Tag Archives: life

It is not about me: what is important one year after my stroke

One year ago today, at this very hour, my life changed.  I had a stroke, which led to two subsequent surgeries, a Code Blue in medical parlance, and the rebuilding of a life.

A tragedy was on its way to becoming a blessing.  I was less than 40 years old, active physically, and  engaged civically and professionally.  I thought I had the world by the tail.  And I quickly found myself having to re-evaluate what was really important. It has taken me a year to get the courage to even think about what happened to me.

The real lesson is about the power of good people doing good.  It is about the heroes who saved my life, This story is about my experience, and learning that living life successfully is about the impact you have on other people’s lives.

The first — and most important — hero in my life is my wife, Teri.  In hundreds of ways since I fell ill, she has stepped up as a family leader, world-class organizer and communicator, and amazing partner.  Before I got sick, and as much as I hate to admit it, I did not show this hero enough appreciation.  Since my stroke, she has been my constant companion.  One of the greatest gifts the stroke gave me was a better appreciation for her.  I don’t think I can thank her enough.

My family, collectively, gets hero status.  From my own personal security guard — as one of my favorite nurses called my brother, Kevin — to my Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brothers from William and Mary, who came and waited quietly alongside my wife in those early, trying hours; to my in-laws, whose love and support defy categorization; to my sister and brother from Richmond, who visited me at every opportunity, to my sister-in-law and brother-in-law, who both made so much possible for me; to my colleagues, who went above and beyond for me daily; and including my many uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, and aunts who prayed constantly and visited as often as they could.  I saw my health improve as each LIVED more meaningful sermons about  faith than any pastor ever could speak.  I have seen God’s hand at work in my life.

I would also bestow hero status on the enormous network of friends and extended family. Each of them prayed, visited, gifted and carded me back to health.  They showed me love in ways that were inspirational, instructional, and completely humbling. Every one of them did what they could, some even more than that.  Heroes, every one of them.

And finally — but certainly importantly — I thank the entire Centra Health medical team who saved, then rebuilt my life.  Each first responder, doctor, nurse, and therapist is a hero of mine.  I am alive because of their skill and care, and I  owe them the appreciation due heroes.

So, yes, less than a year after I almost died, and nearly left a wife and two young kids – nearly mirroring my own mother’s death before I was a teenager  — I stood before a group of fellow stroke survivors in Danville, VA.  And as I said to my fellow stroke thrivers, I am a miracle, and a child of God.

Thank God for my heroes.  I owe each of them my life, and I will continue trying to live it as worthy of having been saved.  And I pray with the faithfulness of my aunts and friends. Thank God for heroes.  Amen.

Death as inspiration: what happens at a funeral

This week has brought me face-to-face with the reality of life’s cruel promise: I will die (you probably will, too).  A number of past deaths have allowed me to deal honestly with the matter of death and dying.  Death, in fact, has shaped the entirety of my personal value system.  Life is extraordinarily simple to me.  I believe we as humans are obligated, and should be happy to, live by The Golden Rule, and ensure that our “hyphen” has made a deep and lasting impact on other people.

The death of my mother in January 1983 slammed my life into a wall that brutally stopped me in my tracks.   And for a person like me, who looks for meaning in tragedy and loss, I have spent the better part of my 20s and 30s processing, shaping, attempting, failing, and moving.  Moving toward a life that FEELS right to me.  The only reason I have been introspectively investigating and challenging, then rebuilding, the beliefs of one Matthew L. Brandon is because  I have needed to find a way to honor and carry forward my mother’s legacy.  I am a far superior version of myself because of that wall I had to pick myself up from hitting.  I don’t wish the premature death of a parent on any child, but I believe God prepared me for it fully.

ONE FUNERAL, TWO FUNERALS, THREE FUNERALS.  NO MORE!

