“Joe. My name is Joe. I’ve been here 8 days, and they want to kick me out tomorrow. I have a condition that I can’t get medicine for, and before they know it, I’ll either be dead or back in here.”
I knew I wouldn’t mind if they kicked me out the next day. I was ready to move on, move forward from this nightmare. But Joe was fearful. His voice trembled as he described his life outside his walls of this confinement. He told stories of having it all, being a contractor making hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, working construction and then owning a construction company; married with three kids, and living in a modest ½ million dollar home. “I’m 71 now.
That was a different life, 36 years ago.” Joe was 35 when he first started drinking regularly. He had hurt his arm in an accident and to ease the pain, he had found alcohol seemed to help the pain while also being socially acceptable. His wife of 12 years continued to scold him for drinking too much at times, and eventually she left him alone, in the house of his dreams.
He sold his construction business and moved to Florida. And then drank; for 36 years. His kids had graduated and gone, and this was a blur of a time for Joe. He couldn’t recall the times he had attended graduation ceremonies, weddings, or anything that was normally a landmark moment in a person’s life.
Joe had been admitted to the mental health psychiatric center because he had tried to commit suicide. Alone and in pain, he found solace in the fact that he could leave behind his pain, guilt, shame, remorse, and lonely existence. He swore that when he got out, he was going to figure out, this time for good. Clearly, Joe was not in good shape. He had long been on workman’s compensation and disability, and had been in and out of homeless shelters for years.
I’ll never forget watching midday television one afternoon with Joe. As we sat there, he gruffly asked if I was married. “Yes. I’m married.” I replied with some question in my voice, because at that particular moment I was married, but wasn’t sure how frail that reality was, moving forward. Joe leaned in, across the table with the most intense eyes an old man has given me, probably in my entire life, and said something that haunts me and motivates me all the same.
“When you get out, take advantage of a second chance. Don’t f*** this up and lose everything. You’ve only started to lose your future and you can turn that around.”
And with that, he sat back in the uncomfortable chair and took in the rest of “Judge Judy.” I was taken back. He had told me his story and it had eerily resonated with me. Similar ages, similar life situations, similar pains, and aches and emotional scarring. He had come to the crossroads and the intersection 36 years ago, and had chosen to go down the gravel road of selfishness, self-seeking, and what seemed to be an easier and softer way than living life on life’s terms. He had shut people out of his life, out of his pain, and out of his existence only to find at the end of the day, he had to live with himself. He didn’t like himself very much and so he had made it his goal to rid the world of himself.
The last day that I was at the mental health center, Joe gave me his phone number on a little piece of paper. He folded it up in a square and told me to call him, when I got out, and when I landed somewhere. I forgot about the little piece of paper until about a month after this exchange when I found it in a pocket, in the jeans that I was sporting at the hospital. Memories came flooding back to me, and I knew something had to be different. I didn’t want to end up a 71-year-old man, with a crazy story of living life in a blur, trying to end it all by any means possible. I didn’t want to look back on my life and tell a 35-year-old kid not to screw this up, like I had done. I wanted to choose a different road. One with twists and turns, bumps and valleys, mountains, and rivers. I didn’t want to live a flat life void of emotion, relationships, and joy. I could deal with the pain, as long as I could live life to its’ fullest potential.
I tried to call Joe, the day that I found his number. HIs number was disconnected and no longer in service. Joe was, and is, an angel of hope whom I encountered. I don’t know that I’ll ever see Joe again, but I think of him often. During the times when I descend into a difficult valley or peak a mountaintop, I remember him looking at me, with intensity, desire, and earnestness, and saying “Get it right the second time around, son.” And then we watched another episode of Judge Judy.