I have nearly 3,000 songs on my iPod, and the Little River Band’s Reminiscing shuffled into rotation today for the first time in over a year. It was oddly suspicious timing considering where I am on my life journey because music carries such strong memories for me.
Hearing this song took me back to my ninth grade Homecoming Dance in 1978, where I spent the evening dancing with a petite brunette, a seventh grader, I had taken as my date.
We had such crushes on each other and hung out together nearly every school day in the fall of that year. There were no real dates. No movies. Just talking at lunch and sometimes after school.
The innocence of the times made the Homecoming Dance a magical place for an awkward ninth grade boy and a girl at her junior high school dance. We danced all evening, doe-eyed and love-struck, sticking together on the song breaks while we drank punch.
Ten o’ clock came too quickly. The music stopped, and the dance was over. The dancers filed out of the gym and to the front of the school where everyone waited in line, while, one-by-one, parents pulled up to take their children home. My mom arrived in the family station wagon, and we climbed into the back seat. We held hands as we rode silently to her house. I caught mom glancing in the rear-view mirror from time to time.
We never kissed. I was too nervous.
The holiday break came soon after and we didn’t see each other for two weeks. When we returned to school, it just wasn’t the same. The Homecoming Dance became our only evening together, and this one song captured a memory of a moment in time better than any picture ever would.
I think memories are much better than pictures.
While over time our memories may fade, they become what we need them to be and not always a crystal-clear or true snapshot of what once happened. I sometimes believe this is better when it comes to matters of our heart. The reality of the truth is often too painful for us to relive. We need these softened memories to allow us to reminisce and dream about what could be again. Too much clarity prevents us from even trying.
Here’s to you, my dear friend, wherever you are. If you remember this one night so long ago, I hope you have good memories, too. I think of you every time I hear this song, and it reminds me of sweetness and innocence, now forever lost.
Reminiscing was originally written December 16, 2010.
© 2012, David L. Harkins
Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor, posed this question Tuesday via Twitter: Where was God in the Aurora Massacre? On the CNN Belief Blog, he added, “It’s a fresh take on an age-old question: Why does God allow suffering, natural disasters or – if you believe in it – evil?”
I saw the Tweet yesterday and got around to reading the blog this evening. The key responses ranged from it was God’s punishment, to God’s will, to the devil at work. There were a few other viewpoints in between. It was odd to read, and it troubles me that so many people abdicate their individual responsibility for humanity. I guess some people need a way to absolve mankind, or maybe themselves, from such actions in our world by placing the responsibility on some greater power.
In my opinion, the shootings in Aurora were simply a desperate act of a disturbed individual. Neither God nor the devil had anything to do with seventy people being shot and wounded, and twelve people dying. This is about a man and his actions.
The concept of free will—man, is free to make decisions that coexist with a higher power and is morally and ethically responsible for those decisions—is at the core of my beliefs. Others will most certainly disagree with me, but I cannot believe a higher power punishes, or even allows such horrific happenings. It would be difficult for me to believe in a God so vengeful—what parent wants to see their children suffer? This is man’s work.
I also don’t believe a supernatural creature with horns, or with cloven hooves, who eagerly await opportunities to infect our thoughts, directs evil in the world. I do believe evil exists; I just think the root of it is buried within each of us. We all have the capacity to think about doing bad, or even evil, things to others. Some may choose to act on these thoughts. Should they do so, I believe the responsibility of the actions rest with individual—whether the reason is poor judgment, uncontrollable rage, or mental defect. I don’t believe there’s anything else behind it—certainly not some sort of supernatural dark force. It’s the free will thing again.
I do believe this: A higher power, God if you will, was in the Aurora Massacre. God was at work in the heroic actions of others in the theater; carried through the hands and voices of those who cared for the injured and dying, and; found in those positive words and deeds of friends, families, and even strangers who offered them as sympathetic gestures for the victims and their families.
Yes, God was most definitely present in the Aurora Massacre.
The whole town was alive with the spirit of a living God.
Please note: I am not a psychiatrist, psychologist, theologian, or a member of the clergy. My opinions above are based only on my lifetime in the church, my personal study of Christian teachings, and my admittedly incomplete and imperfect understanding of my own faith. For context, I’ve been a member of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. since 1985, although I spent much of my youth in both non-denominational and American Baptist churches.
