BY SCOTT FERACO
The word “Awe” is most often used when referring to movie stars, rock and roll legends, sports heroes, self-made billionaires, creations such as the Mona Lisa, the Lamborghini Veneno Roadster, and natural wonders like Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon. “Awe” is rarely used when referring to an alcoholic. But from the moment I met Dave I had a feeling of “reverence and wonder” for him. He was the most unique, wonderful, and lovable guy I have ever known. Despite his tragic demise, I was in awe of him to the very end.
There have been times over the past 40-plus years of our friendship when Dave and I lost touch. Being out of touch with him as he lay in a hospital bed from an alcohol-induced coma was by far the worst. I feared I would never see my dear friend’s sly grin or feel his magnetic personality again.
Some people expressed their disappointment in Dave on Facebook. They shamed and blamed him for his addiction. I understand why they felt as they did, he put them through a lot of pain and suffering. I, too, was disappointed that he allowed himself to sink to such an unhealthy condition. But rather than cast judgment, I asked myself what virtue would help me deal with his sad situation. I chose Compassion, “Deep empathy for the suffering of others. Compassion flows freely from the heart when we let go of judgments and seek to understand.”
Miraculously, Dave recovered and came out of the coma. I wanted him to feel my empathy. I wanted him to know that I understand what he has gone through in life, and although he was lying in a hospital bed with a shot liver, I was still in awe of him.
I began writing a letter:
July 20, 2014
Incredible that we’ve known each other since we were 12 years old. Seems like yesterday when we first met. Fresh from the cornfields of Ohio, I had just moved San Diego with my mother, sister and brother. Life was not easy for me back then. My father wasn’t living with us and I was starting a new school. I hadn’t met any friends, so I was feeling pretty lonely. One sunny afternoon I was outside the apartment building tossing a Frisbee in the air to myself like a boomerang when I saw you riding a funky old bicycle, your long, sun-bleached hair blowing in the breeze. You were wearing a black trench coat over white tennis shorts without a shirt. I never saw a dude dressed like that before! Then again, I had never met a surfer before.
I could feel your spirit from a hundred feet away, so alive, independent and rebellious… I was instantly in awe of you!
After Dave was released from the hospital we would have frequent long distant phone calls. He talked about going back to work and landing a big business deal to put him back on top. He put a deposit down on an apartment near the beach, said he was going to start surfing again. He had lots of grand ambitions.
The words we use have great power to discourage or to inspire. Whenever possible I would Speak the Language of Virtues. For example, Determination is the power of intent that drives our dreams. I encouraged Dave to stay determined, not use alcohol, and persevere for however long it took him to heal. I suggested he live a simple life, explore the spiritual path, enter rehab and attend A.A. meetings.
When practiced from the heart with honest intentions, Forgiveness is the most powerful healing process a person can experience. Dave needed encouragement to forgive himself, so I shared with him a profound experience I had many years ago: After years of arrogance, ignorance and selfish choices, my wife had had enough. Our marriage fell apart. I suffered for a long time, feeling hopeless because I destroyed our relationship. Finally, I forgave myself. I stopped punishing myself, and with faith that I could change, I moved on, ready to do things differently. But first I needed to make amends for my past behavior. With the deepest conviction I could muster, I gave my wife a sincere apology and humbly asked for her forgiveness. As my tears flowed I asked her to overlook my past mistakes and be willing to move forward with a clean slate. I felt as if a huge burden had been lifted. Unfortunately, our marriage couldn’t be saved, but I believe the virtue of forgiveness empowered us to work together as partners to raise a wonderful child.
My son was 3 years old when I discovered The Family Virtues Guide by Linda Kavelin Popov. Nicolas and I would sit together, and while he colored pictures from the book I would read to him about Caring, Cleanliness, Friendliness, Gentleness, Obedience, Trustworthiness and many other virtues I thought a toddler could understand. I never imagined that I would benefit the most from those simple lessons.
