One Month to Live

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This is Paul Coakley. He's my age and he died Tuesday. This is what love looks like.
This is Paul Coakley. He’s my age and he died Tuesday after just a month of knowing anything was wrong. I think this is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I think this is what love looks like.

Someone important died and I never got to meet him.

He was married with three kids and has a fourth on the way. He and his wife learned just before Christmas that he had cancer. He had surgery the day after Christmas.

He died Tuesday.

I didn’t know Paul Coakley.

But we have a bunch of mutual friends.

They all say he was amazing and I believe them because they’re pretty amazing themselves. Every one of us knows someone who represents the best of humanity. Those people with an endless supply of kindness and smiles. With infectious laughter. That squeeze the most out of life while constantly giving more of themselves to others than they take for themselves.

That’s who he was. 

What if You Only Had a Month Left?

Paul’s friend asked me that.

“What would you do?”

How do you answer that question honestly without feeling like you’re wasting every second of your life? Maybe that’s the point of asking. It’s in our nature to take things for granted. To lose sight of the fact we all have a one-way ticket out of this life with our names written on them. We get caught up in our routines. And we forget to live.

What would I do?

I have a son. He complicates the answer to this question. My life is for him. I think I would do all the things we do now. I would just be more mindful of every precious second.

But I would also have a lot to say. I’d write more. I’d write and write and write and write, because a month isn’t long enough.

I’d write here. I’d try to finish a book.

But most importantly? I’d write something to each individual in my life, past and present, who left a mark. Something specifically for each person. Maybe it would matter to them. Maybe it wouldn’t. But there would be an actual piece of me living in those words and maybe they’d care.

Why do we wait for deadlines? Why do we need to lose someone else to reflect once again on the opportunities we waste?

Tragically flawed, humans are. I try to think of it as endearing. Because irony makes me laugh.

I didn’t know Paul Coakley.

But had I gone to the university my mother wanted me to, we’d have probably been friends.

Guys like Paul make me feel a mixture of things. And even though he’d hate it and even though he’d insist it was unnecessary (because I know people just like him), some of it would be feelings of inadequacy.

Feeling inadequate is almost always a bad thing and a useless human emotion that holds us back. But maybe not in this case. Because Paul’s was a life worth emulating. I don’t have the first problem with an exceptionally good man making me want to be better than I am.

I think he made a lot of people feel that way.

There isn’t a greater legacy.

Do you know people in your personal or professional lives that you find difficult to get along with? Maybe you avoid them because you don’t have much in common, or because they make you feel stressed? Maybe you don’t invite them to your parties or for Friday after-work beers?

I think most of us do that.

Paul either didn’t know how, or didn’t want to.

If someone was getting marginalized socially, he turned up the friendship with them because no one was getting pushed to the side on his watch.

I think about all the times I had the opportunity to be a better friend to someone in school or at work or to show kindness to strangers.

And I pray in those moments I remember how I feel right this second to remind me to walk that higher path.

People always ask: What do you want out of life?

I want people to talk about me the way they talk about Paul Coakley.

I have a lot of work to do.

Be Good to Others

Everyone in your life—everyone you dislike or fear or hate or shun or avoid—they’re all going to die. All the strangers you pass on the street or in the store and pay no attention to are going to die. Every single one. Maybe tomorrow.

Why aren’t we more kind?

Someone important died and I never got to meet him.

Light up the darkness. And live. Hard.

Because life’s too short.

Because yours is a life worth emulating.

Because you’re important.

The Coakley Family

This is the Coakley family.

As you can imagine, the lives of this pregnant mother and her three children just got infinitely more challenging. If they weren’t just about the most-beautiful people I’ve ever read about or heard about, I wouldn’t ask. But this family is worth it. If you want to make a difference in the lives of deserving people, you can read about the Coakleys and make a donation here.

26 thoughts on “One Month to Live”

  1. Beautifully said! May we all take your words to heart, remember Paul Coakley and live our lives in a way that honors him.

    This was really lovely too, “I think I would do all the things we do now. I would just be more mindful of every precious second.” Me too! That’s actually a really good place to be, it’s a place of few regrets and means you’re right where you should be. Not long ago I realized I would change nothing, I’d just appreciate and fully experience all that I have even more.

