I made the trip from New Hampshire to Florida last Saturday to be with my sister following the death of her husband. We were very busy every day while I helped her with several household projects that had gone undone for the last few months of Bill’s illness, and we also decided that her 12 year old computer had reached the end of its life. She now has a great little “netbook” that is perfect for her needs. I spent a lot of time during the week setting it up for her and writing an instruction manual to guide her when I’m not there to help.
My brother-in-law’s memorial service was on Thursday; we didn’t want it to be sad though, so we called it a “celebration of his life.” There were about a hundred people in attendance — I was honored to meet several very interesting friends of Bill’s, and I know I will remember some for a long time to come. My sister and I had planned for four speakers, then invited anyone who wished to tell a story or make additional comments; I think about six people spoke, and it was all good. At the end our “master of ceremonies” announced that he had been asked by my sister “. . . to tell everyone to go eat cookies.” And they did!
The speaker whose remarks most resonated with me was John A., who began by saying he had retired to Florida so he would never again be required to wear a necktie or socks, and he pulled up his pants leg enough to prove that he had, so far, fulfilled that goal. That wasn’t really the part that resonated with me, although I thought it was great and fun. Here is the important part of what he said:
Every once in awhile someone comes into our lives, and changes us. We may be at a fork in the road, needing to choose which way to go, and a person comes along and guides us in a way that changes the whole direction of our lives. Mr. A. is well into his eighties, and he claimed that perhaps four or five times in a lifetime this encounter may occur. His point, obviously, was that my brother-in-law was one of those people for him, and I have no doubt that it is true. But it got me thinking: Who are those people who have come into my life and changed me, made me a better person?
The first one for me was my dad; he was my hero. Standing a towering six feet four inches tall and as bald as could be, he could send boyfriends scampering for the door on a Saturday night just by silently standing in the hallway. He never yelled at me or spoke harshly; his admonitions of being disappointed in me were way worse than yelling would have been. I have lots of memories of doing things with Dad: he took me fishing, and tried to get me interested in playing golf (although he must have been disappointed about that since it just didn’t work), and we would go for walks in the woods with my dog. He taught me about things in nature, and also how to ice skate. He made a blackboard for me so I could set up a play school — even then (was I ten?) I knew I wanted to be a teacher. But here’s what changed me: He died when I was 26, seven weeks after I had given birth to my first son. At the funeral two things happened. First, when I was kneeling at the coffin to say a prayer of good-bye, I felt his presence come to me, reassuring me that I was going to be OK because he was there even though he was gone. And second, I got to witness many of his employees telling my family about how he was the best boss they had ever had because he was kind to them and he listened to them and he made them feel important. I decided then and there that I was going to be like that. That was 33 years ago, and I’m still working at it, and my dad is still there to keep me doing the right thing. (No I certainly don’t have a perfect batting average, but I’ve tried my best to keep my eye on the ball.)
The second person who changed me, when I was in my thirties, was my former neighbor, friend and pastor, J. He guided me through several rough spots in my life, and I am not going to share those details here, but he helped me to understand that when I see someone suffering and need to help, I also need to make sure I don’t own that person’s troubles; we all have our own baggage to carry and we can be more useful to others if we help them carry their own trouble, without taking it on, keeping our own sense of self intact. That might sound like a weird thing to learn, but it was a big thing for me to figure out. I think women especially tend to have trouble with these things — we want to be there and be nurturing for the people who matter to us, and it can be hard to know where the boundaries are between ourselves and those we care about. J also helped me to understand and trust that even when tragedy strikes and I lose my balance, I will eventually regain my sense of everydayness if I just accept the trouble; with acceptance and acknowledgment comes release, and then it’s possible to let it go. The source of a problem loses a lot of power once it’s released without judgment. Having those “tools” in my pocket helped me a lot in the years after J moved away from the neighborhood.
Others who have guided my life’s direction include my closest family and best friends, of course. Where would I ever be without them? But in that everydayness of close proximity it’s not possible to measure or see what causes change in a person.
Mr. A. was speaking of dramatic encounters that cause visible differences.
One person very close to me, however, has changed my life profoundly– and that’s my husband. Without his amazing enthusiasm and support, I never would have enrolled in grad school, never would have earned my M.Ed., and never would have become the person I am today. It was in graduate school that I finally discovered that I am capable of creative and important things. I became confident in myself both professionally and personally. If it hadn’t been for my husband’s encouragement, my career would not have been nearly as rewarding and fulfilling as it has been and I never would have done many amazing things I have been able to do. I know in my heart that this is as true as the fact that I was born.
There — three people who have changed me and helped me keep my focus on the right things. Writing about this today has required me to analyze my life in ways I have not done before, and I am glad of it. I do agree with Mr. A., that if we pay attention, we meet a few people in our lifetimes who change us in ways that make a big difference, touching us deeply.
Who are those people who have changed you?