Yesterday, I talked about the idea that, where interpersonal confidence and ease are concerned, practice makes perfect. Today, in the hopes of painting a clearer picture of things, I want to add some thoughts. While practice will widen the boundaries of your comfort zone and fine tune your communication skills, it won’t guarantee success. At least immediately apparent success.
In June’s post entitled “grand,” I introduced you to John, a troubled teen I took in back when I was in my twenties. I shared with you heart-warming stories of watching “The Lion King” with this pre-emo tough guy, of his childlike wonder at visiting the ocean for the first time, and of his touching emotional breakdown at seeing the awe and beauty of the grand canyon.
Roses and sunshine, right? It was not always so.
After all the movies and beaches and white water rafting down the Colorado — I kicked John out.
The primary purpose of John staying with me was to give him a fighting chance to overcome his drug addiction. I was gracious and affirming when he slipped up. I told him often that I believed in him and that I knew he could do this. I constantly pointed out his strengths and help him gain perspective on his weaknesses. I washed his clothes and fed him and took him to movies — and I was by no means rich. I tried to give him as normal a life as he’d ever had.
I was patient with him. And, boy, did he know how to test it.
At the time, I had a fairly new red Ford Probe — new enough to still have been in the thick of payments on it. It was the sportiest car I’ve owned — and likely will ever own. As a kind of reward, and to allow him some freedom, I would sometimes let John borrow my car for short periods of time. He never asked. But when I offered — “Why don’t you take the car for a while and go visit a friend” — he would beam. It gave him a sense of pride and trustworthiness. It was as close to a bonding father-son experience as he knew.
At one such time, I handed him the keys and off he went, while I made use of the two hours with a mid-day nap. Ahhhh.
Seemingly only a few minutes later, I was awakened from said nap by John’s voice close by the bed. He spoke very quietly. “Erik … Erik …” I turned and opened bleary eyes to see Brandon Lee from The Crow. John, dressed in his usual head-to-toe black, was drenched and dripping. His long, black hair fell in front of his face. And he looked pale.
“What’s up?” I asked, groggily.
“I crashed your car,” he said with a chagrined smile, as if he’d clogged the toilet instead. I knew he was kidding.
“Uh-huh,” I said and rolled over to resume my nap. He wasn’t going to get me with this.
“No,” he continued meekly, “I’m … serious. It’s … really bad. You should probably come and look at it.”
“OK, John. You crashed the car,” I said without turning back to him. “I’ll look at it when the rain stops.”
Silence. I thought he’d given up his charade. Then he ventured again.
“Um … Erik …?”
All right, all right. I’d let him have his fun with me. I got out of bed. “OK, let’s see the car.” I even got to thinking that maybe he’d picked me up a little treat or something and was just eager to show me. I went along with it. I traipsed over the sodden carpet of my bedroom where he’d been standing, pulling on socks, shoes and a coat.
It was really pouring. Was he actually going to make me walk all the way to the car in this? Oh brother. I smiled at whatever he had up his sleeve.
Upon seeing the car, I was rendered speechless. I thought I must still have been dreaming. It looked more like a Picasso than a Probe. And certainly not at all like my Probe. The hood was contorted beyond belief, blocking the windshield which was broken. Every quarter of the car — and the top — were crumpled and filthy. How was this even possible? And he’d driven it home!
I drew a long breath. And then, I laughed. Hard.
I just burst out laughing and shook my head. Soon he was laughing as well, despite looking fearful that I’d flipped my lid and was two shakes from the asylum. I hugged him. “What can you do?” I finally got out. “Things happen. Getting mad isn’t going to put it back together. I’m glad you’re all right. Let’s get inside out of this rain.”
Back inside, John was in disbelief that I’d handled it this way. He told me what had happened, without making excuses. He’d been on the highway in the speed lane and suddenly realized that his exit was approaching. Cutting across three lanes of traffic, he tried to make the curved exit. By curved, I mean horseshoe. In the pouring rain. For all his claims of what an awesome driver he was — he just wasn’t that awesome.
