Twenty-Five Years of Firsts
On September 26, 1989, I was less than a month into my awesomely laid out senior year of high school. I was class president, I'd already been accepted to the college of my choice - the University of Missouri to study broadcast journalism - and my class schedule was the envy of my friends. I had two full hours of music, an hour of "honors" study hall (I could actually leave school to "study"), and I proctored a class, meaning that I had just three hours a day of actual real work.
But on September 26, 1989, at about 3:15pm, every bit of that fun, relaxed, and memorable final year of my youth was wiped clean. That's when I was told that I had cancer.
Most of you know the story that follows. Or if you don't, you can read all about it on the rest of this website. Or in my book, Heart of Iron. So I'm not going to rehash those details now. It's not why I am writing this. Because today isn't about what I went through to get here, twenty-five years later. It's about being here, in this place, in this life, and recognizing that absolute blessing of that.
And it's not just my blessing. It's the acknowledgement of the reality that we are making great progress on the road to a cure. We're not there yet. We still have lots of work to do. But people, just like me, are now living complete and full lives after they were diagnosed.
In the twenty-five years since that day in 1989 I have visited twenty-two countries. I graduated college, worked in television, published three books, and spoken to literally tens of thousands about my story.
I witnessed Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing to the beat of his own heart. I've seen a rainbow break between two cliffs in New Zealand's Fiordland National Park. I've gone swimming with sea turtles in Maui. I've kayaked in the Panama Canal.
I was just a row away from catching a home run ball in the bleachers of Wrigley Field. I cheered on a Joe Montana last-second game-winning touchdown drive. I was at the finish line when Rudy Garcia-Tolson became the first double above-knee amputee to complete an Ironman. I've been privileged to see the rush of the peloton at the Tour de France. I carried the Olympic torch.
I've perfected the art of cooking baby back ribs. (And with all due respect to the people of Memphis, Texas, and North Carolina, Kansas City style barbecue is superior.) I'm the third generation that makes our handed-down family recipe onion dip. I've eaten Alaskan king crab legs, in Alaska. I've had Chicago deep dish at Gino's East. I've had cheesesteaks in Philadelphia. I've had pizza in Rome. I've had waffles in Belgium. I've had whisky in Scotland. I've eaten more grilled cheese sandwiches than I can count.
I met and fell in love with the most amazing woman I know. I was lucky enough to marry her.
On this silver anniversary of the beginning of the forging of my life, I happily acknowledge that life and the good fortune that made it happen. But today is truly about the celebration of the human spirit and the unyielding and indestructible nature of the courage that resides within each one of us.
Any person facing a devastating diagnosis, or some other major life hurdle, has the strength to persevere. There is nothing that I possess, that helped me survive the adversity and thrive on the other side of it, that everyone else doesn't also possess. We all have it in us. When pushed, our spirit can push back even harder. All we have to do is use it.
No matter what happens in your life, there are always three things you control - your attitude, your will, and your effort. I call it living in AWE. Get your attitude right, muscle up the will, then put forth the effort, and anything can be overcome and accomplished.
On this day I also celebrate the incredible and beautiful world that exists around us. And the amazing talents that can be found in our fellow humans.
Travel, as much as you can. Eat new foods prepared by the best chefs in the world. Drink wine from the best wine growing regions that were gifted to this planet. Play sports on a team. Individual sports are great, but there is no comparison to being a member of team that works together for a common goal.
Try art, in all its many forms. You will find some, or many, that don't interest you in the least. But when you discover the few, or even just the one, that speaks to you, the journey will have been worth it.
Learn another language. Sadly I only speak one, but that's a deficiency I hope to rectify. At the very least, learn about other people and cultures. It doesn't have to be in a kumbaya "I'd like to teach the world to sing" kind of way. Just learn enough to have an appreciation and understanding of why people live the way they do.
Read books. Movies are great, and I love going to the cinema. And there are some really great programs on television. But none of the should be a substitute for reading books. The world is filled with great stories being told by talented writers. Explore them.
Tell the people that you love, that you love them. And show them that you love them. It sounds rather basic, I agree. But sometimes basic can turn into routine. And then routine can turn into robotic. And then feelings can get lost. And then the words feel hollow.
I try to live by a simple philosophy: Live each day as if it's your first.
I know that T-shirts, bumper stickers, and most motivational speakers tell you to live each day as if it's your last. But I think this is wrong. Or at least, it's misdirected.
Firsts are the best. The first time I watched the sun go down over the Pacific. The first time I kissed my wife. The first time I tasted lobster. The first time I saw a Van Gogh. The first time I crossed the finish line of a triathlon. The first time I heard Mozart.
We should strive to recapture the feelings of those firsts, and always feel that way as we travel through life. Never let things grow stale, or boring, or routine. Never take them for granted, even if you know they will always be there.
Over the course of my life I will tell my wife another 10,000 times that I love her. And I will always work to make sure that each time I do, it is as meaningful as it was the very first time I did.
Fill your days with firsts, either in actuality, by striking out on new adventures, or in attitude, by never accepting something as mundane.
That's what I will be doing today, tomorrow, and for another twenty-five years.