The Big Chill was released the same year I graduated from college. While $53 million at the box office may seem low according to today’s standards, the movie was a huge hit because of the talented cast and the fantastic 1960’s soundtrack.
The plot focuses on a group of Baby Boomers who get together 15 years after college to attend the funeral of one of their classmates. The characters spend their time rekindling relationships, confronting personal truths, and trying to manage the issues they still have with one another. The movie is fictional but reflects the realities of life.
Last Saturday, I had a Big Chill experience. I was standing in the foyer of a Lutheran church in Richmond, Virginia surrounded by a group of guys who were teammates in my pick-up basketball games and drinking buddies in our Thursday night quarters competitions while we were students at the University of Virginia. We were in the Lutheran church attending the funeral of our friend and roommate Todd Phillips. Todd was tragically killed in a car accident the previous week.
As in The Big Chill, we reestablished our relationships, talked about the good old days, and remembered Todd. In particular, we remembered how he loved basketball. Had we not been in suits, I’m sure a basketball game would have broken out. But, since we are all now in our mid fifties, the suit excuse prevented injury from a likely case of old-men-trying-to-be-young-men syndrome.
As we reconnected, asked each other about career paths, and reminded ourselves of the most embarrassing thing that each of us had done in college, the conversation eventually came back to Todd. And the one comment that came up most about Todd was, “I never knew he had such an impact on so many people.”
Here’s the odd thing about funerals. We often learn more about the deceased than we knew when they were alive. The problem is, it’s too late. Why don’t we know more about each other before that? And why do we often feel regret because we never told someone how we felt about him or her?
It’s a flaw in the system.
You see, I saw Todd several times a year at UVA basketball games. I knew that he taught an AP class in high school. I knew that he kept in touch with his students after they graduated. I figured he was pretty good at what he did. I did not know, however, that he had developed a state-of-the-art center for medical sciences at his school. I did not know that he had a huge impact on almost every student he touched. But after attending three different memorial services, I discovered that he was both an extraordinary teacher, a supportive father and spouse, and an amazing human being. I wish I’d known that before he died.
The reason I didn’t know more about Todd is that I had planned to get that information at a later time. Yep. I expected to grow old with Todd and then once we retired, we (Todd, our wives, and I) would hang out at UVA sporting events, go to dinner, and talk about our lives in more detail. I figured we had many years to get to know each other better.
It’s a flaw in the system. We always think we have more time.
A few years ago, five different friends of mine died over a short period of time. They were all members of my church, and suffered from a variety of different illnesses. Whenever each person’s name would show up on the prayer list, I’d say, “I need to go see him” or “I really should call her.”
But I didn’t.
And they all died before I talked to them, even though my intentions were good.
It’s a flaw in the system.
Good intentions don’t really work after someone dies. And even though it is said that “it’s the thought that counts,” if a person never knew what you thought about them, then the thought really didn’t count. As the great philosopher, Yoda, once said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”
There has been a flaw in my system for years. So I did something about it.
Last year, I embarked on a special project. I made a list of my closest friends and colleagues and committed to write each of them a note to let them know how I felt about them. That way, if they died, or we lost touch, the thought would count. I know it sounds morbid but it was my way of connecting with people while they are still on the planet.
I printed about 100 cards with a picture of a piece of toast on the front. Inside it had the following:
“A Toast To You!”
The older I get, the more I discover that I have not taken time to tell people how much they mean to me. So, that’s the purpose of this card. Consider yourself told!
I then wrote a personal note to each person. It was a nice way to connect. But I was not prepared for the responses I got. One man said it was the nicest note he had ever received. One woman said it made her cry. One friend called to make sure I didn’t have a terminal illness because he figured the only explanation for a card like this was that I was really sick. Now that was funny.
I’m grateful that I had sent one of these cards to Todd last year, before he died. Sometimes, we get a chance to fix a flaw in our system.
As I stood in the foyer of the Lutheran church on Saturday, I grieved the loss of my friend. I also grieved the many years that had passed since I played basketball and drank beer with the other guys at the funeral. And I grieved that we had not maintained our relationships.
The lack of connecting is definitely a flaw in our system. But, with a little bit of effort, we can address the flaw. And if we do, we can really make a difference in our own life and in the lives of others—before it’s too late.