Conversations with Joe: The silence between the words

The silence might be awkward with anyone else.

My wife walks in the room and sees me holding a phone and not saying much.

She smiles and whispers,”Joe?” I nod with a grin.

Not a lot has happened since my mild-mannered 17-year-old son called yesterday, but he calls anyway. Sometimes he updates me on his beloved Barcelona soccer team and it’s star Lionel Messi. I even got a call  once to let me know that Messi’s wife had a baby. Joe  was already scheming for a  way that Barcelona could someday sign this golden child.

Joe always tell me the details of his own soccer games. We share his dreams of a future college career. Often Joe calls to let me know about a band he has discovered. We have similar taste in music. “You need to listen to them,” he says of his latest  discovery. “I will,” I reply. “No, right now!” he insists. I drag out my laptop and1186115_10201050169201717_948214773_n find a sample while he is anxiously asking my opinion. Then we sit in silence. I think we could drive all the way across the country to the sounds of  Nirvana, the Dirty Heads, Bob Marley and Tom Petty. Between each piece of news, Joe and I  often  sit in silence, waiting for inspiration to revive our conversation. I love the conversation, but I am equally comforted by the long silences. Since I moved the Bay Area two years ago, Joe has called me almost every day. Our sporadic conversations have the feel of a front porch in the evening. Even when we have nothing much to say, no one is of a mind to rush off.

I wistfully remember long drives when Joe was younger. Tuned into the local classic rock station, Joe would quiz me on the names of each band that came over the airwaves. I got most of them right and my young son looked at me like I was some sort of musical sorcerer. Before long, Joe was as adept as me, quickly barking Jimi Hendrix to the opening moan of All Along the Watchtower, and beating me to the punch when the tribal drums of Sympathy for the Devil bounced around the front seat.

I knew I had brainwashed Joe when we were returning from Kansas City one night. Joe’s twin sister Annie in the front seat, Joe and his little sister Emily in the back. The girls were arguing for a silly station that today is probably playing One Direction and Miley Cyrus.

I was battling to keep tuned in to the Friday night double play of Led Zeppelin.

From the back seat I heard Joe say seriously, “They just don’t understand our music do they, Dad.”

“No they don’t, Joe,” I replied with a hidden smile.

I tease Joe that Messi’s no big deal (full disclosure: Messi  is amazing) and remind him with a grin that, frankly I don’t give a damn about watching European soccer any more than I want to watch Gone With the Wind with my wife. Joe  ignores me and tells me that Barcelona has signed another forward to go with Messi and rising star Neymar. No one will be able to stop them, not even Real Madrid. Joe really hates Madrid. Joe is part Irish, part German and part soccer hooligan.

I tease my wife JJ that Joe only calls to talk to her. It goes something like this. Joe says hello and makes some small talk with me for about five minutes. Then he asks, “Where’s JJ?” I say she’s in the kitchen, do you want to talk to her? Joe brightens and says yes. Then they talk for a half hour. I’m not the only Madden charmed by JJ.

Perhaps the most touching phone  calls are the briefest. Joe has absolutely nothing to say. We fumble around a bit, trying to strike up a conversation then Joe ends it. “I’ve got to go now.” Joe is not one to share emotions. When I tell him I love him, I get an uncomfortable mumble back. I take these calls as Joe’s “I love you.”

I feel like my son is reaching out to make sure I’m still there and to let me know he is too. He is telling me he is thinking about me and missing me and he wants me to know.

After seven years in their employ St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, Kan., let me go without explanation and little severance. I was a couple of months from having no place to live.  I finally made the decision to move from Missouri to the Bay Area to live with my wife after two years of marriage 2,000 miles apart. My heart broke into pieces when I told my children and they asked why I had to go. I could offer no sufficient answer to ease their pain or my own. Annie moved with me, but Jacob stayed behind to finish his senior year at LeBlond High. He would lead his soccer team to perhaps the greatest season in school history, placing fourth at state. He now is a starting defender for Johnson County Community College. Joe and Emily also stayed behind. Joe would earn academic honors and soccer accolades as well. He played along with his brother on the final four state team and was  part of the school’s District Champion basketball team last year. Emily involved in student government and campus ministry and went on to post-season honors in three sports, including All-state this season after scoring 34 goals for Leblond’s soccer team.

