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The importance of just being there.

My sweet Mom passed out in the shower last Friday evening. After fainting, she fell backwards, landed hard on the floor, and broke her wrist. As it turns out, she collapsed as the result of anemia and low hemoglobin, which required a few days of observation in the hospital to elevate.

In a surreal coincidence, her room is on the exact same floor as –and stunningly just three doors away from– the entrance to the Burn Center where I was treated 35 years earlier.

With Mom recuperating in her hospital bed, next to the front door (literally) of all those memories, we couldn’t help but reminisce on that shared experience decades earlier.

In discussing some of the amazing visitors who walked through those doors and changed our lives forever, I asked Mom if there was one particularly meaningful conversation she remembered.

She shared that she and my dad had been overwhelmed with support from so many dear friends and family members. They’d been amazed that Hall of Fame announcers and All-Star players would visit. And they had been strengthened by messages of support from Ronald Reagan via the White House and Pope John Paul II from the Vatican.

And yet, it wasn’t a celebrity visitor or sophisticated words of wisdom that moved her most. It was a singular conversation, late one evening, with a young English teacher she didn’t know well, but would never forget.

Several months into my hospitalization there was still no guarantee I’d survive the fire. On that particular evening, as the staff reminded Mom visiting hours had ended several hours earlier, she finally pried herself away from my bedside, looked down at her sleeping little boy wrapped from head to toe with bandages and tethered to lifesaving equipment, and she wondered momentarily if recovery was even possible. She leaded forward, kissed my wrapped forehead, and stepped out of my room. Mom put her head down, walked tearfully through a hospital corridor, and left the Burn Center unsure if I’d be alive when she returned.

She was totally alone, filled with despair, almost unable to walk with the enormity and hopelessness that had eroded her resolve week after week.

From that empty hallway, she glanced into the darkened, vacant waiting room and noticed one person, in the corner, by himself, grading papers. It was my brother’s English teacher, Don Lee.

Don was moved by word of my family’s ordeal, but didn’t know what to contribute to the fight. He didn’t know us that well, could not alleviate my family’s struggles and had absolutely no medical knowledge to alleviate mine. Unsure of what else he could offer, Don worked many evenings in the waiting room on the chance a need would arise for my family that he could fill. Many nights, he sat alone, his own kind of vigil.

But on this night, when Mom was hopeless and alone, he was there. She walked over and collapsed in his arms. She shared the struggles and doubts she had. She shared how hard the day had been for me and how she would give anything to take away my pain. And she shared the agony of recognizing how impossibly difficult the journey forward would be.

I asked Mom how Don responded.

“John, I don’t remember him saying anything. But he was there. And he listened. And I’ll never forget it.”

As an emotionally exhausting day approached midnight, when Mom questioned if she possessed the strength to make it another day, there was profound healing power in simply having someone present to her, crying with her, praying for her, and so importantly, just listening to her.

My friends, we often cheapen our ability to positively influence another human being because we don’t have the right status, don’t feel we are enough or worry we lack the proper words.

Mom’s experience, and so many we’ve experienced since, remind us it’s not having the right words that elevate the life of a friend who is struggling. It’s having the courage to show up, the willingness to be present and the audacity to simply listen.

Today, writing from Mom’s hospital room, looking out at the waiting room where she experienced this lesson 35 years ago, I remind you—just as you are– of your ability to be part of someone else’s healing.

It may not sound like a lot. But it’s more than enough. And they’ll never forget it.

This is your day. Live Inspired.

17 replies on “Saying Nothing”

As I was driving to the store to buy my dog toys and treats, I saw a homeless man and his dog. After leaving the store with the toys and treats, I noticed the man and his dog still setting by the road. I turned and asked the man if his dog would like the toys and treats and his eyes lit up and he said “seriously, yes, yes”. When I got home, my husband asked where the toys and treats were. I told him that I gave them to a man and his dog.
The man and his dog touched my life that day❤️

In September 2019, our family encountered the unexpected death of my 11 year old niece from an asthma attack. I work at a school district (you were here on Friday, 2/18/22) and our Assistant Superintendent, Dr. Ruess was there for me in the same manner as the teacher was for your Mom. She will never know how much that meant to me and she continues to inspire me and others on a daily basis. God places those people in our lives and I am so grateful!

