A Gift from My Father

Six months ago to the day (March 17 – St Patrick’s Day) I had my first heart attack. I say that like I’m expecting more and I guess I might be but if there are more, I’m planning on them being a long time into the future. Of course, you never know – that’s part of the point of this writing. I wasn’t expecting it. I knew the possibility was there. My dad had his first heart attack in his early to mid-forties and died at age forty seven. All his brothers had heart attacks or strokes and died young, one (Uncle Russell) died even before I was born. It carried into my generation too. My brother had a heart attack in his late forties and had open heart surgery in his early fifties. He died a little over three years ago at age sixty-one. I was reminded of all this as it was his sixty-fifth birthday today. I guess the thought of me having a heart attack would be a logical thing.

I figured living my life differently would be the difference. It seems I was really the only person on my dad’s side of the family that really focused on living a healthy life. I think it was my family history in the back of my mind that drove me. I have always been a big person but always active and always in pretty good shape. I didn’t smoke or drink and over time I modified my diet to be better than what my family members typically followed. Per a suggestion from a doctor, I was even taking an aspirin a day just because of my family history. Twice, over the past 15 years, I had completed a stress echocardiogram to try and get a sense of how my heart was working – again – because of a doctor recommendation due to my family history. Of course, each time everything looked good.

I was at work on St Patrick’s Day having a typical work day which included my typical workout around lunch time. My noon workout consisted of running up and down 11 flights of stairs (I work in a 12-story building), 30 minutes on the exercise bike (can’t run – torn meniscus), core exercises consisting of a lot of abdominal exercises and some pushups, wrapping up with another run up to the twelfth floor and back. Not bad for a healthy 57 year old. After my workout, I was eating my lunch at my desk and getting on a group call with customers and the rest of my work team. I was the only one in my office on this call. I’m always warm after my workout and I sweat a little bit (sorry –gross – I do shower afterwards) but for whatever reason, I just couldn’t stop sweating. I didn’t have pain, I just couldn’t stop sweating. I didn’t feel right. I couldn’t get comfortable. Some of my colleagues in the office noticed that I didn’t look right either – evidently my color was gray (not my usual color) and very scary looking. I had one of them find me a couple of aspirins as I heard that was good thing if you thought you might be having a heart attack. But this couldn’t be a heart attack, right? I didn’t have any pain and I was in great shape. Eventually I agreed to have one of my coworkers to call 911. The paramedics were there quickly and checked my heart. The guy checking my heart said, “well, you’re going for a ride – you are in full cardiac arrest”. They started me on nitroglycerin and hauled me down to the ambulance and I was on my way to the hospital. I hardly enjoyed the speeding vehicle part since so much was going on.

As I was riding to the hospital, now on my second nitroglycerin tablet, I had a realization that I could die at any moment. I could just turn off. I had that moment of deciding if I was ready to meet my maker and decided that if I had to go, I was ready. The next emotion that swept over me was pure anger. I was in tears! I was so mad that I was having a heart attack. I was so ‘pissed’ (sorry for the term but I was really enraged at that point) that after all these years of working out, no smoking, no drinking, no bad foods (no fun!), I was having a freaking heart attack! After all this work that I had done, my heart was shot! Just like my dad’s and my brother’s, my heart was so bad that my heart was irreparable. After a burst of tears and emotion, I realized that I may be over-assuming some things and that, if I survive, maybe it wouldn’t be quite as bad as I thought. I arrived at the hospital as I was dissolving my third nitro-tablet under my tongue.

Everything was moving fast at the hospital as they began working on me. I was awake and talking to the doctors and nurses as they were working their magic. With a scan of my heart they found that I had only one blocked artery (which ‘only one‘sounds minimal but I’m sure it wasn’t’) and that my other arteries were normal. They inserted a stent through my wrist instead of through my groin (amazing how they continually are coming up with better and less invasive ways to fix people) and opened my blocked artery – I would live. They rolled me to a room where I saw my lovely but very concerned wife waiting for me. I wanted to comfort her and let her know that I was okay and everything would be alright. I wanted to tell her that – but I couldn’t. I was unable speak. It wasn’t because I was overcome with emotion – it was because I was having a stroke! Holy Cr*p, when would this nightmare end? My wife told them, “there’s something wrong here -he can’t speak!” Back into action they went. Now they had to do another scan – this time on my head, not my heart. It wasn’t long before I was able to get words to come out of my mouths and most importantly, they were the words I was trying to say. By the time I was returned to my wife in the hospital room, everything felt and seemed back to normal. Evidently when they put the stent into my heart, some plaque had likely broken loose and had gone to my brain and caused the stroke. The upside of this is that it was a small stroke, also known as a TIA (transient ischemic attack), which shows no large scale permanent damage. I would not only live but I would have the same functionalities that I had before this medical episode (they call these crazy things that happen ‘episodes’ in the medical community). All would be okay but I would never look at life the same way.

