Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Afterword: On Robin Williams, David, and the Size of Hope


"The rest is up to me, and God." Robin Williams to Diane Sawyer, October 2, 2006
Comedian and actor Robin Williams died on Monday. He apparently committed suicide. He suffered from depression and addiction. So did my husband, whose death in May 2009 was the conclusion of both maladies.

The significance of this parallel has been growing in me all day. A couple of memories have pushed to the surface.

For the last nine of our fifteen years in San Francisco, David and I lived in a little backyard cottage just a few blocks from a grand house that we were told belonged to Robin Williams. I never caught sight of him there, though I walked by it frequently. But one Sunday afternoon while David and I were walking in Golden Gate Park, Robin Williams stumbled by us on roller blades. Sometime later (months? years?) I hurriedly exited a store a few blocks from our house and literally bumped into someone I at first thought was one of the priests from the grand gold-domed Russian Orthodox cathedral that loomed over the neighborhood. As we stepped back from each other, I apologized, but he just grinned and sparkled. My memory of that moment means more to me now than anything he could have said to me.

In one of the tribute videos about Robin Williams that I watched today, I learned that he was an advocate for the homeless, including helping to raise money through a nonprofit called Comic Relief and testifying before the Senate Health and Humans Services committee in favor of legislation to help prevent homelessness. I spent much of the past year editing and publishing a book about another nonprofit, OFF THE STREETS, which works to help end homelessness by providing security deposits and furniture and other household needs to people who are otherwise able to move into a room or apartment of their own but have no move-in resources. The book's author asked me to write an Afterword, which shares a very tiny bit about David's and my experience with addiction, depression, and homelessness. I now share that Afterword here, in memory and honor of David and Robin, with love to Robin's family and friends at this most painful time, and with hope for everyone who is or who loves someone who wrestles with addiction and depression.

Publisher’s Afterword
"The difference between 0 percent hope and 0.00001 percent hope is enormous." Dan Beutler*
EARLY IN 2008, I applied for a part-time job with a local retirement community. The application process included a thorough background check. Toward this end I was required to list all of the addresses I had called home during my entire life. When I was finished, I learned that my total number of official residences in less than fifty years was twenty-eight, if you count the three weeks I lived in a Tenderloin hotel after arriving in San Francisco in 1988, and the month in my early twenties when I lived in a rented fixer-upper until a week of rain revealed ceiling leaks in all the rooms. Fifteen of those dwellings were home for periods ranging from six months to a year and a half, and I managed to stay in three locations for nine years each (from ages 0–9, 9–18, and 35–44). For more than twenty of my adult years I have shared the costs of maintaining a residence with at least one other person, and for more than fifteen years I have lived alone and been solely responsible for all expenses—including a year and a half when, though we were still married, my husband lived first with a succession of friends, then in shelters and hotels and sometimes in parks, and then in a yearlong substance abuse rehab program, while I paid all the expenses for our little cottage in one of the most expensive cities in the country.

During the first six months of that period, David was essentially homeless. I had told him that as long as he continued to use alcohol and drugs, he could not live with me. Was that the right thing to do? I don’t know. Once during that period, after a three-day binge in a San Francisco hotel, he almost died—and would have if a willing stranger had not summoned medical personnel from a nearby emergency room, who arrived to find David not breathing and blue-skinned. They cut off his three layers of favorite shirts so they could get his heart beating again (I still have a large Teddy bear I sewed from the remains of those shirts), and they put a tube down his windpipe to restart his breathing. If he had died that day, I don’t know how I would have lived with the regret I know I would have felt.

Soon after that incident he found his way into a yearlong program, and for almost a year after he graduated from it, he remained, as far as I could tell, sober. But then, for whatever reason, the downward spiral started all over again. He managed to get himself into another recovery program in California, and I, by that time needing a form of recovery myself, returned, with the help of his family, to the East Coast. Again, was that the right thing to do? I don’t know, but at times I still wonder, what if?

David followed me to the East Coast not quite a year later. By that time I was renting rooms in the house of another woman and not prepared to live with him yet. He moved into his parents’ house, the house he’d grown up in, and spent the next eight months or so helping them get ready to move into an apartment in a retirement community. He also got a job with a former employer—at a liquor store.

By Christmas Eve that year he was back in the hospital, detoxing. I stopped to visit him on Christmas morning on my way to his parents’ house. On the basis of our conversation, I believed he no longer wanted to be married. In the next week I talked to a lawyer, and when I visited him on New Year’s Eve, I told him I would be filing for divorce. He looked as though a huge, heavy weight had literally been lifted off his shoulders—or so it seemed to me. Again, did I do the right thing? Again, I don’t know, but I wonder, what if?

