My father-in-law is dying. At this very moment, my wife is sorting through pictures of him on the floor…getting ready for his inevitable funeral in the not-so-distant future. The mood is somber. Not many words are spoken. Reflection is constant…on the lives of our parents, ourselves, and the lives of our children of course. The things I learned from him are priceless. Perhaps this is why there is birth AND death – so we don’t take our life here on earth for granted.
Regardless of where our thoughts lead us, during these days, they always begin and end with my dad-in-law, Curt.
10 Things I Learned From a Dying Man
I remember when I first met him. I was Ron Burgundy, he was James Bond.
My future mother-in-law was putting on a Halloween party. He didn’t want to be there and neither did I, but we both had one thing in common – we loved the women we were with. So naturally, we were both there and making the best of it (and for those of you that are wondering…no, I did not play any jazz flute. ;)) . We didn’t say much to each other that night, but he and I spent many hours together since then – some serious, some tempered, but many filled with grins and laughter.
I’d love to pay tribute to Curt in this post and let you all know what he taught me – both through his words and more often than not, through his actions.
I trust that you’ll learn much from this list as well — 10 things I learned from a dying man.
1) The Most Important Asset in Life is Time
Curt is just 67 years old. He has terminal brain cancer. If you asked him along with any other dying human being on this planet, they’d tell you to give them just a little bit more time. Time to be with his lovely daughters, time with his beautiful wife, and maybe even some more time in his favorite fishing hole.
But, when time is seemingly endless, we could care less about it.
Bring it on.
“Meh, I’ve got plenty of that. I’m young. I have nothing BUT time!”
Maybe. Maybe not.
Curt and his brother actually had cancer before…in their 30’s.
For whatever reason, Curt defeated cancer that time…his brother did not. Curt knew what it was like to stare death in the face. Maybe that’s why he lived life so differently compared to everyone else… He knew the value of time.
- Rarely did he waste his breath talking about pointless topics,
- he absolutely hated lying on the beach doing nothing for a week (the rest of us called this vacation, he basically referred to it as torture), and
- TV during the day just didn’t happen.
He was either fixing or building something, spending time with a friend or family, or outside enjoying God’s creation in one way or another. Curt knew the value of time and couldn’t stand the idea of sitting idle and wasting it.
One of the most important things I learned from a dying man was exactly this – time – never underestimate its value!
2) Building Family Bonds is Immeasurably Important
I’ve visited Curt many times since his initial cancer diagnosis, and there’s ALWAYS someone there to see him.
- His mom
- One of his daughters
- Their close friends
- His brother-in-law
- His nephews
Curt’s definitely not the warm, fuzzy, ‘make you feel great about yourself all the time’ kind of guy, but he has always been willing to help his family and friends – mostly with building projects since that’s what he knows best. Just his simple actions and his willingness to help has really created a tight-knit family circle, and you know what? In his time of need, they’ve responded as well – through visits and with their constant offering of time.
For all of you that say you never want kids and just load up your house with pets instead, I dare say you’ve never seen a family rally around a dying man before. In these past couple of years, I’ve really witnessed the power of family at work and it makes me so glad that my wife and I have decided to have kids of our own. In their young years, we’ll nurture and care for them with all our hearts, and when we’re old I’m certain they’ll return the favor. That’s what family is all about!
3) Be Willing to Fight, But Also to Graciously Admit Defeat
The original diagnosis was in August of 2017. Curt had a tumor in his brain. It was operable, but would only be a temporary fix. There was just no way for the doctors to get all of the cancer out.
At that moment, Curt decided to fight.
He went through with the surgery, took the chemo, had the radiation therapy. All was looking great.
Then, on the way back from a cancer scan that looked better than anyone could have imagined, he and his wife, Val, were broadsided by a truck… They both were severely injured – he with a mangled leg, and her with a deep laceration on her side.
But again, they decided to fight.
It took Val a few months to recover. For Curt…he never really recovered. He had a few surgeries on his leg and was left with a permanent hobble and, at best, a shuffle. But he was always in good spirits and did everything he could to walk normally again.
Then, while we were vacationing in Florida, Curt had another episode…
His tumors were back, larger and more widespread than before.
To my knowledge, Curt could have tried some experimental drugs and done some more treatments, but the odds of keeping the cancer stagnant was slim to none. At this point, Curt and his family decided to ease up, enjoy the weeks or months that he had left, and make some final memories without the stress of the fight.
It was time to admit defeat. And Curt did it graciously.
It wasn’t easy, it didn’t come without tears, but Curt knew who his maker was and we believe we’ll all see him again someday, laughing and jumping to greet us when we get there.
4) The Simple Life is Best
He never owned a big house, he never aspired to drive a fancy car, and he absolutely would have hated to wear expensive accessories.
You know what he was all about?
- His fishing pole,
- His guns,
- And his evening nightcap.
That’s about it.
And you know what that did for him?
The simplicity of his life allowed him to:
- live on far less than he earned,
- reach out and help others in need, and
- take the time to reflect on life and what’s important.
“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” — Jim Carrey
One of the best things I learned from a dying man – embrace the simple things and it will open doors to what’s truly important:
- peace in every moment
He’s caught more fish than any man I’ve ever known. Probably tens of thousands – maybe even hundreds of thousands… And, his collection of deer antlers would leave even the burliest of men speechless. The man loved to hunt and fish, so he did it often, and unapologetically.
This is one of the more important ‘things I learned from a dying man’. I enjoy:
- being active,
- and hanging out with my family…
…so that’s what I’ve been doing, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do.
What is it that you love to do?
- Run marathons?
- Read science fiction?
Then do it! And do it often. There’s only so much time to enjoy the things you love.
