At the age of 53, Eugene O’Kelly was on top of the world. He was a top executive at a major accounting firm, a job that he loved. He lived in a penthouse apartment in New York City and had a lakefront vacation home. He was happily married and had two children he cherished.
Then, after experiencing headaches and vision problems for a few days, he went to the doctor. He thought it would be a small issue, probably just migraines caused by too much work and not enough sleep. The doctor ordered several tests and O’Kelly was told:
“You have multiple inoperable brain tumors. You have 3 months to live.”
What do you do when you receive what amounts to a death sentence with no chance for appeal? Do you go home and turn off the lights, waiting for the inevitable? Or do you try and make the most of the remaining time you have on earth? O’Kelly opts for the latter and chronicled his final days in Chasing Daylight. How My Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life, which was published after his death.
When O’Kelly hears his prognosis he does what most of us would do. He quits his job. He makes sure his affairs are in order. He makes a list of people he wants to see one last time, from an outer circle comprised primarily of business associates to an inner circle made up of his close friends and family members.
What he does next is a bit more surprising. O’Kelly is a type-A personality who has been living an always busy, high energy life. Now he makes it his mission to s-l-o-w everything down and live within each moment. He is determined to find what he calls the “Perfect Moment” or what are really a series of perfect moments. He explains it this way:
A Perfect Moment was a little gift of a few seconds or an hour or an afternoon. Usually it was a surprise, though sometimes I could see it unfolding. The key was you had to be open for it…it could be the rhythm of your own breathing, a beautiful poem your daughter wrote, the color of the sky.
To get in the zone for these moments, with the help of his wife he learns to meditate, something he has never done before. He spends several frustrating days not getting it, until one day it just clicks. This enables him to put all thoughts of his illness aside, calm his mind and “focus on something pleasing.”
Doing this, he achieves mindfulness, a state the life philosopher John Templeton describes as “being aware of every moment in every day.” The teacher and author Jon Kabat-Zinn has written extensively about mindfulness and the role it plays in a well-lived life. In his words:
Mindfulness can accompany us moment by moment by moment as we journey through our lives, as they unfold through thick and thin. Each one of us can learn to rely on that awareness, on the power of mindfulness, to live our lives. How we live in each moment is all that really matters.
For O’Kelly, this learned ability to live in the moment allows him to get the most out of each of the remaining days of his life. He is able to move toward death not with fear or anger, but with a total appreciation of the wonders and joys of life. On one of his final days he writes:
I marveled at how many Perfect Moments I was having now. I was getting better at it. It was beautiful. And as much as I had loved the hustle and bustle of my previous life, I couldn’t help but think on how rare such moments had been, and how plentiful they were now.
O’Kelly tries to put into words something that is hard to capture—the state-of-mind of being fully aware and involved in each and every moment, where all thoughts of the past and future fall away. He describes this state like this:
Time stood still. I was no longer aware of having an experience, the experience itself had taken over. It was not me, it was the thing. The reward was just in being there, witness to it, but not entirely there. It was as if I had become consciousness.
Sadly, the prognosis for O’Kelly proves accurate as he passes away only four months after that fateful trip to the doctor. But his final days are met with grace and dignity, as well as insights into the ultimate meaning of life. His wife Corrine writes the final chapter of the book and says:
Some may wonder why Gene wanted to reach the highest level of consciousness at the time of his death. Gene believed that by achieving such a state, he would come closest to embracing his soul, the divine spirit within all of us. What better way to bridge this world and the next than to be as close to the divine as possible. He believed that if you were in touch with the divine self, then there really was no bridge to cross.
Eugene O’Kelly wrote that he actually felt blessed that he knew of the time of his death, for it gave him a chance to prepare. It was preferable to being taken without warning by a sudden heart attack or accident. And since few of us know how much longer we will be on this earth, it does get you wondering:
- Am I living life too fast? Do I need to slow down?
- Would life be better if I l was able to live in and appreciate each moment?
- Am I aware of the gifts that are in my life right now?
- Can I spend the rest of today appreciating all the special moments I encounter? How about the day after this one?