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Wednesday, Apr. 30, 2003 - 5:38 p.m.

Keep laughing

My mom has this guilty feeling that she didn't do enough positive reinforcing when my sister and I were younger. Every now and then, she'll tell one or the other of us how wonderful we are, what our good qualities are, etc.

Example: "Dan, don't forget to be nice to Casey on Valentine's Day. Women like that stuff. She may say she doesn't want to make a big deal out of it, but you should do it anyway."

"Mom, I'm very good with that stuff," I reply. "I'm a good kid. I'm nice to people. I don't always make her do the laundry."

"OK. I know you're a good kid. I just wanted to remind you that sometimes people like a little extra niceness."

She also feels she didn't adequately prepare us to take care of ourselves financially and learn to save and whatnot. That's not true, either. When I got my first job and became eligible for the retirement plan, she was on my case daily to set up my 401(K) until I finally did it (because "I'll get to it, Mom!!! did not disuade her). (And, despite all the crap with the economy since, oh, about December 2000, my former 401(K) has done pretty well. I just have to find a good place to roll it over so I don't lose it all in this dung heap of an economy.)

But thank God for e-mail, my mother must think now. She's a pro at sneaking her little encouragements and, let's face it, nagging reminders into electronic correspondence.

And she just loves the forwarding. In between complaints about sex spams, she'll fire off all those inspirational, pick-me-up messages that get sent around with the closing lines instructing the reader to send it to anyone they truly care about to let them know you care.

And so, to my point: I thought the following one was pretty nice, and I hadn't seen it before (a bonus these days with such forwards).

One day a teacher asked her students to list the names of the other students in the room on two sheets of paper, leaving a space between each name. Then she told them to think of the nicest thing they could say about each of their classmates and write it down. It took the remainder of the class period to finish their assignment, and as the students left the room, each one handed in the papers.

That Saturday, the teacher wrote down the name of each student on a separate sheet of paper, and listed what everyone else had said about that individual. On Monday she gave each student his or her list. Before long, the entire class was smiling. "Really?" she heard whispered. "I never knew that I meant anything to anyone!" and, "I didn't know others liked me so much." were most of the comments.

No one ever mentioned those papers in class again. She never knew if they discussed them after class or with their parents, but it didn't matter. The exercise had accomplished its purpose. The students were happy with themselves and one another. That group of students moved on.

Several years later, one of the students was killed in Vietnam and his teacher attended the funeral of that special student. She had never seen a serviceman in a military coffin before. He looked so handsome, so mature. The church was packed with his friends.� One by one those who loved him took a last walk by the coffin. The teacher was the last one to bless the coffin.

As she stood there, one of the soldiers who acted as pallbearer came up to her. "Were you Mark's math teacher?" he asked. She nodded: "yes." Then he said: "Mark talked about you a lot." After the funeral, most of Mark's former classmates went together to a luncheon.� Mark's mother and father were there, obviously waiting to speak with his teacher. "We want to show you something," his father said, taking a wallet out of his pocket. "They found this on Mark when he was killed. We thought you might recognize it."

Opening the billfold, he carefully removed two worn pieces of notebook paper that had obviously been taped, folded and refolded many times. The teacher knew without looking that the papers were the ones on which she had listed all the good things each of Mark's classmates had said about him.

"Thank you so much for doing that," Mark's mother said. "As you can see, Mark treasured it."

All of Mark's former classmates started to gather around. Charlie smiled rather sheepishly and said, "I still have my list.� It's in the top drawer of my desk at home."

Chuck's wife said, "Chuck asked me to put his in our wedding album."

"I have mine too," Marilyn said. "It's in my diary."

Then Vicki, another classmate, reached into her pocketbook, took out her wallet and showed her worn and frazzled list to the group. "I carry this with me at all times," Vicki said and without batting an eyelash, she continued: "I think we all saved our lists."

That's when the teacher finally sat down and cried. She cried for Mark and for all his friends who would never see him again.

The density of people in society is so thick that we forget that life will end one day.� And we don't know when that one day will be. So please, tell the people you love and care for, that they are special and important.� Tell them, before it is too late.