A few months later his parents had been moved into their new home and David was again, in a sense, homeless; that is, he was living in his brother’s basement. And drinking. They told him the situation couldn’t continue. He found a recovery program a couple of hours away that would take him. His brother delivered him there on David’s forty-sixth birthday.

The formal program lasted thirty days. He then moved into a supervised residence, where he lived for six months while hunting for a job. After he landed one, he moved into an unsupervised house with ten or so other men in recovery. He stayed for three and a half years. Finally he moved into an apartment of his own—for the first time in his life. For him, it was a dream come true. Yet not quite a year later he was gone, dead from a drug-induced heart attack. He died alone (except for his two cats) and was found by a neighbor at least a day and a half later.

At the memorial service held on the grounds of the recovery program about six weeks after his death, several dozen people paid tribute to David. Virtually every one of them said, “He was my best friend.” He was certainly mine. Despite all we’d been through that last decade, he was still the person who knew me best. Yet I remember a phone conversation during those last five years when he told me, “I’m everyone else’s best friend, but who’s mine?” Was I? I don’t know. I do remember another phone conversation during the same period in which he told me, “You’re the first person I call when I want to tell someone something good that has happened, because I can tell you’re sincerely as happy about it as I am.”

If I were allowed one do-over, it would be to say yes when a couple of months after he settled into his apartment he invited me to come stay with him for a week. “I’ve got wireless Internet. I’ll give you a key. You can work while I’m at work. You can make it a retreat.” I knew that if I went, it would break my heart to come back to my own apartment. I didn’t want to go through that again. I’d given up. I wish I hadn’t.

In the nine bonus years that followed that time when he would have died but didn’t, the staff members and other residents of three rehab programs took a chance (and another and another) on David, as did several employers, landlords, and dozens of friends, coworkers, neighbors, and family members. The fact that, in the end, he did not succeed in remaining sober and alive is unrelated to the value of his life (to him and to all who knew and encountered him) during those nine years. His untimely death also does not invalidate the opportunities and support provided to him during those years—opportunities and support that should continue to be provided to others who have even a .00001 percent chance of success—the kind of support that OFF THE STREETS is willing to give to anyone who wants it.

The book Help the Homeless OFF THE STREETS One Person at a Time is available in both print and Kindle versions through Amazon.com. All royalties are deposited directly to an account that is used only to pay security deposits for homeless persons coming off the streets.

*Dan Beutler is the husband of Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash). Quoted in “Congresswoman’s Miracle Baby Doing Well Nine Months After Doctors Said She’d Die.”

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Only Light We've Got in All This Darkness—Thoughts After Reading REFUSE TO DROWN: A FATHER'S UNTHINKABLE CHOICE

"The grief of death ... can only be transformed by giving it its due in a story. Good deaths are passed to us as stories ready to be told. With bad deaths, we have to work harder, but it is even more essential that we tell their stories—and tell them with compassion—in order to redeem and transform them. We must tell such stories in order to honor the dead and heal the living.... Sometimes we must tell the story of death in order to save our lives. It is the story of our love and the grief for the loss of our love that both redeems that grief and makes our love transformative. Telling such stories is the only way that the emotional ghosts of bad deaths can be released—and the power of the good death inherited." (Madronna Holden)

"While the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell; it's the only light we've got in all this darkness." (James Baldwin, "Sonny's Blues")
I’d been living in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, for almost a year when I heard about the nighttime murder of a mother and father and their teenage son in their home not far from mine. Before moving here, I’d lived in a succession of major cities (Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington DC) for most of forty years. It was already, and still is, deeply ingrained in me to lock the doors of my car, always, even if running back into my apartment for a minute to get something I’d forgotten, or when leaving the apartment to take out the trash. I was used to hearing about such crimes, maybe even jaded, or even expected them.

Weeks later, when I heard that the boy and his parents had been killed by one of his friends, I still wasn’t shocked. I knew, and know, that friendship and family relationships are no guard against violence, whether verbal or physical. As weeks and months passed, I didn’t follow the details of the story or the speculations made about it in the various media. It filed itself away in some corner of my mind.

