Discover why happiness is really what you make it by reading this inspirational story.
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Imagine having to grow up as an outcast – not accepted, never belonging. Imagine living with parents who prefer exerting ‘power over’ instead of ‘power with’. How do you create a life of bliss? You live knowing that happiness is what you make it and Serge Thomas’ story will show you why.
Serge Thomas is an automotive supply executive with a flourishing and successful forty-plus year career. Now as a business advisor and consultant, a musician and book-writer, he enjoys continued good health, happy living and staying fit to enjoy life.
Serge is a happy man because of some of his decisions relating to his health and some referrals and good advice that he received. Living in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan, he has a wonderful life with his wonderful wife, Lisa. They both enjoy their four great adult children and ALL of the things that they always had prior to being diagnosed with prostate cancer in May of 2012.
The Sunday before Christmas when I was about seven years old, I was going on a Christmas hay-ride and nearly died.
But first, a backstory.
I didn’t realize at that time, how different I was from “normal American” society.
My father, 100% Lebanese and born on the boat coming to this country in 1913, was a butcher / grocery store owner and operator.
My mother was a stay-at-home wife, mother and homemaker from the mountains of southern Missouri.
To make matters worse, we lived in Detroit, which was on the cusp of the historic 1967 Riot. Racism, divisiveness, theft and murder were splashed all over the daily newspaper headlines.
In early 1965, just after my father’s store was victimized by arson, he decided to rebuild the store and sell it to another proprietor.
I believe he had had enough of the risk of owning and operating a store in the city of Detroit – especially since he lost his own father when he was four years old.
My grandfather was shot to death at the age of 23 when his meat and produce market, located at the foot of the Detroit River, was robbed.
After having sold the store and apparently flush with cash at that time, my parents, along with my uncle and aunt, planned to have homes built, side by side of each other, in a new “subdivision” about 25 miles due north of the city.
Shelby Township, a developing rural area, was the destination.
I suppose my father wanted to get as far away, literally and figuratively, from the city of Detroit with the murder of his father, near loss of his step-father (in a similar way), robberies and arson that were somewhat regular occurrences in the city and consequently altered his life in a such a big way.
That being said, Shelby was like another world compared to what we were all used to.
Shelby, in the 1960’s and 1970’s and especially in our subdivision, was predominantly Caucasian – the ubiquitous mid to upper class “white” folks.
I recall it was a very big deal that in my middle and high-school years, we had an African American boy in my class – the only African American boy in the entire school of hundreds of students.
Since I’m half Lebanese, my skin was of a darker variety. In the day, I recall its color referred to as “olive-toned”.
With two sisters living at home, my father and I having the uncommon olive-toned skin and a mother who was pale-face white, we kind of stood out in the neighborhood. With my father’s brother and his family living next door, the olive skin tone took up the central half-block of our street.
Because I was quite different from the Euro origin white common to the high(er) society neighbors, I recall being “left-out” of gatherings.
I guess I really didn’t understand it at the time, but I was never really part of a group of friends. And inclusion was not a part of my youth. Blame it on the myriad of factors above and below.
I was “a mistake in birth control” so everyone in my family were quite a bit older when I was born. My mother was forty and my father was nearly 50. My nearest sibling was ten years my elder while the next three siblings were twenty to twenty-five years older than I.
It was a strange childhood for me.
I can certainly understand my parents being tired after almost fully raising a family of four children when the “mistake” occurred and the “surprise” showed up. For most of my young life, I liken it to getting the left-overs.
Getting the left-overs or none at all is how I see my childhood.
Given the age of my parents, I was not the focus of their attention or efforts.
I spent nearly no time with my father. What time I did I relished, but to him (with his work and card playing and betting addiction), I was only an afterthought.
In addition, my father was ill from the time I was two years old, suffering from heart attacks and cardiovascular issues.
This further compounded his parenting issues until he died when I was fifteen.
My mother had a big heart, loved me, but didn’t nurture me in most anything other than feeding me and clothing me. No cultural inducement, pop-culture or otherwise.
She was most concerned with keeping a very clean home and waiting on my (demanding, hot-headed) father hand-and-foot.
Neither parent saw education past the eighth-grade. So they had no concept or appreciation to guide me into the intrinsic benefits and value of education. Neither did they invoke reading as a great pastime and as a source of information, enjoyment and education.
Neither did this come from my four (much-older) siblings. They were on with their own lives!
I had no bedroom of my own until I was almost eleven years old. I slept alternating between the full-sized beds of either my sister who was ten years older or my (from time-to-time institutionalized) half-sister who was nearly fifteen years my elder. The institutionalized thing is a whole other story.
My God, I felt blessed having my own bedroom when my sisters married and left the family home.
I visited the dentist twice between the ages of five and thirteen. With no care, instruction and enforcement about dental hygiene coming from my parents, my second visit to the dentist yielded thirty, yes THIRTY cavities. One may call this neglect, I believe.
