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A Letter on Their Hearts

letterMy father wrote me a letter before he died.  He was 44 and knew he wasn’t going to make it to 45.  Though very weak from illness and treatments that go along with having cancer, he wanted to say something of value to his children.  Knowing that he wouldn’t be there for us anymore, I imagine he wanted to say the one thing he could, to each of us, that would help us for the rest of our lives.   I’ve read that letter countless times since my mother gave it to me; but for the life of me, when I think about it, I can only remember one part.  He said, “Right now in life, you are pretending to be a goof off.  But I know that one day you will do something great that will set you among the very best.”  With those words, my father gave me the one thing that all children need; what Merita Golden called, “permission from someone they love to venture into the unknown.”

“You will do something great that will set you among the very best.”

His faith-filled charge was not a parental request; he wasn’t just hoping; it was his prediction.  Going through the rest of my life knowing that he believed it about me gave me permission to believe it about myself.  Since the day I first read his words (at 12 years old) they have been with me; in the soulful heart of my subconscious. As I was certain that he loved me, I was also certain that my life would be extraordinary.   I didn’t know what it was but that didn’t matter because he didn’t either. “You will do something great.”   At times in my life when I am feeling proud of myself I remember my father and his words and wish he was here to ask, “Is this what you were talking about, Dad?  Should I keep going?”

He’s not here to hear my question and though it took me a long time to understand, he wouldn’t know the answer anyway.  He was not the repository of all human wisdom that my memory transformed him into in the years since his death.  He was just a man, like me, trying to do his best.  Still, his words stay in my head and I find myself compelled to keep going; just in case there is more; to keep reaching for the greatness he spoke of.    I am sure I will take his last words to me to my grave wondering if I got there. Meeting him in heaven, I’ll get my answer.

I dreamed once of that meeting: I was twelve years old again and with a young child?s legs I ran up to him, threw my arms around him and asked, “Was I great, Daddy?  Did I do it?”  He kissed me on my cheek and whispered ,  “Jeez Mario, I was only talking about you acing a math test or two.  Lighten up.”    My father was very funny in life.  I guess my dream couldn’t betray his heart.

A long way from twelve now, I realize that my father would have been very proud of me at all the moments in my life.  He would have been proud when I graduated from basic training, and been proud when I returned home from the sea.  He would have been proud that I became a Coast Guard rescue swimmer.  He would have loved to have been there (though his younger brother, my Uncle John, has filled in often) when some Admiral pinned a medal on my chest.  He would have been very proud being my father.  I know it.  But as I get closer to his age when I knew him, I can’t help but think that I’ve been missing something.  Making him proud isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing.  Lately – perhaps finally – I believe he would want me to move on to what is next. He would want me to be more like him. He would want me to be proud of – and believe in – someone else.

It’s time to start writing my own letters to my children and to my friends. It is time for all of us to start writing. We shouldn’t wait. As I’ve always looked to my parents I know now that our children always look to us with the same unanswered question just behind their hearts. “Is this it, Daddy? Am I doing good?” It’s the reason they learn to say “Watch me” so young. And if you only get one thing then get this: Our children do not hold back or shrink from themselves because they are afraid to fail. They are only afraid of failing us. They do not worry about being disappointed.  Their fear – as mine was until that letter – is in being a disappointment.

I know it may seem like an unconventional gift, but this Christmas I think we should do something different. I think we should write the most important letter of our lives and give it to our kids. If you don’t have children then write one to anyone who looks up to you. You know who they are. And it doesn’t matter how old they are, and it doesn’t matter if you think they already know. If they are still looking up to you they are still waiting for an answer to their unspoken question. They are waiting for you to believe in them. And I know they may already be great kids, and I know they may already know that you love them – I always knew my parents loved me (thanks Mom)- but trust me; that belief will be more complete – that love will be more real – their belief in themselves will be greater if you write a letter on their hearts that says, “Don’t worry; you will do something great.” Not having it – not having that permission from someone they love – may be the only thing holding them back.

About the author

Mario Vittone Mario Vittone has eighteen years of combined military service in the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. His writing has appeared in Yachting Magazine, SaltWater Sportsman, Lifelines, and Reader's Digest. He has lectured extensively to business leaders, educators, and the military on team motivation, performance, mission focus, and generational diversity.

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Posted in General Leadership.