My friend Jerry McNellis is dying. Before, he leaves, however, he has started a new school. I thought when I first learned that he had brain cancer that he would teach us more about dying, however, it turns out that what he’s teaching is how to live, live until the moment when life is no longer an option.
Jerry has always been a teacher … his subjects were creativity and collaboration and his students were business teams. In all of his workshops, though, the real lesson was Jerry and his indomitable approach to life. When there were two ways of doing something, he automatically had a third and fourth way; out of black and white, he could summon a rainbow.
Jerry probably came by much of his unique approach naturally; however, the Universe gave him an additional push when he contracted polio as a toddler. When he came home after months in the hospital, his incredible mother told everyone “Don’t pick him up.” She wanted him to be strong and learn to do things for himself. He did. In spite of his distressed body, he played football, climbed trees (and fell out), and made a device that allowed him to ice skate.
He developed a team creativity process known as Compression Planning and taught thousands of people how to work together more effectively. I shouldn’t have been surprised when we talked today … but I was ... to learn that he had invented a new word: zygert, which he defined as "focusing on something I love with someone I love.” His goal is to live zygert until his last breath and I signed up as his always-willing student.
Jerry is having the incredible experience of knowing he’s dying but being without pain. He is planning his family and friends reunion (funeral), complete with comic relief, and having deep conversations with people he cares about. As we were talking he explained that he is only interested in zygert conversations and, that if I wanted to talk about California politics, he would have to hang up. Of course, that’s the last thing I wanted to talk about, so we continued.
He described this time as being like standing under Niagra Falls being showered with blessings as he hears from friends from as far back as grade school and gets the chance to tell them how much they have meant to him as well as hearing what he has meant to them. When he asked a noted researcher and pathologist what he would do if he had brain cancer, he said the “expert” said, “I would read all the alternatives, study the journals, talk to the experts … and then I would forget it all and focus on the two or three projects I most cared about and spend time with the people I love being with.”
"Every morning," Jerry said, “I wake up in gratitude just to be alive one more day to experience all the attention I’m getting. It’s been a time of love to the extreme and it wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have cancer. I am actually thankful for this big chunk of cancer in my brain.”
When someone asked Jerry for advice, he said there was just one thing. “There is one thing I wish I had done more of," he said, “I wish I had picked up the phone more often and told people that I really appreciated them. Told them 'I really love you’ … just for the sake of it not because of any holiday or event. I wish I had done a lot more of that."
One of his biggest lessons and challenges, he said, was accepting this outpouring of love and accepting being cared for by family and friends. “At first,” he said, “I had a hard time accepting help … I called it babysitting until I realized it was hurting my children’s feelings when I said that. Now I realize that they are taking care of me because they love me."
“My mom always said, ‘Don’t pick him up.’ Now, I realize it’s time accept help, to let people pick me up."
Jerry’s school of zygert is big enough for all of us … we just need to "focus on something we love with someone we love” and tell more people how much we care about them. It sounds so simple … Jerry reminds us not to forget.