SideWalk Ghosts / Interview 149: “Brush Your Teeth”

Like I’ve said, my camera is always with me, no matter when or where I am, and this evening I find myself at a favorite family park with my wife, daughter and my daughter’s friend. As we enter the park we come across a sweet young family enjoying the afternoon with their dog. As I pass by, I can’t stop from saying, “Hello,” and in return receive a very warm and welcoming “Hello” from new 365 friends, Morgan, D.J., Derek, and Billy the dog.

We sit and talk for about 45-minutes*. I’m very grateful to my family for the time they sacrifice in supporting my absence as I pursue 365.

“I feel honored that you would approach us to take our picture and include us in your blog,” Morgan tells me.

I assure her, the honor is all mine. I tell them about the many rejections I receive when approaching strangers to invite them to participate in 365. I tell them of the 800 or so people I have approached, thus far, and how much I appreciate their willingness to share their story.

We first start by asking Derek a question. You know how kids are, he’s good for just a few minutes with us then he wants to go run and play. Derek’s words are very cute.  In asking him what words of wisdom he would like to share with the world, he gives us this: “Brush your teeth.”

At first it sounds so cute, but it really is great counsel. My grandfather lived to a ripe old age, and his words of counsel to me: “Take care of your teeth!” I did not fully understand it at the time, but reflecting back, remembering the last twenty-years of his life, painfully struggling to eat his meals, I think Derek’s point rings true and is indeed worth heeding.
The conversation turns to parenting. It appears that Morgan is a great mom. Her love for her son is evident in the way her eyes light up when she speaks about him. I ask her if she has any counsel for parents. She pauses long and thinks for a moment.

“That’s hard to answer. I’m doing my best every day. But I will always remember something my Dad said,  ‘It’s not a parent’s job to save their child’s soul, but rather, to make it a soul worth saving.’ It’s ironic, because my father is agnostic.”

“Rather to make a soul worth saving?” This strikes me as a powerful call-to-action as a parent. The way I see it, Morgan is advising us to teach our children well. Teach them values; teach them charity; teach them love, tolerance and any other good virtue that we can instill in them.  As a result, we raise children that make the right decisions and do the right things. And what is so intriguing about it is that it comes from a father who is not proclaiming any one religious point-of-view, but still grounds his parenting perspective in the value and worth of a soul.

Here is a little more about Morgan. At 18 months of age she was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis, and to this day battles with its painful symptoms. She does not wear it as a badge of honor, or carry it as an excuse, quite the opposite. It has taught her compassion and understanding for the people around her.

Again, Morgan refers to her father: “I remember one day when I was nine and I was sad and complaining to my father about my illness. He said to me ‘Everybody has something, Morgan.’  ‘Ya, Dad’ I said. Then he looked at me and said, ‘I’m blind in one eye. When I was a child I hammered a bent nail, it flipped in my eye.’

“Until then I had no idea he was blind in one eye. It made a profound change in my perception. Just because you can’t see it, it does not mean it does not exist.”

D.J. supports the topic. “As soon as you think you know everything, that’s when you become un-teachable.”

Up until now D.J. has sat, mostly quiet, listening to our conversation. As D.J. takes a breath, Morgan tells me, “D.J. had taught me to be a parent.”

We talk for a while about our childhoods, and we all come from radically different backgrounds. D.J. tells me, “My father was abusive toward my mother and I swore I would never do that in my life.”  As he tells me this I observe Morgan looking toward him with love and respect in her eyes. At first I thought D.J. and Morgan were husband and wife. Turns out that D.J. is Morgan’s boyfriend. I’m impressed with D.J. Although he talks about himself not being able to be a father, I see a humble man who is doing his best to set a good example, to do all that he can do to protect both Morgan and Derek.  You have to respect that.

D.J. tells me this about life: “You have to dream like you will live forever, but live like you will die today.”­

It’s almost dark now and we move onto our final question. Where do you see the world or yourself in the next 1, 5, 10… years? 

Morgan answers the question for all of them: “It’s scary as a parent. I think back to when I was in high school, that’s only two generations ago, and I’m not saying I’m perfect… sure there was ‘sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, but nothing like it is now. It frightens me to see that kids at age nine are already starting to be educated in things that when I was a kid we didn’t even know about.

“But on the brighter side of things, thinking about global youth, they have made strides in coming together. I’m even starting to see gang activity decreasing, and that give me hope.

“We all have more in common than we think.  No matter if you are great at scholastics, or come from skid row, everyone has something to offer.”

Thank you Morgan, D.J., Derek and Billy — it was a pleasure spending time with you.

Until tomorrow… I’m off to brush my teeth now.

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