I believe in the gifts of life.
My then-six-year-old son was having a tough time grasping why I didn’t want, really, any presents or – gasp! – even CAKE for my upcoming birthday. He had this incredulous, narrow-eyed, head slowly turning to one-side look saying “Daddy’s losing it.” So I got down on one knee and put one hand on his chest and the other on his sturdy back, and looked into his dinner-plate sized blue eyes that reassure me he’ll never have trouble finding dates, and told him,
“Every day I get to wake up with you and your mother, I get to open the biggest, greatest present you can possibly imagine. Every single day.” I hope the smile that grew across his face indicated understanding in his young mind.
I believe in the gifts in life that we are presented each day but may not take time to seek or recognize.
I believe in the gifts of my family and the gifts of my wife of more than 15 years, Lana (“lay-na”). She truly is the wind beneath my wings and has made me a better person. She teases me that the VH1 retro shows I like are nothing but “orange and yellow paisleys and the ‘Diff’rent Strokes’ kids getting into trouble.” In turn, I note that she still talks baby talk to our dog yet she won’t let me kiss her after the dog licks my face.
I believe in the gifts of my son. After spending a day at the local hands-on museum, I asked him if he had a favorite thing. His answer, “Spending it with you, Dad,” still makes me choke up to this day. One time, I took him with me to a car dealership to have some routine maintenance done to my wheels. We took games and coloring books, and colored pictures together. The point of one of the crayons got short. I showed him how to tear off the paper to keep the crayon working. “You GO, Daddy,” he said.
I believe in the gifts of friendship. As a freshman at Illinois State University in the fall of 1980, a dorm mate and I were visiting a couple of young ladies in their dorm rooms. One of them had on her bulletin board a greeting card on which was written, “A good friend is a gift from God.” It’s stuck with me all these years. I believe in the gifts of friends my own age and peer group who are like brothers and sisters; my high school classmates, many of whom were different ethnicities, are like family to me. I believe in the gifts of people older than me, who become surrogate parents, uncles and aunts. I believe there can be no greater gift that to share laughter with other people.
I believe in the gifts of my father. He was not a perfect man but somehow, the fact he was my father made him so. As a child, I never felt safer than when I grasped the hand of this handsome, self-educated man who looked good in suits and always wore a hat. He was a master at getting the most fun and education value for the least amount of money. So growing up in Chicago, we frequented firehouses, railroad stations, airports, harbors and the city’s world-class museums. You could say I grew to love the City of the Big Shoulders while often riding atop his.
I believe in the gifts of Christmas, the best of which sometimes don’t come in wrapped packages. I spent Christmas day 1984 with my father. He lived out near South Bend, Indiana, by then, where he hoped the world would leave him alone. We drove around the University of Notre Dame in the bright winter sunshine, around its legendary football stadium and past the golden dome and its statue of Mary, Our Lady. That was followed by a fine buffet lunch. As night fell, he returned me to the train station. From the train’s window, as it lurched forward, I saw him standing there and fade into the cold and into the dark. I never thought it would be the last time I would see him alive. But it was. And when he died before Thanksgiving 2001 at age 81, I learned one of the most unspoken, difficult painful lessons of life: that it is the duty of loving and dutiful children to close out the life of a deceased parent.
I believe in the gifts of my career: I’ve been a newspaper writer for 20 years. It’s been rewarding and humbling. It never lets me forget what’s important. I’ve learned a lot of important life lessons and fortunately, few of them the hard way. One of the most valuable came from a county supervisor of assessments, Angelo Alessandrini. He had a stroke in 1987. As he recovered, he came into my newsroom one day. I walked up to the front to say hello and see how he was doing. He greeted me with a huge grin that told me he was going to be all right. And then he got serious. Out came a finger to wag. “Fred, I look for your name in the paper because if it’s there, then I know it’s fair and it’s the truth. Instantaneously, I felt 10 feet tall but also scared to death, like “OhMyGosh, he takes what I do seriously. I better not do anything to screw it up.” I’ve never forgotten the lessons of that day, and thankfully, he wasn’t the last reader to say those things to me. I believe what former Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Green wrote in 1992, that “Journalists are just goofballs who write stuff. It’s when they think they’re something more that they get into trouble.”
I believe that life is good but it is hard sometimes. And that the difficulties we sometimes must face, through no fault of our own, allow us to savor the good times that follow, and understand what “good” is and what a gift that understanding is. One of my favorite movie lines is Charlie Sheen’s soliloquy at the end of Platoon, as his character is helicoptered out of a battleground, with death and destruction splayed out below him: The end goes: “But be that as it may, those of us who did make it have an obligation to teach others what we know and to try with what’s left of our lives to find a goodness and meaning to this life.” By following this can we find and enjoy the gifts of life that surround us.
This I believe.
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