IT’S ALL ABOUT the dash. That’s what my Uncle Erwin used to say. He heard about the dash while attending a funeral on one of those stifling summer days in my hometown of Dallas. A preacher in a colorful robe stood beside the pulpit in an old black church in South Dallas, gazed upon the casket, and honored the dead man within. Men wiped their brows with wrinkled handkerchiefs and women fanned themselves as everyone praised the Lord. The preacher led the gathering in prayer, and the choir sang out. And there was my uncle, a Jewish man up in his years who always cherished gospel music, and on that day, Uncle Erwin was with real gospel and surrounded by a strong black community mourning one of their own, an employee my uncle had come to rely upon.
As anyone in town can attest, Uncle Erwin on most days had a joke to tell, a bet on a game, a political story to relate, or all three. In many ways, and not just physically, he was larger than life and reminded me of Jackie Gleason’s character in The Honeymooners, only far more polished and successful. When my uncle arrived at his office every morning, my cousins like to recall that that was when the great debate began almost immediately—the debate about where they would go to lunch. Uncle Erwin knew how to enjoy life, sometimes to the hilt. He was not always perfect, mind you, but he meant well and did his best, trying not to focus on mistakes or disappointments that eat most of our souls as we age. No doubt, as he might say, he had a great ride.
So there he was one afternoon in a church, attending a funeral for an employee, and the preacher gave what Uncle Erwin described as a eulogy for the ages. My uncle’s exact words.
Each of us, the preacher called out, has on our tombstone a date of birth and a date of death. We celebrate our birthdays all our lives and never know when death will come—though death always comes. The preacher wanted those gathered not to focus on the date of birth or death, but rather on the dash between. The dash that represented a life—full of hope, achievement, joy, heartache, and recovery. It is all about the dash, he said, while everyone in the church called back an “Amen.” What the preacher said stayed with my uncle long after the service. Sometimes, with family and close friends, my uncle discussed the dash and what we’re all doing with it.
A few years later, at a packed funeral for Uncle Erwin, grown men fought back tears, to no avail. His dear friend Ben gave the eulogy, in which he spoke of the preacher and the dash. Ben said that no one made that dash more delightful, more memorable, than Erwin Schwartz. He said that Uncle Erwin would want us to remember that it’s all about the dash, what we do while we are here, to make the most of our time.
For some, life is long, but they never reach out to others. For others, a giving soul’s death touches so many in the community that it gives every- one pause. Almost sixteen when she died in a concentration camp at the end of World War II, Anne Frank continues to touch millions with her diary. Her dash, though short, is immense.
My father died a year after Uncle Erwin. Now and then, especially when something remarkable or horrible or humorous happens, which is basically every day, I find myself thinking about my dad and my uncle and other loved ones—our lives together and the dash. All of it is connected—those who influenced our lives, showed us the way with their courage, and instilled in each of us an ability to live with courage.
And so it is all about the dash.
ONCE IN A while, driving through a neighborhood can be life altering. Life is like that. You miss a train and then while waiting for the next one, you meet someone who inspires your life. It’s the little, unplanned moments that seem fleeting at first, but looking back, those are the moments that stand out for their impact and make us grateful. But first, we must be open to that moment in time.
Such was the case for Karin Walser when one day, as she recalled, “I was commuting from Baltimore to D.C., and I stopped to get gas at a really cheap gas station. It was eighty-nine cents a gallon! That was a while ago!” she joked.
“And I met some children who were trying to pump gas for money. I was interested in what could compel a child to cross four or six lanes of traffic at 10:30 at night. The children said they lived at the Capital City Inn, which was the city’s largest homeless shelter. It’s been torn down since then. So that’s how I first met them.”
She wasn’t scared but she admitted, “Looking back on it, I should have been. But I wasn’t. I said to the kids, ‘What’s it like living there?’ And they said, ‘It’s boring.’ So I asked them if they wanted to go to the zoo. And they said, ‘Yes!’ So days later, I went back and picked them up to go to the zoo. Of course, when I went there, there were thousands of them swarming all over my car, begging to be able to go. I stuffed as many as I could into my car and ever since then, I’ve been trying to get my friends and other people to go with me so that we don’t leave anybody behind.”