"The John Problem" by Judith Newcomb Stiles


 My father-in-law is named John, and his father was John, and also my husband is John, and my son is John, so that’s quite a few Johns to contend with in one family.  So what do all the Johns of the world do in a situation like this?  They give out nicknames and we did too, so my father-in-law is Jack and my son was dubbed Johnny.  Problem solved, but that only worked for a while.

     At eighteen years old, my son Johnny declared that he no longer was Johnny and wanted to be called John, seeing how he was now able to vote and drink in bars.

     “Yeah, yeah, sure, we understand.  We’ll call you John from now on.”

     But we didn’t.

     However, years later, the subject was revisited when we went out to dinner at my favorite restaurant on an ordinary Friday evening.  When I eat I have to take out my hearing aids because the simple act of chewing becomes a cacophony of horrible noise and chaos inside my head¾like a karaoke microphone turned way up that is stuck between my ears.  Crunching lettuce is the worst.  I am resigned to my deafness and I have grown to enjoy my meals in silence.

     That Friday night I was concentrating on my tasty broiled codfish, analyzing and enjoying the fresh texture, not in an expert chef kind of way, but as a person who who lives year round on Cape Cod.  I enjoy comparing the nuances of cod fillets and how they are cooked.   I happened to look up from my meal to take a sip of water, and I could see that John and Johnny were arguing about something, just by their body language. John’s head was whipping sideways back and forth in a no-no-no like in a puppet show, and Johnny’s arms and legs were still, but his eyes shut down into crabby slits.

        I put down my fork. “What are you two arguing about?”  I scowled at my husband for an answer.  I can read his lips easily because we’ve been married forever.

        “Johnny is mad because we still call him Johnny.”

        I looked straight at my son and firmly said, “Okay fine.  From now on we will call you John, no problem.  And your dad, we will call OTHER John.  And if you don’t quit arguing this minute, you will ruin a perfectly good dinner.”

I guess without my hearing aids, I was speaking extra loud because several people at other tables paused during their own perfectly good dinners and frowned at me.

        John and Other John stopped arguing, but for the rest of the meal they looked glum, both fidgeting, like they were stuck at a sad funeral. I couldn’t figure out what was the new problem.

        When we got home, I cornered Other John and asked him what the hell was the matter between the two of them, because I thought we had settled the John name problem.

        My husband took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

        “Johnny said that he feels like killing himself.”

        I am a mother. At that very moment all my red flags of worry went up and I went into a panic.  I pictured my friend Sarah with her son Ben, when he was dead in an open coffin at his funeral, with Sarah non-stop weeping.  She was practically climbing into the coffin with her son as she tugged at his suit to hug him.  I ran upstairs to Johnny’s room and knocked on the door, as I opened it slowly.

        “Dad said you are feeling pretty bad right now and we’re worried.”

        He was feverishly pecking at his cell phone before he looked up. He said nothing.

        “John, on a scale of one to ten, how bad are you feeling these days?”

        “What do you mean?”

        “On a scale of one to ten.  One is feeling very bad, and ten is feeling very good.  How are you feeling?”

        He pecked at his phone some more and then said, “I’m a five.”

        “Five??”  I visualized the glass half-empty, glass half-full thing, and I couldn’t figure out what a five meant in terms of thinking of committing suicide.

        I had trouble finding a way to talk to him about this, so I gently told my son perhaps he might like to talk to a therapist.  I told him therapists are good at sorting things out sometimes.  John was busy with his phone, sitting on his bed, so I walked over to him and hugged him close, and kissed the top of his head.

        I stayed up all night researching therapists, texting my friend Joyce who stays up all night, and I came up with two names by the time the sun came up.  Then I waited by the coffee maker in the kitchen, thinking that would be one of his first stops, before he began his day.

        “John, I came up with two names for therapists.” I nervously thrust a piece of paper at him and then poured him a cup of coffee.

        “Mom, tell me again why I should see a therapist?”

        I looked up at my tall son and whispered, “Dad said you felt like killing yourself.”

        I watched him closely and he was quiet at first, as his head bobbled down toward his chest, and then he started laughing.  He laughed for what seemed like an eternity.

        “Mom, when I said that to Dad, I was talking about Netflix.  It was a TV show, Mom.  This kid on the show didn’t want to take an exam, but the feeling sick excuse didn’t work anymore. So then he told his parents, “I feel like killing myself,” and he got to stay home from school.  I was talking about a Netflix show, Mom.  Netflix.”

        I felt a little relieved but still worried.  Relief and worry began having this swordfight in my brain, and I couldn’t figure out what he really meant by a five.

        “Well you should tell your Dad he didn’t hear what you said in that noisy restaurant¾that he misunderstood, and you were talking about Netflix.”

        “I’ll do that later.  I’m going for a bike ride and I’ll bring back some doughnuts.”

        John darted out the door and hopped on his bike and road off, leaving me standing on the porch, feeling awful, holding his cold cup of coffee.  This felt like when he was a baby and I couldn’t keep up with how one minute he would be crying, and then in an instant smiling and laughing.  I was marooned between relief and panic.

        I sat down on the porch and drank the coffee anyway, and realized I felt very bad about not being able to hear what the Johns were saying at dinner.  When I thought about going deaf, I admitted to myself on a scale of one to ten that I was definitely a one.  If there was a number lower than one¾that would be me.

        Then I remembered something my friend Manny D’Almeida told me.  He said not to worry about going deaf because he was going deaf too and it didn’t bother him a bit. He said, “My wife is always nagging me to get hearing aids but I don’t mind that I can’t hear her, because I hear other things.”

        “Like what?”

        “I hear the stones.  I hear the roots of the trees.  I hear the Holy Spirit.”

        That seemed a little strange to me, but I ‘ve been talking to the Holy Spirit for years, and it might be nice to hear something back, for once.

        I sat down on the porch and drank the rest of the coffee and then closed my eyes to listen.  I didn’t hear any stones, or roots of the trees, or the Holy Spirit, and I thought perhaps I was trying too hard.  Or maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough?

I gave up and opened my eyes.  I noticed that the grass had started to turn green and I looked up and there were tiny green buds popping out on the branches of the trees.  The sun was warm on my face and on a scale of one to ten, my needle was moving off of one.  No matter how lousy my winter was, the green was coming, and it was coming no matter what.  I noticed a breeze rustle a bunch of daffodils in my neighbor’s yard, and the jiggling daffodils looked like they were laughing.  My needle was moving closer to ten.  Spring will do that.

        The green was coming in all around me, and I hoped that my son John on his bike was not just thinking about doughnuts.  I hoped that he noticed the green and the warm sun and the laughing daffodils, and that his needle was moving off of five toward ten. The unstoppable spring was here.  I went back into the kitchen and made a fresh pot of coffee, which would be good with tasty fresh doughnuts, and I waited for my son John to come back.