Don’t Die With Your Gifts Still Inside
I was in the kitchen of my grandmother’s house when the phone rang. “It’s your dad,” she said, turning to me and handing over the phone. “But please don’t tell your mom,” she whispered.
I was three years old.
“Hi, Daddy,” I said. “Hi, sweetheart,” he said. “I miss you. I know I haven’t been around much. I’m going to be gone for a little while. Know that no matter what—I’ll always love you.”
Even though I was only three, I remember the conversation like it was framed as a photograph in my mind. I can close my eyes and picture where I was standing in the kitchen, the coiled telephone wire I wrapped around my tiny fingers, and the way my grandmother looked at me when she said, “Don’t tell your mom about this, okay?”
I knew something wasn’t right here.
My father was a brilliant singer, songwriter, musician, and businessman. He wooed my mom with his charisma, making quite the first impression when she tripped into a puddle of mud wearing an all-white ensemble on their first date. Right before she made a splash, he swooped in to catch her. He had her, and every person he met, believe that the world revolved around them. When he was with you, he was with you.
But then he started running away.
Between an abusive childhood and an addictive personality, the only way he knew how to handle his pain was through numbing. Cocaine. Rock and roll. Alcohol abuse. Cheating. Breaking into our home under the influence, taking me out from my crib, and driving eighty miles until my mom ferociously chased him down. You name it, he did it. He wasn’t exactly winning at father of the year.
And then, just a few weeks after our chat, he took it too far.
Out for a bachelor party, and under the influence of who knows what, he decided to get behind the wheel. He fell asleep, drove off a highway overpass, and under a truck. The man in his passenger seat, who was getting married the next day, died instantly at the scene. My dad, who wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, was thrown to the backseat. He never regained full consciousness.
He spent the next year of his life in a coma, and the eight years after that with severe brain trauma in a care center. My momma, who wanted to protect me and the way I remembered him, kept me at a distance. That space dwindled when on a school field trip to a hospital in third grade, I asked, “Is my dad here?”
I was curious to see the man who helped make me. I wanted to remember the way he would touch my hand and look at me. I wanted to remember being in his presence while he was still here. I was now nine years old, and Momma agreed to let me see him.
When we walked into his room at the care center, I saw a man’s face I could hardly recognize. His face was swollen, and his mouth was connected to machines for breathing. An I.V. strung from his arm into bags of blood, and there were devices tracking his vitals. As I swallowed the harrowing scene I had walked into, my eyes opened widely when I noticed photos of me lining the walls at every age. My nose tickled as the sensation of tears began to well in my eyes.
I spent the next few hours with him, asking him questions he didn’t have the capacity to answer, laughing at his goofy smile, and taking in the dose of Dad that I craved my entire youth. When it was time to go, I squeezed his hand and wished him well, wondering if I’d ever see him again.
Every day after that, I thought of him and sent him peace. I wished for his misery to end, and for his life to begin anew. It was just a few days before Father’s Day—on my grandmother’s birthday—when I received the news that he had died. I remember that moment vividly—the way my hair was brushed up in a ponytail, the crossed position of my legs, and the white and flowered journal I was writing in—because in that moment, I felt the most profound sense of trust and relief. His suffering had gone on for too long, and now he could finally rest in peace.
What did upset me, however, was his wasted talent, creativity, and gifts. While I didn’t have the language to interpret my emotions at the time, now I can put words to the wondering I felt as a kid: I wondered how his life may have been different if he had more direction, more encouragement, and more self-compassion. I wondered about the contributions he could have made in his one lifetime had he worked up the courage to face himself, to work through his demons, and to understand the root of his pain. I wondered what art may have come through him, what business contributions he may have made, and the sense of self he may have discovered along the way. He had so much to give, but he got lost along the way.
Call it intuition, my higher self, or a sliver of something I heard from Oprah once, but I very specifically heard a calm voice whisper these words: Please don’t die with your gifts still inside.
And now, I turn to you, and say the same.
Please don’t die with your gifts still inside.
Please don’t be like the majority who regret what they could have done, but didn’t do, as Australian nurse Bronnie Ware saw when she counseled the dying in their last days. “I wish I would have lived a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me” is what she uncovered as the most common regret. In their final breaths, most people hadn’t honored even half of their dreams. Instead, they took those unexpressed gifts to the grave.
