I grew up bouncing from foster home to foster home. My only one life-long friend was a teddy bear I named “Happy.” I really wanted to believe there wasn’t another “Happy” in this world, and he belonged to me. However, at my first foster home I see a little kid named Bruno who has a bear that looks remarkably like mine. We only spend a short time together but I remember feeling very sad when Bruno was sent to another home.
I get lucky at age nine when my foster family turns out to be an upscale couple who think I’m cute. They offer juicy cheeseburgers, crispy French fries and super-size chocolate milkshakes just for agreeing to take flute lessons and practicing every afternoon. I later learn my foster Mom had been an accomplished flute player until a car accident left her unable to play ever again. Because the rewards are worth it, I never stop practicing. Then comes the day when they tell me they are planning to move to Vienna, and I am not part of their plan. It is extremely tough for me to say goodbye. They say the keepsake flute they gave me for my birthday will always remind me of good times. I promise to never stop playing.
Too bad my next “home” is not nearly as fun. Being a twelve-year-old, I was not in demand by foster families. I manage to get by with minimal supervision but always feel like an outsider inside this family. Needing some extra cash to help pay their mortgage, I am their paycheck. In addition to their receiving a small government subsidy, they insist I find a part-time job to cover all of my own expenses.
One day at school I hear someone talking about the Red Rivals Gang. Sounds like they get by without following all the rules and dare each other to try risky things. Being greatly in need of money and a sense of belonging, I decide to show up at the place where they gather the next afternoon. Wasn’t long before I experience a deep feeling of belonging when in their presence. Being part of this group makes me feel like a member of a team. We all have a unique handshake and make up words to communicate plans. I also learn how to steal snacks from the local convenience store, although I didn’t expect to be put in the county jail for petty theft.
I struggled to complete the required classes and barely met the minimum requirements for a high school diploma. But I am given that parchment paper that says I made it. Glad there is a new movie showing at the local theatre where I treat myself to a jumbo size popcorn and no one sees the two cans of beer in my pockets.
Working as cashier at the dollar store is my entrance into the working world. While on a crowded bus early one morning I sit next to a girl who is flipping through a National Geographic magazine. I can’t help but notice the stunning red mountains she seems to be staring at for the longest time. So I ask if she has ever seen anything like that. She seems friendly and tells me how she dreams of going to far-off places. She works in administration for a travel company, so maybe her dream will come true. Lucky her!
Nice how our daily commutes correspond, although I must admit I often work late at the dollar store so I can ride the bus with her. Then one day I get up the nerve to ask her out for coffee. She says yes. That is the beginning of a very short but extremely exciting time of my life. After we meet for coffee a few times, she invites me to her apartment. Friday nights are what I live for until the night she tells me she is pregnant and is going to live with her parents and that our relationship is over.
Guilt, grief, anger and confusion are just a few of the crazy emotions I am experiencing. Why couldn’t there be a chance for me to have a normal family life like everyone else? For some reason, I can’t stop dwelling on the fact that I was part of creating a new life. What will happen to that person? Not a real surprise when I hear that my ex-girlfriend’s parents insist she give the baby up for adoption. Much as I would like to think of myself tossing a toddler in the air with his smile buried in my brain, I know that kind of life is never going to happen to me. Many long nights I spend crying and praying that this child will have the life I never had.
It took a lot of behind-the-scenes detective work to discover the location of my baby daughter. While I promise myself never to interfere in her life, I have to find a way to stay connected. When I get promoted to Assistant Manager at the dollar store, I am able to move into a tiny apartment just two blocks away from where my daughter and her adoptive parents live. Walking by her newly remodeled home assures me she is in a good place. Then one day while I’m sitting outside my apartment playing my flute I happen to see her mother walk by with her in a stroller, and hear she is called Rose. What a beautiful name for my daughter, and I can’t believe my eyes. I actually can see myself in her smile. Keeping my promise not to interfere, I quickly walk by with only a nod.