I was in the hospital for 2 more days but that was made shorter since a nurse that had a guitar in her office loaned it to me so I was able to (hopefully) entertain the people living in and working in the cardiac ward. I learned a great deal over those two days with visits from very knowledgeable people discussing my brain, my heart, my diet, my prescriptions (it was obviously all about me). I began working again on Friday (my heart attack occurred on Tuesday afternoon) and first thing Monday morning, I began with my first session in cardiac rehab. I was in much better physical condition than most people that are in cardiac rehab so I was able to move ahead quickly although they were careful that I didn’t advance too fast. It wasn’t just about doing my workouts (cardio, weights, stretching), I also learned a great deal more about how my heart works, how it repairs, and how I would have to continue to make it better. Two months after my heart attack, my cardiologist told me that I no longer had any restrictions (I could start running stairs again) and did not have to do any more cardiac rehab. After my heart attack, I was started on 4 prescriptions plus a baby aspirin. At my 2-week follow-up, they removed one as unnecessary since my blood pressure was already lower than necessary. At the 2-month follow-up, the dosage of one of the remaining 3 was cut in half again due to my lower blood pressure. I go back for a 6-month follow up next month and will also follow up with the cardiologist after a year. The biggest win is probably that it has been determined that I have no detectable damage to my heart. My heart was not testing great right after the attack but had recovered by the time I was discharged from the hospital.

Even with all the things I did right (and I admit I didn’t do everything right all the time but I did pretty good), I still had this medical explosion in my life. I did overreact a bit while riding in the ambulance, my heart wasn’t shot; that was because of the way that I did take care of myself over the years. I have been assured that the health decisions I made did shape the outcome of what has transpired for me this year but it couldn’t keep me from having it happen at all. It was a ‘gift’ from my father. Genetics do play a huge role in things that occur. From what I have learned, I also am reminded that the actions we take also have a great impact on things that occur. I couldn’t avoid having that heart attack and I didn’t see it coming. However, my quick recovery, the limit of my blockage to only one artery, and my ability to survive my heart attack at the time was likely due to the life that I have chosen to live. I am very, very fortunate that I continue to live to tell this story as I see and hear more and more stories of people unexpectedly ending their human experiences with an early death. Due to this glitch, I know more about me that I did before and have a greater appreciation for life and living it fully than I would have had without my father’s gift.

Take life as it comes and appreciate its fullness when it is given.

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Just Showing Up

I believe it was Woody Allen that made the statement “80% of success is just showing up”. I think Woody actually knew what he was talking about as far as the importance of just showing up. I’ve had a few experiences where it seemed to make all the difference.

When I was 12 years old (a long, long time ago), my dad was very sick. He had to go to the big city (Minneapolis) far, far away to have open-heart surgery. It didn’t go very well as he had a severe stroke on the operating table and not only had he lost most of the use of the left side of his body, he no longer could speak correctly and had to begin therapy to re-learn how to communicate. After several weeks, he was able to come back home to our small town of Baudette. He was in and out of the hospital over the next few months until his heart just gave out and he died. One of the things that really bothered my mom over those last months of his life was that almost no one showed up to visit my dad. My dad had been so gregarious and outgoing that it seemed everyone knew who he was – even my teachers – so it wasn’t always a great thing for me. He seemed to have so many friends yet they couldn’t find the time to drop by and see dad during his most difficult time. I saw how much it hurt my mom. I figured those so-called friends were just bad people and they really weren’t my dad’s friends.

Some years later I got to see things from a different perspective. The summer after I graduated from high school, a classmate of mine, John Mitchell, the star athlete, was in a horrible car accident. John had fallen asleep at the wheel, gone off the road, hit an embankment and broke his neck. They took him by ambulance to Grand Forks, North Dakota and then on to Fargo, North Dakota when they evaluated the severity of his injuries. Over the next days that grew into weeks, a small army of professionals worked to keep John alive and then to try to put him back together again. I kept up with John’s family members to see how he was doing but I was so busy working and getting ready for my first year of college, I never found the time to get over and see him. Before I knew it, school was starting and I was going to classes and meeting new friends. I still hadn’t gotten over to see John but I kept up with how he was doing as one of my roommates, Brian, was John’s best friend and he had made several trips to see John. Whenever Brian was headed over to Fargo to see John he would invite me. Of course I was too busy with all the stuff I had going on in my life. Well, to be honest, I wasn’t too busy, I was afraid. I was afraid because I didn’t know what to expect when I would see John. I didn’t know how I should act or what I should say. We used to talk sports but how do you talk about sports to an athlete that will never be able to walk again. I might talk about all the new things I had going on in my life but John was still fighting for his life every day so that didn’t seem right either. Most of all, I didn’t know what I would say to John when he asked why I hadn’t come to see him in the months after his accident.

Well, my guilt got the best of me, and the next time Brian headed over to see John in the hospital, I went along. It wasn’t easy. John was still John but he looked different. He had big scars around his forehead where they had used traction to pull his head and neck back into place. He hands were bent and looked funny as he’d not used them since the accident. But I was so glad I went. John kept the conversation light and worked to keep me comfortable. He never asked me why I hadn’t come to see him but he did make a special point to say how much he appreciated that I had come to see him – and how I was always welcome to come for a visit. Six months after the accident, John came back home to Baudette. From then on I would always drop by to see John whenever I passed through town. I became better friends with John after the accident than we had been before and I stayed in contact with him until he passed away nearly 20 year later. He shared with me the impact it had whenever people would stop by and how he learned to understand when people were too uncomfortable to come visit. I’ve had my own share of experiences over the years where I’ve seen that showing up to see someone in need seems to make all the difference.

