The two weeks leading up to my talk were not what I expected. Terrance, a close friend of mine, had been fighting colon cancer for about a year and needed to be picked up from a procedure. I happily obliged as I have throughout the past several months. Independent, Terrance was not one to ask for help and I was grateful for the opportunity to spend another car-ride together. Social distancing, particularly for high-risk individuals, unfortunately gets in the way of spending time with the people you love. COVID, like climate change, does not care about what you want, nor how much time you have.
Throughout the week we took several trips to and from the hospital together. Terrance updated me on the latest round of treatment and preparation for yet another clinical trial, optimistic that this might be the one. He still wasn’t able to eat much but appreciated the homemade soup and cupcakes my wife and I brought for his birthday less than two weeks prior. She was out of town this week, seeing to some recent health concerns affecting her mother. Despite his own situation, Terrance focused on my wife. Intent on her mother’s condition and how my wife was holding up. He always put others before himself. This held true as he commented on how grateful he was to still be employed. First, for the health insurance. Second, because his team was undertaking a big project at work and although his energy levels were down, he knew things that could make the job easier and more successful for his coworkers.
By Friday, Terrance wasn’t allowed to leave the hospital after his appointment. We sat together as the nurse explained that treatment options had run out. Anything more at this point would hurt more than it would help. My heart broke. He thanked the nurse for everything she had done to help him.
I was amazed at how regardless of his prognosis, he focused on whatever step came next and he focused on others. His next steps were making sure that he wouldn’t be a burden on anyone, and I was a sounding board for his to do list. Consolidate bank accounts. Find the best place to donate clothes and belongings. Track down a company that could ship his car from Colorado to North Carolina. Send one more email to leave his colleagues in a better place.
I never heard him complain about his situation. He never acknowledged how unfair it was for someone so young, so healthy just months earlier, to be confronted with this. And while we spent time together, he continued to ask about me. How was I doing? Was I working on anything I was passionate about? When I mentioned my TED talk, he got excited. What a cool opportunity! We talked about climate change and the actions we need to take to confront it. Despite the far more pressing existential threat in his life, he continued to focus on everyone else. Each night as I left the hospital, I would drive home, unable to rationalize why this would happen to someone so wonderful. Someone so strong, thoughtful, generous, and compassionate.
Terrance’s family made it to Colorado and throughout the week leading up to the TEDx event got to work cleaning out his apartment. Each night my wife and I would drive over to drop off a new home-cooked meal and spend time with Terrance. On Saturday morning, the day of my talk, we helped clean up the last miscellaneous items in the apartment and helped Terrance and his family load into an Uber heading to the airport. I didn’t know if this would be the last time that I would hug Terrance.
At the event center I met my fellow presenters in person for the first time. They exuded positivity and excitement. They supported and congratulated each other as we took turns sharing our ideas on how to avert climate change. I delivered my talk, and then, physically and emotionally exhausted, went home, and slept.
Four days after my talk, Terrance passed. Most of the talks that day, including mine, were about what we could do differently to achieve a sustainable world. As I reflect on the past few weeks, I have been thinking more deeply about why we need to address climate change. The existential risks facing us are daunting. However, the enormity of the disasters, migrations, and wars that may lie ahead are so unlike anything most of us have experienced that they can feel unimaginable and impersonal. We talk about climate change as needing to be addressed for the sake of future generations. However, we don’t often focus on what it is that makes life so special and worth living in the first place.
I am working to address climate change to preserve all the individual moments and relationships that comprise a life well lived, and that are at risk. So that people can experience deep friendships and love for one another. I am inspired by the other speakers and feel lucky to have shared the stage with them. They brought passion and hope, and I believe in them. I believe that together we can be successful. Together we can achieve a sustainable future. Success is more than averting disasters and impassionate statistics. It’s about providing individuals with the opportunity to appreciate the beauty in this world and make the most of whatever time we each may have.