Elliott Holliman was a good person, but sometimes terrible things happen to good people and it is how they react when tragedy strikes that makes all the difference.
Unfortunately, Elliott knew this all too well from personal experience.
He closed his office door as the last member of the meeting left. The late afternoon gathering had been flattering, but Elliott knew that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to successfully run for the United States Senate – if anyone found out about his past.
He turned and surveyed the opulence of his working environment. Not only was this room breathtaking, the entire building was stunning. And he owned it all. If someone had told him thirty years ago that at the age of fifty-three he would be wealthy beyond his dreams and considered a promising contender in the national political arena he would have thought they were out of their minds.
But that was before he heard the woman’s voice.
He sat down at his massive desk and contemplated a future that could only be considered in terms of the past. Everything he had achieved during the last three decades, the money, the respect and the power had been the direct result of hearing the voice.
But it was the cruelest form of irony that, although they were the most important words he’d ever heard, the reason the woman had said them would most likely sabotage any hope of a political future.
He leaned back in his chair and tried to clear his mind. He’d promised those that attended the meeting that he would seriously consider their offer to back him in a run for the Senate, but he knew in his heart that it would a daunting task.
Elliott’s life had been one of extremes. His first twenty-five years had been uneventful enough, but then the automobile accident changed everything. From that moment on he had been rebuilding his life to the point where he’d become far more successful than he could have ever imagined.
Along the way, he felt so lucky to be alive and to have a second chance that he had done everything in his power to be kind and considerate to anyone who needed help or assistance. His growing wealth was consistently matched by his philanthropy. His willingness to share his material good fortune is what had made him well known.
Although he tried to do all the good he could without fanfare, his relentless generosity had gradually caught the attention of people around the state and that was one of the reasons they wanted him to run for office.
Suzanne, his wife of twenty years, thought he should do it. As a lawyer, she believed that political power would provide him with an even bigger platform to help those who were vulnerable, disadvantaged, and marginalized.
But Suzanne did not know the full story about his past. Even though Elliott and his wife were completely devoted to each other, he had never told her about the woman’s voice that came to him in his moments of need.
He had never told anyone.
However, the pressure of making a decision that would drastically affect both of their lives was increasing. Soon he would be forced to either enter the race or stay out. But for the first time in his professional life, Elliott did not have an instinctive feel for what he should do.
He honestly wanted to be a Senator because he sincerely believed he could make a real difference in people’s lives, but what he would have to go through if people found out his story, might prove to be unbearable.
As always, he tried to examine his options in an analytical way, but that didn’t help in this case. There was too much emotion attached to this decision. The baggage from the past weighed him down and kept him from being able to see a successful life in politics because someone would surely find out about the woman’s voice.
For the next hour, he considered every possible option, but none of them appealed to him. Finally, he decided it would be best to sleep on it. He grabbed his coat and briefcase and headed for the car and driver that was always waiting for him.
Throughout the evening, Suzanne could tell her husband was distracted. She had inquired about how the meeting went, but he was reluctant to discuss it. After several more attempts to find out what he was thinking, she decided to let him deal with the issues in his own way. She knew that he would talk to her when he was ready. They always sought out each other’s advice and counsel when faced with an important decision.
Mentally tired from a long difficult day, Elliott went to bed early. Suzanne stayed up because she had legal briefs to prepare for an upcoming case. Elliott climbed into bed and felt guilty as he stretched out on the satin sheets while desperate men and women across town slept under overpasses trying to stay warm. Perhaps if he was elected Senator he would be able to remedy that kind of suffering, but he was too tired to think about it anymore. He tossed and turned for a while and finally drifted into a deep sleep.
Three hours later he woke with a start. He could feel his heart pounding and his palms felt sweaty. He reached over and realized that Suzanne had fallen asleep in her office. He knew that his anxiety meant he was about to relive the moment from twenty-six years before. He closed his eyes and tried to relax. Slowly the tension lessened and his mind cleared. He waited patiently for it, and suddenly he heard it. The woman’s voice never changed. It was always the same. Calmly and gently she repeated the words that he’d been hearing her say for more than two decades.
Even with the passing of time, the words were still just as powerful as the first time she had said them. He breathed deeply and let her voice wash over him and, just as he always did, he took a moment to consider how fortunate he was that he had encountered this particular person at exactly the right moment in his life.
