to come? Yes and no. Yes, because of course I’d like to have been around to see my daughter Gina graduate and marry and have children (in whatever order she ends up doing all that). To spend next Christmas Eve, the day before my older daughter Marianne’s birthday, eating and talking and laughing the way we did every year. To travel and play golf with my wife of 27 years, Corinne, the girl of my dreams, and to share with her the retirement in Arizona we’d planned for so long.

But I also say no. No, because, thanks to my situation, I’d attained a new level of awareness, one I didn’t possess in the first 53 years of my life. It’s impossible for me to imagine going back to that other way of thinking, when this new way has enriched me so. I lost something precious, but I also gained something precious.

In my past life, here was a Perfect Day: I’d have a couple of face-to-face client meetings, my favourite thing of all. I’d meet with at least one member of my inner team. I’d speak on the phone with partners. I’d complete lots of the items listed in my electronic calendar. And I’d move ahead in making our firm a great place to work, one that allowed our people to live more balanced lives.

For me personally — for any executive, but especially the top guy — that last plank in the platform was particularly difficult to achieve. Don’t get me wrong: I loved my firm. I was passionate about accounting. (Don’t laugh.) But the job of CEO, while of course incredibly privileged, was relentless. My diary was perpetually extended out over the next 18 months. I worked weekends and late into many nights. I missed virtually every school function for my younger daughter. My annual travel schedule averaged, conservatively, 150,000 miles. For the first ten years of my marriage, when I was climbing the ladder at KPMG, Corinne and I rarely went on vacation. Over the course of my last decade with the firm, I did manage to squeeze in workday lunches with my wife. Twice.

Before this starts to sound like complaining, I must be honest: As long as I could handle such a high-pressure position, I wanted it. As profound as my devotion to and love for my family were, I could not have settled for a job just because it guaranteed that I could make PTA meetings. People don’t walk into the top spot. They’re driven.

When Corinne and I showed up at the neurologist’s office on Tuesday, May 24, we were both convinced that the drooping of muscle in my cheek and at the corner of my mouth was caused by something stress-related, probably Bell’s palsy. I was asked some questions, then put through what seemed a pretty standard physical exam. The neurologist said that she wanted me to come in for an MRI first thing the following morning. This was one time where the virtue of promptness did not gratify me — getting bumped to the head of the MRI line was not the sort of privilege you want to experience.

A week later, the biopsy that was supposed to take two hours took three. Halfway through, the surgeon came out to tell Corinne that the first tissue sample he’d removed from my brain was “necrotic” — dead. Not dying, but already dead. Later, when the doctor could address Corinne and me together, he recommended radiation, which might provide a couple of extra months more than whatever I had left. There was no cure, he said. “This is terminal.”

My days as a man at the top of his game, vigorous and productive, were done, just like that. The whole of my life, I had expected people to operate at a high standard. If they didn’t, they might lose my confidence. I don’t mean to say that I lacked compassion; it’s just that, in the business world, our index for evaluating people was competency. It had to be. If someone said something that 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”.

My daily experience at the radiation clinic made me realise that was not the index I could use any more. Things don’t go according to plan. In fact, they almost never did. Sitting in that room, waiting for my turn to have the waffle-mask put over my face so they could zap my brain with laser beams, I watched people around me grow frustrated. I tried not to let it happen to me.

It was at the clinic that I really began to understand acceptance. Having entered the final phase of my life, what choice did I have but to accept it? Apparently, I wasn’t too old to learn something new. You can’t control everything.

One of my tasks before I died was to “unwind”, or close — or, as I saw it, beautifully resolve — my personal relationships. I wanted to do the very thing that wiser people advise us to do — to stop long enough to think about the people we love and why we love them.

A few days after the diagnosis had been confirmed, I sat down at the dining-room table and drew this diagram. The outermost circle was made up of classmates, acquaintances, neighbours, people who had enriched my life just by being in it. When I sat down to list all the people who merited inclusion, I was astounded to see that it came to almost one thousand. An unbelievable number.

I couldn’t possibly “close” all of these relationships. Those that I did address — maybe half, maybe less than that — I closed almost exclusively through mail. A number of them I did by phone. In each case, I tried to focus on something especially meaningful. I attempted to turn the occasion into what I had come to think of as a Perfect Moment.

A Perfect Moment was a little gift of an hour or an afternoon. Its actual length was never the issue. The key thing was that you had to be open to a Perfect Moment. The radiation machine breaks down; one hour is going to come and go, an hour you can hardly spare; but then you accept that machines break down. You don’t get frustrated. You focus instead on something pleasing. The beautiful poem your daughter wrote. The colour of the sky out the window.

