Ten days ago, I lost a dear colleague, a fellow writer I presumed to call a friend. Jeffrey Zaslow, best selling author and Wall Street Journal columnist, was a member of the advisory board for letterstomykids.org from day one. He once referred to my blog as a “high calling,” a description I took humbly to heart. I learned about his death from an obituary in the newspaper and felt as if I’d gotten sucker-punched. Here is my tribute to him.
In the eight years I knew Jeffrey Zaslow, the best-selling author and Wall Street Journal columnist who died in a car accident the Friday before last, I gave him plenty of opportunities to demonstrate his tendency to say “yes.”
Would you read an essay of mine about my mother? I would ask him. Yes, he would say. May we talk about a book idea I have in mind? I would ask. Yes. Almost two years ago, I told him about my plan to start my first blog. Would he be a member of my board of advisors? I asked him. “Yes,” he said. “Of course.”
Just as I specialized in soliciting favors from him, Jeff, in turn, excelled at granting me those favors.
After I was laid off from a job in 2008, I asked Jeff and others I knew to keep an eye out for new opportunities for me. He immediately offered to give me job references and to steer me toward freelance assignments. But above and beyond almost everyone else I contacted, he also promised to make himself available to talk.
Throughout our relationship, Jeff encouraged me to pursue my ambitions as a writer. You should submit that piece about your father, he would say. You should definitely write that memoir about your family. “You’re a great writer,” he told me – and even though I never doubted his sincerity, somehow I could never quite believe him.
In his articles and books, Jeff wrote about what matters most. Love and loss. Family and friendship. All the personal stuff that happens while we’re out there making a living and trying to earn enough and wondering which suit to wear to a presentation – or, for that matter, how to recruit someone for your blog’s advisory board. He wrote about how we treat each other and also about how we feel, in our heart of hearts, about how we treat each other.
We never met face to face. I knew Jeff only through his writings and our frequent e-mail exchanges and occasional phone conversations. Ours was more a professional friendship than a deeply personal one. Yet his inherent compassion and generosity and humanity always came through loud and clear.
Still, as far as I could tell, Jeff Zaslow never stopped saying “yes.” He said yes to my numerous, and often presumptuous, requests of him. He said yes to the singular responsibility of telling powerfully the stories of people with powerful stories to tell, whether it was Professor Randy Pausch in “The Last Lecture” or Gabrielle Giffords in “Gabby.” He said yes to being a husband and a father and a son and a friend. He said yes to being alive.
If Jeff had ever become a political party, he would have qualified as the party of yes.
Only on one front did I ever have trouble getting him to say his favorite word. I invited him to contribute a guest column to my blog for Thanksgiving, all about his gratitude for his children. But he had just undergone minor surgery and was trying to finish writing his book about hero pilot Chesley Sullenberger, “Highest Duty: My Search For What Really Matters,” so he begged off with an apology.
A few months later I asked him again, this time for Father’s Day. Again, he took a pass, saying he was in over his head.
Then, just last month, Jeff reverted back to form. He had let me know about his latest book, “The Magic Room: A Story About the Love We Wish for our Daughters.” Sensing yet another opportunity to advance my personal agenda, I sought for the third time to enlist him as a guest columnist for my blog. Maybe, I suggested, he could write a piece about why he wrote a book about daughters. He could cast as a letter to his own three daughters.
“Yes,” he said.
“That would be great,” he said.
“I’ll get right on it,” he said.
P.S. — This tribute appeared yesterday in Brevity magazine:
P.S. — Click below to learn more about Jeff: