I remember the day the phone rang.
I was in a loud restaurant eating lunch with my friend Kelly. We were visiting a friend. Life was simple then. I was just home for the summer, working and saving money so I could head back to Florida State University for the fall term.
It was my friend Ashley on the other line.
She asked what I was doing. I responded, and she said that I should just call her back when I got home. However, I knew something was wrong. I’ve had one too many conversations with her to know when she was covering something up. I pushed her for about a minute to just tell me, and then, in an instant, everything changed.
“Josh is dead,” she said. “Josh is dead.”
She held strong for the first three words, but her voice cracked and faded when she repeated herself. A life of feeling indestructible had been ripped from me. I sat there silent, unsure of what to say, unsure of how to react. There are no rehearsals for these types of conversations. I remember thinking it couldn’t be true, that there must be some mistake, and thought to myself how could this happen. But none of these thoughts seemed to make it out of my mouth. I could hear Ashley crying on the other end of the phone. Josh was her ex-boyfriend and one of my best friends.
Josh had moved to Sarasota a few years prior to live with his mom after life with his dad in our hometown became too difficult. With his dad, there were fights and drugs and jail time. I didn’t know how to handle any of this. My parents were happily married, and the idea of drugs and jail time was foreign to me.
I didn’t know what to do, but I did what I could.
My mom and I did his laundry. Lindsay and I picked him up for school. We talked about the future and how someday this would all fade, how life for Josh would get easier. We talked about marriage and children and our dreams. He was probably considered as part of the “bad crowd” at school, but I didn’t care. He never tempted me to do anything wrong, and he would do anything for me.
Over time, he made the decision to live with his mom again. It was a tearful goodbye outside of his dad’s house. Josh didn’t have a car so the chances of “See you soon” were slim to none. We kept in touch, but we didn’t email or text. Josh liked to write handwritten letters and draw pictures. I saved them all because the pictures were so funny — not because I thought someday soon they would be put into a memorial box.
Not long before Josh passed away, he called Ashley. He told her life in Sarasota wasn’t working out. He said he was spiraling out of control, using and needed to come back and live with his Dad. Three weeks later, Josh died of a drug overdose. This thought haunts me to this day.
On the phone, my silence turned to tears and then quickly turned to anger. He knew deep down he didn’t want to live the way he was living. We watched him live it. We were good influences but only in certain moments. I wished instantly he had moved home the weekend he said he wanted to. I wished that I had done more. I knew what he was doing was destructive to himself. I was “there for him,” but I didn’t do anything more than that. He battled the demons of his childhood and shared a one-bedroom house with his alcoholic father for years. The house reeked of mold and pot, and yet some of the best conversations I ever had were there. The scary thing is that this scenario was healthier than the one he faced while living with his mom.
I write all this to tell you that I would give anything to change the past, to have one more conversation, one more day with Josh. This won’t ever happen. And you may not know Josh, but I do know this: there is a big chance you know a Josh. Maybe you are Josh. Either way, you are breathing, living, reading these words, reflecting on the life that led you here.
This life may bring you more pain than you know what to do with. Sometimes it might include carrying the pain of others. No matter what it looks like, use your voice. Speak up and out. Do you need help? Is there someone who needs your help? Whether it’s a push to get out of bed today, an encouragement to say no to those voices, or enough drive to reach out to someone, I hope you will. I hope you will fight. For them and for yourself.
You are part of this life for a reason. Your reason may look different than mine, but we are important. You are important. Never let yourself forget it.