Endings: An Origin Story

On Thanksgiving morning of 1989, my functional-yet-split childhood household was presumably like most others for kids my age living in similar arrangements. I recall being quite happy to be on Thanksgiving break, but also somewhat dreading the drive to my grandmother’s for a day in uncomfortable, ill-fitting church clothes, and faking tolerance of unfamiliar, supposedly beloved family recipes. But where others who are my age today (no need to get into specifics) might not be able to recall too many other details from a Thanksgiving that long ago, I, regretfully, can.

I remember looking angrily at the clothes on my bed, almost cursing at them, as if they themselves had campaigned to my mother that they were the best choice for that particular day. I remember the phone ringing, and then my stepfather telling me to go see my mom in the bedroom. I remember asking, “What for?” like a total brat, and him then uncharacteristically angrily demanding that I go see her immediately.

And, then I remember being told that my dad was dead.

My dad, Steven Robert Wurst, born on February 19th, 1952, had a heart attack in his sleep during the pre-dawn hours of November 23rd, 1989. Five days before my 12th birthday.

The period of time between Thanksgiving Day and the date of my dad’s visitation was a complete blur. But the visitation still stands out today in strikingly vivid detail. 11 to 12-year-olds, contrary to their own beliefs, don’t actually know all that many people. My dad, at the age of 37, apparently knew everyone. I remember the visitation room being absolutely packed all night, and when I had to use the bathroom, I found the hallway just as crowded with folks waiting their turn to pay their respects.

I was so confused by the size of the crowd and how it seemed more appropriate for someone of a much larger status in life than I associated with my father. He was a collections agent at what always felt, to me, like a decaying office building when I visited. He drove an equally decaying, unassuming, old, grey Buick. He owned a tiny two-bedroom condo in Tucker, GA, a small uninteresting Atlanta suburb. He swam and played tennis not at a country club, but at his tiny neighborhood facilities, and he was the only person I’ve ever known to drink milk on ice, which the thought of still grosses me out to this day.

On the 4-ish days a month that I spent with him, it was usually just the two of us, unless there was some sort of family gathering for us to attend at his mother’s, my grandmother’s house. It was there that I would witness a far more captivating presence within him. I was always captivated by him, but that’s because I didn’t see him much, and loved him dearly. But at my grandmother’s, ground zero for any and all family functions, he would almost float on air amidst the inappropriate, vulgar, and mesmerizing chaos of 1980’s-era raucous family parties. I, always the lone child in attendance, would sit back in awe of the hullaballoo of cigarettes, cocktails, playing cards, and poker chips all continuously rising from, and then striking, the massive dining room table for hours on end.

I can remember my father holding court at these parties, telling the most animated stories amidst great clouds of smoke and an endless chorus of rocks glasses being emptied and quickly refilled. Great guffaws of laughter from the men in the crowd, sheiks of delight from the women, and a concerning, but oh-so-familiar raspy laugh from his mother followed every masterful closing line. I rarely understood these stories, outside of a guaranteed scaffolding of foul language, nor why they were so funny. But the house’s uproarious responses, and an occasional wink thrown my way from my father, always made it clear to me that these were true performances, and that he knew the response that would come at each of their conclusions.

My father is the only person I can recall ever being asked to get up and tell stories at these gatherings, and I can also recall many of them being the same stories as he’d told in previous gatherings. It didn’t matter. The family wanted to hear them again, and wanted to feel the way those stories always left them feeling.

On the night of the visitation, I would occasionally lean to the side to see if and when the line of acquaintances would ever end. For hours, I shook what felt like a thousand men’s hands and hugged what felt like a thousand women’s chests. These strangers, with tears in their eyes, and before making me promise to let them know if I ever needed anything (How would I do that? Who are you people?), would say some variation of:

“Your father was an amazing storyteller.”

Those two things are really all I remember anyone saying that evening. An offer to help, that I knew I would never take them up on, and a reminder that the best storyteller that they’d ever known was no more. I grew weary of hearing this over and over, and I found myself struggling more and more as the night wore on to respond with any politeness whatsoever. I’d said, “Thank you, really,” so many times, until it dawned on me that I wasn’t thankful at all, for any of this. It was like a switch flipped, and I suddenly realized how unfair all of this was. The last thing that I wanted to hear was how much anyone else was going to miss him. It wouldn’t be anywhere near how much I would miss him, and the never-ending line of friends and admirers were, unbeknownst to them, only painfully driving that point home deeper.

The night after his funeral, shortly after I’d gone to bed, I laid there looking at the ceiling, still in complete disbelief that he was gone. And then, there was a quick knock at the door. It opened, someone quickly rushed in, and then shut the door behind them.

It was my father.

I shot up, frozen, and convulsing in fear.

