The Power of a Smile

I am a big one for smiles.

I love their surprising, disproportionate power to raise sunken spirits.

One Sunday morning years ago, I was picking up a few things at a local grocery store.

A former newspaper reporter and son of a police officer, I routinely and instinctively scan my surroundings and people watch. Coming toward me I saw an elderly African American woman moving very slowly behind a cart way too full for her tiny frame.

I smiled at her just before she turned down another aisle.

About 20 minutes later, I stood in the checkout line and felt a light tapping on my shoulder. It was the African American woman. I turned, ready to help lift something out of her cart.

“No, no, I can get it, honey,” she said softly. “I just wanted you to know how much I appreciated your smile.” I nodded. “It made me feel better. It’s been a rough morning already!” We chuckled in friendly commiseration.

Then she said:

“Today, you were the Jesus in my life.”

Now, I’d heard the phrase before, but not in such an informal context. It floored me like a boxer who didn’t raise his hands fast enough to counter his opponent’s right hook.

It was the first time (but not the last) that I really thought about, understood, and appreciated the power of small acts of unexpected kindness; the miracle of grace (unrequested, unrequited and sometimes undeserved love); and what Jesus meant when He said that heaven is already here – in the space between us.

It was also one of the first times I truly appreciated the reciprocal nature of prayer.

When one prays for someone else, the person praying benefits from the act of conjuring positive energy and directing it outward, as much as the recipient benefits.

That sweet woman changed my life that morning.

I share this nugget to illustrate something that happened just recently.

Many know that I was diagnosed in early May with astrocytoma, an aggressive and incurable brain cancer.

To say the diagnosis was “shocking” to a 56-year-old otherwise-very healthy, active, physically fit man robs the word of its weight.

I admit I am angry, frustrated, confused, and yes, scared. I have learned that I cannot dwell on the Past because no one knows what caused this to happen.

And the only way to achieve the Future (which includes our youngest daughter’s wedding) is to focus on the present. Do everything I am told to do. Walk step by step, stone by stone. And so that’s what I am doing.

Fast forward a couple of weeks. I learned that a group of elementary school students planned to host a lemonade stand as a benefit to raise funds for me and my family. (In my “real life” I am the community relations director for Plainfield Community Consolidated School District #202, which has 26,000 students in grades PreK-12.)

As one might expect, I was flattered and humbled. But a smidge concerned about perception.

My job makes me the “liaison to the world” – good, bad, and ugly.

So I am often the first one angry parents, students and taxpayers call with any complaints or at the hint of any controversy.

In our highly divided and politicized world, I didn’t want it to look like I was getting special treatment. Nor, especially, did I want these wonderful children to come under fire for any reason. (Sad to say, but today, both outcomes were possible.)

I called the organizer’s mom, who I knew through other charitable functions work and shared my thoughts.

She understood.

Then she said something I will never forget:

“This is not being done by a bunch of parents, Tom,” she clarified. “This is being done by students that you have helped over the years. When you go into their classrooms and read to them, or talk about your life and your work, or give them advice or awards.”

Suddenly I couldn’t breath.

“Well, OK then,” I said once I gathered my wits. “As long as it’s about the kids, then it’s ok.”

The very best moment came when my four-year-old granddaughter, Riley, about whom I have written so much that people at the fundraiser knew who she was, announced to my wife that she wanted to help.

My wife directed her to the organizer’s mom, who promptly gave Riley a little apron and sat her down at the lemonade stand. Riley was a natural – probably from all those hours playing “grocery store” with me and my wife!

The students raised a significant amount. Another little girl held her own lemonade stand and gave her proceeds to the pot. A gaggle of high schoolers (not your typical lemonade stand customers) stopped by especially to say hello. Parents of children I’ve never met came out.

To be clear, this is not a moment of false humility.

I am aware and proud of my place in the community and how people perceive me and the work I do (both good and bad.)

Yet I have been overwhelmed by the tremendous outpouring of kindness, love, support, generosity and heavenly connection.

No matter how much you want people to like and love and appreciate you, it is sometimes like facing an incoming wave at the beach when you actually see it manifested in every Get Well card, plant, gift, kind thought, prayer, phone call and text message.

The best though, was the lemonade stand.

It was those students’ smile that beautiful, sunny, warm Saturday afternoon.

3 thoughts on “The Power of a Smile

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