Thoughts from the journey… Excerpts from a day in the life of Sherry McLaughlin

6Nov/091

Sing a Song

“The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” –Johann Sebastian Bach

I’m a closet singer. You know, the kind of person who can really cut loose and get into the music—only in my car or an empty house. My dad, however, was quite the opposite. He was known for his beautiful tenor voice. His vocal chords served him well—right down to finding him a wife.

As the story goes, my mother was the pianist for the church choir my dad sang in. Each time they would meet for practice, my father would have one eyeball on the director, and one on my mother. It wasn’t long before they knew they were meant to be together. He was 16 and she was 14 and ten years later, they would be married.

They spent their honeymoon on a cruise ship and, of course, my father signed up for the talent show. I saw a picture of his performance. Standing boldly on stage, belting out a tune with my mom accompanying him on the piano, it was a sign of the future. That would be the first of many performances as a married couple.

There was hardly a day that went by that I didn’t hear him humming or singing. First thing in the morning, he would sing a tune in the shower. Funny thing is, rarely did he ever finish an entire song or know every single word. But that didn’t stop him. When he came to a part he forgot, he continued the melody, and without missing a beat, would fill in the missing words with a sound like, “Rrra, rrra, rrra…” Just like it was meant to be like that.

My brother and I often accompanied him to choir practice on Friday evenings. On the ride home, he would lead us out in song. You have never heard the Hallelujah Chorus until you’ve heard it sung in a station wagon with a tenor and two pre-adolescent kids. At least, you’ve never heard it quite like that. I imagine that Handel would be mortified. But the funny thing is, in the midst of the noise, God was glorified.

By the time I became pregnant with my son, my father had already become quite ill. Legally blind, battling congestive heart failure and kidney failure as complications of diabetes, we were praying he would live to see his first grandchild. I remember the day I brought Joshua over for his first visit with my dad. Feeble from a recent hospital stay, my father held up my son closely so he could see his face, and began to sing with a voice untouched by disease. It is a moment I will never forget.

Two and half years later, my son was diagnosed with autism. Amidst the confusion of such a revelation, it was my father who repeatedly said to me, “Don’t worry, Shei. He is smart. Just keep singing to him.” And with that he would hoist his grandson into his lap and shower him with music.

My son was virtually silent for the first 4 years of his life. He would ignore the human voice—you could literally be standing right next to him calling his name and not receive a response. Some thought he was deaf. But to those I would say, “Sing a song.” And the minute they did—he would look up and smile. A majority of his speech as a young child was in the form of music. My son, who is not conversational, could sing entire songs with perfect pitch and enunciation. It isn’t uncommon for him to dance in the middle of the sidewalk or tilt his head in appreciation of a tune. He snaps his fingers to songs on the car radio.

He feels the music—just like my dad did. In a world of silence, it speaks to his soul.

“Music expresses that which cannot be said

and on which it is impossible to be silent.”—Victor Hugo

Music is a universal language, just like food. We can all relate to it and even if we don’t understand the words, somehow we can understand the emotion. It was once said that, “Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

There is something healing about being able to belt out a tune with expression and fervor, even if you feel you can’t carry one. I believe it is one of the reasons cars and elevators were made to be sound proof. And if you are one of those who neither owns a car or rides in elevators alone regularly, there is always the woods or a mountain trail, where your only audience is God. He gave you that voice—I bet He’d enjoy hearing it every now and then.

Some would say my father suffered. But if you asked my dad, I’m sure he would have told you that he was blessed. His heart might have gone bad, and his eyesight lost. His legs were amputated and he was left bed ridden. But in the end, he still had his voice—that glorious tenor voice. A gift to him. A gift to this world.

It’s been years since I’ve heard him sing, but when I hear one of his favorite songs, his voice resonates in my head. This world is a better place because of my dad and his voice.

He sang for himself. He sang for others. He sang with a passion fueled by gratitude. Everyday. Often and loud—as if to make sure that the God that granted him that voice could enjoy the music, too.

Life Lesson #4

Don't let cars and sound proof elevators go to waste.

