Monday, November 8, 2010

Lessons from a funeral

I went to a funeral on Saturday. This might sound weird, but I actually like funerals. This particular man who's life was being celebrated and memorialized was an amazing person. As I listened and cried hearing all the special stories that made this guy who he was, I left with a number of lessons about life that I know was his legacy to us all.

I knew Joe as the father of one of my daughter's childhood friends, though I hadn't seen him for almost 14 years. Because my daughter had spent a good deal of time with this family I had visceral memories of this guy. He was funny, so sweet to his kids friends, coached his children's sports teams, was an inspirational physician, researcher, and medical school professor. I remember being struck at how he kept up with it all, no kvetching, no martyrdom, just had such a zest for life. Everyone loved him.

At the funeral, his 3 children, now all twenty-somethings, all spoke about the model he had provided to them about how to live life. Now 23, 27 and 30 these adults shared stories and anecdotes about who their dad was, and how the experience of having him as their dad had impacted and influenced who they are today. And may I say, all three kids are spectacular.

One of the most moving stories was shared by Joe's nephew, now a thirty-something with a child of his own. Apparently this nephew had lost his own dad as a young child, and Joe stepped up to the plate and became more than just his uncle, but a father figure. At the service this young man told two stories about how his uncle literally changed his life. Here is the first. As a 17 year old, this nephew and his mom lived in a house next to an investment property owned by Joe. Joe decided it was time to sell this property, and decided to entrust this teenager, this senior in high school, with the job of getting it sold. Together they did whatever work the house needed to get it ready for market, and then Joe turned it over to this young whippersnapper, promising that he would give him the same commission he would have given a realtor. This was no insignificant amount of money. Can you imagine, a 17 year old handling the sale of a house? Handle it he did, and the money he earned from that commission paid for a good deal of his college tuition for the next 4 years. Can you imagine how the unconditional belief that "I know you can handle this" played to a 17 year about to embark on the next stage of life? Risk is scary, but from risk there is growth.  I am a competent, responsible and motivated person, and I will get it done.

Story 2: This competent young man graduates from college, ready to tackle the investment world as a career. Uncle Joe, wanting to give him some experience says, here is one of my stock portfolios, I would like you to manage this for me. Imagine, this is a 22 year old kid, right out of college, with theoretical investment experience gained from textbook case studies, but any experience with real money...nope.
Apparently this was no small amount of cash, and the word Joe's nephew used to describe this amount was "consequential." Again this young man rose to the occasion, and managed this money with aplomb. Amazing!

Through halting speech, and quiet tears, this young man spoke of the all the gifts his uncle Joe had given him. Like Joe's kids, being shown the model of how to lead a meaningful, exciting and loving life was priceless, but more importantly, his uncle allowed him to take on the kinds of responsibilities that promote true growth and maturity. The kinds of things we don't think we can do, but when someone who cares about us says " you can do this and you will do this" can change who we think we are and who we think we can become forever.

As parents of teenagers, we often want to protect our kids from stress, and offer to "help" them out in order to reduce their loads. We want them to clean their rooms, take their dishes to the sink, do their laundry all in the name of teaching responsibility. But when it comes to the big stuff, we edit their papers, contact everyone we know to find them internships or summer jobs, download all the stuff they need to apply to colleges, and keep track on spread sheets of all the data and deadlines needed to complete their applications on a timely basis. I say forget teaching the responsibility of cleanliness and dish-washing, believe me they will figure that out on their own when there is no one else to do it, and instead give them the gift of "I believe in your competence " that Joe gave his nephew, and make it their job to rise to the occasion. " I can and I will find a summer job or an internship, or finish my college applications, or edit my papers, etc etc etc.

The second big lesson I think we all walked away with on Saturday is the power of modeling. Joe didn't lecture about taking on responsibility or taking on challenges and risks or finding new passions, he showed them not told them. The most important gift we give our children is the gift of our own life. If we spend to much time worrying about their life, and how they live it, than we forget about living our own life and the power of example. Our kids don't remember the lectures, they remember the memories of watching mom and dad work hard at a job or volunteering at the school fair, or helping out a family or friend or neighbor in need, or deciding to run a race for the first time and cheering mom on at the finish line. It is what we do not what we say that matters.

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