Sharing Gifts of the Heart

Sometimes fortunate things come to us by way of unfortunate events. Happiness is a choice, and humility, gratitude and generosity are at the heart of it.

My friend Dr Hassan Tetteh is such a wizard at turning unfortunate events into blessings, you might think that his entire life has been charmed. I have been meaning to write to you about Dr. Tetteh, whom I know simply as Hassan, for a while. I wish you could meet him. You would feel better about everything if you did. Hassan is an award-winning heart surgeon, a commander in the US Navy and assistant professor for surgery at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. Based on his experiences in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan in 2011, where he treated critically injured Marines in the sand and heat of a war zone for several months, Hassan wrote an inspirational, heartfelt novel called Gifts of the Heart, published this summer.

I first became aware of Hassan’s inspirational gifts while at his house on July 4th, 2011 for his deployment send-off party. A large gathering of family, friends and mentors from throughout his life came to celebrate his achievements and wish him well. At the time he received his letter, this dedicated father and health policy expert had other plans. Like many of our men and women in uniform, he was abruptly called to leave behind his young family and home to be put in harms way. He said he wanted to go with a positive attitude. I was struck by the grace with which Hassan accepted what he was called to do.

As I was leaving the party, I told my friend so. And he shared with me then one of the life lessons that later pop up in his book, about facing great doubt, uncertainty and even despair. In a nutshell, there is no looking back, only forward. “When we live the committed life to which we are called, we will make a mark in this world,” he said.

Hassan is a gentle spirit with nerves of steel, capable of skillfully stitching your heart back together under the most austere or hectic conditions and just as skilled with a word of praise or comfort. Gifts of the Heart follows the harrowing experiences of a similarly talented surgeon on the battlefield. Hassan has kept a daily journal with notes about his life for many years. After returning from his deployment, he dedicated several months to turning his experiences into a book, timing it’s release to coincide with a speaking engagement at the International Toastmasters Convention. Writing the book was one way for Hassan to share life lessons about gratitude, humility and expanding one’s capacity for love and respect for others. “It was cathartic,” he said at a recent book-launch. He has also started a blog called doctortetteh and is on speaking tour promoting his book. His goal is to reach one million people with its hopeful message. Part of the proceeds go to support veterans organizations.

In addition to the writing projects, Hassan has been visiting schools and giving motivational talks to young people. He recently spent two days traveling to speak with teenagers at Brooklyn Tech High School, elementary school students at BelovED Community Charter School in Jersey City, and pre-health professionals at University of Maryland College Park. He shared his professional life story and encouraged them to aim high, work hard, never give up, and seek rewarding careers in health care. He also talked about the power of faith and grace.

Hassan is the son of immigrants whose courageous journey to the Unites States from Africa factors prominently in his fictional, reality-based tale. At a recent book-signing in Washington, DC, I heard him speak about our military heroes and his deep-seeded faith in the US despite all its troubles. “It’s the most imperfect, perfect place to be,” he says.

During his deployment, I wrote to Hassan from time to time to offer a word of encouragement, inquire as to how he was doing. I hadn’t done such a good job staying in touch with soldiers in my family who had been deployed earlier and I wanted to do a better job of supporting my friend. Hassan replied to every email and thanked me for staying in touch. In one of my messages, it was the tenth anniversary of 9-11, and I wrote about my son Henry, who insisted on a family moment of silence that morning in honor of the people who died, though he was a toddler in 2001 and has no memory of the attacks.

When Hassan returned to the States, he told me he had a gift for my boy and asked when he could meet him. It happened that Henry was planning a party – a classic Henry-style extravaganza with an elaborate menu and creative activities for younger kids. So I invited Hassan and his family to join us.

Hassan and his wife Lisa and their children came to the party with this giant red box addressed to Henry. In the midst of the party, Henry and I sat on the couch and opened it together. Inside was a huge wooden black frame behind glass that held an American flag, folded to a triangle with just the stars on blue showing. Below the flag was an official document stating that the flag had flown over Hassan’s base in Afghanistan on December 10, 2011 in Henry’s honor.

