Where There’s a Will

Often times I have been blown away by stories of happenstance and serendipity.  Our story is full of them.  Sometimes these “collisions” aren’t wonderful but are just as important. Some of them are downright heartbreaking.  Unfortunately, that is the kind I need to talk about today.




About two weeks ago I received a message from Mark Jones, the Athletic Director at at Leechburg High School, reminding me that it is awards assembly season.  To me that means presenting the “Ellen Jane-We Serve First Service Award” for the third year to a staff member, community member, or student who has gone above and beyond in their service to the school district, community, or student body.  It is getting easier to do this, and it’s always nice to go back to LHS and reconnect with the people there who meant so much to Ellen.  She taught at Leechburg for almost 20 years and her mark on the district is indelible.




I didn’t think I’d have much to say this year.  Time is washing away the students who remember Ellen.  This year's senior class still contains students Ellen taught for Health and Physical Education classes. Next year, there will be no students with direct ties.




So, I prepared some short comments, was ready to go, and something unrelated happened a few days before the awards night that made it crystal clear what the message to this year's class needed to be.... Heartbreaking happenstance...

Here is that speech.

How many students here had Mrs. Toy as a teacher?

Every year, that number drops, and eventually Ellen will be reduced to a friendly smile and pretty eyes on a plaque in the hallway.  I myself have forgotten what her voice sounds like, but there is so much video out there that when I want a reminder, it’s there for me.  One thing that is still clear, and is really more important, is what she might say.

Now I don’t find myself with a microphone in my hand very often, but today you handed me one, and Mr.Jones said I could do whatever I want.  I have this microphone, and you guys can’t leave until I’m done...

Sorry about your luck.

I won’t take long.  I know it’s spring, and soon you will be out of school, on the streets, at the pool, enjoying the park.  As spring turns to summer, you will enjoy the excitement of new opportunities.  Maybe your first solo drive, maybe a job, maybe a vacation, but not all opportunities are as positive.  That’s what Ellen’s voice begs me to talk to you about, as she can no longer be the inspiration to urge you to care for yourselves, your health, and your life...

Tuesday night I attended a funeral for a young man.  As I stood in the receiving line I watched the horrified faces, old and young alike, grappling with what they could possibly say as they inched closer and closer to the grief stricken parents and brothers.  This young man was a victim of the opioid epidemic that grips our country.  It robbed him of a promising engineering career and a long life, and it stole everything from his family and friends.  Believe me when I tell you they handled the situation with unfathomable grace and dignity, but they shouldn’t have had to at all. It was just a moment when judgment went wrong, when this young man took a wrong turn, when that wrong turn morphed into an addiction that someone who was smart enough to earn a degree in engineering and who was loved by family and friends could not escape.

Will was 25 years old. He graduated from Seneca Valley High School and the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in Civil Engineering. He struggled with this addiction but finally made it through to graduation and moved towards his independence. He had a job, his own apartment, friends, and attended meetings geared to helping him maintain his handle on life. He was loved and liked by all, had a fierce sense of humor, an easy smile, and a talent for music. He helped everyone, including his brother with autism. He was close with his family, understood their overwhelming support for him, loved the life that he fought hard to gain back. Again, one small wrong opportunity taken, one he didn’t think would take it all away, one that was tied to his first wrong turn, would end up being the one to devastate all who knew him. His bright light gone forever.

From his mom: “He was loved beyond measure. For someone like him to have fallen prey to this epidemic is beyond belief to all who knew of his integrity and devotion to family and friends. That’s why I would like his story told in a way that will cause any young person to think twice about what they are experimenting with… Will would appreciate this, as after he tried it once, there was no going back. It is addictive beyond measure and a lifelong imprisonment for those who try it even once. And, lately, with the addition of fentanyl, their first experience may prove deadly.”

So I beg you today to hear Will’s voice and Will’s mom’s voice through me, to hear Ellen’s voice through me, and to remember what I said today.  You have a lifetime of opportunities in front of you. When this one comes knocking, think twice. Don’t answer the door.  Realize that taking this wrong opportunity can and most likely will prevent you from living your life, and will prevent your family and friends from watching you live your dreams.  Be courageous for you and for your family.

Will is any of us. We are all one step away from the wrong decision. Learn from his story. Think twice. Be courageous.  Honor him by finding your joy in living this summer and for the rest of your life.

 

It is our hope that someone there in the auditorium heard this and took it to heart.  As long as I have a voice I should use it, as long as someone keeps handing me a microphone I will speak.  As long as I have a keyboard and a blog... 

well you get it. 

 

Have a happy, active, and safe summer everyone! 

 

Audrey’s Christmas Poem.

My family has a wonderful tradition that requires no big purchases.  We have a “Secret Santa Claus” drawing and then either write a story, a poem or make something appropriate for the person we were given.   

Fortunately, I drew my girlfriend Audrey, and it gave me a great opportunity to tell my family how I feel about her, and how the journey has brought us to this place in time... 

You’ll notice my lack of poetry accumen, and hopefully appreciate the feelings expressed... 

Here goes... 

 

Audrey... 

 

The worlds a funny place,

It giveth, it taketh, and it giveth again

This is how this story begins.

 

An email in an unlikely place,

“Try match.com,

find a new mate.”

In a moment of wonder a profile was formed,

before anyone could intervene,

or anyone could be warned.

I was honest and forthright,

and it frightened most away,

so on to Zoosk I moved my info one fateful day.

It didn’t take long, just a day or two,

a beautiful face showed up,

and it belonged to you.

and for all the first dates in your collection,

for all the men who were possible selections,

somehow we both swiped in the right direction.

 

I’m going on a date, the thought it seemed insane,

It’s too soon, you’re not ready,

the voices in my head proclaimed.