In the book Die Empty, Todd Henry says the most valuable land in the world is not Manhattan, or the oil fields of the Middle East, or the gold mines of South Africa. It’s the graveyard. “In the graveyard are buried all of the unwritten novels, never-launched businesses, unreconciled relationships, and all of the other things that people thought, ‘I’ll get around to that tomorrow.’ One day, however, their tomorrow ran out.”
When I think back to the day of my dad’s car accident, I can close my eyes and imagine the long list of tomorrows that may have gone through his mind when he decided to drive under the influence:
Tomorrow, I’ll drink a little less.
Tomorrow, I’ll make a more responsible decision.
Tomorrow, I’ll watch my best friend get married.
Tomorrow, I’ll call my baby girl.
Tomorrow, I’ll resolve my differences with her mother.
Tomorrow, I’ll finally record my album.
Tomorrow, I’ll . . .
But his tomorrow never came.
I don’t want to be like my father. I remember that thought so intensely as a teenager and young adult. I don’t want to be like my father, which really meant, I don’t want to die with my gifts still inside. It’s only now, as an adult, that I can see how I was my father’s gift, and his accident was one of mine.
His untimely death birthed me into the realization that life is fragile and every moment is an invitation to be alive. It led to my profound curiosity around what it means to live each day fully, which sent me on a path of asking—and seeking to answer—a central question: How do we express the fullness of who we are and what we have to give?
A Confession: I Was Dying with My Gifts Still Inside
This book almost didn’t get written.
I was too busy helping other people launch their books and careers, creating a global art movement, falling in love with an incredible man, holding personal discovery retreats around the world, sharing daily inspirations for a dedicated audience, and speaking onstage about creating the things we most long to create. Along the way, I realized I was very good at hiding from the one thing I most longed to create: this book.
I knew there was a message inside of me that I had to share, a message that was dying to be born. But I kept getting in my own way.
When I got quiet and curious with myself, I peered inside and discovered a core belief gnawing at my soul and keeping me paralyzed. I noticed a conversation on repeat in my subconscious mind, encouraging me to do anything but what I most wanted. I discovered an all-pervasive, heart-wrenching whisper that crept into my dreams and waking life.
That voice said, “You aren’t good enough to do this.”
And let’s be honest, it wasn’t just one voice—it was a whole theater of critics that questioned my talents and self-worth.
“Who are you to do this?”
“Hasn’t this already been done?”
“Will anyone care?”
“What if people judge you?”
“What if you get rejected, fail, and fall flat on your face?”
“What if you get bored? (You always get bored.)”
“Oh look: They’re better than you.”
“Your story doesn’t matter.”
“Are you sure you’re ready?”
“Do you have enough experience?”
And, of course, “Are you thin enough, smart enough, or talented enough to even do this?” (Ugh. So annoying.)
For many years, these worries ran the show. My team of inner critics ruled my life and kept me from writing this book for you. Years passed and little progress was made. Birthdays and new years would begin with bold declarations like, “This is the year I commit to finally writing the book my soul yearns to write!”
I’d tell my friends. I’d write it on a Post-it note and put it on my mirror. I’d start every day with positive affirmations. Another Google doc entitled, THE BOOK!!! would be created, and I’d begin to write.
Then, a few weeks would pass, distractions would build, and suddenly all the other “important things” would take over. Slowly, I’d sabotage my biggest dream.
“Why can’t I commit?” I’d ask myself, ashamed. “Why can’t I follow through on the one thing that means the most to me?”
I’d watch with envy as friends brought their books into the world. I’d be happy for them, of course. And, my soul would ache watching someone else accomplishing a dream that’s still swirling around inside of me.
It was a clear signal: You long to write. Your envy is a signal of the untapped potential within you. Now is the time. Go, go, go! The cycle of excitement would begin anew, but stop before I had the chance to be rejected or denied.
Maybe you can relate with something you care deeply about?
Is there a book you want to write?
… a revolution you want to start?
… a company you dream of creating?
… a part of yourself you want to discover?
… an idea you can’t stop thinking about?
… a relationship you want to cultivate?