When he first saw the flag, Henry didn’t really get the full meaning of it. He thanked Hassan and quickly went back to the party.

Later, after his guests had left, my boy took a closer look at the American flag, the document and the case they came in. He asked me if the flag had already flown. I said “Yes, that’s the whole idea. It flew in Afghanistan and its dedicated to you, for your patriotism.”

Henry’s eyes widened.

“How does that make you feel?” I asked.

“Proud,” he replied, with a look of surprise, as if the emotion were brand new to him.

At the time, Henry was going through a really difficult period adjusting to his first year of middle-school, dealing with bullies and a heftier course load. At home, his older sister wasn’t giving him much relief, in fact she snubbed his party. Watching Henry take in the full meaning of an honorary US flag in his name was like watching the lion in the Wizard of Oz get his courage. The display now hangs prominently in his room.

You never know what a word of encouragement or thanks might mean to someone else, whether he’s a soldier in a war zone, or a 12-year-old boy just trying to make it through the sixth grade.

Hassan makes it a practice of doing thoughtful things for people and he suggests that all of us do the same. At the book-launch, he left his listeners with what he calls a “A Recipe for Happiness,” a list of actions to focus your mind and your life on joy, based in part on the happiness work of a Harvard classmate, Shawn Achor. These actions include habits you have heard before – focusing on gratitude, physical exercise, journaling and simple meditation. But the capper is making “random acts of kindness” a part of your daily life.

I thought about this, as I was in line to receive a copy of Gifts of the Heart at the book signing. Since I already had one copy that my friend had autographed to me, I stopped to think about who I should have this book dedicated to. I was reminded of my dad, a Korean War veteran who is also retired colonel with the Wisconsin National Guard. Like Hassan, my father has also worked in war zones and treated injured soldiers. Perhaps he would appreciate the thought. So I asked Hassan to autograph the book to him. A few days later, I mailed the surprise gift with a card thanking my father for his service and for being my dad. Come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever thanked him for either of those things before.

Hassan was right. I felt happier after sending it.

A week or two later, my father called to thank me. He enjoyed the book and said it reminded him very much of his service in medical tents in Korea, a pivotal time in his youth. Medicine is more advanced now, but many of the same battlefield challenges remain. My dad can talk. A long time. And normally, I am shorter on patience. But the very least we can do for our soldiers who have bravely served, whether recently or long ago, is to hear their stories. So, I let him talk. And with new appreciation. We were on the phone for over an hour.

My dad had questions about my friend, the author of the book. He wanted to know how I knew him and how a heart surgeon with a family could possibly find time to write a novel. I explained that we were classmates at the Harvard Kennedy School. In addition to his medical degree, Hassan has an MBA from Johns Hopkins University and an MPA from Harvard. “There are two things you need to know about Dr. Hassan Tetteh,” I said. “First of all, there is nothing he can’t do. He’s extraordinary that way. And secondly, we’re pretty sure he doesn’t sleep.”


If you are in New York City for Veterans Day, you can meet the author at his NYC Book Launch Event on Sunday, November 10, from 5-7 pm at the Broad Street Ballroom, 41 Broad Street, New York, NY 10004. To register or make a donation to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Organization, visit the link here.

For more about the book Gifts of the Heart.

Or follow Doctor Tetteh at or on twitter @doctortetteh

Story by Amy Ambrose




A Little Play Goes a Long Way

Play is the root of everything. Every relationship begins with play. Play is the beginning of trust.

These are among the lessons you learn when you hang out with Gary Auerbach, otherwise known as The Frisbee Guy. Gary’s life work is play. In 1995, Gary and his Frisbee partner won the World Championship in Freestyle Frisbee. Gary has been promoting Frisbee, and play in general, ever since.

He travels the country from the Mid-Atlantic and North East to North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and New Orleans, showing folks how to catch and toss a Frisbee and introducing people of all ages to his favorite sport.

