(A Toastmasters International Contest speech. Third Place; District 23; 2010.)
It was a hot night in Texas. 1970.
My mother was driving our old family station wagon on dark, narrow, winding country roads at speeds approaching 100 mph! I was a child sitting in the front seat, holding our dog, just trying to hang on as the car lurched from side to side, bucking and lurching into the night. In the back seat my father lay there… dying.
Mom pulled into a gas station in Greenville, Texas. “Where’s the hospital? My husband is having a heart attack!” A stranger took the wheel and sped us to the hospital, running stop signs and traffic lights until my father reached up and slapped him on the shoulder: “Slow down! Slow down, damn it.” At the hospital, through the closed door of the emergency room, I could hear the machine they hooked up to him to beat his heart and fill his lungs. It went, “Pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-whooosh….”
Then all I heard was my momma screaming.
My father was 42 years old when he died that night.
Fellow Toastmasters, what do you have to live for? What reason is there for you get out of bed in the morning?
In the final years of his life, my father learned an important lesson. I’d like to share it with you today.
I wish you could have known my father! At his funeral people crowded around to tell me what a good man he was. And he was a good man… eventually. Goodness like that takes a lifetime to build up. When he was younger, now, that was something else.
He was a high-school dropout. Found himself in the army, in the Military Police, as the shortest–and I assume the toughest–MP in the service. Later he manhandled logging trucks in Alabama, plowed and picked cotton in Texas, and drilled for oil almost everywhere you could drill.
He was a hard drinking, hell raising kind of man. He loved a good story. Was known to raise his voice, and his fists, on more than one occasion. And so did my mother. She would stand up to him and have family “discussions” that would take the roof off the house. One of the greatest stories in Germany family lore was the night my father left my mother. It’s not what you think.
This happened before I was born. They were travelling at night to beat the heat of the day since they didn’t have air conditioning. They needed gas and pulled into a station in Monroe, LA. My dad, who was driving, went inside to pay for the gas. My mother was sleeping on the back seat, woke up and decided to go to the restroom.
He didn’t know she had left the car. It was dark. He didn’t bother to look in the back seat. He drove off and left her standing there while he disappeared into the night! To this day that seventy-seven-year old woman will tell you that if she had only had her purse that night, she would have left him for good. But she didn’t. They wound up calling the state police.
About an hour out of Monroe, my dad sees these flashing lights in his rear-view mirror. This wasn’t the first time he had been pulled over and it wouldn’t be the last. He was not happy. And it didn’t help that the trooper walking to the car was laughing his fool head off.
“What the bankety-blank you pulling me over for?” said my dad. “I was blankety speeding that blankety much! Blankety!” (That’s the G-rated version.)
The trooper leans down and looks into the empty back seat. “Well, sir,” he said. “I just thought I’d check to see if you were missing anything important. Like your wife?”
My father had to drive back into Monroe and pick up my mother. They “discussed” the situation for days. He wasn’t full of brotherly love that night, I can tell you!
My father had his first heart attack when he was thirty, just a few months after I was born. The doctor told him it was a bad heart attack. Very, very bad. Over the next 12 years he had multiple heart attacks, blood clots, all the things that happen when a man’s heart gives up before he does. Suddenly this man who had done anything he damn well pleased, this man who had made a living for him and his family on the strength of his back, this man… found that he couldn’t move a load from here to there without help.
Nothing gives meaning to life like a touch a mortality.
My father became a changed man. He went back to school and got his high school diploma. Wanted to set an example for that young boy of his. Quit drinking, for the most part. Got religion, taught Sunday School, offered his life as an example of all the bad things that could go wrong in a man’s life. And he developed an intense interest in the people around him.
That night he died in Texas… we were returning from Alabama. He had spent two weeks tracking down his relatives. It didn’t matter how far in the back woods they lived. We tracked them down. He had to look them in the eyes, clasp their hands and tell them how much they meant to him. How much he hoped they’d make something of their lives.
It was his farewell tour. He never made it back home.
This was the lesson my father learned at the end of his life. Put your hand in a bucket of water. Rip it out. The water will rush in and there will be no evidence you were ever there. But pluck a good man from the face of the earth and he leaves a void behind that takes years and years… years and years to overcome.
We are selfish creatures, you and I. We have been told at some point to live life for all its worth. That’s not a new message. But we tend to interpret that in terms of ourselves. My father learned to live life for all its worth, for those you will leave behind. I’m not just talking about family. Look around. My father learned that we are all in this together. That we were all living our own private versions of that Jimmie Stewart movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” My father learned that we are all threads in a common tapestry of life. Snip a single thread… and the whole pattern may become unraveled. We are counting on each other to be there.
So. When you leave here to day, live your life for all its worth. For those you leave behind. Live your life for all its worth. For all of us. We are counting on you. Live your life for all its worth. It’s the only way.