His name was John. He was my first client. I was responsible for his account and managing its success. I often wonder what would have become of him had he chosen a different path.
He worked for a large manufacturing company for over 20 years as a director in a sourcing department. He was an early adopter in new technologies during the Internet boom in the late 90s and was willing to take risks if he saw a benefit in it for his company.
Though something about John was special. He was incredibly strong in his opinions and was never afraid to voice them regardless of offending anyone in the room – a real maverick. Disheveled looking with his long dark gray hair, often windblown in appearance, he wore a business suit and his shirt frequently became un-tucked. The executives I worked for called upon him to talk to our industry analysts because he was a champion of our company and early adopter of what we were selling. They knew that John could not be scripted (there was no coaching John), but assumed the risk knowing how passionately he advocated for us and how much they appreciated his business.
What made him truly different from the average person was something that no one ever wanted to ask for fear of his reaction to the question. He walked with a severe limp, his right arm always held close to his body, and his torso was slightly twisted. He had a lazy eye and a very disproportionate lower body – his lower body smaller than his upper body. Though, when he smiled, his face would light up. It was easy to forget his awkward appearance and his typical tact – I think he forgot about it too.
John and I were at a meeting one afternoon in his office. It wrapped up early so we went to grab an early dinner to continue discussing the project’s plan before my flight. He selected a restaurant nearby and when walking towards the door, he paused and looked at our reflections in the window of both of us.
He stopped me and grabbed my arm to motion me to look as well, “What is it like?”
I responded with a pissed off tone looking at the reflection, “What is WHAT like?”
He said, “To look like you?”
I became annoyed – and somewhat insulted. Initially, I thought he was referring to what became a growing frustration of mine during the early part of my career. At the time, I was only 29 years old and many of our clients were “old industry” or came from the “good old boy” network given the functional area of big companies we worked with. I was young, a female and sometimes not taken seriously until I began a work assignment and demonstrated that I had a brain and could add value. John and I – visually – couldn’t have been more mismatched as pair, yet worked incredibly well together and respected each other’s intellect and drive tremendously. This is why I became so incensed by his question – I thought we were way passed that crap.
He softly apologized, which was unheard of for John. He realized I didn’t understand what he was asking.
“Lori, what is it like to look…look normal?”
My heart broke now understanding what he meant. We didn’t continue the dialog. I felt a bit uncomfortable not knowing how to respond.
We were seated in the restaurant. I still hadn’t answered the question because I wasn’t sure how to answer it. Quickly changing the subject, I asked him how his wife and 3 teenage kids were doing. He then asked me about my family.
“What do your parents do for a living?, ” he asked.
“My dad is an engineer and my mom, an entrepreneur, though prior to the small business she runs now (an employment placement agency), she spent much of her time as a homemaker when my sisters and I were very young.”
John dug deeper, “What’s your father like?”
“Probably one of the most moral, conservative human beings you’d ever meet. He doesn’t watch rated R movies and I think I’ve heard him swear twice (I laughed). He had the tough gig of raising 3 teenage daughters with my mom. As a child, he experienced a severe life threatening illness that, I’m guessing, had an impact on his psyche as a kid and an adult. Though he is an introvert and doesn’t open a lot.”
He asked, “What did he have?”
“Polio – he was only about 10, in an iron lung and used wheel chair as needed, and missed out on an entire year of school. Salk came onto the medical scene in Pittsburgh and invented the vaccine that following year and he was cured. If you met my father now, he stands close to 6 feet tall, and looks as healthy as ever.”
John looked down at the table as if I said something wrong or hurtful.
“What’s up? What did I say?”
He paused for what seemed to be a lifetime.
He commented quietly, “It didn’t work for me.”
“What didn’t work for you?
“The vaccine,” he said.
I finally learned what so many wondered but hadn’t asked. He had polio as a kid as well – though in his case, it disfigured his body.
A few months after that meeting with John, I became pregnant with Mia. Though I enjoyed working on his account with him (I learned so much from John), I approached my management team about selecting a new position in the company with less travel obligations. Fortunately, they supported my request. As I transitioned off of the account, I focused on becoming a new mom and what that exciting change would bring. Though, as a result, I lost touch with John during that short period of my life.
As I went along my day to day as a young working mother, Mia now only about a year old, I ran into a former colleague of John’s in my office. (This would have been about a year and half after working with him). Nancy was a Vice President at the same company with John, and she had recently taken a different position outside of the company.
“Wow, it is great to see you Lori. How is new motherhood treating you?”
With a huge grin, “The best thing that has ever happened to me.”
Nancy was a brilliant businesswoman and mother. She had 4 children of her own. As we shared what our lives had been like over the past year and half, she interrupted me with a look of strong concern and asked, “Hey, have you spoken to John lately?”
“No, why? How is he? I miss his charm,” I said sarcastically and giggled knowing she and I appreciated John in so many wonderful ways.
