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.