Because I never forgot the birthday when I was blessed with my beautiful flute, I decide I’ll find a way to anonymously get a little birthday present to my little girl each year. Nicely wrapped little gifts left mysteriously on her doorstep had to be pleasant surprises. Though the year she turns six I am very short on cash and can’t afford to buy anything. So I search the neighborhood until I find a shiny smooth silver stone. Looking for inspiration on how to creatively make it special, I turn to my old pal teddy bear who I named happy many years ago. Somehow I manage to etch the word “happy” into the sparkly stone. There is nothing more that I want for my little girl than to be happy. That is the image I will always hold in my heart for her.
Life at the dollar store becomes very boring. My co-workers are constantly moving into better positions and bigger jobs. The idea of creating a resume sounds foreign to me. So I’m resolved to lead a dismal life until it all changes one day while at a local bar, when I initiate a conversation with the guy sitting next to me. Since baseball seemed to be his favorite topic, I delight in the stories of his historic homeruns. He ends up telling me about how he became a real estate agent and encourages me to complete the required training. Why not start my life over again, I thought. Several months later, now holding a real estate license, I’m asked to conduct a search for a house for this former hall-of-famer. That’s when my bank account suddenly grows. I quickly learn that going above-and-beyond in little ways often makes me the guy that other All Stars want as their real estate agent.
At first, I really don’t know how to handle all the dollars coming my way. The lavish meals, extravagant vacations and frequent visits to the casino are unbelievably fun. But my luck ends soon after running into an old pal at the local watering hole. We reminisce about our days as part of the Red Rivals Gang. Those were the days when we didn’t worry about what we did or who we hurt. I get the feeling that he wishes we had never left that point in time. When he asks if I would do him a favor and drive his car to a place where he needs to go, I have no reason to hesitate. Too bad he managed to lose his drivers license recently.
So off we go and end up in a pretty deserted wooded area. My old pal then jumps out of the car and seems to be running for his life. In an instant I see flashing lights behind me and am perplexed about what just happened. The police officer is not smiling when he approaches my car door and tells me to immediately get out with my hands up. When I try to explain about how I was just giving my buddy a ride, he surprises me with handcuffs and announces that I am being arrested for driving a stolen car containing a plethora of drugs.
It then began to feel like my life may be over. Threatening the guards got me three months in solitary confinement which almost drove me mad. Without ever speaking to a soul, I wonder if I am losing my mind. Looking back on my life, I definitely feel like a loser. Doesn’t take long before thoughts of suicide enter my mind. After all, who would miss me? But before I can figure out a plan to end my life, I am moved to a regular cell and hear about something called a prisoner mentoring program. Why would a stranger have the slightest interest in me, a criminal, I wonder. At this point though, contact from anyone might be a welcome distraction since I never had a visitor. But week after week goes by with contact from no one and thoughts of suicide still dangle in my mind.
The day I thought I was getting close to having a plan to end my life I am interrupted by mail call. My name had never been called during the last 36 months I’d been in prison. Today is different. It’s when I receive a lengthy letter from a guy who says he is my new pen pal. He sounds like a nothing-special guy until near the end of the letter when he confesses to having thoughts of suicide. What struck me was how his feelings of lack of purpose mirror mine. Then he tells me he is a priest.
I can’t understand why someone who spent all those years learning about religion and serving others would even question if their life mattered. Now a guy like me, that is a different story. I’d read about how when you die the ones who really suffer are the ones you leave behind. This guy mentioned his parents and siblings who surely will question why they didn’t do something to prevent his suicide. Then they get to live with a life of guilt. Doesn’t seem right.
My first letter to Father Luke lets him know that I was actually quite excited to receive my very first letter ever. Thought it might make him feel good to know he did something worthwhile. Isn’t much to tell him about my dull days with awful food and no company. Just so I don’t sound like a total loser, I briefly mention how in my prior life I often played the flute and once won a musical competition for my rendition of “Amazing Grace.” But I can’t end my letter without confessing that I, too, am contemplating suicide. Maybe we could be known as friends who wish to die.
Wasn’t more than two weeks later when my name was called again to receive another letter. Father Luke was now considering my thoughts about the impact his death would have on his family. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could save a priest? Well he did say he appreciated my honesty on all topics but more than anything he was encouraging me to think about my flute playing when I get out of prison. He said that churches are frequently looking for good musicians and I might even pick up a few spare bucks playing at weddings. Having something else to think about, now my days are often spent listening to the flute in my mind. I even discovered a music channel available for an hour a week to those who volunteer to do the dinner dishes.
