It hurts to find out about things we don’t want to know. Because then we have to act on them, and we have been avoiding that. Yet it is a gift, to see what we need to see, and to see clearly. It allows us to make decisions based on what is really before us. We who have eyes, let us see. If we can handle it. Otherwise, we can shut our eyes. But whatever don’t want to face is still right there, on the other side of our eyelids.
I was going to meet my old friend, after years of not seeing him. And my heart longed to see his familiar features, aged and worn as they must be through life’s relentless scrubbing. To hear him express our shared thoughts. When we finally met, we wandered for hours until long after darkness fell. Then he reminded me that there is a song called Two Sleepy People. An old song where they sing, we are two sleepy people – too much in love to say good night.
I loved the sound of his gentle voice and I loved his way of speaking. I loved his boundless physical strength. I always had. He was full of treasures, for me. The space between us was alive and tingling, as if there had never been any distance between us, only proximity. And I told him, I said, you are the most trustworthy and decent person I have ever loved. I have felt you near at hand even in your absence, as familiar to me as my own heart. And I meant it. At the deepest level, I have always believed that he shares my core values.
He was staying at a small hotel in the village for the week, and we spent all our time together. We visited his family and spent time with mine, and ran into old friends and schoolmates everywhere. Hey! Is it you? Are you home? Yes, I remember you. Be well. We went to a small factory to see his brother, and a curious worker walked up to me and abruptly asked, so are you his wife? And I jokingly said, well, practically. And the others laughed, and I laughed. Everyone around us was happy. We irradiated happiness.
Then we had to spend an afternoon apart, because my mother needed help. He told me to come to the hotel as soon as I was free, before we met up with my cousins that evening. I was on my way to the hotel when he sent me a text, hey a sailor came to the hotel and we just shared a bottle of alcohol. What? I didn’t know if he was making an uneasy joke, or if this was really happening. Maybe he was reassuring me that he was sober, that he really wanted to spend this time with me. Maybe he was waiting to see me even now. I walked faster and faster until I was running toward him.
I found him in the hotel’s common kitchen area. My strong and graceful friend was stumbling, falling down drunk. While I sat there with him, he drank several more beers in quick succession and also something stronger from a bottle that he kept pulling out of a drawer and then hiding again. I grew quiet and small and careful, not because I was afraid of him, but just out of habit, while he automatically and thoughtlessly drank on and on. No one was there but the two of us. There was plenty of alcohol for several people, but it was just him. Him alone. Drinking with urgent haste, running away. I watched him grow smaller and smaller as the distance between us increased.
Watching someone drink like this. Like watching someone overfeed a baby bird that you know will die. They cannot stop swallowing. It is very dangerous and usually fatal. When I was little at least my big sister explained the bird’s stomach explodes. I always got a sick stomach about that, from a deep well of sadness, thinking of the baby birds. People would find them when they had fallen out of the nest and then they would try to save them and not be able to, and this was how I felt now. Like I was somehow the cause of his vulnerability, even if when I found him, he had already fallen out of the tree. Way back when we were both children, I had found him earthbound, unable to fly, yet with wings. And I loved his wings.
I tried to say nothing even if my heart was overflowing with a waterfall of salt-soaked words and he said a lot of things that didn’t make a lot of sense mostly about why he must drink. And how bad he had been feeling. And how hard things had been for him. He didn’t seem to fathom even a drop of what my hardships might have been during our years apart. Addicts are like that. They come to believe exclusively in their own suffering. They justify their flights into numbness as a necessity. They cannot believe in anyone’s else’s pain. How could someone so perpetually and persistently avoiding their own feelings be expected to care about mine?
He couldn’t leave the drawer alone – he kept going back to it . The more he drank, the more embarrassed he became. He had invited me here, to sit with him face to face, yet he acted as awkwardly as if I had come upon him unawares, as if I had come uninvited and caught him out. Even though I was just sitting quietly before him and not making any comment or arguing at all. Just saying in my silent throbbing heart to myself alone: I wish. I wish. I wish.
