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.

I Find Pennies

I suppose I had heard the phrase “pennies from Heaven” from time-to-time, but I never really thought much about. Then, about 20 years ago, I was participating in a support group for parents of children who had died. One of the parents, whose teenage son had died unexpectedly, shared a story that has forever changed my life. She said that despite having cleaned her son’s room carefully, she kept finding pennies months after he had died. She talked fondly about how he liked to “flip” pennies, and it made all of us smile.

A week later, on what would have been my son Corey’s 10th birthday, I was in my office in NY when I received an email from a college friend whose young son had beat the odds and recovered miraculously from a near drowning. After sharing my support and loving thoughts in an exchange of emails, I was overwhelmed. I couldn’t help but think that Corey didn’t even make it to his 3-month birthday.

pennyI was getting upset in my office, so I decided to take a walk outside to get my composure. Now you must understand that I was working in a part of New York that looked like the opening credits of the TV show NYPD Blue. It was not the glamorous midtown location people often identify with New York. So I went out the back door of the building into the somewhat desolate streets, where I knew I would not see anyone I knew. I could just be with my sadness. I was missing Corey, feeling his loss and experiencing emotions I had not felt in years. As I walked and cried I found myself next to a construction site. There were no workers around, and no one else in sight. Alone in this alley of debris, I saw a penny lying on the ground in the loose dirt. I literally began to laugh out loud. I smiled like I had not smiled in a long time. I knew right then and there that this was a message; I believed that Corey was just fine. “… though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me….” It was so real and so powerful. I was renewed. “He restoreth my soul.”

I have found hundreds of pennies in the strangest places in the decade since that first penny appeared in my life. They have appeared in seriously improbably places. I always pick them up and put them in a container. My friend Meg said her father called found coins “specials.” These pennies are indeed my specials.

This past year I reconnected with one of my most enlightened friends, and what do I find on her blog? The words: “I find pennies.” (annegallagher8.wordpress.com) She went on to say, “I’ve been reluctant to share this because it seems sometimes pedantic, and I haven’t quite figured out why I find them.” She talked to a friend about it who said, “I never find pennies except when I am with you. You find them all the time. I never do.” Soon after raising the issue, Anne and her friend were walking out of Anne’s office and there was a penny. “Where did that come from?” her friend asked. “I just walked through here and there was no penny.” Anne just picked it up and smiled. In her blog Anne said, “I’m not quite sure what they mean, but I think they are a sign of some sort. I interpret them to be signs, telling me to continue on with things I am not always comfortable with. I find pennies and they encourage me though I’m not sure why.” Without ever having discussed it with Anne, the message in finding pennies is pretty much the same for me. When I see them – in the aisles of airplanes, on beaches, or under railings on porches, balconies and docks….I always smile. To me, it means I am right where I am supposed to be. It’s just a reminder that everything is alright, no matter how challenging life feels at the time. I will ask you what Anne asked her readers: Do you find pennies? Do you find anything? What do they mean to you?

Common Sense Isn’t Always Common

I wrote a book for lawyers several years ago called The Essential Little Book of Great Lawyering. The point of the book is that clients do not judge lawyers based on how smart they are, but on how the lawyers treat them. Is the lawyer a good listener who tries to understand what keeps the client awake at night? Does the lawyer solve problems and care as much about the client’s success as her own?  Does the lawyer have empathy and compassion for the client?  These sound a lot like attitudes we should be bringing to all of our relationships—with our family members, business colleagues and friends.  I have been told that my book is really just a book of common sense; but so much of what matters in the world probably falls into the category of common sense. As my friend Peter likes to say, “it may be common sense, but it’s not common.”

To regularly be reminded of these priorities, I fill my iPod with lots of stuff that makes my wife and children roll their eyes…Martina McBride (“In My Daughter’s Eyes”); Elton John (“Can You Feel the Love Tonight”); Barbara Streisand (“At the Same Time”); John Lennon (“Beautiful Boy”); and even The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir (“I’m Not Afraid”). There are some breathing exercises mixed in with the songs on playlists, and even some poetry by David Whyte,  which always seems to speak to me. It all just works together to remind me of what is important. But in the end I am moved most by a wonderful old hymn that says: “Let There Be Peace On Earth and Let it Begin with Me.”

JIM profile picI am reminded of a passage from a life-changing book that many of you may have read, Embraced By the Light.  Upon returning from a near-death experience, the author’s message from the other side of life was that unequivocal love brings incredible peace and happiness.

“I saw a loving Being …[who] has invested us with God-like qualities, such as the power of imagination and creation, free will, intelligence, and most of all, the power to love.  I understood that he actually wants us to draw on the powers of heaven, and that by believing that we are capable of doing so, we can.”  Regardless of your religious views, it’s hard not to say “amen” right there.

Gratitude is . . .

In a response to my post last week, Julie Fleming, whose writing I truly enjoy, told me she found great satisfaction – even a little magic – writing hand-written “thank you” notes. She, like I, was inspired by John Kralik’s book: A Simple Act of Gratitude. (You can read Julie’s blog at http://www.lexinnovablog.com)

Gratitude seems like such a simple concept.

