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I never saw the woman's face. I only heard her voice.
It was spring of 2002, and I was in the middle of a radio interview, talking about my new book, The Right Words at the Right Time, in which I had asked 108 famous people -- people I admired -- to write about the words that changed their lives. Halfway through the interview, a listener called the station and told a story that would stay with me.
Her teenage son had been in a terrible car accident, the woman said, and as she sat in the hospital waiting to learn his fate, two doctors prepared her for the worst.
"You have to know when to let go," said the first doctor, gently warning her that her son was probably not going to make it. The second doctor, believing that her child might pull through, cautioned her that, due to his injuries, he'd never be the same again. Then he added, "But life is precious."
Both men were telling the truth as they saw it, the caller explained, but their words couldn't have been more different.
"I sat there trying to decide which words I would hold on to through that night," she remembered, confessing that neither scenario was something she'd ever dreamed of happening to her son. "But in the end, I hung on to the words of the second doctor. Because life is so precious. And these were the words that gave me strength to endure the life trial that was to come."
The woman was so honest, and her account so moving. I'd been hearing stories like this ever since the book had come out. Everywhere I went, people were eager to tell me about the right words in their lives. In airports. At book signings. In countless, heartfelt letters sent through the mail.
That day in the radio station, I was reminded that we're surrounded by heroes everywhere -- and I thought about how exciting it would be to assemble a new collection of right words stories, not from celebrities this time, but from everyday Americans.
Famous people have lots of opportunities to be heard. This book would provide a voice for everyone else.
The more I thought about the idea, the more I realized that the best way to find stories for the book would be to cast a net across the country -- along both coasts and through the heartland. And so we did. We announced a nationwide contest in the pages of the paperback edition of Right Words, asking readers to search their memories for that vivid moment in their lives when words made all the difference. We set up a website for online submissions. We hung posters in hospitals and military posts, in schools and police stations and prisons. And Parade magazine, which had been a champion of the first book, lent a hand by soliciting stories from its readers.
It didn't take long for millions of thoughtful words to suddenly materialize around me -- riveting, well-rendered letters, more than a thousand all together, from 30 states and three countries. Reading them late into the night was a joy, but choosing the 101 essays that would appear in this book was daunting. People didn't simply send us random thoughts that strung together a few memorable words from their past. They sent us their stories, pieces of their lives.
As I'd learned from the first book, the right words can transform us. They can challenge us at a crossroads; they can help us through times of sorrow; they can dare us to action. They can be spoken with love or shouted in anger. The right words can be funny words, thought-provoking words, words that prop us up when we think we can go no further.
And they can be found almost anywhere -- in a poem or a songbook, illuminated on a computer screen, stitched onto a wall-hanging, or scratched into the dirt with a wooden stick.
Whether set in a small schoolhouse on the plains of Wyoming or in a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan, each story we received sprang from the heart. For Michael Raysses of Los Angeles and Nebraskan Steve Martinez, the right words were spoken by strangers, one at a Starbucks, the other in an emergency room. Arizonian Susyn Reeve learned about human compassion, thanks to a chance encounter in a rainstorm. A teenage employee of Burger King grasped Floridian Tim Ciciora's hand and spoke two words that almost made a tough guy cry.
And for four special contributors to this book, words alone helped them extract a measure of hope from the devastating heartbreak of September 11th.
As the nights wore on and the stacks of letters grew, I became increasingly awed by the bounty of truth that surrounded me. I am a wiser person, I think, for having taken the journeys so eloquently recounted in the pages of this book. And I'm thankful for the generous spirit of our contributors, whose strong and intimate and touchingly personal stories may help all of us to find our own right words.
New York City
Spring, 2006 Copyright ©2006 by The Right Words, LLC
Part One: The Simple Stuff
The Homecoming: Timothy Ciciora
A Beautiful Shade of Yellow: Jackie Sigmund
A Message in a Teddy Bear: Daniel Walisiak
An Umbrella to Remember: Susyn Reeve
Wisdom on Wheels: Maralyn Schwer
Confessions of a Plain Jane: Jane E. Van Leuven
Zen and the Art of Trying: DeMar Regier
Guinea Pigs, Pancakes, and Why I Hate Nike: Ame Stargensky
Eye on the Road: Zev Saftlas
Part Two: At a Crossroads
Forty: Ann Swinford, M.D.
The Big Fix: Mary N.
