• Giacomino Nicolazzo

The Gift...


THE GIFT…

February 2022


Gratitude...one of the most powerful emotions in our entire human repertoire, if not the most powerful. Gratitude is guaranteed to brighten your outlook on life and broaden your perspectives. Forgive the clichè, but once you express your gratitude, it changes your attitude. And the best thing about it? It’s free! Completely free!

I like best what Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about it...


“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”


I am going to tell you another story today. I will tell you up front, it is a bit sad. But I ask that you look past the sadness and human frailty it expresses and allow it to change your attitude. Allow it to brighten your outlook on life and broaden your perspectives...OK?


My story is about a conversation a man by the name of Curtis Smith is having with his daughter Olivia, as he is lying in a hospital bed in his final days on earth.


Curtis Smith was dying of colon cancer and did not want to leave this world without telling his daughter how much he loved her and how grateful he was for the exceptional gift and opportunity God had given him by allowing him to be her father.


Get your tissues out and get ready to learn what real, selfless gratitude looks like...


Olivia was sitting on the corner of her father’s hospital bed at Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia. They were having a conversation about the life they’d lived together. It would be nice to say the worst was behind them, but it wasn’t...


“Six weeks after you were born,” Curtis said to Olivia, “I received my orders that I was being deployed to the Middle East again. And I have to tell you something. After having those few weeks with you, the thought of leaving was the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced. In the end, I just couldn’t bring myself to go.”


Curtis Smith joined the Navy right out of high school. He was eighteen. He’d grown up in the Near West Side of Chicago, in a neighborhood known as West Lake Street. To say it was a dangerous place is an understatement. If you were a young black man in that neighborhood, the chances of being involved in a violent crime of some nature were 1 in 4. The chances of being wounded or killed in a random, drive-by shooting were 1 in 5. Curtis’s brother Wil was the 1 out of the 5 who would lose his life to a stray bullet. He was fourteen.


“I knew that if I stayed in the Navy,” he continued telling her, “I would always be leaving you. My dream in life was to retire as a Chief after twenty-five years...but then you came along and well...dreams change. So, before I left for my second deployment to Iraq, I decided to get out of the service.”


Let’s go back and start at the beginning...


“After going through boot camp,” Curtis said, I was stationed in Philadelphia. “I began dating the woman who would become your mother. Her name was Clarisse. It wasn’t anything that was going anywhere...nothing serious, at least not for me.


I was only looking for someone to fill my nights and she was looking for a husband. She met my expectations, but I could not fill hers. She wanted nothing to do with being a military wife and so we were always an on-again, off-again couple.”


After coming home from Iraq for the first time, Curtis’s outlook on life and marriage had changed. He found Clarisse again, but she’d moved on. They saw each other a few times. She’d spend the weekend every now and then…but come Monday morning, bright and early she would go home to the apartment she shared with her sister on Kensington Avenue and get back to work at her city job. Their renewed romance didn’t last very long...


“Your mother told me she was pregnant with you about a month after we stopped seeing each other,” he said. “I let her know before I left for Iraq that I would do whatever I had to do to take care of her and your needs. But then she got sick...real sick. I requested a delay in my deployment due to a family hardship. I was shocked and surprised when they give it to me...we weren’t married after all.”


Clarisse moved in with Curtis and he was true to his word. He took care of her and got her to the clinic for her appointments. He even put together a nursery in his tiny apartment for when they brought the baby home...


“The thought of being a father changed my whole life,” he said, “I was now 26 years old and had put in eight of my twenty-five years with the Navy. The time was coming when I had to decide if I was going to re-up for another four. I decided not to...it was time to get out, settle down and take care of my family.


I did the craziest thing! I enrolled at Temple University. I had no idea what it would be, but I knew one thing, I knew I needed to learn how to make a living in the civilian world.”


Olivia was born and Curtis was right there in the delivery room to welcome her. Something changed in him the first time he laid eyes on his baby girl. He wanted nothing more at that moment than to be a father...


“When you were 10, maybe 11 months old, your mother was better, but she was having a difficult time being married and having a baby to take care of. I guess it wasn’t what she wanted after all. She reached a breaking point, and it just became clear that being with me was not the best thing for her.


One morning I woke up and she and all her things were gone. She'd packed two bags the day before and left in the middle of the night. You obviously were not one of her things because you were the only thing, other than me, that she left behind. You were crying in your crib, and I didn’t have the faintest idea what I was going to do!”


Curtis and Olivia’s lives became chaotic quickly. He was supposed to attend an orientation at Temple for his first semester...


“What was I going to do with you?” he said to his daughter. "I had no earthly idea!"


When he realized his only alternative was to take Olivia to classes with him...well, he began to lose hope...


“I thought that if the college knew about you, they wouldn’t let me attend,” he said. “I was already a non-traditional student...I was 27! So, I didn’t mention you to anyone. I had to miss orientation because I had no one to take care of you. I had to jump right in with no books. Hell, I really didn’t know how I was going to pay for them anyway.”


Curtis’s biggest problem was where they lived. It was about ten miles from Temple...too far to walk and he didn't own a car. Taking the bus or a taxi twice a day was money he just didn’t have. He knew he needed to move the two of them closer to the campus. He spent all of his spare time looking for an apartment. Eventually he found one, about twenty blocks from school.


For the first semester, Curtis and Olivia lived in that apartment, off campus, with a roommate. He took a part-time job at an office supply store at night, cleaning and restocking shelves...


