The following is a true personal story. Some names and circumstances have been changed for respect and privacy of the families involved:
The story starts at Yolanda’s, a go-to Mexican restaurant in Oxnard. We were there for lunch with our oldest son Jon, and his adopted high school foreign exchange father, Mogens Zarling. For 26 years, since Jon’s half-year stint in Denmark as an exchange student, our entire family has stayed close with Mogens and his full extended family. It’s been a wonderful relationship, including three of the best New Year’s Eve parties we’ll ever attend – including Y2K, which was straight-up beyond party description. Let’s just say the Danes know how to have fun.
Back at lunch at Yolanda’s, right in the middle of some other conversation, our very fit 75-year-old friend Mogens suddenly burst out, “Karl is dead! Karl died!” We were all taken aback at this sudden revelation and why it came out so viscerally.
Back when Jon landed in Denmark at the ripe age of 15, he fell in with a very distinguished group of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, professors and medical entrepreneurs. Put them all together for a New Year’s Eve party and the conversations were as bright as the fireworks they lit up between every meal course!
Karl had been one of Mogens’ best friends. Same age, incredibly intelligent, and for a Dane, fabulously wealthy. Being egalitarian, Danes don’t have nearly the percentage of fabulously wealthy in their population as compared to, say, America. But Karl was indeed rich. And healthy and wise. A true self-made man, Karl had built up an international industrial company from scratch. Karl owned a huge home on a large parcel, with all the cars and play things that the rich accumulate. While many other truly rich guys leave Denmark for lower tax havens, Karl stayed put and stayed friends with this same group of doctors, lawyers, professors, and the like. Karl was an essential part of this band of best friends.
But then, in his late 60’s and early 70’s, a variety of pesky yet not insurmountable medical concerns popped up. Nothing life-threatening and nothing too restrictive. Just aging itself, but perhaps with more annoyance than one would want, should one be able to choose one’s medical annoyances. And this is where the Karl story took an unexpected turn that bothers Mogens to this day.
Karl, this pillar of personal willpower and strength, gave up on living. Mogens said Karl just lost the want and will to overcome the overcome-able. For most, age brings certain infirmities and one either chooses to fight back and retain relevancy and purpose, or lose the will for the struggle and cruise to a slow demise, or simply give up and cave in. Completely contrary to his prior life’s pattern, Karl caved and allowed a series of overcome-able maladies to conspire to take his life, just a year prior to Mogens’ surprising announcement of Karl’s demise.
Karl had it all. Money, prestige, friends by the score, fame. Still, he lost the will to live… and he passed away a much smaller man than he had lived, leaving many grieving friends and family behind.
Perhaps, having lived large, he couldn’t take the thought of a reduced, confined, lesser-light life. Maybe the incremental pains and reduced mobilities took their toll and his calculation was that life at this point didn’t add up to worth living. Perhaps, as most of us will at some point in our lives, Karl simply got depressed, and that caused him to go dark. We don’t know.
But what Mogens knows, is that a vibrant, bigger-than-life, life – was cut far shorter than it really had to be. Surrounded by friends, Karl still had much to offer as well as much to receive.
Love is that way. It can be given and received far, far past our prime. Indeed, living correctly, love can be shared to our last breaths.
Mogens, looking a strong 60 at 75, has almost no change in physical appearance since I first met him 26 years ago. Blessed with the best of Nordic Viking genes, Mogens likely has over 100 years in him. While he did sell his medical practice one year back, this summer he volunteered at a hospital in Greenland of all places, helping locals stay healthy and teaching healthy living. Got a soccer ball? Mogens will take on a light game. Pick a topic? Mogens will discuss it with flair. He’s that kind of guy. Really, an inspiration for fully throwing yourself into life all your days, in whatever way you can.
We know that life isn’t fair and we’re all not created equal in mind and body. Some are destined for tough illnesses, some destined for long, healthy lives, and tragically, some encounter insurmountable defects and disease from birth forward. But for those of us gifted with fair shots at life, we also have a fair say on how we live the span of our days. This is an incredible gift largely due to scientific advances over just these past 100 years. You and I are indeed lucky to live in this age.
But Karl died. Long live our memories of his greatness. And long will live the sadness of his early and apparently unnecessary early demise. Yet Mogens lives on! And wow – what an example of self-investment, self-recreation, and continued contribution to his community of family, friends and humanity at large.
I know at times living will be hard. At times everything will hurt. Parts will slowly degrade – and fail. Many illnesses I’ll overcome, yet sooner or later, one will take me down. But guys like Mogens, with open arms full of love and life, energize me for the life-fights ahead.
I hope you have a “Mogens” in your own lives to motivate you forward. And perhaps you’re a “Mogens” to folks and family who respect and look up to you.
It’s good to remember we live for others as well as for ourselves and that love can be meaningfully given and received through all phases of life.
Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Signal or its editorial board.