    1. grat·i·tude

/ˈgratəˌt(y)o͞od/

Noun

The quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.

Much is written about ways in which we should practice gratitude. For some reason, though, I have resisted practicing gratitude formally by following the recommended rituals. That may seem a little odd in the face of overwhelming evidence that keeping a so-called ‘Gratitude Journal’ makes us happier. Yet, I have not been able to discipline myself to do that, or to do anything else that is recommended by those who have studied the phenomenon.

One writer suggested that we should cultivate gratitude by taking a moment during each meal to tell those gathered what we are thankful for – not just during the Thanksgiving meal, but always. (It could lead to surprises, though, as I remember one Thanksgiving dinner at which our special son, Reid, said he was most thankful for Oprah and Wheel of Fortune.)

snowman12No doubt we can think of gratitude for things in general like health, jobs, hopes and dreams. And to your daughter you might say something like “because of you, I had a blast building the first snowman of the season.” To your wife you might say “because of you, I return home with joy from every business trip.” To your child you might say “because of you, I continually experience the joy of youth and seeking.” To your friends you might say “because of you, I never feel alone.”

Gratitude should be a big part of the season that features a movie like It’s a Wonderful Life. What might people in your life say to you? It is important to look at how the world would be different if you had not been here. In a holiday letter many years ago I wrote that we might explore gratitude by using the phase “because of you.”  With this in mind you might hear from those around you: Because of you, I felt love in one of my darkest moments. Because of you, we raised important funds for our charity. Because of you, my child learned to play sports with values and perspective. Because of you, I got to attend the greatest sporting event ever. Because of you I learned how to …….  If we think about all of the people we have supported, and all whom we have coached, and all whom we have led to new ideas, then we should be able to show some real gratitude to ourselves. Let’s remember to be kind and loving to the one person that can do the most for others in this New Year.

In Samuel Johnson’s novel, Rasselas, the main character lives in a world where everyone’s needs are taken care of—food, music and entertainment are bountiful…everything is perfect, except that he can never leave. Believing there has to be more, Rasselas, finds a way to escape into the real world on an adventure that he dreamed about his whole life — a search for true happiness. What he finds is that people are always looking for happiness outside of themselves, when it is, in fact. always found on the inside. I saw a poster on the StoryPeople website in which a character is carrying a box “filled with things everyone else thinks you should have done.” The caption says: “This box only weighs a lot if you have forgotten to do the stuff you wanted to do all along.” I hope we can all do the stuff we REALLY want to do in 2013, and I hope it includes staying connected to those we love—because we need each other now, more than ever.

A Love of Writing

Ordinarily, this time of year I would have written a Holiday Letter to send out with our family Christmas cards. But after 16 years of composing this missive, my son volunteered to write it last year. It was pure joy to read his reflections and perspectives on the year. This year my daughter – just 17 — said she would do it. She, like her older brother, happens so be a terrific writer, so our friends and family will be given a real treat this Holiday season.

It is wonderful to have kids who share a love of writing. When people ask me why I wrote the book, My Father’s Writings, which is actually a novelistic way for me to share my own writings, I think of what I wrote over 35 years ago for a poetry class I took in college.

To write words is to dream aloud.

To read the words of others is to expand the experience of your mind.

To read your own words is to examine the condition of your soul.

To study your own words is to understand the essence of your nature.

To criticize your own words is to appreciate the limits of your ability

To share your own words with others is to expose the depth of your character

230577_475534335800970_902149042_nSo what would you write if you suddenly had  a blank page in front of you and a chance to share your words with others? Given the chance tell your story, what would it be? Years ago we wrote letters to friends and family. Today, we write emails, tweets and texts. It’s a little tougher to ‘expose the depth of your character’ in 140 characters or less. Fortunately, there are a lot of great bloggers who are willing to put their words out there – to ‘dream aloud’ publically. They give us much to read and enjoy, and I aspired to be one of them some day. But I am going to make an early New Year’s resolution – to write more letters.

One of the chapters in my book is entitled, “Other Letters that Matter.” When I look back at those pages I find letters I wrote to my father-in-law, thanking him for raising such a wonderful daughter, to my son as he left for college, to my aunt and uncle when my cousin drowned, to the kids I coached in little league baseball, and to my friends when they learned that their son had a tumor. There are also letters of recommendation and, of course, Holiday Letters. But one letter jumps out at me; just three short paragraphs written to my father soon after I started my own business. Dad grew up on a farm in Arkansas, picking cotton as a kid to help his family make ends meet. Later he moved to Michigan where he worked in factories, living paycheck to paycheck, until he finally retired. I sent him a flyer describing my new company in an envelope with this handwritten letter:

Dad,

I never doubt that you are proud of me, but I know you sometimes worry about me. When I went off to Harvard you thought you were losing me.  But when I came home for the first time as the “same old me,” your smile returned and your sense of relief was like that of a father seeing his newborn son.

