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Stories From the Heart

From an early age, your parents and teachers tell you what we should do.  You listen, often with the best intentions, but let’s face, the words of our parents and peers are quickly forgotten.  It’s simply impossible to retain all of the well-intentioned advice and guidance.

But there’s one thing that is much harder to forget: the actions of those who inspire you.  But why is that? Words mean little, but when we see someone leading by example, we never forget what they do.  Their actions reside in a memory bank in your brain and set an example for living a life of value and meaning.

All of us have been blessed by seeing the example set by the most inspirational leaders, namely, our parents and teachers. And those stories need to be written down for your children to pass on to their children. This, my friend, is what you call a legacy.

These are the stories that I feel compelled to share.



A Story of Hope

At first, it seemed like just another day.

When I got home from work in the summer of 1997, I mindlessly began talking about my day at work while oblivious to whether my wife was listening.  But something was a little different about my wife and I could just tell from the expression on my wife’s face that there was something that was not right.  Lisa just stood there and looked at me and finally when I stopped talking, she delivered the shocking news: my mother had been diagnosed with colon cancer.

Shocking News that Floored Me

My mother had been the picture of perfect health, worked out, ate right, and always took care of herself.  Now, for the first time in my life, I was faced with the brutal reality that no child could ever be ready for—the potential mortality of the person who brought you into this world.

I called my mother that night and heard the fear in her voice as she faced the real prospect of a life cut short by cancer—life that seemed destined for many more years was now at risk of being cut short.  On the phone with my mother that night, I heard the fear in her voice as we cried together.

The medical plan was simple enough.  A surgeon would operate to remove the tumor from my mother’s colon, biopsy the surrounding tissue and days later tell us whether the cancer had spread.  Whether my mother would live or die would not be known for days.  And that night in my brownstone apartment in downtown Albany would turn out to be one of the longest nights of my life.

My mind raced with bitter thoughts that night.  How could this happen?  Why would God take my mother from us when she had been so careful about taking care of herself?  My (future) kids might not meet their grandmother.

The Most Difficult Night of My Life

I knew there was no way I could sleep that hot and humid summer night.  Filled with fear and anxiety I left my apartment to walk the streets of downtown Albany.  I walked the streets looking for some consolation and comfort, but the cobblestone streets offered nothing.  The church was locked and closed up tight, and no friendly stranger crossed my path to offer a small token of comfort.  I was on my own that night.

When I got back to my apartment, I knew that sleep would be an exercise in futility. This would be a long night of tossing and turning and envisioning a future without my mother.  Exhausted, my wife was asleep in our bedroom and I fended for myself on the couch in our living room.  I sat on the beat-up, plaid couch consumed with fear and anxiety as the night dragged minute by minute into the early morning hours.

How Everything Changed in an Instant

It was well after midnight when, for what seemed like no reason at all, I just happened to spot a book on the bookshelf in our living room. I got off the couch, grabbed the book off the shelf and randomly opened it to the middle of the book.  Right there on the first page I saw, my eyes focused on these words:

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.

Where there is doubt, faith.

Where there is darkness, light.

Where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

To be consoled as to console,

To be understood as to understand,

For it is in giving that we receive, and

It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.

As I read these words, I could almost feel the fear and anxiety drain out of my face and leave my body.  Almost magically, I knew in that moment that God had a plan for my mother and whether that was life or death, who was I to question God’s will?  For the first time since I got the frightening news earlier that evening, I was completely at ease.

Maybe a bit hard to believe, but I know now that the words of Saint Francis were meant for my eyes that night.  A sleepless night turned into one of hope with the knowledge that, good or bad, God’s will would be done.  And it was up to me to be the source of hope and comfort (and possibly consolation) for my mother, sisters and father.

The Fateful Day Finally Arrives

Several days later, my mother had the surgery and my mother, dad, sisters and I met with the surgeon to learn my mother’s fate.  I could see the anxiety and fear etched into the faces of my sisters, father and mother, as we huddled together in a small room in the hospital, but what would have seemed hard to believe days earlier, I was at ease and hopeful.  I gave small words of hope and optimism to my family members, knowing that God had a plan for my mother and we were just about to find out what that was.