No vacations. I had no concept of what a vacation is other than in fantasy. I was told it was a vacation when we drove for six or seven hours a couple of times to visit my father’s sister in Chicago.
It was hot and steamy in greater Chicago’s July when we would go there, and all I can remember is the hot cement slabs that bordered the apartment house pool.
I think I can remember what appeared to be the heat waves of the sun coming off of those slabs of cement…looking back on that time, now as an adult, I think I was in hell! The same sentiment about visiting my mother’s family in West Plains, Missouri.
As an adult, living the majority of my life now, I can assure you that I was in Hell!
My pre-teen years was a time of bliss and happiness simply because I wasn’t smart enough to know better. In my case, ignorance really was bliss.
I really can’t tell you how I passed the time, other than riding a “Huffy” bike up and down our driveway and around our dirt home land-lots until they were grassed.
My parents were socially inactive, did not mingle in with the neighbors.
They were also poor examples of what a marriage is supposed to be like; never displaying their love for one another or going to dinner just by themselves.
Going out to dinner, what is that? I can never recall going to a restaurant for dinner with my family, except in rare times when we would visit those Chicago or Missouri aunts and uncles.
I didn’t know better, so I continued life as I knew it and wore a smile when I could.
Looking back now, I’d say my mother and I lived within my father’s dictatorship. I recall his dissatisfaction with me when at nine years old, I complained and expressed frustration that after a year or more of requests, he installed my basketball hoop upside down and incorrectly.
He instructed me at that time that when I was to speak to him, I was to “look at the ground, just ahead of where he stood.”
I never looked at him in the eye again – until he was stricken with a stroke when I was in my teens and had to assist in caring for him.
Anyway, back to that 1967 Christmas hayride. This was a special event for neighborhood children that would be unsupervised by our parents.
(Although I’m sure there was some sort of adult supervision – I recall Santa Claus, or some facsimile thereof.)
I boarded that hayride, not knowing what to expect. I only knew it was supposed to be fun.
Everybody was doing a great deal of pushing and shoving until I was almost dizzy. I lost my balance and fell off of the hayride wagon into the oncoming traffic side of the hayride wagon.
Simultaneous to my fall, a car was passing in the opposite direction.
I felt the side of that car brush my winter coat as it passed my falling body.
I remember it like it was yesterday.
A near brush with death!
I quickly stood up from the incident, got my bearings and raced for the back of the hayride wagon and jumped aboard after several attempts.
I never told anyone about this incident, for fear of getting in trouble, or something, but in the grand scheme of my parents’ lives and other things, it wouldn’t have mattered anyhow.
A young boy who thought he was a happy lad, who didn’t know better, nearly lost his life.
Except for some short-term grief at the time, it wouldn’t much have mattered to everyone, including my seven-year-old self.
In fact, it would have alleviated the pain and grief of the author looking back at his young life and coming to these painful realizations and conclusions.
But now, I know better. Now, I know that happiness is what you make it.
I won’t allow an awful, ill-directed childhood dictate how I would live my adult, independent life. Neither will I turn to drugs and become unproductive.
I will make something of myself. I will live a quality-filled life.
So, I had to learn on my own what a “good life” was supposed to be. On my own, I had to implement the necessary building blocks to achieve that and then I had to put the plan into action.
Moving past my unfulfilling childhood, through my own fortitude and perseverance, I financed my own education and became a business professional who led companies.
I supported a wife and family and became a loving and caring husband and father, a musician, a world traveler, author, a fine-diner – wine collector and a person appreciative of living a good, clean, healthy and wholesome life.
Having parents who provided such a poor example of what marriage should look like, you might imagine that I’d have been married three times, and divorced two.
Well, you’re not imagining it. It really happened.
But the third time really is the charm because at the time of writing, I’ve been with my wife, Lisa for 17 years.
It took falling in love with myself and realizing that I’m a great person for me to create the relationship I’ve always wanted, the happiness I’ve always desired.
I first had to live my life alone and disconnected from a partner, between marriages, for some time before I could see that… and yes, there were therapy sessions and retreat weekends that also helped.
Everything is relative. My life with my wife and family means a great deal to me.
Perspective is important. As are values and quality of life.
I now know better.
Even when things go wrong, I can still be happy because happiness is something you create, something you design.
On May 5, 2012, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
On June 19, 2012, I had a Radical Robotic Prostatectomy (RP).
On July 10, 2012, I learned from my surgeon, the famed Mani Menon, M.D. who implemented the DaVinci Robot for RP’s, that I was days, if not hours, if not minutes away from the tumor bursting through the prostate capsule and metastasizing throughout my body. The medical professionals removed it just before that could happen.
I had another brush with death.
My desire to persevere, learned from my childhood, again kicked-in.
Should you like to hear my full story, start to finish, including rehabilitation, you may do so by reading my book “No Prostate Required!”.
Here are some important milestones in my rehabilitation:
Desiring to keep the important “intimacy” part of our marriage, I immediately underwent penile rehabilitation. Admitting failure, after a couple of years of success with the drugs, I was referred to an amazing University of Michigan Medical Center doctor, Dana Ohl, M.D., head of Men’s Reproductive Urology.