I’ve often attributed the way my brain works for my life’s successes. It’s also the most significant contributor to my failures. This is especially true in difficult life situations when instead of fostering deliberate thought, my brain allows me to fall easily into old habits of coping, or thinking without effort. It may appear as if this is a conscious decision on my part, but often it is not. From time-to-time, my brain just puts itself automatically into this “default mode” of thinking so it can help me find a mental place of safety and security. My brain does not like me to feel insecure or unsafe.
This default mode is when my brain says to itself, “Hey! I don’t like this situation. How can I change it? Hmmm….this looks sort of like that time when we…No. This is not really the same, but…..What the heck, it’s close enough. It will make us feel a little more secure. So…recall pattern. Check. Engage default operations mode. Check. And….warp speed ahead!”
When my brain calculates a success rate of at least 45% while in default mode, I assuredly will hear a voice inside my head say, “This is clearly the approach to use, dude. Go!” My brain is not naturally risk adverse.
Whether you realize it or not, this probably happens to you, too. Our brains know there are differences in every life situation, yet they work overtime to find enough parallels between some past situation and a current one to weigh the odds of a positive outcome, and then take the necessary steps to give the illusion we’re in control of the whole situation. They do all of this within a fraction of a second. That’s just how our brains roll.
We’re rarely in control and our brains are keenly aware of this fact. Our brains also know we have survived similar situations in the past and odds are good we’ll survive this one, too. It takes a lot less effort for our brains to gear down into default mode, than it does for them to power-on to figure out a better approach to the situation. Our brains can be quite lazy, too.
Our brains have adapted to these patterns and routines over a lifetime. The designated approach worked for us the first time, and then we reinforced the approach each time we let our brain move into default mode. We became comfortable with the rules and patterns our brains create while in default, so we gave them the authority and the responsibility they desires. For their parts, our brains simply see a process for a successfully resolved situation that must be stored until needed again. Our brains are big on self-defined measures of success.
My attorney friends are fond of the phrase, “It depends,” meaning even though two situations appear significantly similar, the facts of each may dictate a different approach for resolution. This is the problem with our brains in default mode—they see two highly similar situations and simply forget, or chose not to, consider all of the facts. Our brains, in default mode, rarely consider the concept of “it depends.”
Life events of the last few years have forced me to stop letting my brain go into default mode as much as before. I discovered my brain’s margin of error on successful decision making was hovering at +/- 30 points and with a 50% success rate trigger, my odds of making any smart decisions in default mode were, let’s just say, far less than desirable.
I still consider myself a creative thinker. I still make connections with bits of unconnected information, and I still trust my intuition. The difference now is I force myself to slow down and become more deliberate in my thinking, and with my resulting actions. My brain is working harder now, but I can tell it aches for an easier life.
Sometimes, very late at night, I can hear my brain whispering, “Dude….there’s a 47% —wait, make that 51%—chance this is the right thing to do. Want to do it?”
I listen, but I don’t respond. I no longer take such low probabilities seriously. At least, not before dawn.
I began losing my desire to accumulate the “stuff” of life when I moved to South Carolina. It was the third interstate move in ten years and I realized I had been hauling stuff from place-to-place with the idea I might someday need it, or want it, and not have it available. I was wrong.
Many of those boxes began their journey in West Virginia in 1995 and traveled to Florida, then to Illinois, and finally to South Carolina still unopened. It was in South Carolina that I found the courage to open the boxes, verify the contents marked on the outside, and then toss, shred, or donate what I found.
Most of the boxes held old business papers and outdated clothing. Three boxes served as the home to a complete Merlin® Phone system I once thought would have some future use. There was a box of glass, too, which might have been dishes somewhere along its travels. There was nothing of sentimental value in those boxes. It was just stuff.
I am sentimental, though. In fact, my children often wager on how quickly a movie scene or a home video will bring that misty look to my eyes. They know me well. They know I treasure memories and not collections of trinkets or other physical things that serve no purpose other than to collect dust.
