February 16, 2022: My name is Meredith O’Hara. Dad died today at 9:30 am. He tasked me to proof this blog and post on his behalf. This is a difficult read but he put a lot of time and effort into reflection on his life experience and shares advice here for anyone interested in his final thoughts. Dad valued having this artifact for us all to hold dear. An obituary is available here: https://www.dignitymemorial.com/en-ca/obituaries/dartmouth-ns/phil-ohara-10593729.
The text below was written by Dad in the final weeks of his life:
This is my final blog post. I worked on this article over a number of months with a plan to release it after my death. It is a collection of my thoughts on what really counts to feel alive. My life adventure has come to an end and although I can’t share it with you, I now have my answer to the universal question about life after death.
Learning on December 18, 2019, that I had cancer was the most emotionally devastating moment of my life. I was numb and in disbelief: How is this possible? I am in the best physical condition of my life. Other than difficulty swallowing, I felt healthy, fit, strong, and looking forward to a future filled with adventures. This was just the start of riding an emotional roller coaster where I saw myself in the front seat wearing the uniform of a crash test dummy heading for a brick wall at warp speed.
My wife Janet was at my side and together we decided to keep this diagnosis a secret until the New Year. Our youngest son Drew was getting married on New Year’s Eve and we did not want any future memories of that joyful event to be tainted by the news that Dad was soon to start cancer treatment. I was already having poor health days and knew I would have some at the time of the wedding but I planned to cover them up as best as possible.
It is difficult to acknowledge your own mortality at any age but when it slaps you in the face, you no longer have the option to push it to a back burner as most people do. It is front and center all the time and I understand many cancer patients simply accept the diagnosis and give up on life. I went through a period of depression which I masked from those around me but at the time of my diagnosis, I expected to be a cancer survivor. I made an active decision to refuse to let cancer dictate how I would live my life but I appreciated that that treatment and health changes imposed limits on my physical abilities.
It was clear that my life was heading in an unexpected direction but we don’t get to choose all the roads we travel; we do get to choose to be the version of ourselves while on the ride. When it became clear in August 2020 that my esophageal cancer metastasized in my liver, any hope of survival vanished. I hit my emotional low for a few days and stayed pretty close to home as I turned my thoughts to end-of-life planning.
What became clear to me is that in spite of the complexity of being alive my focus going forward is to identify the elements which bring me the greatest joy and sense of purpose for whatever time I have remaining on this blue dot we called planet Earth. That is the focus of my final blog. Perhaps my ramblings will give you cause for reflection with the outcome of enriching your life too.
My adventure has come to an end. I do not think this is a morbid read but it is coming from the grave so you might disagree.
I believe it is our common human mission to actively seek nirvana which is defined as a place of perfect peace and happiness. I do not think we can sustain this state of mind all the time but that it comes and goes provided we make an effort to live life to its fullest.
I decided in my last post to share my life lessons which without question came into focus since my diagnosis in December 2019. These are an extension of the ramblings you’ve suffered all along but I promise you they are the last.
Learn How to Love
Your knee-jerk reaction to Learn How to Love might be one of, “I already know how to love.” That would have been my reaction not all that long ago but since my diagnosis, in particular, I have become more expressive with my love and I can assure you the return is ten-fold. It’s not that I didn’t know how but there was a long time in my early life that I could not with comfort say the words, “I love you.”
I am wrapped in love from my wife, my children, a huge extended family, and a massive community of friends. Although not always this way, today I make an effort to express my love for others, and the more I do so, the more they express it in return. It is my deep belief that love is the glue for everything. It can be terrifying, it lifts us up, excites us, and inspires us to find our way in the world. It is a complex and meaningful connection we share with others. To be complete, it starts with the love for ourselves which can be challenging in today’s complex and confusing world where so many people are subject to disappointment beyond their control.
I think we start life ready to love and as we age we become less expressive. I believe this is true of men more so than women but I am open to being corrected … oops too late for that since; I’m gone. The caring by parents is our first source of love and early in life blossoms to siblings, relatives, family friends, and others. This was the case as I was raised and I think is at the core of all stable families. I glow these days when I observe Becca and Chris interact with our first grandson Jacob and then when the family gathers how showered he is with the affections of his aunts and uncles. These are joyful moments and I wish I could have been more active but cancer has robbed me of the confidence to safely pick him up or even hold him for any period of time.
In my early life, I found it difficult to express my love for others. That is not to say I didn’t feel love but I’m not sure I knew exactly what that meant. I don’t remember my parents talking about love but they must have. In fact, I don’t remember them saying “I love you” out loud but they must have. I am sure they loved me, my older sister, and my younger brother but I simply don’t remember the words being part of normal conversations.
