Like millions of Americans, the Covid-19 pandemic prevented me from working for many months. I was no longer crisscrossing the country working with business leaders and organizations. I was no longer giving speeches to big crowds in auditoriums and convention centers. At first it was depressing—who wants to be prevented from doing what they love to do? But then I saw a silver lining: I was spending so much more time with my family. By no longer being on the road for days or even weeks at a time, I could finally appreciate the quiet moments with my wife and kids that I had missed out on for so long.
I cherished those months alone with my family, but they also made me realize that I never wanted to leave them again—even after my life ends. So, during the spring of 2020, Jill and I drove to the Olinger Chapel Hill Mortuary & Cemetery in Littleton, Colorado, to pick out our final resting places. A young, well-dressed gentleman gave us a tour of the beautifully landscaped 75-acre grounds. After several hours, Jill and I settled on a private spot near a creek with a granite bench that overlooks the Rocky Mountains. We ended up securing eight plots, enough so that our entire family can rest together one day far in the future.
I admit, it was a surreal experience. As lovely as that plot was, I prayed that I would only visit it once more, many, many decades from now. And yet, buying those plots felt liberating. If I should pass away before Jill, she and the kids don’t have to worry about my funeral arrangements. They are now taken care of. And paid in full!
As we walked back through the quiet grounds, I scanned the hundreds of gravestones that surrounded me. Granite and sandstone and marble and fieldstone. From ornate mausoleums to simple stones, from the billionaires to the indigent, everyone is an equal in death. All that is left is your engraved name and two dates separated by a dash. I thought about my own marker: “Thomas J. Spaulding, Jr., August 31, 1969—”
There is very little on that gravestone we have complete control over. You can’t control the name you are given, the date of birth, or the date of death. The only thing you can control is that dash—the life you lead between birth and death. As we toured the peaceful grounds of Olinger Chapel Hill, I thought back to a poem by Linda Ellis called “The Dash.” Sometimes your dash is long and sometimes it’s tragically short. The dash represents our life, and the good and bad moments that compose it. As Ellis wrote:
For it matters not how much we own, the cars, the house, the cash,
What matters is how we live and love and how we spend our dash.
So, think about this long and hard: Are there things you would like to change?
For you never know how much time is left that can still be rearranged.
If we treat each other with respect and more often wear a smile,
Remembering that this special dash might only last a little while.
The dates on your gravestone don’t matter. All that matters is the dash. When I left that mortuary, I thought about the first love of my life, Lori Nolan, whom I dated throughout middle school and high school. She tragically died of meningitis during her freshman year of college. She was barely eighteen, but she lived an incredible life of kindness and positive influence. I learned from Lori that it’s not about how long you live, how much money you make, or how much success you’ve achieved. It’s all about how you choose to spend the time you are given.
Many years from now, my family and friends will visit the Olinger Chapel Hill Mortuary and take in the majestic Rocky Mountains. They’ll look at my grave and see my birthdate—August 31, 1969—and they will finally know that mysterious second date, whatever it may be. I hope it is a long, long time from now, but what I hope most is that my friends and family will instead look at that dash separating the first date from the second and be proud. I hope they will know I lived a life of love, service, and influence.
Every single person has control over their dash. Will you spend it in service of others? Will you spend it having a positive influence on the lives of others? Will you carve that dash deep into your gravestone so that it lingers long after time has eroded away your name, birth, and death? The choice is yours. As Robert Frost once wrote, there are still miles to go before I sleep. Until then, I will spend every waking moment making my dash as bold and deep as possible.