From the Heart

21 Apr

NOTE: From April 11th, to, well, sometime in July, Serving the Story is taking a road trip from coast to coast, exploring the role of service in people’s lives. Below is the second post from the trip so far.

After crosses and coffee, Betsy and I cruise from Wilmington into Newark – spelled like the city in New Jersey, but spoken as “New Ark.” The hopeful pronunciation fits the mood of the day – along Main Street scores of college students and other folks are dressed for the warm weather that’s finally come the Northeast’s way. They all stroll a Main Street filled with restaurants and bars, galleries and shops; it reminds me of Northampton, Mass., only flatter.

Inside a café, Joe McDonough radiates that same springtime energy. Relatively lean and athletic for a man in his 50s, he answers my questions with both passion and concentration, going beyond the superficial response to deeper implications. His ring seems to fit his attitude; when the light catches his right hand mid-gesture, its message flashes – “B+.”

As in “Be Positive.” It’s the name of McDonough’s non-profit foundation – and the blood type of his son Andrew, who died of leukemia seven years ago, at age 14.

McDonogh's ring conveys his message for him.

McDonogh’s ring conveys his message for him.

In the years since, the foundation has raised more than $500,000 for either research or for support of individual families dealing with childhood cancers. The B+ website lists stories of those helped; they’re from all over the country. Both parents, as well as Andrew’s sister, pour their energy into the foundation; appropriately, they still operate out of the family home, where Joe McDonough still visits his son’s bedroom on a daily basis.

I’ve looked him up because of the remarkable work that B+ does – and because I wonder about the role of serving others in healing one’s self. But when I try this notion out on him, he resists.

“People have said this must be good for your grieving or healing – honestly, I don’t know. Because my family never stepped into this because this is going to help us cope. This is 100 percent for other people; this is so you don’t have to hear your child has cancer, or that lady doesn’t have to hear, ‘Your child has two days left.’ We’re at a point in our lives where we could go off and start this foundation and this is what I do seven days a week, so the planets were kind of aligned for that. I’m not saying there’s not a benefit to my grief process, but if there is, it’s an unexpected consequence we were not looking for.”

He pauses, then proceeds.

“Because there are a lot of days, to be honest with you, when I’d like to go back to my anonymous old life and go work at Chase, where the biggest thing was some credit card issue, and not have to deal with me having to tell the story of my son’s death hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times.”

In distancing himself from one hunch I had, he’s brought the conversation around to another concern of mine. One of my biggest fears about my three-month community service road trip is that my heart is going to be blocked by my head. The latter, after all, is the breeding ground for all the distractions blocking me from connecting with the volunteer work and the people in the here and now. The most superficial level of heady distraction are the ever-shifting logistics of booking volunteer gigs, interview subjects, places to lay my head. Then there is the distancing effect of what happens when I try to “write the trip” – imagine which opportunities would make the most interesting stories, instead of gravitating toward the most fulfilling experiences for me personally. Beneath all of the above , of course, is ego, ambition, the anxiety to publish a book out of all this. Hardly the stuff of altruism.

All that head stuff threatens to make it impossible for me to put my heart into the moment of service, lose myself in the project at hand, to experience the spiritual benefits of service. Sure, storytelling itself is an act of service – the hundreds of thousands of dollars McDonough has raised is a case for that – but I wonder if he, too, ever feels distanced from the content of what he’s describing as he strives to execute the story perfectly.

After all, even before he had the motivation of the loss of his son, McDonough was perfectionistic enough to become senior vice-president of the credit card division of J.P. Morgan and Chase, a position that he gave up after his son’s death to pour his energy into B+.

He does sense the danger of the story becoming an intellectual exercise.

“It’s like when you give a lecture – you may have another voice in your head as you speak, commenting on what you’re saying..” I nod in agreement. “Sometimes when I tell Andrew’s story, there’s sometimes this other voice saying, ‘Did this really happen? Did Andrew really die?’ I mean, it’s been seven years. It’s a long time.

“I craft it based on the audience, and I wonder if I’ve lost power, but of all the talks I’ve only had one where I put remarks in writing, because it was a graduation and the school required remarks in advance. Otherwise I pray to Andrew before every talk; if I speak from the heart you can never go wrong.

“Is there a time when I’ll get numb, when I can’t tell my son’s story? If that [numbness] doesn’t happen, then that’s really painful, but if it does, maybe it’s time to do something else. I hope that never happens.”

Andrew McDonough in eighth grade.

Andrew McDonough in eighth grade.

Despite the myriad intellectual details involved in starting a foundation, McDonough remembers little in the way of intellectual calculation.

“I’m not sure the initial decision from the head as much as from the heart, my wife and I are both Type A people and we’d have done a list of pros and cons if it were from head. With this we just knew we had to do this. Later, as we got into it, we began to see the value of what we were doing, whether it was financially helping a family, giving healthy kids chance to interact with kids with cancer, or helping fund research into kinds of cancer.”

As time passed, McDonough realized their foundation had to find its own niche. It turned out to be young people. “We wouldn’t be where we are today without people under 25. I hate it when people complain about ‘these kids today.’ The college kids now are far more philanthropic than I was at their age.”