Then he glanced at me and asked me why I looked so grieved, and told me I shouldn’t take it so hard. Who cares? Who cares! Why do you care? I don’t care. Stop caring! For all his running, he seemed to find me so close to him, as if I were literally a part of him, here to feel his feelings so he wouldn’t have to. He was reading his own sorrow, projecting his own images of pain and suffering onto the pale and still wall of my silent, waiting face. He was trying to find all his distress and the heavy weight of his life in my face and make it belong to me instead of him.
And yet he uttered no direct unkindness. His voice was as gentle as the first time we met. Then he stopped short and announced that we were going out to meet up with my family now, unless of course I was ashamed of him, and we both stood up. This is when his body conveyed to me the jagged edge of what his deeply soothing voice could not transmit in words, what I had not yet been able to take in. It was a warning, for my own good. So I must take even this as a kindness, another of the countless gifts I have received from his hands.
He was very unstable as he stood. He swayed and then when he said, “come on, don’t worry, let’s go,” he clapped me on the back very hard. As if to knock me forward, startle me into a future moment when I could not see him, where he would no longer be before me, not like this. It was not a friendly clap, but more like two sailors might if the one clapping wanted to remind the other one about who was boss. His body conveyed the warning message. And I saw it. Like it or not. The addict’s broken glass and barbed wire better-leave-me-alone security system. Made up of unclaimed remorse, resentful shame and outward disdain. It was all there. All of it. Even for us. Insurmountable. In spite of a lifetime of shared love.
There I was, knocked off my balance, cast overboard, in danger of drowning, dog paddling with tired and shivering limbs over an immense watery expanse, choking on the saltwater splashes of the incoming waves, caught in the cross current of love and pain, treading water with sinking heart, blinking with salt-burning eyes. Trying to see, trying to make myself see. Asking myself, how can I go out and sit there among my own people with this gentle, angry, strong and utterly broken drunk? This beloved and delicate, exquisitely sensitive creature, who furthermore disdains me for seeing him like this? All I knew was the throbbing of my heart.
When I remember sad and traumatic memories, I tend not so much to remember but rather to relive them, in every detail, every word spoken. That evening. Everything. The times he swayed, the times he leaned in, the inappropriate things he said, his horrible, sloppy weakness. I am drawn back there, helplessly witnessing, exposed and vulnerable, and my heart shrinks and yet grows heavier, like a menstruating woman, with pain. Just aching with it and bleeding with it. So terrible. So cyclical. Best to thank those memories for their wisdom, and release their pain. Not keep picking them up and carrying them around like heavy stones, heavy enough to yank my shoulders out of their sockets until my arms dangle helplessly at my sides. No, I cannot carry this. I cannot carry this and go on.
And there is another part of the story, as deep as the bowels of the earth. He has had to survive violence, and you cannot take that out of someone’s soul by loving them, no matter how much. Just like if a baby starves in infancy, you cannot feed the adult and build them up to their full size and strength. They won’t end up fulfilling the promise of what was written in their original instructions. The damage leaves scars that your love longs to heal, but cannot, so your love is marbled throughout with pain, like the cuts of meat they now tell us to avoid eating for our own good. Thick veins of pain deposited throughout the love, inseparable from it. And yet no one can say the love is not there. The love is the main ingredient.
Most of us have encountered violence of several sorts, and we each have our personal wounds to tend to in varying stages of healing. But the wounds of an addict look so much like repeated suicide attempts, like relentless self-mutilation, that they cut our hearts. The self-harm is what makes it so gut-wrenching for loved ones, worse than any external injury, worse even than war wounds. The internal battles are the fiercest and most vicious, because we can never escape our enemy, which is ourselves. This conflict can only be resolved, if at all, inside the soul of the afflicted person. Loved ones can only stand by.
I suppose I wanted to see him again to see if he had overcome his wounds and his love could – yes, what can love do? Is love an living object that can take actions of its own, or is love a verb, something we ourselves must do? In any case my heart longed to see him in person and commune with him. Or… who can say? Longing is a strange and limping emotion fraught with peril – a wistful yearning for something that may or may not fulfill its promise. A heartfelt longing will linger on even if one obtains the desire, like the painful throbbing that continues in a wound long after the original injury, during the whole process of healing and forming our scars. The cut nerve endings keep seeking in vain to find each other and reunite across the chasm of scar tissue.
