The Most Important Things...
The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them--words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to where your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller, but for want of an understanding ear.
John has been and always will be my friend.
My friend John is one of the best people who has walked this Earth. John was the first person who befriended me at church back in 1976. He took me under his wing and taught me the responsibilities of the Aaronic Priesthood and the ins and outs of preparing the sacrament. He made sure I went to and then felt welcomed at church activities. He was one of the popular guys but always made time for me. I was a very shy kid when I was in high school, but John’s friendship and attention I think brought me out of myself constructed cocoon and helped me to understand the difference between acquaintances and true friends. He was a year older and a grade higher than me, but he was a very good friend to me.
A fierce competitor, Johnny was number 32 on our church basketball team. He chose that number because it rhymed with his last name and he thought that was classy. I chose the number 55 because it was the highest number available. He helped me to learn the game and improve my skills, which wasn't hard to do since I had no basketball ability when we began to play. He took the time though and I enjoyed being his team mate.
He was also my partner when the young men of the Braeburn Ward went canoeing down the Guadalupe River in Texas when I was 16. Shortly after putting in, we came to Horseshoe Falls where there was a sign across the river stating that this was a dangerous section water and that several experienced paddlers had lost their lives trying to navigate their way through. John and I were full of machismo and bravado, along with a healthy dose of youthful arrogance, and so we decided that we would be the only team to attempt the falls.
As we approached though, we were being called to, yelled at, and threatened by all of our friends and leaders until we finally decided that our decision to forge ahead despite the danger might not have been the wisest course of action. We struggled to get our canoe to the riverbank as the current had become stronger and we were now paddling against it. When we finally made it to calmer waters and then to shore, we were laughed at by our friends, scolded vigorously by our leaders, and more than a little relieved that we had changed our minds when we saw what we almost encountered.
We might have survived with a bit of help from divine intervention, but I kind of doubt it, especially when I consider what happened later in the day. So instead of trying to be brave manly-men, we just walked around it carrying our canoe and counted our blessings when we saw exactly how nasty a section of river it really was. It didn’t look that bad from up river, but looking at it from below was frightening.
Later, we encountered another little section of rapids, mild by most experienced canoe enthusiasts, but we were anything but experienced. A little two foot straight drop, then on down the river we would go. All of our friends had made it through just fine, but there was a canoe that was stuck on the drop. They hadn’t enough speed to make it all the way across the drop and the back end of the canoe was bottomed on the rock that formed the drop. John and I decided to be helpful to the strangers in this canoe and tried to give them a nudge to dislodge them as we went by, but in doing so our canoe got turned sideways and we went over the fall that way. As soon as we went over, the water from the drop started pouring into the canoe and the force of the water capsized our craft.
Somehow I got trapped under the seats of the canoe and the force of the water churned it into a barrel roll of sorts and I quickly ran out of air. As I sucked water into my lungs I had a very calm and distinct thought run through my head. “So this is what it’s like to drown.” I knew my life was ending then and there and I stopped struggling.
I obviously didn’t drown that day. John finally got the boat away from the churning waterfall and with some help was able to get it flipped back over where I could free myself from my canoe. The adrenaline caught up with me and all of a sudden at the time, I wanted nothing more than to be free of anything that could hold me back and once I was able to catch my breath, I allowed a lengthy string of incoherent and profanity laced viewpoints of my recent experience fly out of my face. John was most gracious and let me vent and rant and rave until I had used each and every curse and swear word I had ever known over and over. I was spent. I’m sure he had heard those words before, but I have always felt bad about my lack of self control in that moment… especially because it was in front of him. Our leaders and other friends were on down the river so they had escaped my vulgar tirade. He never said a word about it though. Not to me, not to our friends, not our leaders. He was a true good friend.
I had lost track of him through the years, but would hear from time to time through a very long grapevine how he was doing… I even got a message from him that must have gone through several different people and across a couple of continents a few months after Sheri and I were married in the Houston Temple in 2002. He had somehow heard about it while he was living in China with his family and sent words of congratulations. I was so happy to hear that.
Last year when I was living in Houston, I ran into his dad at church one hot and muggy Sunday afternoon. We got to sit down and reminisce for a while and I learned that John had not been well. The symptoms were very much like muscular sclerosis, but it wasn’t MS and the doctors couldn’t quite figure it out. Then, several months later, his wife Holly posted on Facebook that he had been diagnosed and was struggling with brain tumors. Man… that hit me pretty hard. I can’t even imagine what his family was going through.
Shortly after I read about his condition, she posted family pictures and as I looked through all of them, I found some degree of comfort in looking at my friend’s face. I decided to try to reach out and contact him. It wasn’t easy though… John steadfastly refuses to do Facebook. Holly had let me know this a few years ago when she and I exchanged a few FB messages. So I tried to get a message to John by going through her again. I got an e-mail back from him expressing his excitement to hear from me and asking how I have been. I sent him a somewhat lengthy response letting him know how my life has been since we last got to visit back in the early ‘90’s and added a phone number. His e-mail response was quick and just about the time I was reading that he would call me later that afternoon, my phone was already ringing.
We talked for a good hour or so, first catching up on how I’ve been doing. He wanted to know about Sheri, how we met, the wedding, the Temple, my activities in the Church, my children, my sisters and parents… etc. He seemed to want to hear it all. He asked a lot of questions and I gave a lot of answers.
Then the conversation shifted to him and his doings. I had known Holly when we were in high school when she first moved to Houston from China, but the last time I spent any time with the two of them, they had only one child, a son… and now they have three, the youngest, Jennifer, is still in high school. Oh how our lives change with the passage of time, and how time will pass us by if we’re not mindful of it.
