What kind of impression are you making? My reflections on the death of someone I knew.

My wife Danah lost a friend this week. A guy who lived near her and who she had known for more than twenty years.

Nolan was 29.

He was born with serious heart problems and spent much of his life at hospitals, including Vanderbilt here in Tennessee — one of the premier heart centers.

I didn’t know Nolan, but I met him once. And he made a hell of an impression on me.

He was about normal height — maybe 5’7″ if I was guessing — but skinny. Frail, really. He had the body you might see on someone in their 70s. And he was dragging a wheeled oxygen tank with him, something he had to keep with him most of the time. (Maybe all the time.)

His sister was with him and she helped him and I got the impression he usually had someone around him to assist him with things, as he had trouble breathing well and thus couldn’t do anything strenuous.

After shaking his hand, as easily as I could, he sat and maybe five or six of us talked for an hour or so. The entire time, I worried about him. Literally worried about how bad he looked and how long he might live. The way you feel when you visit someone in the nursing home. You don’t feel comfortable, and you wonder how much time they have.

And right across from me sat the nursing-home-like person. But he was 29. Younger than me.

And he’d been dealing with this huge health issue his whole life. Very little opportunity for sports as a kid. Barely able to work as an adult. Unmarried.

Yet there he sat, across from me, frail, weak, pale. Literally his sister by his side, there to help and protect him, it seemed.

But not an ounce of weakness or pity came from this man. This strong spirit. This happy soul. He laughed. He joked. He poured love from his body like some skinny version of Buddha.

I knew Nolan for an hour. Maybe, two. (I didn’t check my watch.) And yet for days and weeks after that, I told Danah I wanted to know him better. He was so funny, so at peace, so brave.

Nolan may have had the frame of a twelve or thirteen-year-old child, but he had the heart of a saint. He accepted the life he’d been given, and he used his time to spread cheer. He knew serious medical consequences awaited him on nearly any given day, and yet he supped at the pleasures of life he could attain.

Nolan, I’m very, very sorry I never told you what an impression you made on me that day. I’ve been around courageous men — warriors forged in war, men a hundred times physically stronger than you — and you stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them. They would have sensed your courage and accepted you as a brother.

Nolan, I’m very, very sorry I never called or e-mailed you after getting to meet you. You would have taught me much, and made me more.

Nolan, I know you’re watching me type these words, and I know you know what I feel in my heart. I’m sorry I let you down and never called to check on you, but I promise you I will work harder from here on out to have your spirit. To share your love and laughter with the world.

Nolan, I know you touched and inspired a lot of people with your strength and indomitable spirit. I can only hope that my words have measured up to the inspiration that you were. And that all that you were will continue to be spread through your friends, family members, and recollections such as this.

And for those who see this message in the coming days and years, I hope you’ll find inspiration in Nolan’s story. Nolan made an impression on me, in just at an hour. He shouldn’t have. He wasn’t dressed to impress and he didn’t have near as many stories to share as the rest of those in the room. He could have sat in the corner and kept his mouth shut. Had the situation been reversed, I would have. But he didn’t. He sat across from me proudly, and was living in the moment sharing the love that must have constantly poured out of him. (Danah has said he was the best of friends to all he knew.)

And thinking on this, I think back to how many times I’ve missed opportunities to make huge impressions on people. I was blessed with health, with great opportunities to steal traits from incredible leaders. And yet how many times have I complained in front of others? How many times have people seen or heard my fear about how business was going? And what hurts me most is so often (upon meeting someone for the first time) I could sense that stories about me had traveled to them, and they’d come to meet this young entrepreneur — this crazy dreamer — who they’d heard so much about.

And did I share my knowledge that I’d attained from  nearly a hundred business books or brutal business mistakes? Literally thousands of hours of education and experience. No.

Did I share my enthusiasm? My absolute belief that I would succeed or die trying? No.

Did I share the courage that the Marine Corps pounded into me? No.