I tell him about former student and friend Brittany Ford, whose family started its own foundation, 365Z, which is currently seeking to collect stories of kindness in tribute to Brittany’s brother Zachary, who passed away at age 20. (Go to the link above to submit a story.) The title stems from both Zachary’s name and the notion of one act of kindness a day – McDonough warms quickly to that idea. “I would submit to you that it’s more that 365 acts of kindness, that there’s a ripple effect; each of those acts leads to the person receiving the act then being kind to someone else.

Even though B+ focuses on the disease that killed Andrew, they, like the Fords, want to emphasize how he lived – the organization’s email address includes the phrase “belikeandrew.” In fact, before Andrew’s death, the McDonoughs were cognizant of the need to give. “I did the things that most men of my age do,” from coaching Little League and parish council to joining his family in serving at a soup kitchen. “Now [service] has just gone from being a component of our lives to being my life, seven days a week.”

Our hour together is almost done; McDonough has to race from the coffee shop to an event where he’ll accept a check for the foundation. I’m grateful for the time – but to him, it’s likely one more chance to tell the story. My mind goes back to the question of healing, and a different way to approach the topic. I speculate that if I faced such a huge loss, I would feel I was staring into a meaningless existence – that I would then have to work to find meaning again in life.

“Is what you do every day now,” I ask, “more meaningful than what you did every day 10 years ago?”

His response is quick.

“Oh, by a million percent. Not even close!”

A selfie with Betsy, one of many things not possible when we last saw each other.

A selfie with Betsy, something a lot harder to do when we last saw each other. (Photo by Betsy Price.)

On the way back into Wilmington, Betsy and I discuss my conversation with Joe. We agree that he’s used to interviews – but he strikes me as honest enough, particularly in his acknowledgement of the tension between head and heart. I tell Betsy about how I’ve worried about how all this clutter in my head could keep me from wholeheartedly entering the moment. What if I never experience true immediacy or real immersion, let alone spiritual growth, on the road ahead. What if I come back more or less the same?

I share how, just five days ago, I confessed these fears to a friend; my verb choice is appropriate,  since the friend in question is a nun. Sister Nuala smiled broadly. “Well, Mike, I’m going to pray for you, and have the Sisters pray for you, that you experience each day of this trip as an act of love.”

Act of love.

I’ve found myself returning to that phrase, as well as Sister Nuala’s smile, all week. After a day of making crosses and hearing moving stories, I actually feel like my heart’s in the right place as Betsy and I settle down at the bar of a cozy restaurant with an intriguing menu. Over fine wine and food, we celebrate the rekindling of a friendship after decades devoid of meaningful conversation; we even take a selfie, something not possible in the pre-cell phone era in which we last knew one another.

Then we cross the street to the concert she’s promised – featuring a local singing trio called Honey Child. But local is a deceptive distinction; as Betsy points out, the Eastern seaboard from D.C. to Boston is crawling with some of the country’s finest musicians. I gradually piece together that Nancy Josephson, one of the group’s singers, was in Angel Band – I actually have a CD of theirs. Then Betsy informs me that her husband is guitarist extraordinaire Dave Bromberg. Betsy introduces me to both of them; Nancy was there for Betsy during the final stages of her husband’s illness, including the day Frank died.

From left to right, Honey Child's Natelee Smith, Kathleen Weber, and Josephson. (Photo by Betsy Price.)

Left to right: Honey Child’s Natelee Smith, Kathleen Weber, and Josephson. (Photo by Betsy Price.)

As we settle at our table, I try to forget about my project – about doing service, or stories of service, or anything other than the surreal ease of sitting beside an important person from my past and soaking in superb harmonies in an intimate atmosphere. A trio of fine women singers, Honey Child delves deep into roots music, from old Staples Singers stuff to Carribean influences, with Nancy explaining the background behind each song, every respectful of the traditions. But the kindness of others insists on asserting itself just the same. Nancy makes a passing reference to their accompanist Jake Heck, a young bluesy guitarist; she notes with a smile that in addition to everything else, the guitarist finds time to “coach girls soccer.”

Naturally, I wonder what service the other singers do, the broader web of their off-stage lives. I gradually find out that Nancy herself has been teaching art in Haiti for roughly 20 years, long before the earthquake there.

Even the action on stage has a feeling of volunteerism about it. They’ve resisted doing a studio CD, as they don’t want this collaboration to become a business; I applaud the attitude … even as I really, really want  a CD. I guess I really am going to have to be in the moment.

Being with one of my early writing colleagues, I mention that I would love to write about this moment, too. She asks how it would fit – ever my editor – and I say that given all these soulful gospel numbers, they’re bound to serve up an altruistic lyric or two. Perhaps a quarter hour later, Nancy explains that when reggae legend Bob Marley recorded the next song, they were very likely smoking certain “herbs”, setting the audience up to laugh when they hear the title, “Pass It On.”

But it turns out to be the farthest thing from a drug song.


What your hands do,

It’s your own eyes that’ve seen.

So won’t you judge your actions

To make sure the results are clean?


It’s your own conscience

That is gonna remind you

That it’s your heart and nobody else’s

That is gonna judge.


Be not selfish in your doings:

Pass it on. (Pass it on, children)

Help your brothers (help them) in their needs:

Pass it on.


Live for yourself and you will live in vain;

Live for others, you will live again.


Betsy places her hand on my right shoulder and I twist back to look at her.

“There’s your ending.”


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