I first met Gary in 2012 through my husband, who is also a performer and has attended many showcases with him. The Frisbee Guy stayed at our house last summer as he passed through town for a show. In gratitude, he brought a fresh berry pie. While my daughter and I served up the dessert, the Champion of Play told stories about his travels. I admired how sure he was of what he loved to do and his complete lack of pretense. While we talked, he brought out a handful of little plastic pin-wheel toys called Flarbles. They reminded me of the winged elm tree seeds I remember tossing in the air as a kid, to watch them twirl back down. “These are helicopters,” I said, reminiscing.

Gary showed my teenage daughter and me how to hold the stem of the plastic helicopters between our ‘snapping fingers’ and how to give a quick flick and watch them go. At first, I fumbled my Flarbles; they repeatedly refused to launch. I laughed as they bounced off the table and hit the floor. But within a few tries I had the little pink and green tops flying across the room. So did Carolyn. I was surprised at how amusing this was and how it immediately put us all at ease.

Gary is an unfailingly kind and patient person and I’ve only ever seen him in a cheerful mood. Think of an extra-energetic Mr. Rogers with curly auburn hair. At 47, he carries himself with the agility of a much younger person and with the centeredness of a studied guru. His message is simple. Play a little more. Stress a little less. Here’s a Frisbee. It’s easy. Let me show you.

At his shows for schools, camps, corporate and family events, Gary combines athletics, story-telling, a little juggling and a few tricks — like the one where he tosses a Frisbee across the full length of a basketball court and sinks it in the opposing basket. These days, his demonstrations are less about showing-off his skills than they are about helping folks in the audience discover what they can do. “I want to show people what they can learn in an hour or ten seconds, not 10,000 hours,” he says.

At a typical summer camp demonstration, I watched the kids lined up in rows in a gymnasium to practice the crab catch and alligator catch, following The Frisbee Guy’s example. Then he taught them to toss a Frisbee in the air and clap their hands before they caught it again. For the older grades, he explained the wide array of newer Frisbee sports, from Ultimate Frisbee to Frisbee baseball, disc golf and Frisbee bowling. For the littler ones, he took the time to let each child spin a Frisbee on one finger. For this, he used a ‘trainer Frisbee’ called a spinjammer with a place-holder on the underside, making it easier to learn. One by one, the tots watched in amazement as the spinning discs on their fingers seemed to balance in mid-air.

In addition to winning the World Championships in “freestyle”, Gary has been to several world club championships in Ultimate Frisbee. While he could focus on competitive play, he prefers his traveling, interactive shows as a way of connecting with people. “Even though I am absent at each year’s World Championships, I am still promoting the sport. I would like to reach thousands and thousands of people. Put a Frisbee in their hands. And you might say, Oh, no, I can’t. But in a few minutes I can show you that you can,” he says.

Gary points out that when people play together, they start connecting. They smile. Laugh. Let down some barriers. They relax a little more. Stress a little less.

The world could use a little more play. Most of us as adults make a point of scheduling our lives around work, taking care of home and families, maybe the occasional night out, some creative projects, reading, maybe exercise. But fun for the sake of fun? Come to think of it, I run out of day before I get to that part. I bet most of us do.

Fortunately, according to Gary, our nation is in the midst of massive movement bringing people back to a community of play. In August, Pittsburgh held its annual City of Play Festival, one of many national conferences discussing play and introducing new games. At the Come Out and Play Festival in New York, one group invented a game called Bicycle Opener, a team sport with hula hoop goals attached to bicycle helmets. These are grown-ups we’re talking about. Gary’s favorite play conference is the US Play Coalition in Clemson, South Carolina, where he has presented sessions on “Hands-On Play,” and plans to again.

Whether it’s a team of co-workers or a congregation or a family, the way to build relationships is through play, Gary says. “Play together at least once a week. Play something new. When you see what makes your peers laugh, you see what makes them tick, what motivates them. And that’s some deep insight!”

Gary has lots of new ideas for promoting play. One of these is to present himself as a Playcologist, a guy in a labcoat with a booth like Lucy with her psychiatrist booth in a Peanuts cartoon. At your appointment, the Playcologist will run some stress tests and give you a play prescription. He might prescribe you to skip around, or stand on one foot and make silly faces. Or he might get you to spin a Flarble in your kitchen.

