The last two times I saw Joe were not the best: once at my Uncle Danny’s funeral, and then on the hospital bed that would be his last. Not really able to speak, my last visit with him was with my father and his son, who shouted questions checking on Joe and Joe doing his best to respond, usually with a halting thumbs-up. He was surrounded by people who made their love for him plain and constant, which in general is not a bad way to go.
I probably saw Joe a half-dozen times in my life, many of them too young to remember at all. And perhaps I should hasten to talk about the inherent blessing in the fact that it was many years before it was really explained to me how many relatives in Joe’s generation were murdered in faraway lands, making him rarer than I would have understood. So Joe was simply Joe, one of a number of family through various convoluted connections that I’d be introduced and re-introduced to over time.
At one point in the early 1980s, when I was just barely in my teens (and likely not even there yet), there was a situation where Joe and his wife Sylvia lived just a couple of exits down from where I lived, although the natural difference in our lives meant we didn’t really hang out. To add to this theme of forgotten details and hazy aspects, I have entirely misplaced what put me at their place one day, although it probably had to do with some finagling of scheduled events and responsibilities amongst my parents, or maybe an effort to have me connect with one of the previous generations. But there I was in one of those condos that older people keep, full of items with stories I don’t necessarily want to hear and an utter lack of entertainment by the standards of someone used to his Atari 2600 and no-profanity-barred cable television.
As I just hinted, my parents were divorced and had been for multiple years, with my mother and my siblings living in a condo this side of crowded and my father living in a house that he’d built for a family now gone, leaving it with the feeling of a forgotten cabin. Anybody who tells you that divorce is anything but a direct shotgun to the face for the kids is lying to you or just doesn’t want to deal with that fact; it has a whole range of effects but a child who watches his house burn down can hug his parents to deal with it – a child whose parents split up can do no such thing. So, let’s assume that somewhere in my countenance or self-regard was an obvious-to-anyone-looking sense of wreckage.
So, Joe looked, even back in 1981-1982 days, like an older guy, the kind who might be sitting on the chairs at the barber shop or on one end of the bar, laughing and slapping a lot of backs and generally being one of the gang; a real down to earth guy. My father at some point mentioned to me that Joe was an olympic-level partier, which I assume means he was a close-it-down dude, in his younger years. I detected awe on the part of my dad. Joe also was wearing a very loud shirt the day I was visiting, and I am sure this had an effect on me in terms of what shirt I could be wearing wherever I wanted to.
So, it was a pretty a-ok day, with some conversation and me hanging out, and at some point it was time for me to leave, for whichever parent it was to pick me up.
And as I was getting ready to go, Joe got very serious for a moment.
And realize that Joe did not have one of those faces that was built to go serious. It did not look like a face that needed things to be serious, especially these days. And he put his hand on my shoulder, a huge hand, all things considered. It’s nearly 30 years later. I still remember the face. I still remember the hand.
And he said Jason, I know things can get rough, and if you ever, ever feel you need to get away, you come here. No questions asked. You always got a place here.
I probably nodded and maybe thanked him, as any gift you didn’t know you were getting 10 milliseconds before gets thanks.
When parents get divorced, besides the stupid infighting that often happens and the arguments over nothing and the haggling and the idiot phone calls, there’s this gap of responsibility that happens. The kids know this and spot it a mile away. There’s just no way to coordinate oversight. It’s there, and you generally have awareness, but there’s so many ways for a kid to get lost in the shuffle and get away with anything they want, for some period of time. Combine that with a resentment for the shotgun in the face, the disconnection of what family is, and you’ve got all the ingredients for something truly awful.
Maybe drugs, smoking, drinking, where you can express yourself as doing something nobody approves of, feel like a hero and rebel, and have this piece of things be yours. Until they own you, of course, but before then, there’s a lot of you and little of them. Or it might be a propensity to be creative, to act out, to get involved in something that takes you away. Or it’s a withdrawal, a collapsing. Something happens. It rarely doesn’t. Not really.
And in that gap, you can make some incredibly stupid choices, especially if you’re old enough to be ambulatory and prone to rage or panic and a whole other spectrum of feelings. Incredibly stupid choices. And I made a bunch, to be sure, but one thing that never happened was me loading myself into some conveyance and disappearing.
I didn’t need to, you see. I had Joe’s Offer. At any time, during those years, I could have walked down the highway or along one of the side roads to his Condo and taken a time-out and gotten myself together. I knew this. I knew it inherently, like someone jumping from high point to high point knows that in the darkness somewhere, there’s that safety net.
And I made it through – by the time I was 15, I was living in a much better place with a social network of friends who were really smart and engaging and I was involved in a bunch of projects that got better and better. I didn’t need the safety net anymore – I was completely out of the woods.
So, somewhere in my 20s, when I was actually making fat sacks of mad cash in administrating boxes and had an awesome house I was renting and generally being one with the world, I reached out to two fellows, both brothers of ex-girlfriends, who seemed to be going through things – nothing rough like I probably was, but just feeling a little out of sorts. Same deal: I know things can get rough, and if you ever, ever feel you need to get away, you come here. No questions asked. You always got a place here.
Both gave thanks, both never took me up on it, both probably forgot about it at some point. But maybe it was always there for a while, that knowledge, that little piece saying there was a third option instead of one or two rotten ones. The safety net is not there to feel smug or be part of the show – the safety net is there to provide safety.
Joe, likely, forgot about his offer at some point in the decades since. He’s been gone a year now, and while he probably never really knew the effect his simple offer had, I’m telling you now.
You know exactly who I’m talking about. It’s not your business. Either parent would scream at you for meddling. The kid seems mostly fine. But not completely.
Make Joe’s Offer to them.
If you’re lucky, they’ll never thank you.
Categorised as: jason his own self
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