Written By: Hans Appel
I recently had the pleasure of reading Allyson Apsey’s OUTSTANDING book “Path 2 Serendipity,” Allyson has crafted a beautifully written guide to self-discovery, self actualization, and empowerment! In "Path 2 Serendipity", she weaves heart felt stories with humorous anecdotes to create a treasure trove of authentic life learnings that can only come from experience and introspection. It's the type of JOYFUL expression that inspires one to read, write, and strive to become a better person. I eagerly await Allyson's next literary journey but for now, inspired by Allyson's willingness to share her most vulnerable paths, I find myself compelled to write about a painful loss...and the character lessons I learned...
Almost a year ago, I found myself sitting in a Character Strong training. I can sincerely tell you that in 17+ years of education, it was hands down the best professional development, I’ve ever been to. I came away energized, empowered, and eager to help turn Enterprise Middle School into an Award Winning Culture. Part way through the experience, John Norlin, asked us to think about who was the one person that had the most influence on our lives. Some people reflected on a family member, a coach, or even a teacher. But for me, the choice was obvious: Mom.
As I worked through's John's leadership activity, I found myself thinking about some of the character lessons I associate with my mom.
My mom was an exceptional person! We were close, my entire life, and we grew even closer as I morphed into adulthood. I know I’ll be sharing funny and touching stories about my mom in upcoming blogs but today I'll share some the character lessons I learned overcoming her loss.
When I was in college, after my parents divorce, my mom moved back to Texas (her family and close childhood friends created a safe landing back for this southern belle). While we didn’t see each other nearly as often, as I was thousands of miles away in Washington State; our long phone calls kept us as connected as ever when I transitioned from college to professional school counselor.
In May of 2003, I received a frightening phone call from my mom where she explained that she had stage 4 Breast Cancer and that they would be starting Chemo immediately. She explained that mastectomy was not an option as the cancer was highly aggressive and had already spread. I was 27 years old at the time, while mom would soon turn 54. While I knew almost nothing about breast cancer at the time, I was aware of one scary genetic fact. My mom’s mom died of breast cancer in her mid 30’s (when my mom was just a little girl). If I understood anything about this scary disease, it was that it was incredibly serious.
During the next few months my wife (Jen) and I traveled to visit my mom. We knew there wasn’t a lot we could do from thousands of miles away but were confident that our presence provided a little positive energy for her to endure chemo. Those of you whose lives have been impacted by breast cancer, or for that matter, CANCER, know what kind of AWFUL disease it is. But the Chemo used to treat cancer can be almost equally damaging to the body.
Upon our first visit, my mom had lost all her hair, looked very weak but was steadfast with her humor and passion for taking care of others. After much cajoling we convinced my mom to let us clean her house. She was very prideful and used to keeping her home up to a pristine state. But with the illness, her usual house routines had taken a back seat and we knew she needed help. While I visited and entertained mom, Jen took the next few hours and cleaned her entire home from top to bottom...inside and out. It was immaculate when Jen was finished! Afterwards, my mom began to cry and express gratitude; she shared that no one had ever done anything like that for her before. At first, we weren’t sure what she meant. Cleaning the house? No, “serving me in such a meaningful and loving way.” My mom and Jen spent the next few moments laughing and crying. That experience left a lasting bond for both of them and it taught me valuable lesson: Serving others can have a positive influence on everyone involved! As the weekend drew to a close, we committed to our next visit. Throughout that summer we spent as much time as possible with my mom. But at the end of August, school was starting and it was time to refocus on our lives in Washington. My wife had a classroom to get ready for students and I had schedules to prepare. Over the next few weeks, I kept tabs on her ups and downs of treatment from a far.
On Friday September 12th, 2003, I received a phone call that my mom had passed away in the night due to complications of the cancer spreading to her brain and other organs. It was one day before her 54th birthday.