    Thanks for sharing Paul Coakley with us.

    1. I have so much respect for people who lived as he did. I didn’t want to write today but all the stories I was hearing and reading about him made me feel as if I couldn’t NOT write about him and his extraordinary life.

      Rest assured no word on this screen does the teeniest bit of justice to the impact he had on the people around him.

      I’m honored just to share the same friends.

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

  2. Working as I do in a hospital, not one weekend shift goes by where I am not reminded of the fragility of life. But there is just something about cancer in particular and all those beautiful brave smiling faces it often destroys that makes me want to scream and be furious with someone, anyone,… something! But there is no one to blame. And so there seems to be no choice but to just not give in to despair and keep moving and hope that someday we’re going to figure it all out and stop this horrible disease.
    That photo just broke my heart.
    I’m so very sorry for their loss.

    1. Thank you, K. It seems almost too intimate to share, but I was assured it would be okay, and I thought it was a powerful image.

      Really moving stuff.

    1. Thank you for thinking so. Many lives are worth celebrating. Paul’s was one of those.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I appreciate it very much.

  3. I can relate to this. In 2010 I came down with a bad case of cancer. I make light of it because my prognosis is actually, well, not the greatest. It is a later stage cancer with a 5 year survival rate of 10-15%. I am in year 4. By year 10 the survival rate will climb to 30%. Statistically anyways. I chose pretty early on to continue to live based on the assumption that I’m gonna be in the lucky 30% and go on living my life…but I radically changed what that life looks like. My priorities have zeroed in firmly on my family. They are the ones I want to influence. They are the ones I want to give of myself to. These days I am happily spending my time loving on my grand children, nurturing my husband and marriage and spending more time with my own aging parents. My family is what matters most to me so that is what I give my time to. If I die in the next 6 years…well, I will die surrounded by my laughing, happy grand children. But I’m really hoping to live to see my great – grandchildren.

    1. That’s quite the story. Obviously, I didn’t know any of this and don’t really know what to say.

      Except that you seem to be doing the best, most-sensible thing possible. Being present with those you love most and feeling grateful for the experience.

      As simple as it sounds, I think that’s one of the most important aspects of feeling peace and contentment in this life.

  4. Geez, that’s the second time I’ve hit reply before finishing! Final comment: my saddest condolences to Paul ‘ s family. It is a tragic loss.

    1. You’re allowed to comment as many times as you want. 🙂

      They are exceptional people. And it’s hard for me to process all they’ve been through in the matter of one month, and now everyone has to carry on.

      Paul’s wife is going to have to carry so much now. And a baby on the way.


  5. Kindness is an end in itself. Before I was a parent, I would tell myself, “I should be kind to so-and-so because it will make me feel good and I’ll be able to sleep better at night.” And now that I’m a parent, I often find myself thinking, “I should be kind and altruistic so that Cee will learn from me and emulate that.” But really, I long to get to the point where I’m motivated towards kindness by something completely outside of myself and my family, where my proclivity towards goodness is truly selfless. I want to learn to give it so freely, as if every day were our last.

    As always, beautiful words, Matt. You build me up. Thank you for that.

    1. This is an outstanding observation about human behavior. I couldn’t agree more.

      I’m so flattered that you feel something when you read, Emily. Means a lot to me.

  6. My God Matt, Your post was stunning. Simply put, yet POWERFUL! I will start writing again. Thankyou..

    1. I like when you people read and then feel something afterward. Thank you for saying so.

      This was a very good man. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about his life and his family since learning all the details.

      One way for me to honor his life is to reflect on all the ways I can behave more like him. Give more like him. Love more like him.

      Also. It’s sad when people die. And I think a lot of people don’t like to face sadness. We like to hum and look in the other direction and pretend it isn’t happening.

      It’s happening.

      And it’s a really good reminder to do more with the time and resources we’ve been given.

      I’m so glad you want to write. Bleed and cry in the words a little.

      Then they feel, too. Then the world just got a little bit better. Like magic.

