Picture of Don and Mike from a week ago.

Don as you read this, I imagine you laying there in your Detroit Tiger’s T-shirt, boxer shorts, high top white socks clinging to those legs that move no more as  your wife, Maggie, holds the computer so you can see the screen.

Yesterday, Maggie told me that the Doctor came that morning to say it was only a matter of days before you would pass on.  I asked if I could speak to you  and Maggie said, “Hang on, let me go down the hall and put the speaker phone on.”   Your voice, raspy and short of breath, worked precisely to communicate what mattered most.   As we talked, you were laying in bed pushing each word out.  I was driving with the phone pressed hard against my ear,  listening to your thoughts, concerns and wishes while sobbing silently.

In the seven days that had passed since our last visit, the firm grip of Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS) had quickly tightened its hold.  On that day, you said you were confused about “your purpose” in all of this.  You understood how your  battle with ALS taught others to ‘make each day count.’  But at that moment, you weren’t sure if there was something more or different behind having this brutal disease. Maggie called it, a disease of ‘collateral damage’ —- one that affects so many lives like a carpet-bomb dropped upon a family and community.

Don, you can feel confident that your courage and faith has taught us all not only to make each day matter, but also to look death straight in the eye and to be sure one’s priorities are squared up.  That purpose has and will continue to impact more people than you will ever realize.

“I look back on my life and think about the things that mattered most.  None of it was any of the material things, it was more of the silly things.  Playing games with kids.  Taking a spontaneous trip.  Those are the memories that stand out.  Time with family and watching my kids grow up,” Don said.

“Sometimes people get caught up too much on having goals with numbers. ‘I need to make X amount of money.’ That kind of thing.  I think the goals that matter the most are the ones without numbers.   The relationships.  Your service to others.  These are things that seem to count,” he explained.

“It is important to remember, what you do transcends what you have.”

As Don was sharing these thoughts, I felt so blessed and privileged to be present in his life at that moment.  Don often told me I taught him many things. On a hot Sunday afternoon, as Don coaxed each word out of his frail body, I was the student in awe of the teacher.  I felt I had very little to contribute, but was receiving an incredible gift of friendship, love and wisdom.

“I have kidded Maggie that I want to be buried under center ice out in the back yard,” Don smiled as he shared this request.  Every winter he would build a hockey rink in his backyard for his kids and friends.  That sense of place, community, and ritual was just one example of how Don created memories that mattered.

I commented to Don how his wheelchair looked like a machine that could ‘burn some rubber’.  His brother, Mike, who had stopped by as well started laughing.  He said, “Don ended up racing the lawn mower not too long ago right out on the main road.”  I can see the police now, pulling over a guy on a lawn mower and a man with Lou Gehrig’s disease in wheelchair for speeding and drag racing.

The room got quiet and Don said, “I know how this disease can have many give up.  You just pump yourself up with morphine.  But for me, giving up isn’t an option.  I still have things to do.”

Don talked about Emily and Nick, his two kids who he worries about and is so proud of.  He worries about what their life will be like without a Dad present each day.  I previously shared with Don what it was like to lose a parent, as I lost my Mom when I was ten.  I know you will be present in each day of their lives.

Don said to me, “I would like to ask you something Mike.  I would like you to keep an eye on Emily and Nick.  There isn’t anyone who will replace a Dad.  But there are people in our lives that I think can play an important role for them.  I would like to know if you would be willing to help them should they ever get stuck, maybe they can’t see the big picture, or if they just need a hand getting connected.”

At the end of it all, when it is all said and done, it is the relationships in our lives that matter the most.  How we treat each other and love each other.  Not rocket science, but often missed in our rush through the long list of seemingly important tasks.  Don said to me, “We are here but a sliver of time. The miracle of life should be a daily inspiration.”  How we use that sliver in the care of each other, those we know and those we don’t, ends up being the measuring stick.

Don, rest easy my friend.  As you knock on heaven’s door, know your measuring stick is one we will hold up as a guidepost for our lives.  You made us all better, this world better and you will leave a mark in your family and friends that will always be a great reminder.  Go make each day count!

I love you.  And of course, Emily and Nick will be in my line of sight.  God’s speed my friend.

4 thoughts

  1. Your words brought tears to my eyes, as often, I am an offender of letting the tasks get in the way of what matters most. Don, is a great reminder of focusing on leaving longer legacy’s than the our sliver.
    I was saddened to hear of Don’s death this morning, but I know that he will be a constant reminder to me to make the relationships a priority.
    Thank you for sharing…

  2. Michael – Thank you for this beautiful tribute. I found this posting about Don today while searching for his obituary. As a fellow nonprofit leader, I can tell you that Don thought so much of you and your leadership and it is clear from your words about him that the feeling is mutual. Don truly believed “what you do transcends what you have.” They weren’t just words he followed the words with actions and had a way of making everyone feel special. In the end, if it is the relationships that we cultivate with others that enrich our lives and matter most, Don provided us a example of how to be the wealthiest of men.

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