Flooded with emotion, Jen and I boarded a plane and spent the next week and a half grieving, planning a funeral service, and dealing with decisions outside my emotional capability. For those who have lost a parent, you understand the complexity and multitude of tasks that need to be taken care of. Beyond the pain and loss there were dozens of decisions and items to be completed. Flowers and Casket to buy. A house to pack up. Calls to make. Financial decisions to be considered. Items to sell. Death certificates to obtain so that I could send them to various agencies. Being from out of state, provided additional challenges in dealing with the Will, estate, and court system because I had been named executor. There were loans and liens to work through. (My mom was an amazing woman but not as financially prepared as one might hope).
Through all the craziness my wife was an absolute rock! I couldn’t have gotten through all of it without her love and support. During one of the days, I felt compelled to write something to be read at my mom’s upcoming service. I had remembered back a few years earlier sitting in a district PD training with LA teacher and Richland High School Head Football Coach Mike Neidhold. (Side note: Mike just led his RHS Bombers to a State Championship this past season). During the ELA presentation, nearly 2 years prior to my mom's death, Mike talked about using vulnerability with his students and shared an essay he wrote about his father’s unexpected death. He read his moving and powerful tribute about his dad to us that day; in the same way he did for his students when sharing voice in writing. While he had had no idea the influence he might have on anyone (including me) that day, his words, actions, and thoughts stayed with me.
Sitting on an unmade bed, in Texas, in a pile of tears and anger, I vividly remembered back to Neidhold sharing how cathartic the experience of writing was for him, when he had lost his dad. I figured, if it was good enough for Neidhold, I’d give it a try. I spent the next couple hours writing a short letter to my mom, that would be shared at the service. I think those were the first meaningful words I ever wrote. I agonized over every word in that letter. This was such a painful writing experience but incredibly helpful in my grieving process. My dear mom letter was well received as friends and family took delight in my brief tribute to who my mom really was. Having to put words to powerful emotions helped me work through pain in a way that aided my challenging journey.
[Several months removed from the funeral, I decided to frame the letter and hang it near a picture of my mom, in my house. At first, I couldn’t read through that letter without getting choked up. But, over time, I began to look at both the letter and photo of mom with a warmth that filled my entire body. It was my way of staying connected to mom and now years later always makes me smile].
Coach Neidhold’s solution to grief was spot on and while everyone has to find their own “Path to Serendipity,” Neidhold had laid out a perfect blueprint for me to find peace.
After a week and half in Texas with funeral service completed, it was time to return home and get back to school. My first day back fell on a Tuesday. Every Tuesday and Thursday a group of teachers/coaches got together at 6am to play morning hoops. I’m sure that sounds crazy to some of you non-morning folk but you’ll have to trust me that it was worth every minute. It was an exceptional way to release competitive juices and connect with colleagues. I never missed a Tuesday or Thursday. But my mom’s passing meant that I had been gone the previous week's hoop days and I was eager to get back to some sense of normalcy.
My return to school that day meant that the guys at morning hoops would be my first contact with anyone in person, since I landed back in Washington, after an emotionally exhausting week. My typical routine was to show up about 15 minutes early to stretch, shoot baskets, and generally warm up before we started playing. Another competitor always arrived at about the same time with a similar warm up routine each day. Paul Mayer, was and still is the Head boys basketball coach and leadership teacher at Hanford High School. (Side Note: The Hanford High School Boys Basketball team was named the 2018 academic state champions with a 3.64 GPA.) Paul was as usual one of the first people in the gym that early morning. Paul and I had a highly competitive yet respectful matchup for years. He was a fierce competitor who left it all on the court! In 10+ years of playing ball together, I’m not sure that we ever got to play on the same team. We invariably found ourselves on different sides of this epic decade long battle and truth be told I loved nothing more than beating Paul's team. I have no doubt he felt equally satisfied, when they kicked our butts (which happened far more often than I wished).
That morning, I remember feeling a little awkward about playing basketball and just generally how people would interact with me as students, co-workers, and morning hoopers had heard about me losing my mom. While I was sitting down stretching in this mostly empty gym, I looked up to see a long arm extended out toward me. Needless to say, it was Paul. “We missed you man. I’m so sorry for your loss, I can’t imagine losing my mom. I’m so happy you're back.” We shook hands, exchanged pleasantries and jumped into another typical basketball game.