I remember my wedding day like it was yesterday. On Saturday, the 15th of July in the year 1978, all I could think about did I love Janet enough to guarantee a successful marriage? At that stage, I could not explain what it meant to love another person. My wife is an angel and so much better a human being than me. What I did know with absolute certainty is that I needed this wonderful, beautiful, genuine, sincere, talented woman in my life even if I didn’t think I was good enough for her.
What I did feel was connected with Janet in a way different than anyone in my past. She was and is my best friend, my confidant, my biggest fan, and throughout our 43+ years together has always been a support pillar. She is my rock. Today I know I love my wife deeply and in hindsight I know I always have.
I wonder why I was so guarded with expressing love in my earlier life. I find this particularly curious because I’m pretty sensitive emotionally in so many ways. I guess I was a product of the times. Men didn’t express emotions frequently. We were tough guys.
I always had a close relationship with my Mom; not so much with my Dad. My older sister and younger brother had good relationships with both our parents so I was the anomaly. My big takeaway from the contentious relationship with my Dad was that I didn’t want that to be reflected in the relationship with my own children.
Soon after starting married life with Janet, my willingness to openly express my love changed. I can’t explain what changed exactly but I think having Brad and Janet arrive in my life around the same time initiated a change in me; both were naturally loving which made it easy for me to be loving in response.
I can’t quite find the words but it is clear to me today that when I started to put the needs of others ahead of my own, that is an important construct on which a loving relationship becomes easy to build. This can be done in big ways or little ways. Just making a cup of tea for Janet is an expression of love. On our 5th Anniversary, I arranged a renewal of our wedding vows as a surprise. That was a big deal and a memory we still reflect on from time to time.
I don’t think there is anything magical in my rambling about love but I wish to encourage you to be more expressive with your feelings with the people who are most meaningful in your life. Like me, you might find it difficult to say out loud, “I love you,” but the more you do so, the easier it becomes.
The people I know who achieve nirvana, which is defined as a state of perfect happiness, are those who give and receive love all the time. Everything else is second fiddle.
More About Love
I thought I’d do a little research on the topic of love and came across an article titled: The 8 Types Of Love + How To Know Which One You’re Feeling. The eight types are: Eros (passionate love), Pragma (enduring love), Ludus (playful love), Agape (universal love), Philia (deep friendship), Philautia (self-love), Storge (familial love), and Mania (obsessive love). The Greeks came up with these names. The many types of love we commonly experience we feel for a romantic partner, family member, or friend are distinctly different.
If this is your first read, Janet and I are parents to five children; our two daughters are the bookends for our three sons. From our first conversation about marriage, it was clear we both wished to be parents. In chronological order, our children are Meredith, Adam, Chris, Drew, and Melanie.
On June 8th, 2019 Chris married Becca a few miles north of Minneapolis, and on December 31st, 2019 Drew married Jade in Toronto. Melanie is making marriage plans with Marissa as I write. Becca and Chris delivered a grandson at the end of August 2020 and he will be joined by a sister in April 2022. Where we have family dinners there are ten adults around the table. These are moments of pure joy for me.
At the moment, all our children call Dartmouth and Halifax home so there are many opportunities to collect and enjoy each other’s company. They are good friends with each other and Janet and I enjoy wonderful relationships with all of them. It is difficult to say how long everyone will remain in HRM but they all live here now and I’ve savored every moment.
Beyond our children, Janet has four sisters and five brothers and her Mother is alive at age 95. I have an older sister and a younger brother. My parents passed many years ago.
In my opinion, the most important sentiment you need to share with children is that their home is always a safe haven. Next is that parents define how to make a home a predictable environment. We did not have debates with our children on how to behave; we simply told them was acceptable. With that said, we always made it clear that as they aged and displayed responsible behavior they would earn more privilege. You might think we were controlling and that is somewhat true but we encouraged our children to have adventures every time they walked out the front door. We did not limit having adventures. We simply defined acceptable behavior. You might find it surprising that our children’s friends always found our home to be an inviting destination and I truly believe it was because it was clear how to behave. For example, swearing was not tolerated. My son Drew and I had an interesting conversation last September about our parenting decision to have easy-to-understand behavior guidelines as children. Jade and Drew do doggy care where they care for dogs when their owners travel. Naturally, they need to walk the dogs and they always use a fixed-length leash rather than the retractables. They believe the retractables cause a lot of anxiety because the dogs never know the length they’ll be allowed whereas that is not the case with fixed length. Growing up with well-defined behavior guidelines is like that. On a final note, as our children matured they were always granted the option of discussing additional privilege and most of the time won the argument.