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

  7. Hi. So I am writing this, crying at a Panera. I don’t know how I never saw this blog before. My name is Mary, I was/am one of Paul’s best friends. Walking with the death of my friend has been so very hard. I also help run the facebook page supporting his family, and I was searching for an article to post when google turned up this blog. He was the best. I am better for having knowing him. And this is a lovely, lovely tribute. Thank you.

    1. Hi, Mary. 🙁

      I’m eternally sorry you’re crying at Panera, and infinitely more sorry for your loss. I went to high school with a handful of people who ended up in Steubenville with Paul. I heard many good things and feel blessed to have had even that loose connection with him.

      I hope his family is hanging tough. I know a little bit about loss, and I know it simply hurts every day until it doesn’t anymore. Every day is hard until you get to the place where it doesn’t take your breath away. And that can take a while.

      Mary, thank you for writing this note.

      Many prayers for Paul and his lovely family and friends.

      Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to support your efforts.

  8. Beautifully written, Matt. Apparently, your blog made its way through the nooks and crannies of cyberspace before deciding to land upon my doorstep tonight. This was a very poignant, do-my-heart-some-good read. I couldn’t figure out why the writing seemed like a chat with an old friend. Then I got halfway through the comments and realized who wrote it. 🙂 Thank you for using your gift to share Paul & Annie’s story.

    Every day since learning of Paul’s diagnosis, I’ve been reflecting on how well Paul lived and suffered. And the more I reflect on how deeply he loved through his suffering–how he desired so deeply for the rest of us to be drawn closer to God and pure Goodness and Love through his suffering–the more I realize how much I suck at it. I’m good at suffering on my own terms, but then that’s not really suffering, is it? Sigh.

    All I know is that broken is a great place to start. Here’s to living and loving until it hurts…and then loving even more. May we all pass out of this life emptied of ourselves but filled to overflowing with all of the goodness that surrounded us on the journey. God bless, my friend.

    1. Hi, you. I’ve gone to pretty great lengths to keep this out of my personal circle. Not very many people know. I’m not looking forward to the day my mother reads. I’ve tried hard to write honestly about the things I feel. Fearless and unfiltered. It makes me cringe a little when I think too much about people I actually know reading. 🙂

      Plenty of rough thoughts and language live here. But I hope, in the end, people can see that I’m always trying to get better, and that I hope anyone reading will want to as well.

      Pretty cool to hear from you even though it totally gives me that anxious: “holy crap, someone I know read this” feeling. 🙂

      1. Hold on. What’s not honorable about wanting to be honest and real? About wanting to walk out of the fires more refined? The grit, the grime, the struggle in the climb…it’s all part of the beauty. If we don’t wrestle with all of the human bits, the questions, the inconvenient and banged up parts, then we’re not doing a very good job of taking advantage of the gift of being human, if you ask me.

        As for the anxiety, bag it and throw it away. Your mom & others might find your blog one day, but not because of me. I understand that this is sacred ground and I’m not about to go trapesing irreverently upon it. I just thought it was pretty wonderful that you heard about Paul, took the time to get to “know” him, and wrote a beautiful heartfelt reflection to share with the world.

        Anyhow, I thought I’d say hi and tell you that it was an unexpected joy to have you show up at our doorstep after all these years. I promise I’ll stop reading if you’ll stop cringing. In the meantime, let us know if you’re headed over to the ‘Burgh. It would be great to catch up in person. (And I promise no pontificating, no awkwardness, and a side of swearing…it’s not much, but it’s what we’ve got to offer.)

        You are missed. God bless and keep fighting the good fight, my friend.

  9. Katie Schofield

    Matt, thank you for this, it was so inspiring. I knew Paul in college only, and he exuded great joy that was so organic and unforgettable. I’m glad you are inspired by him, we all are and always will be. Want to be like Paul, do something fun with your son! Keep up the writing and good luck with your book.

    1. Thank you so much for this kind note, Katie. It’s so interesting hearing from people who knew Paul. What you said about him is consistent with every story I’ve heard. Just an exceptional guy. I’m so glad this meant enough to you to write me. Thank you for that.

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Matt Fray

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