I meet E. about a year ago now. A highly intelligent young man, at one time gainfully employed but when I meet him, reduced to jobless couch-surfing. E. is polite and well-mannered. But he is also depressed, angry, private, and resentful. He calls me, drunk, a little time after we’d got to know one another. This is before I knew the whole, about ten percent of alcoholics get recovery business. This is back when I thought people would get sober and stay sober. Before I knew how common relapse was. Before I knew how many people could die pretty quick instead of kinda slow (average age of alcoholics, 52). If you didn’t know already, I come from that whole, “kinda slow” crowd of family and friends. Long lives of denial then pre-cognition and ugly, ugly alcoholic behavior into retirement age or older.
Anyway a year ago E. is talking and talking and telling me he’s sure no one in our program of Recovery gives a shit about him. I remember taking slight umbrage to that statement. I told him for one thing he never talked or shared in group (“I’ll just listen today”, day after day), so some people might be letting him be private, thinking that was his preference. I also told him it was unfair for any of us to hold others accountable to anything when we haven’t made ourselves vulnerable and shared what is bugging us, within a setting of accountability. Yeah, that’s right. Because here’s the thing most people don’t want to admit, no one is responsible to read your mind. And if you’re honest in sharing your thoughts and feelings, you run the risk of having some feedback. Maybe stuff your Ego doesn’t want to hear. Imagine that.
I’ve spent the last year being as kind as I could to this young man E., giving rides now and then, but mostly just the odd conversation or hug. He didn’t seem particularly interested in my friendship, and I respected that. And you know, a year ago I thought he was at the end of his rope, and ready to admit defeat. I was wrong. Because I’ve watched him deteriorate in a way I couldn’t have guessed at. The details are not ones I’ll go into here.
Today he calls while I’m on the way somewhere, and I can’t tell if he’s sober or not. He asks for gas money to pool so he can go to a new town and work. This request is kind of surprising as he’s never so much as directly asked for a ride but I figure maybe he’s taking advice, asking for help while sober, before drinking. Now this isn’t the kind of help I give everyone, but I have a nice little series of simple guidelines to go by when asked something like this. Don’t rob myself, don’t rob my family, then give help when asked, and whatever happens it’s none of my business. I tell him I’ll check in with my husband and I’ll call him after my appointment. He tells me he’s going to pay me back. I laugh and tell him to pay it forward. I think of how many people I’ve seen doing just that.
After I pick up some cash from Ralph I have a few minutes to think about it and I figure E. is probably drunk. A while later I meet him, with a “friend” up at the park. They’re ostensibly playing frisbee, but they’re really just waiting for money. I can tell they’ve been drinking and/or using. E.’s walk to my car is that of a doomed man. He doesn’t want to walk to my car and take money and put it in a bottle, but he has no choice. I know this. I get it. He gets to my car door. Now a few minutes before I’d been unhappy about meeting E. and a friend alone, even though we’re in a public place. I know he’s capable of assault while drinking, even if I’ve shown nothing but kindness I am not immune.
But when I see him up close every thought I had flies out my mind. His face is flushed but his whole body is too. I have never seen so much shame suffused in someone’s face. He takes the cash and he pauses and the kind of crying I’m seeing is like nothing I’ve ever seen. He looks at me and we look in one another’s eyes. I say, “Good luck.” Then, “take care.”
And I drive off.
Alcoholism is an ugly disease; also, water is wet.
Later in the day the kids and I take the car to get the brakes fixed. I hadn’t planned on dropping the vehicle off today, but my brake pad parts got in to the shop. I hadn’t planned, this means I hadn’t set up a ride home. The kids and I walk the two miles home. I feel okay about not bumming bus fare from their piggybanks, as they’re perfectly happy to walk, and it’s nice for me too.
Sumner Avenue is a drag to walk on, only because the highway traffic is loud and there are no significant trees to muffle the noise. The three of us pass overgrown lawns and step over mossy cracked sidewalks. Finally the riverbank, scotchbroom and dandelion and poppy and vetch.We see a harbor seal in the river, delighting the children. My kids take turns holding my hand and they put their arms around me. They’re so tall now I only have to bend a little to smell the sunshine in their hair.
Nels says, “When I get older I want my mom to buy me a housssse… with a million kitties and a baby alligator, and they all stay in different rooms and no one trespasses. And a bunch of trained wasps. And a WOLF!”