6) Know Your Creator, Even When the Church Might Fail You
A couple of years after I met Curt, I found myself helping him frame in a new porch on his cottage (meaning, I handed him stuff he asked for and held boards in place while he did all the manly work ;)). While we were working, I mentioned that Liz and I were looking for a new church. And that’s when things got a little awkward…
“You know what Derek? You’ve got to watch yourself, especially in those churches you’re looking into…”
It turns out that Curt and his family used to attend church quite regularly…until he found out that the pastor was cheating on his wife…
“I just couldn’t handle all the hypocrites.”
But you know what? He didn’t let the negative experiences kill his belief in the Great Creator. I’m sure I’ll find myself in a similar situation in the future. People aren’t perfect and therefore churches aren’t perfect. Organizations like this will fail me – they’ll fail you too. But don’t let them derail your beliefs.
7) Leave a Legacy for Your Children’s Children
This has to be one of my favorite memories… One of my favorite things I learned from a dying man…
A few years ago, Curt and Val decided to redo their entire cottage (their plan was to move up there eventually…). So, every month or so, Liz and I would drive up and lend a helping hand.
One of the days was slated for helping Curt with siding. As we were putting it up, I started to notice that everything we were doing was well above and beyond the typical builder’s code and materials.
- Instead of the cheap $150 windows, he used the $350 variety.
- Instead of aluminum siding, he was using composite material
- And, he was even considering a metal roof instead of the standard shingles…
With an inquisitive look on my face, I raised my head, stared directly at him and said,
“Sheesh Curt, what are you doing? Building this place to last 100 years?”
Without missing a beat, he pointed directly at me… “That’s exactly what I’m doing. And this place is NOT to be sold!”
At that point, he already knew he was dying. His goals shifted from building a place for himself and his wife to enjoy, to leaving a legacy and an inheritance to his children’s children.
Because of his efforts, my son and daughter will know their “Papa” – not by memory, but by the stories we’ll reminisce when we’re in that cottage.
8) Love the Work You Do
Curt was a bit of a wanderer when he was young (ever heard of the 60’s? ;)), and he got into more trouble than I probably even realize (I imagine there are some memories he kept to himself…or just forgot to share). Eventually though, Curt became a roofer and then a general contractor.
He never verbalized it, but he absolutely loved fixing things and creating new structures with his hands. There’s just something about building a room that looks great and makes people happy that inspires you to do it over and over again. Curt never wanted to stop working, and he did as much as he could for as long as he could, and that gave him (and everyone else around him) contentment.
You’ve probably heard it before. If you never want to work another day in your life, then figure out a way to earn money doing what you love. If you’re excited about going to work, then it will never feel like work…and you’ll simply never want to stop.
Curt felt that way about building. I feel that way about entrepreneurship and business. Thankfully, we both found our way into our passion and we’ve enjoyed each and every day…even while we’re at work.
9) Be Genuine, Not Politically Correct
If you knew Curt and you’re reading this title, you’re probably smiling right now. One of Curt’s famous phrases was,
Lol. If you said something stupid or arrogant, Curt wasn’t going to let you get away with it. He’d tell you his point of view and then you’d either agree with his viewpoint or just drop the topic to avoid further confrontation.
It honestly took a bit to get used to, but after a while, talking with Curt was actually refreshing. He had core beliefs and would let you know exactly what they are. One of the things I learned was that in a world where everyone is afraid to have an opinion that differs from the crowd (except for, of course, on Twitter…), hearing a defined viewpoint and factual evidence to support his beliefs was unique and quite enjoyable…even when he was calling me out on mine.
I aspire to be more like Curt in this way. I’m a pretty laid back, people-pleaser type of person. It can be hard for me to give my honest opinion if I know it’s going to hurt someone’s feelings. But you know what? If it’s going to benefit them in the long-run, sometimes it’s best to be honest and potentially hurt someone’s feelings today so they can actually succeed in the future…
10) Live a Life of Few Regrets
One of the biggest things I learned is that people make far too many excuses today. I know because every time I post great advice on Facebook, there are a handful of people that tell me things like,
- “That’s not true. It’s impossible to pay cash for a car.”
- “Millionaire? Do you have a secret money tree for me?”
- “But I have 4 kids. It’s just not possible for me to get ahead.”
As the saying goes, “If you think you can’t or you think you can, you’re right.” Rarely is it your ability that limits you, it’s your mind. One of the great things I learned was this:
If Curt wanted something, he just went after it and got it.
- A gorgeous wife
- Trips all over the United States (even with a family of five)
His only regret? That he didn’t make it to Woodstock.
Dead serious. 😉
All in all though, Curt lived a life of no regrets. It’s something we can all admire and aspire to in our own lives. If you have something that you think about doing today (and it’s moral, legal, and ethical), I recommend you just do it. If you don’t, you may as well plan on adding it to your list of regrets…
Stop thinking about doing stuff. Just go out there and do it.
10 Things I Learned From a Dying Man…We’re Going to Miss You, Curt.
Curt is my father-in-law, my friend, and a heck of a nice guy when you truly get to know him. I get tears in my eyes when I think about this future world without him, but I think he’d be honored by the fact that he made such an impact in my life. And, I’m glad that I’ve been open enough to learn all that I have as well!
What have you learned from these top 10 things I learned from a dying man? Has anyone had an impact on you like Curt has had on me?
My name is Derek, and I have my Bachelors Degree in Finance from Grand Valley State University. After graduation, I was not able to find a job that fully utilized my degree, but I still had a passion for Finance! So, I decided to focus my passion in the stock market. I studied Cash Flows, Balance Sheets, and Income Statements, put some money into the market and saw a good return on my investment. As satisfying as this was, I still felt that something was missing. I have a passion for Finance, but I also have a passion for people. If you have a willingness to learn, I will continue to teach.