I stood at his bedside and could not say a word. Not one single word. I knew that if I attempted to speak I would break down and cry. It was all I could do just to remember to breathe. There were tubes interlaced all around his body and machines monitoring every possible vital sign. The room was cramped and hot with a glaring, sharp white light radiating off of the white stone walls and the white tiled floor. I was hardly brave enough to make eye contact with him, and when I did he reached out his hand. I grabbed hold of it and immediately my emotions became too strong to control. I hastily let go, scurried out of the room and burst into tears as I entered the hallway. My legs felt weak. I began to feel nauseous. I could not control my breathing. Shame pulsed through my entire being – I could not say one single word.
I did not understand death. I escaped the better part of my childhood without having to think about it. Of course, there was the odd funeral here and there, but funerals felt so formal and distant – superficial is an even better way to describe it. The people being honored were no more than acquaintances, and the bodies were spruced up almost beyond recognition. There was no emotional connection to these people.
Keeled over in the hallway of that hospital, though, gasping for air between tears, I learned what it meant to lose. I learned what the raw wound of a broken emotional connection felt like, and it was crushing.
This was the most powerful man I had ever known. When he spoke, others stopped speaking. They stopped and listened to his words because they knew the depths of his wisdom. He could address an entire auditorium full of people without a microphone and still be heard clearly outside of the doors. He walked with a confidence that emanated out of him like a bursting star.
He lived an honorable life on this Earth. He was married for almost 60 years before he died. He and his wife raised four children, each of whom are among the most successful people I know. He guided seven grandchildren in the same footprints. He impacted countless youths through both education and basketball. He was one of the most well-respected coaches of his time. He held a firm belief in a power greater than himself, and he lived his life in alignment with that belief.
If there was ever a man who had my back, it was him. There was a time as a young teenager that I was involved in the church. I had been selected to serve on a committee to choose a new youth pastor, and a special meeting had been called to vote upon whether or not the favorite candidate in the running would be hired. I was among the vast minority who did not believe that this particular candidate was the right man for the job. The feeling in the church was that this would be a quick and simple approval, and I was encouraged by my fellow committee members not to speak out against the majority. Initially, I agreed to this command. I was a shy and soft-spoken youth who was quite terrified of any sort of confrontation.
For some reason that I cannot quite explain, I felt the urge to speak up when the floor opened for discussion. I walked up to the microphone at the front of the church, and with a feeble and shaky voice, told the congregation that I did not believe our current candidate was the best man for the job. Upon rushing back to my seat my statements were quickly lambasted by several other members of the congregation. Already frightened and overwhelmed from standing up and speaking in the first place, this only made me feel even smaller and more insignificant – stupid, even.
It was but a matter of minutes until he stood up. As he stood up from his seat the crowd fell silent. There was a spark in his eye; you could tell something had just rubbed him the wrong way. He bellowed out to the congregation, “If my grandson says that this man is not the right man for the job, then I believe him. I stand with him. We can do better than this.” As he sat down he looked my way, we made eye contact, and he gave a small nod. A nod that said, “I’m with you.”
Isn’t that what we all long for in this life? Someone who will reach out to us, someone who will believe in us, someone who will stand with us when everyone else is throwing stones?
A man such as this is a rare occurrence, and I was fortunate enough to be graced by his wisdom for 19 years. His teachings continue posthumously. His death was the first time I ever experienced grief. Not only did I miss him, but I was haunted by the fact that I stood at his death bed and, after the profound influence he had on my life, I could not bring myself to say one single word to him as he reached out and grabbed hold of my hand. This made me feel weak.
The most intense grieving seemed to come and go in a relatively short amount of time, but the full release of this guilt took many years. In that time, I learned that one must experience weakness in order to understand true strength. No man is simply born a courageous leader.
I still struggle to raise my voice and speak my truth in difficult situations, but there have been key moments in my life when I have been able to do so because I have learned what the consequences of staying silent can be.
Before every single public presentation I give, I envision him walking up to the stage with confidence and speaking his message with authority and charisma. This pumps me up so that I go out and deliver my message with the same energy. I now tell myself that it is time to get into “Gus mode” before my presentations.
Whenever I start to compare myself to others, I remember the advice he gave me before an important golf meet: “Don’t worry about what the other guy is doing; you play your own game to the best of your ability. The rest will sort itself out.”
I have even been able to view death itself in a healthier frame of mind. I have more compassion for others who are experiencing grief and loss now because I know of the pain associated with it. Upon his death, I felt like he was lost from me forever, but as any physicist will tell you, energy is neither created nor destroyed – it simply changes forms. A simple walk through the forest confirms this: yesterday’s decomposing leaves are integrated into the mighty oak tree that rises tomorrow. His energy is a part of me, and I am a better man because of it.