A few hours later, he stood in front of the mirror shaving, when a sudden thought struck him with such force that he dropped the electric razor on the counter. Twenty-six years ago, the woman’s voice had known exactly the right words to say – maybe she could do it again.
He realized he had to find out if she was still alive.
An hour later, he got to his office and immediately began to marshal all of the forces within his empire. He enlisted the help of his internet research team. He asked his experts to compile information on any female residents with the first name of Jessica who lived in the area at that time. He contacted the agency that provided security for him and requested that their detectives attempt to track down someone whose last name he did not know and whose face he had never seen. The only information he could provide them with was a specific date: July 29th, 1991.
But suddenly in the middle of all the activity, he had a chilling thought. What if this person had no desire to be found? In his excitement, he had failed to consider how she might view his attempts to locate her.
Perhaps she was no longer living. It would be difficult to guess her age, but it was certainly possible that over this span of time she could have died, a thought that suddenly made him feel cold and empty.
But no matter what, he knew he had to try.
If he was able to find her, there were two things he wanted to say. First, he wanted to thank her from the bottom of his heart for the words she said to him that changed his life, Secondly, he wanted to ask an important question. A question that he believed she was uniquely qualified to answer.
For the next few days, he put aside the issue of running for political office, and he delegated most business decisions to his subordinates while he focused obsessively on finding the woman. At home, he tried to pretend that nothing unusual was going on. He did not want to tell Suzanne anything about that chapter of his past until he knew whether or not the woman could be found.
Time slowly dragged by, and Elliott was growing increasingly anxious when no one within his organization could find any trace of the woman. Finally, on a Wednesday morning, he got some possible good news. There were three likely candidates who could conceivably be the mystery woman. One was deceased, one had moved to the other side of the country and one was still living in the city.
It was at this point that he learned her name was Jessica Carlson, but to finally have a last name attached to the voice that had been his constant companion for so many years seemed strange.
Elliott was surprised at how the news affected him. He closed his office door and immediately began to have second thoughts. Did he have the right to invade her privacy and contact her? Would she think his behavior was inappropriate or worse? Would she even know what he was talking about?
She did not know his name or who he was. Their connection years ago was a onetime event that lasted less than an hour. To him, it was monumentally important, but to her, it may have meant very little.
But finally, he admitted to himself that if he was going to continue with his life, particularly if he was going to run for office, he had to try and meet her, if nothing else just to thank her.
He called in the individual who had made the discovery and got all the pertinent information about the woman still living in town. He thanked them for their hard work and then he was left alone to work up the courage to make the call.
It turned out the woman was living in a retirement community. It was not the type of facility that was designed for memory care or for people who needed 24-hour nursing care, so he surmised that she must be in reasonably good health.
After hesitating for several more minutes he finally made the call.
Because of his wealth and power the administrator knew who he was. They talked briefly and, as vaguely as he could, Elliott explained the circumstances that were prompting the call. The administrator understood and told him that he would speak to Jessica to see if she would agree to meet with him. He made no promises. but he said he would try.
The next morning, Elliott had just arrived at the office when he got the call. The administrator told him that Mrs. Carlson had agreed to meet with him anytime at his convenience – after today. This morning was water aerobics and in the afternoon there was bingo and she didn’t want to miss either one. Elliott smiled and said that the next day would be fine. He’d waited twenty-six years so he could wait another twenty-four hours to meet her.
After hanging up with the facility, he immediately called Suzanne and told her there was something very important they had to talk about that evening. She could tell by the tone of his voice it was serious, and she guessed correctly that this was somehow connected to his possible run for political office.
The day passed slowly for both of them, but finally, Elliott arrived home. They immediately sat down next to each other. Suzanne waited while he collected his thoughts. She thought to herself that she had never seen her husband so ill at ease.
Elliott looked away for a moment and then said, “We need to talk about the car accident.”
Suzanne was caught off guard. It was not the subject she was expecting because Elliott rarely spoke about that time in his life. It was just too painful. Losing his first wife and three-year-old daughter had changed him forever. She knew that he struggled for years to overcome the tragedy, but she only had limited knowledge of what he actually went through.
As he nervously rubbed his hands together he began. “What would you say if I told you that for the entire time you’ve known me I hear another woman’s voice in my head, especially in the middle of the night and that this voice always says the same thing?”