Then the conversation turned to his condition. John refuses to let this tumor identify him, but his insights on the changes within him were most revealing. He let me know of the first symptoms, the different diagnoses the doctors gave, and how they ultimately found the tumor. In time, our discussion shifted to how it is affecting his life. He told me how he knows that he should know things that he once knew, but can’t quite remember them now. He told me how some days are better than others. He told me of the strength he draws from Holly and his children and how he worries for them if he is called home.
It seemed a little difficult for him to talk about but it seemed as though it was good for him at the same time. He went on to discuss his feelings about the whole thing and one thing in particular really struck a nerve with me.
This might prove difficult to try to explain, but I’m going to try.
As he was explaining his outlook on the future, I heard despair in his voice for the only time in our entire conversation … and I’m not even sure that despair is the correct word. What I heard was a complaining tone, but I had heard that already from him before as he described his frustration in our country’s lack of action regarding the oil industry. John’s particular area of law is in oil exploration, and since we can’t (won’t) drill here, he must do this for oil companies in other parts of the world. He was rather vocal in his opinions on the matter – opinions with which I happen to strongly agree, by the way – and we talked at some length on our mutual frustration.
At one point, I stopped him and asked “John, what makes you think that I’m not a bleeding heart tree hugging liberal?” I just wanted to see how he would react.
Without missing a beat, he said “Well, you probably are.” and went right on with his views of our country and all that is wrong with it as pertaining to the oil industry. The fact that he might be talking to such a person I believe energized him a little. It was pretty funny.
But when he was talking about his illness, the frustration was not the same. Like I said before, there was something in his voice that was different. Something that was frustration, confusion, and maybe a little anger… but not at the tumor or even the hand that had been dealt to him, although at one point he did say “It wasn’t supposed to be like this!”
The thing that struck me the most was his disappointment in himself. He told me that he had been working all of his life with both eyes on the future, never taking the time to live for today, never taking the opportunities to stop and enjoy life at any particular moment. And now it’s looking like he might have only a few more years (if that) to learn how to do that. He said that he didn’t know how to live that way but was going to have to somehow learn how to do that. We talked at length on this subject alone and it was extremely eye-opening to me.
Here’s a guy who is by all accounts very successful in business. He has traveled the world and been a vital part of an industry that none of us would like to find ourselves without. He has raised an awesome family, remained strong and faithful in the Gospel, and yet considers his life wasted. And I know that he doesn’t feel that his life was nothing more than a waste of time… he just seems to feel that there could have been so much more. The contrasts between his life and mine are numerous and yet I know exactly how he feels… albeit from an entirely different (maybe opposite) viewpoint, because I have struggled all my life to know what it is that I should do. I have never been one to make a decision and stick it out as though there were no other alternative. The winds of change will quite often blow me off course and soon I am looking into something else. I feel as though my life thus far has been wasted because I have rarely had my eye on the future, living mostly for today.
Isn’t that odd?
John and I feel exactly the same way about our lives, and yet we arrive at that identical place from exact opposite directions. I feel that Johnny and I can learn much from each other. I am looking forward to a trip back to Houston for that reason more than any other right now. I want to sit down with him and talk about our lives. Maybe we can give each other comfort and discover together that our lives were not in fact a waste of time. Perhaps we can teach each other how the other half lives, so to speak. It’s more than a little humbling to know that someone I admire and have a great deal of respect for has the same feelings of dissatisfaction that I myself struggle with on a near daily basis. When I think of all of the thing I might have been, all of the things I might have done, all of the potential that was squandered because I was too busy living in the moment and ignoring the future consequences of my current actions, I can’t help but get angry at myself.
But now John’s perspective on his life has certainly given me new a perspective on my own life. I think I will be eternally grateful to him for that… and if not eternally, at least certainly for the rest of this mortal life. Even if we don’t get that chance to sit down and visit. I know that Johnny understands the purpose of this life. I know that he loves Holly dearly and that he cherishes his children. I know that he has been a joy to them and they have meant the world to him and is determined to enjoy the rest of his time with them. Johnny knows that his life wasn’t wasted.
I was awakened around 4:30 this morning by a foot cramp. Once I got that under control and got a drink of water, I remained awake in bed thinking about my friend. I don’t know why he was in my thoughts so strongly this morning but I have wanted to get my thoughts down on paper (microprocessor) ever since I talked to him last month.
When my dad and I were on our way back from our fishing trip to Texas back in February, we were riding along in silence through Arkansas when he suddenly said “I wonder how my life would have turned out differently if I had never moved to Texas.”
We all have those thoughts about our lives I think. I wonder how my life would have been different if I’d had the self discipline to stay in high school and be on the golf team. I wonder how my life would have been different if I had met Sheri 20 years earlier. I wonder how my life would have been different if I had been a better father to my children. I wonder how my life would have been different if I had discovered early on what it was that I wanted to do for a profession, or what I wanted my life to stand for. I wonder all of these things and more often than not these wonderings create turmoil in my life and do nothing more than throw me into a deep depression.
One thing I know for certain though as I now wonder how my life would have been different if I had remained close to my friend John… it would have been better. I do not profess to know how it would have been better; I am not able to see the difference an intervention by Mr. Destiny might have made. What I do know though, is that my life would have been at least richer with John in it all these years. And while some might think that this too should knock me off balance a little, it is oddly settling to know that. I guess because it’s not too late to do something about this one.
So now, while the opportunity to go through our 20’s and 30’s and 40’s together has passed, we have the rest of our time here on Earth to add enrichment and color to each other’s lives, and I do not intend to let this second opportunity slip away.
To John, I will quote Spock: “I have been and ever shall be your friend”, because John has been and always will be my friend.