The news this week that Steve Jobs had died, came as both a shock and not-a-shock-at- all to most people. It was not a shock, because anyone who has been paying attention over the past couple of years knew: Mr. Jobs had pancreatic cancer; he has not looked healthy for quite a while; he took medical leave early this year and he stepped down from Apple in late August, stating that he was no longer able to perform his job. In the huge world that he created and dominated for all these years, those things certainly did not go un-noticed. The fact that his death was a shock is, I believe, a little more complex.
In an address to the 2005 Stanford graduating class, Steve Jobs delivered a truly inspiring speech (click to see in it its entirety). Listening, I found it interesting how often there was (inappropriate) laughter throughout his address. I believe it is because his words are serious and from the heart, and perhaps some of the 22 yr olds sitting there expected something lighter from the man who brought us Pixar. However, at the time Mr. Jobs had just come out of a very close call with the pancreatic cancer that would finally kill him this week and he was looking at life, no doubt, through very different glasses than the ones worn by many young people on graduation day. As I listened to his speech, I found myself deeply touched by the very personal side of himself that he revealed that day and from which so many of us have drawn quotes in the days since his death. I noticed how often this titan of industry appeared as vulnerable as any one of us might be when faced with our own mortality, or when we open ourselves up to be examined, as he did that day.
There has been so much written about Steve Jobs since his untimely death on Wednesday, at the age of 56. I certainly don’t need to regurgitate it here. Yet, I found it powerful to revisit some of the stories about this man that have over time, either become myth or have been lost in the hype surrounding his enormous success. There is no denying, the man changed all of our lives. I sit here typing this on my MacBook Air. If I wasn’t using this, I’d be using our iMac desktop. I don’t go far without my iPod and even if you’re not a member of the Mac junky group that our family is, you’d be hard pressed to not stop and acknowledge how this man changed your life. His influence and creations have literally changed how we all see the world, how we tap into the world around us and how we enjoy the world: in the world of music, information, knowledge, news, you name it. He was a genius the likes of which we may not see for a while. (My first iPod, the Original. ^^ It still plays)
However, I think his death came as such a shock because he was also a good man… a good man who many saw as a giant, and it’s just hard to really accept that those men die too. During the speech at Stanford, Jobs spoke at length about his own views on death. They are powerful remarks from a man who had just cheated it, but who would lose that battle only six years later. Staring at 49 (a few months away) myself, I see him as a man who died young. Given all of his amazing contributions to our world, and the brilliance he still demonstrated up until months before his death, that is especially true. He died a young man, with much left to offer. For many, that makes his death that much more hard to comprehend. He wasn’t a drug addict, like so many talented stars who die young; he wasn’t racing in his fancy car or piloting himself in a private plane; he simply died young, of cancer, and that my friends scares us all. Even the richest, most brilliant, with so much to offer and access to so much, could not dodge Death. That’s hard for a lot of people to grasp.
In the Stanford speech, Jobs tells three life stories that he learned from. It’s near the end of this address that he talks very movingly about death. His words are particularly meaningful now, in the days following his own. He shared that when he was a young man, he had read the quote: “If you live each day like it may be your last, one day you will certainly be right” (laughter). The quote impacted him powerfully. He stated that each day from then on, when he looked in the mirror, he asked himself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today? And whenever the answer has been no for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. Remembering that I will be dead soon (laughter) is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big decisions… all other external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment, fear of failure, just fall away in the face of death.” I found this particularly powerful, because it really makes me stop and think. How often do I take stock and think about that question? Not enough.
Many of us know someone who died before they “should have,” but it continues to surprise me how many people actually don’t know someone, or have not had a close encounter with loss. My entire life has been defined by loss and I am rarely surprised when someone, good or not, dies tragically or dies young. My father was killed when I was ten years old. His motorcycle was hit by another driver and he died instantly. My life and my views on permanence, loss and what we can expect also changed instantly. I can remember every detail of the day I heard that news. Every detail. And I have spent the thirty-eight years since (six years longer than my father lived) aware that our lives can change in an instant, that we or those we love can be taken from us with no warning, no reason; that life is not a given. I have not lived my life morosely pondering this, or dwelling on the sadness of the loss that taught me this, but that reality sits with me every day. I have also not used that knowledge to make more of my life. Listening to Jobs’ speech, this hit me harder at this junction in my life. Life can change at any moment, and am I doing what I want to be doing, if this were my last day alive?