I was forty years old at the time, and after more than two decades hustling my way up the career ladder in the advertising business I had become like a character from Mad Men; a cynical and overly ambitious creative director with a drinking problem. I’m grateful that the The Family Virtues Guide came into my life. Not only did it offer easy and actionable ways to bring out the best in my child, it allowed me to re-parent myself. I didn’t need religion or some outside force to be ‘saved’. I could meditate and learn how to practice virtues, and take action to ‘be the change I want to see in the world.’ In addition to learning many virtues that helped me become a better person it taught me Moderation. I’m so damn glad I learned the lesson, as I very well could have suffered the same fate as Dave.
“One of the greatest gifts we have to give is our presence—our compassionate, attentive listening. By being deeply present and listening with both compassion and detachment, we help others to empty their cup.” Although Dave wasn’t one to wallow in self-pity, he would occasionally open up emotionally as I quietly listened. Once he confessed to having the tears of a clown. I know he was scared yet he never mentioned death. If the conversation became too serious for too long he would quickly change the subject and reminisce about the good old days of our youth.
I have many memories of carousing with Dave. One stands out very clear; We were 15 years old. The two of us were dressed in Hawaiian shirts preening in the mirror, getting ready to go to a party. Dave said he looked the best, but for a kid from Ohio, he said I looked pretty cool, too. On our way to the party we stopped outside a liquor store and hung around the parking lot until we could convince an ‘old’ dude—drinking age was 18 years old at the time—to buy us a six-pack of beer. Hiding in the shadows of bushes, Dave and I sucked down the brews and copped a buzz. We strutted our stuff though the party like peacocks on full display, smiling at all the pretty surfer girls.
Drinking beer escalated to the hard stuff. Whether it was tequila at night to boogie with the girls on the dance floor or Kamikazes in the morning before paddling out in big surf, downing shots of ‘liquid courage’ became a regular habit for Dave and myself. Our habit became a lifestyle.
Our careers compounded our drinking problems. I became an actor and an artist, always waiting for the phone to ring with news of a big break. Drinking took the edge off my anxiety. Or, while working in my painting studio, I would dull the sharp edge of reason and judgment with a few drinks. With my inhibitions released, I pursued the elusive masterpiece. My drinking habit became more entrenched with every audition and each stroke of the brush. When I went into advertising my alcohol consumption increased even more.
Dave became a successful businessman. Smooshing clients became his forte. If there were a seminar called “Business Smooshing”, Dave would be the keynote speaker. He was great at it because he loved people. But the smooshing became an occupational hazard. His drinking problem became more entrenched each time he entertained a client.
We had a lot in common besides drinking. Like Dave, I came from a broken home. But unlike Dave, my mother was always in my life. Dave missed the nurturing, unconditional love only a mother can give. I’m not a psychologist, but I’m sure he must have suffered as a result of not having a mother hold him in her arms, looking into his eyes with love, admiration and pride.
Love means treating people with special care and kindness because they mean so much to you. His father provided for him, but my guess is Dave was never treated with “special care and kindness” as a child. Maybe he couldn’t truly love himself as an adult. Maybe the lack of self-love is the “demon” we refer to when speculating on why some people become alcoholics.
I hadn’t heard from Dave in awhile, and he was not returning my messages. My letter took a serious tone:
Some people are angry that you’re drinking yourself to death. I am too; because I may never see you again. But mostly I’m sad for your sons because they may never really get to know you. I didn’t get know my dad until I was in my late twenties. All sons deserve to a chance to get to know their fathers as ordinary men. Bless your boys, Dave. Its unfortunate that they had to witness your intense struggles this past year. Hopefully they can rise above an attitude of “blame and shame” and honor you as the big, beautiful man you truly are… or were. I pray that you will get better. I pray that you recover and heal so you can get on your knees and humbly ask for their forgiveness. I pray that you will get spiritually strong, renew the love with your boys and create healthy memories for them to hang on to.
Forgiveness frees us from resentment. I hope your family and friends who suffered as a result of your drinking will find it their heart to forgive you and hold tight to their positive memories of you.
And I hope you will forgive yourself, Dave.
Like most of us, Dave had many flaws. But I believe everyone’s true nature is Goodness, made up of love, compassion, kindness, truthfulness and all the other virtues. Everything else: fear, hatred, jealousy, anger, lust and desire are states of mind and emotions aroused in us as a result of living in an often hostile and competitive world. Unfortunately Dave’s ‘dis-ease’ was overwhelming and he drowned his Goodness in alcohol.