“Hey, buddy. I know, I know. This has to be really hard. I only have a second, so I need to let you know, I’m being made a star, okay? You’re gonna – “

“Wait! What are you talking about? Why are you here? How are you – “

“You have to listen. I know it’s hard, and I’m so sorry, but I only have a second. I’m okay. Okay? I’m okay, and you’re going to be okay, too, alright? I have to go, but I’m going to be a star, and you’re ALWAYS going to be able to find me in the sky, anytime you need me, alright? Do you understand?”

“I don’t understand at all! A star? What do you mean? How do you know? What if I — “

“Buddy, I have to go. You’re going to be okay! I promise. I love you so much, you’re always going to be able to find me, okay?”

Then he was gone. And, as should be expected, I began to scream my head off. It was hopefully the loudest that I, or anyone else for their sake, will ever scream. My mom came rushing into the room, and I tried to explain through continued screaming what had just transpired.

Years would pass, and I’d thankfully manage to not scream myself to sleep every night after that fateful evening. I’m truly blessed to be able to look into the sky on any night that the stars are even remotely visible, and quickly find my father. He’s right there, just below the left-most star in Orion’s belt. There have been hundreds of nights spanning the decades he’s been gone that I’ve walked outside and immediately felt him looking at me, long before I can see him careening across the heavens above.

I eventually moved away from my birthplace of Decatur, GA. Once during a return trip, nearly 20 years after my father’s death, I stopped in Golden Buddha, an Atlanta institution, to pick up dinner for my family. As I waited, I was startled to hear a voice much older than my own, questioningly call my name from behind me.

“Oh, my goodness. Noel?”

(Turning around, hesitatingly) “Yes?”

“I’m Tom. I was a good friend of your d—“

“I know.”

“Wow. I can’t believe this. How have you been?”

“Umm…good? I’ve got kids, and, yeah, good, I guess. You?”

“I’ve been good! Sure miss your dad, though. We all do. We always have.”

(Seriously fighting back just bursting into a complete mess) “Yeah. Me, too.”

Tom then, thankfully, changed the subject and talked about his son, Jeff, who I’d known well at a younger age, but had completely lost touch with. At some point, I can’t remember what prompted it, I found myself telling a story about who knows what. But, as I told it, I could look at Tom, see him smiling sincerely, but also tell that he wasn’t entirely concentrated on whatever I was saying. The moment I finished this far from memorable story, Tom chuckled, shook his head, and said:

“It’s like I’m standing here listening to Steve.”

(Silence from me)

“Do you know that your dad was the greatest storyteller that any of us ever knew? Hell, that anyone ever knew?”

“Um…I think I remember you and some other friends of his telling me that.”

“Some? I doubt it. I bet everyone told you that.”

“Maybe. I, umm…I don’t really remem-“

“Your dad was so special. I know you know that. And that you don’t need me or anyone else to confirm that. But, if you were ever in the room with him, and he started telling a story, you listened. Do you know what I mean? You had to have been around for some of those.”

“Yeah, I mean. I think I probably saw him do that from time to time.”

“Nothing made him happier than just holding a room completely captivated. I’m not kidding! While you were just talking, it was like I was standing here right in front of him again. God, I miss him so much. He loved YOU so much, I hope you know th—”

“Yeah, I can’t really talk about it, and I kinda need to go.”

“Yeah, me, too. I’m so glad to hear that you’re doing so well. I know he’s so proud of you. I hope you know th—”

“I do. I’ll tell my mom I ran into you. Tell Jeff I said ‘Hi.’ I gotta run.”

I started this story on February 17th, 2022, two days before my father would’ve turned 70 years old. In my mind, I had what I believed was a pretty solid beginning, some accompanying backstory/prequel-like material to provide some context, and was searching for a knockout-punch closing for when it was time to wrap everything up into a nice, neat bow. Those closings have become a bit of a signature move for me in my own storytelling, and I often find it impossible to not end each of my stories with one. My father did the same.

I’ve spent years hating the way my father’s story ended and have come up with all sorts of ways to blame him for ending it when he did. I’ve wasted just as many years trying to guarantee a different ending for myself, a better ending, one that wouldn’t traumatize my children the way the ending to my father’s story has tormented me.

Last night, after growing so angry at being unable to weave in a fitting ending to this story, I was called outside, where God then drew my eyes toward that left side of Orion’s belt, and asked,

“How could you possibly believe that THIS was the ending to his?”

Thanking a Storyteller: It’s not easy

I recently had the pleasure of delivering a one-hour keynote speech at SmartBear’s 2022 Go-to-Market Kickoff, and…it went really well! That is, outside of the migraine and near panic attack I suffered through immediately after it was over. While I’ve given what feels like a million 30-minute presentations and co-presented one-hour talks, this was my first one flying solo. Just me, and my story, and slides. When it was all said and done, before I even got off the stage, and after 100+ hours of preparation spread across three months, there was a sudden, jarring adrenaline dump. My brain just went into safe mode and basically told my vision, emotions, and overall sanity, “Yeah, ya done,” sending me dashing up to my hotel room for some dark silence I was in much more need of than a catered lunch.

