Seeing the Good in Adversity

On August 10, 2003, I was sitting in the intensive care waiting room at Good Samaritan Hospital on Long Island.  My mother was unconscious and in critical condition, the result of lifetime of ailments and complications.  Doctors had told us that she could stay in that condition for days, or even weeks, before she passed on.

I was faced with a difficult decision.  On August 12, I needed to be in Chicago to finish editing my PBS Special, “Becoming a Humor Being.”  Time was of the essence.  I needed to have the project completed in time for it to be aired in the fall schedule.  I had many gut-wrenching heart-to-hearts with my family, and they all assured me that the right thing to do would be for me to go to Chicago for two days, complete the editing, and come back.  If there were any changes in her condition, they promised to notify me. In an effort to make my decision a little easier, everyone reassured me that it was what mom would have wanted.

As I sat in one of the institutional, molded plastic waiting room chairs thinking about some of the memories my mother and I shared, the pay phone in the waiting room was ringing.  An orderly answered and called out that there was a phone call for “a Steve Rizzo.”  I was surprised, to say the least, wondering who would call me at a pay phone at the hospital.  I picked up the phone, and the voice on the other end said, “Steve, I love you.  I’m thinking about you, and if you want me there with you, I will catch the next plane to New York.”  It was my dear friend Jeffrey Gitomer.  I asked how he knew about my mom, and how, amazingly, he got the number to the pay phone in my exact location.  He simply said, “Sometimes friends have a way of knowing.”  In retrospect, even more amazing is that if I had given him the okay, he would have taken that next flight.

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When I hung up the phone, I felt truly blessed for having such wonderful friends who would care so much in my time of need.  I was also grateful for having a family who was able to put their pain aside and take on the difficult initiative of easing my mind.  They not only empathized with my situation, they helped me make a decision at such an unfortunate, uncertain time.  Recognizing these simple blessings was a huge step in helping me to stay positive in that moment.  Just taking note of the small good things was easing my mind in the middle of tough times.  I didn’t know that my mother would show up to ease my pain personally.

At around two AM on August 12, I was in my hotel room in Chicago sleeping when the phone rang.  It was my wife Gina informing me that my mother had passed.  She stressed that there was no need to come right away.  After all, the wake services wouldn’t begin for another two days.  The family consensus was that I should complete my editing and return to New York.  When I hung up the phone, I was overcome with two separate emotions: Grief for the loss of my mother and guilt for not being by her side.  I immediately started packing, but something compelled me to stay and complete my project.  As I lay down to try and sleep, I wondered how I was going to muster enough courage to get through the day, and I prayed for strength and guidance to do the right thing.

Later that morning, I was sitting in the editing room at WTTW Studios in Chicago with  Jack, the Director of the special, Frank and Paul the editors, and Kim, Director of Production Services at WTTW.  I must have been unusually quiet, because Kim asked me if I was okay.  I told everyone that my mom passed away the night before.  There was a slight pause, and Jack asked, “Why are you here?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I think I’m supposed to be here. I think it’s what she would want.  I’ll be home in time for the wake services.”  There was a long awkward pause that I spent staring at my shoes, feeling like a jackass, and again I prayed for strength to get me through the day.

The phone rang and Paul picked it up.  “Steve,” he said, “It’s for you.  It’s a ‘Nido Qubein.’”

A little flummoxed, I said, “What’s going on here?  First I get a phone call at a pay phone in a waiting room in a hospital, and now I get a call in an editing room in Chicago.  I feel like I’m in The Matrix.  How do these people know where I am?”

At this point in the story, I had known Nido for several years.  We were both members of NSA, the National Speakers Association.  (If it was the other NSA, I wouldn’t question how he found me.)

There are some people on this planet whose persona radiates a serious positive energy and the impact of their energy can even be felt through a long distance phone call.  Nido is one such a person.  The conversation was short, but his voice was calm and soothing.  His tone was sincere.  But more than anything else, I knew he cared and understood, especially when he said, “Sometimes we have to do what we have to do, even when we’re feeling pain.”

I know Nido had no way of knowing what transpired as a result of that short conversation, but he was the answer to my prayer for strength and guidance.  At that moment, I just knew I was supposed to be where I was.

I hung up the phone and took a deep breath.  I could feel my emotions getting the best of me.  I had been thinking about it and decided to let everyone know that I was dedicating the special to the memory of Jacqueline Rizzo, my mother.  As soon as I said that, the tears began to fall.  I knew there was no holding back, so I didn’t try to fight it.  I wasn’t embarrassed, and I didn’t attempt to walk out of the room.  I just sat there with my hands over my eyes and cried.  It was as if a dam had just burst open after years of intense pressure.

Then something unexpected happened.  Jack got up from his chair and stood behind me with his hands on my shoulders.  Kim sat down next to me and took my right hand and gently held it with both of her hands.  Paul and Frank turned around in their chairs and silently witnessed what was taking place.  I noticed they all had tears in their eyes as they were trying to console me.  No words were spoken, but the room was filled with the presence of my grief and their sympathy.  There was a total understanding and acceptance.  I know they were feeling my pain and yet, at the same time, they were healing my pain.  This genuine, heartfelt experience lasted several minutes.

Sensing the timing for some comic relief, I managed to blubber, “Why is everyone crying?  Did everyone’s mother pass away last night?”  Everyone started laughing.  Then, in that instant, all ten of the TV monitors in the room began flashing the title of my PBS special, “Becoming a Humor Being.”

“That’s strange,” Paul said, “Nobody touched anything.  That just can’t happen by itself.”

Laughing and staring at the flashing monitors, I said, “They didn’t go on by themselves! That’s my mom telling me I should be here.  Let’s get to work!”

I will always remember that moment in my life.  It stands out as one particular event in my life that allowed me to see and feel some good in a time when I was consumed with so much pain.  The phone call from friends, the support from my family and the special bonding of people I hardly knew renewed my faith in the power of human spirit.  It reinforced my belief that we all share a connection as humans.  It reminded me that life was going on after all.  It’s truly a miraculous happening when we allow ourselves to feel so grateful for what we have, even when we’ve lost so much.

Life is an ongoing obstacle course, always challenging you to be the best you can be.  Each obstacle, no matter how big or small, is an opportunity for you to shift your perspective and view it through the eyes of hope and peace, and that choice is always yours to make. This is what acquiring a positive attitude is all about.  This is what builds your character and enables you to grow.  This is also why some of your biggest challenges can be blessings in disguise.  When shift happens, your life changes.  Understanding this is the pathway to success and happiness.  Are you ready for the challenge?

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