I am doing something I have never done on 4Walls and AView since I started it two years ago. Today, a friend of mine will be guest posting here on 4Walls and AView. You might be familiar with Ted already because I reviewed his book, The Eagle has Crashed, on my blog a little while ago.
What you don’t know is that his mother lived, for a period, with illness and she did so with determination and courage. Her story is one that I felt would be a perfect addition to my blog. In addition, her story is a reminder that the smallest thing, done with intent, can make all the difference in our day (especially when sick) and in the lives of those we come into contact with daily.
I’ve been friends with Dominique for a while now, and she runs one of the most uplifting blogs I have found. I generally write about politics, law, and economics, and when I get depressed (there’s not much good news in those fields these days), I come to 4 Walls and a View for a little perspective.
We had an exchange on Facebook recently, and I relayed a story that Dominique really liked. I offered to tell it here because it is an important one to me personally, and the subject matter is more appropriate here than at my site, The Country Thinker.
I grew up in Sylvania, Ohio, which is an upper-middle class suburb of Toledo along the Michigan border. I remember a day as a child—I was probably 5 or 6—when I went with my mother to Churchill’s, a locally owned grocery store started by former Army General Walt Churchill; one of those embarrassingly antiquated fellows who saw no problem with restricting cashiers to females and meat department employees to males.
Anyhow, my mother was having a lousy day. I don’t remember now what had made it so lousy; I just remember that it was. Indeed, the fact that we had to make a journey to Churchill’s was one of the reasons her day was going poor. Think: “Damn I’m out of X and Y and Z.”
Even though I’ve been a “push-the-boundaries” kid from the moment sperm met egg, and my mother was a sweetheart who wasn’t a particularly onerous disciplinarian, this was a day when I knew I had to sit in the back seat and keep my mouth shut. She hadn’t yelled at me, but her frazzled hair and frantic darting about the house alerted my survival instincts to lay low.
But the most amazing thing happened. We went into the store and headed to the produce department, where mom knew the names of all the workers. (She was a custom-order gal, and I never knew if they enjoyed tracking down unusual fruits and vegetables or if they found it annoying.)
Anyhow, my mother greeted the produce guys with a great big smile, and a friendly greeting. They returned the greeting with smiles. Then we moved on to the meat department, and it was the same thing. The guy loading milk jugs into the cooler, too. And the cashiers. And Mrs. Johnson who lived down the street.
It was an astonishing transformation. My mother had gone from the brink of a teary breakdown to the sun-shiniest person in the world in a matter of seconds. And you could tell by the looks on everyone’s faces that her smile had made their days a little better.
By the time we got back to the car the smile went away, but she didn’t look nearly as bad as she had when we arrived. So I nervously asked her why she was so nice to everyone when she was having such a lousy day.
Her response is burned into my memory:
“The most important thing you can do is smile. It’s not their fault I’m having a bad day.”
And it was clear that her pleasant demeanor had had a positive effect on everyone she had encountered in the store. But not only that, it had lifted her spirits as well, and the ride home was much more comfortable than the ride there. Smiling is good medicine that heals more than one person at a time.
I’ve practiced that philosophy ever since. When I worked at a major law firm in Miami, I was one of the most popular attorneys with the office staff. Where many attorneys felt entitled to drag the world down into whatever emotional cesspool they might be residing, I greeted everyone from the most prestigious partner to the janitor with a smile and respect. As a result, the smiles and respect were (mostly) returned, which made me feel better, too; not an unimportant thing when dealing with the stresses of high stakes commercial litigation. The smiling made me feel a little better, and without it I think I would have gone insane (many lawyers are, but don’t realize it).
There is one side effect to the smile drug, however. Others often don’t realize when you are struggling. I remember going into the office of a dear friend and co-worker, Allison. I closed the door and nearly broke down. I described to her exactly how much I hated the practice of law, and how much of an emotional toll it was taking. (If you’re driving to work and find yourself wishing you could trade places with the person getting loaded into an ambulance after an accident, you know your emotional state is in bad shape.)
Allison was flabbergasted, because by outward appearances I was the happiest attorney practicing in the state of Florida. (She was in an extremely stressful practice group—mergers and acquisitions, aka “M&A”—and I’m guessing I had the only smile she saw on many days. She did not last long at the firm.)
From that day forward Allison’s office became a safe haven for me to close the door and vent, for which I am eternally grateful. I eventually established a couple of other “safe havens” with other attorneys, but to this day I suspect that few realized how happy I was to leave the office on my final day with the firm. And I’m okay with that.
Getting back to my mother, when she was diagnosed with advanced cancer in the summer of 2005 (a month before the bar exam; I’m still amazed I passed), she fought the disease with determination, and—you guessed it—a great, big smile. She never felt embarrassed about her illness, nor did she complain. (When I say advanced, I mean “advanced.” Her back pain turned out to be from tumors that were breaking apart her vertebrae and pressing them against the spinal cord.)
Not even cancer and other health issues could wipe the smile off Ann Lacksonen’s face!
Did cancer treatments activate a wicked case of celiac disease? No problem! Go to celiac-friendly Outback Steakhouse and ordered shrimp—with a smile, of course! Decide for reconstructive back surgery because you refuse to be confined to a wheelchair? No problem! Get the surgery, and smile to the nurse, the orderly, the doctor, and everyone else. (I witnessed both.)
She and my father fought the disease for two years, and they became the greatest heroes of my life. There were times you would almost think having cancer was fun. For example, my mother liked to listen to Jimmy Buffett during radiation treatments, and my father jokingly called himself “Head Nurse Big L” (Big L is his nickname). While I’m sure there were plenty of times when she wasn’t smiling, as soon as she came into contact with others, including me, out came the smile. No need to share her pain.
She finally succumbed to cancer in July of 2007, and her doctor later confessed that he secretly called her his “miracle patient” because he thought it was a miracle that she made it past six months. She quadrupled that time, and I have little doubt that smiling was the medicine that enabled her to live so long.
So, at her memorial service, everyone agreed that we had to have a “fun” service to do justice to her memory. For example, one friend who played with her in the bell choir told the story of the time a bell slipped out my mother’s hand and went tumbling down the carpeted steps of the altar during the service. I used my son and niece (both 4 months at the time) as props, and told everyone about her love for babies. It’s hard to believe, but the service actually was fun, in a way, as everyone shared their best Ann Lacksonen stories. And all the smiling helped the healing process get off to a good start.
So that’s my story, and I hope you found it uplifting. My mother was (is) an inspiration, and I am passing on her lesson to my son. He turns five next week, and he’s already developed a firm handshake, and looks adults in the eye when he greets them. He may not remember his grandmother, but I’m trying to make him as much like her as possible (although I hope he’s better at math than she was).
But, he will certainly learn the lesson:
Smile. It’s the most important thing you can do.
Okay, I need to go get some tissues. I hope Ted’s post lifted your spirit and touched your heart as much as it did mine.
determined to continue forward,