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A Letter to Zachary

Helping the world one person at a time.

Alex Azabache from Pexels
Source: Alex Azabache from Pexels

I was on the road with the Olympic Torch Relay from New York City to Boston for the first three days after Christmas in 2001. After a long day of traveling, we arrived at the celebration site in Providence, RI. We were greeted by a very sweet elderly woman named Molly. Molly had an extremely thick Irish accent. She hugged us and told us how special it was to have the torch in her hometown. I asked why she was volunteering, in such extremely cold weather, and at age 83. She explained that her 9-year-old grandson Zachary was signed up to volunteer, but he was sick in the hospital so she was filling in for him. Zak had lymphoma. She told us that the Olympics meant everything to him.

I asked Molly if she would like to get a photograph on-stage with the Torch. Instantly she began to cry. She said that it would mean the world to Zak if she could bring him a photograph like that. We took several pictures, and I gave Molly an Olympic Torch Relay pin to give to Zak.

A week later, back in Salt Lake City, I received copies of the photos with a lovely note of thanks from Molly. As I read it, I could hear her saying, “it warms my heart,” which she had repeated to us many times in that beautiful accent that reminded me so much of my own grandmother.

On the day of Opening Ceremonies, I was obviously very busy. I was literally in my office for just three to four minutes to grab some notes. As I was running out, the phone rang and I quickly answered it in a scurried rush. It was Molly. The timing was truly unbelievable. Very slowly, through her accent, she told me that Zachary had died that morning. He died holding the pin I had given him. His last words were, “I’m going to the Olympics.”

Molly asked that I please pray for Zak’s soul when the flame ignited that night in the Olympic cauldron. He would be rising to the heavens with the torch, the boldest symbol of world peace and unity. It would be his proudest way to say goodbye.

“It would warm my heart, Darlin’,” Molly cried.

Then she said something that changed my life forever: “Please always remember, Bill, that life is not about the millions of people who are watching the Olympics tonight. Life is about one person helping one person at a time.”

I will never forget Molly or the lesson she taught me so loudly. Our greatest accomplishments, including even the Olympics, are not about how many people we reach. Life is about reaching just one person.

At the moment when the cauldron was lit that night, my heart was so swollen, I could hardly breathe. I looked up at the fireworks and said, “This will be the greatest moment of my life.” Still to this day, when someone asks me about my greatest moment, I cry. And I say a prayer for Zachary.

I never imagined that five years later, I would also be diagnosed with Stage IV lymphoma. Through my many rounds of chemotherapy, I often prayed to Zachary. I never knew him, but his existence changed my life. Molly thought that I changed him, but it was fiercely the opposite direction. He was there with me, holding the Olympic pin. He had a very short life, but it had a profound purpose.

I don’t tell this story to praise anything that I did. I simply gave away a little pin. But it had such a profound effect. We never know when we might touch someone. It might be a simple act, but it might change a life: our own.

Because of Molly’s lesson, and my own experience surviving cancer, I transitioned from the world of large events to sitting in a small room as a therapist . . . so that I can help one person at a time.