Dear Family and Friends,
My dad was a wise man. He was a prudent businessman, a talented writer, had a good eye for photography, was always encouraging and supportive to those around him, and had excellent taste in sports teams (e.g. the Dallas Cowboys).
He was also a fighter. Despite multiple hardships and challenges faced throughout his life, he never gave up and he always advocated for those who he believed in. He was adamant about saying hi to a stranger and encouraging others; particularly those facing similar challenges as himself.
His battle with cancer began in the spring of 2010 and it ended three years later. After facing multiple surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy treatments, his body simply could not withstand the physical toll the illness took on his body. But throughout it all, he never gave up hope.
Dad was an advocate for positive change. Throughout his lifelong work in agriculture advocacy and later as a state representative for his constituents in West Texas, he always sought to improve the lives of others; particularly those who he shared common values and interests with. I was and still am proud of what he accomplished on this earth. He was laid to rest peacefully at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin in February 2013, just a few short weeks before the arrival of our firstborn child.
As some of you may know, throughout the 2019 legislative session, BVT leadership, in conjunction with other key players, was instrumental in making change to laws impacting individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. I took many trips to Austin over the course of the 2019 legislative session, seeking out positive change for those whom I have devoted my career to thus far. During those trips, I would often find myself stopping by his gravesite for a visit.
For anyone who has lost someone close to them, they know that time doesn’t always heal wounds.
One day in February 2019, almost 6 years to the day after his passing, and after I had just testified at a legislative committee hearing at the capitol in support of the bill we were trying to get passed, I stopped by the Texas State Cemetery before getting on the road back to East Texas. As I was standing there in front of his grave, I reflected on all the life he had missed since his passing and wished for just one more conversation with him.
At that exact moment, while standing there, my phone received a text message. My sister, having no knowledge of where I was or what I was doing, had sent me an article written by our father that she had happened to find while going through some old boxes. (Dad was the owner and publisher of a magazine business for over 20 years.)
The article was titled “A Christmas Gift from the Heart” and it was addressed to my sister and me, dated December 1995. Now in my 30s, I was shocked that I had never seen this article until now. At that very moment in time, standing at his gravesite, wishing to have just one more conversation with him, this is what I read:
“To Jill and Steven,
I’m sitting here in my office trying to think of something special to give you two for Christmas this year.
Don’t worry, you’ll still get all the Santa Claus stuff. Jill, you can bet you’ll get those nice clothes a 14 year old girl wants. We’ll have to make room for them in your closet by giving away some of those fancy little dresses you’ve outgrown. And Steven, you’ll likely get that nice new bicycle you want. We’ll park it in the garage by the other one – the one your legs have outgrown. Doesn’t seem that long ago your mother and I were trying to teach you how to ride with your training wheels. Guess time kinda gets away.
To get you to read this, I’ll probably have to tear the page out of the magazine and stuff it in your Christmas stockings because you two aren’t regular readers.
Sometimes the things we write about don’t make a lot of sense to you. You don’t understand why we worry about things like property rights and referendums, politics or incentives, but it’s really pretty simple – it’s because your Dad wants what’s best for you, just like all the other dads who want what’s best for their children. But I’m, writing this message to you here because this magazine means a lot to me and you know if it’s written here, it is really meant.
Most dads, me included, don’t take time very often to tell their kids how they really feel about them. We’ll see each other before school and when I get home from work, then we’ll all have supper, go over homework or something, say prayers, and go to bed. Day after day, it’s pretty much the same thing. It isn’t very often though, that I really take the time to tell you you’re both very special to your mother and me. For some reason, that sort of stuff is hard for some of us dads to do.
You’re really growing up fast.
Jill, I remember those times when you were a little girl, always smiling and happy, doing ballet around the house, going to little dance recitals, dancing in the Nutcracker and always making us happy. Your mother and I used to put lots of miles on our cars taking you to all those things. You were really a cute little girl. We’d look forward to the Miss American pageant on tv because you’d get out your crown and dress up in that fancy dress and you’d watch every second of that pageant, if you could stay awake that long. You’d be pulling for Miss Texas every time but sometimes you’d fall asleep on the couch before they picked the winner. And we’ve liked hearing you learn the piano from those little two finger songs you started out with to some pretty fancy ones these days. We want to slow down these times, but we can’t seem to do it.