We also set the way they were to treat other adults. In our community children are frequently called adults by their first name. I believe that is not appropriate and our children were required to address adults as Mr. Smith, Mrs. Shaw, and so on. When the adults would say it’s okay for them to call them by their first name, I was the first to correct them and point out that it is my decision on how my children address adults and it starts with respect demonstrated with Mr. Smith, Mrs. Shaw, etc. I reminded them if my children liked them, the label was irrelevant, and showing more respect for the age difference was how that relationship is to start.
As middle-income earners, on occasion, Janet and I struggled to find the money for all the band trips, instruments, sports equipment, sports trips, etc. Even so, our children knew they were always to ask if they needed something and our answer was always yes although tempered with the comment that it might take a bit to figure out how. This was not lost on our children. They did not need designer clothing or expensive toys but were appreciative of everything they had and open to sharing it with any of their sibs.
They’ve all grown up with a sense of community service and I am extremely proud of them all as adults. Janet and I count our blessings.
My faith in God is important to me. I wish to share my reasoning, and my conviction to share my faith with others and at the same time, faith is a personal and complex decision and I do not wish to make anyone uncomfortable or guilty. Whether you believe in higher authority or not, pales in comparison to having a war chest of core beliefs with the goal of pointing your moral compass in a positive direction when making life decisions.
I am a Christian and was baptized a Roman Catholic just prior to my cancer surgery in May 2020. I was raised in a Baptist household but did not get baptized in grade 9 along with the others my age. I was simply not ready to say things that I was unsure I believed. It was controversial but my parents were supportive and I continued to be involved in Sunday School, religious retreats, etc. One of the important mentors while in high school was Dr. Carl Dexter, who was also on occasion a source of a dart (cigarette).
Then, as now, I believed in God but I think more important back then was my willingness to live a life defined by Christian values even though the ritual of organized religion was not my cup of tea. I think I have lived my life with my moral compass pointing in the right direction most of the time. It would be a lie to suggest all the time; I’m not that wholesome.
Prior to my cancer diagnosis or even any knowledge that cancer was on the horizon, I decided to get baptized as a Roman Catholic. I was ready to practice the ritual that comes along with church membership. I also thought that sharing Mass with Janet would bring her joy and in particular my son Chris, a devote Catholic, would take pleasure and be proud of his Dad.
During my twenty-one days in the hospital, the visits from the Chaplin and taking the host were a source of deep comfort. I am forever grateful to all those who helped with my Baptism during a period when churches were closed under COVID restrictions.
As I started this section, I don’t write this to advocate everyone needs to go out and get baptized. What I have learned about virtually every religion is they all share common values, these are positive pillars on which to build a meaningful life. And like the way I opened this blog, they all start with love.
Prepare for a Future Disease Now
My friend Kim Conrad send me a picture taken on January 1st, 2017 a short while ago. It was on profile and I suspect my weight was close to 136 kg (300 lbs). The importance of this January date is that it was only six months later when on June 3rd, 2017 when I got on the bicycle Brad loaned me as he started the Trans America Bike Race with his daughter Alexis with the agreement that I ride every day.
The first day was brutal. I rode to the end of our street and home, a distance of about two km (a little over a mile). My heart was pounding in my chest, I was short of breath, my butt and legs ached, my temperature was elevated so I’m sure my blood pressure was up, and my face was glowing red with the rush of blood. All I could think of was, “Was I crazy agreeing to ride every day?”
Well, an agreement is an agreement so I headed out the next day, did the same short route with pretty much that same physical distress. But the third day wasn’t so bad, and the fourth even better. There are terrific trails throughout my neighborhood so I started to go a little further and soon I noticed my clothing was a little looser and my weight had dropped slightly. Janet and I made a couple of dietary decisions:
- Reduce our portion sizes at meals.
- Start cooking from scratch to avoid processed food as much as possible.
- Slow down how quickly we consumed meals.
After a little research I learned that the secrets to weight loss are:
- Twenty percent is exercise.
- Eighty percent is diet.
- There is no such thing as a quick fix. It will take time.
Brad and Alexis were on the Trans America Bike Race for thirty-three days. Leslie, Ray, and I drove to the finish line in Yorktown, VA and by that point, I was still heavy even though I’d lost about 10 kg (20 lbs). My shirt size was 3XL and it was tight. I still have that shirt and it is massive.
