Precious and Painful


Life is precious and wonderful.

I learned that lesson again this week, a week of turmoil, grief, and new beginnings.

A good friend, suffering from a deadly, debilitating disease, moved on out of this world, taking charge of his life, and saying his good byes, and teaching us about life, its joys, and the wonderment of each day. His final days offered new lessons to me about courage, and what one person can achieve in their life, about relationships, and the sacredness of a simple act of kindness.

I never got to express everything I feel about him, but then, we never do. Life is like that, never having enough time to really fully communicate what another person means to us, how precious is our relationship with someone. Too often, we live in the moment, and dance around the profound, the universal truth of the gifts others bring into our lives.

A family member ended their life, leaving us with deep questions, and the pain of sudden grief, paradoxes, and the reopening of old wounds, and old questions about life. Pain wracked my heart, bringing me closer to family, and reminding me of the importance of how we all need to care for and parent the survivors. Two young children now don’t have a mother, but they do have our family, and we have a deeper appreciation of the time that we have with each other.

I helped a young man being released from prison. I walked with him out of the prison gate, having him hear that metal slam behind him, and I drove him into the rest of his life. Five years behind bars, ten years of foster care, two failed adoptions, the emptiness of no one visiting him these last five years.

We loaded up all of his worldly possessions into my car, and drove off into the early morning gloam, the heavy rain attempting to drown our joy of that moment, and the prospects of a bright life ahead for this young man.

We greeted the dawn at the beach, his first view of the ocean in five years, his first hour of only the sound of the wind and the waves, not sharing the dawn with twenty five other inmates in a prison dorm.

There was ice cream with breakfast, and buying a new book by his favorite author, and a long drive through the forest, where each turn in the road offered yet another view of the world, without bars and fences.

We dealt with bureaucracy, mind-numbing forms and questionnaires, more waiting, and more interviews. Yet, in all that, I witnessed his courage, his determination to move ahead, and begin his new life. He knew where he was going, and he was prepared to forge ahead, on his own at last.

Through his eyes, I saw the world anew, and got a glimpse of what opportunity and hope can mean for one’s soul. When all things are possible, and when you now have freedom to move ahead, and to take your first steps into a new world, to create your life, and move towards your dreams, then life is sweet and amazing.

I walked with him, sitting in the dank waiting rooms of the probation office, transitional housing, the world of food stamps and public assistance. I felt the cold stares of the security guards and the bureaucrats, their unfeeling hands as they searched me, judging me as a suspicious troublemaker, labeling me without knowing me. This was just another day of institutional life for my young friend, and he flashed me a grin, letting me know that you can endure the labeling, the indifferent bureaucrats, and mind-numbing waiting, because today was his first day of freedom.

At dinner, we toasted his freedom, and the future that he now held in his hand. He chatted with the waitress about looking for work, about being young and moving to the big city. He laughed and grinned at the idea of a menu, and a linen table cloth, and a candle on the table, real silverware and real plates. And, when the giant piece of chocolate cake was too much for him to eat, he laughed at the idea of taking the rest home to his new room, a midnight snack just for him, to eat it all by himself, his first night sleeping alone in five long years.

This week offered me many lessons, and many voices on how life is precious, and wonderful, and not to be taken for granted. In all of this, I played many roles, and was called upon to be the best of friends, the best of uncles, and the best of the driver and companion of a young man whose world was opening up, his life ready to fully bloom in the glories of the coming spring.

Neal Lemery 3/30/2014

The Power of One


The Power of One

“It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

Can I really make a difference in the world? Does what I do really matter?

The other day, I ran into a young man I’d worked with, having long talks about his future. We became friends, and I was a cheerleader in his life. I watched him refocus in high school, and graduating there. I walked with him and held his hand as he thought about college, and enrolling.

A few years later, I watched him receive his community college diploma, laughing with him as he posed for a family picture, diploma in hand. His wife, and his sister, now both in college, stood proudly beside him.

At the store, he shared a photo of his new baby, and his dream of a bright future, getting his bachelor’s degree, creating a bright future for him and his family.

“Thanks,” he said, quietly. “Without you pushing me, encouraging me, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

A few weeks ago, I took a young man to a university, walking with him into the registrar’s office to schedule his classes, and get him ready for fall term. We’d worked together last spring, to get him admitted, and transferring all his credits he’d earned for his associates degree, ready to start his junior year. He’s been aiming for a bachelor’s degree for a long time, and was finally able to make the move into a four year university, one that has an excellent program in his area of interest.

He’d been dragging his feet, not making the phone call to schedule his class registration, and all the other paperwork that needed to get done before he was really ready to begin classes. The plan was for me to drive him there, make a day of it, and to celebrate his achievements. But, he was dropping the ball, ignoring my increasingly less than subtle hints to take that drive, and move on with his life.

I nudged, I prodded, and I waited. Procrastination and fear took over, even a bit of resentment towards me, for being the quiet voice urging him forward, encouraging him to go live his dream.

Time was running out, and I spoke up, becoming direct, calling out for him to confront the elephant in the living room, and get moving here, moving ahead with his life. We met, finally, to have that hard conversation. We argued, we struggled, we finally got to the heart of his struggle, we each teared up, our guts churning.

We named the elephant, and we argued some more. He asked me where he thought I’d be in a few years, if he didn’t go to college, if he didn’t make that short trip to the university’s registrar that week, and be ready for fall term.

I got blunt, and painted a realistic picture.

“If you don’t live your dream, if you don’t work towards achieving your goals, life will be hard, and life will be disappointing. You will end up being disappointed in yourself. Is that what you want?”

He admitted he really did want to go to college, but the old voices, the voices of childhood that had always whispered that he wasn’t good enough, that he wasn’t deserving of success, those were the voices speaking loudly in his head lately.

We refocused. We didn’t dwell on “failure” and “I’m not good enough”. Instead, we moved on, living in today. And, looking towards the future, planning for it, taking real time steps to get where he wanted to go.

I grabbed the car keys, and his cold, sweaty hand, and walked him to my car. Amazingly, at least to him, within an hour, we were at the registrar’s office in the university, organizing his schedule, planning for his graduation in two years. He registered for classes, accepted his healthy array of scholarships, and sent in his student loan application.

On the way out the door, we picked up his student body card and scheduled a time for him to meet his department head and double check his class schedule, to make sure he was on the right track with his major.

Along the way, every college staff person was courteous, informative, and dedicated to getting him enrolled and off to a good start. Each one of them took the time to take an interest in him, focus on his needs, and help him achieve his goals for the day, and for the next two years of his life.

Each one of them, taking the time, being interested, investing in him. He saw that in how they treated him, how they were living their day. The caring about one other person, one at a time, with all of their focus, all of their energies, all of their wisdom.

And, so it begins, the new student and the teachers, the first lesson, building on the past, and aiming at the future.

One person at a time.

Neal Lemery, August, 2013