I recently had the opportunity to visit with the Man I consider the only mentor I have had in my life--personal or professional. He's in his eighties now and suffers from various illnesses including dementia. I have had many people pour into me and support me at various stages of my life, but this Man by far had one of the greatest impacts. I have always heard (and believe) God meets you at your point of need and puts the right people in your path just when you need them most; and as I look back, I can clearly see how God worked in my life as I got to experience this firsthand. It was nothing but divine intervention that my Mentor showed up when he did. While I had the confidence and swagger of youth and good "home training", I was totally naive about the "real" world. My Mentor surely saw some of my good qualities but I'm certain my naivety let him know my learning curve was still quite steep. Not only did I not know how to navigate the troubled waters that were ahead of me, but I was also too green to even know they were coming! My Mentor was the Man who not only taught me how to work through tough times but more importantly, he helped me understand how to make better decisions and avoid certain situations all together.
My Mentor was a professionals' professional. He had the quiet confidence of a Man who had seen some "stuff" and learned much from his life experiences. He had survived many personal and professional battles and had the scars to prove it. But what I respected and found most impressive about him, and something that I have tried to emulate, was that he was willing to be vulnerable and talk frankly to me about his struggles. He came up through the ranks at a time when the challenges and pitfalls far outnumbered the opportunities for a Black Officer in the United States Air Force. He served in Vietnam and like many old soldiers, he delighted in telling me his war stories. I've never forgotten the one about the "two-stepper" snakes i.e., if they bite you, after two steps you were dead! But fishing was our common bond, and we shared many hours bonding at a local lake with our lines in the water. Those evenings and Saturday mornings we would spend fishing were the best of times and we were both definitely in our happy place. While he was a soft spoken and relatively quiet man, when we were fishing, he would give me the full measure of his life experiences and many valuable life lessons. As I mention in my book "A Line in the Water", hindsight tells me that to my Mentor, it was not just about fishing.
During my visit, I could tell my Mentor didn't recognize me, but I sensed I looked familiar to him. (It reminded me of when I would visit my Mom in her final years as she battled dementia--that look of familiarity though she really didn't know who I was) He walked up to me, shook my hand, and sat down in front of me. I told him how much he meant to me and how much I appreciated the example he set and how the lessons he taught me have sustained me throughout my life. While he looked at me intently, politely smiled, and nodded to everything I said, I knew he was not there. Then I mentioned the times we spent fishing, and his entire demeanor changed. I told him about how much fun I had spending time fishing with him. How we would catch and clean the fish at the lake, then come home and have fish and grits for lunch! For a few brief seconds, his eyes widened, and I knew I had touched on a memory nugget that reached him. He smiled widely and shook his head in agreement and that's when I saw that grin I remembered from many years ago. In those few seconds I saw my Mentor and my dear friend once again, and it touched me deeply.
As I reflect on the visit with my Mentor, I realize that even in his current state, he was still teaching me valuable life lessons. It's the simple things in life that can make the biggest difference. Of all the things he did for me he seemed to only recall the times we spent enjoying fishing. I'd also like to think he remembered that those were the times he shared the most valuable tidbits of knowledge that I still cherish to this day; how to pour into the next generation, how to unconditionally support others, how to show up when needed, and how to freely give your most valuable asset, your time; are all lessons I learned from my Mentor. I have tried to apply those lessons in every aspect of my life and I can only hope I have done half of what my Mentor did for me for someone else! My visit with my Mentor was not about him remembering me, but more about me remembering to pay forward all the profound knowledge he shared with me.