Lately I have found myself reflecting on the people in my life, past and present, whom I would consider to be my life teachers. Some of them are permanent fixtures, others have merely passed through, but all have left me fundamentally changed in some way.
Today, I am thinking about Harry. Harry was my supervisor when I was a Graduate Assistant during my second year of graduate school back in 1997-1998. Harry was only in my life for about ten months. But I am frequently amazed at how his words have come back to me over the years when I am least expecting it and how the lessons I learned from him twenty years ago become relevant all over again.
The first time I met Harry in 1997 he told me that several years earlier he had been diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure and told he had six months to live. His response to the doctors? “I’m not going down like that.” And he didn’t. Until his passing in 2005, Harry lived his life as equal parts sheer determination, courage, and heart.
Harry lived with a level of intention that I have only recently begun to appreciate. He felt like he was living on borrowed time and viewed each day as a gift but in the time I spent with him, he never seemed to worry about what he might or might not get done. Harry woke up every morning and made his bed. This, he explained to me, was his way of reminding himself that he would have control over nothing else for the rest of the day. And then he would just get on with the daily task of living.
One of the things I appreciated about Harry, even then, was his ability to find joy in the smallest of pleasures. I love that he kept a pint of ice cream in the office freezer and put a scoop in his coffee in the morning. Because, why not? One day, I showed up at his office for our weekly one on one meeting. Harry announced that we were going for a drive. I can’t remember the exact make and model of the car- it was a boat of a Lincoln or a Cadillac and it had cushy leather seats and surround sound speakers and we spent the better part of an hour that day cruising around campus listening to music. I think that was the most content I ever saw him.
There’s also this- If my husband were reading this over my shoulder right now he would remind me that Harry sometimes drove me crazy. Mostly this was because he was constantly throwing challenges my way. I had never at that point in my life been pushed so far outside my comfort zone, and in his efforts to help me grow as a new professional Harry loved to throw me in the deep end of the proverbial swimming pool to show me that I could, in fact, swim. In the most memorable of these instances Harry was supposed to give a speech at the Senior Awards Banquet- something he had known about for weeks, maybe months. Shortly before the banquet Harry called me to let me know that since I had spent more time with the students than he had and since I was the one who had the closer relationship with them, that I should be the one giving the speech. Public speaking has never really been my thing but with enough time to to prepare and practice I am comfortable. But to get up in front of a room full of people and essentially speak off the cuff is my own personal version of Hell. Yet, I did it. And it actually went pretty well. When I got back to my seat, Harry leaned over and said, “See, I knew you could do it.” When I started to protest, Harry cut me off and said, “Meryl, the only appropriate response right now is ‘Thank you for the opportunity.'”
I learned a lot from Harry in the short time I knew him. I learned to look for moments of joy in the small pleasures we might otherwise take for granted. I learned that inside of every challenge is an opportunity and that sometimes the only response is to be thankful for that opportunity. I learned that when life throws me in the deep end that I just need to start swimming. Most importantly, I learned that if you think about it, we are all living on borrowed time- we just have no way of knowing how full the account is that we are borrowing from.