My dad battled a rare cancer for more than 6 years that affected his intestines, stomach and liver. As Dad’s last day approached, I wanted to be by his side when he took his last breath. But that didn’t happen.
I was in Seattle for a speaking engagement, staying at the Seattle Airport Marriott Hotel. I’d shaved and showered, and put on my coat and tie when the phone rang. Thinking it was my ride to the convention, I picked up the phone and said, “I’ll be right there.” Fifteen seconds of silence later, my younger brother’s voice pierced the quiet. “Danny?” Shocked, I answered, “Paul? What’s up?”
Another 15 seconds of silence started my heart pounding. Paul confirmed my greatest fear. “Dad passed away this morning.” I sat down on the bed, and tears started to flow. I asked, “How’s Mom?” He said, “Good.” I said, “Give her a big hug and a kiss for me and tell her I’ll phone her in a little while.”
Paul asked what I was going to do. After a moment of consideration I said, “I’m going to go make my speech. That’s what Dad would want me to do. He always taught us to only make commitments we can keep and to always keep those commitments.”
I thought it through as I talked to Paul, “I can’t imagine what it would be like to be the meeting planner with more than 2,500 people sitting in the audience, and not have the speaker show up. Dad always taught us to keep our promises. I need to stay here and speak today and tomorrow, and then hustle home. God knows I need your support, and hopefully I can give you some of mine. I know you and the rest of our family, and Mom’s huge circle of friends, will comfort Mom. Mom will understand my decision is exactly what Dad would want me to do. I’ll talk to Mom later today and will see you tomorrow.”
I hung up and broke down, crying like a baby. My dad, my hero, was gone! I was wrenched with the pain of regret. Every thought was, “I wish, I shoulda, I woulda, I coulda. If only I had.”
After several minutes, the phone rang again. It was my ride. I splashed some water on my face, left my room, and entered the elevator. As the elevator doors closed, a bellman’s cart crammed its way through the opening, and the doors “binged” open.
Onto the elevator came a very cheery bellman. He pushed his cart to the middle, forcing me to the rear corner. I stood with my head down, hands clasped in the “elevator position.” He blurted, “Yeehaw, Whoa-o-o! Did you see the beautiful sunshine today? I’ve lived in Seattle all of my 18 years, and it’s rained every single day. You must have brought good weather with you. How ya doin’?”
“Fine,” I said. He stared at me and blurted, “No, sir, you’re not fine. Your eyes are red and puffy. You’ve been crying.”
“I just found out my dad died this morning and I’m really sad,” I replied. The bellman said, “Whoa,” and was quiet until the doors opened. He went left, and I went right, to the man waiting to give me a ride.
At the meeting, I had to dig deeper than I’d ever dug in my life to rise to the occasion, but I did, and I made my speech. I know it’s never appropriate to make yourself the hero of your own story, and I don’t mean to but making my dad proud of me for keeping commitments and doing the right thing by putting service above self is key to this story.
I told the audience I would conclude my speech with a song. I told them the reason I chose this song was it was my dad’s favorite song of all I’d written, that he’d died that morning, and it would be the first time he’d ever heard me sing it in public. I finished my presentation and had the driver take me to the Seattle Aquarium.
Why the aquarium? To run from change? To avoid pain? Absolutely not! Rather, to embrace every thought and emotion and realize four things: (1) To get a better answer, you must ask a better question; (2) In life there are no mistakes, only lessons; (3) To go higher, you must go deeper; and (4) Pain is a signal to grow, not to suffer.
Once we learn the lesson the pain is teaching us, the pain goes away. That night at the aquarium, I excavated my innermost beliefs and feelings. I remembered we’re all going to die, so we have to deal with it by living every day to leave no regrets. Finally, I had the driver take me back to the hotel.
I walked into the hotel room, and there on the chest of drawers was a basket of fruit. It wasn’t your basic basket delivered from the hotel gift shop with the cellophane cover, colorful bow, and sterile, stamped card from the manager that seldom gets your name right.
This basket was broken and slightly smashed on one side. It appeared it was a last-minute gesture with no resources available. Whoever delivered it was obviously into presentation because the crinkled portion of the basket was turned toward the wall and covered by a big rubberized leaf that had apparently been picked off the fake tree in the lobby.
In the basket were two oranges, an apple, a big ripe tomato and a long, thick carrot. Most important, there was a handwritten note that said, “Mr. Clark, I’m sure sorry your dad died. I was off work today at 5 pm, but I came back tonight so I could be here for you. Room service closes at 10 pm, but the kitchen will stay open all night long so they can be here just for you. If you need anything, just call and ask for me. Signed, James—the bellman in the elevator.”
James was not the only one to sign the card. Every single employee that night at the Seattle Airport Marriott Hotel signed my little card.
Let’s put this experience into perspective. We have James, an 18-year-old man, the youngest employee on the payroll, who “gets it.” Gets what? Service above self; internal stretch and change; behavior that exceeds external expectations; being more than we’ve been simply because we want to—motivated by the simple fact that we can!