May 29, 2011

The "Moment"

I remember the “moment.” I was sitting in the far back row in a banquet hall in Carlsbad, California on May 30, 2010, a place where perhaps nearly 200 people or more had come together to pay their respects in honor of a man who had passed away on April 9, 2009. He had contracted a particularly aggressive form of cancer during the early fall of 2008. His surviving wife, her family, and his, had planned this “Celebration of Life” for months. I’d been in California less than three months, arriving from Kansas to dwell here once more after being gone for over 27 years. A good friend of mine who, like me, had attended the same high school as the man being honored that day, had invited me to this gathering several months before, long before I came back to California, and had been urging me to come after I arrived. I wasn’t sure whether I really belonged there at this gathering. After all, I had been gone for so long and, even though there were going to be many people there that I once knew from high school, I felt uneasy. I almost didn’t come. A day or so before, at nearly the last minute, I decided to. Why, I wasn’t sure. Perhaps I was curious. Perhaps I would at least be able to see and reminisce with some old friends. Or perhaps it was something else, some instinct buried deep within my soul that told me someone magical would be there. Those instincts proved correct. It was a “moment” I’ll never forget.

As I sat there listening to the opening remarks by some of the few close family members and friends, I gazed around the large room where we were all sitting. I was simply stunned by the preparations that were made for this celebration. There were literally HUNDREDS of photographs and assorted memorabilia scattered around the room, ALL in tribute to this honorable man. I was in somewhat of a state of shock to be honest. In my world, when someone dies, there’s a short gathering of a few close family members and friends for the funeral, the interment afterwards, followed by the customary dinner provided by the local church. And then it’s over. Everyone goes home and pretty much goes on with their lives the next day. But what I saw on THIS day took me completely by surprise. So did what happened next.

When she took the stage, stepped up to the microphone, and began to speak, I remember as if my body was bolted upright into my seat. I thought, WHO is this?! She was stunningly beautiful, impeccably dressed, remarkably composed for such an event, and she had this “aura” surrounding her that had me spell-bound. For a moment, it was as if no one else was there. All I could see and hear was her. Honestly, I’d never felt anything like that in my entire life as I did at that “moment.” I was immediately taken with her, totally captivated. Time ceased. When she spoke, I remember thinking back to something one of my bank supervisors had told me one day. He said, “Gus, it’s not only WHAT you say that matters, it’s also HOW you say it.” If there was ever anyone I’d ever met until that fateful day that personified that statement, it was her. She was, and IS, entirely about substance AND style. A woman I've often described in this manner; If Webster's dictionary ever wanted to include a term that defined CLASS, it would include her name.

As the ceremony continued and more and more people got up to speak of the man being honored that day, I began to have this insatiable urge to meet her. It was a strange sensation, and even though I knew many of the people there, most of which I’d gone to high school with, the fact is I’d been gone for so long I felt somewhat out of place. As the closing remarks ended and people were getting up to leave, I searched the room for my friend who had invited me to begin with. She had been asked to give the opening prayers and I figured if there was any chance I could meet this remarkable woman who had me so captivated that entire afternoon, it had to be her to give me that chance. She agreed. The rest is history. We’ve been pretty much inseparable ever since we agreed to meet privately on Moonlight Beach in Encinitas, CA. less than ten days later.

Fast forward to today. Anyone who knows me and who knows of my writing style also knows this. I’m NOT a man of few words and I could go on forever about the woman I love. But rather than doing that, perhaps it would be best to share this with you, thoughts and words that mirror some of my feelings about her. I’ll leave it at that.