Suzanne was again caught by surprise. Hesitantly she asked, “What does the person’s voice say?”
Elliott ignored the question and continued. “I know how strange it must seem, but it is actually a comforting thing. I have never told anyone about this, but if I run for the Senate I’m afraid that somehow all of it will come out.”
Suzanne was trying to be patient and let him explain it in his own way, but she was becoming more confused.
“That awful rainy night when Erin lost control of the car and she and Haley were killed, my mind snapped. The best way I can explain it is that I stopped being the person I was up to that point in my life. Burying my wife and child together was more than I could stand, but I refused to accept that I needed help. It took three years for me to reach the end.”
“What happened then?”
“It’s what didn’t happen that matters.”
He could see the look of puzzlement on Suzanne’s face. But he wasn’t worried about how she would react. She had proven her love for him over and over again. Her quiet understanding and acceptance of his difficult life had always been important to him.
“After their deaths, I struggled for thirty-six months. Each passing day became more and more overwhelming. It’s hard to explain because the emotion is more than just grief or sadness. It felt like I was slipping away and I was powerless to stop it. I guess the best way to describe it is that I slowly lost the will to live.”
Suzanne reached over and put her hand on his. She could feel him shaking slightly.
“By the end of the third year, I had given up trying to reclaim my life. Nothing mattered anymore. It was just before midnight on the anniversary of the crash, as I sat alone in my apartment that I decided I couldn’t go on. I went to the closet, reached up on the top shelf and got the handgun and box of ammo that I had bought several months before.”
Suzanne’s eyes began to burn as tears filled her eyes.
“Slowly and methodically I loaded the gun, and then I just sat on the bed looking at the revolver in my hand. I’m not sure how much time went by, but I can tell you it was the strangest feeling. I wasn’t scared, or nervous. I didn’t feel crazy or out of my mind. I wasn’t frantic or delirious…… I just felt ready. Life had become too painful without my wife and daughter and death seemed like the only way to find relief. For some reason, holding that gun in my hand made me feel calmer than at any moment since I’d lost them.”
They sat in silence for several moments and then Suzanne gently asked, “What kept you from pulling the trigger?”
“The woman’s voice.”
Suzanne shook her head in frustration. “Who is this woman? Please explain what happened.”
“Okay. I’m sorry, but this is not easy to talk about.” He took a moment to collect his thoughts, and then he continued. “After sitting and thinking for a few more minutes, I finally made up my mind to do it. But just as I put the gun up to my temple, a slight breeze blew the bedroom curtains open. I realized I’d forgotten to close the window.
“Although I knew many people in my apartment complex would hear the shot, for some reason, I felt compelled to get up and close that window. To my way of thinking, I wanted my death to be private. I didn’t want to share it with anyone.
“I laid the gun down and walked over to close it. I glanced out the window and noticed a large lighted billboard across the street. I stared at it in disbelief. It was advertising a suicide hotline.
“I don’t know how long that ad had been up because I never paid any attention to the sign. But as I stood there, I made the most important decision of my life. I decided to call the number.”
Suzanne took a deep breath. “Thank God. I had no idea how bad it was for you. I can’t even imagine……So the woman’s voice is the person you talked to on the phone?”
“That’s right. Our conversation saved my life. And now I have decided to meet her.”
“You’re going to meet her? Are you sure you have the right person?”
“There is little doubt. I’m going to see her tomorrow morning. She’s living in a retirement community here in the city. I don’t have any reason to think that she’ll remember me – but at least I’ll have the opportunity to thank her for what she did. And I want to ask her opinion about the political race.”
“What do you mean?”
“Someone is going to find out that I lived with depression and contemplated suicide. They may even find Jessica. I want to make sure that she is willing to have the past brought into the light. If she is not open to that, I won’t run. I mean, having that in my past will turn off a lot of voters. It is a stigma that society still clings to.”
“But look at all the good you’ve done. You have always used your wealth and position to help others.”
“That won’t matter. As soon as the public hears the word suicide it will be over.”
Suzanne thought for a moment. She knew her husband could be right, but she had to hope that progress had been made in the way the public viewed mental health issues.
“There’s one more interesting part to this story.”
