How do you describe a guy like John? How do you tell his story?
That’s the question I asked when I sat down to write about John Kelley, a 34-year-old Texan, a paramedic, podcaster, marketing consultant, and father of three. He’s experienced plenty of sadness during his relatively short time on earth.
“Little things. Big things. My life has been an emotional roller coaster,” he agreed. “What am I going to do? Give up? Everyone suffers, and you need a healthy way to deal with it.”
He’s learned that lesson the hard way. It’s not okay to suck it up when tragedy strikes. “The best thing you can do is to be there for your brothers and sisters,” he said.
How do you describe a guy like John?
Pivotal, Life-Altering Moments
By the time we spoke, I’d already listened to his story on The Life Shift Podcast, a program featuring people who talk about the pivotal moments that changed their lives.
The challenge writing about John is that he’s experienced many life-altering moments. And any of them, taken alone, would understandably change his life.
I wanted to know, for example, if these experiences had driven him to work 80 to 90 hours a week as a marketing consultant, the host of the Small Business Origins Podcast, and as a first responder, a highly stressful job recognized this week during National EMS Week.
“It’s not possible not to see your kids when you’re trying to resuscitate a one- or two-month-old baby or a kid who drowns in a pool,” John told me. “Before I go to bed, I open their bedroom doors and I listen to make sure they’re breathing.”
Sometimes he wonders why these thoughts enter his head. And then he remembers.
Life is fragile.
Awareness of life’s fragility and childhood experiences have molded John, making him wiser beyond his years.
His parents had a tumultuous relationship. Both used and abused drugs and alcohol, and fought viciously in front of their son, sometimes dragging him into the middle of their knock-down, drag-out fights. By the time he was in the third grade, they’d divorced.
Though he lived with his mother, he was especially close to his dad, a free spirit, who loved having deep philosophical discussions with his son. “One of the things that he would always say was, ‘Tomorrow is not promised.’”
John learned the truthiness of his father’s dictum.
One night, after a night of partying, his dad collapsed after a massive heart attack. “The last thing I said to my dad was that I loved him and that I would see him the next day.”
John was only 16-years-old.
A few years later, another death rocked John’s life when his best friend, Caleb, committed suicide. John found him hanging from a tree limb, a noose around his neck.
An Unkept Promise
John and I had been talking for roughly an hour when the topic turned to his mother, a former cop on full disability. She had a rough life… sexual abuse as a kid. Addiction to opiates. But a woman with a big heart who’d run toward danger, modeling the virtue of serving others to her son.
Theirs was an interesting relationship, governed by a simple rule: neither could stay mad if they disagreed.
But John forgot that vow on one of the most important days of his life.
Anger and Curses
Already a full-time paramedic, he’d gotten certification from fire school, and had invited his mother to attend the badge-pinning ceremony.
He was waiting in his truck, along with his wife and young son, when his mother crawled into the back. She was high, and in no condition to attend. He cursed her and told her to get out.
“I was angry. It was an important day for me, and she was ruining it.”
He was still mad when he got home from the ceremony, when he went to bed that night, and when he woke up the next morning. He’d just finished a 24-hour shift at the fire station when his aunt ran to his house to tell him that his mother wasn’t breathing.
“I’m barefoot, chasing my aunt across the driveway, and I kick into work mode.”
Seeing his mother lying in a fetal position, John yanked her off the bed and started compressions, thinking of his anger, his curses, and the very real possibility that “this might be the last time I’ll see my mother alive.”
Within a couple of days, his mother was gone.
“I Couldn’t Save My Own Mother”
“I told the chief I wanted off the ambulance,” John told me. “If I couldn’t save my own mother, why in the hell would I think I could save others.”
He started drinking “a lot more than usual,” he said, “and not letting my emotions out in a healthy way.”
It took seven years—his marriage on shaky ground—before John finally went to a therapist to deal with the loss.
Living by Principles
These days John doesn’t internalize the way he did when his mother died. If he feels stressed, he talks about it.
He also lives by principles influenced by his parents. “Tomorrow isn’t promised, and it’s okay to go to bed mad. What’s not okay is to go to bed without saying I love you.”
Wise words from someone who knows.
How do you describe a guy like John?