Have you ever met someone so beautiful that it made you cry? I was driving back to work from San Jose after spending my lunch hour attending John’s retirement party at ACT for Mental Health when I suddenly became flooded with an emotion I simply didn’t have the bandwidth for. It was an emotion too strong to explain but it had to do with sadness for other people, disappointment in the world and a persevering appreciation for the fact that despite all the pain and ugliness in life someone can endure it all and still be an incredible and wonderful human. John is one of the most humble and kind souls I know and his existence is a blessing to this world and the people who are lucky enough to have his friendship.
I want to share his story but more importantly I want to accurately convey his essence. People say John “sets the tone” for ACT4MH. He has worked at the non-profit organization for 12 years dabbling in various roles depending on the current need but for the most part John sat at the front desk, answering phones, greeting visitors and making appointments for clients. John is often the first person people meet or speak with when they contact ACT4MH. He’s part of the brand.
John is shy. I think this is my favorite thing about him. He’s painfully shy and it’s endearing. It’s easy to tease him about it and people do it because it’s enjoyable to observe his quiet embarrassment. It’s not often you see genuine modesty like this in a person. He is talented at playing the piano and cooking but he will never admit it. He can bring out your most compassionate side, and he’s someone you can feel instant respect and care for if you have the empathy to see John for who he is.
The second time we met, he told me he was celebrating a sobriety anniversary. This is big, of course- I congratulated him on his great effort. I guess that was the moment I started to wonder about who John was and where he came from. The answer is Texas. I should’ve guessed. I’ve never met a Southern gentleman I didn’t absolutely adore. John was penniless when he abandoned his car and took a train to California in 1999. He told me that the third time we met. Before he could continue his story, though, he quite literally jumped out of his seat and ran down the stairs to go out into the parking lot.
Confused, I sat there wondering what was happening when an intern explained that John went to flag down the guy who comes around the block every day with the ice cream cart. I heard the ringing of the bell. The intern said that every day, John gives the man with the ice cream cart money and will often chase him down the street to do so. I went to the window. John was running down the sidewalk to give the man with the ice cream cart some cash. This was a tender and inspirational moment for me.
Not sure why but my heart broke a bit when I observed this simple act of dedicated and persistent kindness. When John came back he said something like, “Yeah, well, it must be a crumby job to push that thing around all day, so I try to go out there and give him a couple bucks.” You know that incomprehensible sadness I mentioned? It’s back. John knows crumby situations. His brother has a mental illness, displaying odd behavior such as not speaking for years. I think he has schizophrenia. John said his parents sent his brother to a board and care facility in the Bay Area years ago because the services were just better in California than they were in Texas. John visits his brother often. They go to Great America together every weekend. Recently his brother began to speak again out of nowhere about stuff like the weather. John seemed happy about that and I could tell he really loved his brother.
I’m tempted to stop writing because the swelling of emotion is too much. I love my brother like the ocean loves the shore and if he was very sick, I couldn’t fathom that kind of hardship but I’m grateful that John and his brother share a bond as strong as any other warm relationship between two siblings. John expressed concern about the quality of care at some of these board and care facilities. We agreed there needed to be more quality, affordable and specialized facilities for people with mental illnesses like schizophrenia. John is a good brother and I’m glad he is able to afford to care for his family. I wish the best for him and I think his life will be blessed. I truly believe bad things happen to people who do bad things and good things happen to good people. John already has a track record of having a lucky life.
When he came out to California he was completely broke. It was at ACT4MH where he found the support he needed to get out of poverty and homelessness. At first he only came every Wednesday to the Fireside Friendship Club- a group therapy service based on forming friendships- to play the piano in exchange for a meal. Eventually he was hired to work as a full time ACT4MH employee. Working at a non-profit organization didn’t make John rich but it gave him a sufficient and steady income, a 401K and the opportunity to live a full, healthy and independent life. He sets the tone for what ACT4MH is about because his life was directly saved by the devoted care this wonderful organization offers to its guests.
As I watched John open his presents and listened to him read the kind messages from colleagues and friends, I felt so incredibly lucky to be granted the chance to be a part of this celebration of love and gratitude. I think after someone gave him a gift card to Burger King because he likes the Whoppers is when I started to choke back the tears. Naturally, I sneaked out to leave. I had to go back to work but really I left because I like to avoid crying in public. In the car, though, I let everything out the whole way back.
Congratulations, John. You’re an inspiration. Thank you for being you!
With all my love,