Saturday Cup of Joe from Detroit

#246 — Defending Your Life

This week’s Saturday Cup of Joe is all about friendship, love, loss, grief and approaching challenges in your work or your life…And the special people that help us through.

This week’s video:

Transcript of video:

You don’t need me to tell you “life is short.” You don’t need to lose someone to cancer to know life is short. Someone asked me recently what is a cliche that still rings true for you? My answer: Life is short.

4 years ago I lost my best friend, Brad, to a rare and aggressive form of kidney cancer. He’d want me to tell you that it was so rare they never classified it. Even after his death, they kept trying to identify it. Hadn’t seen it before. One day, Labor Day 2016, we were playing golf at 6 am to try to make the most of Labor Day holiday and what felt like the next but was October 12, we were eating Chipotle in the hospital waiting for the final test results to come back. Confirming what Brad sensed and we feared. Brad moved on from this world 101 days later. Ever since January 22, 2017, I have been trying to make sense of it.

I will tell you more about Brad but to know me is to know Brad. We met toward the end of our Freshman year. Our friendship was immediate and lasting. Brad and I spent hours on the steps of our dorm, our a bench on campus or just walking around. We committed to shared values and investing in each other. Once in college, we were at a friends house and he looked around the room at all the people partying and said to me “I love being human.” To me that says it all.

We lived together at times. I moved in with his family during the summer internship in DC. Sharing a room with Brad and his twin brother Dave. Brad and I lived apart when he moved to Detroit in 2006 but stayed close regardless of the miles between us. When my wife Meredith and I got married, Brad stood right next to my little brother. When Brad married his wife Dana here in Detroit on top of the Park Shelton in midtown, I performed the ceremony.

Brads motto before his diagnosis was “live the life you wanna live.”

And we made that happen for each other and wanted to make those in our lives.

We shared everything — pride, insecurities, fears, struggles and dreams. Politics. History. Love. Music. Our late night conversations, our dinner conversations were the stuff of legends….or so we thought. Once in our mid twenties we decided to go big on nice dinner, laughing, sharing stories and bottles of wine. Getting louder. Brad looked around and said — “don’t these people have any idea who we think we are” and that stuck.

In 2016, when my family got the chance to move to Detroit, 2 buildings away from Brad and Dana on the East Riverfront, it was unbelievable. Our wives rolled their eyes. “Here we go. We’ll never see these two anymore.” was the collective thought.

Brad and I thought — ok this is the start of our grown up lives. Playing golf at 6 am. Happy hour with Bell’s 2-Hearted Ale, his favorite. Rooftop bbqs. It will be like this all the time, we thought. This is too good to be true (another cliche). And in some ways it was.

Despite being like brothers, we disagreed on one fundamental thing. Brad said to build a career and to make a true difference in the world meant to “trust the process” and the work would be “brick by brick.” I subscribe to big break. The idea that opportunities / big breaks present themselves and its up to us to recognize and jump. Life, I thought, is a series of ever larger big breaks.

Despite that disagreement, one thing we did together was game plan and game theory our careers. Imagining every path, every iteration, every outcome. Long nights, too many drinks and little sleep fueled our conversations. Brad’s family and eventually both our wives had to put up with it.

In fact. It was Brad’s mom, Marsie, helped me create my first real resume and land my first job. Brad and I had ambition in spades and would think and rethink career choices and opportunities. His path to Mayor of Detroit (or even President) and mine as a lawyer, author and perhaps someday his chief of staff.

Our friendship was unlike anything I had experienced before. On that unique friendship we built theories and mottos and ultimately our approach to life.

Some theories were all our own. Others we picked up from shared experiences.

If you haven’t seen or heard of it Defending Your Life is a movie written, directed and starring Albert Brooks with Meryl Streep. It’s delightful and everyone should watch it tonight. Spoiler alert 30 years later. In the movie, Albert Brooks dies in an accident and enters purgatory only to discover the actual purpose of being on Earth. He has a “hearing” about his life and there are judges and attorneys on both sides.

Instead of picking the big moments in his life. He finds out that his life will be just on the moments where he didn’t stand up for himself. Where someone challenged him or took advantage of him and he didn’t speak up.

The reason we loved the movie is the idea that live is about defending who you are, your choices, against constant messages and influences to get you to doubt yourself. The point is the courage to live your own choices. Often the threats come from inside your own mind. The narrative of assumptions about what other people might think.

What I have learned or try (and fail) to do is to Live Courageously in the everyday things. Of course do the right thing but this is more personal than that — be able to stand up for yourself anytime.

Brad and I embraced being intentional about our careers and taking risks — where and when. For example, Brad’s decision to leave Detroit — a city he called “home town” and committed his life to — in order to attend graduate school The Fletcher School at Tufts & Harvard. Or mine to skip traditional legal internships and clerkships to work in companies from the start.

Awareness and intent to go get it. Easier said than done. What turned it into action, for us, was our willingness and desire to state our commitments out loud to each other. Brad was the first man other than my Father & brother to who I said “I love you.” It was our belief that if we supported each other unconditionally we created safety to do bold things.

“You can’t lose me.” Is a powerful statement

That type of friendship gave me the confidence to try risky things and a support system to know failure didn’t mean the end. That type of friendship is a privilege and it’s one we’re all capable of. Simply by saying it and living it out.

Brad was not the only support system in my life. The reason I could recognize the significance of Brad’s commitment to me was that I had seen it before in my parents. My mother and father created the environment for my brother and Me to flourish. Truly model parents and my parents were so generous and caring that my friends would hang out at my house for football games after I moved away to college without me but with Buffalo wings and Code Red Mountain Dew!

