On the Relationships You Can’t Quit

I didn’t understand what was happening the first time I was taken to see the man in the hospital. I was young. But I knew it wasn’t good.

I remember seeing him lying in bed. Him reaching for my hand through all them damn tubes. Me flinching. I remember the man looking me dead in the eye and asking me why I couldn’t talk to him. I regret not saying anything back. I regret just standing there. My palms sweat just thinking of that. I was probably led out of the room after doing that.

What do you say to someone whose red cape has been replaced with a sterile white hospital sheet? 

How’s a kid supposed to act? 

Is there anything an adult can say to help take all the pain of the world away?

I don’t remember much of the man when I was a kid. Orioles games. Willie Nelson. Me rockin’ my big wheel down the hill at warp speed to meet him at the bus stop. His perfectly pressed navy blue uniform with heavy medals on it. Overly burnt pancakes. Him running his black pocket comb across his even more perfectly parted strawberry-blonde-hair.

One thing I remember for sure is I never once doubted the man would be there for me. I was a shy kid. Timid. He made me feel safe. The kinda guy who’s six-foot-five when you close your eyes but five-foot-eleven when you open them. He was my protector. But as much as I was in awe of him, at times, his stoic resolve and commanding presence also scared me some.

I remember when the man got better the first time, he’d sometimes stand at my bedroom door at night. I remember lying there with my eyes closed pretending to be asleep. I think about that a lot. Days like today make me regret doing that a lot.

Why didn’t I let him know I was awake? Why didn’t I tell him to come in and tell me a story? Why didn’t I ask him to tell me about all the bad guys he’d caught? I wish I’d asked him to sit on my bed. I wish I’d told him we didn’t have to talk at all.

When I think about the first relationship I had with the man, I can’t help thinking the image of him standing there — and me just lying there — best sums up the story of us.

He was my shield.

But I’m not sure how much either of us tried to take off our armor.

People love to say other people don’t change. But I think that’s nonsense. I think people say that so they can feel better about themselves. So they can feel like their life matters. Like they’re superior. Like they’re the ones who are evolving.

We don’t always take the time to notice, but people change. The man I knew is not the man I know. It took some time, but the years made him softer while I got a little stronger. We started talking more. He’d laugh loudly, uncontrollably, at all things 1988 Chevy Chase. My friends stopped calling him sir. He’s the type of person who asks good questions. He listens. My wife and kids really love him.

I like this thought. I like the idea that no matter how different we were the man and I had no choice but not to quit. I like the idea that the best relationships take years to make.

We took different paths. Me on one continent. Him on another. But no matter how far apart we were and no matter how different we saw the world, we never once questioned if we’d stay together. When you walk with someone long enough, you’ll eventually meet somewhere on the long road to the middle.

I’m glad the man and I had our walks. I’m glad we started at different places. I’m glad we both took the time to learn how to grow on each other as eventually, we learned how to grow with each other.

Knowing we’ve had our walks means a lot right now. He built me up. I like to think I toned him down. Maybe we’ll get another chance to lace up our boots again. Or maybe today while we wait on opposite sides of the globe for the news we want to know but maybe don’t want to hear, we learn our walking days are coming to an end.

I don’t know much. And I don’t know when. But if the damn world ever opens up again the first thing I’m gonna do is run to him. I’d say something this time. I know I would. At the age of 43, I still have no idea how to act and I still don’t have any idea of what I could possibly say to help take all the pain of the world away, but I’d try this time.

I’d tell him he’s a good man.

I’d tell him I love him.

The images of him and me and me and him are coming back faster than before. Pitch and catch. Standing on the sidelines at my games. Cheering. Yelling. Standing together at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Him telling me to shut up and trust myself. I’d tell him I’m finally starting to do that. I’d tell him he gave me exactly what I didn’t know I needed. I’d finally admit his pancakes were pretty good.

I’m sure I’d mess up the words.

I do that sometimes when talking.

But I’d try.

And perhaps that’s the most important lesson the man has ever taught me — great things happen when we stick with people long enough and give them the space to try and get things right.

Thank you for reading.
My very best to you and yours.
— Michael

Love is Water (a story about hope)

It was the fourth week of quarantine when my wife began to cry.

One of her dad’s favorite things to do is to go hiking every Tuesday with his buddies. For the ten years I’ve known him, the only thing that’s ever stopped him from going is either being hospitalized or lockdown. Bad weather doesn’t stop Lluis. He loves the mountains. It’s his place. The moment he steps onto a trail he blends into it. But even more than the mountains, he loves getting a day out with his friends. They’ve had this weekly tradition for over a decade.