This is not to say that I don’t treasure some physical things. Old pictures—snapshots from my life—hold value for me because they connect me with my history visually, and I am a visual person. The same goes for family movies filmed on my dad’s old 8mm camera, or those videos holding captured moments of my kids in their childhood.
There are several other things I find meaningful, too, including, a few written recollections from my mom’s childhood, which she made time to write at my request before she died. Then there’s the antique secretary desk now sitting in my den, which once sat inside my maternal grandparent’s bedroom, to the left of the door, and was the place my grandfather once sat to pay his bills.
I’m quite fond of my maternal grandfather’s pocket watch, his pocketknife, and the Jaeger-LeCoultre Atmos Clock he received in recognition of 25-years of service to Union Carbide Corporation. I also have my paternal grandfather’s Assistant Sergeant at Arms medals from the 1956 and 1964 Republican National Conventions, and that 8mm camera used to capture some of my childhood on film. Of course, there’s a rock here, a pressed flower there, and a few drawings from my children, too.
These things are small in number, but the memories they hold for me are quite large. While these things are important to me, I probably don’t need to hang on to them either. They’re just physical triggers for my memories. I would have a hard time parting with them, nonetheless.
Most everything else I possess, assuming it serves little or no functional purpose in my life, I no longer need. I’ve made up my mind to be more aggressive in purging these last remaining and unnecessary things I’m still hauling from place to place.
I will start by donating most of the many long-since read and some severely outdated books that line my bookshelves. I’ll move on to the clothes I’ll never wear again, the CD’s that have outlived their usefulness, and those few trinkets passed along to me whose meaning and importance died with their original owners. I’ll keep going until I get through all of the useless possessions, and then I’ll end, or at least I’ll try to end, by letting go of any remaining emotional baggage I have carried with me through the years. It’s time to let go of all of these things. It’s time to simplify the remainder of my life.
Parkinson’s Law says, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” I believe the corollary to the Law, “Stuff expands to fill the space you have available,” is also true. If you don’t believe me, look in your closet, your attic, or your basement and ask yourself just how much stuff you have stored there you still need.
I’ve taken a hard look at all my stuff, and I’ve come to this conclusion: I would rather new life experiences and memories become the “stuff” that expands to fill the time I have left on this earth. The accumulation of these experiences and the memories they create are the only “things” worth keeping or passing on.
The teacher, Miss McCabe, had pre-arranged us alphabetically by our last name and taped a tag with our full name on the front of our desks. She had been a teacher for a long time, and this must have been her method of quickly learning the names and faces of her new first grade students. When we came into the room, she asked us to find our names and take our seats. It was our first test, and few of us received a gold star.
Since I only lived a half-block from the elementary school, I was one of the first kids in the classroom on that day. I was already fidgeting in my seat when she brought Kevin to the desk in front of me and introduced us. As soon as he situated himself at his desk, he turned around, and we started talking. I liked him immediately.
I think we probably talked through the first two times Miss McCabe asked everyone to pay attention because I distinctly remember her standing in front of Kevin and looking down at us while we talked. He seemed to feel her presence and turned around slowly with a grin.
One of the first facts Miss McCabe taught us was how to pronounce the name of our school, “Tiskelwah” (the “l” is silent) and its origin—Native America or “Indian,” which was the word we used in 1969. Tiskelwah, she told us, was what the Indians called the nearby Elk River and it meant “river of fat elk” in English. I remember snickers and Kevin getting a case of the giggles over a school named for fat animals when others were named for presidents and famous leaders.
Kevin and I became fast friends and were often class partners. Our abilities were complimentary, and we worked well together. Kevin was athletic, and I was artistic, we naturally took relative roles in the winter talent show that year. My first girlfriend Karla and I sang, Here Comes Suzy Snowflake, while Kevin danced throughout the cafeteria in a snowman costume my mom and grandmother made for him. I can still clearly see Kevin skipping around that room to our song the laughter of the parents.
Kevin and I were in classes together almost all through elementary school. Tiskelwah was a small school with only one class per grade for the lower grades. In the upper classes, some teachers taught split grades because there weren’t enough students for a full class.