When the surgeon finally gave us the fantastic news that the cancer had not spread, we all broken down into tears.  It was a collective sigh of relief for my family members after days of stress and worry.

I knew that my mother would make it and I would get the chance to share this beautiful person with my future children.  But in the end, it wasn’t this life or death news that relieved my anxiety-ridden mind…it was a dusty, old book sitting on a book shelf that had the words of hope, consolation and comfort.

It’s never too late to give thanks for the special gifts in our lives. Thank you, Saint Francis, for giving me the courage and hope that your words gave me when I needed them the most.


 A Conversation that Changed My Life

Just a couple of weeks into my junior year at John A. Coleman High School in the fall of 1982, I was sitting at my desk in social studies class waiting for class to begin, when my teacher, Brother Armand, sat down across from me.  With his face just a couple of feet away from mine, Brother Armand bluntly told me, “You are a loser and you’ll always be a loser”.

Not a great way to start the day and more than just a little disturbing.  But then Brother Armand explained, “You have more ability than anyone in this class, but you don’t give any effort.  I’ll make a deal with you: if you give your best effort for our first exam and don’t do well, I’ll never ask you to study hard again and I’ll leave you alone.”  Fair enough, and I quickly agreed…but of course, I had no intention of studying for the exam.

An Epiphany for Yours Truly

On the night before the exam, I was sitting in my bedroom reading sports magazines (while I was supposed to be studying) and I was bored silly.  With nothing else to do, I picked up my social studies book and read it for a couple of hours.  This was far from my best effort, but it was still more studying than I have ever done for an exam.

On the day after taking the social studies exam, Brother Armand dropped the exam paper on my desk as he handed them out.  My exam paper read at the top, “A-“.  I was stunned.  I had been a “C” and “B“ student all my life and I didn’t know what an “A” was.  Was this some kind of cruel joke, I thought. How could this be?  My friends and classmates had always told me that I was “stupid” and I assumed they were right.

Later that afternoon, I had a chance encounter with Brother Armand outside the front entrance of my high school.  As he walked by me on the front steps of Coleman High School, Brother Armand looked at me and said something that I will never forget, “This is just the beginning for you.”  I still thought he was nuts, but just maybe he might be onto something.

A Shocking Result that No One Could Predict

A week later I had my first exam in the most difficult subject area: French III.  I hated French in my first two years of high school and it showed in my grades.  I had been a “C” and “D” student in my first two years of French and now I was on the verge of taking an advanced French class in a class full of straight “A” honors students.  I was horribly unprepared to begin French III and my teacher wrote me off.

Just before the first exam, my French teacher gave me an ultimatum: If I didn’t pass the exam, she would kick me out of her class. Ouch!  I decided at that moment that I was going to prove her wrong and for the first time in my life, I studied for the exam with a passion.  On the night before the exam, I stayed up to 1 a.m. studying until I couldn’t hold my eyes open, but even with my hard work, I had no idea if I could pass the exam.  I knew the odds were still stacked against me.

On the day after taking the French exam, my French teacher stood at the front of the classroom and told the class, “The top score on the exam is John Henry Fisher with a 96.” I was dumbfounded.  This can’t be right—this class was loaded with the top students in the school and I just beat all of them?

It dawned on me at that moment.  My friends and classmates were wrong–I wasn’t stupid. Okay, I knew I wasn’t a Rhodes Scholar, but for the first time in my young life I realized that I wasn’t dumb either.  But more importantly, I discovered that when I gave my best effort, I could beat almost anyone.

How My Life was Changed Inside-Out

From that moment, I worked with a passion.  Any goofing off was now taboo and I gave the same effort in my other subjects that I had given on the French III exam.  I was no longer the class-clown or life of the party, but I was determined and laser-beam focused on my studies…and my world changed almost overnight. I finished the fall semester with one of the highest GPA’s in my class and as hard as it was to believe for everyone (except Brother Armand), I was now in the high honors of my class.