"Only once in your life, I truly believe, you find someone who can completely turn your world around. You tell them things that you’ve never shared with another soul and they absorb everything you say and actually want to hear more. You share hopes for the future, dreams that will never come true, goals that were never achieved and the many disappointments life has thrown at you. When something wonderful happens, you can’t wait to tell them about it, knowing they will share in your excitement. They are not embarrassed to cry with you when you are hurting or laugh with you when you make a fool of yourself. Never do they hurt your feelings or make you feel like you are not good enough, but rather they build you up and show you the things about yourself that make you special and even beautiful. There is never any pressure, jealousy or competition but only a quiet calmness when they are around. You can be yourself and not worry about what they will think of you because they love you for who you are. The things that seem insignificant to most people such as a note, song or walk become invaluable treasures kept safe in your heart to cherish forever. Memories of your childhood come back and are so clear and vivid it’s like being young again. Colors seem brighter and more brilliant. Laughter seems part of daily life where before it was infrequent or didn’t exist at all. A phone call or two during the day helps to get you through a long day’s work and always brings a smile to your face. In their presence, there’s no need for continuous conversation, but you find you’re quite content in just having them nearby. Things that never interested you before become fascinating because you know they are important to this person who is so special to you. You think of this person on every occasion and in everything you do. Simple things bring them to mind like a pale blue sky, gentle wind or even a storm cloud on the horizon. You open your heart knowing that there’s a chance it may be broken one day and in opening your heart, you experience a love and joy that you never dreamed possible. You find that being vulnerable is the only way to allow your heart to feel true pleasure that’s so real it scares you. You find strength in knowing you have a true friend and possibly a soul mate that will remain loyal to the end. Life seems completely different, exciting and worthwhile. Your only hope and security is in knowing that they are a part of your life." ~ Bob Marley.


May 26, 2011

Learning to LIVE Again

I can see it in my “mind’s eye” as if it were yesterday. The year was 1972. My family was about to wrap up the biggest event of the year during our lives in a little town in Western Kansas. It was late June and my father was on a Massey Ferguson combine, slowly working his way around the last field of wheat during harvest that year. For those of you who aren’t familiar with that part of the country, let’s just say it’s like Christmas in late June. Wheat harvest was the culmination of 10 long months of waiting after the first seeds were placed into the ground the previous fall; waiting for the crop to emerge, praying for rain for the next 10 months, hoping insects wouldn’t take our crop, or the worst thing that nature could throw at her at the last minute with damaging hail just as the crop ripened. It was, and is, always an exciting time, filled with anticipation, especially if the crop was good. That year was no different. As you read, imagine you’re with me….

It’s late afternoon. The sun is beginning to work its way to setting an end to another day. I can “see” my father on the open combine on the north side of the 80 acre field, about a half-mile away. There’s hardly a breath of wind. I’m lying on the hood of our 1963 GMC pickup with my back to the windshield, admiring the view and soaking in the sounds of the gentle hum of the combine far away as it pulls in the precious crop, grinding the chaff and stalks away, placing the precious kernels of wheat into the combine’s grain bin. The temperature has fallen from a high of near 100 to probably the upper 80’s or low 90’s. A beautiful moment that I’ll always remember.

And then she appears. My mother has taken in the previous load of wheat to our local elevator with one of our farm trucks, has filled it with gas, checked the oil, and is returning the truck to the field to await loading of the precious cargo from Dad’s combine. In that part of the country, the geography of the land is very flat and sometimes it seems you can see forever, much like gazing at a vast expanse of ocean seas. She’s driving the truck on a paved highway a mile away, coming south, just behind and to the left of the combine I can see in the foreground. Behind her is a good friend in her car, waiting to pick Mom up and take her back to our farm after she leaves the truck at the field. She never makes it.

As the truck rolls slowly south, a slight hill in front of me obscures my view as the truck disappears behind it. If it had been any one of our other fields of wheat, that hill wouldn’t have been there. As I said, Kansas is very flat, especially the western part. Thank God for that hill.

I could see all of these events unfolding before my very eyes. I was 13 years old. The only boy among a family of eight; my Dad, Mom, and five sisters. Now the ears take over. Moments after the truck disappears behind the hill, I hear one of the most horrific noises I’ve ever heard in my life. No screeching of tires, nothing. Just the God-awful crash. And now the eyes take over again. A vast plume of dust rising slowly straight up, right where Mom was making a left turn off the two-lane highway onto a gravel road. The pickup she met and its occupant, a man who later died that night from massive internal injuries, was frantically trying to make his way to our little town of Tribune for repairs on HIS combine. He was coming from one of his own fields further south, travelling north, in the opposite direction, and it was estimated later he may have been driving at a high rate of speed, though within legal limits, and certainly not unusual for that part of the country. All anyone could guess is that Mom misjudged his speed. Perhaps she thought she could make the left turn before he met her. We’ll never know. It was nearly a head-on collision.