About a year and a half ago, my brother Dave was very sick. He was diagnosed with advanced liver cancer and was given just months to live. He headed home to Thief River Falls to live out his remaining time. There were several things that he asked me to take care of and I began making plans as to when I would head up that way. I had a vacation scheduled for the next week and I figured that after that, I would head up to Dave’s place and get power-of-attorney and his will completed as well as other tasks that needed to get done. My wife wisely reminded me that time with Dave was more important than getting a vacation in so I headed up north to get things started. I got there in the evening and we visited and had a bowl of ice cream (my favorite food group). The next morning I got down to business and was preparing documents. Dave and I were visiting on the couch and planning our approach. At that moment, we found out that the doctor’s estimate of Dave’s time was not months but days and he passed away in my arms. I was able to be there and comfort him as we said goodbye one last time. I am so thankful that I had showed up when he needed me to be there.

I also know there are times when we think showing up doesn’t matter because people don’t really know we are there. People always know we are there even if we can see it. My mom now has advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease. She doesn’t remember anyone anymore. She doesn’t even remember many of her words anymore; a lot of the words she uses are made up. When she and I get gabbing it sounds like a couple of Klingons (from Star Trek) having a conversation. She still loves to sing although it’s unlikely you will recognize many of the words she sings. One day I showed up and she was singing away. She had a piece of paper in her hand and was moving her finger along on the page as she sang. I assumed that she had hung on to a song booklet from a church service and was reading that – turns out it was actually an ad for tires from the local newspaper. I guess she was singing about Firestone and Goodyear. Mom is still a very happy person and that’s really all I hope for at this point. Just this last January was mom’s 90th birthday. I went to see her after work on her birthday and sang Happy Birthday to her; she happily sang right along with me (although the words she was using were not the same ones I was singing). After a nice visit, I told her I had to get home and I would see her again soon. I leaned in to give her a hug and kiss her goodbye. Mom reached out and touched my arm, looked in my eyes, and completely coherently said “I love you Don”. It was like she came back to me from so far away for that brief instance. I am so thankful that I just showed up on Mom’s birthday.

Don’t ever think that you don’t have an impact when you show up for someone. Everything you do has an impact so you must continue to do the things that matter. If you’re lucky like me, you will find that the gift you receive is greater than the one you give. Just remember to show up.

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So What Are You Giving Up?

This time of year, many people decide to give things up for Lent, choosing to eliminate a vice from your life for the Lenten period with the hope that you will continue not doing that vice even after holy week is past. Well, that’s not where I’m coming from on this question. It’s not that I don’t support the idea of Lent – just not what I was thinking of when I posed this question. The perspective that I’m coming from is: what are you going to give up to make room for the new things you want to be doing with your life? We people are impulsive types sometimes – we decide we want to do something and then we just go and do it. I think it’s great that we’re like that- there’s nothing better than just marching forward when we decide to do something. The problem that we run into is that we are just plain lousy as cleaning stuff out of our lives to make room for the new stuff that we just keep piling on. It’s not just activities. I have so many items that I used to work with that I haven’t touched for years. I intend to get back to those things some day but when I’m being honest with myself, I recognize I probably never will. It’s just clutter. I went to so much effort to collect those items that were so important to me at the time, I just can’t bring myself to just get rid of them by tossing them or selling them for so little in a garage sale (and here in Minnesota there’s typically at least four months of weather that’s good enough for garage sales). I’ve gotten rid of a lot of crap (yes, that’s what it is, I admit it) but there’s still plenty to go. And the stuff (or crap!) is the easy part; it’s the activities that seem to be harder to give up.

With the activities, I have people expecting me to participate. I can’t let them down by choosing to not do them anymore. What would they think of me? If something that used to be fun is no longer fun anymore then you either need to find a way to invigorate yourself or you need to just quit doing it. The re-invigorating is pretty unlikely because your passion has probably run its course but quitting is so much harder to do because it affects others. In the business world, it’s called ‘zero-based thinking’. You evaluate your company and determine where the day-to-day energy is being focused. If there are aspects of your business that you wouldn’t get into today (knowing what you now know [KWINK]), you need to figure out how to get out of those areas of your business. It may seem like you’re giving up more than what you are getting when you get rid of it but if it’s not something you want to be doing, you need to just dump it. The value in that decision is that it frees up resources to do the things that you really want to do – the things that really give you more value.

It’s really no different with the evaluation of your personal life. Trying to move ahead by taking on new high-value activities is a terrific idea that we all should be doing but to have the (personal) resources that you need to put toward your new interests, you need to clean out your ‘crap’ activities. By the way, my acronym for CRAP is “continued resistance against progress” and in this case, that’s exactly what it offers, so get rid of it.

