How Losing My Son Taught Me It's Smart to Start Something Stupid

A decision had to be made. The impossible decision.

A nurse quietly entered the room and injected a dose of epinephrine into his I.V. I wouldn’t have noticed her, except that when she left, she slid the glass door closed behind her and drew the outer curtain for our privacy.

We were alone. After days and days of incessant attention by multiple doctors and hospital staff, the room was completely quiet. Quiet, that is, aside from the gentle rise and fall of the ventilator and the soft beep, beep, beep of the heart monitor.

Adrenaline coursed madly through my veins. The room spun around me as I sat, disoriented to the point of nausea, on a stool beside his bed. I gripped the bed rail to keep from tipping over. But I wasn’t watching him. My eyes were glued to her as she fell into the chair in the corner of the room and wept, chest heaving, face pressed hard into her hands.

“This is a decision we shouldn’t have to make,” she said almost imperceptibly, as she ran her hands frantically through her hair, pulling it tight away from her face.

Agony. There wasn’t any other word. I took her hands in mine and looked deeply into her eyes, and together, we made the impossible decision: Do not resuscitate.

Those were the wee hours of the morning on January 7, 2010.

Two Years Earlier

On a sunny Hawaiian day, in the spring of 2007, Gavin took a gray, plastic container and placed his journals, a beat-up card containing the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, and a few other precious possessions inside. He sealed the box and labeled it “To be opened 2027.” He took a Sharpie and adorned his treasure chest with a clever little drawing of a pirate and a short note to himself that read, “Hello, old man Gavin!”

He got on his salt-rusted beach cruiser, carefully balanced the box on his lap and pedaled with bare feet toward the lush Hawaiian mountains. Gavin had called Hawaii home for more than five years—nearly a quarter of his young life—and he wanted to leave a piece of his heart with the island that had taught and given him so much. He buried his treasure at the base of the beautiful Ko’olauloa Mountains, intending not to open it again for 20 years.

It was only a few short weeks later, however, that those journals were unearthed, and I found myself reading excerpts from them to a grief-stricken audience of hundreds who had gathered to celebrate his incredible young life. Less than three weeks after burying his time capsule, my healthy and vibrant young brother-in-law passed away unexpectedly in his sleep.

He was 21 years old.

A little over two years after Gavin’s death, my wife, Natalie, gave birth to our fourth son. With pride, we named our little guy after his late uncle. Baby Gavin was born October 24, 2009. He was perfect, and even his rough-and-tumble big brothers agreed.

Yet here we sat, only 10 short weeks into his life, alone in a hospital room. Alone except for the quiet nurse and her epinephrine. Natalie on one side of Gavin, and I on the other, the words “Do not resuscitate” ringing heavily in our ears as tears stung the edges of our raw eyes.

My initial response had been to give our son every fighting chance at survival. “Of course we will resuscitate!” I had confidently said. I was baffled that the doctors even had the audacity to ask. Words and phrases began pounding through my brain, clouding my thinking, impairing my sense of reason, and damming my judgment completely: “pertussis,” “secondary infection,” “experimental procedure,” “end of the line,” “nothing more we can do,” “time to say good-bye.” Then slowly, very slowly, the reality of our situation started to set in. I finally came to see the absolute hopelessness we were facing. I became aware that the violent process of resuscitation in and of itself would only lengthen Gavin’s suffering and not save his life. I swallowed, hard. And I gathered the courage to let go.

Natalie and I cried together. We spoke words of deep, profound love to our sweet little son. And moments later, my sweet wife rocked him tenderly in her arms, and I rested my hand on our son’s chest and felt the last beats of his tiny heart. We sang him a lullaby through our tears, and our boy was gone.

The weight of the world never felt heavier in my hands than it did the day we walked out of that hospital with empty arms.

Baby Gavin lived 76 days.

Gavin’s Law

Very shortly after the death of our son, my wife, Natalie, and I went to listen to a friend and mentor of mine who was giving a speech at a university near our home in Hawaii. After her presentation, she came to where we were sitting to say hello and to offer her condolences. After chatting for a few moments, she looked Natalie straight in the eye, and abruptly asked, “So, what have you learned?” Admittedly, I was somewhat taken aback by the intensity of her question. Thankfully, Natalie—­always on her toes—offered a gracious, eloquent, and genuine response, as I stood by, somewhat dumbfounded.

The months passed, but I couldn’t forget this question:

“So, what have you learned?”

That question changed my life. Here were the facts: my brother-in-law was gone, our son was gone, and there wasn’t a thing in the world I could do to change any of that. Suddenly, my life took on a very real sense of urgency. There was, in fact, a time limit!

Transcendent to the sense of urgency I felt, I found myself face to face with the realization that circumstance was completely outside my realm of control. Not only this particular set of circumstances, but circumstance in general. I suddenly realized that if we are sitting around waiting—maybe even begging and pleading—for our circumstances to change so that we can finally live life the way we really want to live, chances are very good that we will stay stuck waiting forever.

There will always be a million reasons to wait until later. This is simply the nature of the animal called life. Those Gavins taught me to live, today. I’ve summed up the lesson I learned from the deaths of my brother-in-law and my son into what I call Gavin’s Law:

Live to start. Start to live.

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"Richie Norton has written a book about courage. The courage to do work that matters and to do it with your heart and your soul. Go make something happen."— Seth Godin, author of The Icarus Deception

"Perfect book for these uncertain times." —Steve Forbes, Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of Forbes Media

What if the smartest people in the world understand something that the rest of us don't? (They do.) What if they know that in order to achieve success, they will sometimes have to do things that others may initially perceive as stupid? The fact of the matter is that the smartest people in the world don't run from stupid, they lean into it (in a smart way).

In The Power of Starting Something Stupid, Richie Norton redefines stupid as we know it, demonstrating that life-changing ideas are often tragically mislabeled stupid. What if the key to success, creativity, and fulfillment in your life lies in the potential of those stupid ideas? This deeply inspiring book will teach you: how to crush fear, make dreams happen, and live without regret; how to overcome obstacles such as lack of time, lack of education, or lack of money; and the five actions to achieve authentic success.

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