It broke my wife’s heart when he told her his closest friend in the group had just passed away. He was 72-years-old. He was perfectly healthy. No underlying conditions. He followed all the rules. He didn’t even leave his apartment to get food. COVID killed him anyway. It was the fifth family friend to pass away in as many days.

Dinner was quiet. Even with two young kids. I think they could feel it. They’re funny like that. It wasn’t a good night to make a stink.

Later that night, after putting the two of them to bed, I went upstairs expecting to escape into a movie for a bit with my wife. But she was already passed out on the couch. She never does that. The two hours after our kids fall asleep each night is her time to breathe. Sacred.

I woke her up. She smiled. She does that. She told me she was sleepy. I told her I know. “You stay up for a bit,” she said. “It’s early.” After giving me a hug, she then stumbled down the steps and disappeared out of sight.

I sat there for a while. I tried to write some. I guess it went well. Time got away from me. It was late when I went to bed. At least for me. After midnight for sure. It could have been closer to 1.

I got into bed next to her. I tried to be quiet. She rubbed my arm. She does that — even if she doesn’t remember it. I laid there for a while. Thinking. What a shitty day. Growing old is sad. What the hell is happening? I hope her dad is okay. He’s a good man. Loyal. I’ve never heard him once complain. Proud eyes. But soft.

I rolled over on my side after her hand fell off my arm. I felt like I had forgotten something. What was I missing? The lights upstairs were off for sure. I double-checked. Water? Damn. Was it worth it? Could I last the night? Did I really want to get out of bed to get it? After having a long internal debate my logical side finally won. I reached over to my nightstand to pick up my empty glass to make the 10-step walk to the bathroom, but as soon as I did, I realized my glass was already full.

I looked back over towards my wife. It was dark. I could only make out her silhouette.

Two young kids inside a small apartment. Work. The day she had. Dealing with me. Barely touching her dinner. Falling asleep on the couch. Yet still, even in her state, before getting into bed she thought to herself — “Michael’s going to be thirsty later.”

We’ve never talked about it, but it’s now an unsaid rule — if one of us goes to bed before the other, we fill up the other person’s glass first. Seeing it next to my bed gets me every time.

I smile.

Love is water.

Thank you for reading.
My best to you and yours.
— Michael

On Peaches, Park Benches, and Choosing What Matters Most

“Can we eat a peach?”

My son was close to turning four. We were walking back from the Tuesday morning market in our town. It was summertime. I still had to work. He didn’t.

“Can’t it wait till we get home? I’ve got things to do.”

“I’m hungry. It’s just a peach!”

And with that, the two of us grabbed a seat on an empty park bench across the street from our apartment. For the next five minutes, we sat there in silence eating our peaches looking up occasionally to take in the world and the people around us.

“Thanks, Dad,” my kid said after making the one-minute walk back home. “That was a really good peach!”

I was a word away from missing out on that moment because I wanted to spend the next five minutes probably sending an email to someone I can’t remember or trying to write an article that most people probably forget.

It’s crazy when you think about it. The moments that stick with us. The little ones that hit us.

To anyone walking by, we looked like any middle-aged guy and his kid sitting on a bench. Three years later, it’s one of my favorite memories. It was right before we met his little brother. That was my moment with my first boy. His personality was starting to come out. Talking full sentences. We’d started to become friends. We could sit comfortably in silence.

I think about that a lot. Memories of before our second child when it was just the three of us. They’re fading fast. Or maybe it’s that I didn’t make enough of them.

I worry about that a lot. The memories that could’ve been. The ones I said no to. The times I thought I had something better to do. Those memories aren’t fading as fast. Or maybe they weren’t meant to.

Regrets, when you’re still young, aren’t regrets — they’re reminders.

Reminders we can still make the time.

Reminders the choice is ours.

Reminders it’s not too late to change.

In a world fuelled by deadlines, to-do lists, and never-ending goals to crush, it’s surprisingly easy to forget what the real goal is.

Why was it hard to say yes to a peach with my boy?

Why did I initially say no?

I think about that a lot. Whoever was on the other side of that email probably didn’t care if I got back to them or not. I’m sure my editor wasn’t watching the clock. The only person telling me to get back to work was me.

I’m glad I said yes to my boy that day. It’s made me appreciate peaches more. Sometimes the memory pops into my head when I see a random park bench. It reminds me that when you choose one thing you’re choosing not to do something else. It reminds me to actually think about the things I’m saying no to. It reminds me of just how important those moments in between really are.

