My grandmother, Denise, or “Deed” as she liked to be called, was an amazing storyteller and a master of leaning in. She was the writer of her own narrative and the author of her own story, right up until the very end. She had an indomitable spirit and absolutely loved life. As I look back on my career (and forward to my future), it’s no question that my success is largely due to her mentorship and her total devotion to the art of learning.
When Deed was a young woman she contracted polio. She was bedridden for the better part of a year and lost the use of her right leg, essentially handicapped by the virus. She was raising my young father on her own, so it felt like an impossible situation. Her family rallied around her. Slowly but surely, Deed learned to not only deal, but to thrive with her disability. People thought she was crazy when she wanted to start her own business, but she was doggedly determined. She literally had to leverage her house for collateral to get the business loan she needed; she was a woman with serious moxie! She went on to run a highly successful answering service as one of the first women entrepreneurs in the city of Revere, Massachusetts.
I truly believe polio was a gift to my grandmother. It crystallized her beliefs and made her strong and resilient, but it also forced her to slow down and become contemplative. She never complained about her condition, not once. Meanwhile, I found that my visits to her lake house were filled with my self-absorbed negativity. I sulked. I moaned. I cried “why me” and played the victim when things weren’t going my way. When I would launch into one of my complaining fits, frustrated by the direction of my career, Deed would turn to me and say, “Are you done yet? Are you working in a factory, Adam?” And then she’d counsel me on my next move.
Though far removed from Hollywood, (she lived on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire), Deed seemed to intuitively know answers to questions that seemed to baffle me. She was my trusted mentor. With each visit, she would lay seedlings to help me better myself; expand my mind and go after bigger dreams. “Never stop learning,” she’d say, “never stop reaching.” Do the right thing. Love. Forgive. Read. Exercise. Have balance. Be kind to people. Encourage them to be better. She once told me I was her “flower” and that my mind needed to be “nurtured, watered and loved so that I might grow.”
And grow I did. I became confident, more driven and focused on what I wanted to achieve. Each step of the way, Deed was there to cheer me on (or to tell me I was getting a little too full of myself). The more I leaned back out of fear, the more she challenged me to lean in to the possibilities.
Within a month of selling my first screenplay, Deed passed away. She is on my mind daily. Now, whenever I deal with career issues that scare me, I invoke her calming influence. I also remind myself of her greatest piece of advice: “Stop spinning your wheels looking for answers. Take a seat. Put a leg up and breathe, it will all work out.”