Johnny, Be Good

“When we honor people by empowering them in the beginning, and create a culture of success along the journey, we position them to experience personal victory in the end.”
— Culture, Inc. and The Seven Scrolls

Everyone can expect to encounter conflict with other people throughout the course of their lives.

Do we expect others to follow our standards when we are wronged by them? Or, can we create a culture by our own words and actions that will help resolve conflict and enable others to succeed? This is the story of how I attempted to save someone who did not share my standards.

The winter of 2006 was the longest season of my life. My business and my family life fell apart. I had reached one of my lowest points, incessantly haunted by a suffocating darkness in my mind.

You see, I thought I had killed someone. The way I saw it, I was the guilty one.

He showed up on my doorstep, sleeved with tattoos, slicked back hair, and a caring smile. He stood there, anticipating my acceptance; hoping, after he had burned bridges with so many others, that I would perhaps be the one not to judge him harshly.

But, in all honesty, I did just that. I glared, as I looked him up and down. I knew the path he had chosen for his life, and truly, I despised him because of it.

My uncle Johnny was released from prison after serving several years on multiple drug charges. He had experimented with all types of drugs, but he was primarily addicted to meth.

His tattoos were not all that he wore on his sleeves. Rumor had it, he was actually clean and sober for a couple of years. He acted like a man determined to get back on his feet and on the right path. I did not know him very well, but he seemed like a good man with a big heart.

With some hesitation, I gave him a place to live at my house and offered him a job as the foreman of my maintenance company.

He was a hard worker, energetic, polite to clients, and engaging with the staff. I felt a deep satisfaction, as an employer and as a nephew, in giving him a job and helping him put the pieces of his life back together.

I think, as I look back, I wanted his success even more than he did. I wanted to be the one to save him.

Several months went by and everything was going well. My company was growing, and I needed a new office. The business and all the office duties were outgrowing my kitchen space. So, I went over plans with Johnny for adding on an additional room to turn into my office. He was capable, excited, and ready to do the work. I believed in him.

The room addition was completed in less than two weeks. I was incredibly pleased with Johnny’s work, and paid him at the end of the project. He seemed to be on the right path. I prided myself.

That evening, Johnny was resting after working his day job for my company and the nightly project of the room addition. He was a work horse; it was apparent he could use some rest from all of his labor. I decided to leave him at the house that night. I trusted him.

Later that evening, I returned home to find a letter with my name on it.

Johnny had written to let me know he had gone to visit a friend and would be returning later in the evening. I was a bit upset because he had taken my truck without asking permission. I had made it clear to him from the very outset, when he was hired, that my work vehicles were not for personal use.

I did not see Johnny that evening. He did not show up for work the next day. I was fuming with anger. I could not believe he would abuse my trust, steal my truck, and not even give me a courtesy call.

After running through several scenarios in my head of where he could be, I called his cell phone only to get his voicemail. I yelled every curse word I could think of at the time, casting insults toward his character.

Two more days went by and still no word from Johnny.

I had trouble sleeping. I was anxious. I wanted an answer from him for his irresponsibility. I thought, “If he could just call and apologize, I might forgive him. He at least owes me some respect for all I have done for him.”

And then, in the evening, on the third day of his absence, the office phone rang.

I desperately wanted it to be Johnny as I shifted to pick up the phone, took a deep breath and prepared my thoughts for the proper scolding I was about to give.

Except, it was not Johnny on the phone.

It was a doctor, asking for me. My heart sank. Johnny had been found in a parking lot. He overdosed on meth. He died.

I had no words. I was numb. My emotions were paralyzed. The news from the doctor was devastating, and it was about to get worse. …

That evening I accompanied two of Johnny’s brothers to visit his mother, my grandmother. With our heads hung low and tears in our eyes, we delivered the news none of us wanted to share.

She screamed and had a few choice words for us. One of the worst feelings I have ever experienced in my life was letting a mom know that her son had died. I had been responsible for taking care of him. I had failed.

I went to San Jose, California, where Johnny was found, to recover my truck and his belongings.

The police found several items in the vehicle. One item in particular stood out: his cell phone. I picked it up, trembling, and started to cry. I managed to see through my tears that there were no new voice mails.

He had heard and saved my message. I listened to my own voice coming from his phone, and it sounded just like a permission slip for him to let meth take his life.

He was a disappointment to me, and that is the last thing he most likely heard right before he died.

I wanted to tell him that I was sorry, and he could come back home, but I could not do anything to make it right. He was gone.

I blamed myself for Johnny’s death for years afterwards. Running my company was a living, daily reminder that I had failed to save my uncle. Family members drifted apart, and my company went downhill.

A few years later, my closest relative, Johnny’s mother, died. Before she passed, she repeatedly asked me about my last conversation with him.

“What did he say before he left?” she asked. “What did you say to him? I just wanted him to be good.”

“He was good, Nana. He was good.”

Learning to forgive myself and let go of the guilt which I had attributed to my part in Johnny’s death has been a very long journey, but I was finally able to replace the choke-hold of guilt with thankfulness in my heart for the lessons I learned.

Now, I always try to pay more attention to my words; they can so easily tear others down, or build others up.

I have learned that it takes more than words to build relationships during challenging times; it takes the right mindset. I have discovered, through my mistakes, that honoring another person in conversation is a great tool for resolving conflict.

I have given considerable thought to my final phone message to Johnny. If I could leave it all over again, I would have said this:

“Johnny, I got your letter. Thank you. It is apparent to me that you needed some time for yourself. When you are ready to come home, I will be here. I look forward to our conversation. I love you, Johnny.”

“When this life is over, we are not remembered by our wealth of knowledge and the size of our empires as much as the legacy of our humanity. Be kind. This world still needs great examples when we are gone.”
— Culture, Inc. and The Seven Scrolls

This story is dedicated to Johnny Glass, 1961-2006.

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