Sing a song.

Everyday.

Sing with gratitude, even if you don't feel like it.

I promise you, God loves to hear it...

And the sound just might touch a few lives on its way to the heavens.

31Oct/090

Plant a Tree


And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees,

books in the
 running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.

William Shakespeare

“C’mon, Shei (my nickname)! Let’s go to Bordines!” The tone in his voice was unmistakable—and a sure sign that spring had sprung. The local nursery was calling his name and he was ready to go and spend some serious money on plant life.

My father would commandeer my services several times a year. I’m not sure why I was the one chosen. My hunch is that I was the one least likely to complain. So there I would find myself, riding shotgun in the family station wagon headed to a large nursery.

Once we arrived, he would jump out of the car and begin eagerly perusing the aisles. I would grab one of those bulky, flat carts and attempt to keep up with his quick step. He would stop and survey the trees and shrubs and when he found one he wanted he would point to it.

“That one. That one is nice,” he would say.

I would walk over, bend down and hoist the plant onto the cart and we would continue on. In a matter of 20 minutes, the cart would be loaded to overflowing with plants of all sizes and shapes.

Oh, yeah, and we couldn’t forget the peat moss. Those giant bags of decomposed greenery that were never easy to maneuver. I would look at his face, smiling and eager, and I would look at the cartload of stuff and think, “There is something wrong with this picture. We are going to have a ton of work ahead of us.”

My father was notorious for working a lot—and loving it. He applied the same kind of fervor to his gardening as he did to his work in the emergency room. On our spring planting days, it wouldn’t be unusual for us to be in the garden digging, fertilizing, planting and watering until late into the evening. I think he purposely had the front yard adequately lit so that our workday could continue past sundown. After all, he was used to pulling 24-hour shifts in the ER—working a 12-hour day in the garden was practically a vacation.

As we worked, he would talk. Topics would range from what I wanted to do when I grew up, to travel ideas to singing songs to why it was important to put plastic down before we dumped rocks in strategic places according to his landscape plan—all intermixed with directions on where I should haul the next tree or plant to be inserted into the ground. Periodically, he would pause, stand up and admire a tree that he had just planted.

I mean, really admire it. For a really long time.

You know, chest out, hands on hips and dirt smudged on his smiling face. Sheer satisfaction. Five minutes might pass before anything was said.

Being the impatient youngster that I was and feeling the exhaustion of a long day, I would look up at the setting sun and then look over at my dad and think…it’s just a tree.

“Doesn’t that look nice?” he would ask with a gleam in his eye.

“Yeah, dad. Looks great,” I would reply.

By the end of the day, our yard would be transformed into something fitting of a famous garden in Paris. Those are not my words. Friends, family and neighbors passing by would pause at the masterpiece. Some would just shake their heads. But all would smile.

Back then, to me that garden represented a lot of work. Some completed—and a lot more on the way. Since he passed away, I’ve looked at that garden with different eyes. It was a place where I grew up—where I got to see a side of my dad that many didn’t. A place where stories were told and songs were sung. A place where I learned how to work until dark, plant a tree—and take the time to admire it. It was a place where history was made between my dad and I. Thank God I never complained.

I think he knew I would stop to really admire it one day. Somehow, I think he knew—one day I would need to.

The majestic garden with its flowers, bricks, rocks and fountains has since been overhauled and simplified. But what remains are six of the most beautiful Japanese maple trees I have ever seen. Proud. Dependable. History.

I now have a house of my own with three Japanese maple trees planted in the yard. Funny thing. After a hectic day of work, chores and life in general, I find myself sitting on my front step or in the back yard just staring at those trees—sometimes for an hour—silent and smiling inside and out.

And I know my son probably looks at me and thinks, “Mom, it’s just a tree.”

The wonder is that we can see these trees and not wonder more.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Life Lesson #3

Plant a tree with someone you love.

Long after you are gone,

The lessons of work, life and love

Will go a long way to healing a soul.

