Last weekend I was invited (FORCED) out of my comfort zone to talk about myself and my upcoming book in front of a small group of extremely smart and accomplished friends. When I say smart and accomplished, I mean like biochemists, tech innovators and industry leaders...
The best-selling novel Unbroken tells the true story of an inspirational man, Louis Zamperini, who persevered through unbelievable hardship and forgave every mistreatment he suffered.When the invitation came inviting me to hear him speak, it went into my calendar in pen. I wouldn't miss it.
It was a private engagement at a house in Portola Valley, California. We were about fifty guests for an educational afternoon and everyone was abuzz with excitement for the exclusive presentation ahead of us. Upon arrival, our hosts gathered the guests to explain what was ahead for us. It was important to understand that Mr. Zamperini usually sat in a private room prior to an engagement to save his energy. He was 96 years old and this was to be one of his last private appearances. Most of his time in the coming years was to be devoted to his upcoming movie, directed by Angelina Jolie. But today, he chose not to sit alone before his talk. He decided he wanted to sit outside on the patio in the sunshine, enjoying the beautiful day. We were about to enter the patio for refreshments so it was requested that while it was fine to talk to him, try to speak one at a time and not swarm him.
By the time I walked out to the patio, there was just one guest sitting with him on a large couch. It was quite a warm day so I thought I would say hello and offer to get Mr. Zamperini something to drink. As I sat down next to him, another man leaned in quickly with a bit of a protective stance and introduced himself, "Hi, I am Luke Zamperini, Louis’ son." I stood back up to greet him and in a subtext possibly only apparent to me, I wanted to rest his mind that I would treat his father with the upmost of respect. Luke and I had a nice conversation about where they lived (Hollywood Hills) and their drive up that day and other pleasantries until he felt I was properly vetted to speak with Louis. Luke was a kind and gentle man who clearly adored his father.
The other guest talking to Louis got up to leave and gestured to me, suggesting I sit down for a chat. I sat down, said hello, and asked Louis if he would like something to drink. He said with a big smile, "I thought we would have a photo taken. I smiled back and said I thought that would be very nice. He replied ,"I have this knee and this knee,” gesturing to his left and right. I laughed and moved in next to him. Seeing that my weight probably doubled his, I chose to ignore the knee suggestion. Then he whispered, “But you can't tell Angelina Jolie because she would be jealous." I laughed again, put my arm around this adorable flirtatious man and photos were taken. Hubby rushed over, seeing me sitting with my arm around Louis, and said he needed a photo of this too. I introduced Louis to Hubby and without missing a beat, Louis grinned mischievously and said, “Well...if that is your husband.... “ and he scooted even closer, put his arm around me and whispered, “I hope he doesn't have a temper!” He just couldn't get any cuter.
Feeling my time was up, I proceeded to thank him and moved to leave. He leaned towards me and asked how many people were in attendance that day. When I told him, he said that usually there were at least hundreds. He spoke very quietly and when I leaned back in to hear him, he began to tell me stories. He talked about his upcoming movie, Angelina whom he loved, Brad whom he wasn't so sure about, and his son Luke whom he was so appreciative to have with him that beautiful day in Northern California. Fifteen minutes later, he hadn't stopped talking and I hadn't asked a single question. He was quite the charmer.
He was also an amazing story teller who had me laughing from the first moment I sat down. We were finally politely interrupted by the meeting organizer and I was told that I had to let Mr. Zamperini rest. I hadn't meant to keep him talking so long. I just couldn't walk away mid-sentence from my unbelievably charming 96-year-old companion! I told him he was going to be speaking soon so I had to go get seated and I gently slipped away before he could say another word.
Thankfully, I had not worn him out. His on stage performance was captivating. And as I had experienced first hand, he had no trouble telling a story. Forty-five minutes passed without him stopping for a breath. He told stories about events of over sixty years prior with exquisite detail, finesse and humor. He talked of forgiveness, faith and perseverance. He spoke of love and victory, illness and despair, and his kidney cure of drinking red wine every day. He spoke without notes, without a plan and without need for prompting. He spoke from his memory and his heart. It truly seemed as if he could talk all night and never run out of things to say.
Storytelling was an integral part of Louis’ survival. Storytelling kept he and his companions sane during the darkest of times. When they were starving on a raft adrift in the ocean for 47 days, Louis "made breakfast, lunch and dinner" by leading the men detail by detail through his mothers Italian recipes, describing each ingredient and each step and finally, how it all tasted. He said the men got a bit greedy and soon they were asking for brunch as well!
Luke Zamperini also spoke. He spoke of what it was like to have Louis as a father, to have a hero as a father. For Louis wasn’t just a figurative hero, he was actually featured in a comic book series. Luke would show his friends the comic books featuring his dad and be so proud that his father was not only a hero but a superhero! But, for all the fame and fortune his Dad received over the years, the most important thing to Luke was that his dad took the time to be his dad. That was really all that ever mattered.
Louis Zamperini passed away on July 2, 2014 at age 97. I thought about Luke that day. I thought about the devotion and love he had for his father. I thought about Louis and the gifts he gave not just to his family, but to the world. His story of perseverance inspired so many others during his lifetime and his movie, the movie he spoke of when I met him that day, comes out this December 25th and will carry his inspiration forward to generations more.
It was an honor and privilege to meet Louis Zamperini and his son Luke. They sparked something in my soul that will not be soon forgotten. They were a living example that no matter what you accomplish in life, being part of a family that supports one another, any type of family that you choose, is the biggest accomplishment of all. And if you happen to find yourself in an unthinkable situation, that family and the stories and recipes you learn from them, may just save your life.
“The world, we'd discovered, doesn't love you like your family loves you.” -Louis Zamperini
Louis Zamperini's Life-Saving Recipe (by Cynthia Spivey)
Louis' Thoughtful Ingredients: “All I knew was that hate was so deadly as any poison and did no one any good. You had to control and eliminate it, if you could.” “I think the hardest thing in life is to forgive. Hate is self destructive. If you hate somebody, you're not hurting the person you hate, you're hurting yourself." "When you forgive, it's like it never happened. True forgiveness is complete and total.” “God knew my needs and took care accordingly.” “I was raised to face any challenge.”
Preparation: Absorb the above list of Louis' thoughts. Mix Louis' ideas with your own beliefs. Set aside for the time you need to allow the concepts to mingle. Fold in a few emotions and stray feelings. Top with copious amounts of forgiveness and then try to live each day with your beliefs and intentions etched in your mind.