Getting It Right, Thirty Years Hence

Dear Will:

I’m sitting on Northwest Airlines flight 150 from Minneapolis to Orange County. I flew in yesterday for some meetings and I’m racing home wishing I weren’t wearing a starched shirt and wool slacks. I’ve always been more of a blue jeans kind of guy—especially when I travel.

This was one of those quick and dirty business trips which tend to give business travel the bad reputation it deserves. Too much time in airports. Too much time in a hotel room. Way too much time in meetings. And just about no time out and about to make you feel like you’ve actually been somewhere. Even so, this was one of the best trips I’ve taken in a long, long time.

Here’s why: This morning I hooked up with Mark H., who in high school was one of my very best friends. By our calculation, we haven’t seen each other in 24 years. Now that can be kind of a dicey proposition, seeing someone you once knew but no longer really know. The question is always whether there will be anything of substance on which to base a conversation. Will the two of you spend a few happy minutes reminiscing about high school hijinks and then lapse into awkwardness? (“It’s sooo good to see you.” (awkward pause) “ You look great!” (awkward pause) “It’s sooo good to see you.”)  Or will you be able to bridge the years and reconnect on some level much more meaningful—like real friends do.

Well, Mark and I really connected. It was two hours discussing the things that matter most, sharing the worries of fatherhood, the challenges of career deviations, even the evolution of our faith.  (That’s not a minor point, by the way. You see, Mark is a Lutheran pastor.) It gave me much to ponder, much to discuss with my wife when I get home, and great motivation to return to Minneapolis at the next hint of a meeting. It was more than I could have hoped for in a long-delayed reunion with a friend.

One of the things we recalled with a smile was an awkward evening in our youth when we had a testy disagreement about religion. Since Mark is the son of a preacher, it was inevitable even in high school that the two of us would talk about our beliefs. In all other circumstances we were appropriately respectful. But on this particular evening I grossly misrepresented my church’s teachings (because I did not yet understand them), and in response he said some outrageous things about the eternal consequences of my misguided faith. I have thought about that night many times since because I was such a poor spokesman of our church. When I mentioned it to him today, however, he apologized not only for the things he had said, but also for misrepresenting his own faith. We got a good laugh out of our limited understanding as teenagers—especially when we discovered today—some 30 years hence—that our beliefs concerning that particular point of doctrine are essentially the same.

What I believe, and he believes, can best be expressed by this phrase from the Book of Mormon: It is by grace we are saved, after all that we can do (see 2 Nephi 25:23). The idea is that we express faith through action, even while knowing that no amount of action will ever allow us to “earn” the love Christ freely gave us through his Atonement. It is the contradiction of Christianity: That we must give our very best even while knowing that our best is woefully insufficient—and that somehow his love will overcome that insufficiency. What a thrill it was to talk about such important things with a friend whom I had not seen in such a long time.

It was good to see him, and he did look great, by the way. But that subject never came up.


Something’s Wrong with My Magazine

Dear Will:

It’s official. I have become an old man.

It happened just a few weeks ago. (Yeah, right, you say. You look at my bald head and graying beard, you see me wheezing and hacking after just a couple of trips up and down the basketball court and you think to yourself, Who’s this guy think he’s kidding? He’s been doing the old man thing for years! At which point I say, Hey, whose letter is this anyway? If you don’t like the way I’m telling the story you can write your own!).

So anyway, like I was saying, just recently I became an old man. I looked down at my Sports Illustrated and I, um—how do I put this? Well, I couldn’t see it, see. It was all—what’s the word?—blurry. Like suddenly someone had smudged the lens. I did discover that if I held the magazine just a little farther from my face—PRESTO!—the words came back into focus. But needless to say I was a little shaken up. I was doing that thing the old guys do when they’ve left their reading glasses on the coffee table. It was not pleasant.

That first experience with old man eyes came on me unawares, as if one day I could see just fine and the next day I could not. Unfortunately, since then it has gradually gotten even worse. It’s not yet to the point where I have to get me some of those end-of-the-nose glasses that my parents used to wear (Used to? They still do!); but there’s no question the day is coming. Sooner than I’d like. And probably sooner than I’m willing to admit.

