Updated: Aug 26
This story was originally published in my book, Through The Eyes of A Coach. I'm sharing it here today in honor of her birthday.
The rewards that come from being present may not always be immediately apparent, but the impact on your life and everyone around you will be enormous in the long run. Recently I read a deeply moving book entitled Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man, and the Last Great Lesson (Doubleday, 1997) authored by a well-known sports columnist, Mitch Albom. This is a book that digs into the essence of what being fully present can mean to you and those you love.
The true story centers on Albom's Tuesday visits with his mentor and life coach, professor Morrie Schwartz, who was dying from Lou Gehrig's disease. With each visit, the window to Mitch's heart, which had closed gradually from years of cynicism and diminishing faith, was pried open through the wisdom and power of Morrie's indomitable spirit. Morrie taught Mitch to live every day is as if it was his last—that the only solution in life is love.
When I read this wonderful book, I was flooded with memories of a similar experience in my own life—regular weekly visits with a special mentor who transformed me as a coach and human being. These visits opened me to the possibility that there is something to value and admire in everyone, and that we may completely miss these qualities until we are truly present.
After I graduated from college, I spent the ensuing eight years completely immersed in my chosen career of coaching. I was so obsessed with building my swim team that I closed off nearly every other area of my life, withdrawing from friends and family as I relinquished any semblance of balance. There was only one small exception in my single-minded, all-consuming compulsion. Each Wednesday, as soon as I finished coaching morning practice, I headed east on the Ventura Freeway to the L.A. suburb of Encino to visit my mother's parents, Ruby and Ben.
They were poor, living in a run-down apartment as they scraped by on the tiny stipend of their combined Social Security checks.
My grandfather, Ben Harrison Orkow, had been a writer his entire adult life. A big success in the twenties and thirties, he had been an acclaimed screenwriter and playwright living in Beverly Hills and rubbing shoulders with such stars of the day as Clark Gable and Cary Grant. But he had stubbornly refused to adapt his writing style and language to the changing world of the post-war years and lost every cent of his once sizable fortune.
My grandmother, Ruby, was a dazzling beauty of nineteen when she first met Ben, the sophisticated and brilliant writer. Having been raised in poverty, she was swept off her feet by his wealth, charm, and confidence. After a whirlwind courtship they were married, certain that a life of affluence, glamour, and success lay ahead. A year after they were married, they welcomed a beautiful little girl into the world and named her Miriam. They were elated about their baby, who grew up to be my mother. But their carefree joy was short-lived. As my grandfather's fortune and reputation plummeted, Ruby was forced to take a job as a salesperson at a woman's clothing store. Ben steadfastly refused to pursue any other employment to help with their dwindling finances and continued to pour out manuscripts, plays, and screenplays that drew rejection after rejection. Every day, Ruby worked at the clothing store, rushing about on her feet for eight to ten hours, only to return to a house that needed cleaning, a husband impatiently awaiting his dinner, and a daughter who needed the love and presence of a mother too exhausted to deliver.
I viewed my grandmother quite differently. We had my grandparents over for dinner at least two or three times a month and for every holiday and birthday throughout the year. Ruby continued to be the breadwinner, working full time into her late sixties while my grandfather kept writing without results. Inevitably she would arrive at family dinner parties already tipsy from nipping at her bottle of vodka as soon as she returned from the store, and then would proceed to have another couple of cocktails before we sat down to dinner. I knew nothing about her alcohol addiction at that time, so I just assumed she was bizarre—gentle and affectionate—but scatterbrained and basically wacky. I built a superficial rapport with her, clowning and joking to make her laugh, but without really knowing her, loving her only out of duty.
Two things about Ruby puzzled me, though. They didn't seem to fit the loony-tune picture I had created of her. The first was her hands. Ruby had the gentlest, most expressive, and wisest hands I had ever known. When she spoke, her hands painted beautiful images in the air filled with emotion and delight. And when she touched me to rub my back or hold my hands, the effect was hypnotic. Love flowed through her fingers like the touch of an angel. The purity of heart that softly radiated from her hands brought me instantly to a place of peace that let me know there was somebody who loved me unconditionally.
The second anomaly came once each year on Christmas day. This was the one day I saw Ruby in the morning—the early morning. As a youngster, I was so excited about Christmas I pleaded with my grandparents to arrive at our house by 6 A.M. so we could begin to open packages. From the moment she walked in the door each Christmas dawn, it was as if a completely different person had stepped into Ruby's body. It was the one day her being seemed to perfectly match her hands. On Christmas, I loved my grandmother for who she was rather than out of a sense of familial obligation. She was like an angel each December 25: light, vibrant, and positively radiant. I felt a peacefulness and wisdom about her that day that blended perfectly with her warmth and affection. The effect was irresistible as she nurtured rather than smothered. Looking back now, this transformation in my grandmother each Christmas day meant more to me than any present or holiday treat. It remains my most precious Christmas memory.