Fast forward to this week.  This week, I mourned the loss of two beloved relatives, and one deeply-respected leader and friend.  In each case, I listened as highly-intelligent people struggled to find important-enough words to express their personal grief.  They told illuminating stories, shared funny anecdotes, and made profound observations on the way to praising the people who had given up their mortal coil.  In each case, an emotionally-overwhelming picture of the deceased emerged and our healing was facilitated by those gentle, loving words, so carefully chosen, so admiringly delivered, so earnest . . .  These people — a handicapped man, an educator, a pastor — were amazing humans.

If only we could spend more of the time in our daily lives focused on sharing and celebrating those same traits!  Why must we wait until we can no longer hold a loved one in our grasp to tell them how much we admire them?  Why must the shock of death jar us into thanking one another and saying “I love you” to people who really do mean the world to us?  Why did it take a week of gruesomely accurate poems of love and appreciation to remind me that death forces, allows, gives us permission to be completely human?  Why do we need reminders to follow a simple rule about humans looking out for other humans’ needs?

HONOR THOSE WHO DIED BY HOW YOU LIVE

I honor each of those beloved departed souls by helping me reconnect with core values I hold dear.  In the face of death, in the shocking, numbing, acidic, bracing kiss of death and grief, I wipe away pain and lift my eyes to the heavens in thanks.  I give thanks that the path I have traveled has hammered me — for it has not been easy and the material God has worked with not the most malleable — into a sensitive human, concerned for the welfare of others, quietly doing for others only that which I would wish them to do for me or my family, and importantly, wonderfully appreciative of those moments when you know what you did mattered to someone else.  That is what being a better human means to me.

EULOGIZING MY MOTHER AND MYSELF. MEASURING HYPHENS

My mother’s is the eulogy I speak silently to myself at every funeral I attend.  It is why funerals are so emotionally raw for me.  Consider for a moment how it feels to revisit the moments and weeks when the very source of inspiration in your life was torn away.

And then I write my own eulogy.  Yes, at every single funeral I attend, I rewrite my own eulogy.  Then I wonder whether the ones on the podium, when replaced by those left to mourn my death, will speak nearly as well of my contributions to their lives.

In the words of Jesse Jackson, as I listened to him eulogize my beloved fraternal brother, Arthur Ashe, so many years ago, I use those moments to consider the “hyphen” that is my life.  Jackson reminded the thousands assembled there, you see, that the hyphen on Ashe’s tombstone — as on ours –represents the work he did and the life he led between that birth year and death year.  Then he wondered aloud, “what will your hyphen represent?”

So finally, I saw a way to make sense of a mother’s loss; figured out a purpose for my own life; found an ethos that could sustain me for a lifetime.  I needed to ensure that my hyphen made me a better human, and made someone else’s path a little easier to nagivate.  It is simple, and yet elusive for so many.  And for others, not even a desirable ambition.  But for me it was everything.  I knew it was a revelation because it reminded me how amazing my mom’s hyphen was.  It motivates me to live in a way that would honor her and carry on that tradition.  I get back to work on my hyphen!

I hope my hyphen will be good enough to merit the appreciation of those whose lives I tried to uplift.  Even if you didn’t attend a funeral this week; even if you didn’t hear the eloquent recitals; even if you haven’t been affected by the death of a loved one, consider the life you are leading, and the story that will be told by your hyphen.

WORKING ON MY HUMAN-NESS

For a moment, I explore whether I am completely human: not just strident and bold; but humble and caring.  Not just effective and efficient, but supportive and insightful.  Not just pleased with my own progress, but careful to ensure I do no harm.  Not just strong, but weak enough to consider where I can do better.  I need no’t wait until my final breath to wonder what legacy I will leave.  I get to go out there and work on it now.  Create my own reality.  Use the brick walls as stepping stones instead of blockades.

My eulogy yesterday and today reminded me how much I have left to add to my hyphen.

I am inspired by Johnny, Evelyn, Topper.  And now that you three are gone, my mother will thank you for the time you spent with me (tell her she is my inspiration).  My father will ask whether I am using the common sense he and the good Lord tried to instill (tell him yes, regardless of the truth).

Tell them I AM them.  I am their legacy.  And tell them I know I still have much work to do, loads to lift.  But I shun not the struggle, for it is God’s Will.  I will be strong.