I am often amazed at how much some people are able to accomplish in their lives. I used to wonder how they can get so much done when many of the rest of us seem to be spinning our wheels. I think I’ve found one of the keys on how these folks are able to accomplish so much. They keep cleaning out what they don’t need any more to make room for the powerful dreams that are pulling them forward. It’s possible to do so many things in a life time but you can’t do all those things at once. Remember, instead of just looking ahead to the interesting things that are pulling you forward, look behind you and cut loose the unnecessary baggage holding you back. You’ll be amazed at how much faster you will be moving towards your dreams.

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Feeling Very Thankful On Thanksgiving

One of the things that I am most thankful for is that I am able to feel thankful on nearly every day, not just Thanksgiving. I feel that one of the great sadness’s of the day (and of the day, I don’t’ mean today, I mean this moment in time) is that few people recognize how great they have it in their life and more often than not, they are disappointed instead of being grateful. I hope that doesn’t come off as too judgmental but I am saddened that many people don’t appreciate all that life has offered to us. I realize that it all comes down to a matter of perspective and I hope that I can continue to keep things in perspective as difficult as it is to do sometimes.

I am so thankful that I am healthy. Yeah, I did pick up a few extra pounds this year (I don’t know when they sneaked onto my body but I know they are there now) but I’m not hurting and am still active pretty much every day. I’m confident that if I keep going in my active lifestyle while doing some due diligence in trimming down the food (mostly junk) intake, I will level the ship. I’m old enough (although I typically say ‘seasoned’ instead of ‘old’) to finally realize that I’m not that good looking (never really have been) so looking like a movie star (well, maybe a hulking bad guy) is not the point of my health focus. It’s about feeling good and continuing on doing the things that really matter to me like playing with grandkids (and now great-grandkids have begun arriving) and feeling comfortable not acting my age so I can do continued crazy stuff like hiking and biking in the mountains, caving (okay ‘spelunking’), canoeing, and pretty much pretending that I’m younger than I really am (not that I know what my age really is supposed to feel like). My intent is to continue on this path as long as I can.

I’m thankful than I can work. I appreciate my job. This is the first time in a decade that I’ve not worked in the retail world and I am very happy about that. Of course that also helps me to appreciate what some people have to do to service the rest of us while making ends meet. I upgraded my job this year and this is also something that I am thankful for nearly every day. A year ago I was not very happy in what I was doing and I took the initiative to change it. I am thankful most of all that I still remembered that I had the power to change it. Sometimes we forget that we have to change the things that need to be changed. I’m not saying it was completely easy and I’m not saying I was completely (or even moderately) confident but I knew deep down it was possible and the possibility is what got me to where I am today. We have too many voices in the world today shouting out that we can’t change our lives and somebody has to save us. When we believe those lies, we give up our power. I’m thankful that I still have that power.

I am thankful for the relationships I have. I’m glad that I enjoy coming home to my wife every day. I’ve learned over the years that not everyone does that so I’m very thankful that I’m happy in my home. We take many things for granted because we don’t realize how good our version of life is. For good or bad sometimes, we think everyone’s life is just like ours. Either we have it better than most others and since we don’t know that, we don’t treat that part of our life like the magic fortune that it is, or we don’t have some things as good as many others and we think that’s all the better it can be. In that case, we don’t know enough to require ourselves to make it better. I’m glad that I have relationships with my kids and grandkids – I’m not important enough to be in their thoughts all the time – and that’s the way it should be. I work to remind them I’m there and available and most of the time that‘s all that needs to be done. When they want me around, I’m there. My son, Ryan got married this year and wanted me to be involved. I was the music for the ceremony and I couldn’t have been happier. In that block of time, I got to spend some quality time with kids and grandkids. I was very thankful for those memories added to my collection this year. I’m also appreciative of my friends and colleagues – people I work with and others I know. I hope to be more aware of their needs and desires and hope to use those thoughts to make me better. And of course, other family members: my sister has hit a few bumps this year but, as always, is pretty positive. It was the first year without my brother in it – he passed away last year so he’s a lot farther away and harder to get to but he’s still there when I need to connect. Mom is still around and is going to be 90 in January. It could be sad that she really doesn’t know anyone or anything anymore (been fighting Alzheimer’s for more than 10 years) but she’s still happy all the time, is without pain, and actually recognized me more this year than last – any time left is precious time.

I have it so good; I really don’t need much else. I find it a little funny how tonight is start of the big shopping craze – Black Friday as it spills into before and after Friday. All the great deals being advertised and I don’t see anything I need to make my life better. Sure it’s supposed to be about buying for others but that seems to be difficult too. Everyone has so much and we are supposed to find more to give. Here’s where the being seasoned part kicks in. Growing up, we got one or two ‘big’ gifts and the rest of the gifts were mostly practical – things we needed. Gifts were few enough that they were all special. I think that’s part of the reason that gift cards are the number 1 Christmas gifts again this year. Sure they are convenient but I think they are best because we haven’t a clue what we can buy for people that seem to have everything. Relating back to some previous points I made, we don’t realize how much we have (which is a lot) so we aren’t as thankful as we should be (yes, I guess I’m a little judgmental here). Many of the people considered poor in this country have much more than most of the people around the globe. I grew up in a home that could be considered poor but it seldom felt like it was. I think it’s a wonderful thing to help people that have less but let’s all remember how much we do have as we strive to make the world a better place. Happy Thanksgiving.

