I almost didn’t pick up the phone. We’ve had a lot of robo-calls lately, and I’ve gotten into the habit of just letting the phone ring. If it is important, or someone I know, they’ll leave a message and I’ll call them back.
The number was familiar. It was the number that called several times in the last few days, the voice familiar, from the past when I volunteered as a mentor in a nearby youth prison. Two days ago, the voice left a distraught, heartfelt message, wanting to connect with me, and alluding that he was thinking of ending his life.
No name, no return phone number. But, my phone remembered the number and I called back, getting the receptionist at another youth prison.
I explained that the voice sounded desperate, sad, alluding to self harm.
“We have 250 youth here, and I can’t track down who may have called you,” the receptionist said. “But, I’ll transfer you to the treatment manager in our mental health cottage.”
But, without a name, I was stuck, hoping he’d call back.
This time, we connected. The voice at the other end was a staff person, telling me that “Joe” wanted to talk to me. He put me on hold, and it was a long wait.
I was hesitant to take the call. Maybe “Joe” was having second thoughts, too, now that I was on the line.
My brain was trying to remember who “Joe” was. The mists of time parted and I began to remember “Joe”. I saw him every week for about a year, until he moved on, getting released to a half way house.
The staff had asked me to see him, as he was falling behind in his school work, and didn’t seem to care. He’d act indifferent and pushed me away, not letting me get close to him. But, I stuck with it, trying to tutor him in the math class that he was failing.
It wasn’t the work, and it wasn’t the level of math. I soon realized he was brilliant, and had taken the road of not doing the work, and blowing the homework and the tests, because it was too simple, too easy. And, if he passed his math class, then he’d graduate from high school. The next step was college.
But, he was a failure, a no good, not worthy of success. I soon learned that his family had abandoned him, never visiting him in prison, or even writing a letter or talking with him on the phone.
“Worthless,” “scum”, those were the words he’d last heard from his family, the day he was arrested, probably a whole childhood of that kind of talk.
I walked around the math conundrum, trying to engage with him on a different level. I learned he loved music, playing and composing songs and rhythms. He’d taken over the keyboard in the rec room and the computer that was set up to record and put together different tracks of music the kids had recorded.
I kept asking me to show me what he’d done with the recording devices, but he kept putting me off.
“It’s not very good,” or “I’m not quite ready for you to hear what I’ve done.”
One day, he let me into that world, playing a very complex rhythm track, and a long electronic music piece that was beyond words in its complexity and beauty.
“It’s nothing,” he said, when I raved about his talent and ingenuity.
“Oh, and you tell me you’re not very good at math, when you can compose this elaborate rhythm and multi-track composition?” I said.
“Well,” he said. And just shrugged.
“It’s not a big deal.”
I wanted to get up on the table and dance!
As I was leaving, I told a staff member how talented Joe was, and so gifted in music.
“I know. He’s amazing,” the staff member said. “But he thinks it’s no big deal.”
At our next visit, he actually smiled.
“I passed my math class,” he said. “I actually got an A.”
Yeah, that “Joe”. How could I forget him?
What’s he doing back in prison, after all this time, I wondered.
The phone line clicked, and a soft, deep voice said hello.
“Is this Neal?” the voice asked. The hesitancy in his voice tugged at my heart.
He said he was amazed I remembered him, that I was willing to talk with him, that I was even listening to him, that he was worthy of my time.
“Joe” had taught me an important lesson. Sometimes, good things happen when you just wait, just enjoy the silence in a conversation, and let that quiet connectedness be the conversation. Just showing up, caring, and listening, can affect fundamental change in someone’s life.
Now, years later, I listened again. His story came tumbling out. There were successes, achievements. And there were disappointments, fears, times of perceived failures and disasters. There came a time when it was all too much, too much goodness going on, and so he pulled the plug, sabotaging himself, and choosing to run away.
The old family voices of being worthless and a scum echoed around his mind. There were prophecies to fulfill, and expectations to satisfy.
There was loneliness, too. He’d had no visitors, no one to call, no one to care.
“Except you,” he said. “Thanks for talking to me.”
I didn’t say much at first, just listened a lot to this sad story, feeling him open up on the phone and share his feelings.
I responded, offering words of encouragement, hope, and concern.
I told him he was smart, creative, a nice guy. I told him I cared about him, that he was like a son to me, that he was important to me, a good part of my life.
He got quiet, and I could detect a sniffle or two, and a few sobs.
I’d come to see him, if that’s what he wanted. Oh, he did. He’d talk to his counselor and see if we could set that up.
“I don’t know if they let people here have visitors,” he said. “It’s the mental ward, you see, and I don’t know if they’d let you come.”
I told him I thought they would, if it would help him out, help him move through this rough patch in his life, help him transition to a better place, and get on with his life.
We exchanged addresses, and I gave him my cell phone number.
I promised to write to him the next day, and he said he’d write to me. We’d get together, and work on a plan for him to move on. We’d stay in touch.”
“Three years was too long, you know,” he said.
I laughed. “Yeah, I know.”
He laughed too, then, and I heard him smile finally.
I remembered his smile, the one he gave me when he played his music for me, that one special afternoon years ago, just before he aced his math class.
“Well, I’ve got to go,” he said quietly. “My phone time is up.”
“OK,” I said. It was great to talk to you. I hope you feel better. I hope you want to live.”
“Yeah, I do,” he said. “I really do. Thanks for talking to me.”
“Call again soon.”
I looked at the clock. Twenty minutes had passed since I’d decided to answer the call. Twenty minutes of sad stories, and sniffling, and some words of encouragement. Twenty minutes of showing up in each other’s life again, and both of us finding the good in that, each filling our hearts with that connection once again.
We all have twenty minutes a day to give to someone, to listen, to hear their story, to make a connection. We all can care about someone for twenty minutes.
That might make a big difference. It might save a life.
–Neal Lemery 10/17/2017