A couple of years later, a man I had known and loved for thirty years (ten of them as his wife) died a tragic and accidental but self-induced death. Part of my grief manifested as physical pain, and I eventually sought help through massage therapy. The talented woman who became my ongoing therapist told me one day that while the disturbing local events were unfolding, the boy’s father had been her boss. She told me this as prelude to referring me to a website he had started to help others deal with and even prevent such tragedies. I checked it out briefly, and then mentally filed it away too.

Then, a couple more years later, she told me the man had co-written and was about to publish a book, not just about what had happened, but also about how he’d come through it. I linked to a Facebook page about the book and followed the authors’ posts leading up to its release. When I read that they were offering advance copies to bloggers, I sent a request. The book arrived a week ago. I read it, riveted, in two nights. It has taken me longer to digest it. Here, finally, is my offering.

Reading Refuse to Drown: A Father’s Unthinkable Choice, is like reading the book after seeing the Hollywood movie version—or in my case, after seeing the trailer. It doesn’t answer all possible questions about what happened, and certainly not about why it happened. What it does provide is far more valuable. It tells the story of a man who loves his son, unconditionally, but not blindly, and with all the human limitations to which we are all subject. It tells how that love was tested but not crushed, and holds out hope to readers confronting such testing in their own lives.

I can't say specifically why this story will be important to you, but I can tell you that it is important to me less because of what it reveals about the crime, the son, and the father, and more because that father wrote the book and published it, and because he wrote it with help from Shawn Smucker (not an insignificant detail in light of the book’s message that “you’re not alone”), and because of the reason he wrote it: because, as he writes in the Epilogue, “I had to.”

I’ve been helping other people publish books for more than twenty-five years, sometimes as production editor, sometimes as copy editor, sometimes as both and more (including encourager). The closest I’ve come to publishing my own story is this blog and another that I’ve kept sporadically for the past few years. I also brought to languishing life a book of poems a couple of years ago as a guinea pig for learning the CreateSpace self-publishing process. Reading Refuse to Drown has encouraged me to continue believing and hoping that I’m not finished yet, to not give up on taking steps forward, and to not be afraid of asking for the specific help I need, which is a tall order for someone whose default mode is trying to do it alone.

As I was rereading parts of the book in preparation for writing this review, I came across a sentence that struck me, at first, as contradictory. After emphasizing how important it is to ask for and accept help, after characterizing his son’s life as, in a sense, destroyed by the son's belief “that he had to handle his internal struggles on his own” (“he didn’t think anyone would understand what he was going through; he thought that if he did share his pain, people might ridicule him or think he was a freak”), and after illustrating that his own life was saved by seeking and finding help on every level, Tim Kreider states in the Epilogue, “it’s my responsibility not to drown, not to give up.” Isn’t this the very message his son, Alec, misunderstood, as Tim wrote in the Introduction?

After thinking about this for a while, the answer became clear: By telling the police about Alec’s confession, Tim was demonstrating to him that there were indeed consequences to the irreversible deed for which the boy was responsible. At the same time, Tim remained, and remains to this day in his son’s life as the father who loves him, has loved him, and always will love him. The final paragraph of the last chapter before the book’s Epilogue ends with these sentences: “There is a power and love available to all of us. That is the love and grace of Jesus. He wants to be there for you. He wants you to talk to him. All you have to do is trust him.” That, as I see it, is the very love and grace that Tim shows to his son. In that way, he reveals to his son, and to us, the love of the Father that His Son reveals to us.

What Alec, like us, does, in the end, with the love and grace offered to him—whether he drowns or not—is still his responsibility. But we are responsible for giving one another all the help we are capable of offering. Thank you, Tim and Shawn, for what you offer us in your book.

Amen.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

No Other Day Will Ever Be as Young for You as This Today

"When I said to myself, 'I can, 'I will,' a hundred experiences had taught me that it was not so. The clay does not suffice for the statue you intended to form with me....
"And love?... perhaps it is now no more than sorrow, the empty pain of disconsolate futility, the weariness that can no longer mourn.... I cast myself down at the feet of Life."
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Heart of the World
About ten days ago I drove my almost-thirteen-year-old niece nearly one hundred miles to return her to her mother's house before turning around right away and driving the same one hundred miles back in the other direction. At some point during that trip she said to me, "This year went so fast!" It seemed somehow wrong for these words to come from the mouth of one so young.

And here we are: more than a half-hour into another one. And already I have not done what I intended to do with those first thirty minutes.

So I will head to bed and begin again after the light returns.
"Today is your ... youngest day ... the newest, most childlike of days. No other day will ever be as young for you as this today, when eternal life has called you by name." (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Heart of the World)
Amen.