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Who Is Your Alex?

Alright, it doesn’t have to be an Alex. It could be a Tom, a Jackie, a Chris – it could be anyone. The key is that you have one. Oh yeah – one what? Well, it’s a person that helps keep you on the road that you should be on. Let me explain about Alex. In one of my lives, I am a business systems analyst for a technology company. Alex is someone that has a desk near mine and we are lucky enough to work together on the occasional project. He has learned that I think life is fantastic and that I choose to have a great day every day. At first, he was somewhat amazed by how I look at life, most of the time looking on the bright and always trying to put the right spin on the ‘opportunities’ that show up in my life. When we cross paths and he asks me how it’s going, I typically say “SUPER-FANTASTIC!” or “PERFECT” and he gets a chuckle that this ‘old’ guy is having another great day.

Of course, there is the occasional time when I think I’m not having a perfect or super-fantastic day. Alex will ask, “How’s it going?” and I’ll respond “okay”. Alex will come to a complete stop in whatever he is doing and say, “Only okay?” I could explain how things aren’t working out and my day isn’t as good as usual but instead I strive to take it as a challenge to refocus and put things back in perspective. We all have times when we think life is sucky but it’s just an opinion and I hate to have ‘that’ opinion because when I do, I’m making my life sucky. I have great relationships and I’m healthy and I have a great job and I’m wealthier that 90% of the people in the world (‘cause there’s an awful lot of poor people in the world pushing me to the top of the list). If I focus on those thoughts I can’t help but feel better about life. It’s simply a matter of where I’m putting my focus and Alex reminds me that my focus is on the wrong things if my day is just ‘okay’.

I admit that I caused Alex to expect me to have a great day every day by sharing my beliefs about life. It takes some boldness to share ideas like that because if we say we believe something, others will start watching to see if we back up our beliefs with our actions. Most people don’t want to be so bold. Instead we present someone that doesn’t raise expectations too much. That’s what I’ve done much of my life so I understand it. Now I welcome the questions that Alex and others put to me about my attitude (when it’s not where it should be) because instead of a feeling that I’m less than I promised, it’s a reminder to get back to where I should be. You see, if I’m not realizing that life is grand then I’m wasting my precious time (a.k.a. ‘my life’). Alex is someone I need to make sure I make the most of what I have. I appreciate it when he gives me that gentle nudge (or aggressive shove) to put me back on track.

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Follow the Signs

(Recently I competed in a Toastmasters speech competition and I had some folks request that I write down the speech on my blog. Of course, most people write their speech before they perform it but I have the strange habit of creating speeches without writing them down. This speech was really created to be told so it relies on gesture and vocal variation and even musical performance but even without that dimension I believe it’s a very powerful personal story and I hope you like it)

From the time they are very small, children learn to recognize graphics, or pictures, or small words and read signs.
We follow signs our entire life. We use signs to tell us where we can go, where we can’t go and where to go when we really have to go. The signs I’m talking about today are not so explicit. They are the signs that we see, or feel, from the inside. Let me give you an example:
When I was only twelve years old, my dad got very sick and needed to have open heart surgery. The procedure didn’t go very well and he suffered a stroke during the operation. Over the next several months my dad was in and out of the hospital never seeming to get any better.
I can still remember – I can actually feel it – that Wednesday morning when my mom hugged me so tight and then told me “you’re dad died last night”. The surprising thing was that I wasn’t surprised. I knew what Mom was going to say as soon as she hugged me so very tight. It didn’t matter that my sister and others kept telling me things like “you know Dad, he’ll be up pounding nails on somebody’s roof in no time”; evidently I knew what was really going to happen. I must have seen the signs.
I loved my dad – he was a ‘man’s’ man, a real man – no mamby-pamby stuff for him. He was even a little scary. I never told my dad that I loved him. I figured he’d be embarrassed or ashamed that I would say something so silly. At that point, I had lost the opportunity to ever tell him how I felt. I carried that regret inside of me for years. Eventually I made a commitment to myself that I would tell everyone I cared about how I felt about them.
It was easy to tell my mom that I loved her – I was a mama’s boy. I’m still a mama’s boy! And I could tell my sister, Shirley, about anything and that included that I loved her. Then there was my big brother, Dave – a real chip off the old block – a man’s man, a real man. No mamby-pamby stuff for him either and yeah, he was a little scary too.
I even practiced telling him –
“I love you man”;
“hey speaking of that, I love you”.
No, that wasn’t gonna work! But, I’d made a commitment and the next time I talked to him…
(talking on the phone) … okay, well I’ll talk to you next time – love you – goodbye (quickly hanging up the phone). “Hah, I did it!”
Wait a minute, the phone’s ringing… “Hello?” (mouthing “it’s my brother”) “Really?” “Thank you” (hangs up phone).
“He told me he loved me too – I never knew”.
That simple but very difficult phone call led to motorcycle trips and camping trips and ice fishing trips that even provided some humorous stories at Toastmaster meetings over the years. And it also led to times where we helped each other over life’s rough spots. It went far beyond brotherhood and to close friendship.

