In the midst of all the violence, hatred, racism, and craziness in the world right now, this week is a much needed time to stop and remind ourselves that there is so much to be thankful for. If we are alive, we have already made it through innumerable hurdles to still be alive. If we thrive, if we succeed at anything, if we have any joy in our lives, it is because someone helped lift us up along the way, and we can be grateful. This whole idea of self-made men and women who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps is an absurd proposition: we do well only when others do well by us.
I have an old friend, Bernard Rapoport, who after 95 years as a force of nature passed away a few years ago. B, as his friends called him, was raised by very poor immigrant parents, and built one of the most successful life insurance companies in the country. He became very wealthy, but he used to scoff when people congratulated him on being a self-made man. He would say that no one is a self-made man: that his parents had raised him right, that good schools had educated him well, that our country had given him great opportunities, that the people who worked with him and the customers who trusted the company built a great business. B was right.
I consider myself amazingly lucky — a wife who gives me love and joy everyday, family and friends who are so wonderful, teachers and preachers and leaders who inspired me, a job that I love. But one thing I am especially focused on this Thanksgiving week is a mother who was the best role model and inspiration imaginable. So indulge me for a moment while I tell you about her.
My mom always trusted her heart, otherwise I never would have been born. She had some health issues, and her doctor said it was safer to have an operation that would have kept her from having any more children after her 3rd baby (my sister Barbara) was born. But my mom really wanted one more baby and said no operation until she had another one, so I made it into this world. Then, when I was only 2 months old, a toy got caught in my throat when I supposed to be napping (I never was good at following instructions) and cut off my air flow. My mom walked by and saw my turning purple and saved me. When the doctors said I probably would never recover, she never lost hope and nursed me back to good health.
So I owe my mom even more than your average kid. But the reason I admire her so much, the reason she inspires me so much, is because of the example she set and the love and care she showed everyone she met. Our family hosted a couple of African families going to college in Lincoln (my hometown). At that time most white Nebraskans weren’t willing to associate with black people, but in our house, they were family. We took in a developmentally disabled foster child, Kevin, and he became as dear a brother to us, and as dear a son to my mom, as any of her birth children. Kevin died 3 years ago, but him being a part of our family was a joy and inspiration for all of us. My mom has spent her whole life taking care of people who needed her — caring for and playing with the neighborhood kids, tutoring struggling kids at the public schools, sitting in hospitals and nursing homes with dying people when they were in their last moments. Our minister at church used to kid that he kept her name in his wallet with a note to call her in emergencies. She made the lives of everyone who knew her - even people she didn’t like much — better. I once asked her why she helped people she didn’t like very well. She told me that when someone needed help, it didn’t matter whether they were likable, that every person deserved dignity and compassion in their times of need.
Mom is slowing down a little now. She is no longer able to drive all over Lincoln, stopping by nursing homes and hospitals and schools to be there for folks who need a helping hand. But she still inspires me every day.
In a world where it would it would be easy to be angry all the time at the cruelty and hatred we see all around us, my mom taught me how to see the beauty and kindness in the world. She taught me to take joy in the wonderful things there are in this world, and that I would be a success if I showed kindness to other people. Whatever I have done in my life to help people, whatever kindness I have showed, my mom was the inspiration and the example.