I had coached my children through their childhood, took them camping and never missed their games and school and church activities. Now I was missing entire seasons.

Sometimes the loss overwhelms me and I can only go off alone and weep.

But my children take care of me.

My strapping son Jacob, the enforcer, the toughest and most fearless  soccer player I have ever seen, is blessed with a gentle heart. He pledges his love and gratitude to me over Twitter. Emily, my little sweetheart, calls me to report on her victories and losses and never forgets to say, I love you. Annie the fiercest and most irreverent of my children argues and battles with me in our small house and then suddenly charms me with her often bizarre sense of humor.

Singer John Hiatt wrote, “It’s the twilight that captures the sorrow of time, in between the life and the lived…”

Near sundown sunny California fades into a mist as fog hushes in from the nearby ocean. A chill is in the air as I stand on our front porch gazing at the hills in the distance that hold on to the last of the sunshine.

Melancholy captures me somewhere between gratitude and regret. I am grateful for the way my children have come through hardships and broken promises with forgiveness, unity and humor. I am grateful for the good and loyal friends that surround them. I am grateful that the trust and love between my children and me remains.

But I can’t help but feel sorrow over the pain I’ve caused. My drinking throughout their childhoods, divorce, and the feelings of abandonment.

Night is falling and cold forces me back inside. The house is as dark. But then the glow of a ringing cell phone brightens the room. I know before answering.

Joe is calling before he goes to bed.

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The Divine Revelation of Suicide

Suicide occurred to me like divine revelation–obvious, certain and irrefutable. I was lying in bed next to my wife when I realized that all those well-meaning people who say it “is not an option” are wrong. Of course it is. I recognized so clearly that I had been granted too much life span. My capacity for joy, my talents, my ability to provide for my family had been finite. At 46, a bipolar episode and the subsequent depression had exhausted me. For months I had been crashing deep10563127_10202444202846230_1914226759642794028_n into sleep, or medicating myself with midnight Netflix.
Self-absorbed and terrified I devised the obvious way to slip out of the picture, a one-night relapse. Binge drink myself to death.
Instead, like I have done for years when the urge to drink has come over me like religious fervor, I told someone. This time it was my wife. I told her my whole plan. Inside my head, my self-worth was self-evident. As soon as I spoke, I recognized the path of destruction I was preparing to leave behind.
I haven’t considered myself a good father in the past year. I told my wife my kids love the idea of who I was before. She told me I was wrong. But even that is better than what I would be leaving behind.
I told my wife she deserved better than me. That’s when I experienced the truly divine revelation of what it means to be loved.
I am still battling the depression, with the help of puzzled doctors. Of course, the death of Robin Williams last week gave me pause. I mourned his genius but more important I wondered if he like me felt like his time had run out. I of course am no Robin Williams but I shared with him a history of addiction, which is a disease of loneliness. I was saddened by his death and the loneliness of it.
It is a common saying that the mind of an alcoholic is like a bad neighborhood, you shouldn’t go there alone.
In recovery we rely on one another to fight the cunning and baffling demons. We pick up a phone. We go to meetings. We talk to sponsors. With luck we have the support of family. Yet suicide is not uncommon in our ranks.
Some would call such an act selfish, for the grief and suffering it leaves behind.
I would not judge so harshly, because in my encounters with clinical depression, I have become self-centered and isolated, turning harshly upon myself to the point of obsession. I don’t think the Catholic Church teaches this anymore, but when I was growing up I learned that suicides went directly to hell. Some religious people still believe that.
Addicts often choose “spirituality” over religion. It has been said that religion is for people who don’t want to go to hell.
Spirituality is for people who have already been there.