My parents were still living in the house they built that I grew up in when we found out my mother had ovarian cancer. It was a few months after Brad died. Summer 2017. My mom went through 2 rounds of chemo and seemed like she had it beat until Summer 2018 when it came back. We found out a month or so before our family vacation to Ocean City Nj in August. Her cancer was aggressive and fast. The reoccurance took her away in less than 2 months. She passed on September 23, 2018.

At her memorial service I was looking for the way to explain my connection to my mom…and I tell you what I said then. She was the voice in my head. She guided me even when we were apart. And she’s still in my head today — for better or worse.

I hadn’t fully dealt with Brad’s death when I lost my mom. Perhaps I never fully will. Perhaps that’s not the point. The point is not some end where “you’re over it.”

The point is how I continue to view my life, my choices, my commitments. Hope. To go to work. To be present with your family.

I have a 7 year old daughter who had a front row seat at 4 years old to Brad’s death. Who lost her grandma when she was 5 years old. What do I tell her about life?

That life is short. True but that’s not enough.

What I tell her is that if you are in it, truly in it, with those you love. With those in your community. With your team mates at work. Then you are in it for the whole ride — the good and the bad.

When my mom was scared to tell me about her cancer because I was still broken from Brad’s death, I told her — Mom, I signed up for this. I didn’t just sign up for the vacations and Christmas mornings. Those are amazing but I want the whole thing. If I say I love being human at a party and truly mean it, it’s because of the people, their stories and the experience. But the other truth in that is that some stories are longer than others. If you read an amazing book, you don’t wish it was 1,000 pages longer. That would ruin it.

Brad’s life was unfairly short but it was a full story. A good story. My mom and dad planned their entire lives to retire together and she passed before that was possible. There is grief there. Healthy grief. There is also embracing the full story of a life lived and knowing that I’m not skipping over anything just cause it gets hard.

Part of being all in, is helping my 35 yr old best friend in and out of the bathroom or sitting with my father as he lost his high school sweetheart in our living room.

The hardest things are the things we value most — education, mental health, spiritual walk, physical fitness — these things take time and are hard and require dedication.

So does your ability to live the life you wanna live. To live courageously doesn’t just happen it’s a commitment, an intention.

Those commitments are often challenged. Brad used to demand time with his people, his inner circle, and it was hard for people when he was at a party and took someone aside for 20 or 30 mins to speak with them alone. Once someone asked him to advise their startup and it came with options for compensation and recognition, he said “I don’t believe I can help your business. I just don’t see what you see.” The right answer but a hard one.

Brad, his wife Dana and I created a podcast and, of course, called Defending Your Life chronicling our experience and Brad’s experience throughout cancer. It took intention and discipline when we could have been doing other things. But Brad insisted on sharing. As a result, I have over 60 hours of conversation with Brad (at all because I happened to move to Detroit 4 months before his diagnosis. I could make it all sound like a coincidence and certainly there was some unexpected turns that brought us to Detroit but we were ready to make the move when the opportunity presented itself. Being here in Detroit throughout Brad’s illness, Meredith and I were able to spend time with Brad and Dana and support Dana ever since because we were here.

Brad was intentional about creating purpose and the people he spent time with. My mother was intentional about building a life for her sons. Birthdays and holidays. Little things and big things.

These special people, these opportunities don’t just happen. You probably heard some leader or business book say — hope is not a strategy.

Hope is what sparks the feeling and sparks the conversation but spending time and being intentional is what makes it happen. That’s the strategy.

Because I had Brad and my Mom, I have a gift. That privilege and it is privilege. The stakes are lower for me to subvert expectations, to take risks, to live courageously. I can risk embarrassment. I can risk being wrong. Partly to my privilege — the stakes for others — women, people of color — are different. I know this.

I also know that I approach my

choices and approach my day more directly. Less worried about what other people think. Less concerned with whether someone will treat me unfairly. In large part, it’s because of Brad and my mom and my wife Meredith and my Dad and Dana and my brother and my childhood friends several who I consider brothers who carried me through all this.

I’m not waiting for a big break anymore.

I am the big break.

And so are you.

There is no program, no book, no solution.

The more we see the world through a new lens. A lens of deeply flawed and deeply grieving people all just trying to make their own sense of the world.

We are free of their judgment.

When we are free of their judgment, we encountered fewer self-imposed fears.

In that space floods intention.

It’s being intentional with your choice.

Choose your people. Choose your commitments. Choose your joy.

It’s not sexy.

It’s hard because it’s a daily choice. Just like marriage. Just like coming to work everyday.

The steps I’ve learned about these choices after hours and hours of talking to Brad and others about it:

  1. Be honest with yourself — “Live the life you really wanna live.”
  2. Be intentional — you have to create and protect the space for something special to happen
  3. Answer well — there will be challenges. It will be hard. Assume that going in and rise to the occasion when you can.

Putting distance even in a split second between the question or the challenge in front of you and how you respond. Some people call it being present in the moment. That was always a little hard for me to picture.

What I use is a little flag in my mind. When an email or a question or a frustration arises, a quick breath or moment to say … what’s the most intentional way I can focus on this and respond? What’s my answer going to be? Will I answer well?

When in doubt, say the extra thing. Being intentional means being willing to say something when others stop. Articulating is hard.

There’s always an opportunity to assume you have another chance explain or you can say something tomorrow. Why?!?

Don’t you remember that awful cliche. Life is short. Too short for games or waiting or cruelty.

Be honest and courageous about the life you wanna live. Be intentional about your choices, your friends and family, about creating the moments. Then when the challenge presents itself, the question arises Answer Well.


Source: @voicesofmichigan on Instagram

Continued success and continue to answer well,

Thinker, curious leader, once an attorney…always trying to answer well.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store