The day I walk out of prison I am determined never to return. The only thing I want to do is open up my flute case and begin really playing again. My first stop is at the Old Scenic Trail where I had hiked years ago and remember the expansive mountain tops. Once there , I pull out my flute and it seems like the birds are enjoying my music. I’m almost starting to feel human again. Often I stopped in a pretty rustic coffee shop before hitting the trail with my flute for sunrise serenades. One morning a young woman sits down next to me and starts asking about trails in the area. Sounds like she is in love with nature and can’t wait for her next adventure. Of course, I suggest she check out the Old Scenic Trail and mention she might hear someone playing the flute if she can make it to the top.
While I rarely did things just to be kind, I immediately stopped on my way up the Old Trail the next morning when I saw the nature-loving woman on the ground in what looked like excruciating pain in her leg. Yet she was determined that it was only a sprained ankle and with a short rest she could make it back down the mountain. When she asked again about the flute player at the top, I couldn’t resist pulling out my flute and playing a couple of tunes for her. She said she would never forget my rendition of “Amazing Grace” and for the first time in a long time I felt gratified with my playing. Sort of convinced myself to never stop playing my flute.
While I never thought I would live to be 100, I know that someday soon my life will be over. I don’t fear passing on, but I don’t want to leave this world without knowing I made a contribution. My legacy is what I’m desperately seeking. So I decide to invite four special acquaintances from my past to my 100th birthday party and ask them to identify my legacy. Then I will know if my life mattered.
JACK'S 100th BIRTHDAY PARTY
When the group gathers on May 22nd, they are greeted by a woman named Jane who introduces herself as Jack’s caretaker for many years. Jane asks guests to be seated, and suddenly bursts into hysterical tears. She announces that Jack had a heart attack the previous evening, and he is no longer with us. However, she found a note on his bedside table this morning which she was asked to read.
I’ve been experiencing a lot of unusual pain during the last couple of days, and I’m starting to think that my time on this amazing earth is about up. If you are reading this note, know that I have moved on to meet my maker and have a huge favor to ask of you. Please go ahead with my birthday party as planned and share this message with my four wonderful guests.
First let me ask that any tears you shed for me are happy ones. I have many good memories and more importantly, because of you, I now know that my life mattered.
I was ecstatic when each of you responded to my birthday wish identifying these amazing things you did in my honor.
Thank you Bruno!
I established a new organization and plan to make philanthropy part of our mission. We will give twin teddy bears to every kid who enters a foster home. Attached to each plush little bear will be a note that the bears are named Jack and Bruno, and they should never be separated. Your legacy is bringing “happiness” to foster kids.
Thank You Rose!
As a kindergarten teacher, I planned a project where my students created artwork to depict what kindness means to them. For an example, I told the class my story about how I received a surprise birthday gift each year from someone I didn’t know. One student, who showed unusual artistic talent, drew a picture of a guy named Jack and a happy birthday sparkling stone. Didn’t take long after my posting it on youtube for the story to go viral on social media. Then a well-known national nonprofit chose the image of you and my birthday surprise as their new logo to depict kindness.
Your legacy is teaching others to be kind.
Thank You Luke!
I wrote a book titled “Friends Who Wish To Die.” It is currently awaiting publication with your photo featured on the cover.
Your legacy is saving lives through mental health awareness.
Thank You Anna!
I had a son named Jack, who I encouraged to take flute lessons. Jack became an accomplished flute player. Together we often visit the Old Scenic Trail. Last year Jack was asked to perform at the first-ever mountain top concert.
Your legacy is majestic music being heard far and wide.
MY GIFT TO YOU
I spent many sleepless nights during the last couple of years wrestling with the thought of leaving this life without a purpose. Seeing your creativity and unbelievable acts of giving made me extremely proud to have known each of you.
Though I can never thank you enough, I hope to show my appreciation and to inspire you to create your own legacy. Last year I was the anonymous winner of the $40 million dollar powerball. Rather than willing my winnings to whatever family members can be found following my death, I am giving it all to you.