[Listen to this article, below]
The following article was the beginning to chapter 38 in Be a Hobbit, Save the Earth, originally entitled, “Friends and Neighbors: Starting Your Shire and Defeating Fear.”
I am posting it as an article, here and now, because of a discussion I had with a friend of mine on Anchor: Ross Cahill, who lost a friend recently to suicide. During our discussion, the topic of the stigma attached to mental health and how that stigma makes it more difficult for people dealing with mental health problems to reach out for help, and at the same time makes it hard for many of us to listen when our friends do reach out.
This seems to be an issue, in particular–but not exclusively, of course–for men. There is undoubtedly a stigma of weakness put upon men who express their feelings to others, and this has resulted in millions of deaths from suicide and murder, not to mention heart disease and high blood pressure.
Bottling these fears and feelings up is never a good idea, and somehow, some way, we have to get past this old John Wayne, Clint Eastwood masculine mentality that says that we have to “suck it up” and “push on” in the face of depression and stress. Far too many men, and women, are no longer with us thanks to this ridiculous, outdated way of thinking. It’s time to face our fears and tell them to go packing!
In support of this movement, I present the following article in memory of a good friend of mine, who I lost to suicide many years ago. I also make the following pledge, and challenge YOU to do the same:
“I will face my fear of ridicule, my fear of being less than manly, or womanly, my fear of being seen as weak. Instead I will be courageous, brave, and strong, and reach out to my friends, my neighbors, and professionals if need be, to get the love, support, and help that I need, so that I can be a positive, caring, compassionate person in this world. God only knows, we need more of them.”
Here is the intro to Chapter 38, Be a Hobbit, Save the Earth:
Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. ―C.S. Lewis
The phone rang.
It was 8 A.M., on a Thursday, in February, in North Carolina. I was studying for an exam on Alexander the Great that I had to take later that morning.
“Hello?” I answered the phone.
“Mr. Steve?” It was our neighbor’s son from across the street.
“Hello Egan! What’s up?” I was friendly but not overly chatty since I was engrossed
“Can you take me and Julie to school?” he asked, “My dad’s sick and mom wants to
stay with him.”
“Sure, just knock on my door when y’all are ready.”
Don, his dad, was the best neighbor we had. Really, he was the best one on the block. He was a few years older than I and an extremely smart guy, even if he did let you know it on occasion. But for the last several months or more he had been suffering from seizures and his doctors couldn’t seem to figure out why. One of them had been very severe, to the point that he never quite recovered. He was never quite as sharp as he had been, and that ate away at him.
The night before the phone call, his wife, Callie, had called me to ask for my help. He was having another seizure and was on the back porch and wouldn’t, or couldn’t, manage to come back inside. I had helped her a couple of times before in a similar situation, so I rushed over to find him swaying and staggering. I helped him to the bathroom and then to bed. He was not a small guy either. Of course, neither am I. It was never easy to get him to his bedroom, but this evening the seizure seemed particularly bad. By the time we got to his bedroom, he went to his knees on the floor and I had to pick him up to put him in the bed. Not an easy task. So, when his son called the next morning I wasn’t overly surprised, though they had never asked me to drive them to school before.
I hung up with Egan and got my school stuff together so that I could drop them off and head to the university to take my exam. Then the phone rang again.
“Mr. Steve?” It was Egan again.
“You guys ready?”
“Mom wants to know if you will watch dad while she drives us to school?”
I hesitated for just a second because it just seemed like an odd request, but not knowing what was going on over there, I told him that would be fine. I’d be there in a minute. I rushed downstairs, out the door, and across the street. Callie was at the door with the kids as I walked up the steps to the front porch.
“I’ll be right back in a few minutes!” she said in a breathless tone. “He’s really not doing well.”
“Ok, I’ll check on him.” I said, and she and the kids left for school as I went into the house.
