My greatest flaw is that I do not say thank you. I do not mean the casual thanks of polite conversation, “thank you for holding the door,” or “thank you for fixing the sink,” but the real appreciation do someone who has touched my life. I do not write thank you notes, do not attend events honoring mentors and am even lax about funerals. I am full of excuses about time and work. Yesterday it caught up with me. I lost forever the chance to say thank you for saving me.
Professor Gary R. Francois died on July 30, 2014, in a hospice in Galesburg, Illinois. He spent his career teaching psychology and guiding countless students at my alma mater, Knox College. He had a brilliant mind, a quick wit, an arresting gaze and a soft “is that really what you mean,” smile. However, for me, he was something more. Once upon a time when I faltered, he believed in me.
There are only a few such persons in a life; people who have faith in you, encourage you, have patience with you, for no reason other than they care. They are not your relatives, you do not owe them money and even if they are bosses, teachers or friends, they do not have any real obligation to you. Their gift of confidence and guidance is precious, because it is without guile. They simply want you to be a better person.
At a time when I was slipping, Dr. Francois held out his hand. I have not idea why or what he saw in a longhaired, tired, confused teen. I slept through every lecture of his introductory class, snoring in the back row, and for his troubles, I received a mind-bending “C-.” That was my best grade that trimester. He always smiled, asked a question about my fragmenting life, and left open the possibility of something more.
In time, I was drawn to the safety of his office, where we would have conversations about everything and nothing at all. He seemed to value my scattered thoughts, although I am certain my ramblings made him question my sanity. Dr. Francois supported my dreams and helped me find a base on which to build a future. In short, without that foundation, I would be a very different me.
Nonetheless, despite that infinite gift, I do not think I ever said thank you. Oh, I talked to him at a college reunion, another thank-you-event I generally miss. I made a donation, with the perfunctory note, when he retired. Nevertheless, I did not, not ever, look him in the eye, touch his hand, and say; “your were the absolute teacher, the perfect mentor and you were there when I needed help. Because of you, I have had the chance to help others, if only a little. You made possible my family and your gift flows through their souls, even if they do not understand.”
Goodbye could have been thank you. Perhaps, I could have sat at his bedside, or in chairs side-by-side. Rambled on about abstract theory, as we did when I was young. We would have talked about life and what we discovered in the world. We would consider how our decisions changed not only our lives, but those we touched. Our defeats, victories, and what we learned. Shared memory, a couple laughs and tears. I wonder if he would have smiled at me still, in that half skeptical way, challenging me to find the truth. However, I screwed up. I did not visit him. A moment lost forever, a wisp blown away in a silent wind.
There are conversations that are important for each of us, as we end life. I forgive you. I love you. You were important to me. Maybe the lesson is that the end-of-life is too late. We need to say these things everyday. And, we need to say thank you.
Goodbye, Dr. Francois. I hope you will forgive me. I will never forget you.