And One Way To Accomplish This Is: Forward this message on. If you do not send it, you will have, once again passed up the wonderful opportunity to do something nice and beautiful. If you've received this, it is because someone cares for you and it means there is probably at least someone for whom you care. If you're "too busy" to take those few minutes right now to forward this message on, would this be the VERY first time you didn't do that little thing that would make a difference in your relationships?

The more people that you send this to, the better you'll be at reaching out to those you care about. Remember, you reap what you sow. What you put into the lives of others comes back into your own.

May Your Day Be Blessed And As Special As You Are

As a story, it ends best at the paragraph with the teacher crying for Mark and "all his friends who would never see him again."

It's a nice exercise, and it made me think of what's in my wallet. I carry the usual: cash, credit cards, IDs. I also carry my auto registration card, one for my insurance, and my membership card to the Notre Dame's Senior Bar, which I really don't need to carry unless I know I'm going to be in South Bend (and to this date, I've never unexpectedly ended up there). It will also be obsolete soon because I hear they're franchising it out to a Friday's or some such chain.

I also keep my receipts in my wallet until I've filed them away or entered them into my checkbook (for those debit purchases). I have the ticket stub to my first Bruce Springsteen concert (Continental Airlines Arena, NJ, Aug. 6, 1999), football schedules for Notre Dame for the next three years and the little card that says I donated to Notre Dame because they put a nice picture on one side of it and it's nice to have that to break up the banality of all those credit cards.

And I have three folded, faded, torn pieces of paper.

One is the Irish blessing that reads:

May the road rise to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face
The rain fall soft upon your fields
And until we meet again
May God hold you in the hollow of his hand

Bryan's parents included that in a graduation gift back in '98; we all got them, and I've kept mine in my wallet.

In the spring of that year, during a slow moment on a late night in the college newspaper office, I photocopied a page from the football media guide, cut out a small rectangle, and folded it to put in my wallet. On the paper are printed the lyrics to "Hike Notre Dame," the "Notre Dame Victory March" and "Notre Dame, Our Mother," our alma mater. That one I should redo. I could probably redo the Irish blessing too.

The oldest is an orange sheet with prayer requests from my church printed on one side. What matters is on the other: In pencil, I wrote, "If I can't keep laughing, then what's the point?" Because it's been folded in my wallet for six years next week, or maybe the week after, some of the graphite has been transposed to the bottom half of the paper, creating a mirror image. It's been in my wallet through senior year, through my cross-country trip, through jobs, baseball games, flights, hookups, motel stays, concerts, restaurants, everything. I don't know if I'll ever bother to update the piece of paper, to write it down somewhere else, to print it out or laminate it. Considering the wear on the other two pieces of paper and the faded ink, the graphite and the orange paper has held up quite well.

As for the words � If I can't keep laughing, then what's the point? � they were my grandmother's, as quoted by the pastor at our church at her memorial service. She died just before finals of my junior year in college and I was able to reschedule the one exam that was in the way of my coming home for a couple of days for the funeral. My grandmother had been sick for some time � emphezema mostly, and was on oxygen for the last six years or so of her life. She had the big tank strategically placed in her condo � I can still see the layout, picture all the rooms, feel the thick carpet beneath my feet � so she could navigate all seven rooms on her long cord, and she'd have her portable tanks to carry with her when she came to visit or went to the doctor or Mom or her friends escorted her on outings. My grandmother had a great sense of humor, and I'm sure that's where mine comes from. Her birthday was the day after mine, with her son the day after that. She always said we all had the same sense of humor because of our birthdays.

Something struck me that May morning when Diane recounted a visit to see my grandmother during the last months, when Grandma couldn't make it out to church on Sunday mornings anymore. Diane had asked her how she could remain so upbeat while she struggled to breathe, to have energy to get through the day, and could no longer leave the house. My grandmother, who was proud of the life she'd led, struggled with the changes and was reluctant to yield such freedoms as her car. But to her credit, she knew when she was no longer capable of driving by herself and allowed my parents to take her car now that my sister was old enough to drive. Despite all the constrictions on her life, my grandmother refused to give up laughing, or her sense of humor.

After the service, during refreshments, I zipped across the hall, grabbed the first piece of scrap paper and writing implement I laid eyes on, and wrote down those words.

Because really, if we can't keep laughing, then what is the point?

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