I happened to find one of the little helicopters while cleaning my living room recently. I wondered where the rest of them disappeared to and I thought about tossing this one out before it jammed the vacuum cleaner. But instead I shut off the machine. I picked up the pinwheel, pinched it between my snapping fingers and set it loose in the air. It hit a wall. So I tried again. It spit straight to the floor. So I gave it several more goes.

Well, waddya know. There’s hope for me, yet. Eventually, I got that little toy to fly again. I set the gift aside in a safe place. And with a slightly brighter heart, I went back to my cleaning.




A House Apart

I walk past dozens of homes in my leafy neighborhood on my way to work or to the corner store. My mind on other things, I notice, admire and immediately forget their many pretty porches, flower gardens and lawn furniture. I don’t often pick up on subtle changes. So, it took me a while to notice one house that had fallen into disrepair and what was happening to it.

At some point, this little one-and-a-half story cape cod started looking scraggly, the crab-grass lawn neglected. I am not sure whether that was before or after it changed owners. For a period of time it was boarded up. Then one day giant trash containers appeared in the driveway. Bit by bit, the innards of the house were removed and the dumpsters filled to the brim. Then the roof was taken away as well as the sheetrock of the interior walls and the supporting beams. After a period of weeks, all that was left was a white brick exterior, which was really red brick painted white, and the chimney. A tall shady tree overlooked these bare bones of what was probably once an active home full of family life. That house on the corner is getting torn down, I thought, observing its pitiful shell.

But that didn’t seem right. I looked again. I noticed slender t-shaped wooden braces supporting the brick in several spots around the exterior. And the layers of paint had been scraped off in a small area by the side door, as if someone had been inspecting the red brick underneath or considering whether to keep the white coat. It dawned on me, this house isn’t getting torn down. It’s getting rebuilt.

I looked at the same empty shell now and I saw it differently. Not so pitiful anymore, this was the beginning of somebody’s exciting new chapter.

Sure enough, fresh lumber was soon delivered to the lawn. The yard filled up with two-by-fours, plywood and stacks of trusses for a new peaked roof.

This scene made me think of the times when we choose to dismantle our life or something happens to dismantle it for us. Many of us have experienced this scary moment of being laid bare — through a career change, a divorce, a health battle or a major decision to start over. I think of when I moved my family to the DC area a few years ago with a newly-minted master’s degree and no job. We owned barely enough to fill half of a cube truck, rode into town on fumes. There wasn’t much left to stand on but our family’s deepest foundation, the outer facade I presented to the world propped up by the slimmest of braces. At a moment like that, just as quickly, you might realize that this seemingly fragile state is actually a sturdy beginning, that you are about to be rebuilt.

The next few times I saw the house, the wood deliveries on the lawn were moving in, gradually becoming a part of a growing home. I saw the frames of the walls going up and a skin of green plywood reinforcing their shape.

And then I saw something more. The new structure is not limited by the boundaries of the old roofline it shed. This house is not just coming back, it’s rising, and will stand a story taller than its former self.


Summer Resolutions

It’s the first week of July, half-past 2013. Do you know where your resolutions are?

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to ballroom dance. I forgot about that until just now. I’ll have to come back to it. I also resolved to work on writing and telling true inspirational stories. Toward the second goal, in addition to launching this blog, I joined the Toastmasters Club at my office building. This is a club for public speaking. I recently gave my second “prepared” speech to the group.

It’s not that public speaking is something I haven’t done before. I have addressed crowds of several hundred people on many occasions. But sometimes I find it nerve-wracking and sometimes I find it effortless and the difference has to do with how often I speak in front of groups. So one of my goals for this year was to make a habit of it.

At my first meeting of the Toastmasters a few months ago, I was struck by how structured it was. Our club meets every other Wednesday over a lunch hour. At each meeting, two or three people give a scheduled, 5-7 minute prepared speech. A member of the group times each speaker, using a lamp with three colored bulbs in a row — green, yellow and red, to signal how much time the speaker has left. Another Toastmaster counts the grammatical mistakes and another person does an evaluation for each speaker. In addition to the prepared speeches, each meeting includes table-topics which are prompts for spontaneous two-minute talks. Each meeting also has a theme for the day and a word of the day, which speakers are encouraged to incorporate.

