I got together with a friend and his wife on Saturday night that I haven’t seen for over twenty years. He and I met on a train in Paris when we were in our twenties and ended up traveling around Europe a bit. He was from Texas and a long-haired hipster. I was from California and looked very clean-cut but was really a hedonist. We traveled together for a month or so before he went home and I continued on around Europe and the Greek islands for several more months.
Though it was difficult to pull off, I’m glad I took that six-month backpacking trip, for many reasons. I wanted to do it while I was still in my twenties. I saw all the things I had read about in history books. I made friends around the world I’m still friends with today. It expanded me as a person in many ways. It made me braver because I learned that the world is as open or closed as we are. i.e., we create our own reality, get what we give, etc.
Another reason I’m glad I took that trip is that it was the last gasp of innocence in my life. My family was healthy. Everything still lay before me. In the years since, there have been quite a few bad experiences. I know we all have our lists of horrors, and I hate to present mine, but there’s a higher purpose for it. I promise. Here are the lowlights of my last twenty years –
Shortly after I returned home, I was at a park showing a friend photos from the trip when a man was robbed and murdered not twenty feet from us and he died in my arms. The bad guys got away. That messed me up good.
A good friend died of leukemia, unrecognizable from bloating and jaundice.
My brother and only sibling died of a drug overdose.
My mother barely survived breast cancer twice.
My wife lost her mother to a massive stroke only three years after we were married.
My father, always the life of the party and an amazing singer and storyteller, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and Dementia, was whittled down to nothing physically and mentally over five years, broke his hip, and spent an agonizing last month in a torture chamber called Kaiser Permanente Hospital (Panorama City, California) being abused by callus and grossly incompetent nurses and doctors, and couldn’t even say goodbye because his throat was so ravaged by botched tube placements. He died on 12/21/14.
Without warning, his perfectly healthy dog and now my mother’s only companion, died on Christmas Day four days later, as if wanting to be reunited with my father. (I wrote about it in a story called The Rainbow Bridge in the Chicken Soup for the Soul book My Very Good, Very Bad Dog.)
My father had a sister in Belfast, Northern Ireland, who was a recluse. She had always made my father feel guilty for leaving her and coming to America to seek better opportunities and start a family. “I’m your family, not them,” she would say. “You should be here taking care of me.” She told him her life wouldn’t have been so hard if he would have stayed. Like most people with tragic lives, she blamed everyone but herself for the way her life turned out. She never dated or married, never drove a car, never had a job, and never left the city of Belfast. My father sent her money to alleviate his guilt but when he developed Parkinson’s, he started to forget. Of course, that’s when we heard from her. When she found out he was sick, she never called again. So I felt no compulsion to let her know he was dying, or even tell her he had died. But I knew he would want me to so I wrote her a letter asking her to come out to California all expenses paid, to start over, let bygones be bygones, etc. Months passed and I didn’t hear back from her so I figured it was just her being her.
Then, in April, four months after my father died, I got a call from a Belfast policeman. He said, “I hate to tell you this, son, but your aunt is dead on the floor here, and judging by your letter, which was in a pile of mail inside her door, and the expiration dates on her food in the refrigerator, she died in late December or early January.”
She was such a recluse, nobody knew she was dead for four months. A neighbor finally realized he hadn’t seen her bringing groceries in and knocked the back door. It was unlocked so he opened it and yelled her name, then the smell hit him.
By pure coincidence, she died within two weeks of my father, as if her house – the house they shared as children – was my father’s first stop after being freed from his broken body. As if he said to her, “Come on, sis. This is no life. Come with me.”
It was a tragic end to a tragic life. I arranged her funeral to restore some of the dignity she had lost lying dead on the floor of her bedroom for four months. Fortunately, I had the help of two absolute Godsends – my maternal uncle and aunt, Billy and Jennifer, who live in Northern Ireland.
The day after she was buried, my mother’s house in California was burglarized. Along with the usual items, they stole an old make-up case my mother kept every letter my father ever wrote to her when they were young and still unmarried. He had moved to Canada before America and begged her to meet him there. He even proposed in one of those letters. I had never read them because I thought my mom wanted to keep them private, but after my father died, I was interested in seeing who he was before I or my brother were born. The burglars were too dumb to figure out how to open the simple latches on the case so they just took the whole thing, hoping there was jewelry in it.
My mother called to tell me about the burglary. The police were there when I arrived. She and I discovered the missing case together. She looked at me with tear-filled eyes and said, “They took all my treasures.” I hugged her, then went into the other room and beat the living hell out of a bed. The next day, I searched every trash can in town hoping the burglars opened the box and threw it away when they saw there was nothing but old letters and photographs in it – worthless to them but priceless to my mother. I also made fliers and posted them all over town offering a $5000.00 reward for the return of the case and letters, or information leading to the arrest of the slugs who stole it.
