Mackay: Life is something to celebrate

In July of last year, I was in Israel being briefed in-depth by the cream of Israel’s intelligence community and the entrepreneurial barons of its imposing high-tech establishment. The American-Israeli expert who arranged my visit and energetically accompanied me was my close friend Gordy Zacks, who was 80 years old at the time. For decades, Gordy was CEO of the comfort-footwear giant R.G. Barry (maker of Dearfoams) and later a trusted White House adviser to President George H.W. Bush.

Even when we were in Israel together, Gordy knew he had long-term prostate cancer. Being an early-diagnosed cancer survivor myself, I empathized with Gordy. Unlike my cancer that was nipped in the bud, doctors told Gordy his would advance irreversibly, but the odds were it would take years. That’s if the cancer behaved … and it didn’t.

In December, Gordy experienced some sharp pain. He quickly saw his physician. Tests were done. The cancer had migrated from his prostate to his liver. The pain warning was graver than anyone could imagine: Gordy had terminal cancer. Verdict: just four weeks to live!

In addition to being a gifted businessman and a breathtakingly knowledgeable advocate of Israel, Gordy was an accomplished author. His first book, “Defining Moments,” chronicled the fine points of leadership. What do you do when you have just four weeks to live? Gordy decided he would write a second book, thinking his end-of-life experiences might benefit others.

Gordon Zacks’ “Redefining Moments” (Beaufort) is full of penetrating insights and useful suggestions, like:

Go for closure. “True closure is one of the most powerful treasures in life,” Gordy affirms. “You could be missing closure with someone halfway across the country or someone who’s in the next room. Whatever the barrier may be, find the way to break through it.”

Emphasize the possible. “If the opportunity exists, rewrite your ‘bucket list’ to achieve realistic goals given both the time available and the physical ability to do what you would like to do.”

Be adaptable. “One of the most challenging aspects of the end of life is the devastating loss of independence in doing the very simplest things — moving yourself, dressing yourself, caring for yourself,” Gordy observes. “It may require tapping powerful new reservoirs of humility and acceptance to realign your attitudes. … Your willingness to accept perceived ‘humiliation’ will often be directly related to your opportunities to experience joy.”

What if you had asked Gordy a year earlier if he would be willing to use a walker, a wheelchair or even an adult diaper? “I would have laughed at each of these options,” he admits, “and probably with considerable scorn. Now I pragmatically accept each measure because these are all tools I need to serve a bigger objective.”

What ranked high among these bigger objectives? Along with writing the book, he attended a series of Celebration of Life events organized for colleagues, friends and family. In typical Gordy style, he used each of the events to say thank you to the people who helped make his life such a success.

“I knew full well that the approaching end was inevitable, but I was gifted with being lucid, completely aware, and able to initiate … A Celebration of Life is not about prematurely collecting applause after the show is over. It’s all about keeping the dynamics of that which is most precious to us alive for survivors and future generations.”

Gordy passed away in February, exactly as the doctors predicted. He stressed to the end: “I’m the luckiest guy that was ever born.”

Mackay’s Moral: Heed the wise man whose last words remind us to always put first things first.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail

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