I recently traveled back to my family home in New Hampshire to take part in a Flight of Honor event to acknowledge my father’s 39-year career in the United States Marine Corps. This organization recognizes WWII and Korean War veterans for their service and typically flies them up to Washington DC to visit the respective memorials.
My father, Paul F. Lessard, “the Colonel,” who has been battling Agent Orange-initiated Parkinson’s Disease, is too disabled at this point to make the trip so they came to him at the residential care facility in which he now resides. Parkinson’s is a cruel disease that has not only robbed him of his mobility, it has also taken his memory and his ability to speak. He, and other brave souls like him, who served so faithfully in an unpopular war are indeed the final causalities of the Vietnam Conflict.
At the event, which was well attended by many friends and vets, we saw a brief glimpse of the old Colonel who flashed a gap-toothed grin (the nurses could not convince him to put in his dentures that morning) as he was presented with a commemorative certificate, T-shirt and ball cap. At one point in the program I addressed the group and shared the core values of the man whom I’ve always been so proud to call my father.
“He was the consummate leader of men,” I told them. “He was an officer who truly loved and cared for his Marines and he never asked them to do anything he would not do himself. He epitomized servant leadership and he very intentionally taught my sisters and me the importance of pouring our gifts and talents into others.”
When the event concluded and the last of the crowd departed, my father began drifting back into the netherworld in which he now resides. In the quiet of the empty banquet room I knelt beside him, leaned close and whispered that I would never forget the lessons he and my mother had taught us.
He mumbled words I could not understand as his sleepy eyes looked right through me. He no longer knows me — my voice and touch are no longer familiar to him. I have come to understand and accept the reality that I will never again hear the voice which had always inspired confidence, love and, at times, a healthy sense of fear. However, I know in my heart that the most important parts of him will always be with me as long as I hold fast to those values he imparted through his well-lived life.
As the Christmas season approaches I want to encourage parents to embrace the sacred privilege we have been given to speak into our children’s hearts and minds. Remember that you alone have the greatest capacity to shape your child’s view of the world through your actions and words. Never forget that God has blessed each of us with unique gifts we can use to make this world a better place, so help your children discover and embrace these gifts.
Finally, when all is said and done, the only things that we really get to take with us are those things we have already given away, so pour it all out into those you love.
Merry Christmas to you and yours.
PAUL LESSARD, a recipient of the Carnegie Hero Medal and a catalyst for the growth of community outreach programs, is president of the High Point Community Foundation and recognizes the power of parents in shaping lives, and the impact it’s had on him.