Death of a Mentor
Yesterday, as I was cleaning out my office, deciding whether or not to keep my worn copies of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” I stumbled across a hardbound book with an equally long name—“How to Drive Your People Wild Without Driving Them Crazy.”
Before I even opened up the hardcover to peek inside, I knew there was no question about keeping this one. This book and the author’s personal inscription are the reasons why I will never, ever give up pursuing my dreams.
Sitting in my comfy office chair, I closed my eyes and remembered how this all came to pass. The new architectural high-rise in Kansas City was the perfect location for a new coaches retreat. Our group had been meeting on conference calls for several months and this was the first of two in-person meetings we were to have over the course of the year-long coaching certification. It was 2001.
A few days before I left LA for Kansas City, I received a birthday gift, a silver bookmark, from Jennifer. I was certainly looking forward to thanking her in person for such a kind gesture.
Upon arrival to the beautifully appointed conference room suite, we were each given a hand written welcome note from Jennifer. Mine said, “I can’t wait to get to know you.” Jennifer and I had spoken for over an hour in our introductory phone call, which revealed that our birthdays were very close to one another and that we both had a genuine passion for helping people.
As we chose our seats and got comfortable, we were told that the author of the book and creator of the coaching certification course, Jennifer White, had cancelled her first meeting. The trainers suggested we get refreshments and settle in for a full day of learning as we had a lot of material to cover.
Our trainers plowed through the material and, although I couldn’t put my finger on it, something about this group seemed off. Some of the participants complained during the lunch break about Jennifer’s absence and speculated that this all might be a scam. It did seem odd that she would go to so much trouble to write thank you notes and give gifts and then not show up for the first day of her own seminar.
The second day of the seminar, I’d gotten my green tea and settled into my seat feeling the tension rise in the room. Jennifer was absent again.
“We are so sorry to deliver this news, but Jennifer is gravely ill. She is in the hospital now and she’s in critical condition.” The newly appointed Vice President, Mark struggled with the next bit, “she went to Europe and on her return flight home said her head hurt. The headache turned into a migraine and she and her husband, Steve, went to the emergency room at their first stop, Chicago. They put her back on the plane with some Codeine and after an evening back in her own bed, she ended up in the hospital here in Kansas City where she fell into a coma.”
Each of the participants had been hand chosen by Jennifer for this, her flagship program. “Drive Your People Wild Without Driving Them Crazy” was the follow up to her highly successful “Work Less, Make More.” She wanted to repeat this same scenario by creating a program to give us great tools and a network to coach leaders in the corporate world.
I’d been hoping that this class would help me out of the career slump I’d fallen into the previous year. When I spoke with Jennifer before signing on for the program I felt hope. But Mark was making me regret those feelings. “We’re sorry, but we don’t know any more than that.” Mark sat down and we began our lesson.
Absurd cannot begin to describe how this felt. Hey, the woman who inspired you to fly over 300 miles to get here is in a coma but let’s learn something! I sat beneath the buzzing florescent lights along with the others and got through the day and the next with little information about Jennifer’s condition.
The class ended. I stayed in Kansas City with friends and did my best to shake off the pall by lunching with family and visiting old friends. It all felt so out of my control. I knew no one directly connected to Jennifer and so I had to rely on the other coaches who went through the training. A few days later I got a call from another coach, “Jennifer died yesterday.”
The funeral was in a stony cold church in the suburbs of Kansas City and as I sat looking at the back of Jennifer’s husband’s head, I realized something. I had no idea what Jennifer looked like. Her warm, powerful voice was clear in my mind, as was her neatly ornate handwriting. Then I saw the memorial program. She had medium length reddish hair and a kind face. She missed her 33rd birthday by one day.
The other women who took the course and I have an inexplicable inextricable bond. I stayed in touch with a couple of women and, as I do with my most challenging life issues, I wrote.
Over the last seven years, I’ve tried desperately to connect the dots of my life. Jennifer’s line, in particular has eluded me. She had an indelible, profound effect on my life in a stunningly short period of time. My main question was: Why? Why would someone who was so powerfully vibrant have her life cut short? Why was I deprived of meeting her face-to-face? Why did we have enough of an interaction to really connect and nothing more?
I also searched online to no avail. Then, a few years ago, I was selling my coaching tools at a booth at the International Coach Federation Conference in Long Beach, California. While drinking coffee before the doors opened, I noticed an open seat at a table and was drawn into a conversation with a few coaches. The woman directly next to me seemed faintly familiar. The more she talked, the more I craned to see her name tag. I took a chance and asked if she knew Jennifer White. The look on her face told me everything. As we embraced warmly, I felt Jennifer’s presence.
I continued my online searches for information about Jennifer reasoning that if I just knew more about what happened to her, I might get some closure. One day, I noticed a blog post by her husband, Steve, “On Organ Donation…” Jennifer’s picture from the memorial program was included and when I finished reading about the events that lead to her passing and her subsequent organ donation, it was as if a chapter had closed.
Back in my office, I opened my eyes. Stacks of books were everywhere and Jennifer White’s book was cradled in my hands. I opened the cover to reveal Jennifer’s elegantly handwritten message in red ink:
Tricia, Make your life matter! J