Grades, Not Numbers

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. once wrote that “The sound of a kiss is not so loud as that of a cannon, but its echo lasts a great deal longer.”  It is one of the most wonderful sounds in this regard.  But there are other sounds that reverberate notwithstanding that they are not loud at all, and they are not all pleasant ones.  Among these is the sound I have heard too often; that of soil striking a casket.  Although muted, it has always seemed to me to drown out the much louder sounds of genuine grief that inevitably accompany it.  It is the sound of dreams being interrupted; expectations undermined; a loved one’s presence being torn away; a future that has been altered in a surreal fashion and thrown into disarray.  It is a dull thud that resounds like the cacophony of sadness.  And it is a sound that, cover our ears as we may, we will all hear at some points in our lives.  Perhaps what makes it so terrible is its inevitability and inescapability, for all of us.  But that low yet heart-piercing sound is all the more painful when it accompanies the death of a young person.

Today that sound will reverberate throughout our community. Yesterday, the daughter of friends of ours was killed when she was struck by a car while riding her bicycle.  The news was numbing and horrifying, and the entire community is in shock and grief-stricken.  I can only think about her blue eyes, her big smile and that she should be looking forward to summer vacation and moving on to her next year of school and everything else her future should have been.  I agonize for her parents, siblings and the rest of her family, for the loss of her presence and the shattering of their lives and dreams.  It seems unreal, unbelievable and, frankly, unfair.

I have been having an ongoing discussion with a dear friend who is battling cancer.  She feels and expresses that her days are “numbered.”  Perhaps that’s true, and as cancer patients perhaps we feel that limitation of time more profoundly than others who do not have death quite so immediately in mind.  Yet what I have told her, repeatedly, is that, while the number of our days may seem more limited than those of healthy friends, or friends who have never been through cancer, the fact is that the days are numbered for everyone, not just cancer patients or others facing serious illnesses.  The exact number of days for any of us, whether we have cancer or not, is unknown and unknowable, whether we get one more day or ten thousand more days.

What I tell people, therefore, is not to number your days, but to grade them.  Instead of focusing on what “number” this day represents in our allotted limit, focus on how good each day is.  Instead of focusing on the length of our days, focus instead on the strength of them.  Instead of this being “day 1,” “day 100” or “day 1000,” determine whether today was an “A” day, a “B” day or even a “D” day.  If the daily grade was a good one, look to duplicate it.  If the day’s grade was fair or poor, look to raise tomorrow’s grade (and if you don’t know how, find someone who does and get them to “tutor” you).

In healing,


This post is dedicated to the memory or Leeor Perl


  1. Howard , I think you are an amazingly talented writer .
    Thanks for that peice .
    If you have interest in helping me write / edit my personal essay for residency application – I would be very lucky.
    Reading your essay is moving , and has a positive spin on a hard topic . I appreciate you sharing…
    In health ,

    • Hbressler says

      Thanks Faigy, I appreciate your comments. I have always found that when we speak from our heart and the head we don’t usually have to worry about what comes out of our mouth. Are you talking about an application for residency in the U.S.?