I shared with you in a recent post about Brandon, the boy I had taken in for a year-and-a-half when I was just out of college. He was not the only one.
I first met John in a crack house. Lest you pair this information with patchy memories of my cat story and really think I’m shady, I went into said establishment to retrieve another young man I thought might be in trouble there. John was slouching in a dirty green recliner. Though the room was already dark and filled with smoke, he wore aviator-style sunglasses, partly covered by his long black hair, which hung in front of his face and across his shoulders. The rest of his outfit was composed of a black Guns-N-Roses T-shirt, faded black jeans, and Doc Martins. A cigarette hung from a corner of his mouth in a way that seemed set on letting everyone know exactly how much he didn’t care. I smiled and said, “Hey.” He jutted his chin at me, which I took as a form of greeting. That was the whole of our first encounter.
After that, I’d see John hanging out around other kids in parking lots in Attleboro. I always stopped to say hi. Chin jutting turned to “hey” or ” ‘sup,” and after a period of gradually lengthening exchanges, we had our first real conversation, sitting on a curb late one night.
John was 15. He had been smoking since he was in grade school, drinking and using since junior high. He lived with his mother, also a user who got her drugs from John, who could buy them for her cheaper at school than she could from her adult sources. He didn’t know his father, though he’d heard that he lived somewhere in Attleboro. John was a poor student. His life’s dream was to be an auto mechanic, and so the other courses seemed a waste to him. At the time we talked, he had never been on a plane. He had never been out of state. He had never seen the ocean.
In fact, he had never been out of the city of Attleboro in his life.
My first attempt at broadening John’s horizons was to invite him over the town line to my home. I told him that I had a movie I wanted him to watch. He was sure he wouldn’t like it. So I made him a deal. He could “make” me watch any movie he liked, and afterward, he would have to watch my movie without complaint. He raised an eyebrow and formed a devilish grin. “Any movie I want, huh?” I confirmed, hoping against hope that it wasn’t going to be of the naughty variety.
The night arrived. John and I got pizza. He was being very mysterious about the film to which I would soon be subjected. He said it was one of his favorites. I couldn’t begin to guess.
As it turned out, his movie choice was Harold and Maude, a dark comedy about a depressed teenage boy who falls in love with a 79-year-old woman. It revealed quite a lot about John and how he thought. I don’t know if he felt more disappointed or flattered when I expressed how much I loved it. It remains a favorite of mine to this day.
Afterward, I revealed my own cinematic wonder – The Lion King. He fussed and fumed and protested that he wasn’t watching any baby movie (I later learned that he had never seen a Disney movie). But I had already watched his choice. And a deal was a deal. So we watched. He slumped back with a disdainful face as the castle appeared and Tinkerbell swirled around it to “When You Wish Upon a Star” during the opening credits.
The next time I looked, he was wide eyed, his face responding unwittingly to every turn in the plot. When Mufasa died in the canyon, he actually blurted out an imploring “No!” despite himself. He stealthily dried his eyes on his sleeve. I did the same, but for different reasons.
I began to help John with school work and he passed tenth grade somehow. With the onset of summer, I took John to the beach – another first for him at sixteen. The issue of wearing shorts was no mean hurdle, but I finally managed to cajole him into cutting a pair of his older black jeans into something at least in the ballpark. He wore them to the beach with a leather belt.
Reaching the shore involved passing through several more towns John had never been in, and we named them off as we passed the borders of each, causing him to feel like quite the seasoned traveler. As we neared the beach, he noticed the difference in the treeline and smelled the salt in the air, commenting with no little wonder at these things.
Finally, we arrived. His eyes were large, darting around to take it all in. The parking lot, that is, as the ocean itself was still obscured from view by the dunes. I felt like a father watching his young son learn to walk as John’s feet hit the sand for the first time in his life, struggling to work muscles in ways he’d never had to, navigating his way up the shifting incline uncertainly. Halfway to the top, he heard what lay beyond, roaring and shushing. “Is that … the ocean?” I remember him asking incredulously. He really seemed to have no idea that it was only yards away, just out of sight.
