Two Letters, Three Fathers, and a Reminder of What’s Really Important
By Michael Lanza
About 20 years ago, when I was living in rural New Hampshire and syndicating a weekly outdoor column in newspapers across New England, I received a letter—yes, a letter, delivered by the U.S. Postal Service—from a guy who lived near me, offering himself as a hiking partner. He was a few years older than my father. But there was something about his letter that prompted me to write back, and it sparked an unusual friendship centered almost entirely on our hikes together.
But one detail of Doug’s life story inspired me the most: He had retired from his corporate job early, in his mid-50s. In other words: He had decided to make enjoying life his top priority. I’ve had many reasons to think about that philosophy and about Doug recently, and to contemplate the things that are truly important to me—which, in our fast-paced, hyper-connected culture, can be all too easy to forget.
We took many hikes together in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and Green Mountains of Vermont, in all seasons, including in winter on those notoriously frigid peaks. Doug was a smart, interesting, and opinionated guy, who didn’t tolerate fools but respected people who could intelligently challenge his views. I have undoubtedly forgotten many of the conversations he and I had. But I will never forget having to call him from a phone in rural Maine, after a longtime friend of mine was killed in a rock climbing accident while we were climbing a route on Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park. I had to tell Doug what had happened, because he was planning to drive up the next day to backpack in Baxter with me.
He told me, “If there’s anything I can do, let me know.” A lot of people say that kind of thing at times like that. But Doug was true, and when you hear those words from someone like that, you know he actually means them.
A New Life
After my wife and I moved to the West in 1998 to start a new life in a place where the outdoors could be central to our lifestyle, Doug and I exchanged emails almost weekly. He’d update me on news from New England and his prolific hiking schedule. More than a year after I last saw him, he wrote to me with excitement about his plans to spend three months as a volunteer teaching English to rural schoolchildren in Nepal. Although he’d be living without running water, electricity, and any link to the outside world, he told me the only hardship he foresaw was being apart from his wife, Cynthia, for so long.
He concluded that email to me with: “Don and I are off to the Whites this weekend.” Those were the last words I’d read from him.
A few days later, I received sad news: While hiking up 5,367-foot Mount Madison (lead photo at top of story) in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range with a friend, Doug dropped dead of a heart attack. It shocked all of us who knew him well. Doug was a fit and avid hiker who regularly hiked the tallest peaks in the Northeast. I never had to wait for him on the trail. He often liked to boast, “I’m the oldest guy on this mountain.” He was 66.
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All these years later, I still exchange annual holiday letters with Doug’s widow, Cynthia. And I occasionally think about Doug, just as we all get reminded—by random, mundane events in everyday life—about old friends or relatives no longer with us. But I thought about Doug again not long ago when I received a letter—yes, a letter, in the mail (the second letter of this story’s headline)—from his daughter, Jennifer, who was kind enough to send me a copy of a newspaper column I wrote a week after Doug passed.
I had forgotten about that column; but rereading it, I not only remembered writing it, but it resurrected for me detailed recollections of the person I once knew. In this digital age, when many communications are so ephemeral—emails, texts, Facebook posts, and tweets—receiving this copy of something I wrote two decades ago was a reminder that the durability of the written word preserves memories, sometimes even better than photographs do.
Doug’s decision to retire early and spend most of his time climbing mountains instead of sitting behind a desk proved prophetic, in a way. Many people work until their mid-60s; he might easily have worked right up to the day he died. Instead, he gave himself a decade of maximizing his time with people he cared about and doing the things he loved. He literally hiked right up until the moment he left us.
A Terminal Illness
None of us can know when our time will come, or when we will lose someone close to us.
Last June, my father passed away, 16 months after he was diagnosed with stage four prostate cancer. He was 78. My family—my mother, four siblings, and my parents’ 11 grandchildren, including my two kids—recently spent our first Christmas without him. Knowing his cancer was incurable, we had all prepared ourselves as best we could for his passing. But we can never know just how powerfully we’ll miss someone until he’s gone.