“The next morning after the phone call, I woke up to the sound of a loud engine. I got up and looked out the window and the sign company had a large crane truck and they were changing the message on the billboard.”
“Oh my God. What if they had changed the sign one day earlier?”
“I know. It’s frightening to think about.”
Suzanne could not imagine what her life would be like without Elliott. He was the kindest sweetest person she had ever met, and just the thought of him taking his own life was heartbreaking. It made her wonder about the words the woman said to him, so she decided to ask one more time. “Would you be comfortable telling me what she said that changed your mind?”
“I’d rather not. I know it might sound silly, but Jessica’s words have belonged to just me for so long that I don’t want to give them away. I’m sure the entire situation must seem unreal. I just hope that learning about what happened that night won’t change your opinion about me.”
Suzanne looked into the eyes of husband and tried to imagine the pain he had endured. Tenderly she took his face in her hands and kissed him.
At 10:00 a.m. the next morning, Elliott nervously waited at the retirement community in a small room with several comfortable chairs and two small tables. After a few minutes, the Executive Director stepped in and held the door open for a small woman with large glasses and beautiful silver hair. Strangely, Elliott realized that she actually looked similar to the way he had pictured her the last twenty-four hours.
The Director turned to her and said, “Jessica, this is Elliott Holliman the gentleman who wanted to meet you. Mr. Holliman this is Jessica Carlson.”
She smiled sweetly and extended her right hand. Elliott could hardly believe he was gazing at the person whose words had lived in his mind for more than a quarter of a century. He reached out and took her hand in both of his. “Mrs. Carlson, I can hardly express what it means to me to be able to meet you.”
Jessica looked at him quizzically and in a voice made gentle with age she said, “It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Holliman.”
And there it was. The same inflection and cadence. The same tranquil quality and reassurance. It was the voice he had heard for so many years, and it made a chill run down Elliott’s spine.
But before he could respond, the Executive Director spoke up. “Please excuse me. I’ve got business to attend to, but feel free to chat for as long as you like.” He quickly stepped out and closed the door behind him.
Still grasping her hand, Elliott led Jessica to a chair. “Please, sit down. I want you to be comfortable.”
Elliott took the seat directly across from her. “I’m sure you’re wondering why I asked to meet you.”
“Yes. I am curious. It’s not every day that someone famous wants to meet someone like me.” She folded her hands in her lap and waited.
“You know who I am?”
“Of course. You are a very successful businessman, but what really caught my attention is how you’ve used your wealth over the years to help so many others. That is quite rare, and it doesn’t go unnoticed.”
Elliott could feel emotion stirring inside him, and he wanted desperately to control it.
Jessica smiled again. “The question is, how do you know me?”
Elliott realized the moment had arrived. He had rehearsed in his mind over and over what he would say, but it was turning out to be more difficult than he thought. But this was obviously a kind woman who would either remember or not, so he had nothing to lose.
“Okay, here goes……Do you know what you were doing on the night of July 29th, 1991?”
Jessica’s face briefly registered surprise, but that was quickly replaced with a look of deep compassion. “Was I talking to you on the phone?”
Elliott struggled to maintain his composure. “Yes.”
Jessica reached up and adjusted her glasses. “Mr. Holliman, you have no idea how overjoyed I am that we can have this talk today.”
Elliott softly chuckled, “Oh, I doubt you could be any happier about it than I am.”
“Well, I’m glad we can both be happy together.”
“As I’m sure you can imagine, I’ve thought about that phone call countless times over the years, and I’ve always been thankful that I got to talk to you instead of someone else……Mrs. Carlson, I think you were the only person who could’ve helped me. It was your willingness to share your story that saved me.”
Jessica’s face took on a look of amazement as she stared intently at Elliott. In all the time she had worked the phone lines she had only revealed her personal story to one caller. His situation had moved her like no other, and she had never forgotten him. But she could hardly believe that Elliott Holliman, a person who was well known, well respected and incredibly successful was the man that had touched her all those years ago.
“Mr. Holliman, I remember your story quite clearly. There was a car accident that took the lives of your wife and daughter, and you struggled to cope with the overwhelming loss. The pain in your voice that night made it difficult for me to do my job. It took great effort to not be drawn into your suffering, but I had to remain detached so I could try to assist you.”
