The Accidental Philanthropist

“weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”

Psalm 30:5b



I never planned on becoming a philanthropist.  In fact I can’t recall if the concept ever consciously crossed my mind. I do remember that no one asked me to become one or pitched me on the benefits of sharing what I had with others. It happened completely by chance as so many of the most treasured moments in life do. It was 1990 and that year found me as most years up to then did; completely self-absorbed in my own ego and riding a crazy rollercoaster of upward mobility and living in the fast lane. I can’t remember exactly what I was doing but I do remember I had just purchased a new home with my then wife and was fresh into a new job. Both would end badly four years later, the result of my not knowing or liking who I was and the behavior that resulted from that self-loathing. On the outside you couldn’t tell I didn’t like me, after all I was the life of the party; big laughs, quick with a joke and full of antics as long as the liquor was flowing.  It was pretty much the activity you would expect from someone who was always looking beyond the mirror for approval.

1990 was also the year I would be reminded that life is impermanent and doesn’t come with a promise of a happy ending. 1990 was the year my mother died and hers was no easy passing. She had retired ten years earlier at the age of fifty five, a fortunate move that afforded her a decade to be something she loved as she lived alone in the little farmhouse she purchased on a hillside overlooking a lake. Here she set about doing the things that brought her joy; antiquing, knitting, smoking, making this and that, and spending time with her completely zany Airedale “Jessie”.  Those ten years were for her, as best as I can tell, the most beautiful years of her life.

Then her kidneys began to fail and the doctors treating her made some questionable decisions. While she was dying I spent every December and January weekend driving my 383 Roadrunner with bald tires the three hundred miles over the mountains of New York and Vermont with a case of beer riding shotgun. After eight or nine hours I would arrive at the farm where my brother Dave would be waiting for me. Then we would continue drinking until we both passed out.

I remember the night when I was caught in a snowstorm on Hogback Mountain. I had left Lancaster county alone, just after work as I pretty much did on every trip up to see mom, and six hours into the journey the snow had started falling heavily across New England. As I reached the crest of the eastbound lane of route seven the road quickly covered over with a six inch coating of pure white disaster. At the bottom of the mile long pitch was a massive pile up. Now everyone was jammed bumper to bumper from the base of the mountain to its crest and back down the other side. I was preparing to descend the mountain when I had to suddenly bring it to a slippery slow stop.

Then as I sat motionless the car began to slide. When it finally stopped and came to rest in the oncoming lane of traffic I just sat and watched the snow blow across the windshield. Nothing left to do but suck down another beer with Springsteen on the 8 track and half a pack of cigarettes rolled up in my shirt sleeve. These companions would have to get me through the long cold dark uncertainty of that night. Traffic must eventually have started moving because some twelve hours after I left Pennsylvania I arrived at the farm with only that empty case of courage and one cigarette left in my pocket. I was no saint. Back then I was tall with irresponsibility built on long legs of bad judgment. Looking back it’s a miracle I survived.

As the New Year arrived it found my brother David and me hopeful that mom would recover. She had shown signs of making progress after the doctors finally hooked her up to a dialysis machine but a week later that too would fail and she began to implode. If you have never seen a person die from a failure of the organ that cleanses your blood I hope you never have to. Your flesh and orifices expand and distend while you bleed from wherever your life can leach out as your circulatory system transports poison throughout your body. My last day with mom was January 8th 1990 and after seeing her in the hospital and saying what would turn out to be my final goodbye I made my tenth consecutive return to Pennsylvania on the Sunday after the Friday I had arrived to visit with her.

As soon as I walked in the door and had taken off my coat the phone rang. It was David telling me our mother was dying. I had to return to New Hampshire that very night. I told him I had just completed the twelve hour return and could not manage the round trip. I could never make it in time and I didn’t have what it took to pour what was left of me back in the car and head back north. Instead, I hung up the phone, sat on my bed with my wife’s arm around my shoulder and cried until Mom was gone and on her way back to the source from where she started. David would tell me later how the doctors had taken out the respirator and she struggled to breathe and hold on to the life that was never hers. Only after losing the battle she could never win did the look of peace return to her swollen face. Grace had spared my eyes from seeing that trauma because it would have haunted me until my death. My brother was not so lucky. The damage from that night would change him forever.  

When the day of the funeral arrived all my friends drove out to the farm to be with me as I said goodbye to the woman who gave her everything that I might have a wonderful life; the same woman who expected much and hoped for more from me. On the day of the service I found a small painted box in her bedroom. Inside it were the old birthday cards David and I had made for her as children and a single letter she had written to herself in a moment of great despair recounting how broken she was that I forgot her on that Mother’s Day. I wouldn’t forgive myself for another thirty years.  I suppose even now that letter haunts me and continues to have an impact on how I feel about myself and shapes my desire to never again let anyone down.

Nine months after her passing I met again with the family lawyer to settle Mom’s affairs and learned I had inherited something I hadn’t counted on. Turns out mom had been secretly sponsoring a little girl named Selamawit from far away Ethiopia. She had no idea mom was dead so on that crisp October day I became “An accidental philanthropist”. It would have a consequence I could never have imagined and lead to the greatest adventure of my entire life.


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