Did I share my faith? That God would protect me and look out for me, no matter what? No.

Did I make the impression that Nolan made, with all these things I had that he didn’t have. No. Not only “no,” but hell no. Not even close.

Nolan allowed God to use him, even on one of his tougher days. I can’t say the same.

But with his passing, and upon further reflection of all this, I promise to myself, to my friends, and to my family to learn from Nolan’s example and never, ever allow an opportunity to pass again — even with a stranger, as I was to Nolan. I will inspire. I will show courage. I will not complain.

I will work at this as hard as I can so that when my time comes, whether it’s tomorrow at the age of 34, or sixty years from now at the age of 94, people will say, “Wow. Stan, I’m very, very sorry I never told you what an impression you made on me that day. Stan, I’m very, very sorry I never called or e-mailed you after getting to meet you. Stan, I know you touched and inspired a lot of people with your strength and indomitable spirit. I can only hope that my words have measured up to the inspiration that you were. And that all that you were will continue to be spread through your friends, family members, and recollections such as this.”

Nolan set the example and showed me the way. And if you’re reading this post and still with me here at the end, he’s shown you the way, too.

Now it’s up to you, and up to me, how we react to his impression. We can share it, and be remembered, and improve the world.

Or we can be down, feel sorry for ourselves, and be forgotten.

We don’t know how long we have. Your test begins now.

Stan R. Mitchell

Oak Ridge, Tenn.

P.S. Please accept the greatest gift I can give.

23 Comments

Filed under Motivation

23 responses to “What kind of impression are you making? My reflections on the death of someone I knew.

  1. Nolan understood God’s plan for him, he accepted it, and he lived it. Most of us don’t even figure out the first part.
    We agonize so much about our ambitions and what we perceive as success or failure. We want to be leaders, we want to be important, we want to be famous and loved and respected. But really it’s all very simple — we are here to be Christ to each other. That’s it. And most of the time, we fail spectacularly, but God loves us anyway.
    Stan, you have nothing to feel sorry about. It doesn’t matter whether you understood Nolan the day you met him, or the day he died, or finally on your own deathbed. Nolan didn’t need your calls or emails. The only thing that matters is that you got it, not when you did. For God (and for Nolan now), time doesn’t exist. You were blessed to have spent your hour with him and to have learned from him.
    Nolan was your Platon Karataev from War and Peace.

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    • Wow, EF. I don’t even know how to respond. There’s a ton of wisdom in your comment.

      For me, I will always be torn between the forces of:
      [ ] Doing my best (which my parents taught).
      [ ] Seeking great riches (a reaction to being raised with so little).
      [ ] My desire for greatness (something that began after an epiphany one day after nearly six hours in the woods watching leaves fall).
      [ ] Desiring nothing (something that the Eastern beliefs I’ve been studying has pushed home hard — yes, these same thoughts are in the Bible, but are buried big time beneath our thoughts as a Western Culture).

      So, some days, I want to inspire others. I want to get super rich so I can bless and help others.

      Other days, I’m at complete peace, doing Shaolin meditation, desiring nothing.

      I know for a fact that Eastern religion has it right on one point: All suffering in the world is caused by desire.

      I think Nolan understood this. He knew that to desire better health or other things he couldn’t attain would lead to anger and other negative feelings, and so he accepted it. And he spread cheer and love by the buckets full.

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      • I too have studied and continue to study the Eastern beliefs, but I have a hard time with them because we just weren’t raised in that culture. But I do feel better (at least briefly) when I meditate, so I know it works. It is true that suffering is caused by desire, but without desire, nothing would get done, and we’d be sitting around in our caves.
        When I feel at peace just appreciating what I have and not wanting more, my ambitions peck away at me. And when I feel driven by ambition, the lure of peacefulness without striving pulls at me.
        I know I can be a better person toward others even while struggling with my literary ambitions. I know I can be happier even while struggling with my literary ambitions. Being better and happier, if channeled properly, would probably help with the ambitions. Somewhere there is the perfect, Goldilocks balance of Eastern and Western thinking.