I spent my first several meetings observing this process, avoiding any chance to speak and deciding I didn’t like this at all.

Did you hear the table topic I got? It was too weird. I can’t believe they actually tally up the ‘ums’ at the end of the meeting. How annoying. And that timer lamp is the worst. The Timekeeper reports the exact minutes for each person, not just the prepared speeches. And then someone else evaluates the whole meeting, even the evaluators. It’s a bit much. I really don’t know if this is for me, I said later to anybody who would listen. It’s a cult. And the schedule is a bother. I have other places to be at lunch.

Fortunately, even though this was my first Toastmaster’s experience, I have actually been here before. I mean, deciding to try something new and then listing all the reasons not to. There is a part of your mind that is an expert excuse maker and it can be very manipulative. That voice will make every complaint sound legit, when it’s really just the sound of you getting in your own way, to avoid a bit of effort or risk. But you can outsmart your excuse-making self. You can set up a commitment device from the get-go that will hold your goal steady until you get past this phase. In my case, I paid membership dues for several months and right away set a date to give my first prepared speech.

When you join Toastmasters, you get a handbook with 10 speech ‘projects’, suggestions for prepared speeches that you can give when you are ready. At the end of completing all ten, you get a certificate. Each speech has a focus such as body language, organization or using visual aides. The first one is the Ice Breaker, and the job of the speech is to introduce yourself.

On May 1, I was one of three people giving prepared speeches to a crowd of about 20 members. I told a story about my family of origin (which I then used as an early blog post) as a way of explaining where I was from. Though I knew the story by heart, I practiced it several times at home in the days before. The audience ate it up. Fellow Toastmasters wrote their reviews on little slips of paper and a few stood up to give their feedback. The Grammarian said he was so into my story that he forgot to count his ums. The Timekeeper said I could have talked all day. I was pumped. I wondered if this was beginner’s luck and right away scheduled my second speech for June.

On the day of my second speech, the theme of the meeting was summer resolutions. I hadn’t thought about summer this way before, but it’s a time for setting goals, too — things like working toward a fitness target, completing a household project or maybe just savoring every day. I like the idea of breaking a big goal down to the bit that you can accomplish in a season. Summer is also a chance to take a look back at the first half of the year and recalibrate. I recently began a daily meditation practice, something that wasn’t on my radar in January. I hope to be able to meditate in full lotus for ten minutes by the end of the summer. At the moment, the meditation class fits my schedule more readily than ballroom dancing, which will have to wait. As for the public speaking goal, that one seems to have stuck.

For my second prepared speech, I shared a story that I have written about on this blog, about going from Wisconsin to Harvard. This one I hadn’t practiced as much and I learned a valuable lesson. When I don’t practice the speech, I over-talk the first-half, and wind up hurrying through the conclusion when I see the red timer light go on. I also use filler-words more. I said ‘um’ six times in nine minutes and had one other grammatical correction. Despite this, the comments were once again very encouraging. One seasoned Toastmaster began her note by saying, “Amy you have quite the gift.” She recommended that I ask for more time at the start, rather than cutting material.

I made a mental note of the helpful criticisms, and then immediately tossed out the little papers they were written on. No need to dwell.

That last note I pinned to a bulletin board near my office computer, where I would see it often. It’s possible this reviewer was just being nice or that she says that kind of thing to everybody. But, no matter. I have decided to add one more resolution to the pile, and I recommend it to anyone. That is to believe the nice things people say.

When it was time to decide about continuing my Toastmasters membership, I noticed I was all out of excuses. So, I rejoined for another six months. I haven’t yet scheduled my third prepared speech, but I hope to do so in July. And now that I am benefiting from the process, I figure I might as well do my part. So, yes, at our next meeting, it’ll be me in charge of the timer lamp.

Story by Amy Ambrose,


Allison Shapira Finds Her Voice

My first memory of Allison Shapira is her singing her introduction to our class at the Harvard Kennedy School in summer 2008.

