Thanks for Calling
August 15, 2009, 7:27 am:
As I wipe the sleep out of my eyes, I look at the clock and see that it is only 6:00 am.
The coffee pot in the kitchen is full and I decide to sit quietly with my thoughts, enjoy a jump start from the first swallow of hot caffeine, and think about what my wife had told me thirty minutes earlier. At around 5:30 am, the phone rang on my wife's side of the bed as I laid still fighting insomnia. Something bad had happened according to the sound of my wife's voice. Two members of our family had been involved in a serious motorcycle accident. The details were very vague, but it was known that both riders, a young couple with three small children at home, were in serious condition. "Where are the kids? How did it happen? What should we do?" are all questions that raced between us as we tried to put a story together that makes no sense.
I believe when you are an adult and care for a family of your own, there is nothing more frightening than hearing the phone ring in the early morning hours. There is something dreadful within it's tone like the distant sound of a crying baby through the trees in a dark forest. Sometimes the sound and the timing is so surreal you doubt if you have the strength or will to answer. Unfortunately I have experienced more than my share of off-hour telephone calls and the subject matter is never positive. Unfortunately I've never been woken up at 3 am to be wished a "Happy Birthday" from my sister. I've never been called by Publisher's Clearing House to be told I've won a cool million. I've never answered with a nervous heart hearing my President's voice ask if I'm happy and sleeping well in America tonight. This type of break in my already restless sleep would be nice, but it is yet to happen.
Early one morning over twenty years ago, I received a call from an old friend I had met during my stay at a rehabilitation hospital in Newport, Rhode Island. "Lori is dead" were the first words I heard as I picked up the phone. "Who is this? Do you know what time it is?...Who, what did you say?" I replied with a graveled voice and sleepy anger. "Lori is dead. They found her in the city last night. I've been trying to call her all week but she didn't answer. She was scared when we talked. She was high. She said she was afraid to die." the voice said as it wept uncontrollably. Without further questions or wonder to who was on the line, I new my friend Courtney was now shattered, shocked and mourning the death of our mutual friend.
Lori was found dead in the early morning hours of a cold day in an East Providence parking lot. She had been beaten, raped and stabbed after trying to buy heroin from her boyfriend's drug dealer in the worst part of an already bad city. I was stunned by the reality of the news, but was not surprised. We had learned a lot about addiction in the hospital and I knew that her death was added to the growing numbers in an already shocking statistic. Alcoholics and drug addicts die. They die faster if they don't quit. They are also slow learners and bad listeners. As I hung up the telephone, I could only think that one more name, one more number, and one more date would be added to the growing list. I saw Lori's beautiful smile, dark middle eastern eyes and infectious laugh flash in my mind for a brief second and then it was gone. After I had finally realized that I would never see her that way again, I laid back down and cried myself to sleep. When they found her, she was wearing a three hundred dollar pair of shoes. She drove a Porche and spoke three languages. She was always the brightest light in the room and turned heads when she walked down the street. She had a picture of her grandmother, a spoon, a syringe, and a cigarette lighter in her pocket. She had a cross around her neck. She wanted to be a fashion designer. She was twenty years old.
We were all brought together during a 90 day rehabilitation program for drugs and alcohol. I was barely twenty two years old and my new friends were only around eighteen and nineteen.
I was admitted after a six month exploratory journey with heavy drinking, an increasing secobarbital habit, cocaine abuse, and a short bout with snorting Heroin. I thought that the past deaths of Judy Garland and Jimi Hendrix at the hands of pills, booze and heroin addiction were not enough proof to make me think twice, so I needed to find out myself. Basically, I was a mess. My friend, Courtney, high on angel dust, found it necessary to strip naked, climb to the roof of her home in Coventry, Rhode Island, and attempt to commit suicide by jumping to the driveway with a note taped to her chest. Her attempt obviously failed. While climbing on a make-shift ladder, she slipped, fell backwards and landed badly on the deck of the family's above ground swimming pool. On our first day, she meekly sat next to me in the admittance office waiting room with a broken leg and hands cuffed weeping softly.