Paul’s kind words have stuck with me for years. It was exactly what I needed to hear that morning. He demonstrated empathy, humility, and respect. Many times, people don’t know what to say so they avoid difficult conversations. Sometimes people try and make a joke or ignore you. Coach Mayer communicated to me that he SAW ME, UNDERSTOOD on some level, and WELCOMED me back. Any doubt I had about getting back to normalcy quickly went out the window, as I was ready to jump back in to our weekly competition. Years removed from this, I can’t tell you how I played or who won that game but I know that this warm, positive exchange helped me transition back to school that day. This interaction has also made me very aware of how I greet and interact with students who return to school after going through something traumatic. What do you say to a student who has recently been through tragedy? How do you show compassion and empathy? Paul's words and actions provide a perfect outline for reconnecting after a loss.
Fast forward to last summer, as I sat and thought about my mom’s influence on my life during the Character Strong training last August. I began to reminisce about all the people who helped me overcome her passing. Who else sat across the library, learning about leadership, culture, and character? Paul Mayer. The irony isn’t lost on me.
As I write all of this, I’m not exactly sure what I hope you take away. Ideally, you recognize how a simple act of service can positively flip someone's spirits. Perhaps, I want you to consider the influence you have on others. Maybe, I hope that you’ll share gratitude for the influence that some special individuals have had on your life. You might also feel compelled to say thank-you to someone who helped you overcome something challenging.
I will tell you that I’ve shared all parts of this story with various students over the years. I’ve described the grit and toughness that it takes to work through Chemo. I’ve expressed how powerful serving someone can be for both you and the person you serve. I’ve told them about Coach Neidhold’s impact on me using writing to work through grief and showed them my dear mom letter (see below). I’ve detailed what a student or teacher can say to someone who’s transitioning back from trauma or tragedy by reflecting back Coach Mayer’s kind words. And most importantly I've tried to model the Character I've observed from my mom, my wife, Paul, Mike...and countless others.
Recently, I heard that CharacterStrong had branched out into the Coaching/Athletics world. Thinking about the Character and influence of Coach Mayer, Coach Neidhold, and all my own coaches growing up...it felt like a natural extension of an amazing mission. The fit between teaching athletics and raising high character athletes feels like a symbiotic relationship. I certainly hope to bring this branch to Richland School District real soon.
I’ve left out a few funny stories, touching moments and some additional takeaways from losing my mom but with time and space limitations, I wanted to share the most salient lessons relating to Character and Influence. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll be lucky enough to receive a book deal to share my full vision of the magic behind an Award Winning Culture. But until that wish is granted, I’ll leave you with this...
Perhaps, the biggest lesson learned through persevering through the loss of my mom is that:
We have an opportunity to give others a magical gift of positive influence if we’re willing to be vulnerable, kind, and compassionate while serving their needs.
**I think Award Winning Cultures recognize the influence that strong Character can have on EVERYONE.
Sometimes I try and imagine all the people that my mom influenced in her almost 54 years. On my hardest days as an educator, I focus on the hope that I’ve influenced a few people in such a positive way.
As a new school year begins, I know that Mayer, Neidhold, Jen and other coaches and educators around the country will continue to have a profound influence on students. So, will you take their lead? Will you head Allyson Apsey's advice, "There is no greater blessing than to appreciate the gift of love and life." And when thinking about challenging times, please remember Allyson's suggestion, "Just one strong, healthy, positive relationship can help pull you through. Just one." Will you be that 'one' for someone this year?
Who might YOU positively influence this year?
About the Author
Hans Appel, has been a school counselor in the Richland School District for the past 17 years and at Enterprise Middle School since it opened. He's passionate about school culture, servant leadership, and kindness.
Enterprise Middle School received the 2018 ASCD Whole Child Award in Washington, for its award winning culture and the 2018 Global "Class Act Award" for Kindness. By creating a culture of kindness, service, and empathy we've taken student leadership to an epic level.