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NOTIONS: Generosity of the moment, generosity over time

September 12, 2005

In an e-mail last week, my sister-inlaw, Carrie, shared a story about my nephew, Eric. It said:

"Eric has been keeping abreast of the hurricane news (as much as a 13-yearold boy might do) and inquired last night if we had made any contributions to the relief effort. I told him that we had contributed online to the Red Cross, but that I truly didn't know the amount of the contribution since Dave [his dad] had handled it himself.

"Eric then went to find his dad and he asked Dave to help him make a contribution to the Red Cross from his summer chore money ... Eric decided that he wanted to contribute $50.

"Once they got online to the Red Cross Web site, however, Eric discovered that a contribution could be made in memory of someone. So he decided to make his contribution in memory of his Aunt Pam, and he decided to contribute all $97 of his savings. He told Dave that 'She was worth it.'"

When I read of Eric's generosity for Katrina victims and his tribute to my late wife, my tears ran, as they had through much of the perfect emotional storm that was Labor Day weekend.

For most of the 14 years I was married to Pam, we gathered with her family twice a year-once at Christmas and once during the summer at Carrie's lakefront home in Michigan.

On the latter occasions, Pam and I would drive up Interstate 69 early on a Saturday morning, pick up my sons at their mom's house in Fort Wayne, and drive two hours north to Kalamazoo, catching up with the kids and reading stories aloud along the way.

The summer reunion often coincided with Labor Day weekend and with Pam's Sept. 4 birthday. So under the stars on Saturday or Sunday night, we'd gather 'round the table on the deck, unveil a cake made by Pam's mom, and sing, "Happy Birthday, Dear Pammy." She'd cringe at the childhood nickname, make a wish and blow out her candles.

Pam would have turned 50 this year. For two months (until my October birthday), I would have teased her about being three years-and a whole decade-older than me. And she would have nudged me in mock chagrin.

But there was no cake. No song. No jest. Instead, Sept. 4 marked the six-month anniversary of her death by cancer.

For several hours on Sunday afternoon, while the kids played games in the basement, and while some of the adults chatted and others golfed, I sat alone on the dock, my feet dangling in the water, thinking about Pam, and adding my tears to the waves.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I felt guilty about feeling bad. There are, after all, so many so much worse off.

But among many lessons about grieving, I've learned from Pam's loss that context provides no solace. The severity of Peter's misery does not lessen Paul's. And time, contrary to the old adage, does not heal all wounds.

And so I fear for the victims of Katrina, only days removed from their loss. And I ache for the victims of 9/11, whose fourth anniversary we mark this weekend. And I mourn for all the husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, children and aunts and uncles and cousins who suffer from poverty, cancer and other mundane tragedies.

Because little boys like Eric who share their summer savings with the Red Cross, and little girls like the one my sons and I saw this weekend, sweltering in the sun beside her pale yellow pitcher and a sign that said "Katrina Lemonade," are like so many of individuals and institutions in this world.

Moved by shock and awe, we clamor to ask, "What can we do?" and "How can we help?" And we scramble with a haste rarely witnessed in the face of everyday needs, no matter how oppressive.

And we crack open our piggy banks; and empty our cupboards.

We sort through our closets and pack up our grocery bags, boxes and moving vans. We phone telefunds, mail checks and make donations online.

We open our hearts, our homes, our churches and our schools.

We deliver our casseroles and send our sympathy cards.

And we feel better for having done our part.

And then, more often than not, we disappear.

Because our lives are calling. And the car needs fixing. And the stove needs repaired. And there are jobs waiting. And bills to pay. And calls to make. And deadlines to meet.

And someday, months or years down the line, we wonder whatever happened to those people from 9/11, or the ones from Katrina, or the widower sitting by the lake. We're good at sudden and dramatic in this world. We struggle with sustained and systemic. If we can work on the latter, we'll need less of the former. And the Erics of the world won't have to share every penny they've earned.



Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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