Bad things happen in our own lives and the lives of those around us. If we can, we protect ourselves by turning away. We shield ourselves, if possible, from trauma, from ugliness, from imagined scenes we fear will turn to fact and haunt us.
I received a phone call from a friend now living out of town who was worried about another mutual friend. In response I said
“Sure, I’ll go down there.”
In a few minutes I was pounding on the front door, a replacement steel door at one time added, along with vinyl siding, to a little old Ottawa house. There were no lights on. No one answered. Our friend’s car was parked at the curb and covered in snow. No wheel tracks. The mailbox was full. There were no footprints leading to the house. The sidewalk and stoop were unshoveled. How many nights ago did it snow? How many days had passed? No signs of movement from curb to the door. No sound of movement within the house.
I walked to the back on the neighbor’s driveway. Smooth snow covered the way to the deck, between the house and its little garage. Pretty unbroken snow, sculpted, once more with no tracks. Snow had fallen days ago. Two days? Three? The light from a streetlight glowed faintly in the back by the alley. But from the house no light. No sound. I opened the back storm door and tried the knob. It turned. I opened it.
For a second I saw myself stepping in and yelling his name. I almost did just that but then I stopped. Not because I feared he had a gun, although I crossed my mind. I feared what I would find. I should have returned his calls. His calls were so long and rambling. My wife read the news item to me from the paper. A DUI. He had stopped calling. Had not called me in weeks. All through the snowstorm, the cold snap that followed. Filled with shame perhaps. Likely depressed and drinking more. I didn’t want to imagine what he could have done. But having done just that I didn’t want to see what I imagined. I didn’t want those images to be made fact. I turned away, like I turned away from his calls. I went to the police station and talked to the dispatch officer in the lobby.
“I’m concerned about my friend. He lives at ______ and I can’t raise him. I got a call from people close to him out of town. He’s not called important people in his life for some time. He doesn’t answer the door. I’m worried.”
“You want a well being check then?”
“Yes I do.”
He took my name. He promised cops would meet me there. They did. They were great. They shined their flashlights into his car. I told them the door was open in the back and the tracks leading to it were mine. We followed them, they shined their lights into the garage first, then into the back windows.
“I’ll stay here,” I said. I stood on the deck.
“That’s best,” a young cop told me.
Cowardly? Perhaps. I listened as they entered the little house, three of them, flashlights blazing. I heard them call out. I had told them his name. They called out twice. Time was moving so slowly.
I didn’t hear his response, only their reply to an unheard voice.
“Can we come down there then?” I heard a cop say. I knew then he was alive.
Did he have a basement? Where was down there? In a minute, perhaps two, the three officers came towards me, flashlights lit.
“He appears to be OK. He’s on the couch in the front, in the living room. I told him your name and he said he’s willing to talk to you.”
“Thanks. I wasn’t sure what I might have found in there.”
“I know. Better we go in than you. Glad to help.”
They left. I walked down the long hall. Down there must have referred to the length of the hallway. It’s a shotgun house, long from front to back, at the front door a living room, a hallway with two bedrooms and a bathroom off it, kitchen at the rear. I could barely make him out in the darkness.
“______, people are trying to get in touch with you. You aren’t answering your phone. They called me. They’re worried.”
“I’m right here.”
“Can I turn a light on?”
I switched on a floor lamp. I hadn’t seen him in a month or more. He was even thinner. A cheap thermal blanket was bunched around him. A big couch pillow had a dent in it. He had been sleeping, or simply lying, inches from the hollow steel door I pounded on so hard and long.
“You didn’t answer your door. The back door was open. But I was scared. I‘m sorry I called the cops.”
“It’s OK. I’m glad to see you.”
“Where is your phone?”
“I have it here I think.” He fumbled in the pocket of his hoodie.
“Is it dead? Let’s charge it.”
“I don’t think it will do any good. My service was cancelled I think. Along with the internet.”
“Are you sure?”
