I’ve written a lot about my two wonderful sisters, Lisa and Michele, but few people know that I also had two brothers named Timothy and Andrew. Timothy, who was nineteen months younger than me, died while my mother was giving birth. A few years later, Andrew died seven months into the pregnancy. Though I was only five years old, I remember my mother’s profound sadness after losing Andrew; she and my father wanted nothing more than to have a big happy family. In the end, we were fortunate to become one of the first families in New York to adopt a perfect little girl from South Korea—my sister, Michele Joy.
Even though my parents were ultimately blessed to have that big happy family of their dreams, the deaths of Timothy and Andrew left a void we were never quite able to fill. Even now, half a century later, my mother can’t talk about my brothers without crying. But one of the most beautiful things she ever told me was that I was “three sons in one.” She meant it as a compliment—that my heart was big enough for three people—but her words took a deeper meaning for me. I felt a responsibility to pack three lifetimes into my short stay on Earth. To work three times harder, to make three times the impact, to change three times as many lives.
I dated my girlfriend, Lori Nolan, from seventh grade until we graduated high school. She died of meningitis a day after her nineteenth birthday. At her funeral, seeing her still and at peace, I thought again about my two brothers. Again, I was determined to suck out all the marrow of life, to honor the memories of Lori, Timothy, and Andrew by doing as much good as humanly possible. Now I had to live four lives in one. Last year, I thought of Lori and my brothers when my beautiful niece, Madie, choked to death during a charity hotdog-eating contest at Tufts University. Six thousand of her classmates showed up at the vigil. Now I had to live five lives in one.
For years I was obsessed with packing in as many lives as possible into my own. If I could speak in just one more high school auditorium or raise just a little more money to bring another disadvantaged teen on a life-changing leadership program to Europe, I could honor Andrew, Timothy, Lori, Madie, and countless others. But I spread myself thin over the years, trying to live so many lives. I was away from home for more than two hundred days a year. In the blink of an eye, my stepson, Anthony, was off to college at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In the blink of an eye, my son, Tate, was off to hockey boarding school at Shattuck-St. Mary’s. I was living so many other lives that I was barely living my own.
I was having breakfast with my friend Andy Newland the other day, and he mentioned that phrase: “blink of an eye.” He reminded me that while the most fortunate among us might live to be 80, 90, or 100, that’s a blink of an eye compared to the 300,000 years humans have been walking the planet. And those 300,000 years are just a blink of an eye compared to the 4.5 billion years our planet has been around. I hope to live a long, healthy life, but as far as the universe is concerned, it will be over in the blink of an eye—just like Andrew, Timothy, Lori, and Madie.
Andy was not trying to be discouraging. He meant that sometimes we need to slow down and truly appreciate the time we are given. Even though our lives pass by in the blink of an eye, we can leave behind a legacy of influence that persists long after we are gone. And the best way to do this isn’t by cramming as many lives into one as we can, but to find simple ways to be of service to others in our day-to-day routine. And the simplest way of all is to listen and remember.
Here’s an example: Around five years ago, a man named Eric attended one of my heart-led leader retreats. We got talking, and he mentioned how difficult May 13 is for him—the date his high school-aged daughter tragically drowned. Instead of trying to jam another life into mine, I simply give John a call every May 13 to say that I love him. It only takes a few minutes, but my call gives John something to look forward to on the hardest day of his year.
I’m doing the same thing for my friend Charlie Host, who was Tate’s junior league hockey coach. Some years ago, he shared that he had a brother named Paul, who passed away at seventeen. Paul was in poor health and wheelchair-bound for most of his life, but he loved nothing more than watching his big brother play hockey. I call Charlie every October 7, the day his brother died, to say how much I love him. Last week, I was traveling to Minnesota to visit Tate when I remembered that Paul was buried there. So, I left the airport, drove a couple of hours north to St. Cloud, Minnesota, and visited Paul’s grave. I ran my fingers along the two hockey sticks carved on it. Honoring Paul’s memory did not mean living the extra years he was denied—it meant carrying on his legacy of influence by loving and supporting his brother.
Then I called Charlie and told him where I was. I told him how important he was to my son and to me. Paul helped turn Charlie into the strong man he is today, and I wanted to honor that influence. Charlie thanked me as he broke down crying. And that, in the end, is what influence is all about. It’s not about living for those who were taken from us too early. It’s about the simple ways we honor their legacy in service to the people who are beside us right now. Because if we aren’t careful, these opportunities will pass us by in the blink of an eye.