In the fall of 1972, Kevin and I were in Mrs. Downey’s third-grade class. We were working as a team again, and our assignment was to write a short story with four or more characters. We had a small reputation as cut-ups in class; not so much that it got us into trouble, but enough for us not to complete our work at times. For this assignment, we were running behind, and I invited Kevin to my house after school one day to so we could catch up. We worked for several hours on our detective saga, choosing the name “Jim Coldspot” as our investigator. We were not so creative when it came to names, and many characters were named from the appliances in my parent’s kitchen.
My dad left work most days by 4:30 PM and mom had dinner ready shortly after he got home at 5:00 PM. We were still working at the table when she came in to start dinner, so she asked Kevin if he would like to stay. He said he would, but he would have to call his mom to ask for her permission. Kevin called home, and I continued to work on the story. I looked up when Kevin handed my mom the phone.
“She wants to talk to you, Mrs. Harkins,” he said.
My mom picked took the phone and listened for a moment, and then she said, “No. It’s okay. It’s really no problem. All right. Bye.”
As she hung up the phone, she told Kevin, “Your mom said you could stay for dinner, but you need to come home right afterward.”
Kevin and I danced around the kitchen. Such little things made us happy.
We remained close friends throughout elementary school. We spent one year in the same junior high, and then my family moved across town. Kevin and I saw each other as frequently as we could; many times, he would stay the night, which gave us more time to catch up. Our parents became friends, too, getting together on occasion.
In high school, Kevin became a big track and field star in our town. I watched his press and cheered him on from a competitive school. I lost track of Kevin after high school, but I thought of him from time to time.
Over the years, we’ve managed to stay in touch, as we were able. When I got married in 1984, Kevin was at my wedding. In the spring of 1988, Kevin called me to tell me he was getting married and asked me to photograph his wedding. We lost touch again for some years, but the Facebook explosion brought us back together. Even though I haven’t seen him in person for more than 20 years, I consider Kevin, a brother and would do anything for him.
At almost forty-three years, this friendship with Kevin is my longest continuing friendship. In 1969, it was an unlikely friendship in our hometown because Kevin is African American and parts of West Virginia were still in the heat of the civil rights movement at that time.
Many years later, my mom and I were talking about my friendship with Kevin, and she told me about her phone call with Kevin’s mom the night of his first dinner invitation. My mom recalled that Kevin’s mom was concerned about him staying because “many white people don’t want colored people in their homes.”
I’m thankful my parents were never “those kind” of white people.
Photo Credit: Tiskelwah Elementary School. Kanawha County Library Archives.
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She was four at the time, full of energy and excitement about the world around her. She was at my side constantly, often asking questions well beyond her years. At times, her insights made me forget how young she was and often caused me to have unreasonable expectations of her abilities.
Of all my children, she is the one who has inherited the more complete package of my traits. Her inquisitive nature, quick wit, vivid imagination, and impulsive leanings are a near match for mine, and something I began to notice when she was four. I knew then these were also the traits that would cause conflict between us later in life.
We were living in northern Florida at the time, and the summer heat had finally retreated for another year, giving way to pleasant fall evenings perfect for leisurely strolls through the neighborhood. Our house was in an older part of the city, and our street wound its way by the St. Johns River. There were places along the circle where friendly neighbors living on the river opened their docks for fishing or quiet evenings of watching the Manatee at play.
She loved to walk with me around the neighborhood. It gave us a chance to talk about things that were on her mind, but mostly I think it was so that she could have some private time with me. She didn’t like the idea of her older sister or baby brother joining us on these walks. She saw this as our time and practically broke down in tears when others wanted to tag along.
With dinner out of the way and dusk coming one evening, I called to her from the kitchen to ask if she wanted to join me on a quick trip around the circle. She came running from the family room, sliding across the kitchen floor in socks and stopping just before me.
“Yes! Let me go put on my super-fast shoes,” she said.
Super-fast shoes? What are super-fast shoes, I thought as she raced to her bedroom. In less than a minute she was back at my side wearing a new pair of Nike® sneakers my mom had given her and that ever-present Barney® cap, worn backward. She looked up at me and smiled.
“See this thing on the side of my shoes, dad? That means these shoes are super fast,” she explained.
