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Reflecting on the fire 35 years ago today.

“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” – Maya Angelou

Birthdays, anniversaries and holidays are obvious dates to celebrate. Bake a cake, light the candles, sing a song, gather together, toast to life. But what do we do with the dates that remind us not of what we have, but of all we lost? How should we treat those anniversaries?

For my family and me, one such date is January 17th.

On that date 35 years ago, I was burned on 100% of my body.

In total, I’d spend the following five months in hospital and endure surgeries and therapy for an additional year afterwards. The fire forced me to walk through life with scars covering my entire body, with fingers amputated, and with physical pain that remains and the emotional trauma of all that was endured.

And I wasn’t the only one negatively impacted. The fire profoundly challenged my family, too. My parents were forced to navigate an impossibly difficult time. Our family home was destroyed, my siblings’ lives deeply disrupted, the life we’d formerly known permanently gone.

I was the one burned, but we all received scars.

All because of a date: January 17, 1987.

And yet, as time passed and we reflected on it, that tragic moment produced unexpected blessings.

Much of what is beautiful and enriching in my life today was born through the tragedy of those flames.

Through the painful ashes of recovery as a child, our family grew in character, audacity, compassion, faithfulness, and drive. It galvanized a clear perspective on what things matter enough to fight for and what things to simply let go of. Because of the fire, we don’t take things for granted, are grateful for each day and remain certain that the best is yet to come.

The fire provided an opportunity for our entire community to come together and work as one. Friends literally opened their houses for my family to reside and they opened their hearts for my family to heal. Friends offered support, strangers offered prayer, and visitors offered encouragement.

In time, that date guided the decisions on where I went to high school and to university, which led to a fortuitous meeting with a beautiful lady named Beth. Together, we have been blessed with four children, loads of laughter, plenty of challenges, and lots of love.

In other words, an awesome, imperfect, blessed life…all born out of a tragic date.

Now, do I have scars? You bet. They cover my entire body.

Did I lose my fingers? Yes.

Was it devastating for my family? Undoubtedly.

But we did overcome and not only does it no longer negatively define us, we’re actually significantly better because of it.

My friends, we all face fires in life; we all get burned.

Ultimately whether our life story is an epic to celebrate or a tragedy to mourn has surprisingly little to do with the events within our lives and far more to do with the manner in which we respond to those events.

It is a choice. A choice to not only delight in the beauty of the butterfly. But also, to celebrate the painful changes required to achieve that beauty.

35 years ago today our family endured an unexpected, unwanted agonizing tragedy.

Today, we celebrate the beautiful transformation that came from it.

Know this, in the midst of all the profound challenges we face societally and endure privately, remain confident that your life is a gift, you’re not done being formed, the foundation is firm and the best is yet to come.

This is your day. Live Inspired.


11 replies on “An Anniversary to Celebrate”

From the first time I heard you speak at Nubability to reading your Monday Motivations I have always found your life lessons to be uplifting and tried to relate of how I could apply it in my own life. This Monday’s message was even more powerful, as it was the 26th anniversary of my father’s passing. At the time I was a middle school student still trying to navigate the nuiances of being a teenager and faced with a harsh reality I would never see my dad again. Reflecting back I couldn’t help but feel some of the similarities you described in your own journey, because it is so hard to understand how the tragedies that we must face lead to the blessings in our lives. Thank you again for that reminder.

I remember, vividly, the first time I heard you tell your story & how impressed I was with it, as I still am. I fondly remember your visits to Eureka High School to first adress my grandsons Football Team & then other teams. I was amazed with your ability to hold the attention of a large number of Teenagers as you spoke. Continued blessing on you, and your beautiful family. May every day be a holiday & every meal a banquet for all of you. John C

Hi John, it’s been too long since we’ve caught up. I heard you on KMOX last week and heard “the valet-lost-my-car in Florida” story, and your comforting response to that valet, and your sage to all of us that “somebody’s always watching” our response to adversity. The “subway guy” messed up my large order for nursing home staff later that day. I thought about what I had heard just a couple hours earlier, and did my best “John O’Leary” impersonation! I’m pretty sure it made the guy feel better! I mean …the guy’s out there making a few bucks, for gosh sakes! Thanks for your inspiration that day and every day!

John, I would usually congratulate on special days yet this one means So much more to so many. There aren’t enough words to express my full range of emotions. No matter how many times I hear your familes stories I am Still in Awe! Be well my friend. Thank you for being such a fighter and providing guidance and leadership for the lost eeversingle day.

Thank you, John. Your story reminds me that every challenge provides me with a choice. I can remain a victim, or find the blessing. Choosing to let go of victimhood might be one of the hardest things to do, but it allows the emergence of those beautiful butterfly wings. And it prepares us for the next challenge that is sure to come. So appreciate your light and life!

Thanks John for that essay. Our family just celebrated our little miracle Curtis. He’s was waiting for his chocolate cake last week on the 13th.
So many blessings came out of a tragic car accident that nearly took his life. The outpouring of love and support given to Curtis and his family is the real miracle. Support came from friends, family and strangers. You are one of those people! We give thanks for you and the support you have given all of us. That story of how you met Curtis is amazing too.!!!
Thanks for caring for Brad, Adrienne, Curtis and the rest of the family.
And hats off to your mom and dad for pushing you to play the piano!

As always, you inspire so many to live and love better lives. Thank you for all the wonderful work and encouragement you provide to so many.

Thanks as always for sharing your journey and helping us all to keep life and the journey in perspective. God is good!!

It was great to hear you speak in Indianapolis at the bank conference in May.
My niece and nephew were born 21 and 17 years ago with a disease called the butterfly disease.
They too have navigated life with grace and courage and I have forwarded your messages to them as an encouragement.
Thank you!

Yours is a very difficult but BEAUTIFUL story, John. I feel blessed to know you through your stories and to witness the loving family that surrounds you. You are all blessed to have each other…and a blessing to all of your readers and listeners. Thank you for sharing what I believe to be one of the most inspirational stories I’ve heard. Love to you and your family!

Your story came at a time where I struggle with anger at someone who hurt me as a child. Thank you for sharing and reminding me that in spite of it all, I’ve had a good life to this point. The blessings are more than the hurts. Thank you.

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