To Be Great

During a recent visit, my friend pulled out his tablet and challenged me to a game of checkers. Like most of our games, it was preceded by a good bit of smack-talk. Unlike most, I actually had a shot at winning this one because it didn’t involve a controller or hand-eye coordination. Truthfully, I didn’t want to win.

My nemesis made early blunders. He missed jumps and backed himself into corners where my only move was to jump him. I had to work very hard to lose a couple of games and not make it obvious because he would have called me out on that. Honestly, he was lousy at checkers. But in life, he was one of the greatest.

I met “The Greatest” once. Being from Louisville, I grew up watching Muhammed Ali box and was a high school freshman when he visited his alma mater. His title was self-proclaimed and debatable but with 37 heavyweight knock-outs, very few people would dispute his claim.

Literally hundreds throughout history have laid claim to the moniker, “the Great.” We study Alexander the Great, Catherine the Great, and Peter. But have you ever heard of Akbar, Hanno, or Conrad the Great? Likely not because their time in history wasn’t enduring and many of their empires don’t exist any longer. These great ones claimed the title through military power, tactical success, or family lineage. That’s not true greatness – just intimidation.

So who is great? How does one achieve greatness?

I would argue greatness for people such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, the Apostle Paul, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Marie Curie. The list could go on. But what do they have in common? In a nutshell; each overcame tremendous obstacles put in front of them, never shied away from challenge, disregarded personal pain, and fought for the betterment of others.

It has become common for a family dealing with childhood cancer to create a name to rally support: Praying for Annie, Jacob’s Army, Smiley for Kylie. While we were in treatment, I heard about a local kid whose group name was Robert the Great. At the time, it made me chuckle… “the great.” Kind of arrogant, isn’t it?

When I first met him, I thought he was a little doughy and goofy, but he came off as a very sweet kid – the rare kind of preteen who could engage with adults. Soon I found myself wanting to see him again because there was something that drew you to him. He held a presence, an indescribable joy, a warmth. He was magnetic.

Diagnosed with what should be the most treatable form of childhood cancer, Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, at just 6 years old, Robert’s childhood was consumed by cancer. In the eight years since his diagnosis, Robert endured 800 rounds of chemotherapy, 65 spinal taps, and countless surgeries trying to beat his cancer – all of which left his body a mess. Most of us will never experience that kind of medical regimen and few could handle it. Robert’s daily baseline for pain would be intolerable for most adults. Yet this boy was cheerful nearly all the time.

Asked about his cancer recently, he said with a smile, “I don’t know much about it, but I know it won’t go away.”

He then proceeded to whip me at Mario Bros.

12313625_485611461611671_9206189549399270638_nRobert and I became friends. I was fortunate to spend time with him in life and to be able to make a few visits with him as his health declined. I watched him be so intentional in his thanks to his mother, father, and caregivers. He expressed gratitude in little things, but he spoke slowly and carefully and I believe he was thanking them for their years of loving care. While most fourteen-year-olds won’t show the slightest affection to their mother I watched Robert engineer a special birthday celebration for his mom from his hospital bed just days before he died. I also heard him say, “I love you” to people as they left his side.

I don’t know at what point he knew his life was coming to an end, but I realized that the knowledge didn’t really change the way he lived. He wasn’t kinder in his last hours – because he already lived a kind life. He didn’t become more loving –  because he always expressed love readily. When he learned he would soon die, he didn’t change… he just kept being Robert. We’re all terminal. Robert the Great somehow knew to live that way.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “The boy who is going to make a great man must not make up his mind merely to overcome a thousand obstacles, but to win in spite of a thousand repulses and defeats.”

Those words haunt me. They are so true and never more embodied than in my friend, Robert. He climbed every obstacle in front of him – more than you and I will see in our lifetimes. Yet he will never grow to become that man. Damn cancer.

Robert was great. And with his loss, this world is a little less so.


Rest well, my friend. You’ve earned it.

A Bird in the Storm

The sky darkened suddenly around the little bird. He felt a storm was coming close. Bursts of rain were common in the forest and no cause for alarm.

“A bird must keep going,” he had often told his chicks when they were afraid. “The forest is the forest in the sun, and it is still the forest in the rain. We mustn’t let a little rain keep us from our work or tiny birds don’t get their worms.”

But a storm – that was a different thing. A storm was to be respected and guarded against. His ladybird watched for signs and tried to prepare. He never did and, in fact, he often chided her for her caution. In his opinion, storms were inevitable and no amount of preparation can help when the forest is angry.

Far from the safety of his nest and anxious about the gathering wind, the bird left off his search for worms and pointed toward home. But the rain was tremendous; it struck his outstretched wings and pushed him earthward as he attempted to fly.

A lunge. A leap. Little bursts of energy rising against the fury of the storm. Blinding light accompanied by a deafening crack of thunder gave pause to the little bird’s effort. Still, he knew he wasn’t safe until he reached his nest and further, his chicks would be frightened in such a storm. So, he pushed on.

The storm is relentless… loud… unyielding. It fights him at every turn. His confidence wanes even as he makes slow progress. It builds around him as if he is the target of wrath. Every peal of thunder seems greater than the last and every streak of lighting gets closer. The wind throws the little bird off course again and again and he curses its strength. But he keeps going.

Finally, after great effort, he sees little nest, high in the home tree. The storm is dwindling, the forest’s anger passing. He stretches his exhausted wings for a final climb and soars inside. Something is wrong. He knows it instantly from the sad look on the face of ladybird. He counts little feathered heads, little closed beaks. One, two, three… One is missing – taken by the storm.

“What happened?”

There is no answer because there is no answer. The storms of life take what they take. Only the forest knows. He has been taught this and knows it to be true. But still he wonders. Thoughts like great tempests assault his grieving mind.

If I had only been here!

Why not me instead?

What if I had built the nest stronger or in a different place?

Why didn’t I listen to the warnings about the storm?

What do we do now?

What do we do now? He is only a little bird – what could he possibly do?

He listens as his neighbors called mournfully. Songs of sorrow fill the trees and he loves them for it.

When morning comes, the little bird surveys three little feathered heads, three little empty beaks and knows they need to be filled. Leaving again is the hardest thing, but the only way to sate their mounting hunger. Back to work, back to the worms.

But nothing would never be the same. While he watches with joy as his three little chicks grow into fledglings, there is always something missing. Her absence makes the nest a hard place to be, but somehow, it is the only place that gives comfort.

Every day the forest shares something that reminds him of his little chick. In the early days, the reminders stung as hard as the rain of the storm he cannot forget. But in time, the little pieces of her give him joy and hope. And he is thankful to the forest for what it gives even while he is sad for what it took – a contradiction he would ever recognize, but too lofty a thought to understand.

After all, he is only a little bird.