Unfortunately, my brother’s health closely followed that of my dad’s and over the years, Dave had many problems including heart disease and diabetes. It came to a head last year when his heart started to fall apart and we spent quite a bit of time in the hospital getting things to work again. Eventually, they seemed to get it working right but he didn’t seem to be improving the way he should have been so we ended up heading to Rochester to have things checked out at the Mayo Clinic. After a few days, the doctors gave us the news. Dave was full of cancer. It was very advanced. There was no cure. They have him a few months to live and he headed home to northern Minnesota live out the rest of his time.
I had a week’s vacation coming and I figured that after it was over I would head up to Dave’s to spend some quality time with him and start on things he had asked me to help with. My wife recognized the signs first and said you need to get up there right now – Dave needs you to be there. I knew that she was right and I headed up to Dave’s. The morning after I got there, we were working together and getting things done. As I sat next to him on the couch, he sneezed four times. After the third sneeze, I looked at him and he had a look of terror on his face. At that moment, he and I both realized that his time was already at hand. I told him that if he needed to go, it was okay. He sneezed one more time and was gone.
That night as I was alone in the room where he had passed away, I picked up my guitar which I often travel with and took solace in my music but instead of the songs that I typically play, a song that I had never heard before kept coming into my head and was flowing through my hands into the guitar. Over the next few days as things got so busy, that song kept running through my mind but every time I tried to write down the words, I couldn’t pull them out. But thirty minutes before Dave’s memorial service was about to start, I pulled out a piece of paper and the entire song flowed from me onto the page. I played the song, “I Love You – Goodbye”, for family and friends at the memorial service.

I had to say goodbye to you today ‘cause God brought you home

I didn’t’ think there was nearly enough time, with these things you never know

You knew it was time to go but you didn’t want to leave us behind

It’s okay – I love you – Goodbye

Your stories were the center of attention when you were around

My kids and grandkids always laughed so hard whenever you came to town

They always got so excited every time that you dropped by

And for that I love you – Goodbye

Yeah, you had your troubles

And I had some too

But we grew so close together

As we helped each other through

My world seems so empty now that you’ve gone home

I know it’ll begin to fill again as I begin to move on

But I’ll always have a place for you and I’ll keep it right here inside

I won’t forget how much I love you – Good bye

Don’t forget how much I love you – Goodbye

We are all given a life to live but that live does not come without hurt and sadness and loss, but if you listen with your heart and follow the signs you can live a life with less regret and more loving memories – follow the signs.

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The World is Not As Bright

If it feels like the world isn’t as bright, it may not just be the gloomy weather. The world lost some light last night as my best friend Freddie passed away. Yeah, this post is about me a little bit and me thinking about my good friend. Believe me, it’s a wonderful thing that he has gone home. His cancer was really digging in, he said all of his goodbyes, and no one wanted to see him suffer. Death is simply a part of life. In reality, Fred’s light is not gone – I hold it inside me as will others whose life he touched. I feel the loss that I’m feeling because when we lose someone that we have loved, we ponder. When we go to visitations and funerals and gatherings to say goodbye, we ride the time machine a little bit and revisit those times that we remember with such fond memories.

Fred and I began working together up in Bemidji almost 31 years ago and we clicked almost immediately. Sometimes that how it happens – you just connect. He had kids in school. I was single and had hair (well, a lot more than I have now and it was all brown). Freddie headed to live near the big city a couple of years before I did and when I was down looking for work, I crashed at his place a few time. We both ran into hard times more than once and we always knew about each other’s troubles because we were always there helping each other though when we needed it. When Fred’s wife left, he raised his three kids, and he loved raising his kids. As his kids had kids he loved being Grampa. As his oldest grandson, Ryan, is getting ready to graduate high school this year, Fred’s youngest son, Derrick, had his first child and gave Fred his newest grandson. Fred was so tickled to meet Connor Fredrick (yep, got his Grandpa’s name) and spend some time with the little guy over the last several months.

Fred was the type of guy that got people at work to pool some money together and buy Christmas gifts for needy families, even when he had less than everyone else to give. He loved to give bigger than necessary tips to people that not only gave good service but seemed to be someone that he really thought needed a break. Freddie always liked wayside chapels. Even though they seemed to have fallen out of favor because of all the vandalism that happens to them, he had a passion to get one built. He approached the leadership of the church where he grew up with the idea. Most thought it was a dumb idea and since he hadn’t been a member of the parish for years, who did he think he was pushing ideas like that anyway? Well, that didn’t stop him. The priest liked the idea and he and Fred were in cahoots pushing the idea and getting everyone else in church to think it was their idea. He had to be rather coy in checking on the project but when he found things were getting gummed up somewhere, he would put his nose into it and get things going again. When it was nearing completion, Fred came over to my house for a woodworking party. I’m the woodworker, not Freddie but he had a plan to add his fingerprints to the effort. He had ordered ceramic stations-of-the-cross and brought them along. He and I built mounting brackets for all the stations in my backyard. Using jigs and clamps and power tools, I made it as easy as I possibly could and he and I got our assembly line going. He was so excited. A few weeks later, just before the grand opening of the chapel, we went there with our power tools and mounted the stations around the inside walls of the little church. Behind each one, Freddie put pictures of people and moments that were special to him as we mounted them to the wall. I think it might be behind station #7 where there is a picture of me and Fred building holders for the stations in my backyard. When I last spent a few hours with Fred, we were talking and reminiscing about that day and his great chapel that so few people knew was his idea. If you are ever near the Catholic Cemetery in the town of Foley, Minnesota, drop by and see Fred’s chapel and our handiwork. Fred will be buried as close as he could get to his little church. He will be buried next to his wife Linda that just passed a few months before he did. They will be so glad to be out walking together again.