I wrote a letter to the local paper and it got picked up by every news channel in town. My mom was interviewed repeatedly about it because of its Nicholas Sparks-esque plot. She used to read those letters to my father when his mind was buried under those diabolical brain diseases to remind him of who he was, and who they were together.
So . . . back to my friend’s visit. He was a wild man always joking around when we met twenty years ago in Europe, and he still is. It is impossible not to laugh with him. His wife is kind and gracious, with an infectious laugh. We all laughed until our faces hurt. And then it hit me, I hadn’t laughed that hard that long since my father died. Not often enough, anyway.
After they returned home, Mark sent me an email saying, “I know you’ve been through some horrible stuff lately, and we can always talk about that, but my job is to make you laugh and help you forget.”
Another good friend from high school named Bob also told me that the best antidote for all the pain life sends our way is pure, unadulterated, full-tilt, edge-of-our-seats, mind-clearing FUN.
It’s true. Laughter washes sadness from the heart like water washes away dirt from the body. The problem is laughing is the last thing one wants to do when depressed. Depression takes work. We must keep our head down, fight the urge to smile, round our shoulders, and sigh a lot. If we would just do a hundred jumping jacks or run around the block, we would have no choice but to feel better, at least a little bit, because the mind follows the body’s posture, but we won’t. Depression feeds on itself. It even feeds on the desire to be free of it.
It took me a while to learn this one. I was a serious SOB when I was younger. My friends then would often say to me, “You think too much.” I would usually have some obnoxious, depression-defending response like, “It’s the human being’s frontal lobe and our willingness to use it that separates us from the animals.” But I understand now what they were trying to say – that I was ruining my enjoyment of life by overthinking everything. There’s a lot to be said for pure experience. Pure fun.
I also understand now what a line from an old song called My Back Pages (written by Bob Dylan, sung by The Byrds) meant – “I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.” Youth really is wasted on the young sometimes. It takes so much for most of us to rediscover the joy we had naturally as children, before all the excrement came down.
I have finally not only learned but APPLIED what I learned – that depression and sadness are as strong as any prison wall and must be broken out of the same way, by finding friends who make us laugh, and who get our humor. By seeking Fun with a capital F.
Laughter is the wrecking ball. Real happiness sends the demons scattering, knowing they’ve failed. Not just opening the curtains that keep the light out but tearing them off the wall is an act of victory as surely as those soldiers planting the flag on Iwo Jima. And joy should be the reward for surviving pain. As Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?”
The mythologist Joseph Campbell said people don’t really care about “the meaning of life” as much as they want to “feel the rapture of being alive” – to know that they’re spending their lives in the best way possible, the same way we want to spend our money wisely. Time spent depressed is the worst use of our time. Grief has its place and time, but it must be emerged from at some point completely. Walking around with a giant hole right through the middle of us is an insult to life, ourselves, and everyone trying to love us.
Below are a few photos that demonstrate the kind of joy I’m talking about. The kind of joy good friends, God bless them all, remind me of. The kind of joy we should seek every day to chase away the depression that threatens to consume us after the most horrible losses. Life is to be lived, my friends. Completely and passionately.
I suspect at that final moment when death comes for us, we will realize how precious every moment was, and regret every moment we spent wallowing in painful memories and grief. We’ll wonder why we didn’t do all the things we wanted to do, why we let ourselves live a half-life, why we didn’t trust our talents and the path they take us on completely, why we didn’t tell our friends and family we loved them more often, why we “tip-toed through life just to arrive at death comfortably.” Why, why, why, why, why. Those are why’s we don’t want to have.
To anyone who made it through this long blog post, you’re a rare breed in this fast food world. I wish you peace, happiness, and that thing that makes them both possible – Fun.
Carlos was probably the scariest-looking human being I’ve ever known. He spent so much time lifting weights and was so gigantic, everybody at the gym was worried he might explode someday. He was covered with tattoos, some very well done and some that appeared to have been scribbled by a cellmate or a stoned friend. He was about forty years old and his face had recorded every one of them. It was crooked, smashed, pock-marked, scarred and generally beaten all to hell.
If any of the other hardcases in the gym ever thought about challenging Carlos, they were probably discouraged by the thought of where they might hit him. His bull-like thickness made his body almost invulnerable, and he probably wouldn’t care if he got hit in the face. As a wise person once said, “Never mess with a man with nothing to lose.”
A smile might have improved his appearance but I never saw it happen. He was so serious-looking, it was as if his face might crumble and fall to the floor if he attempted to smile. Because of all this, nobody spoke to him or wanted to. Nobody even looked at him. After all, people avoid danger, and Carlos looked dangerous. But it has always been a bad habit of mine to walk toward danger rather than away from it, as if there are answers to great mysteries hidden there, or behind my own fear.
So rather than avoid Carlos like everybody else did, I would always give him a friendly nod when I’d see him at the gym. He didn’t respond at first but after a while, he started returning them. Still, he never smiled and we never spoke until one day when Carlos was leaving the gym while I was arriving. Determined to see if it was possible for him to smile, I gathered my courage, smiled brightly and said, “Hey! How ya doin?” as if we were old friends.
