I was only 26 when my dad died. I feel like that’s a bit too young. I hadn’t yet reached the age where I wanted to learn from my family. I was still in that “I Know Everything” phase of youth. So before I was able to mature into that older relationship that people tend to have with their parents, my dad was gone.
It’s been seven years and you’d think I’d be okay with it by now. But just two days ago, I was standing in the kitchen making dinner, and I suddenly had this overwhelming need to talk to him. My heart burned with sadness at the seemingly new realization that I wouldn’t be able to share my worries with him or get his advice. Autumn is a tough time of year for me – his birthday is in August, and then comes a very important holiday: Thanksgiving.
Over the last decade of my dad’s life, he spent every Thanksgiving working his tail off. One day when I was in high school, my dad was inspired to share a Thanksgiving meal with a family who couldn’t afford one. After that first gift, he was hooked, and he kept trying to increase his giving each year. By the time he was diagnosed with leukemia, he had been giving to hundreds of families each year with the help of friends and coworkers who were inspired to join him. My dad called his project “Basket Brigade” because they delivered the Thanksgiving groceries – and diapers, children’s clothing, coats, cleaning supplies, and other staples – in useful laundry baskets.
On the Sunday before each Thanksgiving, my dad dragged me out of bed at 6 a.m. to help him make these deliveries. I remember falling asleep in the back seat of his SUV; he would wake me up at each stop and ask me to help him carry the baskets to the door.
At one such delivery, my dad knocked on an apartment door and a refugee family answered. As their door opened fully, I saw that they had no furniture at all. My dad held up the basket of goodies, and their faces lit up with appreciation and shock. An old woman motioned toward their empty living room to express that she wanted us to come into their home. She wanted to share the food and eat with us. My dad just smiled and shook his head “no.” The language barrier prevented him from explaining that he had hundreds more deliveries to make that day. That moment stuck with me because I saw that we were creating intense moments for other people. I also realized that my dad felt it was his duty to provide these moments, and that he had no interest in the thanks or glory.
When my dad died in 2011, my brother and I were destroyed. Johnny was only 18 at the time – far too young to lose a parent. We developed odd ways of memorializing him. I decorated my mom’s house with the flowers from his funeral. My brother tried cigars for the first time because he’d heard my dad briefly smoked in his 20s. We drank a lot of Patrón tequila, my dad’s favorite. I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were trying to feel more connected to our dad. It wasn’t until Thanksgiving approached – our first Thanksgiving without our dad – that I realized what I should do to keep my dad’s memory alive: I needed to keep the Basket Brigade going.
Shire Sharing delivered Thanksgiving meals to 200 people in its first year, the year my father died. We’ve grown every year, and we’ve fed over 10,000 people since he left this earth. We’ve exceeded every record my dad set during his lifetime. I think he’d be proud.
One of my dad’s favorite songs was “Man in the Mirror,” by Michael Jackson. When it came on the radio, he’d turn the volume up so high that we couldn’t even hear ourselves singing along. I heard it on the radio just yesterday, the day after my heart ached for my dad. I was nearly brought to tears by the lyrics: “No message could’ve been any clearer. If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make that change.” I see now that my dad loved this song so much because it represented his values. If he wanted change, he could not be complacent. He would have to take action.
When we lose a loved one, coping can be a challenge. I found it necessary to essentially begin a whole new life, different from the one that I had been expecting for myself: a life with a void where a person should be. There are things my dad would have added to my life in the years that he’s been gone, but I will never have those experiences. Death is a thief, and the life I expected to have with my father is irreparably stolen. But in exchange, I have been handed purpose. When I was dragged around at 6 a.m. to meet strangers, I didn’t realize that I was being instilled with the values of charity, kindness, and one steadfast rule: if you can help, you should.
Today even outside of Shire Sharing, I am always trying to help others. Our family is supportive of our friends when they are on hard times. We have babysat children for weeks on end at no charge, have helped people move, and have invited homeless people to sleep in our house. But in my view, Thanksgiving is the sort of zenith celebration of the values I inherited from my father; the day that kindness and compassion reach a fever pitch in my life. Shire Sharing volunteers scatter across New Hampshire, making deliveries just like the ones my dad dragged me to – all this happens even though none of Shire Sharing’s volunteers have ever even met him. Almost a decade after his passing, my dad is still inspiring others to do good.
If you have lost a loved one and would like to honor their memory, I encourage you to do so through charitable acts. Visit the Shire Sharing website to find out how you can get involved in our little project. You can be a warehouse helper, a delivery person, or both. You can donate to help us afford enough food to feed 2,000 people this year. We’re also having a coat drive and we have drop-off locations all over the state. Shire Sharing is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which means that your donation is tax-deductible. What was once a small memorial project has become a full-blown nonprofit, but we stick to our roots by committing 100 percent of donations to the cause – our Board of Directors even works for free. We hope you’ll join us this holiday.
⇒This year’s Shire Sharing assemble/delivery event is set for Nov. 17. You can join the Facebook event here.