Two Powerful Life Lessons I Learned Watching the Strongest Man I Knew Die a Slow Death

Zack Minott

In this midst of struggle, you can discover what it truly means to be alive.

I was at my high school homecoming dance on a serotonin high when reality hit. I get a phone call from my Mom,

“Zack, I think this is it. Get to the hospital as fast as you can.”

As the conversation ended, I stood horrified within this sea of people and noise — feeling as if my throat had dropped to the depths of my stomach, causing me to choke on my anxiety and worry. Everything went silent and I knew at that moment that the only thing that mattered was that I was there with my father before he passed.

This was a long-awaited moment. At the time, my dad had been battling throat cancer for a couple of years. There was a moment where he went into remission for several months which made me rather hopeful.

Unfortunately, life isn’t so merciful.

The results of a recent screening showed that his cancer would reintroduce itself with a vengeance. Stage 4. Four months left to live, the doctors would say.

I didn’t want to believe it was a guaranteed death sentence. Yet here I was, darting out of my senior homecoming dance to go pick up my older brother and make our way to the hospital as fast as we could, fully expecting that these might be our final moments with him. Nothing but silent fear poking at both our psyches the entire ride there.

Upon arrival, it was a temporary relief to see him sitting there fully conscious in his hospital bed. This day wouldn’t be his last. It would come weeks later.

Still, I would never forget this night. Not because of the high levels of stress, but by simply observing the way my father treated the whole ordeal.

You Can Say a Thousand Words Without Saying Anything At All

As we sat next to his bedside watching him violently vomit blood into a bucket, he looked up and took a good look at both of us. He smiled and made a flexing gesture with his arm as an allusion to how impressively fit he thought his doctor was. A silent reassurance doused with a bit of humor that everything would be okay.

It’s been months since I heard his voice. His cancer had clogged up so much of his throat that he had to live out his final days breathing through a hole poked through his trachea. Because of that, he had to find ways to communicate with us through gestures and expression.

Who knew that one simple gesture could speak a thousand words?

In that smile, he subliminally told me that joy can be found in the most difficult and adverse moments that we find ourselves in. He was simply glad to get a good look at us before he transcended into the great beyond. He appreciated this moment to the fullest. I could see it in his eyes.

It’s in those eyes that I knew that the grandest gesture I could do at that moment was not to look sorrowful and say ‘I love you’ with a cracked voice but rather to gift him back with a gleaming smile of my own. It was in that silent response that I relayed the message,

“Yes, dad. I will go on being happy. I will be okay. And I appreciate everything you’ve done for me. I love you.”

That made me think about the way I interact with others. Words are powerful, but it’s what you don’t say — what you do and what you show — that has the greatest impact.

Don’t underestimate what a small gesture can do for someone. Flash a smile to a stranger. Rest your hand comfortably on a friend’s back when they achieve a goal. Embrace an acquaintance who’s been struggling.

Who knows, you might just make their day. You might just give them the message they needed to hear without hearing it at all— the reassurance that they’ve been looking for — to keep going on proudly, strongly, and confidently. Kind and warm gestures of care speak volumes.

To quote Mark Twain:

“Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”

Enjoy the Simple Pleasures of Life

Things weren’t always so heartfelt though. You don’t realize what you have until you witness someone lose everything.

My dad lost his sense of taste and smell, his ability to talk, his privilege to work, and had to undergo an immense amount of physical pain and turmoil brought upon by his illness.

The man whom I once thought was the strongest man in the world suddenly became as fragile as paper with a mind exhausted from the trials he had to face on a daily basis. I looked at him and thought to myself that no human should ever have to suffer that same fate.

What he was condemned to as a result of a combination of his illness and therapy — that wasn’t living. Apparently, he didn’t think so either. My mom told me that he once tried to commit suicide by jumping out of a speeding car on the freeway due to his overwhelm.

Without the pleasures of life, he was losing his will to live.

Perhaps this is why we hear of people who have near-death experiences come out of it with newfound energy for life. They become so aware of their mortality that they learn to appreciate life to its highest degree. Urgency instilled through a taste of what it really means to lose it all.

As Tyler Durden’s character from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club would say:

“Only after disaster can we be resurrected. It’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything. Nothing is static, everything is evolving, everything is falling apart.”

I recognized this when my dad went into remission for a short while. All of a sudden he had this drive to start the business he always dreamed of and even expressed his desire to learn how to sail.

You could see the satisfaction on his face when he was finally able to taste food again. Fully absorbed in the moment, he savored every single bite — in both the food he ate and in the life he was living. He wanted to get out more, travel more, and experience more.

And so he did. It was inspiring to watch.

This made me reflect on my own life. How much is it that I take for granted? How much of my attention am I sacrificing to my phone, my work, a past that’s long gone, and a future that’s uncertain? Maybe I don’t need to know what it’s like to die, to truly live. Maybe all I need to do is decide to live.

To live in this moment. Live with gratitude. Gratitude for all that I am privileged to have. Because in essence, everything I have is a privilege. That was made clear when I watched my dad lose all those gifts of the senses and experience in one fell swoop.

It is no surprise then that psychology states that the practice of gratitude increases life satisfaction, engagement in the environment, greater personal growth, and a stronger sense of purpose, meaning, and specialness.

So maybe the answer to living the best and happiest life is to simply be grateful. Therefore, you should always aim to appreciate those simple things that life offers — the privilege to taste, smell, talk, experience, and simply be alive.

I was only 17 years old when my dad died. An age where I had the privilege to be raised by him but at the same time never know who he truly was. It may have been tragic, but it was the most pivotal event that’s ever happened in my life.

It pushed me towards maturity and self-reliance faster than I could imagine. It led me to the exploration of philosophy as a means to better understand life and how to live it. It made me more empathetic towards those around me. It made me more grateful and excited about life.

Because of it, I have evolved from a child to a man. True post-traumatic growth.

To you, dear reader, my message is simple: be kind and be grateful for you never know when you will be gone nor how you’ll change the lives you come in contact with.

To the memory of my dad, I bid thee a great thanks. Thank you, dad, for everything you have given me during the short time that I knew you. I’d hope that if you were here, that you’d be proud of me and the man I’ve become.

Rest in peace big guy. You’ve changed my life for the better both in life and after it.

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Cloud Developer | Philosopher | Avid Reader | Intellectual Explorer and Lifelong Learner | Athlete | Top Writer @Medium

Santa Ana, CA

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