“I had to take you in to work with me sometimes,” he said. “I would hide you in the storage room closet. Working, taking care of you and studying constantly was wearing on me. I think I lost something like twenty-five pounds just from all the stress.”


Then he became quite serious. His expression changed and his voice became weaker...


“To be quite honest with you Olivia, I was not prepared for life let alone college. Had I not been able to kiss you good night every night before I’d begin to study, I would not have had the strength to do it. There were times when the only way I could get through was to check in on you and see you safe and asleep. Then I could go back to my studies.”


What Curtis had truly believed he could do on his own was quickly becoming more than he could handle...


“I thought that I could do it all…raise you, work a job and get to school,” he said. “But it was getting difficult. It was really hard! There was a woman who worked in one of the offices at Temple. She caught me sneaking you into a class one day. I thought it was all over. But let me tell you something Olivia...that woman turned out to be our angel.”


Her name was Elva Robinson, a kind, caring, concerned Jamaican woman who worked in the Office of Student Housing. She took an interest in Curtis and his daughter...


“I told her all the things that were going on with us,” he said. “I remembered how her smile made me believe for the first time that we’d be ok...that you and I would make it. She helped me move to campus housing during my second semester. I was definitely the first single father raising a child on campus. But that day marked the day our life together was taking a turn for the better.”


“Were you ever embarrassed bringing me to class?” Olivia asked her father.


“I don’t think I was ever embarrassed,” he answered. “That’s one of the few emotions I didn’t experience. I was just glad you were with me and that you were safe. I was very fortunate in that you were a relatively healthy kid. You were quiet. You didn’t bother anybody. You were easy. And you adapted to school right away. I would take you to classes or give you crayons and things to do, and you would just sit at a desk and do them.”


Curtis’s basketball teammates were Olivia’s first babysitters. He recalled coming home from class one day and there were these four giant guys and his 18-month-old daughter, all sitting on the floor playing...


“Those guys on my team,” he said, “they were the first people I ever trusted with you. I knew you were safe if I couldn’t be with you.”


Four years went by in the blink of an eye. Curtis’s graduation day from Temple was something that he will always remember...


“I carried you in my arms to get my diploma,” he said. “I was so proud when they called both of our names. All my classmates stood up and cheered. They gave me the only standing ovation of the day. I could not help but break down in tears. It confirmed all that we’d gone through for the past four years. But I am no hero, Olivia. I’m your father and it was my job. It was the right thing to do."


“So technically,” Olivia joked, “I’ve already graduated?”


“Nice try!" her father answered. “The degree has only my name on it, so you’ve still got to go on and get one of your own. And I know that whatever you set your mind to, you will far exceed anyone’s expectations...even your own!”


Having a daughter was a drastic change in Curtis’ life, but he always maintained it was the best thing that had ever happened to him...


“I don’t know if I ever told you this,” he said, “but I felt like before you came along, my mother, who I truly believe is my guardian angel, was looking down on me from heaven. She’d gotten tired of watching me drifting through life and probably said, “God, please do something for my boy. Send him someone to take care of!”


Curtis and his mother had always been close, especially after Wil was shot. Curtis’s father abandoned his family the same way Clarisse had abandoned hers...


“I felt so empty when she passed away,” he said of his mother. “And I’ve never really been able to explain this, but when I was in the delivery room when you were born, I physically felt something go into my heart. It was the strangest sensation...a feeling of completeness that I hadn’t felt since she’d died.”


And now comes the sad part of the story…


As I told you in the beginning, Curtis had been diagnosed with colon cancer. The doctors had done all they could for him. The end was coming soon and all he wanted to do was go home.


“Promise me you won’t send me to hospice,” he said to his daughter. “Let me stay here, OK?”


The tables had turned and now he was watching his nineteen-year-old daughter take care of him, as if their roles had been reversed. She was in college now, going to Temple right there in Philadelphia...


“You’ve watched over me at my weakest points,” he said, beginning to cry a bit. “I have now come to that place where no father wants to be. And you’ve become wise beyond your years. No matter what happens to me Olivia, I know you’re going to be fine.”


“This is hard for me daddy,” Olivia said, now crying herself. “It’s hard because I know you don’t want me to be the one to take care of you. You’re probably scared about what’s going to happen to me if I lose you.


But that first week when I was home from school, I cooked dinner for you. Do you remember? It made me happy being able to care of you, knowing that for my whole life you were doing that for me. You’re my rock daddy. You will never know how proud I am of you and how proud I am to be your little girl.”


“I’ve always drawn my strength from you little one,” Curtis said. “Being around you is what I’ve always lived for. And that’s what’s going to make me beat this. I’ve oftentimes referred to you as my complex joy, and you’ve never stopped being that. I want you to know that you are the most important thing in my life, and you always will be…as long as I’m on this earth. Everything else is a distant second. You were my mother’s gift to me, and I believe that to this very day.”


Curtis died three weeks later. At his funeral, Olivia stood up in front of all his friends and did her daddy proud. He was right, she had become wise beyond her years...


“It's a funny thing about life,” she began, “once we begin to take notice to the things we are grateful for, we begin to lose sight of the things that we lack. Being grateful doesn’t mean that everything is necessarily good or fine. It just means that we can accept life as the gift it is meant to be. My father taught me this. He was the most grateful person I've ever known.


He also taught me how important it is to take time each and every day that we are alive, to reflect on how much we have. It may not be all that we want, but remember something, he used to say…someone somewhere is dreaming of having what you have.


Be thankful for the beautiful moments of your life. Be thankful for the gift of today. Thank you Daddy.”

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