Let me tell you, those little blue pills do not work for anyone who has lost the little gland the size of a walnut. After a while, the drug therapy did not work (but I worked at it!)
July 10, 2014 I underwent a penile prosthesis implant which was performed by Dr. Ohl who is now a great friend.
Perseverance meant keeping a positive attitude during this whole process. This was extremely important during this process and in getting back to where I needed to be… that is, to keep that important part of our marriage alive.
All is well on the intimacy front and has been since six weeks post the prosthesis procedure. Life, for the most part, returned to happy, normal, everyday life at that point.
From August 2016 through October 2017, I took a CFO job with a private equity firm, one of the most challenging and rewarding jobs of my career.
At the end of August 2016, the company for which I worked acquired a company of similar size and type, thus doubling the revenues and footprint of the company, now $300 Million in revenue and 6 facilities (4 in Ontario, Canada and 2 in the southern US).
I was responsible for the integration of the new company.
In October 2016, the private equity firm communicated to the CEO and I that it was time to sell the company, so we entered a sale process for the company, on behalf of the private equity owners of the business.
Previously, I was told this would occur after a couple of years, maybe in 2018 or 2019.
So, at the same time of integrating a company of equal size and developing the (whole) company for sale ($150 Million X 2), it was literally 24-7 for me on the clock to get all of this done.
We sold the company to a strategic buyer and closed the sale on August 3, 2017.
There were some issues with the new owner’s assumptions about purchasing the company which led to some dissension…Nonetheless, an extremely stressful time for me as the CFO.
As a result of all of the stress due to the accelerated timeline of integrating the newly purchased company and selling the entire business and potential strain of business travel, lack of sleep, etc. I developed a hiatal hernia and an esophagitis condition.
Due to an acrimonious condition inside the company, I left. I developed Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), a condition I learned from my RA doctor that is brought on by high levels of stress.
Stress, stress and more stress. Never a good recipe.
In May of 2018, I began treatment for the RA; an injectable biologic called Enbrel. With the Enbrel I am able to function normally, whereas without, life was challenging. Mere dressing was a challenge. I’m thankful for Enbrel.
With all of the adversity I have seen in my life, you might be asking yourself, “Why didn’t I just crawl up into a ball somewhere, full of depression with the desire to off myself? Withdraw from life and society? Develop substance abuse issues that would permeate my life? Or actually off myself?”
First, I had to find forgiveness in my soul for my parents. They obviously did not “know better”. I have to believe that they did their best in my earlier years, and because of this, I continue to love them for the good they did and I forgave them.
I think the deficiencies of my earlier years caused an undying desire to be like and part of the mainstream…the other (normal) people of society. To do the things that they do, live the life that they live.
What I would call a normal life. To be socially active, to have friends and make friends of all personalities, beliefs, colors, shapes and sizes, to be accepting of others, open and outgoing, to love those in your life and show your love for them.
I think the deficiencies of my earlier years, along with a strong values system to which I credit my mother, also compelled me and continue to compel me to optimize and live life to its fullest, whether it is now, or anytime during my journey.
Whatever that means…and with whatever means that I have; either health-wise, energy-wise or monetary. I must optimize those means so that I can live life to its fullest.
I have always had this view, as long as I can remember as an independent adult.
Once aware of the freedom I had, what this great life that we live has to offer and that I am in control of my own destiny, I decided I must push to achieve great satisfaction in life for myself and my family.
The nearest term I can find to name it is a “mental potion” that reminds me that happiness is what you make it.
I believe this mental potion is what caused me to marry early (I was twenty years old!).
I also believe it caused me, at eighteen years old, seek a job outside of my brother’s business, work 50-60 hours per week and go to night school (college) for eight years. And become the first Certified Public Accountant in my family.
I believe this mental potion caused me to end two (failing) marriages because everyone inside of those marriages would ultimately be better off. This proved itself to be true over time.
Throughout the years, I believe it also caused me to be the best father that I could be, to both my direct children from my first marriage and Lisa’s children from her first marriage, given these extenuating circumstances.
I believe this mental potion put me in a place where after those (failed) marriages, I took a pause from seeking a mate to partner with and allow me to get to know myself and find happiness and learn what a great person I am, among all of this adversity.
I believe this mental potion, after this pause in seeking the “ultimate” relationship to find that I am a great person who can find happiness within himself, caused me to find (without looking for) the most excellent mate, Lisa, to whom I’ve been married for almost seventeen years and will hopefully finish my life with, forever, until we part.
I believe this mental potion also has caused me to face these serious health challenges described earlier, and come out the other side continuing to seek that life of “bliss” that I have sought for so many years.
I believe also that everyone has this mental potion within them. Everyone must find the drive, persistence and fortitude within themselves to find their happiness and work hard at what it takes to keep it.
Your health and happiness are what you make it so grab the steering wheel of your life and go where you will.
Lord willing and God bless.