22Oct/090

True Liberty

The love of liberty is the love of others. –William Hazlitt

As a new immigrant to the U.S., my father traveled to New York City on a quest to view a symbol. Hopping in his car and making his way toward the East Coast, he fought the traffic jams and hordes of people to make his way to Liberty Island. Though he had been in the States for several months, I believe that was the day my father first felt his freedom. Gazing up at the 250,000 lb. statue with tears in his eyes, that was also the day he vowed he would share it with everyone he met.

My dad was a visionary and a “get-it-done-er”. He was notorious for dreaming up grand schemes and making sure they came to fruition. No task was too small when it was a great idea coupled with some good, old-fashioned passion.

In the late summer of 1973, my father was a young physician practicing in Michigan. During his day, he would come in contact with other immigrant Filipinos, many of whom were employed at the same facility. He quickly recognized that the Land of Opportunity was doling out some hard lessons to most of them. Freedom came with a price and many young Filipinos were struggling to make ends meet.

He commiserated with a couple of his fellow Filipino physicians. “It is a shame that people come to this country and never get a chance to really see it,” he said. “I have a great idea. Why don’t we rent three Greyhound buses and take as many Filipinos as we can to the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington D.C.? We can pick up some extra hours moonlighting in the ER to pay for the buses.” I can picture my dad saying it with a twinkle in his eye. I imagine his friends laughed until they realized—he wasn’t kidding.

So, the plan was put into motion. They divided the cost by three and arranged for the buses to be rented. They proceeded to invite every Filipino they ran into—some friends and some strangers—to come along for the trip of a lifetime. As the deadline for the big payment approached, his two comrades realized they would fall short of the goal. They had not been able to work the extra hours they had planned on. It appeared the big trip was off.

I imagine my father sat for a moment, picturing the disappointed looks of all the people they had invited. Not to be deterred, he flew into action. He applied for an American Express card and rented the buses. He shouldered the cost by working even more hours in the month he had to repay his debt, and I imagine he did it with joy in his heart.

The trip must have been incredible. Can you imagine being one of those invited who had never before met my dad?

“Hi. I notice you are Filipino. Would you like to go on a trip to Washington DC?... No…it won’t cost a thing…really.”

Actually, that is my version of how I think the conversation would have transpired. In reality, my father probably greeted them in his native tongue and if they answered back—they were in. Young and old. Professional and non-professional. Old friend and soon to be new friend. All were handed the gift of freedom to move about a free country.

The details of the trip are sketchy to me. I was too young to remember much of it. But at his funeral, someone told the story—and I saw the picture.

If you think you can fit a lot of Filipinos into an averaged size kitchen, just imagine how many you can pack into three Greyhound buses. The picture was worth a thousand words and probably a thousand stories since. A sea of brown-skinned people with cameras slung around their necks, grinning from ear to ear, standing aside the giant vehicles. Happy. Eager. Proud.

I looked at the photograph and smiled. So, that’s what freedom looks like.

14Oct/090

A Revolution of One

“The only freedom I have is the freedom I take for myself.” That’s what one young man once said. And I believe him.

Freedom is more than just carrying on without permission, or existing without rules. True freedom requires a choice to move in any given direction – preferably a direction that calls you with a passion.

Have you ever felt the tug of a passion? If you haven’t, then I don’t think you’re paying attention. And if you have and you aren’t chasing it, then get moving.

I say this a bit tongue-in-cheek, as I am just as guilty as the next guy for squelching these pangs of adventure in favor of a more calculated decision. I mean, let’s face it. The world is chaotic enough, and yet technologically advanced enough, that many believe that the only infallible choice is one made by a machine. We consult numbers and machines for just about every major decision we make. We attempt to rein control in an uncontrollable world – and in the process, we sometimes play it too safe.

The thing is…calculation sometimes squelches momentum. The physical principle governing inertia works both ways. A body in motion, tends to stay in motion. A body at rest, tends to stay at rest. If we spend our days preventing the future, then maybe there never is a now. And if there never is a now – a time to make a decision to navigate toward a passion – then the biggest tragedy is that we have lost our freedom. And the world never gets the gift that is us.

