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Sunday
Dec022007

Gift from the son of a preacher man

A month ago, my wife's eldest brother passed away from cancer. It was a painful, gruesome end to a beautiful man's life, and it triggered intense mourning that Vonne and I struggle mightily to overcome.

That's a normal reaction to the loss of a loved one, but Steve's death likewise provoked within me a great sense of unease, like I had misplaced something precious or neglected a sacred duty.

So I ran through the predictable checklist:

Am I taking good enough care of myself? Yes.

Do I carry enough life and disability insurance? Got that covered, too.

Can I be a better husband and father? You bet. Steve set a very high standard there.

Still, I felt I was looking in all the wrong places.

Finally, the answer came to me while I was driving alone along California's northern coastline: I'm ashamed to realize that it took Steve dying for me to comprehend how this son of a preacher man so deftly shaped my life's path.

I don't want to eulogize my brother-in-law; others lovingly checked that box. I just want to remind you how one life - however quietly led - can dramatically improve others'.

My wife, Vonne, suffered a difficult childhood that included divorce and the death of her father. Those and other harsh experiences left her bereft of any hope that she would someday marry and form a family.

Steve spotted that pain from afar, becoming Vonne's surrogate dad in the most gentle and encouraging way, guiding her through adolescence and college until fate brought her into my life.

Had he not done so, I never would have known the great and lasting joy that is our marriage - now more than two decades old.

How do you thank a man for making your love possible?

Years later, when our 2-year-old firstborn was diagnosed with late-stage cancer and Vonne suddenly found herself pregnant with our second child, Steve once again slipped quietly into our lives: offering words of wisdom, surprising us with a much-needed family vacation, and mentoring me through stretches when I no longer believed in anything.

Finally pulling myself out of a dangerous downward spiral, I somehow morphed into our little Emily's unflagging champion just as my wife needed to pull back and concentrate on Kevin's looming birth.

How do you thank a man for preserving your faith and family?

During my daughter's difficult fight, I did something I never expected: I became a writer.

I started what would now be described as a blog. My audience consisted of several dozen relatives and anonymous prayer-group members spread around the country. It was an amazing adventure in self-absorption, self-discovery and self-pity.

And it saved my sanity.

Writing that diary changed my professional career in ways that still stun me.

I suddenly had a voice, and that voice would later open doors.

Throughout those darkest of days, Steve alone encouraged me to keep writing, sensing - as only he could - how it would transform me.

Steve loved books like no person I've ever met. He read them by the dozens, year in and year out. Steve's favorite daydream was someday to author a book. Instead of achieving that wish, Steve helped me become an author in an act of pure generosity.

Intimidated by the prospect of writing my first book, Steve stepped up and bolstered my confidence by volunteering to serve as my first reader.

Perusing my output every night, he'd coach me over the phone, telling me where I had grabbed his attention and where I had lost it. After several weeks of his sage advice, I finally located the book's center of gravity and Steve disappeared, informing me that his services were no longer needed.

Months later I became a New York Times-bestselling author.

That success led to my becoming a contributing editor at Esquire magazine and ultimately to this column. I still write a blog, and my audience is quite a bit bigger today. My family now lives in a house built primarily from my income as a writer.

How do you thank a man for making your dreams come true?

By any conventional measure, Steve led a small life.

He created few waves, yet somehow left an enormous wake.

Here's my request: You know who these people are.

Make sure they know who you are.

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