That moment changed my life forever. Instincts took over. I jumped into the pickup, started the engine, shoved it into gear, and floored it on the gravel road over the hill. I was the first person on the scene. And that’s not the worst part. In the early 70’s, there wasn’t anything remotely resembling an “ambulance” in our little town, let alone the term “paramedic.” I was COMPLETELY alone at the site of the accident for what seemed like forever. I remember getting out as I arrived, looked to my right, and saw the man who was in the pickup, propped up with his back against the side, the top of the pickup peeled away neatly from the violent collision. He was covered from head to toe in blood. I ran over to where Mom’s truck was on the other side of the ditch next to the highway. The force of the collision had slammed her body out of the PASSENGER side door and she was laying face-down by the side of the truck. Hardly any blood. Just this strange breathing noise. Imagine you’re trying to catch your breath. You do it once, maybe twice. Then you breathe normal again. Mom wasn’t breathing normal. It was as if her body was trying to catch its breath, very quietly… again, and again. And again. I mentioned earlier the lack of what one would call an ambulance in those days. I remember clearly how Mom was “transported” to the hospital in Tribune 6 miles away. Once people started arriving on the scene, they concocted a “stretcher” out of a large piece of plywood my father and I had nailed to the wood bottom floor bed of the truck my Mom had been driving. The plywood was there to cover up a hole in the floor bed so grain wouldn’t pour through. I watched as a couple men jumped into the back of the truck, grabbed crowbars, yanked the plywood from the floor, then handed it to two more men waiting below, who then placed Mom on it, before sliding that plywood “stretcher” into the back of a vehicle for the trip to the local hospital. She had numerous and severe injuries, most of them internal, was on a respirator, and never regained full consciousness. About two weeks later she died. The doctors told us if she lived she would have been in a permanent vegetative state from severe head trauma.

How did I deal with that grief? It will be 39 years since my mother’s passing this coming July 11th. I can’t give you a pat answer. Fact is, there are none. Certainly, time played a huge factor in the grief process. The old saying “time heals all wounds” is so true. But it goes much much deeper. Dealing with the death of someone you love is extremely PERSONAL. As we know, everyone is different. Each of us has our own unique ways of dealing with it. Still, I can offer you these perspectives.

First though, let me say this. I recall the first couple of years after her death as if I was in a constant state of shock, a fog where I don’t remember much of what happened during that time. I remember only the first few hours, days, and weeks, both shortly after the accident as well as after her death. Keep in mind, I was only 13 at the time and it was if a nuclear bomb had exploded our lives as a family into little pieces. Imagine, if you will, a car engine. It has many working pieces, one of which is the main crankshaft that has a flywheel attached to it that turns your engine over. If that flywheel is damaged in any manner, it doesn’t matter HOW well the rest of the parts are working in the engine, the car simply won’t start. Mom was our family’s flywheel. Losing her was as if our life ended. It took TWENTY-FIVE years before I could place a picture of her on a shelf in my office without bursting into tears.

What then, besides time, has it taken? For me, it took yet ANOTHER tragedy to occur in my life, this one self-inflicted. Rather than go into any detail on that, suffice it to say that once I “awakened” fully about three years ago, is when I began to realize the significance of her death. What I’m about to tell you may come as a shock, but if my Mom hadn’t of died, I am CONVINCED I wouldn’t be writing these words to you at this very moment. I wouldn’t have left Kansas at the age of 16, bound for San Diego County, where my Dad’s sister taught high school, and where I graduated in 1977. I wouldn’t have gone on to San Diego State University and got my Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration in 1982. I wouldn’t have RETURNED to Kansas in 1985, where I worked for the local bank for the next 23 years, where I married, fathered two children, and farmed once again with my father. I wouldn’t have succumbed to an insidious, cunning, baffling, and powerful disease, yet emerging from those ashes as a better man and a better person. I wouldn’t have returned once again to San Diego just last year in March 2010 to start a new life and a “new way of living.”

