As 2016 comes to a close, I find myself reflective. My mind wanders back to meeting a 16 year old young man from Arizona, years ago. He was cautious, witty and a bit of a smart ass…and we became classmates, me, the teacher, and him, the student. But in reality, our roles were reversible, as he got to see the world through my character structured lenses and I got to see the world through his shades of freedom and respect.
Time lunges ahead, and I am waiting outside the county jail to pick him up, buy him lunch, a pack of smokes, and ask him where he wants to spend the night–on the streets, looking for his next fix or in the church basement, listening to the snores of the old man who is willing to camp there as long as he is clean. Usually, it’s the streets. Once, after four days of crazy, he called and said it was either get clean or jump off a bridge. I was glad he chose clean. We spent eleven nights at the church, playing ping pong, watching movies, eating Taco Bell and staying off the streets. He stayed with me, nearly 24/7 until a spot opened up in a local “stay clean” program. His total days off of drugs was around 45 or 50, give or take…but the boredom, the lack of community and conviction, and the ever present push drew him back. I knew he was gone when I checked at the local Shari’s and they hadn’t seen him for several days. I searched the county jail roster and there he was, picked up on December 30th. Happy New Year, my friend.
I’ve gotten tired of praying. To be honest, I forget. He doesn’t want my pity, but sometimes that’s all I have. I long for God to keep an eye out for him and I presume, in the end, that’s what I will believe…but until an end arrives, one way or the other, I hunger and thirst for moments of respite that show he’s finding his way towards a clarity of purpose that will help him get all he says he longs for. I digress.
I visit him once a week in jail. My name is not on the roster, but the chaplain remembers me from another time, another friend given pause to freedom. It’s one of the few places that I play the pastor card, it seems to give me a little more muscle. I see people visiting via web cameras and realize you don’t need muscle to support someone in jail. You just need their permission. He is happy/sad to see me. We cover similar, repetitive stories in the first few minutes: how he got here this time, what he’s doing while he’s in, and how long he expects to stay. This is the conclusion that we expected last time, but hoped for something different. It must get tiring, hoping for an outcome that will never arrive as long as the process stays the same. I know I am tired. Not of him, he is a beautiful refraction of a broken life mirror, struggling to see a clear way inward, onward and outward.
I’m getting ready to leave for College Place, WA when he texts me. He got out earlier than expected and wants to know if I’m available. We meet at the church, he says hello to lots of hugs and “glad you’re here’s”…and decides that he wants to go with me to the surprise birthday party of a mutual friend. It’s a 7-8 hour drive, round trip, with a couple of hours spent in the presence of the surprised. The miles pass quickly with a little dialogue, an audiobook and some snacks. Time within the rumble of the tires on the asphalt opens him up and we share our stories. I have addictions too, and at times, use them to bring connection and what I perceive to be insight. He always listens patiently, even if his eyes slightly glaze over, yawning. Thai food for dinner and we arrive ten minutes early, greeting those we know with hugs and hellos and those we don’t with nods of mutual ” You made it. “.
We have two hours for loving on friends and acquaintances. We eat the food ( lots of lovely Costco platters ) and wander through the relational rolodex of friends that I have known over time and distance. It’s like I saw them last week, but it’s been a year, at least. I reach in for their stories and they offer them up…graciously drawing us into their lives, knowing we will be gone in the flick of a lighter and they will be left to carry on. We leave early because He has found a 12 step program that meets from 8-9:30 and he made a commitment to a former resident that he would attend a meeting that day. I slide by The Ivy and take a right, dropping him off in the parking lot where other recoveree’s have gathered. I have an hour and a half to kill.
Every year, Walla Walla University, has a “friendship” tournament for guys and girls basketball. This happens to be that weekend. I find a parking miracle right outside the gym and head inside, fingering my $100 bill. Ahead of me, an older couple are deciding if they want to spend the $5 each for access to a game where they may not be able to find their friends. I gently manipulate their quandary by asking if I could buy their tickets as the ticket man may not have change for a $100. They agree, perceiving that it might be of benefit to me that I pay for them. Very sweet. I slip by and find a corner of the gym where I’m lost in the crowd, or so I thought. I’m seated for all of two minutes and I see a blonde woman, moving through the floor crowd, in my direction. She’s married to one of my high school buddies and invites me to come sit with them. On the way, I see a friend I haven’t met in 20 years…it’s a regular lovefest. Getting to our seats I find a half dozen people I love, or at least care deeply about:-)
This is the weird part. I was raised a Seventh-day Adventist. I’m Northwest fringe, at best, these days, but my past and place in this community leave me with such rich memories…most of the time I forget where we found friendship…I just really like these people. However, past this friendship safety, this does not feel like a secure place. I don’t roam in this community and if I did, I am skeptical about my acceptance. The fringe is a good place for a guy that has always questioned his belonging. I think I’ll stay.
Time passes too quickly and I’m out of the gym and back to sliding past The Ivy and hanging a right. He’s waiting outside and we’re off. An hour down the road, he’s hugging night, night and I’m listening to my audiobook alone. Parked by 2 am and couched in the church basement by 2:30. The next couple of days are a blur, except for this: a friend saw my post on Facebook. She works for a “stay clean” place and they had a potential opening. OMG! It felt like a miracle, now we know it was just a life fart. He interviewed, worked a couple of days with the program and decided to stay at a clean friends house, to give me a break. I left on Thursday for Orange County. He took meth that night, stayed up all night, and was not allowed in the program on Friday. He was honest when they asked him if he was using, which is good, right? They would have found out anyways.
So today, February 16th, I’m meeting him at the church to give him some pvc pipe and an oversized tarp. In a tent on Tenth and Washington, he stays with a friend and his friend’s mother. He’s getting his PO to transfer his case to Multnomah County, because they have better resources. He thinks the AM/PM might hire him, cause he’s been in there at 2 am. and knows the kind of people they hire. He’s trying to be a responsible drug user. This is what it’s like to be speed dancing on broken legs.