She grabbed my hand and pulled me to through kitchen door. She raced down the driveway, and when I caught up, we began our walk. In her super-fast shoes, she would run ahead for a while to explore, then run back to grab my hand and ask me questions, or to bring me things she had discovered a few feet away, or to tell me where she would like to go next as we moved around the circle.
Super-fast shoes have taken her many places as she has grown up. I know there are times when those shoes took her faster than she was ready to go, but she still managed to figure out how to make the speed of travel work to her advantage in the long run. She still does. She makes great memories, and she doesn’t seem to live too much of her life in the blur that I thought those shoes would create.
Since she put on that first pair of super-fast shoes, she’s been moving much faster than I would like to see her go through life. Even so, with each new adventure and no matter how far she runs out in front of me, she always comes back to share her world and brings with it the same wide-eyed excitement she had at four.
I stop at a coffee shop near my office on the way to work several days a week. I started this routine about six months ago when I decided to resume my caffeine intake, in moderation, and I had no caffeinated coffee in the house. We do have free coffee in the office, but it’s not very tasty, and the endless supply will call my name throughout the day. Drinking bad coffee all day long is not a habit I wish to pick up again.
The large “Americano” I get is usually enough coffee to last me all morning. Some mornings it gets cold before I finish it and if it’s past 10:30, I don’t bother to reheat it. I’m a morning person, so I don’t need the caffeine. I just like the taste of good coffee. The little I have most mornings—somewhere between 5 and 16 ounces—satisfies my desire for the stuff and helps me keep the caffeine consumption lower. The coffee is great, but the cashier at the coffee shop satisfies my need for a morning dose of positivity.
Melanie is a bundle of energy packed into a petite frame. She’s about my age and wears her blonde hair in a ponytail under her cap. She greets me with a big smile and a hearty, “Good morning!” when I walk in the door. She knows what I normally order, but confirms it as she punches it into the register. If the shop is slow, we’ll sometimes make small talk about coffee or a new pastry she thinks I should try. Melanie’s success rate with pastry upsell is very high. Even when I don’t buy a pastry, she always says, “Thank you! You have a wonderful day, dear! We’ll see you next time,” as I leave her station.
I’m sure Melanie says, “You have a wonderful day, dear! We’ll see you next time,” to hundreds of people a day with the same energy and smile from the first person to the last she sees on her shift.
I doubt that Melanie knows my name; if she does, she’s never said it. The fact that she remembers me and my order, and takes a few moments from her day to help me start mine with a dose of positive energy makes it worth the $2.50—okay, most of the time it’s $4.93 with the pastry—I spend when I go into the shop. I’m sure the other customers feel the same, considering the way their faces beam when they encounter Melanie.
We all need more positive people in our lives, don’t you think? Even if their positive energy lasts for only a few moments of each day, these people establish the tone—much like a tuning fork does—for which we unconsciously adjust our attitudes to match as go on our way.
Melanie is a Purveyor of Positivity, and I gladly pay for her energy and attitude each time I visit. The coffee, and sometimes a pastry, is a bonus.
That’ll be $4.93.
You have a wonderful day, dear! I’ll see you next time.
It never occurred to me when I was younger that I might so easily remember the many details of my life experiences once I reached middle age.
I remember things I didn’t consciously commit to memory, but somehow I’ve retained them nonetheless. For example, my first day of elementary school; the time I insisted on tasting Crisco® because I was sure it was whipped cream, or; the first time I held a girl’s hand.
I certainly didn’t think I would remember my first telephone number and almost every number since; the theme of my 9th grade dance, or; the beautiful owner of the bright smile and infectious giggle who surprised me with a welcome, yet unexpected, midnight kiss as we rang in 1982.
For most people, it’s easy to remember a high school or college graduation, the first job, the first car, marriage, children, or retirement because these life events or “Memory Moments,” as I call them, are really known as episodic memory and are a key aspect of our personal identities. Memory Moments are similar to those “Kodak® Moments” we see inside theme parks, except we use our brain instead of a camera to capture snapshots of our lives.
For me, every day of my life is like a series of these Memory Moments. A single day is not just twenty-four hours of time; it’s a collection of little stories that I unconsciously make note of and file away for future reference. I love stories and I’m such a visual person that my brain seems to hold onto memories as short movies of my life that it allows me to play-back at will inside my head. All I need do is recall the correct reel to locate a memory.