“I think so.”
“OK let’s use my phone. Let’s call _____. He called me. He’s worried.”
“Now?” He looked genuinely puzzled.
“Yeah. Talk to him. He’s your friend. He’s worried. e;’s worried. He’s worried Let him know you’re all right.”
I punched in our friend's number. ______ looked at my phone as if it were a moon rock. Then he heard something and put it to his ear. He began to talk, flippantly, carefree, as if he was planning a trip to the beach. I heard but one side of the conversation.
“__________ my man, whassup?”
He paused and listened.
“Just, you know, staying in with the weather and all. Takin’ it easy. Watching movies. Nothing special.”
“___________? I just talked to her didn’t I?”
“ Really? She says it was three days ago? That can’t be. I’m sure I talked to her.”
“Yeah. Well of course I believe you, I mean if that’s what she told you. I just think she’s wrong. She gets nervous. I tell her not to worry…”
“Yeah, OK, I promise. I’ll call her right after I hang up. Yes I will. And yes I am. I am fine. Don’t worry about your old buddy ________.”
He hung up and looked around the room blankly. Unopened mail covered the coffee table. There was an empty can.
“Where were you earlier? When I knocked on the front door? You must have heard me. I’m sorry to have called the cops but I was worried. To be honest I was afraid you might have hurt yourself.”
“I’ve had people knock on my door that had the wrong house. I’m sorry I didn’t answer. I might have been in the shower.”
He paused. His eyes were bloodshot and his clothes were rumpled. He looked bad.
“Sorry but you don’t look like a guy who just got out of the shower.”
He ignored that.
“Thanks for worrying about me. I may be depressed but hurting myself or someone else is nothing I would ever do no matter what. Really. Don’t worry about that.”
“OK, but I’m worried about you anyway.”
He looked at me for a long time but didn’t respond.
“You eating? What’s this can here?”
I picked it up and read it. It was Ensure, a prepared protein drink.
“I had that a while ago. I had a hot dog too.”
“You been sleeping?”
“I don’t sleep good. My dreams wake me up. I have pretty terrible dreams.”
“The DUI? What about that?”
“I wasn’t drinking. The numbers on the machine were nuts. I tried to tell them it was just my medication. I said to the cops “You blow in this machine, I bet it says you’re drunk.’ It can’t be right.”
He looked at me with a pained face. Beseeching might be the word. Plaintive. Wanting terribly to be believed.
“When’s your court date?”
“I don’t know but it’s written down on the ticket. I got that somewhere.”
“You’re going to need an attorney.”
“I’m getting letters. They must read the paper. Everybody in the county wants to defend me.”
“How about your kids?”
He hung his head.
“I want to see them for Christmas. They’re supposed to come over.”
I looked around. A Christmas tree was in a bag on the floor. Cardboard boxes were stacked all around.
“What’s with the boxes?”
“I’m going to move. I got to sell this place.”
“Do you have money still?”
“How about I pick you up in the morning and we go to breakfast. Take a shower and change your clothes. I’ll be here at 9:00.”
“Yeah. Let’s get you out of here. Maybe come up with a plan. You’re a social worker that needs a social worker. You know how to do this. You’ve done it for plenty of people. I’ll bring a pencil and a yellow pad. We’ll get started.”
It’s human nature to protect ourselves. Besides that it’s the holidays. We want bright colored lights and presents. We want to reaffirm love with family and those most close to us. So yes, we protect ourselves. We turn away from ugliness. We shield ourselves from possible trauma. It’s natural I think. But we can, any of us, help those who hurt. All you really have to do is show up.
My friend got help and continues to make use of it. Those of us who care for him, and there are many, hope he reached the bottom (if there is such a thing), is on his way back up, and finds his way to better days. It’s hard to do alone.
Consider answering your phone when you would rather not. Better yet reach out to those around you before they call. We need each other. It’s natural to turn away but rethink it. You could make a difference.
Happy New Year.