We often let go of the notion of thanking others when too much time passes. That’s why it’s probably best to say it before we forget. But when life gets in the way, and months, or even years pass – don’t underestimate the power of a belated “thank you”! I sent one to Martha Williamson, Producer of “Touched by an Angel” years after she “touched” me in an unexpected way.
I don’t remember which year you spoke in Orlando at the National Speaker’s convention, but I’ll never forget how you made me feel. As a member of the association, I’ve shared a story with folks, but never took the time to give you the thanks you deserve. So if you’ll indulge me for a few minutes…
When I signed up for that convention in Orlando, I tried to be invisible. I wasn’t a professional speaker yet, but that was always my big dream. Yet sitting there surrounded by successful speakers, I was fully aware of my shortcomings. A poster child for Low-Self-Esteem, I chose to sit alone in that ballroom when you were introduced to the 2,000 of us in attendance.
Constantly running late and ill prepared, I never checked the brochure and therefore had no idea who our opening keynote was that morning. So when the MC mentioned “…producer of Touched by an Angel…” goose bumps covered me and I sat up higher in my seat. See, I had seen all 211 episodes and their reruns, and had to clarify to my son, “these are happy tears” as he watched me cry week after week (eventually he understood the difference between sadness and inspiration).
You were elegant on the NSA stage with your dark hair pulled back – a striking contrast against your lovely white suit. And I swore your warm smile was directed right at me even though I was nowhere near the front of the room.
You told us how you had ditched your prepared speech the previous night and rewrote an impromptu version in the wee-hours. I began to feel a connection. But it was when you shared what happened to you on Bud Paxson’s small plane, that I hung on your every word. You described being overweight and traveling with Bud, Gerald McRaney and the pilot from city to city…how you retreated to the bedroom on the plane, then hit unexpected turbulence that landed you back out in the plane’s cabin, rolling around stark naked. That’s when I lost it completely and sobbed! I’ll explain…
I always wanted to be like Carol Burnett and make people laugh. As I got older and overcame some very difficult obstacles, I wanted to inspire. But having failed at so many things, I couldn’t imagine inspiring anyone. So many skeletons in the closet and some that seemed to trap me in there with them.
In the early 1990’s, I learned about the Sunshine Foundation, a non-profit that grants “dream come true” experiences to chronically and terminally ill children. The organization had touched my heart when they threw a party for my niece Katie, who had leukemia. When Katie died, I decided to open a chapter in her memory. It was the holiday season. To gain momentum and exposure to my chapter, I went to the school district and asked them to provide the names of a few families who were struggling financially. They gave me five names.
Each of the five families had some hardship that was casting a shadow on their holiday so I prepared to “fix everything”. It was easier to focus on others than on myself. I was 70 pounds overweight and in a troubled marriage so avoiding my issues and fixing others was my M.O. So I went to work on “fixing” these families by getting local sponsors to provide the perfect holiday.
My local K-mart donated various clothes and toys to the children of these five families. Sears Surplus did the same and threw in Christmas decorations, wrapping paper and ribbons. Acme donated five turkeys and all the trimmings so each family could have a Christmas dinner. They also gave me five huge cardboard boxes so I could separate the goods for each family.
On Christmas Eve, I felt like Santa Claus. I delivered one big box at a time to each family. The first delivery was to a family living in a decaying motel after the bank had taken their home. The second was to a tiny one-bedroom apartment occupied by a family of six. Each family was so appreciative and I was elated. I continued the deliveries until there was just one box left. Driving home to pick up that last box I ran over some object that flattened my tire as I was pulling in the driveway. I couldn’t make the last delivery. My husband (now ex) was not in the giving mood and therefore rejected my appeal for help. The only hope I had was that the last family could somehow come to me.
I dialed the number on my list and apologized to the young woman who answered. Her name was Wendy and she was very understanding and agreed to drive to my house after dinner to pick up the box. I learned that her husband had been in jail and would be for a few years, leaving her to raise a 2-year-old daughter and a 9-month-old son alone. I felt bad making her coming out on a freezing cold Christmas Eve, but I had no choice.
Hours later, an old beat-up station wagon pulled up on the street in front of my house. Wendy rang the doorbell but wouldn’t accept my invitation to come in as the children were sleeping in the car, which she left running. So I told her I’d be right out and went into the kitchen to pack the refrigerated food into the box along side of the toys, clothes, decorations, etc. I pulled on my coat and gloves and lugged the last of the heavy boxes out the front door.
Wendy was no longer standing near the door. Through the dark I made out her silhouette about ten steps away from her station wagon. I assumed she stood there to keep an eye on her kids. I picked up the pace since the box was getting heavy and awkward in my arms and in typical-me-style, I gabbed incessantly about the cold as I walked in the direction of the exhaust coming out of the her car. With all my chattering, I didn’t hear Wendy’s urgent attempt to stop me. It was too late – I tripped and fell face first on the ground, box flying out of my arms and items landing everywhere.
There was no need to figure out what had tripped me – the terrifying screams revealed that answer. I had tripped over…and basically crushed…Wendy’s 2-year-old daughter! How could I have known she was there?? I didn’t realize she’d woken up in the short time I was getting stuff together in the house. I didn’t realize she’d gotten out of the car to stand near her mom! “I’m SOOOO sorry!” I chanted over and over, but my pleas for forgiveness were muffled by the wailing of a shocked and injured child, and the frantic cries of the young mother. The commotion startled the buckled-in, 9-month-old, who woke up and immediately joined the vociferous chorus.