I will miss my friend so much but he’s not gone from my heart. We did have our time to say goodbye and that is a luxury we don’t always have. This gives me one more reminder that those we love need to hear from us on a regular basis that we love them. Thanks for letting me share some thoughts about my friend. Remember, if we choose to find it, all those that have loved us have left a beautiful light inside for us to help us find our way.

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Are You Using the Do-Over Option?

I was thinking of this awhile ago but I didn’t get it up on the blog – sorry about that but, as we all know, there’s no time like the present. The initial thought of a do-over for me came from watching that motivational and inspirational movie ‘City Slickers’. Well, I don’t know if it was inspirational and motivational for you but I did think it was a pretty entertaining movie and what I learned later (we often don’t know what we learn until later) is that the idea that really stuck with me was the ‘do-over’. I’ve not watched it for some time so I don’t remember all the details but I do know that one of the characters (played by Daniel Stern, I think) was depressed because he felt he had made such a mess of his life and because he made such a mess he could never see getting out of the hole he had created. I felt for the character because I’ve been there before. Sadly, I think pretty much all of us have. Well, back to the story… One of the friends stated, “It’s a do-over” and he explained that when you really screw things up you can start over – it’s a do-over. Everybody chimed it and reinforced the idea that when we blow it we can always start over and get going over again. Just a crazy movie idea, right? Well, I think it’s more than that. I mean after all what else can you do? Wallowing in self pity won’t set the world right and staying in an obviously messed up disaster of a life is not a very smart solution. Isn’t that the perfect time to conjure up a new way to think about where you’re at and get started at moving in a new direction?

About a year and a half ago, I was talking to my brother and he was totally bummed out with where he was in his life. He felt he had made some horrible decisions over the previous couple years and now he felt he had destroyed the best things he had going for him. He really was in the same place mentally and emotionally as the City Slickers character. At least it seemed like it to me because as I was trying to think of any ideas that would help him think of his world in a new way, the idea of a do-over came to me and I shared it with him. I don’t know if that’s the thing that helped him through that difficult time (because he did get through that difficult time like most of us all do) but as I explained to him the logic and importance of seeing life’s challenges as do-overs, it reinforced to me how we all need to think that way from time to time, probably a lot more often than we think we should. My brother Dave passed away just over six months ago and he was in a much happier place in his last year even with medical issues because of the do-over he engineered in his life.

I was thinking about this idea a couple of months ago because I just started a new position and was so happy to be starting fresh in a completely different environment. Through the second half of last year, things seemed to be heading south and I decided I really needed to make some big changes in my life. Fortunately, I was able to turn the change in leadership and what I felt was negative energy into a need to question what I really should be doing and better align my passion with what I should be doing every day. Through strong support from my wife and some networking I was able to move into a position that was better suited for me. What I do now is so different than what I’ve been doing it felt like a do-over and it is. However, with further reflection I realized that every day can be a do-over, if we are wise enough to refocus ourselves on a daily basis. Even in my new job, I have the occasional challenge, which is only proof that I have an opportunity to grow. If I recognize that I could have made a better decision then I change who I am – I am now the person who would do that thing differently because now I am wiser. A do-over doesn’t always have to be huge – it only has to be a conscious decision to live the next part of my life as a new person with a new perspective – even if the next part of my life is only tomorrow. Tomorrow is always the start of the rest of my life.

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Keeping Perspective When Evil Touches Our World

I was about to head to bed and I should go to bed but I felt I needed to write something before I do. Today was the day of the shooting of school children in Newtown, Connecticut. Like so many people, I ache. I turned on the news tonight and of course, that’s all that was covered. Actually it was double covered and triple covered and advertisements were being shown for additional coverage that will air over the weekend. It reminded me of the aftermath of 9-11 when so many people watched all the stories on TV day after day. I was lucky that I was travelling across the country at the time (obviously not by air). I saw a snippet of the news and then I pulled away from it. I noticed how it hurt people deep down. I got that sense again today. It crossed a new line of horror. It will cut into people. People will try to understand. People will try to make sense of it. I don’t know how you make sense of it. It causes outrage. It causes sadness. It causes pain. It takes away our trust of life. Some people will turn their passion into action. The discussion of more gun laws is going to continue to grow. There will be more ways created to turn schools into fortresses. There will be more action to protect us from people with mental illness. This list will go on and on. I don’t know where it will all take us, probably in the same direction we’ve always been heading. We only notice where we’re headed when something scary appears in front of us. Obviously I don’t know where this road leads but I’m saddened by the terrain around me.