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        • Wow. Just wow…

          You nailed it with this line: “When I feel at peace just appreciating what I have and not wanting more, my ambitions peck away at me. And when I feel driven by ambition, the lure of peacefulness without striving pulls at me.”

          That’s precisely how I should have worded my thoughts. And maybe in truth they struggle to. At least at the Shaolin Temple, they work for years to perfect forms and flying kicks. So, isn’t desire causing all that work?

          They also talk about the Yin and Yang, so maybe the two are supposed to be in conflict and we’re just supposed to balance them out as best we can.

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          • Yes, desire causes all that work. And desire causes us to seek the peace Eastern ideas promise!
            It is all about Yin and Yang and finding balance. Jesus was about finding balance — yes, the poor will always be with us, but on a special occasion, it’s ok to pour out a whole jar of expensive ointment. And just because the poor will always be with us is no excuse to sit around and not help them.
            Nolan found his balance. He accepted what he couldn’t change (his physical weakness and short life span), but forcefully used the strong personality in his weak body to influence others for the better.

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            • Great point about Jesus and the ointment. I had forgotten that tidbit.

              We’ll both agree it’s about finding balance. Great discussion!

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              • I’ve always identified with her, and her extravagant outpouring of emotion. I’ve been there and done that.
                I find it interesting that we are so different (I’m 61, born in Boston to Jewish parents though I’m now Catholic), yet we think so much alike.

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                • You have more genius potential than I do, and many more years ahead to accomplish genius-level work.

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                  • I was just kidding about the genius comment. I certainly don’t fall in that category. I know a few, and I wouldn’t trade places with them. Their severely awkward social skills inhibit them to levels that border on ridiculous.

                    I’m just a curious guy, who loves to read, ask questions, and learn all I can, while trying to leverage stories of greatness from people in the past to push me to greater lengths. (I strongly believe our culture is very weak and soft. I want to be the opposite of that.)

                    Life is short. When I die, I want at least a few people to remember me, and perhaps say, “Wow. That guy did a lot.”

                    Speaking of which, I have some writing to do.

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  2. Well done, Stan. Chin up. Push on.

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  3. Kathy Mitchell

    Dearest Son,
    Your article was great and even at 60 years old, gave me a lot to think about and to learn from a 34 year old. I have never seen the side of you that you said Nolan had and that you didn’t. You have always been very positive, considerate, and caring for others. We did the best to try to raise you the way God wanted us to and with His help, I feel like we did a great job! Keep up your wonderful work by keeping God first in your life, your precious wife next, your work at the newspaper and writing, and make time in there somewhere for your family (especially your niece, Kristen, who loves her Uncle Stanley so much) because who knows, as with Nolan, that we might be here today and gone tomorrow.
    Love, Mom and Dad

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  4. Wow. I have often had the same thoughts, mostly about older guys, vets that I have met through out my life. As my Mom always says, “we are not guaranteed tomorrow, so do what you can today”. I try to do that, but never get around to everything. Not enough hours in the day. But we have to make the most of the hours that we are given. They come from God, it is up to us to use them wisely. Semper Fi.

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  5. beatbox32

    Stan, I’m sorry about the loss of your’s and Danah’s friend. Nolan sounds like he was a hell of a guy. It’s unfortunate that it takes someone passing away to make us realize the big picture, but I’ve also experienced that. I think you’re doing a great thing – making sure he’s remembered through the lessons he taught you.

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  6. I like the way you explained about “What kind of impression are you making? My reflections on the death of someone I knew.” Keep posting stuff like this I really like it.

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  7. Julio Ibanez

    My condolences to you and Danah for your loss. I, too, found out recently how important it is to say what needs to be said before it’s too late and how little time we have to make our own impressions. You expressed the urgency of both very powerfully here.

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  8. Pingback: 10,000 hits!!! Are you kidding me?! | Stan R. Mitchell — Action fiction writer

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