Or you stroll with your wife past the Central Park Boathouse — already it’s a Perfect Moment, a beautiful day. Such a beautiful day, in fact, that it’s impossible to get a table at the boathouse restaurant, and normally you wouldn’t even bother to ask. But that was before you were open to all kinds of moments. Somehow, a table has opened. You sit down. The serendipity of the day’s unfolding is making it perfect.

Given my natural thoroughness, I had to remind myself how easy it could be to spend lots of time with the outer circle, which would ultimately be at the expense of the inner circles. I thought about how, during my previous life, I might have unconsciously been too consumed by the outermost circle. At work, with constant demands on my time, I’d got into the habit of meeting with certain people — good people, but nonetheless fifth-circle people. Was it necessary to have breakfast with them four times a month? I could have done less of that.

Perhaps I could have found time, in the last decade, to have had a weekday lunch with my wife more than . . . twice? Where had I found the nerve to press so hard for our firm to rework its culture, encouraging our partners and employees to live more balanced lives, when my own was out of balance? I realised that being able to count a thousand people in that fifth circle was not something to be proud of. Please don’t misunderstand: the people who populate it are worthwhile, and belong in the first circle of other people. They’re just not the people who should have consumed the time and energy that they did for me. I moved further inward and I marvelled at how many Perfect Moments I was having. As much as I had loved the hustle and bustle of my previous life, I couldn’t help but think back on how rare such moments had been.

Of course there had been Perfect Moments in my past. The day I married Corinne. The day I adopted Marianne. The day Gina was born. But almost all those moments one could have seen coming. They weren’t the mundane, fabric-of-life stuff. Maybe other people appreciate the perfection in small moments; I was just too caught up in my fast-paced, high-pressure life to ever get at the sublimeness embedded in them.

I experienced more Perfect Moments and Perfect Days in two weeks than I had in the past five years.

Unwinding relationships with close lifetime friends was easiest, I noticed, when my friends had a belief in God and/or a very solid marriage or partnership. Those who lacked both didn’t handle our closing well. Often there was a third reason: they themselves were suffering through some big personal issue, and I served as a troubling reminder of how much they yet had to deal with. Our conversation brought them not pleasure but rather pain and anger. Of course I didn’t mean that to happen, but neither could I help it. Some friends wanted to prolong our final encounter. They continued to call me. “I’d like this to be it,” I would say. “Trying to improve on a perfect moment never works.”

Not a popular answer. Too final. Kind of cold, actually.

Although I was not there yet, my mind wandered often to my unwinding with Gina. She had recently turned 14, and, like anyone that age, she had her days. We’d frequently go out for delicious lunches, and we loved sharing our theories. But both of us could have short tempers, and obviously we were frustrated by what was happening. I wanted her to understand my confidence and pride in, and profound love for her. But I struggled to come up with the best way for a father to make his daughter see him for who he was, rather than for how long he had stayed.

This was the best day of my life. Corinne, Gina and I were at Lake Tahoe, where we had a vacation home. We took a boat out. For the first time, I sat in front, the only place Gina ever sits. The water looked like glass. There were hardly any other boats out, or it seemed that way. We crossed the lake. We seemed to be riding not in the water but on it, skating along the surface. It seemed as if I was part of the water.

It went on for miles and miles. I loved the sensation of being so close to the water. Or really, it wasn’t so much that I loved anything, but just that I had the sensation, felt it fully. Corinne and I decided that afternoon that we would both have our ashes spread upon the waters of Emerald Bay, in a very particular spot that we loved.

I was getting closer to zero miles an hour. My mother and my brother flew to Tahoe. I took my mother’s hand and told her I was in a good place. A person of deep faith, she was comfortable with that.

Later, my brother and I talked alone. He was angry that this should be happening to me. “Your anger won’t do anyone any good,” I said. I told him to take the energy he was spending being angry at the world, double it, and channel it into love for his children (or even more love, I should say, because William already loved his daughters and son dearly).

He promised me he would.

It was a perfect day. I felt complete. Spent but complete.

‘I’ve had a great life,’ he told me

Eugene O’Kelly’s wife Corinne wrote the final chapter of their book:

By late summer, the unwindings were taking their toll. One of our last nights in Tahoe, I felt him starting to go. He just suddenly felt far away. It was the evening after his mother and brother had left. I was lying on the couch, in his arms. I commented on his “absence” and he responded: “You’re going to have to take over now. I’ve done all I can do.”

It took my breath away.

We flew to New York, where Gene was admitted to Sloan-Kettering Hospital. His body was seriously starting to fail. He was aware of it.