As Wendy attempted to calm both babies before hightailing it to the hospital, I crawled around the frozen ground, and felt around for a few items that had been tossed from the box and I shoved them back in. She barely waited for me to put the box in the back of the car before pulling away. I asked to go with her, but she didn’t even hear me…
I paced the floor all evening wondering what was happening. What shape was the little girl in? How much damage did I do? I looked disgustedly at the fat body in the mirror and criticized her for her size, her stupidity and her clumsiness and then returned to pacing the floors. I sweated it out, waiting and praying that Wendy would call me and let me know everything was fine. But the phone didn’t ring.
My own thoughts were traumatizing enough without my husband having to chime in, “This is what happens when you meddle in other people’s lives! Why do always have to get involved? What are you going to do when she sues us? Do you know what this will do to our insurance rates?”
As we played ‘Santa Claus’ putting gifts under our tree for the three kids upstairs in their beds (two were his and the youngest was ours), he reminded me at least 8 times throughout the evening that our kids suffer because of my constant need to save the world. And because of me, his Christmas was ruined!
The next day, I could think of nothing but the little girl. I finally gave in and called the hospital. In those days, there weren’t the strict privacy rules in place like today. Either that or I was just lucky enough to get a nurse who was sympathetic to my emotions. She divulged that “Jacqueline” (the 2-year-old) suffered a broken leg and was put into a cast and sent home within a few hours of arriving the night before. I broke her leg?! She consoled me by telling me that at 2 years of age, bones aren’t fully developed so they are still pliable. Therefore, Jacqueline’s leg while badly sprained wasn’t actually broken, but it was treated as such.
Relieved to know the child was out of danger, I still couldn’t relax until I spoke to Wendy. More than anything, my husband couldn’t relax, worried about the pending law suit I’d caused us. I called Wendy’s house around noon that Christmas day. To my surprise, she was calm and pleasant and told me the kids were so happy with their new toys. She down played the whole traumatic incident, even if I couldn’t, and focused on the gratitude she had for the gifts and the food.
There was one thing left to do. I had to come clean with Sunshine Foundation and let them know what happened. But I had to wait 3 days until their office was open again. I was sure I would lose my chapter over this. Having used the foundation’s good name to do something that wasn’t even a core service? I’m sure that was unacceptable and possibly even law breaking! I had disgraced the organization and more importantly, I had disgraced my niece Katie.
Finally the day came and I had to face the music. I took the phone into the bathroom and retreated into the most healing place I know – the bathtub. Soaking in warm water, I dialed the Sunshine Foundation headquarters in Philadelphia and paged the executive director, Walt Wood. I told him the whole story – how I wanted to do something for the community and draw attention to the chapter – how I got sponsorship for five families – how I delivered Christmas packages to each family… Walt interrupted me to commend my efforts.
“No Walt,” I cut to the chase, “Something bad happened.” I told him how I tripped over Jacqueline sending her to the ER on Christmas Eve.
He was still on the line and probably processing what I had just shared. I cringed waiting for the fallout. Waiting to be reprimanded for breaking the rules, for being stupid. Suddenly, a thunderous laughter roared in my ear. A deep hearty laugh that wouldn’t stop, as if he’d just heard a humorous anecdote. Oh God, he must have thought I was joking about this! I had to let him know I was serious so I called out his name over the raucous he made, “Walt? Please, Walt!!!”
He attempted to compose himself and said in the kindest voice, “Lynette. I believe you. I am so sorry you went through this! I have a feeling you are hurt far worse than that little girl!” He burst out laughing again. “I’m sorry to laugh”, he said doing his best to be serious, “But it just occurred to me that you are the most dedicated, most enthusiastic volunteer we’ve ever had! You are the FIRST volunteer that has ever actually crippled a child in order to provide them with a dream come true experience!” His laughter was contagious and I found myself joining him and laughing for the first time in almost a week.
So Jacqueline was okay. Walt was okay. My chapter was okay (and went on to develop a board, raise funds and help several children through core services). But I wasn’t okay. I let that memory eventually own me. I couldn’t even succeed in doing something good for others. I was just a fat-lady that crushed toddlers.
I’m not going to say that that situation is what ended my marriage, took my home and most of my possessions away, or left my son and I fending for our selves through extremely hard times… But it was one of many situations that cast a destructive shadow on my self-esteem, and contributed to many years of depression.
But in life, we have no choice but to carry on. I stuffed my self-loathing deep inside and wore a fake smile. I relocated with my son and began to rebuild my life personally and professionally. I preached positivity as the key to success and I regained interest in a childhood dream of inspiring others. That led me to the National Speaker’s Convention in Orlando where I did my best to hide my defeatist attitude from the masses and hoped to God I would finally amount to something.
And to my surprise the producer of “Touched by an Angel” took the stage as well as a prominent place in my heart. She shared her successes, her obstacles and her vulnerabilities. She inspired me more than all 211 episodes put together. But more than anything, she freed me from my own prison and I’ve never been the same.
When the keynote ended and people were exiting to attend various breakouts, I stayed in my seat and allowed myself to cry out years and years of pain. Constantly running late and ill prepared, I hadn’t thought to pack tissues in my purse, so I wiped my tears with the back of my fingers. A woman walking up the exit aisle stopped when she saw me and maneuvered her way through the rows of stadium style seating and held out her tissues. “Are you okay?” she asked sympathetically. “Yes,” I smiled. “These are happy tears!”
Martha, since Orlando, I’ve built my speaking business and presented programs to hundreds of audiences. I served on the board of one of the National Speakers Association’s local chapters and I attended several of their conventions. Last year, the convention was in my city. At lunch one day, sitting with a bunch of new faces, the woman next to me asked me which convention was my favorite. “That’s easy,” I told her. “It was the one where the Angel set me free.”
Thank you so much!
*reposted from 12-6-13
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