While I know there’s no guarantee my memories won’t fade, or simply be lost to time, my hope is I’ll always be able to recall those many cherished memories and continue to create new ones as I get older. I’d like to believe that my brain is hedging its bets against future losses based on the sheer volume of memories it allows me to recall now. There’s memory safety in these numbers. At least, this is what I tell myself.
Most of us live our lives in the blur of time that occurs between the memories of our life events. For better or worse, nearly every day of my life becomes a life event that’s captured in living Technicolor® and stored for future showings.
My life has very little of the blur.
I prefer it this way.
I immediately noticed the biker when I walked into McDonald’s with the production crew. He sported a full, unkempt gray beard, stood just shy of 6-feet tall, and had a barrel chest. The red felt hillbilly hat he wore seemed out of place with the patch-covered black leather biker’s jacket, camo-print shirt, combat boots, and the cut off green fatigues that stopped just below the top of his boots.
I watched him add something—cream, sugar, or both—to his coffee, and then settle in alone at the table near the window.
While the rest of the crew waited for their food, my friend Marc and I walked back to the table across from the biker. Marc stopped at the biker’s table, turned to me and said, “Let me introduce you to this gentlemen. He’s the guy who is loaning us his bike for the shoot.”
The biker stood up, flashed a big smile, stretched out his hand, and said, “Pleased to meet you.” He had a firm handshake and looked me in the eye as we shook. We talked briefly, and I thanked him for loaning us the bike.
“I’d do anything for you guys. That’s a fine organization you work for,” the biker said.
He sat down again and was joined by the actor who would ride his bike briefly in the video. They talked about motorcycles while we all ate and rested briefly.
After lunch, the biker rode to the set location on an older model Harley Davidson Fatboy, personally customized with hiking sticks, tent poles, and a leather rifle holster—complete with a what I think was a fake rifle—attached to the handlebars. A real Tomahawk hung on the left side of the bike, attached to the saddlebag. With his large goggles, the skull helmet, and his decked out bike he looked menacing when he pulled onto the set. His license plate read, “AT WAR.”
He got off the bike, took off his helmet and said, “If you need me to take anything off the bike, I don’t have a problem with it. Just let me know what you don’t want.”
Before I could answer, Marc said, “Let’s take off anything that looks like a weapon.”
The biker stripped the bike of all weapons and weapon-like things, and then he reached into the right saddlebag and pulled out a cantaloupe. He took out the large, fixed blade knife that was hanging from his belt, sliced off the top of the melon, and cut out the seeds. He wiped the blade on his pant leg and returned it to the sheath on his belt, reached into the saddlebag again, and took out a serving spoon.
“I’ve got some bananas in there, too,” he said with a grin while motioning to the saddlebags with his shaking spoon before digging into the cantaloupe.
He stayed with the production crew for about four hours as we shot the video. Sometime during the shoot, the heat got better of him, and he took off his vest and shirt. I saw a large American flag tattoo covering most of the right side of his chest and noted that he was in pretty good shape to be a man who I guessed to be about 60 years old.
“I graduated from high school in 1966,” he told me. “I served in the military; did over 200 jumps. The National Guard has been good to me and my family.”
“I tried to get them to let me do a little cameo part in your video, you know. But, they just weren’t interested,” he said smiling.
“Where are all the pretty girls?” he asked. “I don’t want to touch them or anything. I’m happily married. I just like being around them.” He laughed, and his eyes seem to twinkle at the thought.
He asked what I did again and why we were making the video. We made some more small talk, and as we were wrapping-up the shoot, I went to my car and picked out an extra branded t-shirt and a couple of patches to give to him as a small token of thanks.
“I don’t suppose you’re much of a t-shirt wearer are you?” I asked as I handed him the shirt and patches.
“No, but I’m not going to turn down your generosity. Thank you. You know, I put all my t-shirts in a box, and my kids take them out and wear them. They’ll get good use. These patches I’ll put with my collection.”
I pulled a Good Turn coin out of my right pocket. I explained how and why it’s used and I gave it to him as I thanked him for his good deeds that day and his service.
“Oh, it’s your coin, huh? What’s your name again?” he asked.