Was her death then a blessing? No. Certainly not. That’s not my point. Point is, I’ve taken her death and made it possibly something MUCH greater, something I can share in LIVING, something I can share with YOU, that anything is possible, that we can look at death not as the end of life, but as a new beginning. That “new” beginning will be rough. You will stumble and fall. You’ll feel as if you have control over…nothing. Think of it this way. It’s as if you are born anew. Remember what it was like when you were a child or even watched YOUR child grow? Making mistakes, crying, falling down, picking themselves up and wiping the dust off. But eventually, you’ll learn. You’ll learn how to think, how to act, how to TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. In other words, “Trust the process.” It WILL happen. That’s a guarantee. There’s not a doubt in my mind that she is with me right now, AT THIS VERY MOMENT, helping me to type these words. Helping me to inspire, uplift, and HELP others, including YOU.

Death of someone you love doesn’t mean YOUR life has to end. We have to look at making something positive out of what seems the WORST possible thing that can happen to us. We turn a weakness into possibly the greatest asset and strength we’ve ever had; for ourselves, for our families, and for each other. This includes all of you. If you’re presently still in shock like I once was, if you’re still in that fog of despair, if you feel you’re at the end of your rope, let my story and my words give you HOPE that there WILL be new and brighter days ahead, filled with love, laughter, and utter peace in your life. May God Bless you all.


May 24, 2011

You've Got a Friend

The picture you see above is a scanned and enlarged copy of the front of a card I received yesterday. I’d been working all day and came home about midnight. There, on the kitchen counter, was a box about 5” x 6” inches in size. From whom I wondered? It looked like it came from a mail-order house, although I didn’t recall ordering anything. Opening it, I found inside some packages of brownies. On the top, encased in soft, clear plastic, was the 4” x 5” card. Inside was their picture with these words beautifully written with warm computer lettering:

“Dear Gus, Having a friend like you is a rare and precious gift. I know we are not perfect. But it is those friends who uplift you and keep you focused on the prize that are the most precious and priceless. I thank God for placing you in our lives. Warmest Personal Regards, John and Jane Doe.”

I stood there gazing at the card for the longest time. Then I smiled. I knew why I had come home that evening. It was another sign from above to share this story with you, the sort of story it is my fervent hope and prayer that will inspire you, to give you HOPE that there really are people like this in the world, a world often seen and felt as cold, cynical, complicated, confusing, and downright frightening at times.  People who value substance over style. People who have love in their hearts and faith in their soul. People who come into your life for a reason, though you may not even know why at the time. People of unquestionable honesty and integrity. People whom you can always count on, who will never judge you, in spite of all the mistakes you make, or the pain you may cause to them or to others. For now, John and Jane’s real names will remain anonymous out of respect for their privacy. The card and the gift, however, originated from Jane. I’ve “known” her since April 17th, 2011. The reason why I know the exact date is because she wrote this on my “Gusto” Facebook page that evening: “I like this page. Saw the link in the bottom corner of the screen and almost ignored it. God had other plans. Glad I signed on.”

Jane is not unlike many others who have joined that Facebook page over the past three months. There’s been many comments when they joined, not really knowing the reason why, just some “inner voice” telling them to, a common refrain. Since then, Jane and I have also become personal friends in that forum. Jane is the type of person one rarely encounters these days; a person of character, faith, integrity, sincerity, and just an all-around GENUINE lady. There are any number of ways one can describe such a person, quotes many of us are familiar with, but there’s one that stands out for me: “It takes a second to meet someone, a minute to appreciate them, an hour to like them, but an entire lifetime to forget them.” I’m almost certain Jane and I will remain friends for a very long time.

