25 Weeks of Rediscovery: Chapter 4 – I’m Sorry, What Did You Say?

Posted February 3, 2015 by jimhigley

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(This is the fifth week of  a six-month journey of self-discovery. Thanks for joining me. Today we begin with Chapter 4 from my book, “Bobblehead Dad: 25 Lessons I Forgot I Knew.”  I hope you’ll come back tomorrow for some background on this chapter as well a few thought questions for you to think about. Later this week, I’ll share a new story focusing on this week’s lesson. 

Chapter 4

I’m Sorry, What Did You Say?

The sun wasn’t shining when my mom died, so it must have been nighttime. My brothers and I were together in the hospital waiting room when my dad told us she was gone. We were never a family of huggers. But we learned how to hug that night. That was also the first time I saw my father cry. He was speechless—and could only focus on the logistics of getting his five boys home safely.

I ended up alone in the car my dad drove back to our house. A traffic jam of questions was lodged in my throat, honking to escape. But nothing came out. I just sat in the silence of the front seat watching headlights passing on the left side.

Once home, I escaped to my bedroom, behind a closed door. I knew the lights would never go off that night and resigned myself to spending the next several hours under the protective shield of oversized headphones listening to an Olivia Newton-John album over and over again.

The next morning our house was stuffed with people. Everywhere. My mom’s kitchen was taken over by her closest friends, who were scurrying around opening cupboards and laying out trays of food, which made our kitchen look like the backdrop for a bake sale. Random people were using the kitchen phone. My mom’s phone. She loved it because it was red. She doodled on the pad of paper next to it. But people weren’t doodling on it that day.

The entire scene wasn’t right. In fact, it was hauntingly wrong. And I couldn’t stay there.

I found refuge on our front porch. I was hoping one of my friends might show up and rescue me from the happenings inside our house. That friend never came. But the high school’s biology teacher did. “Coach A,” as all the kids called him, had coached my brother Mick a few years earlier in both track and cross country. He only knew me as the little brother standing with my dad. But he and Mick were close, so I wasn’t surprised to see him show up at our house that morning.

I looked up at Coach A as he walked up to the porch.

“Mick’s inside,” I said, looking back down at my shoes.

But Coach A didn’t go inside. Instead, he sat down next to me on the front steps. He said nothing. He just patiently gazed straight ahead with me, looking past our front yard and into the emptiness beyond.

“Your mom taught you a lot,” he eventually said, penetrating our silent dialogue. “Ya gotta keep those lessons alive.” I nodded.

“Don’t ever forget that, OK?” he ended.

I nodded again. I heard what he was saying, but I had no clue what he meant. My mom was just my mom. What was I supposed to keep alive?


As word of my diagnosis spread through the various circles in my life, I had countless conversations with friends, relatives, and coworkers. These were caring conversations. Reassuring conversations. Conversations focused on this general belief that everything would be OK. It seemed, somehow, that everyone had magical powers with which to see into the future. And what they saw was always good.

“I know you’ll be fine,” they repeated constantly.

While I appreciated the sentiment and optimism, I found that comment funny. In many ways, I felt as if people were trying to gain my reassurance, which I found hard to give convincingly.

I’m candid. I’m blunt. And while I certainly wanted to have a positive attitude, I was also realistic. I knew this story could play out in many ways. After all, our family batting average was terrible.

Two of the conversations during those early days, however, were truly stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks-and-shake-you-by-your-shirt-collar moments.

The first, and most powerful one, was with a casual friend named Karen. I had known her tangentially for several years because she was a friend of some of my good friends. But our paths rarely crossed. She was about my age. Petite. A glowing, energetic person. I knew she had had her own issues with cancer a few years earlier, but that was the extent of what I knew. She was simply Karen—my friend’s, fun, spirited friend who had had breast cancer. Little did I know she would become one of the most influential people in the story of my life.

Her first contact with me arrived as a voice mail. “Jim, it’s Karen, Sarah’s friend. I’m so sorry to hear what you’re going through. Listen, I know you’re buried, but I really want to talk to you. I have something to tell you. It’s important. Could you call me when you have a few minutes? Thanks!” Click.

I was intrigued. I was curious. And I wanted to meet Karen immediately. So we did. The very next day.

Karen’s talk was the most motivating, uplifting conversation ever. Not just during that period in my life. I mean ever. We didn’t talk about her own experiences through surgeries and recovery. We didn’t talk about the beating her body had to endure through her treatment. We didn’t talk about being afraid. Karen had only one thing to teach me.

“Jim, you are going to receive the most amazing gift as you go through this,” she promised.

I took mental notes as she shared with me the extraordinary gift she ultimately received as the result of her journey.

It was like a moment from the Kung Fu television series I used to watch as a child. There was always a scene when the little boy would sit in front of old Master Po, who would say, “When you can take the pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to leave.”

I wanted the pebble Karen was holding.

“You may not even realize it at the time, Jim,” she said, “but if your mind and heart are open, I promise you will come out of this with a gift that will change your life.

Your gift will be yours and yours alone. And you will never be the same. Regardless of what happens with your cancer.”

She also gave me a notebook.

“Write, Jim,” she said. “Take time to write.”

For the first time in days I was excited. Karen framed my life in a way no one else could. Not only was I filled with her energy but I was also beginning to experience a new taste of my own.

Karen came to teach me a lesson. And I listened.

There was a gift out there with my name on it.

Lesson 4: Welcome good advice with action.

Want more?  Read last week’s posts including Chapter 3, the lessons we teach our kids, and some thoughts on dealing with stress.  And come back tomorrow for thought questions about today’s post.