“Wake Me Up When September Ends” by Green Day was my anthem for the month of September beginning September 16th, 2011. That was the day that we lost our son, Ethan, in a tragic car accident on our way to Disney to celebrate his 7th birthday. Every year since the accident, Septembers have been a month that I dreaded. You see, Ethan passed away on September 16th and his birthday was on the 19th. I couldn’t celebrate his life without his death coming first.
If you knew Ethan, you’d know that he was the most kind, empathetic, and giving soul you ever met; light absolutely radiated out of him. He was always spreading kindness every day of his short, nearly 7 years on this earth.
Three years ago (2017), September was quickly approaching and the feeling of dread set in. I always loved remembering Ethan’s memories he left with us, but they would leave me feeling disheartened, in September especially. A few memories in particular played in my mind as I was sitting in the Starbucks drive thru, ordering my usual Venti Pike, Black, No Room….
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It was a hot Florida summer day when Ethan noticed our neighbor across the street mowing the lawn on his riding mower. I watched Ethan as he paused at the window, the gears in his mind turning. He turned around to me and exclaimed “Mom, Mr. Gene looks really hot out there. Could I go give him my new hat and a bottle of water to keep him cool as he cuts the grass?” Of course, I obliged. He ran and got his new hat he hadn’t even worn yet and an ice-cold bottle of water out of the fridge, then he darted out the door. I watched from the window as he skipped across the yard and gave our neighbor his new bucket hat and the refreshing water. It made Gene cry, and to this day, that very hat hangs up in his garage. Ethan was selfless when it came to noticing when others needed a helping hand without them even asking for it.
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Empathy was one of Ethan’s greatest qualities. Being able to understand where someone else was coming from just came naturally to him. We frequented Walt Disney World several times a month. Sometimes it was just me, Ethan, and Ben while Kyle was at work. (Do you remember about 10 years ago when attaching feathers in your hair was a thing? Ethan always walked to the beat of his own drum, so when he asked to get feathers put in his hair, of course I said yes.) This particular day, we had just parked and gotten in line for the monorail. A man and his family walked up behind us and noticed the blue and orange feathers hanging off of Ethan’s short hair. The man got Ethan’s attention and questioned him, “Are those feathers in your hair? Aren’t those just for girls?”
Ethan paused for a moment, collecting his words and what he was going to reply. He finally looked up at the man and smiled as he calmly explained, “Well, sir, I am a boy and I like to wear them, so that means they are for boys too, not just girls.” The man looked utterly shocked that those words came out of that small a child and replied, “Yeah, I guess you’re right, they can be for boys too.” The man turned around, not ashamed, but enlightened. To this day, that is still my proudest mom moment.
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Ethan was always stopping and smelling the flowers, no matter where we were, sunflowers were his absolute favorite. He noticed the beauty in the simplest of things and would admire it. Ethan would frequently pick me flowers and I would place them in an old mason jar, then display them on our kitchen windowsill. On the morning of our accident, I walked Ethan to the bus stop and of course, we were running a tad behind. (We were leaving at 3:45pm to head to Disney and I had spent the night before packing for the trip).
The bus had just pulled up when Ethan spotted the little yellow flowers peeking out behind the dew filled blades of grass. He stopped right where he stood and picked it, then gave it a satisfying sniff. He smiled, looked up at me while placing the yellow flowers in my hand and whispered, “These are for you Mom, I love you. I hope you have a great day.”
Then he trotted off to the bus, turned around and gave me a huge Ethan smile before he bebopped up the stairs. Those were the last flowers he would ever give me.
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As I am reminiscing about Ethan in the Starbucks drive thru, waiting for my order, I realize he did random acts of kindness without even knowing he had done them. With each one of the things he did, he made someone’s day better. Whether it be by noticing that someone was hot and taking action, educating someone on being gender neutral in a calm, confident way, or by simply picking your mom flowers to make her feel special. He always knew that it was cool to be kind, it just came naturally.
Now, while it doesn’t come natural to many people, I thought maybe I could help continue to spread some love by being more like Ethan. In that moment, without wavering, I asked the barista if I could pay for the person behind me. She smiled and replied, “What should I tell them?'“ I paused for a second and blurted out, “Tell them to pay it forward, for Ethan.”
She handed me my freshly made drink and said, “Sure thing! Have a great day!”
My mind was spinning as I pulled out of the drive thru. By doing a small act of kindness, I realized my heart was filled with an immense amount of joy. The following couple of days, I paid for someone’s layaway, sent a person a card I hadn’t seen in a while, and gave several strangers compliments.
With each act I did, I knew Ethan was so proud. I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing, just doing it without expecting any praise in return. That night, while laying in bed (where my mind comes ups with its best ideas as I am trying desperately to fall asleep) the #PayItForwardForEthan Campaign was born.
The next morning (September 1st), I decided to post my newfound plan on my Facebook business page and the response was tremendous! People all over our little town started doing small little acts of kindness, they LOVED it. Each day in September that year, we would have several people use the hashtag with their random acts of kindness and my heart would fill with joy knowing that more love was spread in the world that day.
I knew I was honoring Ethan’s memory by helping people to see how good it felt to unexpectedly give.
By the end of the month, I realized that I was the recipient of the best act of kindness anyone could give me. Everyone that participated in the campaign made my September not only bearable, but utterly enjoyable.
I invite you to participate in the third year of this beautiful continuation of Ethan’s spirit and Pay It Forward, for Ethan. You may not have a lot of funds, or the ability to drive anywhere, and that’s ok; there’s PLENTY of things you can do that cost little to nothing.
You can write your neighbor a heartfelt note and hand deliver it. You can make an older relative’s day, just by giving them a phone call. You can volunteer at your local women’s shelter. You can read to dogs in the pound. You can help a single mom or dad by watching their kids for the night so they can take a bath alone. The possibilities are really endless.
What feels REALLY good, is to get your kids or grandkids involved. That is the ultimate pay it forward by teaching our youth to give selflessly. Whatever you do, pause after you do it to check in with your heart and see how paying it forward makes you feel.
Personally, for me, it is the best feeling in the world to know that I helped someone and put a smile on their face that day.