As it turns out, Jane and her husband John have been dealt some pretty harsh cards over the past six months. John suffered a traumatic brain injury in November, 2010 and Jane cannot work, due to a spine infection, which will require spine fusion surgery once the infection subsides. Neither drives and are dependent upon their children to a great extent, including housing. Presently, they live with their youngest son but will be moving soon from northern California to San Diego County, where they will live near their eldest son and grandson. Needless to say, life hasn’t been easy for this wonderful couple. When she appeared on my Facebook page, it became quickly apparent that God must have intended for us to be connected in this way. I’m a little like Jane, in that life has dealt me some tough hands over the years, though the past three have been nothing short of a personal miracle. However, unlike her, my cards were the result of my own actions. Guess I thought I could beat the odds. But the odds caught up with me. Fortunately, God gave me ANOTHER chance on June 5th, 2008 and I haven’t wasted that chance for a second. My mission becomes clearer and clearer every day. The creation of the “Gusto” Facebook page, one whose SOLE purpose is to reach out and INSPIRE my fellow brothers and sisters in this world, is just one part of that mission. The other part, of course, and THE most important, is continuing with writing. Writing about not only my experiences and how I’ve dealt with them, but also about people like Jane, stories meant to inspire all of you who are reading this.

We all have “stories” to tell. Over the past three years I’ve discovered that for a number of reasons; privacy concerns, the judgment of others, sociological impressions that prevent us from “living out loud”, and most of all, FEAR and PRIDE, many of us simply choose not to share those stories. Perhaps one of those is YOU. I want to tell you then, have no fear. There are MANY people like Jane in this world, people who won’t look down upon you for telling your story, however tragic or painful it may be. There are many “Janes” in this world waiting to listen, waiting to lend you a hand, waiting to be your “friend” in its purest and loving form. There’s a truth I believe to be universal in this world. It goes something like this. We attract what we think, how we act, and what we want. If you think and act with honor, integrity, sincerity, and dignity, you will receive people like Jane in your world. The choice is YOURS!!

I’ll leave you with these final words, a portion of James Taylor’s song “You’ve Got a Friend.” “When you're down and troubled and you need a helping hand, and nothing, whoa nothing is going right. Close your eyes and think of me and soon I will be there to brighten up even your darkest nights.”

I am, and always will be, your FRIEND.


May 17, 2011

Keeping Kindness Alive!

Recently, I went on a trip to Kansas to see my daughter graduate from high school. While I was there, she and I made a trip to Colorado Springs to go horseback riding, about a three hour drive from the little town where both she and I were born. Like many small towns scattered throughout our nation, the evolution of change and the demise of small-town life marches forward. Of course, our global economy has much to do with that change, in addition to the advent of modern technology, with ever increasing farm sizes, fewer people, and even fewer businesses. One of those towns is located in far eastern Colorado, near the Kansas border, called Kit Carson, Colorado, named after the famed explorer and frontiersman of the 1800’s.

And so, during this trip to Colorado Springs, we stopped in Kit Carson looking for a restroom. As memory serves, this town once had several places to choose from, but on this trip there was only one, a restaurant called the Kit Carson Trading Post. As we left, I gazed around the area and felt the lonely isolation of this town, nearly devoid of the vibrancy of life it once had. I felt saddened that our nation has come to this, the slow death of small-town life, yet I was grateful the Trading Post still stood. Apparently, the economy hadn’t sucked the life out of her. Business was good.

A few days later, my daughter gave me a ride back to the airport in Denver and we again stopped at this same little restaurant, this time for both a restroom break and to grab a cup of coffee for the last leg on to Denver. That decision for a cup of coffee proved to be a moment of fate.