Prior to my father’s diagnosis, he was a healthy and active person; it was easy to imagine him being with us for many years. But when my parents first received his diagnosis and shared this difficult news with my four siblings and me, they simply pointed out that they had reached an age, in their late 70s, when they no longer harbored any illusions that life promises any guarantees.
A terminal illness throws a bright spotlight on the precariousness of life and the urgency of time. And unlike someone dying suddenly and unexpectedly, as terrifying as a terminal disease is, at least it gives us a little time—and if we use that time wisely, perhaps it grants us a little wisdom. In his final months, my father and I shared some of our best conversations and connected in a way that I wish I’d been wise enough to do many years ago.
Reasons for optimism are often out there; sometimes you just have to look a little harder to find them.
At an age when more than half of my life is statistically behind me rather than ahead of me, I look back and wonder why I wasted so much time in my young adulthood arguing with my father over politics or some other inane topic of relative insignificance, instead of simply talking about whatever interested him or me, or listening to him do something he always did well: tell funny stories about his friends and our extended family.
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That brings me to the third father in this story—me—and some statistics about American parents that are as perplexing as they are disturbing.
My father’s illness has informed me in my relationships with my son and daughter. I have to be their father, but I strive to also be someone they can talk to. That’s why, as my kids rocket through their teen years, whenever my son asks me to play chess, or my daughter wants to do a Sudoku puzzle with me—or one of them spontaneously plops down next to me and starts talking about anything—I drop whatever I’m doing. And while I won’t be able to resist the urge to try to guide them down a path with good footing, I’ll try to let them embrace their own opinions. I’d rather spend more time finding ways to agree with them, or just listening, than finding ways to disagree.
Lost Family Vacation Time
Not long ago, I attended a conference of the Family Travel Association, at a picturesque Montana resort deep in the forest north of Yellowstone National Park. There, I listened to speakers lament how low a priority Americans give to time off with their families.
A 2015 study titled “The Work Martyr’s Children: How Kids Are Harmed by America’s Lost Week,” conducted by Project Time Off, a coalition of organizations committed to encouraging Americans to use their vacation time, surveyed 754 American children age eight to 14. It found that six out of seven kids say their parents bring work stress home, and 75 percent say a parent is unable to stop working while at home. Six in 10 say they get upset when their parents prioritize work over time with them.
While the children surveyed say their best memories are from family vacations, half of all families have not taken a vacation together in the past year. Project Time Off reports that Americans have a grand total of 429 million unused vacation days.
Here’s the good news from that study: 82 percent of kids said they want their parents deeply involved in their lives. Even among 13- and 14-year-olds, it was still a strong 74 percent.
My friend and FTA’s Executive Director Chris Chesak wrote to me: “Over the past decade, an abundance of psychology research has shown that experiences bring people more happiness than do possessions.”
I couldn’t agree more.
When we worry about the amount of time today’s children spend in front of electronic screens versus the time they spend being physically active and getting out in nature, we should consider the example we, as parents, set for them.
Over the years, I’ve met many retired people who lamented that they had worked too much and didn’t spend enough time with their family. But I’ve never met an older person who lamented not working enough.
We can’t choose the time and place of our last breath. We can only choose what we do with our time before we draw that last one.
NOTE: The problem of children spending so little time in nature motivated my teenage son, Nate, and me to climb the highest peak in the Lower 48, California’s 14,505-foot Mount Whitney, to raise money for Big City Mountaineers, an organization that introduces urban youths to the wilderness—a cause Nate and I strongly believe in. Read my story about that climb and how our team, including five readers of The Big Outside, raised over $25,000 for Big City Mountaineers.
See my stories “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids,” “My Top 10 Family Adventures,” “Boy Trip, Girl Trip: Why I Take Father-Son and Father-Daughter Adventures,” all of my stories about family adventures at The Big Outside.
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