I was surprised to see a big smile spread across his face, and his eyes lit up so wide, his face became almost childlike. And what a grand smile it was. A smile compliments a face that has been kicked around so much more than one that hasn’t.
I extended my hand. He grabbed it, squeezed it hard and said, “Fine! How are you?” There was so much spirit and gratitude in his handshake, I felt like I was handing a glass of ice water to a man wandering through the desert.
Slightly shocked by his friendliness, I said, “I’m doing well. Did you have a good workout?”
“Yeah, real good,” he said. “My back’s bugging me, though. It’s always giving me trouble.”
“Oh, man. Back problems are the worst,” I said. “Well, at least you’re still making it into the gym. You can’t keep a good man down.”
He laughed and said, “Thanks, I’ll try to think of it that way, too.”
I noticed a tattoo on his arm of a young woman’s face in the middle of a heart with cherubs flying around it. I asked who it was. He told me it was his mother, and that she had died five years earlier.
“She’s very beautiful,” I said.
“Yes, she was,” he answered, looking down at the tattoo. “I miss her every day.”
We talked about a lot of things that day. He grew up in Chicago. His father was killed in a construction site accident. Carlos was only three at the time so he had no clear memories of him. He was an only child because his mother never remarried. She kept a black and white photo of his father on her bedside table all her life. He joined a gang as a teenager, which was when he acquired most of his tattoos. He moved to L.A. to get away from the life when he realized how much the violence and mayhem was twisting his spirit.
He said, “I was ashamed of myself for worrying my mother so much just to go looking for trouble with a bunch of fools. I owed her everything. I owed them nothing.”
“That was a wise decision,” I said.
He said, “Yeah, but it’s too bad wisdom demands so much from us, especially time.”
I asked him what he meant. He said he made that decision after spending two years in the Cook County Jail for aggravated assault.
“I’ll tell you, man,” he said. “Jail really worked for me. It gave me a lot of time to think. And you know how many times those puto’s came to visit me? Once. One time. That was all I needed to know.”
When he got home, he asked his high school sweetheart to leave Chicago with him but she couldn’t because her parents didn’t approve of him after he went to jail. But she still loved him and it was a tearful parting. I asked him if he had ever married. He said he hadn’t because he could never find anyone to match her. I could tell he was still carrying her in his heart, preserved there at the age she was when he left her. Time would not find her as it had him.
He said the thing he was most proud of was saving enough money to buy his mother a small house near his own and fly her out to Los Angeles. He said she was like a kid at Christmas when he took her to her new home. He never told her that he worked two jobs for five years to pull it off.
“She was happy here,” he said. “We were together again and she made a lot of nice friends.”
I sensed great sadness and loneliness in Carlos. It became clear to me that weightlifting was a refuge for him, and an escape. I was also reminded of how utterly incorrect outward impressions of people can be, and all anyone really needs is for someone to show a sincere interest in them.
Not everything we talked about was so sad. We had a good laugh comparing my Irish culture with his Hispanic culture. We decided they were very much alike. Both are basically good-natured, quick with a laugh, a little hot-tempered, and of course, they both love their cerveza’s.
After an hour or so, we said goodbye, and he smiled that big smile again. After that day, Carlos and I always talked at the gym. We even worked out together a few times, though I could never match his strength. People always seemed surprised to see the medium-sized, conservative-looking white boy hanging out with the big, mean-looking cholo. And only I knew that he wasn’t in a gang anymore. Only I knew the sad and lonely man beneath the intimidating appearance.
A little while later, I went to Europe for six months. I got Carlos’ address and told him I would send him a postcard or two. I did. One from Rome and one from Athens. When I came home and went back to the gym, I asked if anyone had seen Carlos. Nobody knew him by name so I had to describe him.
“Oh, that guy?” somebody said. “He died. Suicide or something.”
“What? When?” I asked.
“A few months ago,” he answered. “Who cares? The guy was a jerk.”
My shock turned to anger.
“He was a friend of mine,” I said.
“Oh, sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know you knew him so well.”
Everybody went back to their workouts. I felt sick so I went outside and walked to the spot where Carlos and I had talked that day.
“God damn it, Carlos,” I whispered.
The tears welling in my eyes were caused by anger at him but also shame with myself for not reaching out even further to him. I had been unable to grasp the full depth of his despair. For a moment, I thought if I hadn’t gone away, maybe he would have had someone to talk to. Maybe he wouldn’t have . . .
I brushed that thought away. There was no point in thinking such things now. I went back inside and started working out again but my mind was on my friend. His spirit was everywhere, the spirit only I knew. Again, I thought about how wrong surface impressions can be. Carlos was the strongest man in the gym, but only on the outside.
He was already forgotten here. Nobody would miss him, nobody except me, because I remembered the guy with the big smile, the guy who missed his mother every day, the guy who squeezed my hand so hard, it was like I was handing a glass of ice water to a man wandering through the desert.