A Letter to Jon Acuff

Dear Jon:

Chapter 8 of your book Finish saved all 24 chapters of mine, and helped my first love’s dream come true.

Rewind to September 21, 2017. The first copy of my self-published first book, Heroes, Villains, and Drunk Old Men: A Love Story for Real Life, has just arrived via UPS from the publisher. I eviscerate the cardboard shipping box, eager to lift its contents over my head in victory. I feel invincible. “Circle of Life” swells in victorious crescendo in my mind. I am the Lion King. This book is Simba. My living room is Pride Rock. I am making too many Disney movie references.

Then I actually look at, and into, the book…and despise it. Every bit of it. The interior layout, the quality of the photos I’d included, the 48,491 words squeezed between the god-awful front cover I’d designed and the flaccid back cover copy I’d written – all of it is horrible. Never mind the countless online proofs I’d reviewed and approved over the last several months. Never mind the excitement and anticipation of this moment. Now that I hold the final product, I conjure an endless inventory of all the ways my work has fallen short, the fear of imperfection made manifest.

I crush the cover in my fist and fling the book across the room. I never want to see it again. I hate what I’ve created. I’m embarrassed to think I could be an author or an artist. I’m ashamed of the years I’ve wasted on this fool’s errand. I cancel the distribution agreement with the publisher and sever all ties with them in a brusque two-sentence email. I spend the next few days mourning the book, wrapping myself in the thin comfort of self-pity, and convincing myself that Heroes, Villains, and Drunk Old Men was better off as a dream.

But that’s when I re-read what you wrote in chapter 8, Jon, about the day before done. And you were right. I was giving up in sight of the finish line. I was letting all three final fears of perfection grind my confidence to powder. I was convincing myself I only deserved the pain of not finishing, instead of the satisfaction of done.

So I get to work. I drag myself through two consecutive 100-hour weeks to resurrect the entire book on CreateSpace, Amazon’s self-publishing platform. Perfectionism’s lies almost stop me countless times. What gets me through, though, is the joy I anticipate from crossing this most daunting of finish lines.

That breakthrough would not have happened without your book, Jon.

I recreate not just Heroes but the three additional booklets that supplement it: a prequel (Voices), a journal (8 Questions for Every Hero), and a collection of stories about some of the photos in Heroes (Behind the Shots). I’ve never worked so hard on a project in my entire life. I submit the final files to CreateSpace for proof and printing on October 6, 2017, a date I’d felt compelled to set as my original publication deadline for over a year.

I wouldn’t understand the significance of that particular finish line until a fateful phone call three days later.

October 9, 2017. After a peaceful cross-country flight, I’m speaking at an all-employee gathering for CapEd Credit Union in Boise, Idaho, delivering the keynote presentation on which the Heroes book is based.

I slip back to my hotel room to call my wife Karla during the lunch break. I gush about the unexpected beauty of Boise, how well the keynote is going, how nice the people are, how much I look forward to coming home tomorrow.

Silence is her only response.

“Honey?” I ask, wondering how long we’d been cut off.

“Yeah, I’m here.” Her voice has shifted to the minor key she saves for news that will unmake me.

“What’s wrong?” I demand. Fear and dread curl around my heart. She knows I’ve heard her change in tone, knows I won’t stop asking about her modulation until she explains it.

She sighs. “Sweetheart, I didn’t want to tell you while you were on the road, but your mom was taken by ambulance to the hospital last night. She’s in Intensive Care. She’s really sick.”

An E. coli infection is trying to kill my mother. Had she waited two more days to go to the hospital, she would have died. Your mom is in good hands, Karla reports, and out of danger for now. No need to cut your talk short, Karla reassures me, but don’t miss your flight home at zero-dark-thirty tomorrow morning. She needs you here. Soon.

I hang up and sob alone in my hotel room for 10 minutes. To imagine life without my first love, my first hero, at this point in my journey, when I’m 1,800 miles away from her, is devastating. All I want is to leave now and head home, afraid these next few hours are all she has left.

Rather than let fear and panic lead me, I trust my wife instead. I wipe my eyes, pray, then pull myself together for a few hours more to deliver the last half of the Heroes keynote that afternoon.

Some new CapEd friends, after learning about Mom’s situation, search for ways to wedge me onto one of the final flights out that night, but we can’t make it happen. I retreat that evening into the silent majesty of the Boise National Forest, a place crafted by the hand of God, to beg him for one more miracle.

It comes 24 hours later, when my family and I are at mom’s bedside in the hospital, stroking her hair and holding her hand. She’s exhausted by the tubes and needles, by the tasteless food and the endless tests, by the effort she’s poured out just to sit up for a few minutes. She’s going to make it, but only after enduring the steep and slow climb we’re told is the necessary prelude to her final recovery.

She lays that weight aside for us, though, to laugh with us and encourage each one of us. We let her wrap the soft blanket of the old family stories around us, warm and well-worn memories of our shared history when time was a friend and death couldn’t touch us. Her unabashed devotion lifts us all, and I’m determined to honor her love in the best way I’ve ever attempted.

I’m empty-handed that first visit. But not the second.

“I have a surprise for you,” I murmur as we walk into her hospital room the next day. I ask her to close her eyes, then place all 214 pages of the reborn Heroes, Villains, and Drunk Old Men: A Love Story for Real Life into her hands. When she sees it, she clutches it to her chest and blesses me with the smile I’ve waited 46 years to see.

She can’t stop her tears of joy, can’t stop telling me how proud she is of me, and can’t stop saying how much she’d dreamed of this moment.

As I hug my mom, it all makes sense now. Every step in this book’s improbable journey. Every story it contains. Every heartbreak. Every sleepless night. Every tear. Every prayer.

Had I given up, I wouldn’t have this beautiful moment when, in the last place she wanted to be, the woman who loved me first held the first copy of my first book.

In her hands, it is perfect.

And finally, it is finished.

Heroes, Villains, and Drunk Old Men is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon and Barnes and Noble

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