When I was little, I was sure that everyone I loved would be taken away, as my father had been. It’s hard to think rationally as a child, in the face of such enormous irrationality. There was no logic, in my young mind, to explain why a man I loved so deeply could be taken with no warning. As with all who die too soon, my dad, Robert Quyle, has remained the young man he was when he died. I can not imagine him with wrinkles or gray hair. I can’t imagine him doing things to disappoint me or challenge me later in life. He will never be critical of my life choices or criticize what I do. He remains a young man who made his daughter believe in magic and the wild beauty of the world around us. He will always live in the forests where we camped and explored, the beaches where we flew kites, the Delta of Stockton where we road our bikes and watched the boat races. I can only see him through the eyes of the child who idolized and adored him. And that is what happens to those who die young: we wrap them in shiny paper and they stay that way forever.
Frankly, there have been far too many untimely, “unfair” deaths in my family. The year before my father died, my fourteen year old cousin was killed by a drunk driver. I had been very close to him before we moved back East and his death was inconceivable to my nine year old brain. He was that cool, older cousin that I had played with when we were younger, who I felt grown up around. His death was shocking. Still, I was removed from him geographically and hadn’t seen him in a while. Losing my father the next year was, clearly, a blow of enormous consequences. It impacted every level of our family life and my perceptions of safety and permanence. I was sure, each time my mom took a trip, or was out late, that something terrible had happened to her as well. It was bound to, right? Death had his eye on us.
In the years since, our family has suffered some fairly difficult losses, as well as the typical ones that come as grandparents and other relatives age. I have already written a lot about my mom and Huntingtons here, so I’ll spare the readers those details again. However, losing my cousin John in a plane crash (he was 43) three years ago, just weeks after my 49 year old aunt died of Huntingtons (her onset and death were scary fast), and then losing my mother-in-law to cancer two years ago, were all powerful blows in short succession. Death, that bastard, was perpetually in my rear view mirror.
For much of my life, it’s been tempting to wonder if Death chases us, if some people really are cursed. Few would argue that the Kennedys have the lock on that one, but like my family, there are plenty of others who have had an unfair share of loss. Because of this, I think about death more than some might. The scenarios play out in my head and fate scares me sometimes. I imagine the worst, as if to prepare for another blow. Death is the enemy and keeping my enemy close seems a wise approach sometimes. While this may sound morbid or superstitious to some, from where I sit it’s hard at times to find the logic and not fall into a fearful belief that we (my family) be “cursed.” I spiral into the thought that I’m bound to loose others I love, or that I will not live to be an old woman myself. If my kids or husband are out especially late, my mind immediately leaps to the darker places that so many other people avoid. While this is common with many people, for me it is intrinsic to the way I’ve viewed life, since my father’s death: threw the filter of death. I know the smell and texture of death and by visiting these fears occasionally, I keep Death close and perhaps trick my enemy into passing me by. Fair is fair, I’ve already met my quota, I think.
When I graduated high school, I sought out my father’s best friend, Eric, a man who had known him his whole life, so that I could get a broader, more flesh and blood idea of who my father was. When we met for the first time, we embraced warmly and both cried. We shared a loss that was enormous to us both. The opportunity to meet and bridge the gap of my father’s death, meant the world to us both and has sustained us over the many years since. Some times, when I am with Eric, I can feel my father, as the older man he had the potential to be, reflected in Eric, though they were very different men. (This picture is of Dad-right, and Eric-left, when they were young boys. Later, my dad would be buried in Eric’s suit.)–>
There are fewer and fewer people left in my life who can recall my dad in detail, or share him with me. That is a sad reality of losing someone young. There is only so much to say about a man who only lived 32 years. He had three children, who have all lived longer than him now. He never knew us as teens or adults, just as we never got to know him beyond his role as “daddy.” His two sisters, my aunts, are still alive and play an important role in my life. Sadly, we rarely talk about my father. His younger sister wrote a wonderful biography of him for my brother, sister and I, that fills in some early family stories and speaks to the athlete, naturalist and young man he was. But the story ends there, as it must. None of us can fill in the blanks. There is no way to know what would have come after or who he might have become as our father, as a grandfather, as a man. It is impossible to know what Steve Jobs would have done with the next few decades. He will remain 56 and a giant.
So when the news of Steve Jobs’ death was announced this week, I was not one of those people who was shocked by his youthful death, or all of the things he left unfinished; that is part of the package. While he was not as young as my father, he was a young man with much to look forward to. He left four children who will not know their father as an old man. He will live on as the middle-aged genius of a generation. Like my father, he will surely be remembered by his children for the occasions and times that they shared together, not the amazing things that made him a public figure.
At the end of his Stanford speech, he said these words: ”Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” I find this message timely for me and one that I wish I had been able to hear and embrace much sooner. As I go into a new phase of my own life, I believe I will take this message with me. They are words to live… and die by.
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