I watched some of the news for awhile and I pondered many of the things that I just mentioned. After that, I watched one of my favorite holiday movies, ‘White Christmas’. This time of the year, my wife and I watch lots of Christmas movies, on Lifetime, on Hallmark, on ABC Family, wherever I find them. With my crazy schedule, I even record some so we can watch them when there’s nothing else on. Yeah, many of them are just ‘chick’ flicks with Christmas decorations and Christmas music and some are just so bad. I confess: I like snow, I like Christmas music and, in most cases, I like Christmas movies. As I was headed to bed tonight, I thought that if more people watched these poorly acted, easy to figure out, somewhat hokey Christmas movies instead of the seemingly violent and senseless movies and video games that are so popular today, we would have fewer random killings. I’m not making a stand to outlaw games and movies; we’ve been down that road many times. I do believe that what we put into our consciousness has to define who we become and how we think. I think watching White Christmas this evening instead of immersing myself in all the horror of today’s tragedy was a better choice for me. I don’t think we can or should ignore what happens in the world but I don’t think soaking in it is helping me come up with answers yet. I will sort through pieces of it and admire the heroism of many and ponder the possible responses we need to make. I need to remind myself that how I see the world around me and how I respond to my world will have an impact on the culture that I can influence around me. I need to help make a warmer place especially when I feel that our tendency over the next while will be to make a colder, more protected place.

Obviously, I am just a bundle of thoughts and need to put things into perspective. I am not going to let myself get overloaded with sadness but I will feel some of the hurt. That is my humanity and I can’t be afraid of that. Be strong and be the person that adds powerful, positive structure to the world when it needs you most. Peace and love to your soul. Goodnight.

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Does a Positive Attitude Mess with Your Singing the Blues?

Sure, that sounds like a weird question but hey, that’s how I get going sometimes. I have always liked easy listening music: you know, the slow stuff, the stuff that some people might think is depressing. As I began striving to think more of myself, I tried to latch on to some ideas that would help me look at the world in better ways. I heard someone say that some popular music was very negative in how it made us think. A lot of it has a theme of “I’m not good enough for you” or even worse, “I’m nothing without you”. Wow, I never looked at it that way before. It is a bad thing to think that you need someone else to make you okay or that if someone is no longer in your life, you are less. Listening to songs that say as much, over and over again, can’t be very good for your self esteem. I understand what they were saying (I don’t remember if it was Brian Tracy, or Steve Chandler, or Zig Ziglar, but it was somebody like that who I hold in high esteem). We need to be reminding ourselves that we may be sad when someone goes away but we need to know that we are not less (even if we feel like it for a little while) and as soon as we possibly can, we need to believe in who we are and move forward.

After not performing much for quite a few years, I’ve returned to my music again. I’ve started learning some new instruments such as the dulcimer, banjo, and mandolin and they really can be fun instruments, mostly used for bluegrass or other mountain music. I started down that musical road when vacationing in the Ozarks. What great stuff to be playing or listening to. Along those lines, I’ve been playing similar types of music on my guitars. However, I’ve been playing and singing some of the styles of music that I’ve loved in the past. Songs that are about heartbreak and love lost and the pain that goes along with it. As I think about that music and the people that really sing it well, I realize that sometimes you really need to feel the pain to put it in the music. I know because I feel it. Tears can come to your eyes easily and some songs hit so close to home that you have to practice them again and again and again to get through them without breaking apart. After my brother died, I wrote a song to say goodbye to him and when I sing it I can get through it but I sure feel it. When I sing the songs that really touch my heart I feel the ache and I know that it can be felt in the music and I know that’s what makes some of these songs so real and so powerful.

I think because I’ve had a challenging year from an emotional level, I notice these things a little more. My brother died. My best friend’s wife just died and he’s is in hospice and will be passing very soon. Holding crying people can be good but it can cut into your soul a bit too – not to weaken it but to shape it. When you feel a little beat up, it’s easy to get beat up some more. When I’ve got the hurt in me and it’s not buried so deep, I feel it when I sing. Sometimes I need to sing just to feel it pouring out of my being. It makes me think of the great artists that get so messed up in their lives but their work is so powerful. It makes me wonder if their work is powerful because they keep feeling the pain and keep it so close to their surface. We know we should move on to higher ground in our life but sometimes the ache and pain have such a strong grip on us that we feel we need to simmer in it. I don’t think simmering in it is necessarily a good thing but in a strange way it has some comfort to it.

I’m not really sharing any wisdom in this message, just pushing some thoughts out tonight. I believe that I need to move away from the pain when it’s pulling me into the darkness because if I don’t it has the power to swallow me up and hang on so tightly. When I do move to the world where I’m (seemingly) running on all cylinders again, it’s okay to touch my soul within, even the sad and painful parts to add my signature to the things that I create.

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