Dear John,
I read your stories and am always inspired by them after so many years.
Your Mom is a beautiful, amazing woman
for so many reasons especially how lovingly she takes care of your Dad.
Thank you for helping me live inspired.

This message was precisely placed in my inbox today. Our community is hurting right now. As a teacher we are fixers and helpers…but at times we simply cannot fix nor do we know how to help. Thank you for the reminder to “just be” and not to focus on the what or how. Appreciated your message when you spoke to our district many years ago, and continue to appreciate the inspiration now.

Many years ago I fell 12 feet onto a makeshift dock made out of concrete parking curbs. We didn’t live near family and my husband had to stay with our 3 year old son while I mended in the hospital for over a week. Thanks be to God and remarkably no broken bones but only severe deep bruises which would haunt me the rest of my life. The mom and dad of the family that babysat our son while I worked came to visit me in the hospital several times, always with a hot meal of meatballs and gravy or something homemade with love & really yummy. They sat and talked and made me laugh, taking my mind off my pain for those moments. Those kindnesses cemented our friendship and 48 years later, though the mom and dad are both in heaven now, their children are still close and we consider ourselves to be family! Yes, taking time to just be near is a blessing that gives for generations! Thank you, John, for your continued inspiration. I heard you speak at a Scentsy event about 7 or 8 years ago and will never forget your call to action, “what more can I do?”

Thank you so much for sharing this story. Simple wisdom. Thank you for reminding us all how simple it is to help each other. Just to be there for them. I appreciate your stories so much, please do not stop sharing! You are inspiring us to inspire others.

I spent three weeks in the hospital 3 years ago and so many showed up for me as I was on the ECMO machine, not knowing if I was going to wake up but they had faith and kept vigil and kept showing up, not till I woke up did I know what had taken place and they continued to show up to aid in my recovery and I’m reminded to return the love by showing up for others in need of someone to listen to their needs!

Thanks John. As always you inspire me to do more even if it’s just being there. I might have been in the hospital last week with your mom but I spent two bouts at Mercy with bleeding from my colon. Instead of focusing on myself I tried to be extra nice and understanding with the staff and bring a little humor into the situation.

My Son who has an incident of burning accident while cooking in 2919 March on his second year medical school. Your personal motivations Joe are thoughtful and healing in the the eleventh hour of hope and need for all💕

Well, as fate would have it, I’m reading this from the OR waiting room where my husband was wheeled away from me for surgery a few minutes ago. During last Thursdays winter storm, my Joe was T-boned by a truck who had lost control on I-44. He has a majorly fractured pelvis and it will take months of work to get him back in action, yet so many are reaching out in love that we are feeling so blessed by compassionate people. There is so much good in the world! Sooo many people are being present (both meanings) to us as well as this amazing teacher!!!

Gosh Liz …. Please let us know how he is doing … and you are doing …. we’ll be looking forward to a speedy recovery and praying for courage along the journey.

Reading your essay made me think of a Movie with Bill Murray St Vincent. The children were assigned to write about a saint among us . I truly believe that there are saints among us we just have to stop and see the many acts of kindness that people do.without expecting recognition

My husband shared the video of your Henry Schein One amazing motivational speech – and through it all I could relate ( except for your terrible accident) I am soo sorry. I can relate in how you motivate people, strangers, neighbors and just people in general – I want to make a difference as well. And I know I am, one person at a time. I am so glad I met you virtually, look forward to one day in person. P.S. Mike Hall is my friend too lol 🙂

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Live Inspired Together is a community of friends changing the world together, starting with their own. In a world that often focuses on negativity, John O’Leary - Live Inspired shares the other side of the story through his member-supported channels (essays, Live Inspired Podcast, video, webcasts, social platforms) to connect our community and share inspiration and actions to live it. Support now.