“John isn’t doing so well,” she said. “He left the company to join an early start-up technology company that went under when the bubble burst a few months back – and his wife had recently left him.”
She pleaded, “Please call him. He always enjoyed his working relationship with you and considered you a dear friend. He could use a friend right now.” I told her I’d contact him.
I woke the following day feeling exhausted as usual juggling the demands of being a working mom. I put Mia in her crib, said goodbye to her father, and took off for work. While driving, I tried reaching John on the way. It rang. He answered.
“Hello. This is John.”
“Hey stranger! How are you doing?? Guess who this is?”
He laughed, and said, “Lori, God, it has been a long time. How is your baby girl? She’s a girl, right?”
I said, “yes – she is doing very well.”
He said, “Wow, it really is good to hear your voice.”
“I ran into Nancy yesterday – she said, you’ve hit a few bumps in the road. What’s going on?”
John didn’t avoid the question. “You know me, ruffling feathers everywhere I can.”
He asked if I could refer him to a few people in the industry for opportunities. He explained that his wife left him and his kids were struggling with the split.
“John, I promise you’ll get through this – we all hit bad spots. You’ll be ok. I’ll reach out to a few of my contacts for you.”
He seemed to want to get off of the topic, and turned it back to my daughter.
“How is it? How is it working and taking care of her? Are you working fulltime? Do you get much time off?”
I laughed hard and reminded him how demanding our clients were. Particularly ones like him.
John then urged me in a serious tone, “Lori – please promise me that Mia will know who her mother is and what she stands for. They grow up so quickly and you don’t want to miss out on any of it. TRUST ME – NOTHING will replace the time you spend with her.”
Thinking to myself, for John, how out of place his sentiment was towards me, I quipped, “John, who is this, is this John X?” I laughed and taunted him a bit. “When did you get so soft on me?”
He knew I was kidding. After having worked closely together, he knew I always loved him for how brutally honest he could be with me. Maybe because I knew deep down inside, there was an insecure good guy who just wanted to be accepted.
Finally responding to him, “John. I promise. Mia WILL KNOW who her mother is. She will understand what is important to me – even if I choose to work fulltime, ok?”
It seemed to settle him. “I’m about to pull into the garage here. Let me buzz you tomorrow morning after I reach a few folks for opportunities. I have a few ideas.”
“Ok. Please do, and take care, was so great catching up.”
I hung up and went on about my workday.
The next morning I drove to work and tried ringing him. There was no answer. I thought I might have dialed the wrong number and tried repeatedly. No answer. I pulled into the garage and went to my office. A colleague walked in my office unaware of my recent communications with John.
“Hey, did you hear about John X?”
I said, “yeah, sad story – but he’ll bounce back – you know John, he’s a survivor.”
“No – about what just happened?”
I froze. I was confused.
I asked, “What?”
“John committed suicide yesterday. He pulled into his garage, turned on the ignition and closed the garage door. No one knows much more than that.”
I felt the lump in my throat and fought the tears back. I kindly asked him to leave me alone. I wanted to reach Nancy, his former colleague and close friend.
Nancy’s assistant answered her line and responded, “Sorry, she’s in a meeting.”
“Ok, this is Lori, if you could…”
She stopped me, “Oh, hold on a moment – she asked to interrupt her if you called.”
My heart sank.
Nancy picked up her line, “Lori, thanks so much for calling. Please tell me – you DID reach him yesterday? Please tell me you did.”
It’s been over a decade since that phone call, and yet on some days, it feels like yesterday. I was deeply saddened by it. How could his desperation win? How could his hopelessness and situation beat him into giving up? Why couldn’t I hear how hopeless he was? Why couldn’t he be more vulnerable and open up about how desperate he was – with anyone?
Though I know I couldn’t have saved him, I wished he had the strength to figure out a way to ask for help to get through it. To share with someone, a family member, or a friend, even a stranger, what was really going on inside of him. If only he reached out.
If I had the chance to meet John’s children, I would tell them how much their father taught me – professionally and personally. How much laughter he brought to his friends with his quick wit and raw sense of humor. I would tell them his influence never left me – and his words on that last day we spoke, are words I have never forgotten. Mia does and will know who her mother is and I what I stand for. As will Kate and William, my stepchildren, know what’s most important to me.
The video clip below is a powerful scene from a movie based on a true story of a strong man asking for help. The character is in one of his darkest days exposing his situation, being vulnerable, and asking for help. In my opinion, one of Russell Crowe’s best performances.
In sharing John’s story, my hope is to increase awareness for those that may need help, but have difficulty asking for it. To bring more awareness to those that may be able to help those in need, and to encourage “this too shall pass” and most important, that they aren’t alone.
Whether it’s through faith, professional counsel, family and friends’ support, or our own sheer will to survive – my hope is that we can all be more vulnerable with each other when we need help during our journeys.