Death; the greatest motivator of all…

Menehune Fishpond, Kauai
Menehune Fishpond, Kauai

I started this blog to record my journey through the Screw Work Let’s Play book and to see where it takes me…

So, let’s start at the beginning or rather, let’s start at the end. I’m going to die soon. Probably, as somebody pointed out to me recently, in approximately 33 summers. That’s not that many summers, is it? It may be more but, considering I have already been hit by a car and run-over twice, it could very well be less.

John Williams, the author of the book Screw Work Let’s Play, talks about death in the first chapter of his book. He tells the painful story of losing his father at 34, when he was just 5 months old, and how this tragic event became the catalyst to his success and the reason behind his decision not to waste another minute of his life doing unsatisfying work. Unrealistic some may say but, even though I haven’t yet made it a reality, I share his vision.

This exerpt from a speech by the late great Steve Jobs, CEO and Founder of Apple, at Stanford University in 2005 – sums it up beautifully:

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.”

Full Steve Jobs’ Commencement address.

I can’t even pretend to be in the same league as the amazing visionary Steve Jobs but I wrote a short story recently which touches upon the same theme and describes an event which, no doubt, has contributed to my desire to make every day count. I’ve decided to share it because whilst writing it and sharing with others I felt totally and utterly high on ‘flow‘. I hope you like it.

The Fish Pond

It happened one afternoon when I caught a fleeting glimpse of the ‘man’; the man behind the character I had come to know and love. A moment in time, one that I will remember, forever, and a moment that taught me about hope and how to smile in the face of adversity. I’m just not sure whether this story is going to win me many friends? It is possibly one of those stories where you had to be there; but here goes…

The man was my Grandad. An iconic character I worshipped from afar. He encompassed everything a Grandad should be; his clothes were various shades of green and brown – even the co-ordinating trilby he wore whenever he went out. He smoked a pipe, he hand-built a glass greenhouse in the garden and had a room upstairs he called ‘the workshop’. ‘The workshop’ housed his collection of tools and old bits of everything, combined with the evocative smell of his tobacco pipe, which wafted around the house like the memories that float through my mind. He was the epitome of a gentleman. Quiet and gentle and the closest he ever came to swearing was the occasional ‘bizzing’.

The long winding garden was the backdrop to my childhood. It was even the place where my sister and I learned that my parents were divorcing, when I was six. There were apple trees, rhubarb, blackberries and raspberries, flowering sweet peas and a mysterious patch of horseradish. Everything was custom-engineered; a see-saw made from an old plank of wood, two make-shift swings hung from the trees and, of course, the infamous Fish Pond.

The Fish Pond was the centre of the garden and the centre of my story, as we will come to later. This was possibly, second to the telescope, the greatest of all his creations. Designed to feature two ponds, large and small, joined together by a trickling river of water, topped with flat stones that the frogs used to hide beneath. However, the pièce de résistance was a fountain, magically controlled by a switch in the garage. Still to this day I’m not sure how he pulled that one off. I remember spending hours challenging myself to run and jump from one side of the pond to the other, falling in and getting completely drenched, at least once.

Before becoming my Grandad in 1978, he was a highly regarded Lieutenant in the army, in World War II. It was during this time he met and fell in love with his beloved wife. The evidence of their wartime romance remains to this day in the, meticulously recorded, memoirs he wrote whilst they were separated. Later, he became an engineer at Merz & McLennan. I don’t exactly know what he did there but I know he was somehow responsible for the Tinsley Cooling Towers, the famous Sheffield landmark. Maybe he built them brick by brick. As a child, I thought he was capable of just about anything.

In addition to being my Grandad, he was a devoted husband to my larger than life Grandma, who sadly developed Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 68. At the time of this story, she lived in a residential care home after very reluctantly being forced to accept that he could no longer look after her himself.

I came to be in the garden that afternoon as I had been driving him to visit my Grandma, as I did every other day. It was a couple of miles, there and back. We never really talked, apart from discussing the weather. We certainly never discussed how he felt about my Grandma’s cruel illness. The only time I ever witnessed his pain was, one day, after we had been in to visit. I checked my rear view mirror and saw a silent tear roll down his face. I was touched by the bitter irony of this lonely tear against his golden, sun-weathered skin, wrinkled like tracks in the sand from all their happy holidays abroad together.

When we got back to the house, I always popped in for a quick cup of tea, before going back to work. On this particular day, he asked me to come out into the garden and handed me the fishing net. Then with a serious look on his face, not saying much at all, he motioned for me to catch a fish. I wondered what on earth the crazy old man was up to but did as instructed and went off to catch a fish. I picked out a fish, from the over-crowded pond, with no real thought about which one I was picking or why. That’s when it happened. My Grandad picked the fish out of the net and with a glint in his eye as I watched on in horror, thinking he too had lost his mind, wrapped it in a tea towel and with all his strength, smashed it down on the concrete ground. After the shock, we laughed together like we had never laughed before.

When I think about this story, I recall another memorable moment with my dear Grandad when he knelt on the floor beside me, as I cried, because my Grandma didn’t recognise me. He rested his weary head on my knee and whispered softly but intently “We’ve had our lives. It’s your turn now.”

I often wonder, when I look back on the incident with the fish, with fondness and humour, whether this was in fact the same lesson, presented a little differently.

I don’t want to waste another minute.

R.I.P Steve Jobs, the ‘fish-killer’ and all those who have gone before us.

Try this Tombstone Generator, for a bit of fun, if you think you’re brave enough…