Thank you for “Lib Strong”

This past Sunday was Mother’s Day, and at least one mother spent the day preparing a memorial service for her daughter. A full of life 3-year old who had battled cancer for over a year left this world last week. But let me be clear, Libby Jones left this world having made a genuine difference. Paraphrasing something I said in the homily for my infant son 23 years ago, Libby did more good in her too short life, than most of us do in many decades on earth.

In a sad, but triumphant service yesterday, the tributes to Libby painted a picture of a little girl filled with joy and talent. She was a mischievous sweetheart with an infectious personality that drew people irresistibly into her circle of love. The City of Charlotte has “Lib Strong” signs, shirts and bumper stickers everywhere. Thousands followed Libby’s story on the Caring Bridge website.

During the service one family friend described how Libby used to deal with life’s little challenges using the phrase: “That’s why God made _______.” Spill some milk? “That’s why God made paper towels.” A toy needs to be fixed? “That’s why God made Daddies.” There is a stain on your shirt? “That is why God made washing machines.”

What struck me profoundly, however, and will stay with me forever, was hearing all of the reasons why God made Libby. I do not have a transcript of the remarks from the service, and the words were so beautiful that I don’t want to try to recreate them from memory. But the essence of the message is something for all of us to contemplate.

Many of the things I have written over the years have been focused on finding ones life’s purpose and fulfilling our intended role on this planet. The Universe works. As imperfect as it may be, the earth moves around the sun like clockwork. The air provides oxygen that allows us to breathe. A complex mass of cells form to create bodies and brains….people are born and people die.

I believe that this Universe has a spiritual thread running through it that ties us all together. No, we are not here by accident. We all have a purpose. As an observer of people, it seems clear to me that the purpose for most, perhaps, all of us, is to care for those who need care, to educate and inspire those who wish to learn and grow, to create jobs, to create art. To generally lift people up, however they may need it at a particular moment, may be our greatest purpose.

As I listened to the many beautiful reasons why God made Libby, I couldn’t help thinking about why God made me…..Stephen Covey says we should begin with the end in mind. And while I pray that my work isn’t done yet, someday it will be. I can only hope that when that time comes someone will be able to find examples of where I cared for those who needed care, educated and inspired those who wished to learn and grow, created jobs, created art and generally lifted people up.

Libby’s father, Josh, reminded us that our priorities should be family, friends and faith. That is a beautiful perspective that I will always carry with me. Thanks to Libby, I am forever changed and will always be grateful for the reboot that she inspired in my life. I guess that is just one more reason why God made Libby.

’tis the season

I wrote another Holiday Letter this year. For the past two years my son and daughter composed the missive. Ever since I put a collection of Holiday Letters in my book, My Father’s Writings, I felt less compelled to write a new one. But this year was different. I had written down a couple of quotes that I ran across during the year, with the idea of writing a Holiday Letter around them. Then I realized that what I have always done at Christmas time, and what I was setting out to do again this year, was really to write a blog, not a Holiday Letter. In looking back over almost 20 years of letters, it is clear now that I was essentially writing an annual print blog before the word “blog” was a part of our vocabulary.

Writing holiday commentary around Karlfried Graf Durckheim’s words isn’t too much of a stretch for a Holiday Letter: “Thus, the first and most vital practice in everyday life is to learn effectively to value those moments in which we are touched by something hitherto undreamt of.” Indeed, one could argue that Gift of the Magi, Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, the candles of Chanukah and the magic of Santa Claus all fit within the context of this quote. But rather than expand on that theme for a Holiday Letter, I went with a brief family update, and one simple message for this season. I hope you find some meaning in it.
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Holiday Letter ‘13

This year we have learned that life is what happens while we make other plans. Just a year ago it was all so different; Craig was broadcasting baseball in Mobile, Alabama, Paige was enjoying the creativity and love of The Cambridge School of Weston, and I was commuting to Richmond, Virginia every week. Now, Craig is broadcasting and writing for mlb.com in Melbourne, Australia, Paige is in the middle of her freshman year at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and I have started a new job at a great firm with a Boston office.

Many of you have children off on their own unexpected adventures, so you know that we can only prepare them, we can’t control them! Just heard last night that Craig is trying his hand at broadcasting for the Melbourne Ice of the Australian Woman’s Ice Hockey League. Paige is playing Ultimate Frisbee, and had tournaments this fall in Virginia and Georgia. Reid, well he is just being Reid, now a 23-year old young man who still exhibits the innocence of a child. Karen has made it her newest project to find a great group home for him that will allow him to live as independently as possible in future years. One of this year’s highlights was celebrating my Dad’s 80th birthday with family and friends – it’s wonderful to see him so happy and healthy.