Always remember, Dave, you are so much more than your current condition.
To me you will always be the courageous kid shredding double overhead waves. You will always be the joyful teenager doing methane blasts on cue and the hilarious ‘popping balls’ trick without hesitation, making me laugh so damn hard I pissed my pants. You will always be the motherless child who who overcame the odds, grew into a fine young man, and became a successful HVAC engineer. You will always be the architect that built a fabulous home, and the father who helped raised three wonderful boys. To me you will always be the Master and Commander of the Aurora sailing the open seas. And I will always be in awe of you, my dear friend.
It’s easy for me to praise Dave. I didn’t have to put up with his daily drunkenness. I didn’t have to discover him passed-out with empty booze bottles littered at his feet. I didn’t have to take him to the emergency room or stand over his limp, frail body lying in a hospital bed. To quote someone who was close to him, “Dave left a train wreak in his path.”
My heart goes out to Dave’s family, especially his three sons. I can’t imagine the emotional suffering they must have gone through the past few years. Perhaps they are going to therapy, or attending Al-Anon meetings. Hopefully they’re doing whatever it takes to heal. If circumstances allowed, I would sit down with them and offer my companionship. I would listen to whatever they’d have to say (anything and everything) about their father and their relationship with him. Then I would share my dark secrets, confess to my flaws and insecurities, and describe the frightening nightmares I’ve had over the years because of one reason: The fear of failing as a parent and letting my son down. By sharing my secrets I would hope Dave’s sons would get a better understanding of what their dad went through—what all parents go through. Our immense love for our children can be our downfall.
Before saying goodbye to the boys I would channel my dear friend’s spirit. I would hug ‘my’ sons and ask them to forgive me and love me, despite my flaws.
I concluded my letter to Dave on a spiritual note:
Many years ago I read a story about life after death. Life on earth is like living in a wooden house without windows. Some people, curious about their existence, move through the darkness to the walls and discover a glimmer of light shining in between the wooden slates that make up the walls of the house. But for most of us, our entire life is lived in total darkness and ignorance of what is outside of our perception. Then, as death approaches, a blindfold is put over our eyes and we are guided out of the windowless house. We are taken for a long, grueling uphill walk. Up and up and up we ascend until we are standing on a mountaintop. When death comes and our spirit is freed from the body, the blindfold is suddenly removed. IN AN INSTANT we see everything life has to offer: majestic mountains rising in the horizon, blue sky and billowing clouds, nature’s wildlife, creatures and all of humanity. With our consciousness expanded beyond comprehension, we suddenly see the beauty of everything. We even see the beauty of the windowless wooden house far down below in the valley, where we lived a life of darkness and ignorance.
Let’s not wait for death to see the beauty of everything.
With wonder, admiration, respect, and eternal love,
He emailed me after reading the letter, “Beautiful. Thanks brother.” Shortly after, he was back in the hospital.
I received a text message on Monday, September 15th 2014 at 11:19am EST that Dave had passed away.
A few weeks after his passing I flew to San Diego from NYC to gather with a small group of Dave’s closest friends to honor him. Losing Dave was very sad for all of us, however, we agreed his death doesn’t have to be a tragic ending. We talked about how his passing can be a positive beginning. We can learn from Dave and practice Caring for our bodies, being mindful of what we eat and drink. We can have the Confidence to accept ourselves exactly as we are, flaws and all. Most importantly, we can choose to practice Courage and face life with sobriety no matter how difficult it gets. We can pass these lessons on to our children. Perhaps Dave’s sons, my son, and all of our sons and daughters will read this story. If so, I hope they’ll be inspired to explore the what, why and how virtues, and use them as building blocks to live a life of Goodness.
1. From the The Five Strategies of The Virtues Project.
Special thanks to The Family Virtues Guide, by Linda Kavelin Popov, and the Virtues Project International Association, a global grassroots initiative to inspire the practice of virtues in everyday life.
“THE FIVE STRATEGIES” AND “THE VIRTUES PROJECT” ARE TRADEMARKS OF THE VIRTUES PROJECT INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION.
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