Dan Gottlieb is a very young child who already senses that his father hates his working life as an Army-Navy store owner in Margate, N.J. The child is frightened by the notion that work can be so lacking in meaning and pleasure.
Some years later, another memory:
Dan is in seventh grade, in the schoolyard feeling stupid, as he so often did, because of an undiagnosed learning disability. He is feeling the outsider.
But a teacher he admires, one who has seen something in this young boy that others had missed, has introduced this seventh-grader to a field called psychology, the teacher's own passion. And in that schoolyard, Gottlieb suddenly makes a deal with God:
"If You make me a great psychotherapist, that's all I'll ever ask … "
The man has negotiated several other deals with God in his remarkable life. But that one, he will insist, set his destiny.
Gottlieb knew that his future did not reside in his dad's Army-Navy store. He knew that the stirrings in him – the deep, aching loneliness that he sometimes felt – might actually be a gift. It might make him an empathic listener.
"There was," he suggests, "a definite inevitability about my professional choice. This was all I ever wanted to do."
But not so fast.
Gottlieb almost flunked out of his first semester at Rider College: "I can remember holding an open book for hours, but nothing got into my head."
He later transferred to St. Joseph's University night school where he led a lonely life, and then enrolled at Temple University. "In my senior year at Temple, I finally woke up academically. It was like a light went on, and I loved my classes and my life."
When Bad Things Happen …
And just when things looked so promising – a wife, two babies, a Ph.D. in psychology, a promising job at Mercy Douglas Hospital in Philadelphia as chief staff psychologist, then meaningful work in a drug-treatment clinic at the Philadelphia Psychiatric Hospital – everything changed in a split second.
And if ever a life had a clear line of demarcation, it's Dan Gottlieb's. The simplest definition: B.A. – Before Accident; A.A. – After Accident.
On Dec. 20, 1979, Gottlieb left his Cherry Hill, N.J., home, spirits soaring. He was off to pick up the brand-new Thunderbird that he planned to present as a surprise gift to his wife for their 10th anniversary. But that day, on the Pennsylvania Turnpike near the little town of Ephrata, Gottlieb saw "a huge black thing" – a 100-pound tire from an 18 wheeler – heading toward him.
That tire sliced into Dan Gottlieb's car – and his life. Nothing would ever be the same. And even in those early hours of panic and pain, Gottlieb knew it.
Fast-forward to the anguished weeks and months of being in the prison of one's own body, to thoughts of suicide, and then to the realization that despite paralysis from the chest down, there were no more deals with God. No terms he could set down.
"And I still decided to stick. I realized that we live, we fight, we grow. It's that simple," recalls Gottlieb.
There have been more losses and renunciations. Both parents. His ex-wife. His only sister.
Today, "Dr. Dan," as he is known to his legions of devoted radio listeners on WHYY Radio, and to readers of his Philadelphia Inquirer column on family life, is deeply aware that he won't put things off.
"Life is very precious, and very measured. I expect that my life will be shorter than others because this body has been through so much," he explains.
A profoundly personal belief in God and a growing spirituality have sustained him through his most daunting times, he adds.
A member of M'Kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, he has found a spiritual homeland in the synagogue. "I read Hebrew just a little bit better than I walk," quips Gottlieb, "but when I'm at M'Kor, it doesn't matter. I feel welcome and I feel accepted."
Still, there was a restlessness in Dan Gottlieb, a message he needed to deliver as he approached his 60th birthday this year. That message became a beautiful and lyrical book of letters to his first grandchild, Sam, who was diagnosed with autism around his second birthday.
Letters to Sam: A Grandfather's Lessons on Love, Loss and the Gifts of Life is an outpouring of wisdom – and just about anything and everything a grandfather can offer a grandson.
Gottlieb's introduction to Letters, proceeds from which will benefit children's charities and causes, spells out his mission:
"From the moment that Sam was born, I knew I wanted to tell him about life and love, and what it means to have parents who are vulnerable human beings," writes Gottlieb. "All of the stories are about what it means to be human."
It's all in Gottlieb's book, from the seemingly mundane chat with Sam about giving up the child's pacifier, which turns out to be a life lesson about attachments to things and people, to how the child may have to deal with his autism label, to what it means to be a man.
"This has not been easy. I'm sad for Debbie, my daughter, who had to live with my disability, and now has to live with her child's," he said. "We've both had lots of practice in loss."
"Dr. Dan" doesn't hesitate to offer this appraisal of himself: "My body is broken, my mind is neurotic, but my soul is at peace."
"Pop," as he signs all his letters to Sam, will be the first to tell you that one of his most urgent messages to Sam is that he was loved by a man who was altogether human, who had struggles and triumphs, and who knows about grief and rage … and healing.
And his prayer for his beloved grandson?
"That he grows up in a world that is softer and more compassionate. And that he knows that he is capable of giving and receiving love."