When I went away to college, much to my surprise, it was Ruby's letters that I looked forward to more than any others. The packages she sent were filled with all sorts of delightful treasures. She had a knack for finding quotes, quips, or stories guaranteed to bring smiles. Her letters were filled with fun and energy. They almost seemed to glow when I pulled them out of my post office box.
After I graduated and settled into my new life as a coach, I decided that I would visit my grandparents every Wednesday morning. I would bring them their beloved delicatessen food, take them shopping, and make sure they had what they needed to get by until the next week. I'm not at all proud of the fact that I approached the visits as my duty as a "good grandson" and can see now I looked at them as a sort of noble sacrifice that would prove I was a truly giving person. Little did I know that I would receive far more from these visits than I could ever give. These Wednesdays with Ruby opened my eyes to the beauty we can discover in the human soul when we learn to move beyond judgment.
Week by week, I caught more glimpses of the pain and emptiness that had been my grandmother's reality for fifty years. It wasn't that she had been forced to work and carry the total financial responsibility for her family—in fact, she liked her work because it gave her contact with people and the opportunity to serve. Instead, her pain was the result of the daily tragedy of a relationship in which she was neither appreciated nor respected. Her husband saw her as a kind of flippety fool, incapable of meaningful conversation and substantive opinions. She lived without the most basic right of simple human dignity. Through it all, my grandmother somehow continued to see joy where others saw routine, to find delight in simple, everyday things that others passed without the slightest notice. By taking the time to be present with her each week, gradually I began to appreciate her rare and special wisdom. And more and more, I found delight in her laughter. Ruby could let go and really laugh. How many of us have forgotten how to truly enjoy the gift of un-restrained laughter?
One Wednesday about two years into my regimen, I sat down with Ruby after a short shopping trip, and we began to talk. As the conversation flowed, she bared her soul to me. That morning, my respect for my grandmother grew enormously. For the first time I finally began to see and appreciate her true spirit. Early in her marriage, as Ben's career began to flounder, she'd tried to delicately make suggestions to him about finding a collaborator to help translate his ideas into language that resonated with the readers of the new day. Her attempts at encouragement had been cut off curtly, cast aside as the ignorant railings of a numskull. He'd made it painfully clear that her ideas and opinions meant nothing to him because he'd wanted her to understand her "place." So she'd learned to keep her thoughts sealed tightly inside.
We talked about many people in her life, and I was inspired by her positive attitude about others despite her own troubles. She didn't compare herself to others—she simply loved them. Ruby was almost egoless. When she talked about raising my mother, tears welled up in her eyes as she described how difficult it had been for her to be the disciplinarian in the family. It was not a role that came naturally to her, but she'd known that if she did not accept that responsibility, any semblance of discipline would have evaporated. My grandfather loved the image and ideal of parenthood, but Ruby was the one who rolled up her sleeves and dealt with the reality of keeping it all together. As she spoke, I marveled at her ability to communicate when someone actually took a moment to listen to what she had to say.
Something else remarkable occurred to me that breakthrough Wednesday morning, because I realized that Ruby had stopped drinking. By simply having someone consistently there for her, she was being fed with love, and alcohol lost its luster.
The greatest human need is to be truly heard—to feel another's full loving presence—for it leads to genuine connection. Whenever we are fully present for others we sing out to them with unmistakable clarity that they are important! For the first time in ages, Ruby knew she was respected and genuinely special to someone. And for the first time, I realized how important Ruby was to me. I fell in love with my grandmother that morning, not out of duty, but for who she was.
Later, as I drove back to work I could not stop the tears. I cried because I had finally awakened to the intense pain my grandmother had endured—the ultimate pain of never being appreciated, admired, nor heard. I cried because I saw what a blind fool I had been throughout my life, looking only at her frailties and superficialities, never even suspecting there was a spirit of great beauty inside waiting to be invited out to dance. Most of all, I cried tears of gratitude, because I had discovered the truth about Ruby before it was too late. Over the next several years, my grandmother became one of the most important and influential coaches in my life, and my treasured friend. How fitting that her name was Ruby; she remains a shining example of the gem we can discover within everyone if we only take the time to be present and look deeper.
The visits with my grandparents lasted for eight years. Even after she died, Ruby continued to influence me, helping me learn lessons I have used often as a coach, parent, and teambuilder. One of the most important of these lessons was about celebration.
Ruby celebrated every delicious morsel of life— from bagels covered with cream cheese and strawberry jam to postcards from old friends and supermarket coupons she could use to buy products she enjoyed. She helped me recognize the immeasurable passion we bring to our lives through the power of celebration. And it was so much fun celebrating with her! From my visits with Ruby I began to understand that one of the most powerful ways to build teams is to create moments of celebration.
But it wasn't until she passed away that the importance of celebration hit me full force. Until then, I had always avoided funerals, thinking of them as unnecessary events of sadness and pain. When Ruby passed away, my parents chose to hold no services of any kind for her because they shared that same view of funerals. But the more I thought about Ruby and the way she relished every precious moment, I began to see that we could choose to make the occasion of her passing a celebration of her life rather than a mourning of her death. In this new light, the idea of a funeral took on an entirely different meaning to me.