One of my favorite times each week is when a young man arrives at the Sunday morning church service pushing an older man in a wheelchair. The connection between the two is palpable; one is the caretaker, the other, the-cared-for. The man in the wheelchair has special needs – not unlike Reid, so I am sure we have a soft spot for the situation. I was scribbling some notes for this letter in church last Sunday when they arrived. Moments later the caretaker ascended the steps to the pulpit and, for the first time in my experience, did a reading. As someone who believes that there is no such thing as coincidence, it did not surprise me that the subject of his reading was just what I needed for inspiration.

He read a passage in which John told a crowd to “bear fruits worthy of repentance,” and the people asked him “what then should we do?” In reply John said: “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” That really makes it all sound so simple. And it is.

I can think of just three times in my life when I actually felt the physical experience of being weightless – like I was actually floating a bit. One was when I handed out $50 bills at a store a few days before Christmas, another was when Craig and I delivered Christmas presents to children whose parents were incarcerated, and the third was when Karen and I joined a group from our church to serve dinner to 75 homeless men at a shelter in Boston. In each case my heart was racing, my smile was uncontrollable and I found myself a little short of breath. The exhilaration was scary good…..all of these experiences had one thing in common – giving without any expectation of return.

We have all heard the phrase “higher than a kite,” which is typically used to describe someone who has taken drugs or had too much to drink. Yet, I cannot imagine anything approaching the ‘high’ that comes from selfless acts of giving. Let us all be lifted above soaring kites this holiday season, and fill the coming year with random acts of kindness and exhibitions of unconditional love.

Giving and Paying Back

I am sad today.

Everything in my little world is pretty much as it should be — my son was the broadcaster for a no-hitter by the Mobile Baybears last night, my daughter is going off to college tomorrow, I am about to go for a run with my wife, and my other son, Reid, continues to live a life of inspiration.

I am sad today because a plane with two UPS employees has crashed, and two wonderful people lost their lives.

The loss of any life is tragic, so why does this accident move me — and how do I know that these pilots were ‘wonderful people’?

UPS has been in my family’s life for many years. Whenever one of the trucks came to our house, Reid would get all excited. Never did any driver seem annoyed or turn away from this child with special needs. No, they always engaged him and often let him look in the back of the truck to see the packages. (Yes, that was a thrill for him.) Some brought him UPS paraphernalia, much of which he still has today, as a 23-year old young man. He dressed up as the “UPS man” for Halloween for about 15 years.

UPS costume with Damon

When you experience the warm hearts of these drivers over two decades you cannot help but draw the conclusion that the company itself has a heart. I have come to see it in the people at the UPS package stores, and even in the few executives I have met. We should never forget that every act of kindness we extend ripples throughout the human pond. I am reminded of what Matthew wrote in the New Testament.  Jesus said:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

I am sad today because a company with a great heart — a company that touches thousands of lives in a positive way daily — has lost two members of its family. They feel like a part of my family, and I will pray for them and their loved ones. We should all be thankful for those who care about “the least” among us. I have witnessed firsthand the divinity of unconditional love.

Passion and Compassion…

I have spent many Sunday mornings wondering what I would say if the minister pulled me aside just before the service was about to start to tell me she was unable to do the sermon. With only the benefit of a few minutes to read the assigned readings for the week, would I be able to deliver as a substitute preacher? What would I say and how would it play?

Oddly, perhaps, this is a challenge I would welcome, and my wish sort of came true one weekend. Our minister called me on a Saturday afternoon to ask me if I could step in the next day, as there was an illness in her family, and she needed to be at the hospital. Forgetting that I had to prepare for a major presentation at work on Monday, and somehow forgetting that we were hosting a group of teenage girls for dinner and a sleepover, I said “yes.”

016I found myself sitting in the back row of the church when the service started. I was not participating in the music and prayers; I was scribbling notes on a pad of paper on which I had started writing an outline earlier that morning. I don’t remember much about what I said that morning, and since I seldom stick to my notes, it isn’t even recorded anywhere. But I do recall that the sermon started with these words: “one mile, 14 minutes.” That may seem unremarkable if you are a runner. But I was quoting a text message from someone who used to run half marathons at a much faster pace, so it must have had some special meaning…Yes, it was a text from my brother who had recently been through his second surgery for a brain tumor that he was not going to give in to.

So, who had the greater challenge – me, just talking about life and Spirit to a bunch of captive subjects, or my brother who was battling his way back to full health?

