‘John came to me for help. I hope I did.’

Photo of cowboy hat

Published Aug. 29
Written by Joe, Sioux Falls peer coach

I found out today I lost a member and a friend. His name was John.*

John and I were both born in 1961. I’ve put a lot of miles on my 61-year-old body, but John took bodily punishment to a high level. He was born and raised in Oklahoma and for a good part of his life he was a cowboy whose specialty was breaking horses. From what I could tell, John was pretty good at breaking horses, but more often than is advisable those horses broke a thing or two on John. When I met him a couple of years ago, he was having trouble with his ankles and feet, which will happen when you break all those bones over and over for decades.

John may or may not have graduated high school, but he had a Ph.D. in cussin’.  When we first met, the man was an f-bomb factory working around the clock. To paraphrase the great Gladys Knight, John could swear… I declare.

For the majority of his life, John like to drink beer all day, every day since he was 14 right up to a short time after we met in 2020. John came to me looking for some way, any way, to quit drinking all that beer, because every other way he'd tried had failed. He wasn’t on the run from the law. I don’t believe he’d been a bad man or committed heinous crimes. However, he and beer (and at times bourbon) may have made him less than cordial in public.

The day John and I met he sat as far away from me as he could. He was wearing a puffy fall/winter jacket and a seed corn hat pulled way down over his face. The collar of the coat and the curve in the cap brim formed something akin to the mouth of a tunnel or cave and all that black swallowed up his face. He was right there, but he was hiding. I think at that point in his life it was easier for him not to have to interact with people of any sort on any level. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul, and for most of my life I’ve been able to figure out how people are doing by the look of their eyes. But there would be no such parlor trick on that day. If there were eyes or windows back in that darkness, I couldn’t make them out. They were buried way back in coat-cap cave.

I tried everything I could to try to get John to open up a little. I didn’t get anywhere with him until we started talking about pick-ups. His misspent youth was spent in a gold ’74 GMC. My favorite was a ’79 Ford F100. We met again a week later. John hadn’t had a beer in five days or so, which had his body in significant revolt. However, the tunnel was a little more open and a little less dark. The week after that John asked if we meet over the phone, as unsound ankles and the lack of driving privileges made it hard to get around.

Over the weeks interesting things started to happen. The f-bombs became less frequent, replaced by a hearty smoker’s laugh. And we talked. About anything and everything. The longer he went without beer, the more he became a storyteller, a stone philosopher and an astute observer of the times. His growing sense of patience was graphically illustrated when he informed me he had procured employment at a big-box store. I thought he was making it up, but he wasn’t. After surviving the holiday shopping season without committing a single homicide or assault, he acquired something akin to patience, and he swore he occasionally smiled.

After a while we decided we were long overdue to meet again in person. It was during COVID but we thought we'd found an open coffee shop. When we got there, the lobby was closed. However, the drive-thru was open, so we hopped in line on foot, ordered and paid at the window, then found a couple of chairs chained to an outdoor table and sat. It was then I gave him a full up and down – and he was amazing. Standing tall, wearing a sharp western dress shirt, smartly tailored jeans and a handsome pair of western boots. Most surprisingly: no coat or cap. There was nowhere to hide because there was no desire or need to hide. He had a fresh, silver haircut, a healthy cowboy tan and a mouth full of the most handsome dental work you’ve ever seen, smiling and laughing. It had been almost a year since we first met, and still no beer. Not a one. It showed every bit of the success he’d made of himself. He was his best John, sharp at a razor. He’d purchased a motorcycle and couldn’t wait for the snow to melt so he could ride. Until then the bike was inside his apartment, parked in the living room. John was once again a walkin’ tall and lookin’ good Oklahoma cowboy, and anyone on earth who saw him that day would certainly agree.

Sadly, it did not last. A couple of weeks after our walk-through coffee we were back on the phone. He’d been told by his doctors he needed serious foot and ankle surgery which would leave his ankles fused and likely unable to walk unaided. The cruelest cut of all happened during his pre-op physical. Doctors found very advanced pancreatic cancer.

We met on the phone a few more weeks, then one day he wrote me a text. He said he’d decided not to fight the cancer and doctors gave him two or three months of life, at best. He thanked me for helping him but asked me to refrain from calling him again. Perhaps he wanted to remember things the way they were. Perhaps he wanted me to remember him when he was a tall, tanned, well-appointed professional cowboy, with one hell of a store-bought smile. I promised to honor his wishes and never talked to him again. He died some weeks ago but I didn’t learn of that until seeing an online obituary today.

I’ll never forget how remarkable it was experiencing his transformation, listening to his on-the-mark commentaries on the state of the world, being genuinely funny, sporting that smoker’s laugh, smart duds, the tan and the smile. John came to me for help. I hope I did. He sure helped me. And as far as I know, he never had another beer.

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* A pseudonym was used to protect our member's privacy.