As Lori entered the room, all eyes, both male and female, followed every movement. Dressed in designer sportswear and the newest model Reebok sneakers, she looked more like our newly assigned physical fitness counselor, not the most recent inmate at the asylum. Lori had been involved in a cocaine induced high speed chase through the streets of Providence which ended at a guard rail seconds before the Massachusetts border. She had been on an all night bender not that different from a Paris Hilton or Britney Spears media covered scenario. Lori was the daughter of a wealthy Rhode Island businessman with a non-stop river of money. Her normal club hopping, line snorting episode had reached another level. She looked around the room, examined the sad collection of souls, plopped herself down directly across from us, and flashed a brief smile. She had already won my curiosity and a small part of my heart.
My angry mood and withdrawn personality seemed to mix well with Courtney's dangerous depression and Lori's high strung denial. Between our awkward fits and starts, we were able to start a conversation and all bond as fast friends. "Misery Loves Company" should have been printed clearly on our chests. We were doing just fine on the cloud nine of our lives, but we were a truly pathetic trio. During my residency at the rehab, I often thought if we would survive. I worried mostly about Courtney. Her act of desperation, her overall sadness and the longing she had to be wanted, could push her over the edge, but it never did. As I look back at those days, I can see clearly now that Lori was untouchable in our eyes. She rode on the back of misery wearing Gucci sunglasses, designer jeans all while clutching her Coach handbag. We never thought that she would be taken away before growing old. How the world can change after one simple phone call. From my experience, it is always best to answer.
In the early part of 2000, I was up very late in my Boston apartment anxiously trying to make my editor's deadline. I had just completed an article based on an interview with Henry Rollins I had conducted earlier that week. Throughout the evening hours my phone was ringing repeatedly prompting my answering machine to turn on and off, but not recording any message. I finally turned both phone and machine off to get a little peace so I could finish my article. Something bothered me that morning when I finally got to bed. I had a feeling of dread and wondered who could have been calling. I had no caller ID, and didn't bother with *69. I finally resolved that I would hear from the caller in the morning if it was actually an important issue. I fell slowly to sleep thinking of my upcoming day at work and what my editor and Hank would think of the article. It seemed like it would be a normal day with no surprises.
As the next day passed I thought less and less of the calls, the article and the stresses of the day. We had recently moved into a new office space and I had worked a long, hard day getting things in order. It was an hour past my usual quitting time and I looked forward to getting home and getting some needed rest. As I picked up my bag and coat to leave, my desk phone rang. I thought this was very odd since the phone company had just configured our system and I had yet to receive a call all week. "Hey, it's Dave..." came through the ear piece slowly and sadly. My friend Dave and I had become friends during a short run with a band I had started years before. "Glad I tracked you down" he said with exhausted desperation."What's up? I was just to head out the door" I said with the intentions of ending the call quickly. "Were you the one calling me all night?" I said as I was reminded of the previous night. "No. Listen, Michael took his own life last night. His room mate found him dead in his apartment. Sorry. I didn't mean to upset you like this" Dave said holding back his tears. I held the phone with both hands and did not say a word. It was like I was punched in the stomach and slapped at the same time. I didn't know if I should cry or get angry. I knew that I felt instantly lost and could not think.
Michael was one of my best friends and someone who's creativity and talent leapt far beyond what this world could grasp. Dave, Michael and I played in a band trying to find our musical individualism and our muse at the same time. Dave left to follow his passion to lead and play guitar in a popular power pop band. I took myself down the same path but took many alternative roads in between. Michael was different. He did not want to follow the path heavily travelled. He wanted to make a unique mark on the wall and didn't care what people thought. He composed obscure music for film, arranged strings and classical pieces far beyond anyone's perception. He mixed the genres of jazz, country, hip hop and rap to develop a genre of it's own. I played bass with him on small tours, on recording projects and experienced his genius first hand throughout the years. As time went on, things began to change drastically and too quickly for most to notice.
