In early December I was contacted by a great PR firm and they were inquiring if I had a really special and interesting personal story to share for a NEWSWEEK column. My first reaction was Newsweek, that’s really cool. My second reaction was, I’m pretty boring so I need a few days. I went home that night and asked my wife and kids if they could think of any story I had ever told them and I also asked a few friends. And BOOM, I thought of an event that happened a few years earlier when I met someone in front of my house that I thought was a STALKER. I wrote the story, submitted it and it got published.
I want to share this pretty cool story with you, not because it is a cool story. I want to share this with you as a special LEADERSHIP LESSON – in life, you never know who is watching and how much you mean to that other person. This was unusual for two reasons. First, I live on a quiet street in Boston, so cars don’t go by all that often. Second, I just had a gut feeling—something about it stood out to me. There was no reason for me to think—at least initially—that it was anything more than someone a little lost and searching for their destination. And, even if it was something more sinister, I had no reason to think that I was the target of whoever was in that car.
One day, after getting into my own vehicle in preparation to leave the house, I saw the same car out of the corner of my eye once again. There was no doubt this time that it was slowing down as it got nearer to my property. In fact, it stopped right in front of my driveway.
My thoughts raced, wondering who this could be. On the one hand, what criminal would approach me so brazenly? On the other hand, what legitimate business could involve casing my house for weeks? I felt my heart beat faster than normal, waiting for what would happen next, but nothing did. Our two cars were parked perpendicular to one another, and seconds—that seemed like minutes—passed with us in a sort of vehicular standoff.
Finally, I thought to myself, “Brendan, you’ve made a career around the idea of being fearless. Now go see what this person wants.” So I did. And I thought I was as prepared as I could be for whatever was waiting for me. I was wrong.
The window rolled down as I approached the stranger’s car. Inside, I could see a man, older than me, with a white beard—a great one, I might add. I nodded and smiled as I moved closer, but he just stared back.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked.
I didn’t, of course, and it seemed like quite a strange question. I felt less nervous now but just as confused, still without a clue about what kind of situation I had suddenly found myself in. I decided to try to cut through the tension by responding with humor.
“Santa?” I said. “You’d be a bit late, if so.”
The man chuckled.
“Nope,” he said, “I’m Pete Cadwell.”
I repeated his name out loud, stalling for time in case some long-buried memory was trying to claw its way up for air. It did sound familiar, but I couldn’t seem to place why.
“Yep,” he replied. “I saved your life when you were born.”
My birth date is July 30, 1969. The only problem with that was that my mother’s due date was in October. Nonetheless, weighing in at under two pounds, and a full two months ahead of schedule, I came into the world.
Even with nurses at my bassinet around the clock and doctors massaging my heart to keep it beating, I wasn’t expected to make it. Which is why, on the day of my birth, I was also baptized, confirmed, and given my last rites. Part of the reason had to do with my mother and I sharing a relatively rare Rh negative blood type—I needed a lot of it, but there wasn’t much available.
My parents were never going to give up, though, and a radio and television campaign was quickly undertaken in the hope of finding willing donors. Miraculously, it did—seven of them, up and down the East coast. One of them was none other than Pete Cadwell. All of this came rushing back to me on hearing Pete’s words.
“Oh my God, Pete,” I said, “You were one of my donors!”
He nodded. I felt overwhelmed. I still didn’t know why Pete was in my driveway or had chosen now for us to meet, but those things weren’t in my mind, just the realization that I was staring at one the people to whom I literally owed my life. In some jumble of emotional, mixed-up words, I must have managed to ask him what he was doing there.
“You know, Brendan,” he said, “I’ve been driving past your house for about five years now.”
I asked him where he lived, now wondering how I could have only noticed in the last few weeks, and his answer—that his home was just down the street—floored me. I recall wondering why Pete had never come by before, and he explained that he’d never felt the need, but that he’d seen me playing with my kids and he knew all about my career. He told me that he’d kept track of me while I was growing up and kept an eye on what was happening in my life.
In any other circumstance, I’m sure I would’ve been at least a little creeped out. But for some reason I wasn’t. Instead, I was stuck processing how someone could know so much about me, when I knew nothing about them, and what it must have meant for Pete to be watching me all these years. I was speechless, actually, but once again Pete saved me.
“Something about today,” he said, “I just really wanted to stop and talk to you.”
So, we talked. We took a selfie together—something I’m not prone to do usually—and I made it clear he was welcome back anytime.
Much more recently, I recognized Pete’s wife as we passed one another on the street where we all lived. Pete never did come back around so I flagged her down and asked her how he was doing and whether they would like to come by.
Sadly, she shared with me that Pete had died just one month after stopping at my house to introduce himself—on Valentine’s Day 2018.
I’ve gotten a lot of breaks in life. I always try to repay them, or pay it forward. I try to be positive, grateful, and fearless, because the way I see it, I’ve already won just by being here, given the awful odds I started out with.
But Pete gave me another reason to be those things—to be as impactful as I can in the best ways. Because of Pete, I’ll never forget that the real reason to always strive to be your best self is that you never know who’s watching—or how much it might mean to them.