Steven, I’ll always remember those mornings dropping you off at your elementary school. You don’t know this but when you get out of my pickup, sometimes I’ll sit there and watch you walk till you’re gone from my sight. A lot of times I think to myself, not that long from now, I’ll remember these days and wish you were still nine so I could watch you with your backpack looking happy and walking to the classroom with your friends or a teacher with her hand on your shoulder. You always seem to be happy and your friends and teachers really seem to like you. Friends are a good thing to have and so are good teachers.
Ever since you were little you’ve loved to play ball and your mother and I love watching you at all those soccer and baseball games and we have fun rooting for your team in basketball – don’t know how you do it, but you’re some little athlete.
Guess what I’m trying hard to say, just like most dads, we want to grab hold of these times while you’re young because they won’t last very long. It’s hard for some of us to fund ways of telling you just how important you are. And when it’s all said and done, you are the reason we work so hard and worry so much about our rights and our jobs. All of us dads want what’s best for our children because you’re what matters most.
I’m not a great advice giver and I won’t make up a bunch of silly advice to give you but there are some things I’ve learned by making my own set of mistakes and a few little accomplishments. One thing is pretty certain – not many folks are perfect and although we stop growing taller, we never really stop growing. We make some mistakes along the way – big mistakes and little mistakes – but unless those mistakes kill you, they will make you stronger if you will let them. We’re sorry when our mistakes hurt those we really care about but we can all learn from them.
I’ve written down some things I believe have applied to my life. You’ll probably have your own list some day but here’s part of mine:
- Learn from your mistakes but don’t dwell on them.
- Try to avoid people that always say bad things about others.
- Learn to obey the rules, even if you don’t like the rules.
- Play fair but stand your ground.
- Listen to your critics and consider their source.
- Leave a 15 percent tip.
- It’s a small world.
- Don’t buy something you can’t afford.
- Work hard.
- Own your own business.
- Mind your own business.
- Have confidence that you can do what you set out to do.
- Don’t be defeated by a loss.
- Try again.
- Make the best of a win, but accept it graciously.
- Be a good friend.
- Stand up for what you believe in.
- Be nice to the teacher.
- Go fishing when you can.
- Pay your taxes.
- Check your tires.
- Stay on your side of the road.
- Be on time.
- Go to church and listen to the sermon.
- Do what you say you’re going to do.
- Eat steak every chance you get.
- Keep learning.
- Support the home team.
- Remember the people who’ve gone out of their way to help you.
- Hug your grandparents.
- Don’t worry about gossip.
- Stay away from those who gossip.
- Experience is the best teacher.
- Listen to the weather.
- Be thankful for a pretty sunrise.
- Admire the sunset.
- Watch the moon.
- Take time to look at the stars.
- Be thankful for your mother and father.
- Love your spouse.
- Plant a tree and give it plenty of water.
- Laugh when you can.
- Buy good furniture.
- Wear comfortable shoes.
- Have admiration for self-made people.
- Pursue your dreams.
- Avoid doubters.
- Never give up…never.
And out of all those presents you’ll get this Christmas, the most sincere is the card you’ll get from your mother and me that says we love you. Because we really do and it’s from deep inside us. Let’s hold onto these days while we can.
Still standing there at his gravesite, with tears rolling down my face, I realized a few things: miracles still happen, wishes do come true, and in that moment, I realized why I hadn’t seen that article before now. It was reserved all this time specifically for this moment.
Dad was a huge advocate for many groups of people…having advocated for groups of people in Austin many times before, just as had I for the group of people near to my heart an hour before. It was a moment we shared together.
Perhaps the greatest Christmas present he had ever given me, yet just received 25 years later.
Despite the challenges you and I have faced during this difficult season of life, may you and I take some of these lessons with us into the Christmas season. May we remember, whether we celebrate together or apart, to embrace family, to value each precious moment, and hold on to these days while we can.
It is my prayer this month that this Christmas gift resonates with you in a way that blesses your life as it did mine. And, that you come to know that you are strong enough, smart enough, and capable enough to always be able to do hard things.
Until next time,