Breaking the Chains: Leigh Anne Jasheway-Bryant
Jumping the Tracks: Nicole Hanton
The Clock: Joan Mueller
Busted!: Ann Pierce
What I Found on the Couch: Dan C.
Prison Saved Me: Dax Xenos
Part Three: Taking Chances
My Perfect Mess: Nancy Roman
Facing the Music: Kathleen Muldoon
Bottom of the Ninth: Marlon LeTerrance
Everyone Is Shy: Julie Knapp
Bull Ahead: Donna Surgenor Reames
The Juror: Christine Ducey
The Right Road: Debra Cheehy
Part Four: Finding Yourself
Coffee with Sam: Michael Raysses
What Mama Said: Thomas Kennedy
The Ride Home: Mike Sackett
Through My Daughter's Eyes: Beverly Tribuiani-Montez
On the Same Ground: Tena Zapantis
More Than Feet and Inches: Ruthie Just Braffman
Saved!: Ted LoRusso
By Any Means Necessary: Ron Rey
Part Five: Survival
A Silent Night in Vietnam: Stephen T. Banko III
Bitter or Better: Judith Grace
Within My Reach: Pius Kamau, M.D.
A Single Word: Janice Ann Nelson
A Serious Case of the L.I.D.s: David Parker
The Poem That Reached Through Time: Diana Michael
Chew Your Water: Terrie McKenna
Nobody Dies Here: Bob Lenox
Doing the Thing You Cannot Do: Carole O'Hare
15 Minutes: Katie Adair
Part Six: Friends & Family
The Well: Charlie Riggs
The Boy at Ground Zero: Paul Keating
That's What Friends Are For: David Sanger
Grandma's Big Secret: Anne Shaw Heinrich
Sassy: Patti Virella
A Hitchhiker's Tale: Robert J. Simmons
Just Enough of Today: Shara Pollie
The Greatest Gift: Stella Pulo
Win-Win: Mauricio Heilbron, Jr., M.D.
Just Getting Started: Cynthia Harris
Part Seven: On the Job
Stacking the Logs: Frank Lunn
Passing the Test: Margery Hauser
Coulda-Woulda-Shoulda: Linda Roth Conte
Wanted: Gor Yaswen
What You Tolerate: Gerry Oguss
Truck No. 15: Bert Goolsby
Love at Work: Ruth B. Spiro
Shirkaholic: John Donohue
Part Eight: Love & Romance
Falling for Charlie: Janet Guillet
Love Song: Laura Neumeyer
Jane Austen Meets the New York Giants: Geralyn Ruane
50-50: Brenda Degner
Grab Him and Kiss Him: Kaye Whillock
The Anniversary Card: Elizabeth Morrissey
You Just Know: Lisa Mercurio
Australian Love Story: Diana Harley
Part Nine: Keeping the Faith
Yelling at God: Carol Kodish-Butt
An Unexpected Prayer: Steve Martinez
Good Enough for Now: Rebecca Marie Barkin
Circles in the Dirt: Jon B. Fish
Coming to America: Herbert Launer
Being Carried: Denise Horbaly
Repairing My World: Tom Yulsman
Part Ten: Essentials
Covering All the Bases: Jay Ratliff
Every Person I Meet: Kathleen Nash
Help!: Jacqueline Sia
One Does What One Can: Kathy Faught
The Chemistry Test: Eric Dodson Greenberg
The Credit Hammer: Archie Harper
The Pride Inside: Stephanie Castillo
Nana After Hours: Lloyd Lederkramer
The Accidental Accordionist: Kay Hickman
A Bird on Your Head: Wanda Thomas
Part Eleven: Letting Go
Growth in the Valley: Richard Cook
My Father's Daughter: Karri Watson
It Went Unspoken: Mark Drought
A Matter of Forgiveness: J.
A Hero's Return: Susan Luzader
Celebrating Jonathan: Amy Jaffe Barzach
The Unthinkable: Terry Naylor
My Sister's Letter: Paul E. Mulryan
Part Twelve: The Bottom Line
Nothin' But a Thing: Dorsey Prince Leonard
The Pentagon, 9/11: April Gallop
Keep It in Your Head: Marne Benedict
The Broken Lamp: Tim O'Driscoll
Surviving Mom: Ann Hite
Waiting for My Real Life to Begin: Maureen Ryan Griffin
Coda: Gregory Fouts
Part Thirteen: A St. Jude Story A Regular Kid: Lindsey Wilkerson