Life Interrupted: Cleaning Out A Dead Man’s Desk

The job had to be done but no one wanted to do it. After Fred* died in a car wreck on the way home from work one stormy evening, we left his desk as it was when he left work for the last time. There are no rules for the “appropriate time” for cleaning out someone’s desk to prepare for his necessary replacement. You don’t want to give the new employee the job of cleaning out the desk of someone whose demise opened up their opportunity. But Fred’s widow forced our decision by announcing she would come by the office the next day to pick up his possessions. Whether it was my past preaching experience working with grieving families or my role as a business manager, my boss tasked me and I dutifully took a file folder box to his work area when his co-workers left for the day.

Man Sitting At GravesiteIt is obvious that when Fred left work  he expected to come back the next day. Around his computer monitor and keyboard were “to do” lists for tasks to do on a tomorrow that would never come; at least not for him. There were “Important” tasks that didn’t seem so important anymore. The company did not come to a crashing halt and someone performed the important tasks. He proved the truism that the cemetery is full of indispensable people. For all of our worth in the company, the company will go on without us whether we take another job or depart this world. I considered how so many “important” tasks that meet me each day pale in comparison to the truly important things I should be doing for my family and others.

Pictures of his wife, children, and friends decorated his work area. Everyone was smiling and having fun. Fred was a fun person and so their faces must have consoled him during the stressful times. His army helmet was in a large file drawer as was other life memorabilia and books he would read when time permitted. He loved good books. He recommended the book The Five Rings that I plan to read one day in honor of his passionate recommendation. I don’t know why he wanted the helmet at work and not home. He often donned it as a joke when things were getting rough and maybe that was it: his battle gear protected him from taking things to seriously off the battlefield. I placed the helmet upside down in the box, like a bowl, and filled it with his trinkets, pictures, and books. I scanned the drawers, desk, and work area to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. The only thing that was missing was Fred.

In the quiet of the post-workday office I reflected on our discussions. He and his wife had property in the country and he enjoyed its serenity. He planned to create a large pond to stock with fish. He hoped to drink coffee in the early morning as deer drank from the pond. He hoped to retire and consider the great things of life but death interrupted his plans. He never built the pond or lived this dream.

While reflecting on this interrupted life, and others I have witnessed since then, I have learned some important lessons:

  • The future is not guaranteed: don’t delay your life until retirement or some far future day. Even if you live a long life, your health may not allow you to enjoy the things you have postponed. Do them now with the ones you love.
  • Relationships cannot wait. Express you love today in words and actions. You may go, or they may go, at an unexpected time. Throw the football with your kids today. Take your wife or family on that bucket list trip before you retire. Make that trip with your buddies.
  • Don’t get so stressed about today’s problems. In times of stress my mom would often say, “this too shall pass,” and she was right. Things that caused me great stress in the past cause me no anxiety today. Do not be flippant; give everything its proper attention and face the challenges head on. If you feel very stressed try to step outside of yourself and view the situation with cold objectivity and realize that few negative consequences are insurmountable (if you doubt this, consider Timothy Ferriss’ “Practice Your Fears” approach).  You will probably leave a “to do” list when life is over; that’s ok.
  • Enjoy today. Enjoy the warm sun on your face. Enjoy the breeze. Enjoy the laughter of children, moments with a good book, and holding someone special. Enjoy your meal. Sleep well.
  • Prepare to leave this world. Always be ready to leave this earth. Have your affairs in order both physically and spiritually. Give your forgiveness today and make peace with those you can and let go of those who insist on being at odds with you. Teach your children the important lessons of life. Be at peace with your Maker. Say “I love you” even if they know it.

As the life of a flower, as a breath or a sigh,
So the years that we live as a dream hasten by;
True, today we are here, but tomorrow may see
Just a grave in the vale, and a memory of me.

As the life of a flower,
As a breath or a sigh,
So the years glide away,
And alas, we must die.

Laura Newell, “As the Life of a Flower” (Hymn)

*Not his real name.