By Pete Clapp
It happened in the winter of 1965. I was 34, living in Detroit, working for the diocese of Michigan as a chaplain at Ford Hospital, had four pre-school kids (each a year apart), and lived precariously from paycheck to paycheck in a rental property a block from the hospital.
Sometime in early January I received a call from an attorney asking me to come to his office on a matter of some importance. It sounded ominous, and I was not eager to respond. In a week or two his office called again and I glumly agreed to an appointment in early February.
So it was that on a grey, cold, slushy Detroit winter day I drove to the David Whitney Building to face some unexpected bad news which I could not imagine. After a wait of some 10 minutes or so I was shown into the office, was greeted warmly, and welcomed to sit. I recall an exchange of pleasantries. Then, with a huge smile, he announced that this was a remarkable thing he had been called upon to do, and would I read a letter he had been given to pass on to me.
In sum, it was an anonymous letter from somebody who was giving me $30,000, and it outlined the parameters of the gift (no strings) and would be given at the beginning of each year as two $3000 checks – one for my wife and one for me – for the next five years. Accompanying the letter were the first two checks.
I read and re-read the letter, while the attorney laughed and made small talk. My first reaction was to inform him that this was obviously a mistake, and the money was really meant for my father, who was a late-vocation, hard-working, inner city priest in downtown Detroit. This made him laugh even more and told me there was no mistake. The letter and the checks were meant for me and my family. I argued that he was wrong and that it couldn’t possibly be for me. More laughter.
At this point, it became a kind of “out-of-body” experience as I watched myself make polite conversation with the attorney, pocket the checks, don my coat, and head out of the building into that grey slush that lined the city streets. Moving through the unreality to my car, driving away from the curb, and heading for home; I was stunned. I would not and could not believe it. Somewhere in traffic I began to think that, if this were really true, I wouldn’t have to pay check charges any more. Where I banked, they required a $96 balance in one’s account to avoid check charges. I’d never been able to do that.
The following Monday morning I walked over to the bank to deposit the checks. I stood in line wondering if anyone could see that I was about to be caught depositing phony checks. No one seemed to notice. No alarms went off. No guard stopped me as I walked out.
Over the next five years it all unfolded as the anonymous letter had explained. That gift forced me, over those years (and since), to change. To accept that gift I was forced to accept my “worth” or “worthiness” as a person. That was something I had never done, and yet, could not become completely human until I could.
Whoever gave that gift somehow knew what they were doing. The money was great and helped us as a family in all sorts of ways. But the real gift was a piece of my being that might never have been realized without it. Since then my life has become solidly grounded in gratitude.
I’ve heard many times that it isn’t the size of the gift, but the thought that counts. Well, maybe.