I never looked back. I now had a formula for success that couldn’t be beat—I knew that if I out-worked my competition, I could not only compete with my peers, but I could beat them every time.  And the results were shocking: I finished my first year of college in the top 3% of my class.  And I went on to do well at one of the top colleges and law schools in the country.

A Little Note of Gratitude for Changing my Life

I now realize that I will never be the brightest person in the courtroom, and there will always be other lawyers with more intelligence and credentials than me, but no one will out-work me. And I never would have discovered this without a not-so-subtle challenge from Brother Armand in the fall of 1982.  It just took one person to believe in me.

Among the special gifts in my life (which are many), I can’t think of any that are better.  Thank you, Brother Armand and John A. Coleman High School, for changing my life.


 A Story of Love

Before my wife and I traveled to Russia to adopt our children, we were told that we would instantly know who are adoptive children would be, as soon as we laid our eyes on them.  This was far-fetched, to say the least.  At least in my eyes, it did not seem logical that I would intuitively know who our children would be at first glance.

After arriving in Southern Russia in May, 2000, my wife and I were taken to several “baby houses” (a/k/a orphanages) and got the chance to meet with a number of babies available for adoption. The children—ranging from babies to 5 years old–were scattered in cribs that were lined up, almost like an assembly line.  The children looked at Lisa and I with suspecting looks, as if they were not quite sure what to make of us.

As each new child was handed to me, I felt no special bond with the babies and to put it bluntly, they seemed like strangers to me.  A bit discouraged, but not defeated, Lisa and I were driven to other orphanages. I tried to keep an open mind and did not give up hope.

An Encounter that Changed Our Lives

The next baby house that we visited was surrounded by overgrown weeds and dandelions, which the Russians conveniently labeled, “flowers”.  Lisa and I were taken to a large, empty room in the baby house and told to wait to meet children who might be available for adoption.

Moments later, the most amazing thing in our lives occurred. Two little bald babies, Liliya and Boris, bundled only in oversized diapers, were handed to us.  As soon as I saw Liliya and Boris cross the pathway of the door, I knew we had found our children.  I was never more certain of anything. Liliya was handed to Lisa and Boris was placed in my arms and it was love at first sight.  Liliya and Boris stared at my wife and I with suspecting looks, as if to say, “Who are you?”

My heart raced and tears swelled in my eyes. We found our family…but then life threw a curve ball at us.  An aide at the baby house brought in another child, Oleg, affectionately referred to as the “dancing baby”. Again, it was love at first sight. I knew Oleg was our son at the moment I first saw him. My wife and I were in love, now with three babies.

A Dilemma for a Young Couple

But we had a problem.  My wife and I came to Russia to adopt two children, but we had no idea how to care for one baby, much less three. A dilemma faced a young couple.

After Liliya, Boris and Oleg were taken out of our hands and carried into another room, an aide at the baby house inquired whether we were interested in the babies. Without giving it a thought, Lisa quickly blurted out, “We’ll take all three.”   Would have been nice if she discussed this with me first—I thought–but if Lisa didn’t say this, I would have.

Lisa and I left the baby house that day, knowing that we had found our children. 5 months later, the adoption was finalized and a family of two became a family of five.

What All Adoptive Parents Know

The most common question asked by parents considering adoption is whether they will love their adoptive children as if they were their own biological children. Whenever an adoptive parent hears this question, we chuckle inside because adoptive parents always have the same thought, “if only they knew”.

If anything, adoptive parents love their children more than a biological parent. Adoption is a gift to the adoptive parents that cannot be matched by anything.  To this day, Lisa and I consider Liliya (Lily), Boris (Tim) and Oleg (Alek) the greatest gifts ever given to us by God.

Reflecting back, I could not have been more wrong about my initial reaction. Somehow, almost amazingly, my wife and I knew instantly who our children were.  How did this happen?  I have no idea, but I’m willing to bet it wasn’t just a coincidence. God had a plan for Lisa and I, and on that day in Southern Russia in 2000, God’s plan was fulfilled.  And that, my friend, I am certain of.

Leave a comment below telling me what surprised, inspired or taught you the most (I personally respond to every comment). And if you disagree with my take on running a personal injury law firm, or have a specific, actionable tip, I’d love to hear from you.