And then we crested the dune. The ocean spread out before us. John stood there, unable to keep walking for a moment. He almost seemed confused, overwhelmed, as he took in the foreign scene. Then he made a run for it, taking no care for the strips of rocks in his way. He “eeked” and “ouched” his way to the water and splashed right in. “It really is salty!” he exclaimed, as if he didn’t believe this fact from the books he’d read about it. Suddenly, he pointed as if at a ghost, his mouth agape. Something was moving across the sand. “Is that … a real crab?”
John was tasting of innocence and possibility. His world was enlarging. And it was already changing him. He decided that he’d like to try kicking the drugs. He believed that he could.
John’s mother was anything but happy about the changes in him. She seemed to take his sharing of every new adventure as a barb, as though he were gloating instead of merely expressing his new-found happiness. She was young and self-centered. Personal conflicts continued to mount until she finally told him that he was just taking up space and money. At sixteen, he found himself homeless.
At first, John hopped from basements to cars to couches, trying to make his way. But he soon realized that he would have no success laying off the drug when all of his benefactors were users themselves. Still in my twenties, I offered to take John in, until he finished high school. He stayed with me for nearly two years, working odd jobs and attending night school.
While with me, he continued to struggle on and off with drinking and drugs. I knew that he really wanted to change; but at every turn, there were people all too willing to share their wares. And it had been his life for a long time. Still, he kept trying.
The first summer John was with me, friends made plans to do a whitewater rafting trip down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, and they asked if I’d like to join. I knew I could not really afford the trip, especially now that I had another mouth to feed. And of course, I couldn’t leave John by himself that long. So my first response was that, no, I wouldn’t be able to go. But inside, I kept imagining John at the beach that first time. I knew the sight of the Grand Canyon would be stunning for me, even having seen some of the world. But for John? Ten days away, out in nature – and not just any nature, but the Grand Canyon. I couldn’t get it out of my mind.
Throwing caution to the wind, I held my breath, got out my credit card, and booked us both for the trip.
The plane ride itself was an unimaginable thrill for John. And then, along the road from Albuquerque to Lake Powell, he was further introduced to Native American culture and lizards for the first time. The first cracks began to appear in the distance – narrow slivers. John was stunned: “Oh, wow! It’s so cool!”
I informed him, with great pleasure and amusement, that we were still hours from the actual Canyon yet.
When we did arrive at the first legitimate lookout point, we parked the van and walked to the edge. Here was John, cresting another hill, unaware of what he would see on the other side. And there it was.
No postcard or picture can capture the awe of that place. It really can’t. Yet, as taken-aback as I was, John was suddenly transported to some fantasy land that only existing in movies and dreams. He literally could not move. He swayed a little bit. His eyes glassed over. And then he just wept, falling to his knees, his black jeans kicking up the red dust: “It’s … so … beautiful!”
The rafting trip and the hike out were indescribable, particularly in their effect on John. Here, sleeping out under night skies that held more starlight than blackness between, he was changing yet again.
It was not a straight path from there for John. But it was a different one. And I’m happy to say that John made it. Today, he is a hard-working chief mechanic. Trusted. Respected. Optimistic. Compassionate. And, last I knew, drug free.
I’m a firm believer that there is always — more. Something new and wondrous to behold and experience. I don’t have the finances to jet set off to African safaris or the Taj Mahal. Dibby gave me a book one Christmas a few years back called “1000 Places to See Before You Die.” To date, I have only seen two or three. But it’s not just about the ability to travel to faraway places.
Here are just a handful of things that keep my view of life expanding:
Trying new foods.
Reading and sharing poetry.
Watching Discovery Channel programs.
Studying other languages and using them where I can.
Tucking away new vocabulary words and finding ways to use them.
Listening to music and reading books outside my preferred genres, whether I particularly love them or not.
Learning anything new at all, however minute. How to fold an origami creation. How to tie a particular knot.
Meeting and talking with people who appear at first to be very different from myself. The more diverse, the better.
It’s a mindset. It’s purposefully keeping that sense of wonder and imagination. It’s getting uncomfortable with staying in your comfort zone. It’s living as if there is more to life than the path I walked yesterday. Because there is. Much more.