They lived in a big, Victorian home, with a large living room and a hallway beyond French doors. The master bedroom was to the right just past those doors. I walked in and stopped in my tracks. Don was lying on the floor at the foot of the bed, face down on the rug. I’m not sure if he had just crawled out of bed after Callie left him, or if he had been there for a while, but he had vomited on the floor and his breathing seemed labored.
“Don?” I called him. He did not respond. I then went to my knees beside him and rolled him over on his side. He was very pale, and even as I called to him repeatedly, he did not acknowledge my presence.
“Don! Are you okay man?!” Nothing. He didn’t even really look at me.
Then I began to worry, I mean really worry. And his breathing started to slow down, noticeably. “Damn it! Don! Breath man!” I was beginning to panic. All this happened in about 30 seconds, though it seemed like 10 minutes or more. Then he stopped breathing. Completely. “Fuck!” Then I knew what to do. I snapped out of my paralysis and ran to the phone in the hallway. I dialed 911. The dispatcher came on and asked me what my emergency was.
“My friend is lying on his floor. He’s stopped breathing. We need an ambulance NOW!”
“An ambulance is on its way.” she said, calmly. “Can you perform CPR on him?”
“Yes, but I have to put the phone down because it’s not cordless and it won’t reach!”
“That’s okay sir, just leave the line open and go do what you can.”
As I went back into the room to attempt CPR, Callie came back. She walked into the bedroom, and went pale. I was panicked. “Callie, he isn’t BREATHING! I called 911!”
“Oh my god Don!” she screamed, “What did you do?!”
The paramedics arrived before I could even start the CPR. They must have gotten there in less than a minute. I ran to the door to show them in. Callie and I stood in the hallway while they desperately worked to get him breathing again. They rushed him into the ambulance and Callie followed them in her car.
I drove to school in a daze, took my exam, and then drove home. I don’t really remember anything about the test, or the drive, but when I pulled into my driveway, Callie’s car was already home. I knew that I had lost the best neighbor, and one of the best friends I’d ever had. I had watched him draw his last breath.
Don was the kind of friend and neighbor who would help you fix plumbing, or anything. He wasn’t really an expert handyman—you would never tell him that—but he had all the tools, and probably had the part you needed somewhere in his junk heap of a garage. He’d be one of the first to every party, and one of the last to leave. He was intelligent, witty, and always willing to give advice. I miss him still, even though I’m thousands of miles away, and he is gone.
I kind of lost touch with the kids and Callie when we moved to Minnesota, though I’ve recently reconnected on Facebook. It was never the same after Don died, though. He and his family were such amazing neighbors that if I had to sacrifice our friendship to bring him back, I suppose I would do it, though it would be an enormous loss of great memories to do so. Of course, that’s not how it works anyway. Bringing him back isn’t an option, so I’ll just hang on to my memories. Great neighbors are treasures greater than dragon’s gold, or mithril. That reminds me, Don and his family were huge Tolkien fans, too.
Say Goodbye to Fear, Hello to Friends
Can you name all the neighbors on your block? I bet not. I can’t. Bilbo and Frodo knew every Hobbit in the Shire, or nearly. Why don’t we? Fear is why. We are afraid. We are afraid to talk to strangers. Why? Lots of reasons, probably as many reasons as there are people, but they can be boiled down to a handful of categories I think.
There’s the fear of violence and that can be a powerful one in some neighborhoods, or if you’ve experienced violence in your own life. There’s the one that most of us suffer to some degree or another: lack of self esteem. We fear that we’re not good enough, or pretty enough, or smart enough and people will discover those things if we open up to them.
There’s the fear of not being accepted for one of the reasons just mentioned, or some other reason. Sometimes we are “afraid we will be annoying someone” if we bother them by speaking to them on the street. But I think the deepest fear is that if we make a new acquaintance we will then be obligated to them in some way, and this is not unfounded; friendship is an obligation and sometimes that involves very unpleasant things, like fixing plumbing, or holding their hands while they die.
Nonetheless, friendship is the greatest gift we can ever give.