My great uncle Jakob should have died in the holocaust.
And I mean that in the most respectful way imaginable: his odds of survival, on any given day, were probably closer to zero than they were to any reasonable percentage.
He could pass as a German because he had blonde hair and blue eyes and spoke perfectly fluently in German and without any sort of ‘Jew’ accent or anything.
Even so, people can smell the ‘Jew’ on you, if they stand close enough.
And close enough he did get: there were moments when he’d infiltrate a German prisoner camp, dressed as an officer in an effort to extradite prisoners.
I think he was driven less by purpose and more by the necessity for survival, so he almost always made it through.
One time, on one of his certain death missions, he had to rescue a particularly significant Jewish prisoner from a prison camp.
“I need to move this prisoner!” He said.
They asked for his credentials, he proffered them and they let him through.
At some point, on the way out, they got particularly choosy with their questions.
“Why do you need this prisoner?” They’d ask.
They prodded him, a few times.
“Because he’s important,” he said, “other than that, the reason is none of your business.”
What he wouldn’t tell them was that the prisoner was his brother.
I think Jakob knew he was going to die far before anyone else in my family even recognized it.
A few months, or maybe about a year before his death, I remember sitting down with him in his outdated, rent-controlled apartment in Peter Cooper Village in Manhattan, talking about what I’m not exactly sure.
His default volume was YELLING so I would ask him something and then he would yell the answer back at me at an ever-increasing volume.
“How’s your day?” I’d ask him.
“YOU KNOW!? IT WAS FINE,“ he’d respond, and my eardrums would recoil back into my skull.
So when he spoke at a normal volume, you knew it was something that was either A. Important or B. Secret or C. Both.
He said, “you know, Michael…” and I didn’t, because I could never really accurately anticipate whether the next point would be a compliment, a chastising or a chastising wrapped up in praise.
I won’t forget the next thing he told me.
“When I go,” he said, “I don’t want to be a burden.”
This is somebody who was the least burdensome person imaginable.
Even well into his 80s and 90s, he would walk or take the bus to doctor’s appointments that were 30-40+ minutes away from his apartment.
In the splintering cold in the dead of winter, when the streets were covered in snow and ice.
I think the thickest jacket he ever wore was just a smidgeon thicker than a raincoat.
And he always wore one of those French beret-type hats.
He lived alone and rarely needed or asked for support.
He was perfectly able to take care of himself up until the day he died.
And even if he wasn’t feeling 100% well, he still faked it.
He was a survivor.
He stood tall.
He never really complained.
He shuffled around with purpose.
Until the day he died.
Whatever you do, just fucking pretend.
When my dad’s brother (i.e. my uncle) was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, about the last thing that he ever wanted to talk about while his energy literally ticked away with his was how he was dying.
I used to fault him for that. Why can’t we fucking talk about this?! I thought.
And in hindsight, that was probably extremely selfish of me because the last thing a dying person wants to do is recognize that they’re dying.
So, he (and the rest of us, really) pretended like everything was normal.
Sure, he was becoming sicker and less able, but really nothing changed.
We basically pretended like he wasn’t sick and like he was going to live forever.
And I think, in some ways, it made the entire process just that much less jarring and awful.
Propping yourself up might seem like a poor choice of actions when every one of them feels like it brings you closer to death, but I think it makes the eventual prospect of death feel just a little less terrifying.
The same can be said of almost anything: romance, success, fear, anything.
If you pretend that you’re not afraid your physiological response, more often than not, will be to calm down.
Pretend you’re more confident than you actually are; you’re at an advantage in a particular negotiation; that the staircase you’re about to go down on your mountain bike is secretly your bitch.
You’ll probably be wrong a lot of the time, but you’ll feel less afraid.
The most afraid I ever felt was when my mom was diagnosed with cancer.
(And I say cancer quite dramatically because the reality was she just had a tumor on a kidney and that would be easily removed, but still. It scared the shit out of me at the time.)
The call I received about it shook me to my core and then I had to grapple with the potential reality that I might not have her in my life anymore.
And that was a terrifying, incomprehensible reality to potentially grapple with.
So I just cried a lot. Because I didn’t want to face it.
And then, when I went home for her surgery maybe a month or two later, I remained stoic, in some ways.
I was nervous, sure, but stoic in that I wasn’t the one having the surgery and that it didn’t make sense to create a panic around all of that shit.
So I didn’t.
I let my parents handle the panic aspect of things, while my sister and I just kept our collective cool(s).
The surgery went fine.
I think it got pushed back a month or two, but it wasn’t an emergency surgery anyway.
She eventually got the kidney removed and returned to normal a week or two later.
I pretended to be fine the entire time.
I was ignoring the pain and the insanity.
I just dealt with it in my own way.
Just don’t have expectations.
If you’ve ever read Viktor Frankl’s brilliant memoir A Man’s Search for Meaning, you’ll probably remember this interesting observation: that the death rate in concentration camps in the week between Christmas 1944 and New Year’s 1945 skyrocketed relative to all other periods.
And this drastic increase in the death rate wasn’t explained by worsening working conditions or lack of food or weather or anything like that.
It was that more of the inmates had given up home and lived under the false narrative that they’d get home by Christmas.
General Stockdale made a similar observation during his captivity in Vietnam, finding that the prisoners who ended up losing up hope were always the ones who held onto a specific date or vision for when they’d finally be released from captivity.
Expectations are dangerous in that way.
About a month or two ago, I went on a handful of dates with a girl who I really started to like.
She was smart, thoughtful and incredibly sexy.
And I think we had similar personalities in that both of us enjoyed our own alone time as much as we also enjoyed time with one another.
And we kept talking and hung out a few more times but ultimately it fizzled out.
I try not to go into relationships with an expectation that it’ll work out, but I certainly hope it does.
And I was disappointed.
I’d keep checking my phone manically like a crazy person to see if she’d responded to my last text.
And at some point, I just realized that this is insanely unhealthy.
That I need to simply let this shit go and move on or I’m going to drive myself fucking mad and/or die of a heart-attack.
Stress-induced love addiction, if you will.
I hope we remain friends but I’ll try not to beat myself up too much or ask where it went wrong if we don’t.
Relationships are fucking hard and I certainly haven’t figured out the secret sauce to make them work how you want them to.
Nothing ever works out exactly how you want it to.
And that’s okay, too.
You shouldn’t ignore death if it’s facing you.
Or heartbreak, if it’s made you feel like a piece of shit.
Or anger, if you’re pissed off at the world and the way it’s been shitting on you recently.
But it doesn’t mean you can’t walk without purpose, either.