As is tradition in the Mid-Career Master in Public Administration, each of our 180 or so classmates gave a 15-second speech about ourselves, one after the other, in one swift go. Most of us used that time to say where we were from, what our names meant or what we wanted to do.

When Allison Shapira took the stage, she didn’t speak a word but held up her name card and beautifully sang part of an aria by Handel called “Lascia ch’io pianga”. A former opera singer, Allison worked at the Harvard Kennedy School as Program Manager for the Wexner Israel Fellowship Program and also taught workshops in public speaking at the school.

That was five years ago. Today, Allison doesn’t sing opera. And she doesn’t work at Harvard or live in Boston, either. She owns her own company based in Washington DC called Global Public Speaking and she sings folk music with guitar. At 35, she is in every way living life on her terms. She smiles widely and often, and has a way of making her self-determination odyssey sound easy and even obvious, when little about it was either.

For starters, switching from the formality of classical music to the personal nature of folk songs takes some doing. Allison searched and found a vocal instructor to help her set down the rigidity of her opera training and unlock her folk voice. Then she tried unsuccessfully to find a guitarist to accompany her. Undeterred, she decided to learn to play guitar herself. She began with an acoustic guitar she borrowed through a friend and basic online lessons.

Allison practiced playing guitar for hours and hours every week for months. She set aside other leisure activities like TV and books. “I knew from public speaking that the only way to get better is to practice,” she says. “So I pushed myself to perform.” Soon, she took the stage at open mic nights in the Boston area. And before long she was writing and performing her own songs.

If the music had been the only thing changing in Allison’s life that would have been enough. But she also reinvented her daytime profession and left a city where she had lived for 14 years. There was a moment when she had a job offer in DC that she thought she wanted, at a consulting firm working in international affairs. But something about the new job wasn’t the right fit, so she turned it down after she had already resigned her position at Harvard. Saying no left her empty-handed, but sometimes in order to find the right thing, you have to say no to absolutely anything else. You have to clear the runway to give your passion the space to land.

For a while she stayed with friends and did some soul-searching. She traveled Europe for several weeks with her guitar, performing at cafe’s and restaurants in Vienna, Napoli, Croatia and Paris. When she returned to the US, she promptly recorded her debut album, Coming Home. “It’s about coming home to my music,” she said, at her CD release party this spring at Club Passim.

At about this same time, Allison realized she was done looking for a mythical day job and instead would create one. She launched a business around empowering others, especially women, to find their authentic speaking voice. Very soon, Global Public Speaking was off and running, with assignments around the world, including teaching public speaking and leadership at Georgetown University.

Initially, the music and the public speaking were treated as unrelated ventures, but over time Allison combined lessons from the two in her work. In speaking as well as performing, “You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be authentic, ” she says. “The audience will respond if the speaker is passionate about what she has to say.” This message is at the heart of a recent TEDx talk Allison gave in Alexandria, Virginia called Find Your Voice.

From the very beginning in launching this blog, I had hoped to profile Allison Shapira and I am grateful she let me share her story. I learn a lot from her example. For one thing, whether you consciously know it or not, you create your life brand by what you choose to spend your time on. I realized that despite family obligations and a day-job, I could dedicate some time to writing. The more I do, the more writing becomes a part of who I am. For another thing, you’d be surprised what it means to other people when you say what only you can say, when you speak or write or sing from your authentic voice.

“I write a song about something that is very personal to me and then someone in the audience will speak to me afterwards and tell me how much my song was about them,” Allison says. “Those are my favorite moments.”

Allison recently paid a visit to New York City in the hopes of passing her debut album to Joan Baez, one of her top three musical inspirations. In the midst of a lot of noise backstage at a concert in Central Park, this encounter didn’t go quite as she had hoped. All Allison was able to say was “I’m a recovering opera singer and this is my CD.” To which Ms. Baez replied, “You’re recovering from what?”

Allison shared this story at a dinner party among friends and we agreed it will be funny to tell the next time Allison performs a song by her role model. She is often compared to a young Joan Baez and someone at the table remarked about Allison becoming the next rendition of her. This is high praise.

