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Dear John: Deathbed Confession Is Good For Whom, Exactly?

Tuesday, February 05, 2013


What’s your problem? Write to John at [email protected].

Dear John,

I am in my 60s. I am a heroin addict, although I have been clean for almost forty years. Even so, I’m humble enough not to take anything for granted. When I was a heroin user, I did a lot of things I am ashamed of now, but one thing in particular stands out: I stole a ring from a friend because I was desperate for money. It had been his mother’s engagement ring. As you might imagine, he drove himself crazy looking for it, but after a couple of months, he accepted that it was lost. He was devastated, but life went on.

We have remained friends all this time. And now he’s very ill and in all likelihood will pass away soon. All these years, I haven’t given much thought to that ring, but his illness has brought it all back to me. How upset he was and what an unforgivable thing I did to cause him all that grief. The reason I am writing is because I want to know if I should tell him what I did. I feel awfully guilty about it and I know whatever decision I make I will not get a second chance on. I am interested in your opinion.

Past Is Present

Dear Past Is Present,

You have to ask yourself whether you’re considering sharing this news with your friend because you think it will offer him some kind of peace as he nears the end of his life or because you want to assuage your own guilt. That’s how I’ve thought about your question, and the conclusion I’ve reached is that you should not tell him.

How is telling him you stole his mother’s ring to pay for drugs going to ease his mind? Yes, it will solve a mystery that has presumably receded in importance over the past forty years, but it will also undermine and possibly destroy a friendship that can offer him a lot of comfort at this point in his life. It’s not like you can give the ring back to him. All you can do is transfer this emotional burden from your shoulders to his.

I understand you feel guilty and that after your friend dies, you’ll have no way to allay it. That’s something you’ll have to live with. But if you want to atone for what you did as best you can, you have another opportunity instead: to be the best friend you can be in the time he has left. Make the most of it.

Dear John,

With guns and gun ownership so much in the news these days, I have been doing a lot of thinking. My husband and I have a five-year-old son who is at the age where he frequently goes to friends’ houses for play dates – and in one form or another, this is something he will be doing for the rest of his childhood. It terrifies me to think of him being in a home where the parents keep guns in the house. Before I agree to let him go on a play date, I am considering asking his friends’ parents if they keep guns in their house. My husband is uneasy with this plan, though, and he is not one to take our son’s safety lightly. He thinks it’s a little unfriendly or rude somehow, and also that it’s prying and implying that they’re not sufficiently protective of their own children. I’m not particularly concerned that someone might be offended by my being a vigilant mother. If they are, so be it. But I realize I’ve become so worried about this, perhaps I’m going overboard? Or is it okay to go overboard where our kids’ wellbeing is concerned?

Better Safe Than Sorry

Dear Better Safe,

I don’t think your plan is intrinsically good or bad. Yes, some parents may find it intrusive or off-putting, but I suspect others will commend you on not simply sitting back and hoping for the best. You and your husband have to decide if you’re comfortable with this.

If you decide to go ahead with it, I think you’d be wise to think carefully about how you present the subject to your son’s prospective hosts. You don’t want to sound like you’re grilling them. Also, are you prepared for the responses you’ll get? Is your policy that any guns in the home are a deal-breaker? What if there’s an antique rifle but no ammunition? What if the guns are kept in a gun safe that you’re invited to take a look at to reassure yourself the guns are secure? Again, I’m not trying to encourage or dissuade you; I just think you would be well served to give this a lot of thought beforehand. You should have a clear idea of what is and isn’t acceptable to you and your husband.

I can understand his reluctance on this, because one wonders where such inquiries end. Do you verify that the pool is enclosed by a locked fence? That poisons are inaccessible? It can be hard to send our children off into a seemingly dangerous world, and the line between sensibly cautious and smotheringly fearful can be unclear sometimes. So whether or not you decide to ask other parents if they keep guns in the house, the best thing you can do is teach your son how to recognize and avoid the dangers in the world around him.

Dear John,

About a year ago I got divorced and my ex-wife and I share custody of our two kids, a boy and girl 10 and 13. Our divorce was not amicable and our relationship now is continuing down that same road. The problem is that my ex-wife is constantly badmouthing me and undermining me to the kids. When they are with me, it seems like half the time is spent trying to undo whatever she has told them about me since the last time I saw them. This is so frustrating, and I have spoken to her about it many times and tried to convince her that it’s bad for the kids, but she continues to do it because she knows how much it bothers me and also because she can tell herself she’s just telling them the truth. (And yes, the things she says are technically true. I was a pretty lousy husband a lot of the times we were married, but no one can ever say I don’t love my kids and want what’s best for them.) It’s all I can do to take the high road here. How can I make her see that she’s hurting the kids with her antics way more than she’s hurting me?

Bad Husband But Good Dad

Dear Bad Husband,

There’s no way you can make her see that. All you can do is what it sounds like you’re doing: refuse to respond in kind and keep your kids’ best interests foremost in your mind. Unfortunately, your ex-wife’s behavior makes it even more important that you set a good example for them.

That’s not to say you have to refute or explain everything she tells them about you. The next time something like this comes up, simply say, “Kids, Mom and I disagree about a lot of things – you know that – but one thing we agree 100% on is that we both love you kids and want what’s best for you. This has been hard for all four of us, Mom included. Now what do you want to do today?”

It’s not uncommon for a bitter parent to try to get the kids to take his or her side following a divorce. At the time, it may seem like a way of getting back at the ex-spouse for whatever he or she did wrong, but in the end, it’s the costliest of victories. Difficult as it may be sometimes, parents, whether married or not, should never disparage each other to their children.

John is a middle-aged family man from Providence. If you learn from your mistakes, he’s brilliant. Write to him at [email protected].


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