He began to develop serious headaches, dizzy spells and bouts of depression. After some examinations, it was determined that a tumor had been growing behind his eyes over the course of a few years. His doctors had confirmed that most of the growth could be removed but some would remain because of it's sensitive location near the eyes and brain. He would be treated with drugs that would continually shrink the remnants but the side effects would prove to be difficult and invasive. He suffered from temporary blindness in one eye, headaches, nausea and confusion. As a musician and composer these side effects would begin to take there toll on his overall sprit and creative output. He once said to me that his life was over and that living with the treatment is worse than the tumor itself. He was depressed, miserable and suffering, but in the final months of his life, he suddenly gathered his musical friends together and began working vigorously on a new recording project.
During this time his behavior was joyous but confusing. He began to give personal property away and live his life with reckless abandon. Once on the road, the band and I discovered that Michael was missing. At this point, he was partially blind and had difficulty with his balance. After hours of searching the grounds of the musical festival we had been playing, we discovered him in a fraternity house, drunk on apricot mead, and oblivious to any of our concerns. He later told us how angry he was that we spoiled his fun and that it was up to him to when he was to die and no one else. Now as I remember, it is haunting to think that he was planning the end of his life before our eyes but we did not have the foresight to stop his plan. He was not the type to ask for help, to turn to you with his emotions, or to show a moment of weakness. He was a determined artist and man moving forward to what ever destination he chose.
As I hung on to the telephone that evening I could hear Dave trying to break my silence, "Are you there? I'm sorry for this. The wake and funeral is in New Jersey on Saturday. I thought you may want to drive down with me. Can we talk about it?" The words didn't make sense but their truth made it much more difficult to swallow. "I will go with you. I need to go now. I'm sorry Dave." I said quickly before I hung up the phone. I sat at my desk for an hour and cried for my friend. "I will never see him again" I thought. "I should have picked up the phone. Why couldn't I help?" the questions bombarded my mind. I never knew if those were Michael's calls and I never will. I do know that it still haunts me when I think of him and why he left us. Both calls, one unanswered, changed my life again, forever.
Just recently, a New York man, who had recently been involved in a custody battle with his Italian Born ex-wife, was on the way to pick up his son from day care. He was interrupted by a call advising him that his son was no longer in New York City, but in Italy, being held in an orphanage. The boys mother had packed up the belongings of her and her child, boarded a plane to Rome, and hoped to start a new life with her son away from the father. Unfortunately, the Italian authorities stopped her in Rome, discovered that she and her son had insufficient identification. After a scuffle with police, her son was taken from her and she was labelled unfit. The boy has been held in this orphanage for months. His release is suspended because both parents carry individual citizenship. The boy remains a ward of the state. He may never see his parents again. With one phone call, the lives of many have been changed forever.
In a perfect world each day goes by without a care, bump or worry. Our lives never get turned upside down at the drop of a hat, the turn of a switch or the ring of a phone. When I was younger, I thought that my life would see less and less sadness, trauma, and turmoil. I assumed that excitement, drama, romance, tragedy and sadness were freely dispensed on the young simply because they can recover much quicker. I was sure that after I passed the forty year mark, my life would slow down and I would be able to sit back and avoid the hustle and bustle of daily drama. I was wrong in one sense, but I was also very right in another. As I've walked through adulthood I've experienced my share of sadness, some which has been shared in this article. I am grateful, so far in my life, to be spared more tragic news behind the ring of a small telephone. Each time the phone rings I am mindful that it could be a simple hello or some news I may not be able to handle alone. Each day I hope that I can be spared the types of tragedy I have seen in the past and those others have so unfortunately had to endure. I'm praying that I may get a slice of the perfect world someday and get the call for a million dollar payment. I hope that this year my sister is the first to wake me up with a "Happy Birthday" in my ear. I pray that someday, before I die, I will get a call from my President asking me with all sincerity if I'm happy and sleeping well in America. If that day should come, I will answer with an honest tone and a strong voice, "Yes Mr. President, I am happy and I am sleeping well... And you know what? I'm happy to finally say to someone - Thanks for calling." - BT