When she first began as a folk-singer, Allison mostly sang other people’s music, but now, when she performs a two-hour show, over half of the songs are originals she wrote. This is what I am thinking when I say, “But you’re not the newest edition of Joan Baez. You’re the newest edition of Allison Shapira.” With that my friend flashes one of her signature smiles, because she knows that’s true. And, it’s even better.

Allison Shapira will perform on Tuesday, June 25 at 7 p.m. at the New Deal Cafe in Greenbelt, Maryland. She performs regularly in the DC area.

Her web-site links include:
Allison Shapira Music at
Global Public Speaking:
Her Tedx talk: Find Your Voice

Story by Amy Ambrose,



Teaching DNA — Having a Time with the Time You Have

Aunt Edy, are you there. Still hanging on? I’m sorry you have to die this way. It’s really not fair and you did make a difference…

I had delayed writing a blog entry for this week because I was feeling out of sorts for no particular reason. Then, while filling out some school paperwork for one of my kids, I happened to come across this letter in a file box. It’s a letter my daughter wrote on the night my sister Edy died after a protracted battle with cancer in 2007. At first, finding the letter made me feel worse. But when I read it to the end, I felt better. So that’s why I’m sharing it (with Carolyn’s permission). Maybe someone else will feel better, too.

My sister Edy was a high school biology teacher. She loved teaching and she was good at it. She came to this profession sort of late in life, getting her teaching degree at around age 40. This took some doing over several years. She juggled single-parenthood, other full-time jobs and her studies. At the time she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she had only been working in a classroom for a few years. She fought hard through chemo therapy and radiation. And after about a year of struggle and progress, the cancer came back in new places. So, Edy fought harder for a few more months. But in the end, cancer won. She was 45 years old when she died.

During that year of treatment, my 12-year-old daughter and Edy spent a lot of time together. Carolyn was in the 6th grade and also especially interested in biology. When she needed a project for a school science fair, Edy guided her through a demonstration on how to extract DNA from common vegetables. I didn’t know a person could do that. Using household supplies like rubbing alcohol and meat tenderizer, they actually extracted the DNA from green peas in my kitchen. In the final step, this white stuff floats to the top of a beaker of watery greenness. They also built a model of DNA out of pipe cleaners and wooden beads. Along the way, Edy taught Carolyn the basic structure of DNA, a subject that fascinated her.

On the night Edy died, my daughter was too young to be allowed into the intensive care unit at the hospital, so she wrote her aunt a note in the waiting room where our whole big family had gathered. A close friend of Edy’s read Carolyn’s letter aloud at her bedside while the machines around her clicked and whirred. Edy was heavily sedated, but seemed to be aware of people in her room. Less than an hour later, she was gone.

Carolyn wrote what her aunt had taught her as if she were giving a recitation:

Ahem, DNA is a chain of deoxyribos and phosphate groups formed in helix and attached to the deoxyribos are A,T, C and G. As bound with Ts and Cs bound with Gs, thus creating over a billion different structures defining thousands of different organisms…

As a chronic meaning-finder and a believer in positive thinking, I found Edy’s passing not only gut-wrenchingly sad but also spiritually confusing. I never knew anyone who wanted so badly to live and so deeply believed in her own survival. If positive thinking had any power, she would be here now. Also, it felt like a rip-off. How could it be that she was meant to go so soon, when she still had so many places to go, dances to dance and, especially, lessons to teach?

On a rational level, I knew that my sister’s suffering was over, and also that she died peacefully with her family around. These were blessings. At the same time, her closet was full of new clothes she had bought that summer in preparation for the new school year that fall. She fully expected to return to work. It seemed to me that if life made any sense at all, she would have. She had only just found what she loved to do!

But sometimes life doesn’t make sense. At least not in a way that satisfies. Sometimes we lose people. And that’s just a drag.

I kept reading my daughter’s goodbye note to my sister. In closing, she told her,

See, even at an early death you taught many valuable things. (I bet you can’t find too many 6th graders who know that much about DNA.) You did your best with life and no one can expect more than that.

