“I’m in your garage,” is the last text I have from him. I keep reading it over and over. There’s something surreal about an active text thread from someone who is no longer alive. But I keep reading it. And I can hear him say it in my mind.
Greg was in my garage, standing at my office door, waiting to have a meeting with my friend, Tim Akers. Tim is one of the best musicians in the world and heads a band called the Smoking Section …full of several other of the best musicians in the world. Their shows are legendary in Nashville. And A-list artists love to sit in with them.
When you see a Smoking Section show you never know when Michael McDonald or Vince Gill or someone like that is just going to show up. It’s one of the coolest perks of living in this town. Tim just happens to be one of my best friends and I was connecting him with another of my best friends for a very strange meeting.
Greg Murtha lived three doors down from me for several years. And he (along with the rest of the neighborhood) watched us turn an old ranch house (that hadn’t been touched since it was built in 1973) into a custom home for a child with special needs. He didn’t know that’s what we were doing in there. But he was the ONLY neighbor who would constantly stop and comment on our progress.
“Reg, it’s looking great, man!” he yelled from his car one day. And I was a bit taken aback because I wasn’t sure how he knew my name. His son Jackson would come over and ask if my daughter could come out to play, when they were small. There was no easy way to explain to him why she couldn’t. And we always felt for little Jackson. He so wanted to play with her. But through the sheer will of continually knocking on our door, the entire Murtha family became our friends.
When my book came out, Greg insisted on reading it as soon as possible. And after he read it, he insisted on barging further and further into my life …and I’m so thankful he did. We became very close. He told me once why my book impacted him so much. He said, “Reg, I think some of us in the neighborhood used to think you guys were just anti-social people who were over protective of your daughter. After reading your book, I realized that what was ACTUALLY happening in that house was completely the opposite of my perception. You guys were going through hell in there. And I was within walking distance …not knowing it.”
For the next several years, Greg would occasionally order an entire box of books from me and hand them out to people randomly. His big takeaway was that you can be standing (or living) right next to someone and have no idea of what they’re going through. He wanted people to think about that.
If Greg Murtha got a single epiphany from my story, I got MANY from his life. Greg went on to sit on the board of directors of my foundation, Angel Wings. And in every board meeting or planning session, he was the one challenging us to think bigger. He was always asking the important questions. And he was genuinely curious about the answers.
I heard him say on more than one occasion, “when and if we talk to the president about this …” and I would interrupt and say, “the president of what, Greg?” His answer? “The president of the United States. Is this important or not?” That attitude made me re-think pretty much everything I do.
Greg travelled the world and worked for organizations that made a difference in people’s lives. I think we all aggregate our own personalities with the personalities of others. In my own case, I have consciously added a lot of Greg Murtha into my interaction with people. To Greg, no one was unimportant. No one’s story was boring. No moment was insignificant. Everything mattered and every action was a supreme opportunity to show love to someone or to speak it into a situation.
And so …the meeting in my office.
Greg wanted to meet Tim Akers and hire the Smoking Section to play at his memorial service. He told us the story of a funeral he’d recently attended where the deceased had been an amazing woman. She’d connected people all over the world and spoken love into people’s lives. And at the reception, after the service, they were serving Kool Aid and cookies and playing very somber music.
In Greg’s own words, “that really pissed me off.” His thought was that her service should have been a huge celebration of a life well-lived. He couldn’t get his extraordinary mind around allowing a person of that much significance to be laid to rest in such somber tones.
So Greg spent the last few months of his life planning his own memorial celebration. And he said he wanted the “best band in Nashville” to play it. He didn’t want anyone wearing black or having to endure “horrible organ music” (again …his words). He wanted a lot of people who didn’t know each other, to show up and meet and drink great wine, eat great food, and dance to great grooves.
We sat in my office and made the plans. And as awkward as it started (for US …it was NEVER awkward for Greg), it ended with smiles and hugs. And after he left, Tim and I talked about what a great idea it was to have this kind of a celebration.
Greg fought through 75 rounds of chemo until his body was simply unable to walk another step. And when my wife kissed him on the head to say goodbye, last night, he was still trying to open his eyes and tell us all something. We left the hospital …and Greg was gone two hours later.
I’ve cried a lot. I’m sure I will cry more. But what I learned from Greg outweighs the sadness. Every time I hear someone say something about their life that they think is a minor detail, I say, “tell me more about that.” I learned that from Greg. I wouldn’t have come up with that on my own. When I hear and see people writhing in anger over religion or politics or something they perceive to be injustice, I try to take a step back and ask more questions, instead of meeting them head on with more anger. God knows I learned that from Greg …and I’m still learning it.
I’m learning that the best life is one of service …NOT ambition and self-focus. And I learned a lot of that from Greg as well.
I don’t know how Greg knew all of this life wisdom at such a young age. But he will be indelibly marked in my heart and on my life. His easy smile and eagerness to serve people is something I will miss. But his inability to end a conversation without telling “just ONE more story, and I’ll let you go” is what I will miss the most. Whenever I hear someone say “last but not least,” I’ll think of Greg …and smile.
People from all over the world, from all walks of life, will be at Greg’s memorial celebration. And I don’t know exactly where he’ll be. Some people hope the loved one is looking down. I tend to hope they have moved on to something so dazzling they wouldn’t WANT to look down.
Either way, Greg, at YOUR celebration …there will be NO Kool Aid and cookies.