Sunday, May 22, 2011

This week's Pep Talk: "Commencement Exercises"

This time of year parents, grandparents or those closely connected with high school or college students attend graduation ceremonies and parties. It’s a festive moment in life designed to celebrate the student’s achievement of a worthy goal.

I have always found it somewhat interesting that even before accepting the well-earned diploma, deserved students and their guests experience “commencement exercises.” The studies are complete, the hard work rewarded, yet before receiving the “sheep skin” - are diplomas really made of sheep skin? - there is commencement, defined as “a beginning.”

Commencement speakers encourage the gathered to courageously venture beyond present boundaries limited only by imagination, not fear, in leaving a healthy and productive mark on our world – home, work and elsewhere.

The ink isn’t even dry on the diploma and students are being called to commence, to begin, another. It’s what life is all about, right? Aren’t we all, constantly called to “commence” a new journey? Quite often, unlike the joy and optimism abounding from a person’s graduation from high school or college, we are called to commence despite dark and foreboding moments: death of a loved one, divorce, illness, job loss, to name just a few. Whether we like it or not, life, and its unexpected and unwanted twists and turns, is constantly calling us to journey toward a new frontier.

It makes me think of Thelissa Zollinger. For the second straight year, I had the joy of hosting her creation, The Gift of Life and Breath 5K. A record crowd of more than 1,000 gathered on the University of Colorado/Anschutz Medical Campus grounds for the run/walk dedicated to raising money to fund research for a reliable early-detection test for lung cancer. As we stood on a raised platform preparing to start the race, the mother of six and grandmother of even more, looked down on this adoring crowd and proclaimed, “It’s because of great folks like you that we have hope!”

Four years ago, Thelissa was challenged to commence a new journey after husband Gary lost a battle with lung cancer. She has made it a life mission to discover a reliable early detection test for lung cancer. We’re getting close! This amazing woman is transforming her pain into promise for others. What about us? We too are frequently demanded to begin a new chapter, we are called despite the injustices life tosses our way, to begin anew. The question becomes, what will our commencement exercises look like?

Let’s encourage one another to be students, not victims of experiences; to realize we’re not alone in our struggles; to understand the importance of connecting with others who share similar challenges and finally, to encourage one another to move forward in ways honoring, nurturing and adding value to the communities we serve.

Those commencement exercises, at any time of life, give us a chance to graduate at the top of our class.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

This week's Pep Talk: "Others Before Self"

The glasses were raised in tribute to a special person. The quartet’s youngest spoke first as the fourteen-year-old volleyball standout proclaimed: “Grandpa was such a good guy. He always made you feel so special.” The oldest member of the group dining at Elway’s/Cherry Creek on a Saturday night couldn’t hold back the tears in saluting a man and father, who died of lung cancer May 12, 2007.

As my daughter continued to speak of her Grandpa to the attentive crowd that included darling girlfriend and a dear family friend - I was the thorn among three roses - my mind wandered to Marvin Walter McIntosh Jr.’s final hours on this planet.

Those hours were spent in loving care at a Kansas City, Missouri hospice facility. The McIntosh children – four of us - had been summoned once it was apparent the end was near. I rushed to catch a plane from Denver to my hometown and arrived a tad later than desired: The 76-year-old gem of a guy had already slipped into unconsciousness. We had spoken many times on the phone in the days leading up to this moment so it wasn’t like there was anything left to be said. We were good to go as he prepared for what lies beyond physically failing to proceed. For the former sales executive, I would suspect it involves much golf on heaven’s finest courses - he’s deserved for sure.

It was then my turn to salute the mentor who played a huge role in teaching me to face adversity head on and never give up; the guy who, because of the example he showed in overcoming great obstacles throughout life, showed me the way to turn life’s lemons - the heck with lemonade - into sweet and savory margaritas. He was an excellent mentor.

With tears streaming down my cheeks, I offered as a toast: “I’ll never forget, in those final hours, how Dad refused to die on May 11. There was no way he was going to pass on Matt’s - my younger brother - birthday.”

It has always stuck with me since that moment four years ago. We all were with him for those final hours, singing songs to him and embracing his barely responsive body. We knew life was fading fast but, in his final act before departing, a father once again demonstrated, as he did many times, to his children the value of thinking of others before self.

There’s no way, obviously, to confirm this observation, but I believe it’s the truth. It’s just the way he lived his life, thinking of others first. A father, mentor and friend, four years departed yet forever alive in spirit. He showed, until his final breath, the importance of others before self. I hope it makes him smile to know a son is trying like heck to emulate, and encouraging others to do the same, his example - home, work and elsewhere.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

This week's Pep Talk: "Make Mom Smile"

I have always marveled at life growing inside a woman. The expanding belly, the late-stage waddle, the pain, then boom! – a child is born. I can only imagine what it must be like. April 13, 1958, December 23, 1989 and January 19, 1997. The months, days and years when I was present to witness mom, former wife #1 and former wife #2 give birth to your humble correspondent, a son and daughter respectively. Thank you, to each, for giving me life and lives I would sacrifice mine for.

America began officially celebrating Mother’s Day about a century ago. However, the call to recognize women began much earlier. Many credit Julie Ward Howe, writer of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, with planting the seeds. In 1870, dismayed by the carnage of our country’s Civil War, the New York City native wrote the Mother’s Day Proclamation. She was a trumpeter sounding a clear call for women to realize their potential to shape society at the political level.

A woman taking charge when somebody needs to step up and say, “What the heck is going on here?” Moms, you’re really good at that, bless you! It makes me think of Thelissa Zollinger. The mother of six was rocked to the core in 2004 when husband Gary was diagnosed, despite never smoking, with stage-four lung cancer. The energy executive courageously battled for life, enduring standard treatments and an experimental double-lung transplant procedure. It was a brave but, tragically, futile fight that ended in 2007.

Half a dozen beautiful children no longer had the physical presence of their father. It inspired a mother to tap into unimagined skills, talents and strengths to raise money for research to develop a reliable, early detection test for lung cancer. Luckily, we have early detection tests for breast, colon and prostate cancers, but not lung. This, despite, at least in Colorado, many more people die annually from lung cancer than the others.

Each year Thelissa, in conjunction with the AMC Cancer Fund, hosts The Gift of Life and Breath, It’s a commemorative moment happening again this year May 21st. We are going to run, walk and raise money. Thelissa is determined not to allow Gary’s death to be in vain. “We’re making progress,” the vibrant grandmother of seven announced recently. “Last year’s event raised enough money to fund a year of lab research, we’re getting closer!” From across the conference room table the darling woman’s blazing eyes permeated my soul as she proclaimed, “I have hope.”

Hope is a good thing to possess, right? Defined as “expectation or desire for certain events to happen”, hope, like time in a mother’s womb, fuels our existence. As we celebrate those who gave us life, or nurtured it along the way, perhaps the greatest gift is not flowers, chocolate, jewelry or gift certificates. Perhaps the greatest gift we could offer is, despite the challenges present, a promise: we’ll never lose expectation or desire to live in ways that honor, nurture and add value to self, others and communities we serve.

I would suspect that would make most moms smile on their special day.
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