And there it was. So what if Edy only had four years to teach? That’s four more years than she would have had if she hadn’t gone back to school. At her funeral, we met a number of students whose lives Edy touched in the space of those few years. Her time in and out of the classroom was well-spent, no matter how short.

It turns out none of us knows how much time we have to work with and no one gets out of life alive. That’s not to be maudlin. These are just the facts.

The best you can do is to do your best with life. Even on a day when you are feeling out of sorts for no particular reason. Do your best with life, and no one can expect more than that.

I asked my daughter this morning if she could still recite the structure of DNA. She can. And the foundational knowledge Edy taught her has been built upon with six years of science classes since. So now, when Carolyn rattles off what she knows about deoxyribos and phosphate groups, it’s a much longer speech.



A Wooden Gift and a Start

She doesn’t want dinner with the whole family at the usual place. She’d prefer not to hear about that long, rainy spring and how the sun came out the day she was born. On her 17th birthday, my daughter wants to discuss world history with just me over a platter of Ethiopian food.

Her high school graduation and potential move to college are still a year away, but we can see that moment from here. And neither of us is quite sure how to handle it. She has a lot to figure out about where to pursue her love of art and her love of global affairs. She is ruminating about what she wants to do, and worried about all she has to sort out. It’s exciting and unnerving.

A few weeks ago, as I was thinking ahead to her birthday and gift ideas, our neighbor, Nelson, shared news that he had taken up wood-working and was hoping to start a business. He gets very animated as he talks about turning wood that would otherwise be on a scrap heap into something beautiful. His face lit up as he showed me his first finished item, a cutting board made from a tree that had been struck by lightning.

I wanted a memorable gift for my daughter. And I am all about encouraging people to do what they love to do. So, in that spirit, I commissioned Nelson to make a cheeseboard, a small wooden serving tray, as a gift for her. My daughter routinely sets out an array of cheeses and crackers for herself in the afternoons after school, with kalamata olives and pesto or hummus, if we have them. Her favorites are a reflection of both her Wisconsin origins and her more worldly tastes. A cheeseboard seemed just unusual enough to be fitting, and I thought Carolyn would appreciate the craftsmanship.

As the weeks rolled by, my neighbor gave me nearly daily updates about this project. He was excited to tell me about how he glued walnut, cedar, cherry and purple heartwood in tight rows, then finished and sanded repeatedly with increasingly fine grit sandpaper. He protected the wood with a food-safe blend of beeswax and walnut oil. The result was a simple, elegant piece and a point of pride for him.

After Carolyn’s special birthday dinner, she opened her gifts, including the cheeseboard. I explained who made it and what it was. She slowly turned the board over in her hand, studied the colors of the wood, ran her fingers over its smooth surface. Without looking up, she said, heartfelt, “It’s a work of art. Thank you.”

Her father commented that the cheeseboard will probably travel with Carolyn wherever she lives next and will probably be with her another 17 years from now. He wondered aloud how well it would hold up and where Carolyn might be living then. We joked that the cheeseboard will go with her from address to address, weather-worn and scarred but still in tact, reminding her of us.

“What do you think you’ll be doing in another 17 years?” he asks. The question irritates her. First off, it’s unimaginable to think of herself at age 34 and secondly she is not in the mood to talk about the future and its unknowns. She has a hard enough time picturing where she’ll be headed a year from now. “Can we just drop this subject?” she says, all rising-senior angst. “I was having a perfectly nice birthday until you said that.”

But I was glad for the thought. This is the first household item we’ve ever given her, and it seemed to signal acceptance of things to come and a vote of confidence in her future. Yes, we know you’ll be on your own in a few years, and maybe living abroad somewhere. And, wherever you wind up living, you’ll be doing just fine. We expect you’ll be dining on good cheese and crackers and olives.

I called our neighbor to let him know that Carolyn liked her gift, and that she was a little afraid to use it because she didn’t want to mar the surface. He gave us instructions on how to care for it so that the wood would last a lifetime. He also said this project led to his second sale for his new woodworking business. When another neighbor saw the cheeseboard under development, she commissioned him to build a wooden box for several hundred dollars.