The car, being nearly new, was not quite totaled. I had to have the extensive damage repaired, and not particularly well. John paid the deductible over time. Screaming and yelling and blaming wouldn’t have changed a thing. I’d handled it well. He felt loved. He’d learned a lesson. Life goes on.
But I told you that I had to kick him out.
After all of this, he started going back to the drugs. And lying about it. I can deal with nearly anything. But I’ve just never been able to do much with lying. If there is no trust, no one knows what we’re actually up against. And he was lying regularly.
One day, while doing laundry, I found a paper crammed into the pocket of one of his many pairs of black jeans. I unfolded it. It was a police citation for possession with intent to distribute. My chest felt like the plug had been pulled from the drain.
When John got home, I told him that we needed to talk. He sat on the couch beside me.
“I’m going to ask you something very important, John,” I started. “And I want you to understand that I already know the answer to the question. Still, I’m going to ask you. And I need you to tell me the truth.”
His eyelids lowered in the beginnings of defiance, but he said, “Kay.”
“Have you been using drugs again? Or had them with you at all?” I quickly added, “Remember — I already know the answer. If you can’t tell me the truth, it’s not going to go well here.”
“No, I haven’t,” he said flatly.
I repeated my question. He repeated his stoic answer.
Tears came to my eyes. I took the folded paper from my pocket and handed it to him without any further words. I then collected the laundry I’d just done and folded, and started putting it and his other things into bags. He watched me without a word. Finally packed, I handed him his life. Tears fell liberally now. “John, I love you. You know that. But I can’t have you living here, getting good food, a place to sleep, showers — a normal life — if you want the drugs instead, enough to lie to my face. It would be allowing you to believe that you can have both in the real world. And you can’t. I would by lying to you, to let you believe that you could.”
He snatched his belongings, jumbling them over shoulders and arms. “You don’t know anything!” he shouted.
I offered to help him carry his things outside.
“F*** you!” was his curt reply, and he stormed out the door.
I sat wearily on the couch and sobbed. That was the last I heard from John for five years.
To all appearances, I’d done everything right. Well, no one does everything right. But relatively speaking, I’d done right by him. I’d sacrificed. I’d taken a risk in even offering to let him stay with me. I’d been kind with my words at all times. Patient. Still, it was another “swing and a miss,” I guess.
Only it wasn’t.
I mentioned in “grand” that, last I knew, John was doing well. Days after I posted this, an old friend of John’s appeared on my Facebook sidebar: “You may know this person.” I hadn’t seen or heard of this kid in eons. But I dropped him a line and he got back to me. Sure enough, he had been in recent touch with John. And soon, I was too. Less than a week after writing that post, John and I were out to dinner together at a pizza place that we frequented during the best of our times together. We then went and played some billiards — another favorite of ours. And he was doing fantastic.
He is 34 now. Best we could figure it had been 12 years since we had last seen one another. I had said in the previous post that he was a respected high-level mechanic. He’d done that one better. He owns his own shop. Listening to him talk about tax preparation and negotiations with police and gaining permits, I felt so proud of him. And I told him so. He’s in a stable relationship of many years with a grounded woman in the medical field. And not only is he not a user, he’s made the hard decision to cut all ties with his lifetime of friends who remain there.
John thanked me over and over for the investment I’d made in him all those years ago. For teaching him how to live and to love. How to shoot high in relationships. How to be patient. And he thanked me again for drawing the hard line I had drawn at the end. I was really overwhelmed.
All those years ago, as that door slammed with his curses still ringing in my ears, it looked — like it all been for naught.
It was another clear reminder to do what you do, because you believe in doing it — not because you expect a certain outcome in return. The fact is — we don’t always see that outcome. But I truly do believe that unselfish love is never — never — wasted.
Sometimes, it just takes a while to show.