“David Harkins,” I said. I remembered his name.
“David Harkins,” he repeated slowly.
He put his hand in his front pocket and started fishing for something.
“I have a pocket full of condoms,” he said. “I’ve already called my wife and told her to expect a party when I get home.” He let go of a belly laugh so full and loud the crew recording sound 200 feet away shushed us and reminded us we were on a live set.
He pulled something from his pocket, took my hand and pulled it forward from my side.
He said, “I want you to have this David Harkins,” and with respect, he placed an object in my palm. When he took away his hand, I saw his challenge coin.
The front read, “The Green Berets – To Fight So Others May Remain Free” and the back carried the Special Forces Airborne logo and 2b Bn 19th SFG (A).
It’s said that challenge coins were originated by the Army Air Corp and were used as a means of identification and allegiance when Airmen were caught behind enemy lines without identification. I understand these coins are mostly ceremonial now, used to recognize achievement and support or to enhance morale. Still, it’s considered an honor by those in the military to receive one, especially when presented by a high-ranking officer.
I never asked his rank or where he served. It didn’t matter. In that moment, a military veteran—a Green Beret—with over 200 jumps to his credit and one who had likely faced things in his life I will never dream about, thought enough of me and my service to America’s youth that he wanted to thank me using a tradition that held significant meaning to him.
I was so moved I could barely thank him. I’ve never received a greater honor from anyone.
I’m not sure I ever will.
I don’t share this story often. But, it has been on my mind lately and a message exchange with a friend this evening made me think it’s time to share it in writing. This is the streamlined version.
In the fall of 1991, my 18-month-old daughter began to tilt her head a little to one side after a long car trip. At first it looked like muscle stiffness from the ride, but a few weeks later she started having difficulty maintaining her balance and then she stopped walking.
Her regular pediatrician didn’t seem too concerned, but her mother and I knew something was wrong. Our next stop was an orthopedic surgeon and although he didn’t find any muscular or skeletal abnormalities, he agreed that something was going on. He recommended a second opinion from different pediatrician, one whom within moments of seeing her saw pressure within her eyes and admitted her to the hospital for an MRI.
A neurologist confirmed our fear a few hours later—a golf-ball-sized tumor in the right ventricle of her brain. A neurosurgeon arrived the next morning to prepare us for surgery and to talk about options for ongoing treatments. In his words, “I have not ever removed a tumor this size, from this part of the brain that was not malignant.”
The surgery took nearly eight hours.
When the surgeon came into the recovery room, we were relieved to learn the tumor was benign—a Choroid Plexus Papilloma—and he had reduced it to the size of pea, successfully cut-off its blood supply in hopes of killing it completely over time.
Five days later, she came home from the hospital. After three days at home, a high-fever took us back to the hospital late one night.
After hours in the emergency room and multiple tests, a young intern successfully diagnosed her with meningitis. She was immediately transported to the Children’s Hospital across town where intensivists and infectious disease specialists converged on her room. We waited for several hours in the waiting room before the doctors shared, her meningitis was caused by the Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacterium, and they had never successfully treated an adult with this strain of bacteria, let alone a child.
Six weeks in an intensive care unit with many touch-and-go-moments, a shunt, hours of physical therapy, and another shunt two months later, finally put her on the road to recovery. There were difficult times as she grew up but today at 22, she’s a college student and learning to drive. She’s kind-hearted, determined, and a truly amazing young woman who strives to overcome the challenges life sets before her every day with a smile. She knows her limitations, but more importantly, she knows what she’s capable of achieving.
Life is not always easy.
Still, knowing and understanding our own personal limitations today should not limit who we become tomorrow. Instead, armed with this knowledge we should consider ourselves empowered to find new ways to achieve success and happiness in our lives. Best of all, we understand that we should not define ourselves, or be defined by others, on assumptions of what we cannot do; we do it anyway, just differently than everyone else.
Knowing such things about ourselves emboldens us and allows us to live, love, and pursue happiness on our own terms.
I can’t think of any better way to live. Can you?
Her favorite doll at the time was Red Fraggle from Fraggle Rock. The picture above shows Red in the hospital bed. Red received extra special care after surgery, too. Note the bandages on her head and hand.