I’ve recently been caught in that battle between passion dreaming and “what if” reasoning. Much like a small boat is tossed in the winds of a storm. And though I’m not sorry that I questioned, I’m more thankful that I stumbled on a little book that helped me find my way out. It’s called, First you have to row a little boat by Richard Boden. In closing, I share with you one of my favorite passages from this book:

“If every man and woman were to take the meaning of their life and pursue it passionately, they would alter the social landscape overnight. In fact, that’s how lasting revolutions are made—not by the raised arm of the masses, not by the military seizure of power, not by the political coup d’etat, but by individuals asserting who they are…one at a time.”

Chase that passion now. The world thanks you in advance.

8Oct/092

Let’s Eat!

I started writing a book in January 2005. I never finished it, but lately I've been thinking about it...about the importance of people I come in contact with...about the lessons learned that I might have missed had I rushed by too quickly. About the places I've been and the people I've met.

So, I thought I'd share some excerpts from the book that will hopefully get finished one day. I am going to call it, Lessons from a Life.

Good food ends with good talk. – Geoffrey Neighor

Born and raised in a traditional Filipino home, I realized something at a very young age. Food is a good thing. No matter what the occasion or who the company, sounds of pots and pans clanging in the kitchen was a common occurrence. It seemed whenever friends and relatives came to visit, food was being prepared, or they were bringing food to be prepared or they were coming to prepare the food or prepared food was brought.

If you know anything about Filipinos, they never cook alone – and you can fit about 20 of them in an average sized kitchen. From a social perspective, preparation is just as important as consumption.

My dad’s two favorite words, “Let’s eat!” often spoken in the tone of a victorious battle cry, would result in hordes of smiling faces gathering around the kitchen table. Even then, he knew a secret that I had yet to learn: Food is our common ground. A universal experience. – James Beard

During my high school years, I attended a boarding academy. My parents would come and visit once a week, and with them would come – you guessed it – food. I had an entire drawer dedicated for my weekly stockpile of goodies. You can imagine how quickly the word spread. In fact, my parents were integral in spreading the message and as hungry kids would flock to my room each week, they would be supplied with their very own stockpile. Once the proverbial stores were filled, my dad would round up anyone – and I mean anyone – who wanted to jump in the family van, out for dinner. At times, we commandeered half of the tables at the local pizza parlor. Looking back, I realize how much my father must have spent on food for my high school friends.

“Dad, how many friends can I invite?” I would ask.

“As many as you want,” he would reply.

I graduated from high school and went off to college. My life became more of my own. I would come home on vacations and spend days catching up with my friends—eating out.

I got a job, got married and had a child and in those years, meals were rushed or “fit” into my schedule. I used to have a motto: if it couldn’t be cooked in less than 5 minutes, than we weren’t having it for dinner.

On the occasions I would visit my parent’s house, my dad would say, “Come, sit down and let’s eat.”

“Sorry, Dad.” I would reply, “I already ate and besides that, I’ve gotta go.”

If I wasn’t so busy, I might have caught the look of disappointment in his eye. But he would just smile and say, “OK, thanks for coming to visit. See you later.” I know he knew where I was coming from. His life had been just as busy as mine at one point, rushing from office to office, seeing tons of patients, being involved in extracurricular activities and raising a family. After all, I was the one most like him.

As I look back on the years before he passed away, I realize the countless invitations to the kitchen table I received from him. Some of them I accepted. I wish now I would have accepted them all. Hindsight is 20/20. The moments with my dad at the kitchen table are where I learned some of life’s greatest lessons.

For my dad, it was never about the food—it had always been about the time. For as busy as we both were, the kitchen table was a sanctuary all its own. A place where we could stop the rollercoaster of life, slow down, catch up and just be in the moment.

Life Lesson #1

The best gift you can give the ones you love

is a good meal at a nice table,

relished with flavor,

time

and great conversation.

It will fill not only fill the stomach,

more importantly…

it will quench the appetite of the soul.