I guess “challenges” are relative. Every time my 22-year old son has to put on a coat or buckle a seat belt or go to the bathroom it is a struggle. Every time he has to form a sentence to communicate what he is thinking, it is a challenge. Thinking about how challenging life is for a person with special needs, makes my little challenge of preparing a last-minute-sermon seem pretty manageable. But why am I writing about challenges?

I had this sudden flash of the obvious – there are good challenges and bad challenges. The real issue is how we respond to a challenge, whether we are facing it or observing it. And that is where it gets interesting. It is almost always best to respond to a challenge we are facing with passion (one of my favorite words). And the best response when we observe someone facing a challenge is compassion. Two really beautiful words – passion and compassion….two very powerful tools in a world that is filled with challenges. Two words that could change the world if we could all just hold them in our consciousness, live them and encourage others to hold them dear.

These amazing words — Passion and Compassion — can be said differently as: Create and Appreciate. Battle and Support. Try and Help. Seek and Encourage. Love and Love Even More.

I am passionate about helping people through my speaking and writing. I feel very blessed. “For those to whom much is given, much is expected.” We all have been given gifts that are uniquely ours. How can we best use them? With passion, I hope.

Thank Heaven For Little Girls

My daughter came home from college this past Sunday. No, not a college she is attending, but a college she visited for a couple of days to hang around with one of her friends. This is the third time she has spent a weekend at the school, and I am convinced that it is Nature’s way of preparing me for the inevitable – for the reality – that my little girl will actually be going to college this year. Of course, she is not my “little girl” any more, but the dads out there who have teenage daughters know exactly what I mean.

Having grown up in a family with all brothers, I could only imagine what it might be like to have a sister. And after being the father of only boys for many years, I didn’t think I would ever get to know the joy (or challenges) of having a daughter. But, as is always the case, a higher power moved the pieces around the game board, and I found myself holding a precious baby girl in my arms about 17 years ago.

090The most unexpected part of the having-a-daughter experience is witnessing the amazing bond between a mother and a daughter. Frankly, as a father you feel pretty much superfluous from the time your daughter is 13 until she is 17. But it is probably worth it just to see how connected and supportive a mother and daughter are to each other. While my mere existence seemed annoying to my suddenly-not-so little girl, she and her mom really seemed to understand each other during those formative years. This worked in part, I am sure, because my wife is a terrific mom. Partly, though, I also want to attribute their great connection to genes, and natural selection, and other things outside of my control – that way I am less inclined to feel like a failure as a father…..

But as my daughter really grows up, it warms my heart to think of all of the joy she has brought to my life; and it makes me wonder if I have told her that enough. Maybe there should be guidelines for dads who raise girls. Truisms like this come to mind:

• You can’t tell your daughter enough how proud you are to be her father

• You can’t thank her enough for the compassion she shows for the people around her

• You can’t thank her enough for appreciating her mother

• You can’t thank her enough for letting you hang around with her now and then

• You can’t thank your daughter enough for being born in to your world

A few weeks ago I mentioned that if we do the same things that lawyers should do to have better relationships with their clients, we will have better relationships, generally. Similarly, we can apply many of these same expressions of gratitude to other people in our lives — not just our daughters. (Thanks for the reminder, Brad.)

We were thrilled this week to learn that our daughter got admitted to her college of first choice. It is not nearby, and there aren’t even direct flights to the city in which it is located; but it is a great school and I think it is a great fit for her. I guess it is starting to hit me. When we leave her at school for the first time the outpouring of emotion will be overwhelming. It was one of the hardest things I had ever done when I left my oldest son at college. This next one is unfathomable to me!

In the Homily at my other son’s memorial service I talked about how risky it is to love children so much because of the potential to be hurt. I wondered aloud whether the unbelievable joy that children brought to us was worth the potential pain that we could suffer as parents.
I was thinking of how devastated I would be if one of my children so much as broke a toe; I was thinking of friends who had experienced the loss of a child or faced some frightening childhood ailments – and, of course, I was thinking that my new twin boys, at the time, were not completely out of danger.

When I expressed those concerns to my wife she looked at me in her ever-perfect way and said: “The only way to avoid the pain you fear is to never really love anyone absolutely and unconditionally.” Then it all seemed so simple to me. The greater our love for someone, the greater the pain we feel when we miss them or if something unfortunate happens. But pain born of Great Love is not the kind of pain we should seek to avoid. ‘Having a girl’ has been a universally more amazing and loving experience than I ever could have imagined, and I need to welcome the pain of watching her grow up.

My little girl came home from college this past Sunday, but the real journey is just beginning.