They warned me about this several years ago when I had my RK surgery. The doctor told me he would give me less-than-perfect vision in order to help me stave off the inevitable reliance on reading glasses. He said it happens to everyone. At the time I remember thinking: What a rip-off. I already spent my years in glasses. I shouldn’t have to do it again. I hoped he was overstating things. Or that maybe the rules would not apply to me. (The last time I remember hoping the rules would not apply to me was when I learned of the genetic certainty of my bald pate. That one didn’t work out so well either.)

My wife had eye surgery at the same time I did and heard the same, sad speech. So when her eyes went out on her two or three years ago, and she went down to Sav-on to get some of those super attractive granny glasses, I mustered all of the sensitivity I could and . . . teased her about it. I have also with great obnoxiousness poked unmerciful fun at my friends who now must balance glasses on the ends of their noses in order to read the menu. At this point, the word comeuppance seems inadequate to describe what is about to happen to me. And I don’t like it.

So as I await the inevitable trip to the drug store, I will continue to fake it until my arms are no longer long enough to get the job done. Of course, I would appreciate it if we could keep this just between you and me. What my pals and my wife don’t know won’t hurt them, am I right?

Besides: I think I deserve a little compassion. I’m an old man after all.


P.S. Although I may be bald and gray and increasingly blind, I remain more than willing to lend a helping hand where needed. Is there anything I can do for you? Give me a call or drop me a note and let me know.

Photo by Md Mahdi on Unsplash

The Miracle of Taylor’s Life

Dear Will:

A couple of weeks back I attended a funeral for the son of a very close friend. It promised to be a very sad day.

Taylor had been born with just a single chamber (as opposed to the usual four) in his heart. He had his first surgery the day he was born. Doctors told his parents, Mark and Tammy Hyer, that Taylor’s life would be a short one—maybe a few days, at most a few years.

Defying the odds, Taylor’s heart held on for several years more than that. It was hardly a normal childhood inasmuch as he had very little stamina and thus could not play as hard (or do all of the same things) as other kids his age. He also had multiple surgeries and took a bunch of medication. But he was in a great family who enabled him to do as much as he could and who filled his life with laughter and love.

About a year ago, Taylor’s heart finally gave out. Somehow he had wrung 13 years of life out of that tiny, misshapen organ. And in doing so, he had finally grown big enough for a heart transplant. Now if you know anything about transplants you know that you can stay on a list for months waiting for a suitable donor. Well, Taylor waited only a few hours—and it’s a good thing, for his heart literally shut down as the donated heart was rushed into the hospital. The surgeon kept him alive just long enough to give him a new, four-chamber heart.

For Taylor, it was a true miracle. For the first time in his life he could breathe. Instead of watching the other kids play basketball, Taylor could join the game himself. He could climb mountains, ride his bike, act like a kid. His body began to take shape, and Taylor was finally just a normal teenager.

How we all celebrated that wonderful, life-changing surgery. His family shed many happy tears as they recounted the unlikely sequence of events that led to the transplant. They offered many, many prayers of thanks for the extension and enhancement to Taylor’s fragile life.

Thus I was stunned when I received the phone call telling me that Taylor had died. Barely 14, he had returned from a backpacking trip, had enjoyed a couple of fun but uneventful days with the family. Everything seemed to be going great. Then on Sunday in the middle of the night, he awoke feeling very ill. His parents attended to him and his father gave him a blessing of comfort. As soon as the blessing was over, Taylor’s dad gave him a hug, and in that instant Taylor died in his arms.

As I spoke to Mark and Tammy about this tragedy, their calm perspective astonished me. Thinking that I had come to their side to give them support and comfort, I found them comforting me instead. “We’re just really grateful that God gave him that bonus year of life to find out what it’s like to be a normal kid,” they told me. “What a blessing for him to get the chance to do the things he had been missing out on for so long.” There was no rancor or self-pity, no bitterness or despair. Rather they expressed gratitude to God for the miracle that was Taylor’s life—a life that by all accounts lasted at least 10 years longer than anyone could have reasonably expected.

I anticipated that the day of the funeral would be very sad indeed. Instead, I found my faith renewed and my love expanded. It made me want to hug my kids (of course), but it also made me want to be a better person. And it made me grateful for my faith in God that helps me to see that beyond the transitory sadness of today there is purpose and promise that extends into eternity.