Elliott’s eyes began to turn red. The fact that she remembered their conversation somehow validated hearing her voice for all those years. It turned out that the phone call had meaning for her as well.
“Mrs. Carlson, there are two reasons I wanted to meet you. Most importantly, I wanted the opportunity to thank you from the bottom of my heart for what you did for me that night. Everything that has happened since we spoke is the result of your kindness, thoughtfulness, and willingness to share your pain.”
Softly Jessica said, “You were the only caller I ever told my story to, but I thought it might help you to know that there was hope.”
“When you confided in me that your husband found your baby dead in its crib and that a few months later he took his own life, I couldn’t believe it. I realized I was talking to a person who had lost everything just like me. Suddenly I realized I wasn’t the only person who had ever suffered such tragedy. I didn’t feel alone. There was someone who understood.”
“I did understand. That’s why it is so gratifying to be sitting with you here today. You can’t imagine how often I’ve thought about you through the years. I could only hope that you had found comfort in our conversation and that you had chosen life. But it is so wonderful to know that you not only lived but that you did so many incredible things. The way you have touched the lives of those who are less fortunate and all the things you have done to make society better is remarkable.”
“But I owe all of that to you. That night I asked what the secret was to surviving such loss, and you told me that your salvation began when you stopped focusing on yourself and began to think of others first.”
Jessica nodded. She remembered it well.
“Joining in the fight for suicide prevention, allowed you to use your heartbreaking experience to make a difference in my life.
“That made me think that I should try to do the same thing. Over the next few days I decided that whatever the future held, I would try to do everything in my power to help others, and as I became more successful I always attempted to honor that pledge. I tried to follow your example.”
“You have succeeded gloriously. Thank you so much for making the effort to find me. It is so rewarding to know that something positive happened out of all that pain.”
There was a momentary pause and then Jessica said, “You mentioned there were two things that you wanted to talk about.”
“That’s right. I want to ask you how you think society views mental health issues in general and particularly what they think about individuals who have dealt with suicidal thoughts.”
“Oh my. That is an important question.” She thought for a short time before giving her answer.
“I would have to say that attitudes are certainly better than they were back in the early ‘90’s, but they still have a long way to go. Unfortunately, there remains a stigma regarding individuals who have had mental health issues, even if they overcame them like you and I. And in particular, even the contemplation of suicide, let alone an actual attempt, is still considered taboo.”
Elliott agreed. “You’re right. I’m afraid people view it as a character flaw or some type of personal weakness.”
Jessica looked at the man across from her. She felt like there was something else on his mind and she wanted to reassure him that it was okay to talk about it.
“May I ask why you are seeking my opinion, Mr. Holliman?”
Elliott looked down at the floor and took a deep breath. “I am thinking about running for the United States Senate, and I am concerned about someone discovering this part of my past. I’m not ashamed of what happened, I’m willing to face the questions and accusations – but there is a chance that you could be drug into it. Especially if they find out we talked today.”
He looked up at Jessica. “If you are uneasy about complete strangers knowing about your work, or your family, just be honest and tell me. I will not run if you are concerned about being contacted by the press or receiving any kind of unwarranted attention. I will not do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable.”
Jessica thought to herself what a surprising morning this had been. If she had known it would be this interesting she would have skipped water aerobics to meet with Mr. Holliman yesterday.
“I appreciate your concern for me, but it is not necessary. Although both of our losses are intensely private, and the thought of sharing them publicly is not appealing……I think you would make a wonderful Senator. Your type of compassion and empathy is in short supply in the world of politics. You have much to offer, and I believe the state would be well served if you were elected.”
“But what if the press starts poking around and asking questions?”
She shrugged. “What if they do? I’m an older person in the last phase of my life. If people don’t approve of what I’ve done or how I’ve lived I really don’t care. I have many faults and I have failed countless times, but I’m at peace with who I am and the life I’ve led. What others think will not change that.”
Now, more than ever, Elliott could not believe he had been blessed to have this woman enter his life.
Jessica’s face grew serious. “You are going to be the person the press focuses on. It is your background that will come under scrutiny. Do you want to run with the constant fear that they will find out that you once considered suicide?”
“I’m afraid I don’t have much choice.”
“I respectfully disagree. I think there is a very clear choice.”
Now it was Elliott’s turn to be confused. “What do you mean?”
