It’s eighty degrees with unseasonably low humidity. The post-bar exam fog in my brain is lifting, and my dad is meeting unexpected resistance as he carves into the hard, dry, Western Pennsylvania ground.
It’s late July and my dad and I are standing in the short summer shadows of hundred-year-old tombstones on Mars Hill, in Butler County. The worn engravings bear dates of birth and death that seem impossibly far apart for the era they mark. Row by row, we examine the graves of people who lived into their late seventies and eighties, 200 years ago. Later that day we meet a 94 year old World War II veteran who describes his plane crash, barefoot jungle trek and prison camp stay like he survived them yesterday. At nightfall, we’re on the covered porch overlooking 52 acres of rolling hills stretching into an infinite horizon of stars. Our eighty-year old hosts are reminiscing with my dad about their cross-country road trips before seat-belts and air-conditioning.
We made the pilgrimage to my dad’s home town to scatter my grandpa’s ashes. He died a month and a half earlier, at 92. Everything about our trip felt nostalgic. Like we’d taken a time machine into my dad’s childhood: old colonial buildings, two lane roads and the folksy lifestyle of everyone we met.
On the plane ride home, I think about the length of life and the passage of time. How our relationship to each one is shaped by our perception of the other. We design plans, make choices and move through each day with a long-view of ourselves and our place on the planet. We bank on ninety years.
Eleven months later I slump into my big, rickety, leather desk chair at 5:23p.m. The office is quiet. My brain is dizzy and clouded from the stress and anxiety of trial preparation. For the first time in two weeks, I feel my muscles start to relax.
I swivel to the left and reach for my keyboard. The phone rings.
It’s my client. The one with the story that’s kept me up three nights a week since we met in February. The one who I think about on my yoga mat and talk to in my dreams. Her trial is set for the next morning. Before any polite exchanges, she blurts it out: The key witness in our case is dead. She died this morning. A twelve page trial brief, a two hundred and seventy five dollar subpoena and an entire litigation strategy crafted around the testimony of a witness, a person, who no longer exists.
My mind starts spinning again. I frantically look around for the hidden camera, or the production crew from dateline NBC.
This is my real life.
Being a lawyer gives me a false sense of control over circumstances and outcomes. It’s an entire profession built around the illusion that a compulsive work ethic and relentless attention to detail avoids uncertainty and interference from the unexpected. Countless hours and full energy committed to bending reality and manipulating facts to conform to our preferences and perspective. If we need ninety years, we believe we can guarantee it.
The shocking overnight trial development jolts me into the reality of chance, and the power of change, moment to moment. It reminds me of a lesson I keep learning, but fail to accept. A week earlier, my professional mentor shared that a family member went to sleep one night recently, and didn’t wake up. He was thirty-eight. Two years before that, I casually hopped on Facebook one night to discover my dear friend had a tumor in her pancreas. 13 months later, she was gone. One summer night my brother took a fast turn on a motorcycle and lost the use of his right arm, forever. Two days after my twenty-ninth birthday, 20 parents of first graders sent their kids to school one morning, and never saw them again.
My friends and family suffer loss, battle cancer, and endure the unimaginable. Nobody ever sees it coming. Nobody could stop it, even if they did.
Lately, my life is dominated by recurring mantras of “if I just.” If I just finish this project. If I just make this deadline. If I just survive this week, or month, or year. Each mantra presumes a sequence of events. Each sequence marks a period of time I don’t even consider not having.
Each period shapes a piece of my ninety years.
When something awful happens, I always have the same reaction. Immediately, I commit to moving from “if I just” to “be different now.” Be happy. Be loving. Be present. Do what I want. Twenty four hours of purpose and intention.
Then my life interferes again.
Two days ago, I’m sitting with a friend from high school at a long, metal table, at a coffee shop, in our home town. Together, we’re reflecting on the life we didn’t envision at (almost) thirty. I ask him how he has the courage to live life on his own terms. He tells me, it’s simple: Figure out what you want to do and go do it.
I’ll add: Because even if you make it ninety years, nobody has that many to begin with.