Thursday, April 29, 2010

Reflections from a Golden Opportunity: Listening is an Act of Love

Seize upon that moment long ago
One breath away and there you will be
So young and carefree
Again you will see
That place in gold

Steal away into that way back when
You thought that all would last forever
But like the weather
Nothing can ever...and be in time
Stay gold

But can it be
When we can see
So vividly
A memory
And yes you say
So must the day
Too, fade away
And leave a ray of sun
So gold

Life is but a twinkling of an eye
Yet filled with sorrow and compassion
though not imagined
All things that happen
Will age to old
Though gold

Stevie Wonder - "Stay Gold"

On January 21, 2010 I sat down across from my father and listened to him talk for forty minutes--almost completely uninterrupted--except for an occasional follow up question from me. It was . . .extraordinary. No, that's not the right word for it. It was more than extraordinary. . . .it was . . . pivotal.

Here's the thing. . . in this modern age of iPhones and iPads and text messages and emails and. . .well, stuff, it's pretty unusual to sit one on one with someone--especially someone that you love--and just hear them talk. Sure, maybe your friend with the Monday morning blues might pour her heart out to you over lattes or another might bend your ear about career or marital unrest. . .but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about just sitting and listening to someone telling their story. Without an agenda. Without a destination. Without any pressure to give advice. Without it being about much other than. . .well, them and their story. This is what I did with my dad through something called the StoryCorps project.

Okay, for those non-nerds who are unfamiliar with the StoryCorps project, it is literally a recorded collection of peoples' stories. . .but not in just any old manner. Instead of people being interviewed by strangers, the interviewers are people who love each other, or work together, or who simply intrigue each other. One person does most of the talking. Another does most of the listening. And they record it. . . . . mostly for you, although a small percentage of them get played in excerpts on National Public Radio stations.

My first exposure to StoryCorps was when I first became an NPR addict shortly after moving to Atlanta. During the weekday lunch hour and on Sundays, they'd play these six minute snippets from these StoryCorps interviews, and invariably, I'd be driving down the street trying my best not to scare the people in the cars next to me with my snot-covered face. Because I'm usually alone in my car during this time (since none of my friends will listen to NPR in the car with me) I grip the steering wheel and just let myself go into the "ugly cry." (Think the kind of cry that gets a little too hard at some point--like when Halle Berry won the Oscar--classic "ugly cry.")

My favorite was one where this man who'd had multiple sclerosis talked to his wife of several years. He told her that he always felt like a burden because he could not provide for her the way "a man" is supposed to provide. If you listened closely you could hear the emotion mounting in his throaty voice as this likely stoic gentleman dropped his guard and shared this big revelation to his life's partner. It was like he'd finally told her some horrible secret. Finally pointed out the elephant in the room. (I can feel my eyes welling up just thinking about it.)

"Provide?" she said and then repeated,"Provide? You have provided me love. You have provided me with respect. You have provided me with unspeakable joy. Don't you get it? You have been more than a man and a provider to me. You have been a hero. And if I had my choice, I'd take my hero over anything else any day." His response was a quiet and relieved weep, all unabashedly captured on the recording.

Dude, I almost wrecked my car I was crying so hard! Not pretty. Not pretty at all. So needless to say, I love NPR, but I REALLY love StoryCorps. It's one of my favorite programs on the station.

A few months ago, I got this email (that nerdy NPR supporters often get) telling me that the StoryCorps sound booth (which is usually at Grand Central Station in NYC only) was coming to Atlanta. Atlanta! OMG! "Sign up and record your story in Atlanta," it said. I couldn't wait.

First, I made an appointment and interviewed my brother Will, which was amazing. Much of our conversation focused on our dad, in fact, the most moving parts were all about our dad. The minute Will and I finished, I knew that, more than anything, I had to do this with Daddy.

Okay, so by now, surely y'all know how I feel about my father. If you don't, you are a.) new to this blog, b.) not a person who knows me personally, or c.) all of the above. Talking to my father is one of my most favorite things to do in the whole world. The idea of having a conversation with him recorded in Dolby stereo forever-and-ever? What could be better?

