Life’s Frailty, and the Gestures That Go a Long WayBy TARA PARKER-POPE
|Jeffrey Zaslow by Eden Zaslow|
FATHER FIRST Much of Jeffrey Zaslow’s writing centered on the theme of love.
Several years ago, my friend Jeffrey Zaslow sent me a chapter from a book he was writing about lifelong friendships among a group of women from Ames, Iowa. It was a powerful story about love and loss that moved me to tears.
With the draft pages still in my hands, I sat down with my daughter, a second-grader at the time, to talk about the importance of friendship. We talked about her girlfriends, why occasional fights didn’t matter and why she should always treasure her friends. It was a sweet moment, and I was grateful to Jeff for inspiring the conversation through his writing.
Later, I called him to tell him how much that single chapter had meant to my daughter and me. How, I asked him, had he managed to inject himself into this circle of women he had only recently met and so accurately depict the power of female friendship?
“I have a wife and three daughters,” he said, laughing, without missing a beat. “I’m quite comfortable being outnumbered by women.”
I thought about our conversation this weekend when I learned the terrible news that Jeff had died in a car accident on snowy roads on his way to his Detroit-area home, returning from a book-signing event in northern Michigan. “The Girls From Ames” became a best seller, and remains my favorite among the books he wrote. But many people know Jeff as co-author of “The Last Lecture,” with the Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch, who delivered that now famous lecture after learning he had pancreatic cancer.
Mr. Zaslow was also co-author of memoirs with Gabrielle Giffords, the congresswoman from Arizona who was recovering from a gunshot wound to the head, and Chesley B. Sullenberger III, the pilot who safely ditched a damaged airliner on the Hudson River in 2009. Despite the disparate subject matter, Mr. Zaslow noted that much of his writing centered on the theme of love, commitment and living in the moment.
“We don’t know what moment in our lives we’re going to be judged on; that’s true for all of us,” he said at a TED talk last year, explaining what he had learned from Captain Sullenberger. “We’ve got to be honorable, be moral; we’ve got to work our hardest.”
Despite his success as a memoir co-author, Jeff’s true labor of love was his latest book, “The Magic Room: A Story About the Love We Wish for Our Daughters.” Dedicated to his daughters, the book focused on a bridal shop in Fowler, Mich., as a way to tell a story of parents’ hopes and dreams.
Mr. Zaslow’s role as a father was a common theme in his work, one he loved to talk about. Once when a boy canceled plans to take his daughter to a homecoming dance, Mr. Zaslow said he thought to himself, “What can I do for my sad daughter?” He decided to embarrass the boy in front of millions by writing a Wall Street Journal column about the lessons parents should be teaching their sons.
“The lesson of the story — and of that night — is to teach your sons to be chivalrous, and your daughters not to take it,” he said in a 2009 interview. “My daughter was not thrilled. And the boy was not thrilled. But you know what? The next time you want to take my daughter to the dance, follow through.”
Jeff often said he honed his skills for listening and offering advice during a stint as an advice columnist, a role he won in a contest to replace Ann Landers. During his many public talks, Jeff told the story of a favorite letter from a man who wanted his girlfriend, Julie, to undergo breast augmentation.
“Julie deserves someone who loves her for who she is, not how she looks in a sweater,” Jeff wrote in his reply. “If you can’t do that for her, she won’t need implants anyway because she will already have a big boob in her life. You.”
In every conversation I had with Jeff and in much of his writing, he talked about how much he had learned about the frailty of life and the importance of never leaving important words unsaid.
At his TED talk last November, Jeff told the audience about a column of his that focused on the words “I love you.” It appeared two days before Valentine’s Day in 2004, and led with the story of a judge in Maywood, Ill., who often told his children that he loved them. One day in 1995, as his 18-year-old daughter was leaving the house, the judge called out to his daughter. “Kristin, remember I love you,” he said.
“I love you too, Dad,” the girl replied. That day, Kristin was killed in a car accident. It was a story that resonated with Jeff, and one he took to heart, always saying “I love you” to his wife and daughters before saying goodbye or hanging up the phone.
“All of us should say ‘I love you’ to the people we care about,” Jeff said. “We should do it because you never know. I got about 1,000 e-mails from readers saying they were going to tell their children they loved them.
“What I like about my job is sometimes I’m just writing about the obvious. By doing that, you can touch a lot of people and tell them things that will change their lives, even if it’s something simple.”