The doctors wanted to take a sonogram of his stomach. “No more tests,” he told them. He was not getting out of bed for that. It made sense. Staying alive at all costs was not the goal — not any more — and he didn’t want to waste any energy enduring medical procedures that, at this stage, were pointless.

Gene rarely spoke except to me or the doctors. “I’ve had a great life,” he said as we lay in each other’s arms in the cramped hospital bed. We talked of other very personal things. We talked about the book — how it would be the culmination of 30 years of teamwork. He told me how my insights on death and dying had helped him to transcend his fear. As a health-care provider [she is a former nurse] who had witnessed death routinely, I had come to realise that if you conquer your fear, you conquer your death. This had been my clearest message to Gene during the past three months. He was embracing it, finally.

On Wednesday, we were finally able to bring him home, where he so desperately wanted to be. Back at our New York apartment, the one we’d rented just three months before and hadn’t even moved into when cancer was diagnosed, a hospital bed was brought in. He would die at home, where most people would die if they could.

On Thursday, a doctor from a hospice service came to our house. The doctor realised that Gene’s “unwinding” plan was somewhat compulsive and seriously Type A — wanting to tie everything up, as if that were possible — but that ultimately it was positive. The doctor couldn’t help but compare Gene’s attitude with that of another man he had recently tended, a very senior executive at one of the big pharmaceutical companies. This man was about 60, not particularly close to his family, not close to his children, with no real spiritual foundation — and he would talk and mumble and even cry out in the middle of the night, angrily barking the names of colleagues and superiors (his CEO was the preferred whipping boy). His rantings were deeply upsetting to his wife and to others who came to see him. The man had to be heavily medicated. He died restless.

Gene was fortunate not to have physical pain, but he had also done himself and those around him a hugely positive thing by resolving his relationships and embracing what was happening to him. “Your husband isn’t agitated,” the hospice doctor said. “He’s peaceful.”

At some point that day, Gina, Marianne and I were seated around Gene’s bed. He looked at the three of us. “That’s the most beautiful sight in the world,” he said.

On Saturday, my brother Donald drove down from Massachusetts. He and Gene talked in the bedroom. When Donald came out, he said that Gene was worried about me. Donald said he had assured Gene that I would be OK, and that he would watch out for me. In the afternoon, Gene said to me, “Most people do not have the right mind or body to be able to die consciously.” Finally I was able to understand that to him, mind meant mental discipline and body meant soul. I asked Gene if he was prepared to leave me. “I think so,” he replied. I told him not to hang on and assured him I would be all right.

Less than three hours later, at 8.01 in the evening of Saturday, September 10, my husband died. He suffered another pulmonary embolism, which the doctors said is one of the best ways to go, in the circumstances. Essentially, the embolism cuts off the oxygen supply to the brain — the mind just shuts down, then the body does. It is considered one of the quickest and least traumatic ways to leave. At the moment of death, Gene was surrounded by four women, each of whom had had medical training: Gene’s sister Rose, my sister Darlene (who’d been an ICU nurse for 20 years), the night-duty nurse, and me. It was good not only for Gene to have had that, but that we women had each other.

As prepared as we all were, the moment was still tense. I’d never witnessed someone die from a pulmonary embolism and my only concern was that Gene not feel the fear that accompanies asphyxiation. Rose knew all about it, so she could talk me through the stages. She was comforted by the peace of the passing: the numerous deaths she had witnessed in hospitals had almost all been traumatic.

Now that Gene’s journey was over, I was somewhat relieved. I felt numb the rest of the evening. Rose, Darlene and I waited for Gene to be taken away. Afterwards, we sat in the kitchen and drank one of Gene’s favourite bottles of wine and talked about what we had all experienced. The next morning, I felt sublime joy and tranquillity. The pain of loss would set in later. This was a time of celebration. Gene had left in peace. I looked out at the river and saw the sunlight glittering on the water. It was a Perfect Moment.

During the last days of his life, Gene worked hard at dying. Gene had always worked hard at everything.

There are things that could have been done differently. But his overall pursuit of unwinding was important and right. The nature of the unwindings changed as Gene got closer to the centre of the circle; while “perfect” exchanges can happen for many in the outer rings, for those closest to you there is no single gesture that really allows you to say goodbye to each other. The letting go of attachments differs as you close in on the centre of the circle because your relation to those individuals is intricately woven into your being. These relationships can be “unwound” successfully only when both people can let go. It is difficult and painful. It was my deep love of Gene that enabled me to encourage him to go. Today, if he appeared before me, I would not be so strong.

Extracted from Chasing Daylight: How My Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life by Eugene O’Kelly and Corinne O’Kelly, © 2006 The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.