Problem #1: Dad lives in Los Angeles. I live in Atlanta. Both parties must be present to win.

Solution #1: Dad is freakin' awesome. He flew all the way to Atlanta to talk to me in Dolby stereo for the StoryCorps project. How awesome is that?? Problem solved.

And so. . . . I sat with my Dad. And talked to him. No, I take that back. I sat and I listened to him. Listened to him talk about himself. Our family. Our lineage. Our legacy. The StoryCorps people are right: Listening is an act of love. His words brought people and times and places to life in ways I never knew. He spoke of his father--my grandfather--in a way that completely changed the way I think of him. Instead of the stern disciplinarian/patriarch of eleven children, through his vivid description he became my father's daddy. The guy who fiercely loved Daddy's mother--my grandmother--and the guy who, despite his limited education, sent Dad a hand-written letter when he was in college that essentially said, "I'm proud of you."

And then he described tender moments with his mother, whom he affectionately called "Mudear" (short for "mother dear.") He described how much he valued the way she praised him as a child whenever he did a good job at something. With a twinkle in her eye she'd say:

"You a cat! You just ain't got no kittens!"

Tears rolled down his cheeks as he remembered this. As he remembered her. It was her way of saying what her husband scrawled onto that note he'd sent Daddy in college. "I'm proud of you." And like any child, it was like a gold star to receive such affirmations. Lucky for him he did. Lucky for me he did.

I learned so much in those forty minutes. I heard about the day Mudear died. Her last actions. Her last words. I learned that Daddy was sitting right next to her, and watched her take her last breath. I never knew that before that day.

"I'm counting on you to make sure everything is okay," she told him, "I'm tired. . . and I think it's time for me to go now."

"Mudear, it's okay," he bravely replied, "You've had a good life. You rest now. It's okay."

And she took a few deep breaths and died. Just like that. With her loved ones surrounding her. With Dad watching. With perfect peace. With dignity.

On January 21, 2010 through listening (as an act of love), I was introduced to another side of my father. . . . but more important, I was introduced to my family history redefined. . . . and ultimately to a better understanding of myself. It was a life-altering experience. . . . one that was more precious than gold.

Thanks, Dad. Thanks, StoryCorps. :)


If you have never heard of StoryCorps, please . . . .visit the website and learn about this amazing project. Put this on your "bucket list" . . . I mean it. And if you ever have the opportunity to do this. . .and I SO hope that you do. . . . you, too, will know what a remarkable gift it is to listen. . . .a gift to the one you love and even more of a gift to you, the listener. . . .

(Right now WABE NPR is doing their spring fund drive which is probably what got me reflecting on this. . .if you are an NPR nerd. . .give. .give. . .give. . .)

Me and Daddy after our interview. . . I tried to upload a part of it but couldn't figure out how!
(Probably is best, 'cause you would've gone into the "ugly cry" from hearing it!)


  1. I will treasure this forever.. Thanks Dr. KD


  2. Yeah... You got me good with this one ;-)
    Interesting fact: Jan 21 was the anniversary of Mudear's passing.

    Another great one, Mizzle!!!

  3. Wow. . . I had no idea that January 21 was the anniversary of Mudear's transition when we made that appointment. What a lovely way to celebrate her memory!

    Oh yeah, shout out to Lillie Love and the wonderful people at StoryCorps and NPR! :)

  4. Hi Kimberly - Lillie forwarded your post to me and I just loved reading about your and your Dad's experience! I'm so glad you got a chance to record your stories, and that you're not afraid to admit to an "ugly" cry. :)

    My best to you and your family,
    Christa Orth
    StoryCorps Alumni Coordinator

  5. I LOVE your family! As I sit in the booth and listen to stories like the ones you and your family shared, I'm humbled and amazed by our human ability to love somebody and/or some thing. Thanks for coming in!


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