These days, I am sure you have more confidence in me, and in my ability to run a new business.  I suspect, however, that you still worry a little bit.  After all, you are a dad!  So I thought you would appreciate — as a sort of Father’s Day present — some information about my new business.  I hope you enjoy reading it; and thanks for giving me the values that will make this business a success.

Love,

Jim

And keeping with the father-son theme, here is the last paragraph of the letter I gave to my son as he left for college:

You know that you are my firstborn son. That means I have to do fatherly things, like make sure you are doing what you need to do to stay on track, and help you make sometimes-difficult decisions. But, you are also very much a “best friend” to me. I hope we can still find time to visit more ballparks together, ride more roller coasters, throw a football around, talk about movies, play some golf and catch a few fish. You have turned out to be a son beyond what I could ever have imagined as a father. I am very blessed by having you as a son. God bless you as you start this new adventure.

I guess this might prove that we really can communicate important messages in a few words; so maybe a tweet, text or email will do. But for me, 2013 will be the year of the letter.

Not Sure What to Say

The last thing I expected to write about this week was the death of a child after sharing the story of  the Bermuda plane experience. Then Newtown happened. It was 22 years ago when we lost a child unexpectedly just before Christmas. So I have some sense of what the parents in Connecticut are dealing with — but clearly, I cannot fully appreciate their pain and emotions.  At my son’s memorial service I reflected on his life by looking at the impact of his short time on this earth. I have no doubt that the children who died this week impacted the world in the same ways. Here is what said at the service:

He taught me, my wife and our children to appreciate more fully every single moment we have together.

He pushed many of us to appreciate more fully the blessings that all of our children represent.

He  redefined the words smile, spirit and compassion.

He showed my wife and me that our relationship and our faith were stronger than any obstacle that life could throw at us.

He gave many of us the motivation to look for inspiration in the face of tragedy, and to speak of joy in the face of despair.

He taught us the limitations of modern medicine, and the lesson of perseverance; he reminded us that it is better to love and lose, than never to have loved at all.

We have entered tchild-reaching-for-heaven[1]he holiday season. Hanukkah and Christmas are upon us.  These are times not only to reflect on our faith, but also to share joy and give gifts in celebration.  My wife and I did not wish for Corey’s death to be a dark spot on the Holiday season when he died.  So we asked our friends to give gifts to the Globe Santa in Corey’s memory.  That program provides presents for families that cannot afford them. Regardless of your religious persuasion, the idea of a child waking up to no gifts on Christmas, or the pain of a parent having to explain why, must hurt beyond description.  In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, maybe one thing we can do to  cope is to give some money or toys or time to needy children. Like the parents of the victims in Newtown, my family had to wake up Christmas morning without Corey. But knowing that dozens of children might wake up to presents because of him added something very special to our day.

I urge everyone to gather together with those you love and watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Even though real life doesn’t always have perfect movie endings, life really is wonderful; and when I think about all of the great people in my life, I feel a little bit like George Bailey. I hope you do too.

There is No Such Thing as Coincidence

Let me share a piece of magic with you.  Several years ago I was going to Bermuda to do some consulting work.  Because I fly so much, I am often upgraded to First Class.  On this particular trip a seat was offered to me “up front” at the last minute.  When I sat down in what was the last available seat, I noticed the woman next to me had a cute stuffed bear on her lap.  She was hugging it tightly.  She seemed somewhat sad and distant, so I just smiled, nodded and went about my reading.  After a while, I felt an urge to connect with this woman, so I made a comment about her stuffed animal; something like: “is that lovely creature yours, or is it for someone else?”  She said meekly, “it belongs to my baby girl; she was one month old, but she died two days ago.”  I knew at that moment why I was sitting in that seat.

This lovely woman was Bermudian, and some unexpected medical problems had required that her little girl be flown to Boston for emergency care.  When I told the woman that I had had a 3-month old baby die, she and I had an instant bond.  We talked a little bit about our feelings and frustrations, but the conversation was quite limited.  Then I remembered that I had brought a folder of my poetry with me on this trip. I have written about 75 poems since college, but had not had them with me in years. I thought I might have some free time to reacquaint myself with my poems in Bermuda, so I brought them along. But, clearly, I had brought them for another reason. . . .

ransom-road.com

ransom-road.com

In the middle of that collection was a poem that I had written about my infant son soon after he died.  So I pulled it out of my briefcase and said: “I don’t know if this will help you, but reading it helps me when I think about Corey.”  As she read it, tears streamed down both of our faces.  When she finished, she reached out and took my hand; we held hands in silence for a long time.  Eventually she said, “May I have this?” I said “of course.”  By now the flight attendants – who knew of the woman’s plight before takeoff – had joined us in our sharing and grieving.  They said it was a miracle that we were seated beside each other.  I just smiled.

What an incredible example of synchronicity and Universal connection. In over 300,000 miles of flying, that poem had never been in my briefcase on an airplane.  There really is no such thing as coincidence.

Today is the 22nd anniversary of Corey’s death. I dedicate this post to him and his memory,  and am thankful for the courage I gained from dealing with this loss.