Thursday, November 21, 2013

The John Effect

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I have wanted to write about my friend, John, for a long time. I learned a ton from him and the ripples from our friendship still pop up in my life today. I call it the John Effect.

Our friendship began after a phone call from one of his family members years ago. John's mother had been his life long caregiver in NYC. When she died, one of his siblings moved him to our small town to care for him. He set him up in an apartment but he was in need of supports to live independently. John had undiagnosed mental health issues. It was suspected he may have had a combination of either autism, epilepsy or schizophrenia. As a child he had received some type of electroshock treatments that had only disabled him further. I received a call from his sibling because he had heard a group I was affiliated with provided volunteers to help folks like John.

I'd like to say I immediately volunteered to help. I didn't.

I did however feel bad for him and agree to take him out once a week until I found someone to do it permanently. That day never came.

John was a gentle giant. I will never forget the first time I pulled up to pick him up on our first weekly outing. He was waiting for me in front of his apartment building. He was a bit disheveled but well shaven and handsome as could be in a full suit with a baseball cap! He was about 6'3 and I'm guessing 270 lbs. He had a gray buzz cut and big gray bushy eyebrows. I'd be lying to say I wasn't a little intimidated at first.

"Hi John" I said as he squeezed in the front seat.

Eyes straight ahead, no eye contact he replied simply. "Hello"

"Where to today?" I asked.

"Let's go to Wegmans for a submarine sandwich and I need some groceries and cigarettes", he replied.

He reminded me of my dad, a man of few words. I missed my dad.

And so began our weekly tradition of lunch, groceries and cigarettes. We shared a ham and capicola sub on the weeks we didn't go to the community kitchen for a free lunch. I will never forget one of our community kitchen trips.

We walked in as usual and stood in the line for our turn to get our lunches. I always went first and John stood behind me. I would sit and eat with him and ask him every question imaginable to try to get him talking. He was always polite and would answer but he never asked me a single question about my life. No worries. I'm a distance runner and a rambler. I don't give up easily :)

So this particular day they are serving the crowd favorite, macaroni and cheese. It's good. It's really good. And we are in line. And then out of the corner of my eye I see the news filming and interviewing people eating. Oh. My God. What will people think if they see me on the news eating here?

"One scoop or two of the famous mac and cheese, my dear?" my favorite worker asks.

"Oh none today. I'm not hungry."

"You aren't eating?" John asks.

"Here have some of mine."

"No thanks John, I'm not hungry today. My stomach is off."

And I sat there silent with my head down hoping the camera was missing my face. I don't know if the camera would have been the worst thing in front of my face at that moment. I would have also avoided a mirror equally as much. I was ashamed of myself for being so shallow. I knew better than this. And I was mad at myself as I sat there embarrassed while John ate alone across from me.

Not my finest moment.

John and I stayed friends for a really long time. Sometimes we went to visit his dad who was from Italy. He was 100 years old living in a nearby nursing home. He was delightful. I'm so glad I was able to meet him.

I loved listening to John talk about his time in college. I always asked about the courses he had taken and he always looked incredibly proud to list Calculus, Chemistry, Organic Chemistry and several others. The conversation always went the exact same way when I asked about his time in college.

"Well Darcey. First you go to elementary school. Then you go to high school. And then if you are lucky you get to go to college. And that's how that works."

He always followed up his explanations to me with, "....and that's how that works."

I also remember the day I was reaching and reaching to find common ground between us. I talked and I talked and I talked some more! This is probably hard to believe, I know ;) Then I hit television! And some how we realized we both watched Days of Our Lives! I hadn't watched it in years but really not much changes. Stefano dies and comes back. Bo and Hope separate and reunite and so forth :) So from then on he updated me every week!

I remember toward the end of our time together I had taken him grocery shopping and he wanted to go right home. He was clearly not feeling well and we cut our time short. After he got out of the car I noticed that he'd had an accident in the seat. Again, I wish I could say this went down differently but that would be a lie.

I was really unhappy and I considered not seeing him anymore. I'm not sure what brought me back the next week. I bi*ched and moaned all week over whether or not to quit. 

"No one would blame me for not doing it, right? I mean I can't have that happening in my car, right?"

Unanimous replies. 100% agreement from almost everyone I asked.

But whether it was guilt or my stubbornness or some force of nature I went back the next week. And I am so glad that I did.

One of our last lunches together we were eating together and I was sitting across from him. He put the sandwich down and looked at me and asked me, "How are you Darcey? How are your children?"

It was the first time he had ever engaged with me like that and asked me a question about my life. It was an awesome moment.

He got sick shortly after that. It turned out the accident in my car was indicative of a bigger bowel problem and he died a very short time later.

I am so grateful to have met John. I received so much more from him than I ever gave.

He taught me kindness

He taught me how to look outside of my own self in spite of his own struggle doing so.

He taught me the value in doing something for someone without expecting something in return.

He taught me the old saying is true, what people think of you is none of your business as I helped him use his Benefit card for his groceries amid looks of annoyance from the cashiers or the lady behind us.

He taught me not to assume. Never to judge people based on how they look. You never know what their circumstances are.

And lastly, every single time I volunteer at the community kitchen where I live now, I make a plate and I go out in the dining room and I pick a group to eat with and talk with. I have connected with people I never would have otherwise thanks to John and the lesson I learned not eating with him that day. In a way he lives on in every person I connect with when I'm there. It is a ripple effect and it is all thanks to his life and knowing him.

I eat every single time now. Every single time.

And that is the John effect.