After we got out of our vehicle, I handed my daughter my wallet and told her to go on in and get us some coffee while I retrieved some eye drops she had asked for out of my suitcase in the trunk of her car. When I stepped inside, my daughter was standing near the cashier’s counter waiting for our coffee. There stood a middle-aged woman. Next to her was a young girl, age 10, with a sweatshirt on that read; “Johnson, Kansas. Where EVERYONE knows your name.” I remarked to the lady that I knew where Johnson was and that I’d just come from Tribune, Kansas where I had attended my daughter’s high school graduation, only 60 miles north of Johnson. I also remarked that I was on my way back to Denver to catch a flight to my home in San Diego the next day. Her eyes lit up! Turns out this lady’s name was Maria Myers and SHE had also attended a high school graduation for the brother of the little girl next to her on the very day I was attending my daughter’s! But it was the little girl’s sweatshirt that caught my eye. I told Maria that Tribune was much like Johnson, a place where everyone knows one another, hardly anyone locks their doors at night, and everyone feels welcome, even strangers. To top things off, Maria went on to say that the girl with her was her foster child, Faith Myers, and that Faith’s brother was the one whose graduation they had attended in Johnson. Maria and Faith were ALSO on their way back to Denver to catch THEIR flight home to Ohio the next day.

From there, the conversation moved rapidly to small town living. I shared with Maria at some length about growing up in a small town, how I came to San Diego as a wide-eyed 16 year old to finish high school then on to college after my mother had died when I was 13, how I had come BACK to my home town years later where I lived for two decades working for the bank, farming, raising my children during their early childhood, experiencing some personal tragedies of my own, only to return once again to California in 2010, and was now involved in a nonprofit organization, whose sole purpose is to provide charitable support for widowed parents with surviving dependent children. Meanwhile, my daughter Christy was excitedly telling 10 year old Faith about HER plans for life, her desire to go to college and become a commercial airline pilot. At that point, Maria was SO comfortable with us that she even offered me to ride along with them to Denver since they too were headed to the airport. Of course, I politely declined her gracious offer. After all, these were the last few hours my daughter and I could spend alone together. However, we DID exchange contact information and I went on to explain that this was the sort of thing I’ve been looking for in life over the past three years; meeting total strangers, exchanging greetings, being KIND to one another, being PERSONABLE. Since I was out of business cards, I wrote my website down for her and invited her to visit the blog since I would be likely writing about our chance encounter. We all smiled and gave each other our goodbyes. But, as they worked their way to a table to sit down for lunch and partake of the delicious food the Trading Post had to offer, “it” happened.

I told my daughter to pay for the coffee so I could retrieve something from my backpack in the car outside. In there was a small gift. A palm-size card in the shape of what looks like a gift-wrapped box, cards given to me by the woman I love, part of our mission together whenever something like this “happens.” On that card, I wrote this: “Visit and PAY IT FORWARD! It was OUR pleasure to meet you Maria and Faith! Gus and Christy Rowe.”

When I came back in, I gave it to one of the employees there along with a $20 bill with these instructions: “Give this card to the lady back there in the corner sitting with the little girl who has the pink sweatshirt on that says Johnson, Kansas, where EVERYONE knows your name. Tell them Gus and Christy Rowe bought their lunch.” You should have seen the smile on his face!!

45 minutes later, somewhere between Kit Carson, CO. and Limon, CO., on a lonely stretch of road, my cell phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number and almost didn’t pick it up. Something quickly told me to. It was Maria and Faith. Their voices were practically jumping through the phone into our car. Maria was beside herself with joy, thanking us profusely, telling us how amazing that act was, and that they had called Faith’s family in Johnson, KS. saying “You’ll NEVER believe what just HAPPENED to us in Kit Carson!”

All I told them was to just Pay it Forward by Keeping Kindness Alive. I ended the call this way, “Margaret Mead was right Maria. Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the ONLY thing that ever has!” She practically screamed with delight, “That is SO true!” As I hung up, I was smiling broadly. Christy looked at me and said, “I knew it was her.” So did I. A half hour later, as we drove in silence, I looked over at Christy and said, “That was a moment in Faith’s life she will NEVER forget. More importantly, she’ll make SURE no one else does either, for as long as she lives.”

THAT’S the legacy I wish to leave with MY children. An impression indelibly embedded in the hearts and souls. Forever.