We met at Hines Ward’s Table 86,

I was nervous as could be,

but the very first smile from you is how you stole my heart from me.

We spent that first night talking and listening,

the stories we told left our eyes glistening.

you had my attention

that much is for sure,

a game was on TV and never once did I ask

"what's the score?"

 

What happens next,

a second date at Mad Mex,

talking some more and building mutual respect.

 

The third it was magical because of a hat,

who knew headware was were it was at?

Graylin’s Adventure is what it said,

and you proudly placed it on your head.

Not long after that,

right there at the table,

you kissed me a thank you,

my world went unstable.

Again as we parted we kissed goodnight,

and in a moment again, the world was alright.

 

From there it’s was a blur of dates and travel

and someone who didn’t mind picking up what had unraveled.

Hiking at McConnells Mill,

New Years eve and Hocking Hills,

Checking out DC’s sites,

Momma G and New York’s lights.

State College with Rox and Jim,

New York’s wine country and the Brickhouse Inn.

Cooper’s Rock for the first time,

hanging with the meetup gang was fine,

they rated me with boo’s and dings,

some of them thought I could sing.

The election came and to our surprise,

a hair piece won the biggest prize.

Washington, Jefferson, Kennedy, Lincoln.

What the heck are people thinking.

Off to DC again to March after the inauguration,

what’s the fate of our Great nation?

 

Our travel didn’t stop there,

soon we hiked in Colorado’s rare air.

Rocky Mountain National Park was delightful, wild and showy,

and on the last day really, really snowy.

Italy sounded like our next great idea,

so on TripAdvisor I would often see you.

You laid out what was a fantastic trip,

squeezing in activities, sites, gelato and too much wine to sip.

Florence, Tuscany, The Amalfi Coast, Capri and it’s Grotto,

oh and I can’t remember if I mentioned the gelato.

All these places with you I’ve gone,

let me say I think we are far from done.

 

Back to NYC for a show

you know is the next destination we’d go,

and we had Kate and Aly in tow.

A story about Freedom and a revolutionary fight,

“It’s Quiet Uptown” had us sobbing alright.

You held my hand and understood the emotion on display,

and told me gently and firmly “I’ve got you the rest of the way”

 

Cupid is like Burr,

he aimed his bow and shot it,

and into my chest the arrow went

and my big heart it caught it.

So far we’ve come, so far we’ve gone,

so many miles, and trips and battles won.

I think I said somewhere before that we are far from done...

 

This family here,

this Christmas Eve,

it’s time for me to tell them,

my heart belongs to this gal here,

her name is Audrey Graylin.

 

 

 

PS

Before she left she said to me,

don’t be afraid,

don’t be scared,

don’t stay alone,

don’t you dare.

Don’t stay bereft,

it doesn’t pay,

it’s not the place I want you to stay.

Look for the “collateral beauty”

this I see as your next duty.

And then I got this email from Match...

Click.

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Play the Next Point.

Play the next point...

I think that I've always been kind of a "present" person.  I've never been one to let disappointment get me down.  Because of that I have been able to fend off sadness in

The death of a child...

The passing of a parent, then a friend, then a teenage athlete I helped coach.

Life has been difficult, but at every turn, I rose above, lead the way, and anchored some who were less fortunate and needed help with this skill set.

I don't want you to think that,

  1. This was easy for me (or)
  2. I must be a cold hearted fool

Neither are true.  This shit hurts.  Deep.  To the core.  I have been bitter, angry, and sad.  I just don't see how that helps anyone, so I refused to stay there.

Then the unthinkable happened.

My wife Ellen's cancer returned, she was placed on hospice, and died, all in about two months time. 

This was the most severe test of my mindset.  If I continued to be "present", to lead, to anchor, some people might misunderstand.  That doesn't mean it was the wrong thing to do, in fact, it made it more "right", because so many were watching. 

 

 

Volleyball has been central in my life for so long.  So many times I watched from the sidelines as Ellen would instruct her athletes.  After a point, whether won or lost, she taught, and then she gave a simple instruction...

"Play the next point!"

Then, while interviewing a few members of the national team for the "Ultimate Trust" special edition of "Five Questions" the mindset came up again...

It totally is the basis of the game, everywhere it is played well.

Learn from each point, no matter the outcome, then...

Play the next point.

And so, here I am.

I have learned the valuable lessons, in triumph and in loss, yes even the most severe loss.  The instruction is still clear, crisp, and poignant...

Be present, be solid, be strong and

Play the next point.

 

The notion led me to travel to Brazil, alone on my first ever overseas trip, to watch the same National Team play in the Olympics, and more recently to join a whole new group of friends along with my girlfriend Audrey to hike the trails of Rocky Mountain National Park.  There we found stunning beauty at every turn, along every stream and waterfall, over every hill, and once at the very top of Twin Sister's, a panorama like none I have ever seen.  One of our most experience hiker pals Dave termed the hikes "treasure hunts".  Treasure indeed. 

Healing looks like this.  It's a difficult journey to be sure, but it is vastly worthwhile.  So watch.  Learn.  Live.

I can still hear, clearly, the command.

Play the next point.

 

 

Special thanks to my friends, Bruce, Rosta, Cathy, Timothy, Dave, and especially Audrey.  You all have shown me a new way of viewing the beauty in the world.  I never doubted it's "presence" I just needed help finding it.  Love you all.  Yinz rock!

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Then we drove to Omaha...

Championship point.  This time it's Nebraska's own Jordan Larson Burbach who gets the final kill.  The US Women's National team backs up last years World Championship with a 3-0 sweep of that same Chinese squad and wins the 2015 FIVB Grand Prix title right here, in Omaha Nebraska...

...and we were there!

Wait, what.  Yes we were there.  In the flesh, and some of the best part of the story is how we got there.  So here goes...

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