Anyway, we had those first few days of quiet tenderness and nourishing words. Seeing each other again, recognizing each other over time and space. Drinking from the fathomless well of proximity and connection. We had the shared remembrance of times past, and remembering only the good. The possibilities of that time, and the long future stretching all the way to the impossibly distant horizon, ever receding before us, as horizons do. And for those few days while we were reunited, every time we held hands I could literally feel his heartbeat in the palm of my hand, stronger than my own.
Then his territorial wall with sharp bricks of disdain, latent aggression, and insurmountable isolation. His misdirected anger and denied shame. I even told him, I said, I think your self-defense system is out of whack. Because every time I try to get close to you, you literally attack me to warn me off. You are on high alert, my friend. You have a civil war raging and you are likely to kill civilians, I told him, and the people who have loved you will have to confront you to demand the changes they need or they will have to turn away. That is what addiction does, it creates exiles. Your loved ones will have to leave your country, leave your landscape, and wander off as restless souls, homesick for the love you can no longer give them, heartsick with the love you can no longer receive, the outpouring of their overcharged hearts. Of course I could only say all this in my head. You can never talk to a drunk. That is one of their advantages.
The open-eyed person’s advantage is being able to see what is and what is not. This is the gift of sight, the pain-laden gift that we so reluctantly accept with such tentative gratitude. It allowed me to ask myself even in the midst of my fervent longing, what if every day for weeks or years were just like those first precious days of quiet happiness and peace? What if it just lasted and lasted, until I had planned my life around him? Until I fell back against him as he stood behind me to catch me, not even looking first to see if he was even there? If he was even ready? If he was even sober? I would fall defenseless, and nothing would break my fall.
And yes, I have fallen defenseless into my blind spot with nothing to break my fall. The unutterable pain of it, when you expect to fall back into the loving and protective arms of someone who has pledged you his life in exchange for yours. When you are shot in the back instead of held, and at such close range, so point blank, that you cannot possibly have enough healthy flesh left to draw over your open wounds, to repair yourself. When every point in the landscape of your life turns out to be false, every reference point you had relied upon is erased or painted over with vulgar, screaming words.
She who has eyes, let her see. Let her see past her wishful thinking, her fierce yearning, her battlefield nurse dreams of accomplishing heroic rescues with miraculous, happy endings. Let her finally release those she might save, if only she could strive hard enough, love well enough, lay down her life in exchange. Let her release them to stand or fall as they will. Let her finally forgive herself for not being able to save her beloved addicts with her own heart’s blood. Let her see what is and what is not, even if these images are blurry through her stinging, saltwater eyes.
Fate, destiny, God. Someone shone a light across one of my possible paths and posed the question, is this what you want? This man is honest, to his very soul. He is not corrupt. He will not betray you. But he will betray himself. Over and over. If you take him on, you take on another life of endless servitude. You will have to slave again like the servant at the ancient temple, working over and over to relight the fire that another has let go out. Over and over. Relighting, rekindling, reviving, something that dies over and over. While your own hearth is condemned to stand cold and gray, emberless, because you cannot tend to both. Look closely, as your life depends upon it. Is this what you want?
The only possible answer is to tend to my own hearth.
I still trust in my old friend’s goodness, his gentle light within a very dark and gloomy lantern. I know the light is there, even when he cannot see it. But it is not about the trust. It is not about his potential. And it is not about me becoming his lightkeeper. It is about the future I am walking toward as I continue my steps toward the receding horizon that will someday rise up and envelop me in a final embrace. It is time to free myself from this endless cycle of hope and disappointment, hope and disappointment, where I am left perpetually hanging by a thread that someone else has unraveled.
I wish him the peace that I hope to find. And I release him with infinite gratitude. He is free to stand or fall as he will. I am free to save only myself, repair my own wounds, revive my own dreams. Knit myself together into a pattern of my own making and neatly weave in all my loose ends, until the cloth is truly made whole. I will always love him with a profound and abiding love, even though it is marbled through with the pain of exile and impassable distance. The love is the same, maybe even greater, to cross the saltwater-filled chasm, the ocean that separates us.