I am strengthened by your three eulogized lives, each of which I celebrated in some way this week. And rest in peace.  I got your message loud and clear.

Here’s one article to live by

An amazing number of people think being AT work doing stuff equals being productive. No, I say!

Here’s a superb article on what productivity really looks like: http://calnewport.com/blog/?p=275.

A novel approach to charging your batteries: DO MORE

I am an introvert.  Every personality index I have used confirms it, my heart of hearts knows it, and no one who knows me believes it.  But trust that I am.  Nothing thrills me more than quiet time alone to reflect, read, relax. . . recline.

But as I wrapped up what is undoubtedly the busiest two weeks of my professional life, I found myself either in a delirium-fueled adrenaline rush, or with a new realization.  Having wrapped up two days of meetings for a board on which I serve, I find myself more charged up than tired.

I realized that, first and foremost, for this to work, you MUST be committing your talents to a well-matched job or role professionally, while seeking out ways to share those same talents to improve the lives of other people in your community.  Second, you must ensure your professional philosophy is tightly compatible with the mission and practices of the organization for which you work.  Its got to be more than “just a job.”  And finally, if I may oversimplify the psychology of optimal performance, you have to have a unquenchable intellectual curiosity.

DELIRIOUS OR CHARGED-UP?

But back to me!  At the end of those two weeks of reorganizing our department, and being given up to three times the responsibility I had just three weeks ago, I felt more energized than daunted.  But trust me, “daunted” reared its head often enough.  I feel the opportunity to align three groups of staff gives each of the people involved a quantum increase in the maximum performance possible from their existing efforts.  That is purely a function of more-frequent contact and communication about shared goals.  No-brainer.

PURSUING ELITISM

Second, I believe profoundly in the mission of the College and the leadership’s commitment to being elitist.  I also believe fully that elitism, as defined by Evan Peterson, former headmaster of Hampton Roads Academy, is a good thing.  Elitism, he argued when I worked for him, helped everyone in the organization — from parents to students to faculty — understand clearly what our performance expectation was.  Elitism is not about superiority relative to other people.  It is superiority relative to your stated performance standards.  We should also strive to be elite!  I believe the College is turning a corner and embracing the possibility of greatness, rather than modesty.  If it works properly, we won’t have to toot our own horn.  We will simply have to acknowledge that, yes indeed, our educational design is impactul and effective.  The opportunity to be elite is a powerful motivator to me.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

Third, I am excited to have a whole new set of challenges ahead for me.  I think the opportunity that exists if we can, as my pastor says, be faithful over a few things, are astounding.  Every answer we provide to a challenge offers up new questions simultaneously.  I am driven to find these answers because they hold the key to unlocking the powerful potential of an organization and a community fully united, fully motivated, and fully committed to excellence.  More importantly, it will be easy to explain and demonstrate why each person ought to step and be accountable for that victory.

So that brings me, finally, to the point of this whole post.  If you want my own recipe for charging your batteries, flushing your system with adrenaline-fueled power, and to ultimate satisfaction with your contribution to “the cause,”  it is simply this: DO MORE!  And make sure your “extra” helps something larger than yourself.

You have to do what motivates you, and rid your over-busy life of those commitments that don’t charge your batteries, and leave you with some extra fuel!  Do what creates within you an almost childish enjoyment of seeking the next piece of the puzzle, the next challenge, the next chance to contribute to the cause.  If you align yourself with the right causes professionally and personally; and you approach each of these with a fresh and honest desire to unravel the challenges and reorganize them into opportunities, and you commit for long enough to really see the impact, you will find yourself sitting on Saturdays missing great football games because your mind is racing trying to figure out the next piece of the puzzle, recharging itself fully, with power left over, and sincerely enjoying the journey.

This is where I find myself at this moment.  May you also find ways to make your vocation more enjoyable and fruitful, causing you to let that power fuel your involvement in other pursuits to improve your community, your family, your church, your world.  And may I find myself constantly in this position of ideal interplay between my professional and civic commitments, optimal mental clarity, and maximum energy.