Just prior to standing in the most unfriendly place one can imagine, I learned what loyalty looks like.
It was February 2010 and the hallways of the Iowa courthouse were packed with people who were screaming threats at me and calling me nasty names. I stood with my back to the angry crowd, waiting for an attorney whom I’d just met, to help me navigate a way out of here.
There was one person between me and that fiercely angry crowd and I’d only recently met him in a coffee shop.
Nathan*, my newly hired assistant, was a brilliant, creative, anxiety-filled 23-year-old man, with shaggy hair and a steely gaze. He had managed that coffee shop before I invited him to come to work on my next film and already he was saving my life. In our first few conversations, Nathan shared that his divorced Mom battled mental illness and his father disappeared for a few years when he was quite young. He assumed that both situations were his fault until I explained how he could not be to blame for their deficiencies. A bright and inquisitive child, Nathan was once told by his mother to stop talking because she could not stand the sound of his voice.
So he mostly stopped talking.
I hired Nathan to drive with me to Canada for meetings about a film project. When I picked him up he carefully put a suitcase, a small box of books, and a laptop in the trunk of my car. This was all that he owned and said he didn’t need more to be happy and asked if we could stop at a local dive bar to say goodbye to his best friend, the bartender.
Walking 3 paces ahead of me, Nathan expertly moved patrons aside and made a spot the bar. The bartender looked up, saw Nathan was alone, and his face dropped. So clearly did a look of disappointment and sadness wash over his face that I got a lump in my throat.
Revealed in that one glance was boundless compassion for his friend’s hopes and dreams and he was crushed because he thought that Nathan had been left behind. Another promise broken. A life of brutal disappointments and the ugly cycle of negative self-talk would remain intact. Nathan deserved more and he was prepared to collect a million pieces of his best friend’s heart.
Getting closer to the bar, I heard him yell over the bad music and the wild party in progress, “What happened to Canada?”
Nathan assumed a look of pride and gratitude the likes of which must have been new to him because the tension was crushed immediately. He cocked his thumb towards me, smiled broadly, and declared, “She’s right here.”
A few weeks later, inside that old courthouse, Nathan stood and faced down the crowd as I was shielded by his broad shoulders. The look on his face was as clear as a road sign: In order to get to HER, you’re going to have to go through me and you’ll NEVER get through me.
We walked through every inch of that fire together and this exceptional man kept me alive during the most difficult period of my life. I eventually walked free after a grueling battle and Nathan will always be a part of me. Now he’s happily married, living on the other side of the country, professionally building up other people, but someday we’ll make a film together.
Loyalty is a valuable prize that must be earned. There are no short cuts or do-overs. We have to be consistent, honest, and practice being grateful for those shared fires because they will forge us into better people and stronger partners.
Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.