With Brad’s coaching, I continued to cycle and we started other earlier morning workouts. After about a year I was around 90 kg (200 lbs) and getting pretty fit. In July 2018 I took part in a self-supporting Bike Race in Denmark. It was a life milestone.
I have written about this in other blogs and I’m proud of the lifestyle change. The cancer diagnosis in December 2019 blindsided me but we don’t get to pick the cards we’re dealt from the deck. We are only in control of how we respond.
The real reason I write about this is to share how these changes are the only reason I’m alive as I write this. Clearly, my preference would be to call myself a cancer survivor but I wasn’t dealt that hand. I have been living large and will until I leave this blue dot we call planet Earth. Since you are reading this, that milestone is in my past. But my life went on over two years after the diagnosis and was filled with many joyful and euphoric moments.
My surgery was on May 22nd, 2020. Two days later all the fluids and blood clots pooling in my ankles filled both my lungs. The only reason I survived was my tissues were highly oxygenated and bought my medical team to reopen my airway so I could breathe again.
My decision to get serious about lifestyle change gave me a second chance at life. Recently on the news, I heard that last year more than 52% of the American population is now obese or morbidly obese. I suspect the stats are the same in Canada. The same news indicated that for the first time in decades life expectancy is lower. It seems to me we are eating ourselves into early graves.
Brad setting me up with a bicycle started a process that allowed me to survive some pretty serious health problems. If like me you are blindsided with a life-threatening disease, and if like me you are living a sedentary lifestyle, it is too late when the news breaks to get fit and survive.
I got lucky. I strongly encourage you to look at how you’re living and take action now to prepare for ill-health in the future. It will not be easy; it will take self-discipline but you will feel better all the time while improving your chances of surviving a medical crisis.
Seek Joy in Life
There have been many moments over the last while where I find myself in a state of euphoria. These moments are short-lived but wonderful when they occur. They always wrap around loving moments with family, friends, and support pillars.
They don’t occur by accident. A change in me since my diagnosis is to share with others how much I care about them and how meaningful it is that they are in my life. That seems to be a gateway to these wonderful moments.
There is another side to this coin that is well worth mentioning. I made an active decision I have no room in my life for negativity. That is difficult in today’s world where there are so many crisis situations and those can’t be ignored but by the same token, with a little effort, one can bring their thoughts back to the positive, and that just needs a concentrated focus.
You might find this to be a surprising option. One of my standard lines has been, “I don’t lie as I’m not smart enough to remember who I told what to.” With that said, I might embellish from time to time. But that’s only part of being genuine.
We all have the ability to show a different side of ourselves to different people. I do not think that is a way to enhance a relationship with others. The best relationships I have been founded in continuity and I truly believe those become the best relationships. They leave no room for confusion and keep everyone grounded.
So as much as I prefer to keep my life’s adventure on a positive path going forward, we all have times when the world collapses around us and a moment of feeling sorry for ourselves is okay. That does not take away from being genuine; it’s just a short time-out to reset our emotions; CTRL-ALT-DEL.
Being true to yourself and genuine resides in the same cornucopia of human emotions.
Value Other Peoples’ Time
Every waking moment is one you can never relive. Of course, we all run late from time to time but I know people who are always late and known for being so. This is a beef of mine but I think that is somewhat disrespectful of others; our time is equally valuable.
You Can’t Take it With You
Janet and I are not rich people but we have the good fortune of reliable retirement incomes. I realize not everyone is in our shoes.
We have splurged on ourselves (mostly with me in the driver’s seat) but it has been a good time and since you’re reading this now, those days are over but boy they were good. Many of them wrapped around fine eating experiences but with all the COVID restrictions, options were limited.
And My Final Word
My first version of this article was on the preachy side and although I have learned a lot about living well, satisfied, in a love-filled life with many joyful moments, all I really have to share is what worked for me. Perhaps I leave you with some wisdom that helps you make decisions about your future path so you feel your life is well lived. I look back on mine with no regret and truly believe I go to my grave as a charmed man and although there were a couple of do-overs I could have enjoyed, that’s not the way it happens.
Ward Philip O’Hara
“We can decide to be happy, make much out of little, embrace the warmth of our ordinary days. Life unfolds as a mystery. An enterprise whose outcome cannot be foretold. We do not get what we expect. We stumble on cracks, we are faced with imperfection. Bonds are tested and tightened. And our landscapes shift in the sunshine and in shade. There is light. There is. Look for it. Look for it shining over your shoulder, on the past. It was light where you went once. It is light where you are now. It will be light where you will go again.” – Call The Midwife (twitter.com/callthemidwife1)