When I learned I had terminal cancer, I sent an email announcement to virtually everyone I know.
I did not want to slip away unnoticed. When the time comes, my obit in the newspaper will be seen by some. But I wanted my friends, relatives and colleagues in all the places I have lived and worked to know and the only way to do it was through the Internet. I couldn't just call up people -- some I hadn't seen for years -- and say "Guess what? I have cancer!" Email may be impersonal, but it gets you there.
Timing was another factor. One of my doctors hinted I might only have six months or so; others offered no predictions, but I got no encouragement to think long-term. My depleting energy level suggested it would be prudent not to wait too long to say my farewells.
A certain amount of egotism was at play, too. I was, after all, in the PR business all my life, a profession in which modesty is not overly prized. So yes, I wanted to be remembered for some of my accomplishments.
In addition to having been a corporate VP of Fortune 500 companies, I was vice president of the MS Society, where I played a key role in the creation of a major national advocacy organization for medical research (Research!America). And as head of media relations for NASA, I negotiated the public information agreement with the Soviet Union for the Apollo/Soyuz mission. (These I knew would undoubtedly come as some surprise to a lot of those who knew me way back when I was a high school dropout, a teenage sailor, a longshoreman on the West Side piers, driving a cab or working on a beer truck.)
One other thing that prompted me to act was the fact that I discovered too late that I really knew so little about so many deceased friends and colleagues, and only found out about some of their remarkable exploits and achievements when reading their obituaries.
How many times after belatedly learning that a deceased neighbor or co-worker had been a WWII War ace, a former Olympian, a Holocaust survivor or a POW did I exclaim to myself, "God, I wish I had known that while he was living!" Not saying my own relatively humble accomplishments compare, but I thought they might be of interest to some and informative to others who had lost track of me over the years.
When I sent my farewell note, it was to deliver a message, and I had no idea what kind of responses to expect. I still can't believe what I got -- an overwhelming outpouring of warmth and love. I never knew that so many people liked and even loved me. More than a few were testimonials recalling how I had helped them personally or professionally. One even swore I had saved her life. Others praised me as a good boss, a good friend and a benefactor.
What especially heightened my delight and surprise by this heartwarming response was a humbling experience that occurred just a few months earlier (before my own diagnosis). I had attended a funeral on Long Island for a very dear old friend who just happened to be one of the most popular guys ever. His wake was so crowded you could sell tickets to get in. I thought by comparison they'll have to offer free ice cream just to fill enough seats for a decent turnout at mine.
Not that I ever lacked a favorable opinion of myself. I'm a smart, fairly good-looking guy with a good sense of humor, a strong work ethic and certain other qualities. Unlike my popular friend, however, I have some less endearing traits.
On the other side of my personal balance sheet are some liabilities that offset those on the asset side.
I am too opinionated, too judgmental and too often too quick-tempered. Given these flaws, I never honestly considered myself likely to win a Mr. Nice Guy award. Nor did I actually ever work at achieving popularity the way some people do by trying so hard to be agreeable all the time.
So it was quite a boost to my morale, when I really needed it, to find my mailbox filled with expressions of love, admiration and appreciation from all over the country. I guess I never realized how much I wanted others to care about me. I do now.
I'll find out soon enough if Somebody Up There Likes Me, but if everyone who has promised to pray for me does, I should at least have the benefit of a good introduction, if not a free pass, when the time comes. In the meantime, it is truly comforting to have the support of so many friends.
John Donnelly is an 82-year-old retired public relations executive who has held senior positions in industry, government and the non-profit sector. He was diagnosed with liver cancer several months ago and is keeping busy trying to get his affairs in order. He has left instructions that in lieu of flowers, donations in his memory be directed to Smile Train in the hope at least some will remember him with a smile on their face.
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