06/15/2012 10:08 am ET Updated Aug 15, 2012

Live Until You Die: Midlife Advice from My Father

In the end, his wise words became the basis of the eulogy I gave for my father when he died six years ago at the age of 87. That tribute to him, however, became my rule for living, especially at midlife.

I first heard his words on the occasion of my 35th birthday, back when that seemed like the threshold to middle age (now, 17 years later, it seems like a toe out of toddlerhood). I called my dad, who was then 76, and complained about getting older. Knowing my dad -- acerbic, impatient, with an economy of words that seemed to mark his Italian-American "tough guy" image -- I did not expect any sympathy. So it was no surprise when he told me, "Don't like having another birthday? Consider the alternative." Then I pressed him, really wanting a piece of advice from this man I had looked up to all my life. His words contained the gift I had hoped for: "You live until you die."

In retrospect, I can see the value was in both what he did not say as well as what he did. He did not say: "You live and then you die," because that is only a sequence without much meaning. He surely did not say, "life stinks and then you die," which was completely opposed to this man who loved life and consumed it with gusto. He said, "You live until you die." At midlife, I had better be living.

The typical life expectancy would give me about 30 more years on this planet, although I am bookended by a family history of both extremes. My mother died at 61, while both of my grandmothers lived to 90-plus. Although I have no idea when the grim reaper will come to call (and I'm doing all I can to put off that Appointment in Samarra), I have to admit that there are probably more years behind me than ahead of me. Normally, such thinking would send me off in search of a distraction to keep from contemplating my mortality. Ah, but that's where dad's words come in, starting with the last two: " die."

There is an end to this game, which even with good health and new medical technology can be pushed just so far into extra innings. At some point, the lights go out and the fans go home. Knowing there is an end heightens the importance of how the game is played. I can be a spectator waiting to see how things turn out, or I can be an active participant, which was the crux of the Dad's first three words: "You live until..."

Each of us has the right and the obligation to define what it means to be living. At half-time, living is probably no longer defined by young children and starting a household. Our nests may be empty or newly populated with extended family or even the next generation. We may be coupling or decoupling, expanding or downsizing. External events, from the economy to personal issues, will exert influences on our choices and decisions. Nonetheless, it's up to us to decide what living looks like.

While my son has completed his first year in college, I've decided it's time for me to pursue a master's degree. There is no compelling reason for me to get one; my day job -- I'm a professional writer and author -- does not require it. But I've always wanted an advanced degree. Also on my bucket list are traveling more, writing about those travels and trying to make a difference in the lives of those I encounter. I'd like to sing more, worry less and brush up on my rusty French. I dream of spending a month or longer in a place that looks and feels far different than one I call home. I'd love to hold a grandchild someday.

It's a tall order, and I may only get to a fraction of it, or the list may change completely. Whatever I choose and however it turns out, I must make sure that I am living. After all, that's what Dad told me. "You live until you die."

Thanks, Dad. Happy Father's Day.