On July 3rd, 2013, I received an email from Brandon Crouch, the Project and Event Manager for Utah State University's Office of Research and Graduate Studies. In his email, Brandon asked if I was interested in speaking at the annual TEDxUSU conference to be held on November 5th, 2013.
In short, my answer was...YESSSSS!!!
The theme for TEDxUSU 2013 was survive. In my excitement to accept the invitation I hadn't given much thought to what it would take to create an 18 minute presentation about something I have been doing my whole life. When I first sat down to work on my talk I ended up looking at the computer screen for about 30 minutes before thinking, and not for the last time, "Can I do this?"
Over the next four months working on this presentation became my job. Every time something popped into my head, which was usually when I was in the shower, driving or just about to fall asleep, I would pull out my iPhone and start recording my thoughts. I looked over my photographs again and again, searching for the right match for my words. Walking around my apartment, I practiced delivering my presentation to an imaginary crowd, aka my cats. My upstairs neighbor probably knows this presentation better than anyone, save myself.
After a few weeks something started to happen, something that had never been part of my plan. As I pushed further and further into my soul I began to accept my own mortality. One day I will die. This is a fact. I'm not saying that I am not afraid of death. What I mean is that by accepting my own mortality I have embraced that today, this very moment, I am alive.
On November 3rd I boarded a plane for Utah. I gave my presentation a run through in my mind then settled in with some music and caught up on photo editing. After a short layover in Houston (and a pretty good taco) we came out of the clouds in Salt Lake City just as the sun was setting on the Rocky Mountains. Hello Mother Nature.
I headed to the Budget rental counter to pick up my wheels and was met with a nice surprise. Instead of rolling into town in a Ford Focus, I was upgraded to a Chrysler 300 - Wow! I know my 5-speed, 4 cylinder Subaru is going to do well in the Cleveland snow, but this thing MOVED!!! I'd be lying if I said the thought of skipping my flight home and driving across the country didn't pop into my head.
Once I figured out how to start this keyless haus I headed to Logan, home of Utah State University, where I had dinner with an old friend, Andrew McCalister. Andrew and his wife Laura welcomed me into their home for dinner with some of their friends. Beautiful sunset, rental car upgrade, home cooked meal and great conversation...off to a good start.
The next morning I woke up early to go for a walk. The fall colors were still hanging around and the mountain air was cool and crisp.
Next stop, Utah State University, where I met Holly Reynoso. After seeing my photographs on the Internet Holly nominated me to speak at TEDxUSU. I'm still humbled that Holly's act of kindness led to this incredible experience. We headed to the Photo Department where I talked with students about making and sharing photographs of something so personal. The students were very attentive and respectful and I was honored that they wanted to hear our story.
(Group photo by Carsten Meier)
From here we went to the performance hall for a run through of the show. Not surprising, the crew was incredible! The answer to every question was, "We'll make it work." Inspiring. I couldn't believe I was on the same stage with such brilliant people. I was tingling all over.
After months of emails Brandon and I finally met face to face - this guy is a gem.
I have a tendency to be a night owl so I did my best to get a good night's sleep the night before the presentation (the two hour time difference helped). I woke up well rested and refreshed and headed to Angie's, a local restaurant where "The locals eat." The owner, Saboor Sahely, moved to Logan from Afghanistan 35 years ago to study at the University. For over 25 years Saboor has hosted a free Thanksgiving dinner for the community. Last year the restaurant served nearly 1,000 people. That's a good man in my book.
I finished my breakfast and headed to the auditorium. I pulled into the parking lot and took a few minutes to gather my thoughts. Months of writing, rewriting, and practicing were about to come to a point. I felt the bittersweet tear of love and pain. Everything Jen and I had been through came flooding back.
I was scheduled to speak last and did my best to stay calm while I watched everyone else passionately share their thoughts.
Just before my turn I took a deep breath and remembered the promise I made to Jen before she passed, that the world would know who she was.
I walked to the center of the stage, took a deep breath, and the next thing I remember is seeing the audience start to stand up and applaud. I still can't get over this...
To Everyone at Utah State University: You have helped me to heal. Your kindness, commitment and willingness to go the extra step inspires me to do the same in my life.
Here is a portrait slide show of many of the people who made this possible. (My apology to anyone whose portrait I didn't make)