Deb’s Personal Heartfelt Leadership Story

While our parents are usually the primary shapers of our values and belief systems, I have come to learn that others can have a profound influence on us too, especially we when are most vulnerable. Sometimes we are lucky enough to be sent angels to save us from the darkness and give us new reasons to live and believe. That’s what happened to me.

My story is about a time long ago, when I was young, lost and very much in need of a life line.

When One Door Closes - How I became “heartfelt”

The doorbell rang, yet I sat there cold and numb, staring into the fog. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t feel. I was angry. I was empty. I was scared. I wanted to cry, but there were no tears. There was nothing but nothingness here in my bedroom, where everything should have felt familiar and comforting, but wasn’t. My room now seemed like a place I didn’t know at all. It was a place I didn’t want to know. As if in a bad dream, everything felt strange and unknown. I felt completely alone.

The doorbell rang again. This time there was a knocking. I slowly stood up and drifted like a ghost to the front door. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, wondering if it was even safe to open the door. I wondered who was coming here.

I opened the door to find my best friend, Jenny, and her mother. I suddenly realized Jenny’s mother had never been to my house before. For months I had tried to hide my “real life” from the world. I didn’t want anyone to know what my home life was really like. Most of all, I didn’t want Jenny or her parents to know. Now they were at my door.

Jenny just stood there, not knowing what to say. I stood there, too, not knowing what to do. Numbness overtook my arms and fog shrouded my mind. I couldn’t speak. Then I noticed Jenny’s mom had a warm casserole dish in her pot-holdered hands. “We brought you something to eat” she said, holding up the aluminum-covered Pyrex dish. I stood there, feeling confused. I still didn’t know what to say.

As Jenny’s mom handed me the casserole dish she said “Honey, I know how you feel. I lost my mom, too, when I was about your age. I know what you are going through. I know how alone you must feel. I just want you to know you can always talk to me and I will understand.” With that, she put her arms around me. For the first time in what seemed like forever, I somehow felt a sense of relief. I was saddened for her, but somehow glad to know I wasn’t the only teenager to lose a mother.

I had just been thrown a lifeline. I wanted to hold on.

My high school graduation had been just two weeks earlier. I was named class valedictorian and I was accepted to the only college I had applied to, the University of California. This should have been the best summer of my life. But three days after graduation I watched from the quiet of my room as my mother staggered down the hall past my door, falling in yet another drunken stupor. This time she tripped and fell with such force that her head crashed loudly through the door of the broom closet. I stared in horror at what had become an all too familiar scene, with my mother falling during an alcoholic binge. I rolled my eyes to the ceiling, wishing these incidents would stop. I slowly got up in disgust and, as I had done so many times before, tried to help her sit up. But this time she didn’t get up. She just laid there, moaning, with the jagged, splintered edges of the broken closet door sticking into her head. Blood streamed across and down her face onto the floor. She moaned, “You don’t need me. Just leave me alone and let me die.” I called 911.

Eighteen months before, in the middle of my junior year, I transferred high schools to attend the school near the beach house where my mother would be living. I was told by my father that I would live with my mother at the beach house since someone had to take care her while he stayed in Bakersfield to run his company he had purchased eight years before. My mother hated living in Bakersfield and turned to drinking to alleviate her depression. She drank or slept most of the time. My dad wanted nothing to do with her. I was left alone to fend for myself and be her caretaker.

On my first day at the new high school, while I sat waiting in the administration office lobby to enroll myself in classes, I noticed another new girl waiting to be assigned her classes. She asked me where I came from and said her name was Jenny. She told me her father worked for a big company called IBM and he had just been transferred here. Over the next few weeks, we quickly became good friends and she invited me to hang out at her house most every day after school.

I loved going over to Jenny’s house after school. Her mom was a wonderful cook and always had a fresh batch of cookies or nice warm chocolate brownies waiting on the kitchen counter after school. I loved being in their house, where her two brothers and her sister also had their friends over most of the time. Their house was always filled with laughter and fun. It was such a wonderful relief from my “real life”. To keep from having to go home, I would find excuses to stay at Jenny’s house doing homework or talking to her mom until dinner was on the table. As the entire family was sitting down to eat, Jenny’s mom would invite me to stay, and I would nearly always accept the invitation. As often as possible, I would even spend the night.

But most of all, I loved dinner time at Jenny’s, with all the kids and all the laughter as her dad would tell us stories about his work. Jenny’s dad loved to tell us about the events of his business day, and he loved telling us how he got to his lofty position in the company. I loved hearing him tell us over and over about the times when he was a young sales rep, wearing his first business suit, with a white shirt, striped tie and wingtip shoes, selling office products, like the famed IBM Selectric typewriter. He loved to tell us how he learned the importance of being friendly and kind to everyone at work and at his customers' offices. He would tell us how he was especially nice to secretaries. He would talk with passion about how he came to learn the importance of asking about their jobs and what it would take to help make their jobs easier. He told us stories about how he would find clever ways to make the secretaries feel special every time he visited. It was sure easy for me to see how he became so successful. I wanted to grow up to be a business person like him, and I wanted to be like Jenny’s mom, too.

So unlike my own parents, and unlike most of my other friend’s parents who seemed grouchy and distant, Jenny’s parents were warm, friendly and fun to be around. They always seemed so interested in each of their kids. And they went out of their way to make me feel like I was a member of the family, like I belonged there. They would ask me questions and offer advice about school and my extra-curricular activities, and they made me feel like I was important.

At least for those wonderful hours while I was at their house, I felt like I belonged. I felt loved. Jenny’s parents helped me to understand that by loving and caring about people, and by making them feel important, wanted and listened to, the world could indeed be a better place.

I loved Jenny and I loved her family and, most of all, I loved her parents. I wanted them to be my parents.

And now, here we were, Jenny and her mom at the front door of my house. It felt strange. I suddenly realized that in a year and a half I had never asked Jenny to hang out at my house, because I never wanted to be at my house. Suddenly I felt embarrassed and ashamed. I didn’t know what to say.

I couldn’t bring myself to tell them that my mom had died the day before and my father was nowhere to be found. But somehow, Jenny and her mom already knew. Jenny’s Mom hugged me tight and said, “You are not alone, Honey. We love you and we’re your family. I’ll be your Mom.”

That was a lifetime ago. Now, forty years later, Jenny’s entire family IS my family and my children call her parents Grandma and Grandpa. I make it a point to tell them how much I love them every time I speak to them. One time, many years ago, I asked them what I could do to possibly pay them back for everything they had done for me. They simply told me to pay it forward to others.

So that’s what I have tried to do ever since. I try to focus on being friendly to and interested in others. I go out of my way to get to know the people, to learn about their jobs and find out how I can help make their jobs better, more fun and more rewarding. It’s important for me to make them feel special and important, because they are. And I hope that maybe, just maybe, they will pay it forward, too.

I feel so privileged to bring Heartfelt Leadership to life, together with Mark Goulston. This is maybe one more, even bigger way to somehow pay it forward. It feels good to honor Jenny and her Mom and Dad, my family, and the many heartfelt leaders who, through their caring mentorship, friendship, love and kindness, are making this world a better place.

I hope you will join us to identify, celebrate, pay tribute to, develop, empower, embolden and impassion heartfelt leaders to heal the world and then change it for the better. Together we CAN change the world, starting right now.