A peach.

A park bench.

Silent conversations.

I can’t tell you anything else about that day. The emails have since been deleted. That client has probably moved on.

But I’ll always have those five minutes with my boy.

I’ll always have that really good peach.

Thank you for reading.
Eat more peaches.
— Michael

My Life Began the Day I Lost $250,000

The phone rang. This was it! I thought. At last, all the years of struggle I’d endured were about to be worth it.

Growing up with a severe speech impediment and social anxiety, I had a very limited view of what I was capable of achieving. But as I grew into adulthood, I began to push myself far beyond my comfort zone. I hired a communication coach and threw myself into a sales job, where I’d be forced to talk to people every day. And I became good at what I did, working my way up to managing a sales team.

I got a taste of success, and then I wanted more. I began dabbling in real estate investments in Central America.

I was 29 years old, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I could do anything. I was about to close the deal on the sale of my investment property, which would net me a $250,000 payout.

But the moment I heard the voice on the other end of the line, I knew something was wrong and my stomach began to drop.

After a long pause, the man — my partner in the deal, and someone who I’d once considered family — gave me the news. “Michael, the money isn’t coming,” he said. “The deal is dead.”

I did my best not to completely lose it.

Things would be okay, I told myself. No matter what happened, the house was still mine. I would simply list the property again, attract a new buyer, and get back my investment. Not the original plan, but not the end of the world.

But then I received another surprise.

Unbeknownst to my friend at the time, his father had changed the deed of the property to his own name. Then he sold it out from under me — for $30,000 in cash, I would later learn, and five luxury cars valued well over $200,000 to a man who I can only imagine walks a fine line between what’s right and wrong.

One crossed-out name.

One new signature.

One measly phone call.

And everything that I’d been working toward was gone. It wasn’t long before my sanity and confidence went with it.

To say that I felt completely paralyzed would be an understatement. I sat in my car, thinking about everything. I wondered what the hell I was going to do next. Then I did the only thing I could think of to numb the pain of losing a quarter of a million dollars — I drove to the closest bar.

Over the next 21 months, as if I was writing my own country song, I smoked my breakfast and drank my dinner. My parents were scared. The few friends I didn’t manage to piss off or push away were worried. The only reason I hadn’t been admitted to rehab or the hospital was that I was too ashamed to tell a doctor the truth: I needed serious help.

Finally, as a Hail Mary attempt to straighten out my twisted head, I decided to take what money I had left and I bought a one-way ticket to Barcelona. I once read that some people travel because they’re running toward something, while others travel because they’re running away from something. At the time, I fell into the latter category. I was lost. My confidence was shot. But I knew I had to do something.

After I loaded up my backpack with some clothes, a few books, and other scattered belongings, I gave my parents one last hug at JFK airport and I boarded the plane.

And then something happened.

The moment I stepped on Catalan soil, I felt a shift. My shoulders dropped. Gravity lessened. The city streets seemed ripe with opportunity. The air smelled clean and crisp. For the first time in close to two years, I felt like I could breathe again.

Within weeks, instead of running from life, I began to chase it.

I started eating well and walking everywhere. I quickly lost the 60 pounds I’d gained during my two-year blackout. I allowed myself to play again and I finally gave my curiosity the respect it deserves. I threw myself back into work I cared about — while seeking out people who were doing what they could to make the world a better place.

For once, instead of trying to reinvent myself to become the person I thought other people wanted me to be, I focused on taking the steps to actually get to know the real me. In the process, I learned to smile without having to fake it.

All of this came to a head eight months after I arrived. I was walking down the rainy streets of Barcelona with a woman I had just met. Suddenly, the sun came out, and in one fluid motion, this comfortable stranger stopped in a fleeting ray of light, tilted up her head, closed her eyes, and smiled. At that moment, I was finally present enough to see all the beauty that exists in the world.

My life today couldn’t be more different than the one I had prior to boarding that plane 10 years ago.

I may not be what society deems as mega-successful, but I’ve never felt like more of a success. I get to wake up every day and be me. And the best part, is I have the privilege of seeing that same woman every morning laying next to me.

We live in a slow country town. Our apartment is small. We share one car. I can’t remember the last time either of us bought new clothes. But we have each other and our two little boys.

That phone call may have cost me $250,000 — but the journey it took me on was worth every penny.

Thank you for reading.
— Michael