“I am certainly not well-versed in the art of politics, but you are not an ordinary politician. You are honest. Instead of playing the usual campaign games, why not compete using your own rules? Rules that are based on truthfulness and integrity.”
Elliott was not sure exactly how to do that, but he wanted to hear her thoughts.
“Why not be open about your past from the very beginning? What if, when you announced your candidacy, you explained what happened to your family, how it affected you and how close you came to making an irreversible decision? If you were just another person who was greedy for power or attention it would, unfortunately, be a difficult obstacle to overcome. But you are someone who is known for their compassion and generosity. In your case, it might be enough to overcome the negative press.”
“Perhaps, but I’m sure I will be dragged through the mud. However, I am willing to face that, but I don’t want to put you in a position where anyone for any reason disparages you. I couldn’t bear that. Not after what you’ve done for me.”
“If you want to run, you have my full support. Please do not worry about me.”
She could tell he was struggling about what to do, and although it was his decision alone to make, she wanted to be as helpful as possible.
“Try and look at the situation this way. If you win, you will be able to do wonderful things for the people of this state – but even if you lose, you will raise awareness of mental health issues and you will be a powerful advocate and role model for every adult and teenager who is walking down the path that we were on. No matter how the election turns out, you will once again be using your life to assist those who are in need and who deserve dignity and respect. In either case, that is a tremendous opportunity to help others.”
Once again Elliott appreciated the wisdom of this amazing woman. After listening to her voice for so many years, he knew he should heed her words.
“Unfortunately, I’m not sure my backers will continue their support if I go public with that chapter of my life.”
“It seems to me that they either believe in you or they don’t. If they won’t support you on this issue, who’s to say they would continue to support you when you make difficult decisions in office that they don’t agree with?”
“You’re right.” Elliott paused for a moment and then said, “This is one of the two most important conversations I’ve ever had in my life – and both of them have been with you.”
Jessica took her glasses off and her eyes crinkled as she smiled. “You know when I woke up this morning I wondered, who is this stranger that wants to talk with me. But you don’t seem like a stranger at all. We’ve shared so much that you feel like an old friend. Someone I am proud to know.”
“I feel exactly the same way.”
Elliott had not planned on mentioning the words he always heard, but now he felt so comfortable with Jessica that he decided to tell her.
“I want to share something with you that will sound unusual, but it has been so important to me that I want you to know. Ever since that night, twenty-six years ago, I have had your voice in my head, always saying the same words that you said to me on the phone.”
“Really? You’ve heard my voice ever since we spoke?”
Jessica was surprised. “What was it I said?”
With a slight catch in his voice, Elliott replied, “The moment you spoke these words was the moment I decided to live. It was near the end of the call and you said, ‘Please remember that I understand your pain, and I will always hold you in my heart. You are not alone.’
“I have heard your voice saying those words to me in my darkest moments. Each time I failed, or was disappointed or felt defeated, those words comforted me in a way that is difficult to explain.”
Jessica smiled and tenderly said, “Those words are powerful because every one of them is true.”
They sat in silence for a few moments as tears began to streak Elliott’s face. Then with his voice breaking, he asked, “Would it be all right if I gave you a hug?”
They stood and embraced with a feeling of acceptance and respect that can only occur when two people have shared the same life-altering experiences, each knowing and appreciating what the other has endured.
Eleven months later Elliott Francis Holliman was elected to the United States Senate by a narrow margin, but the campaign had not been easy.
After being forthright from the outset concerning his struggle with depression, Elliott’s opponent had tried to use the mental health issue against him, and to some degree, he managed to convince people that having that type of condition in your past made you unsuitable to hold public office in the present.
But enough voters realized that rather than being a sign of weakness, overcoming the debilitating effects of depression required courage, resolve, and personal strength. They took note of what Elliott had chosen to do with his life and they believed he would continue to champion the causes that could provide the quality of life they wanted for their children.
The evening of the election he stepped on stage at a victory rally with Suzanne by his side. As his eyes swept over the large enthusiastic crowd his gaze fell on a small elderly woman in front with large glasses and beautiful silver hair.
As he smiled at Jessica, amidst all the noise and celebration, he once again heard her soothing words in his mind. But now they held even more meaning for him because he had a face to go with the voice and he actually knew that this compassionate person from so many years ago had indeed held him in her heart.