How a mentor changed my life

Like most friendships, it’s impossible to figure out how they started or what makes them work.  At first it was just idle talking and joking, but slowly suggestions seemed to filter into my life.  Ray had studied Karate for many years, giving him discipline, fitness and the ability to confidently look after himself.  He credited it with being able to think more clearly and reason well under pressure.  Hearing him talk about it made me want to learn martial arts too.  He never suggested that I do anything in particular, just told me all about how things worked until I was so enthusiastic I couldn’t be held back.  I enrolled in a Karate class and ended up becoming a First Dan black belt and an instructor.  I have gone on to study other martial arts and it is still my favourite mode of fitness.  It has taught me how to push beyond my limits, the importance of drills and habit as a way of mastering a skill and kept me in excellent fitness.  Martial Arts gives me confidence to make good decisions to protect myself and trust my intuition.

Books would be left around the employee area of the cafe.  I was an avid reader, but other than some more high brow books that I had studied in school, my tastes were more for murder mysteries and fantasy novels.  Ray used to buy classics from second hand book stores and left them lying on the coffee table where I would see them.  I would of course enquire about the book and he would casually say that he had seen it in a bookstore and not having read it for many years, just had to buy it and tell me how and why he enjoyed the book so much.  He would lament being so busy and suggest that I take it and read it first while he finished another book. In this way he schooled me in a reading list more advanced than I would have received in an English Literature degree.  The books were invaluable.  To this day not a week goes by without me reading a new book.

And there was one last habit of Ray’s that I learned, though I never understood what was happening at the time. We would play a game with the customers that came into the store as we were serving them, provided it wasn’t too busy.  Ray would take one look at them and tell me everything he could glean about their lives from a brief look.  Very Sherlock Holmes.  I thought this was just a funny game to pass the long hours and in a way I suppose it was.  But this ‘game’ like everything else had a purpose.  Of course Ray was much better at it than a silly teenager who had barely been out of Brisbane.  But slowly as he explained his rationale, I got better and better.  I started noticing things like the indentation from a wedding ring not being worn, or a nervous tick that would reveal a career or a family situation that otherwise would have been impossible to guess.  With a glint in his eye as he liked to show off his superiority for my amusement, he would engage the customer in conversation until we could determine whether he or I had guessed more correctly.  In this way I was taught to observe and understand people.  A skill which I have forgotten to employ many times over the years to my detriment.

It was a wonderful 2 years and it barely seemed like work at all.  My mind grew and my outlook expanded.  I was educated in ways that I would have never sought out on my own, but the guiding hand of Ray shaped me and changed me, laying out a different pathway to the girl that would have grown up and most likely stayed in Brisbane all her life.

Ray was never a healthy man.  The stress of his early life had taken a toll on him, though he seldom spoke of his difficulties.  He began to get more sickly. Kidney stones, gall stones, then gall bladder issues and probably more than what I knew.  He was trying to figure out what he would do with the shop, but he wanted me to take another job elsewhere that would have more security.  I was sad but I didn’t protest too much because I saw the necessity of what he was suggesting.

On my last day he gave me a gift.  A copy of the Art of War by Sun Tzu.  He had been discussing strategy and planning a lot, mostly in relation to sport and the news.  He would pour over the newspapers with me and read a story and then ask me to come up with other alternatives for the facts being reported.  He felt I didn’t read between the lines enough for his liking.  This was one lesson that was not finished, hence the book.

I was teary eyed, thanked him and promised to visit often.  Which I did until he became too sick to be in at the cafe.

When I got the book home, I opened it and discovered that it was full of writing.  Not just the printed text but Ray’s handwriting filling every last gap.  Lame jokes, clever sayings, anecdotes, stories he had made up filled the pages.  His whole personality poured into the gaps on the pages.  It would have taken him weeks or months to finish it.  It was funny and clever, just like him.  I cherish that book to this day and I always will.

Ray died less than a year after I left the cafe.  I attended the funeral with a pain in my heart. I don’t exactly know of what he died of as he had a lot of things wrong with him, but I think in the end it was pancreatic cancer.

Mentors are special.  They widen your horizons and they give of their experience, guidance and love.  I would be fortunate beyond measure to find another mentor like Ray and I don’t think I ever will.  But that experience was so rich and lasting, I think that once maybe enough for a lifetime.

Vale Ray.  I will always miss you.


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