The Greatest Man…

The people who have the greatest impact on us often do it in the subtlest ways. Sometimes they are very close to us; sometimes they are far away. Sometimes their influence is visible and ever present. And sometimes, it just sneaks up on you and you suddenly realize the impact they have had on you. Whatever it is, they inspire us to look at the world with different eyes and they make us reflect on the journey that we are all on in life. And let’s never forget that we may be the person who is having the impact on someone else.  This “journey” goes both ways.

Late last week, my father-in-law passed away at the age of 94. He was a man who was quiet and reserved in his manner and incredibly gracious, humble, and caring. He frightened me badly when I was dating my wife, Emily.  He had strong eyes that seemed to look right through me.  And he seemed to watch my every move.  Yet, he was always smiling.

Emily had him for a lifetime and I had the privilege of knowing him for 42 years.  I learned many life lessons from “Pop.” I never realized it at first, but he had a powerful influence on my life. Here’s a link to his obituary and his unique story. For the past several years, Emily and one of her sisters, shared in taking care of him as his body began to fade on him. His mind remained clear to the end. When he finally was in the wheelchair, he fell out often because he tried to get up and walk.  And helping to feed him frequently led to him pushing away your hand at first because he wanted to do it himself… but couldn’t. But he would always smile and you knew he meant no harm by it.  He just wanted to be independent and it hurt him that he could not be that way any longer.

As I reflected on him and his life over this past weekend, as family and friends attended the service to celebrate his life, it became clear to me that there are things that we need to do in our own home with our own children to try and replicate the impact that he had on his own children…and on his son-in-law.  If you don’t mind, I would like to share some of those “lessons” with you:

  1. Recognize the power of the people in our lives. There are people in our families, in our workplaces, in our neighborhoods, in our past and in our present that can and will have an impact on us. We always say that the “relationships” at Flint Hill make our school special.  Relationships are key at home as well. As parents, we are part of that “core of influences” on our own children. At the same time, our children will have other people who will have influences on them. Whether they are teachers, coaches, people at church or people who ultimately they will get to know in their future, we need to respect the impact that others will have on them and on us. There is no way to predict what that impact will be, but we need to know that all of our lives will be touched by others and that we will touch the lives of those around us. Some times it will happen in very visible ways, but sometimes it occurs in ways that we don’t even fully appreciate at first. Who would have thought years ago that my father-in-law would become one of my real role models? Not me.
  2. Courage is real. There is courage in life’s struggles. Courage is demanded in facing the aging process, and courage is needed in every decision we make. We need to appreciate how real that trait is, and we need to encourage it in our children and recognize it in ourselves. My father-in-law’s lessons on this were by quiet example. I asked occasionally, “How did you survive underground during the war? How did you have the courage to survive in the concentration camp? How did you make the decision to go back to college as an adult?” He would smile and just shrugged his shoulder and say, “I had to.” He had the courage to do what he had to do. We have that same courage in us… and so do our children. We just have to recognize that it is there.
  3. Life comes in chapters like in a book. If we look back over at our own lives, there are moments that are very distinct. Whether it is our childhood, our teenage years, the secondary school we attended, our college years, the career path, the people we dated, the people we married and having our children, the people we have met, the cities we have lived in, and the list can go on and on. Each one of those chapters are stages in our lives.

The phases in our lives are powerful influences in creating who we are today and who we will be in the future. We need to recognize that each chapter is significant in our lives and in the lives of our children. Some of the “chapters” are easy to remember and were fun to experience. But some can be very painful and difficult. They bring us little joy but are significant in what they have taught us about others and often, about ourselves. For our own children, we need to recognize that we will play a huge role in some of their chapters and not even be present in others. But as good parents, if we set the right foundation, our quiet influence and the values we teach them will be there throughout all of them. The ability to withstand the “bad moments,” and to be resilient will be the product of our influence and example.

In turn, we need to share our “chapter” with our children. Not so much as a “In my day we walked 10 miles in the snow…” But when appropriate we should let them get to know us. Why did we go to the colleges we went to; why did we pick the career we picked; and where did we face tough decisions or danger. We should humbly share with them occasions when we succeeded on our own merits, or by sheer persistence, or by just plain luck. They deserve to know, in time, about where we have stumbled and how we learned incredible lessons. Such quiet and subtle discussions will help our children develop a perspective on us and a better understanding of how to look ahead in their own lives.

Emily’s father eventually, at our urging, wrote a book for his family to share what his youth had been like in Holland, what had happened to him during the war, and how they had arrived in the United States. His opening sentence was: “One of the things that I regret most now that I am getting older, is the fact that I know so little about the life my parents lived before I was born and how the world looked to them in their youth.” He did not want us to have that regret.

Let’s not have those regrets, either. That does not mean sitting down at the dinner table tonight and telling everyone your life story.  But do it through conversations and stories. And if possible still, let’s make certain that you have learned the story of your parents, so you can encourage them to share it with their grandchildren. They would love to be asked and you may be surprised with what you will learn. A song by Reba McEntire, “The Greatest Man I Never Knew,” always reminded me of the need to share who we are with our kids.  Here is the link to the song.

As we look ahead, let’s value everyone around us and appreciate the potential impact that we all can have on each other. How does that quote go?  “To be the world you may be just one person but to one person you may be the world.” Emily’s Dad was the world to us. We celebrate his life and are so glad we had the additional time we did have with him since our move to Virginia. Death is the end of a life but never the end of a relationship. Together, let’s continue building the relationships in our lives and especially at home since they will last an eternity.

Have a tremendous start to fall!! Keep an eye out for those people who will influence you…and your children.