One more slipped through the cracks; one of the most colorful, self-destructive men I ever met in prison, a man whose self image was so married to being an outlaw that all his stories in group were about what a badass he was and how little he gave a shit (he was one of the only guys I ever met in prison from whom I actually sensed moments of real danger).
In fact he was so caught up in the maintenance of his reputation that I, early on, decided to print him one of the -I think- only three diplomas I ever issued from New Beginnings (we are listed by the prisons as an activity, not a program. So you don’t really “graduate”. Still, if it’s clear that he’s not ready to take part, we try to give the offender something for his file as a way of acknowledging his participation… a way of saying, Thanks, but you don’t need to come back until you’re ready to change).
When I took my friend aside and presented him with the diploma, he handed it back to me and said, “The only reason I tell war stories is that they’re the only stories I know. Please don’t send me away. If I don’t change I’ll die in prison. That’s the only thing that really scares me… I dont want to die in here”. I balled up the paper in my hand and told him to grab a chair.
From that day on my friend seemed a changed man. He, as they say, shut his mouth and opened his ears. He became a valued member of our group for several years and after being released from prison continued with us in Next Step. Wise, irreverent, always “keeping it real” and brutally honest, but firmly committed to the goal of remaining free.
My friend was able to accomplish such an incredible amount in those years. He even found a girlfriend. I’ll never forget how a man who lost his virginity at thirteen years old told me that he had never even kissed a woman while clean and sober. “It’s really scary” he said, “… and pretty great”. Things were all falling into place. Hard work was paying off. Success seemed to be at hand. And as so often the case for the addict, that is often the most vulnerable time.
I visited my friend at the hospital after they had amputated his legs. There were different stories as to what had happened, but the bottom line he had overdosed and woke up in the hospital without them. Now, in late middle-age, he was going to have to try to begin yet another long, incredibly difficult transition.
I remember the advice Brother David - a chaplain at Walter Reed Medical Center- gave me when I first visited my friend in the hospital. David had a great deal experience in dealing with this type of profound injury, and when I asked him what I could possibly say to my friend when I went to see him he assured me that words weren’t important. Presence was.
Upon entering hospital room, Brother David advised me to consciously place my body as close to my friend’s wounds as possible. He explained that in these kinds of situations most of us by our body language will naturally although often unconsciously express fear or revulsion. These reactions will be clearly perceived by the wounded individual and only reinforce the emotional pain and trauma they are struggling with. David instructed me that, if there was a chair in the room, I should pull it as close as possible to the site of my friend’s wounds. This way I’d be telling my friend without words that he was still the same man I’d known and cared about.
I’ll never forget that first hospital visit. My friend’s bravado (whether false or not) was nothing short of astounding. Somehow his “outlaw spirit” remained undaunted.
This same outlaw spirit later sustained him through the fall from his wheelchair that broke his neck while sneaking a smoke on to the roof of the rehab facility where he was living after being released from the hospital.
At some point after the new injury New Beginnings-Next Step was able to arrange a job for my friend with one of our other members whom we’d helped to start a small floor care business after prison. My friend was so proud that he sent me a picture of him taken during first day of work.
Then he disappeared. Word was he was on a binge in Florida.
We heard he was downstate living with family for several years, but then last winter he called me saying that family member had died of an overdose. He was back in town living at the Sunday Breakfast Mission and was hoping to start to attend our Next Step meetings again. Unfortunately COVID had prevented us from having physical gatherings at St. Francis Hospital. So I began looking for an new venue because Zoom was not an option for him since the shelter made everyone surrender the cell phones when they checked in for the night.
When I finally arranged for new meeting space (close enough to the shelter that my friend could get there in his motorized wheelchair) I called and left him a voicemail. That and subsequent calls went unanswered until one day I got a message saying his number was no longer in service.
I learned last night that my friend had been found dead under the bridge near the Wilmington Amtrak Station. Apparently he’d been living on the streets all this time. Whether the mission just ran out of beds or my friend had worn out his welcome (not unimaginable) I don’t know.
I’m thinking of my friend today. I’ll never forget him and I’ll miss his spirit. I’ll resist the urge to wonder what more we (or I) could have done. More and more I’ve learned that I’m not and never have been that hero. It’s not my job to fix of save anyone. It is my blessing, however, to get to know and love men like my friend. This love fixes and saves me.
Also, I’ll try to wrench some small consolation from this. My friend told me he didn't want to die in prison. And he didn’t.