When I returned to the event about an hour and a half later, and in far better shape, I was thankful for, and ego-boosted by, a number of very generous “Great job!” and “That was excellent!” sentiments from my awesome coworkers. But then came two other types of praise. One was probably given a dozen times, and don’t get me wrong! I know, especially based on the quality of the people who were giving it, that it was fully intended on being a compliment! It just…well, it’s complicated.

The other was expressed to me by a single person and left me feeling far more proud, appreciated, and seen than all the others combined.

A completely fine thing to say

Any variation of “Great job,” “That was excellent,” or “I really enjoyed that.” These are very nice things to say to a storyteller! (Or presenter, host, moderator, panelist, interviewer, etc.) I think I can safely speak for most storytellers in that when we’re in the process of telling a story, sometimes we can gauge the audience’s reactions and level of enjoyment, but sometimes we can’t. Maybe the lights are in our eyes and the audience is darkly lit. Maybe it’s on Zoom and people’s cameras are off, or their camera is at a poor angle or mounted to another monitor aimed at the side of their face. Maybe we’re pacing a stage, looking down at our feet to make sure we don’t step off the stage or trip on a cord. Maybe it’s the first talk of the day and everyone is half-awake, or maybe it’s the last talk of the day, and the audience is, again, half-awake.

We, as storytellers, for the most part, tell stories because we love doing it, but knowing that you love when we do it, too, is often a great motivator for us to keep wanting to tell more. Letting us know after the fact that you enjoyed a story/presentation/webinar (psst, they’re ALL stories) is a very nice thing to do, even if you think a million other people might’ve already told us that, go ahead and let us know, too. For all you know, your opinion might be the one we’re going to be the most excited to receive. 🙂

A…not as fine thing to say

I’m not going to try to speak for all, or even a majority, of the storytellers in the world because I’ve done zero research to confirm who else feels this way. But, there’s one expression of presumed praise (I know these people mean well!) that I, personally, “literally cannot” with. The dreaded “You make it look so easy!”

Storytelling—and I’m talking about the really good, left you shook, opened your mind, changed your mind, blew your mind, stories that made you feel like personally thanking the storyteller for their time—is anything but easy. It is 0% less of an art form, craft, or lifelong pursuit than any other skill or talent on the planet. I promise you. The world’s best stories, whether authored by anyone from Toni Morrison to David Sedaris, or presented on stage at a tech conference or Broadway, or shown in dazzling HD colors from Activision to Disney (Encanto FTW!), all of them went through countless combinations of drafts, copyedits, rewrites, dry runs, rehearsals, test screenings, table reads, beta tests, chopping blocks, and cutting room floors.

On top of that, for some, and no matter how much they enjoy doing it, nor how many years they’ve been doing it, storytelling can be exhausting. Mentally and physically.

If, the next time you’re watching a story be told, and you truly are sitting there thinking, “They make this look so easy!” and you find yourself reeeaally wanting to say that to the person afterward, would you be willing to try out the suggestion below?

A wonderful thing to say

Whether you’re able to speak to a storyteller in person after their speech, or presentation, or performance, or you’re shooting them a quick note on Slack, or social media, at least think about being one of the few who will also say something like, “That had to have been a ton of work,” or, “You clearly spent a lot of time creating that.” I think you might even be able to get away with “You make it look so easy!” if you immediately follow it up with “…but I know that’s because of how much work you put into it.”

I’m in no way a student or scholar of human behavior or sociological wiring. But, doesn’t it feel like it’s almost second nature for us to, unintentionally, write off or discount other people’s impressive feats and accomplishments by attaching that “they make it look so easy,” label to them? We do this or hear this being done to athletes all the time. Describing Steph Curry’s jump shot as “effortless,” when we know that he’s been training his whole life to be as good as he is and that he continues to train to get even better! Or when an announcer says, “It’s like she’s just having fun out there!” about Chloe Kim as she dominates yet another snowboard run. She probably is having fun. How many globally recognized, generational athletes hate their sport(s)? But, to convey that they’re “just” having fun, and not, you know, also at work, work that includes things like “not dying in a horrific accident,” all while being watched and judged by millions across the world, is disingenuous and completely dismissive of the time and effort you know they’ve put in and which are worthy of recognition.

I love telling great stories, it’s in my blood (more on that in the next blog!), but I love the work that goes into them just as much. One truly doesn’t happen without the other, and that’s thanks to you, and every other audience I’ve ever had. The next time you watch and/or hear a great story and you get the chance to speak with or write to the presenter afterward, remember that they didn’t just give you the time they held the mic, faced the camera, or walked the stage. They felt like you were worth a lot more of their time than that one moment that the two of you and their story spent together.