This past weekend I visited with two past residents of the all-male halfway house where I work. Both of them had made it through the 6-month program in the past. Both of them ended up relapsing.
They grew up in very rough and tumble neighborhoods in the Boston area and both were fiercely loyal to the city and their friends. After both of them recently relapsed and detoxed in places they had been to before, the only open beds where they could start the process all over again was a two hour drive from their beloved city, way out in Western Mass. Even though they would be a few miles apart they agreed to take the chance that being out there would get them out of their comfort zone and away from the distractions they faced every day.
One of them, “M,” has become like a son to me. There was something there from the first time we met that silently conveyed “I will protect you,” and from him, “I’ll let you protect me.”
It was him who was the primary draw to take that long drive on a Sunday, but “D” was a wonderful added bonus. I took them out for lunch in a mall where they were so happy to see a glimmer of civilization that they practically got down on their knees and kissed the ground. They hadn’t seen each other in over a month so the love they had for each other oozed out of them. Over lunch we laughed and laughed. It was one of the best afternoons I have had in a long time. That was a Sunday. By Monday morning the news got out that “D” had overdosed and died, out there, in the middle of nowhere, where noone really knew how loved he was back home.
When I walked into the office and my co-worker said “D” died this morning, I ran back out, sobbing, walking aimlessly around the neighborhood, the neighborhood where he grew up. I covered my mouth and just sobbed and shook. This visceral reaction was new to me. I’ve always envied people who can cry instantly whereas I generally don’t cry, to this day never having sobbed at the loss of my mother almost 30 years ago. He was in front of me, in a booth, in a mall restaurant, less than 48 hours before.
“D” was a permanent fixture, quite literally, in the house while he was there. Weighing close to 400 pounds and on disability for other health reasons, he was always the first person the new guys would see on their first day. He took care of them. He made them laugh. He made them feel welcome in his home. He was enrolled in a culinary arts class and would come home, plop his backpack at my feet, and give me samples of what he had cooked that day, so proud of the results and what he was learning.
He observed how I got attached to the other 29 guys, how when they relapsed and were discharged from the program, I would mourn their absence in the house.
“Gayle, you can’t get too attached, ” is what he would say each time. He knew this because his friends were dying left and right from overdoses. He was trying to protect me from the pain.
He made it through the six months, had a wonderful graduation where the other guys in the house said beautiful and funny things about him. He moved across the street to a sober living program that my agency oversees, and would come back every morning and cook breakfast for whoever was in the house. When he stopped coming about a week later, it raised some suspicion in the guys who had known him for years. One day I came in and one of the other guys told me that he had overdosed and his mother and brother were outside about to take him to yet another detox.
I ran outside and wrapped my arms as much of his body as I could fit into a hug. He was absolutely smashed, eyes practically rolling in the back of his head. I got very teary.
“Gayle, what have I always told you?”
As well-intentioned as it always was, it was futile advice. I was with these guys every day. One gets “attached.” And I adored “D.” Everyone did. A service and funeral will be happening very soon. There will be the guys who he has been through the struggle with for so many years, hugging each other. Right now my biggest fear is that “M” will feel so helpless from being out there that he will flee his new program, come home, and stay home. He’s gotten permission to come back for the service, but I will drag him, after he mourns with his friends, to the next bus back to Western Mass. I will play that role as “protector” that he has invited me to be.