When I arrived at your facility, I was still shaky at best. I was not sober for very long and the whispering urges were still with me. So was the attitude and so were scams that come with every wise-ass kid trying to prove himself. I weighed just over 100lbs and my skin was beginning to come back to a natural color. My eyes were sunken with dark rings beneath them and my ribs poked from the sides of my body. I was not ready to give up my addiction and I was even less willing to listen. I was not willing to change or give in, but then again, neither were you.
You told me I had, “Shifty eyes.”
You said, “I was always looking for the angles,” and “I was always looking to get over.”
“But you’re not going to get over on me,” you said.
“Not here. Not in my house.”
I remember that.
You gave me rules to follow. You had me up before dawn, swinging pitchforks inside the pigpens and cleaning behind the cows as they gave milk in the barn. I scrubbed pots and pans; I washed dishes and cleaned the bathrooms. I cleaned floors and windows. I argued, but you told me to wear a sign that said, “Ask me why I’m a spoiled brat” and then you told me to sit in the corner when I wouldn’t do as I was told.
I remember that too.
Weeks into my stay at The Farm, you told me, “Either you do as you are told, or go to jail.” I fought back, but you never gave in.
I hated my choices and I hated you for making me aware of them.
I hated your rules and your long talks on God.
I did like you said I would and I, “Shot for the angles.” I tried to slip through the cracks, but you wouldn’t let me. I figured if I could con my way through two other facilities, I could con my way through yours. I thought I would do my time and get out, but you continued to expose me and I hated you for that as well.
The truth is I was unwanted anywhere else. I was a thief. I was a suburban street kid trying to be someone or something I wasn’t. I was placed in your care by the New York Court System. I would have never joined The Farm on my own, but I was told in no uncertain terms, either I complete drug treatment or I serve my time in prison.
You broke me down.
You yelled at me in front of the other members of the house.
You took away my image, piece by piece, and shirt by shirt. I was stripped of my old clothes and made to dress in a certain way. A pocket T-shirt was mandatory with an undershirt beneath. My hair was kept short and I was to be well-groomed at all times. My fashion, along with my freedom of opinion was stripped, and I hated you for this.
I hated you with everything I had. Suffice to say, if it were up to me, I would have gone back to what I was, a frightened kid that was unable to live a sober life with an honest heart.
And I wanted to run away . . . but you wouldn’t let me.
After October finished, November turned and I thought I was getting by until December came along. That’s when the call came. That’s when you sat me down and said, “Your Father is sick.”
Then you sent me home.
I came back the following day, but something changed. Suddenly, I became aware of mortality. I saw things differently, as if life became painfully real in the blink of an eye and there was no way for me to control or soothe it with medication. Two weeks later, I returned home to say goodbye to my Father.
His last clear words to me were, “You look good, kid.”
He said, “I’m proud of you.”
But more importantly, he said, “I love you.”
And to a son that believed he was unloved and unwanted, that meant everything.
When I returned, you held me and I wept.
I remember this.
I saw my Father’s death as unfair, but you reminded me, “At least he had the chance to see you sober before he died.”
Sober . . .
I don’t think I truly knew what the word meant before that moment. I thought sobriety was simply the absence of alcohol or anything mind altering. I never knew that sobriety is an action; it is a presence and an emotion.
For the first time in my life, I was sober . . .
No matter how hard I fought back, you never gave up on me.
You taught me to stand up straight.
I admit, I did not like your rules, but what kid in my position would? Who wants to leap out of bed before the count of twenty after the alarm clock rings and have their bunks already made before the last number is called out?
Who wants to do fire-watch at 2:00 in the morning?
Who wants to humble themselves?
Who wants to take 2-minute showers in a small, crammed bunk house?
Or be shouted at in the morning by a loud angry bunk leader screaming, “Let’s go, let’s go?”
What junkie wants to be questioned or held accountable for their actions?
I know I didn’t want any of these things.
Whenever I slipped backwards, you asked, “When are you going to stop fighting the change?”
You asked, “When are you going to surrender?”
Surrender . . .
This is another word that I misunderstood. Until then, I never thought surrendering was a symbol of strength.
That’s when you told me, “Sometimes you have to surrender to win.”
“Your way doesn’t work. So why not give in and try something else?”
“Stop fighting and don’t give up before the miracle happens.”
When I was frustrated, I asked you, “But when will the miracle happen?”
You smiled and said, “You’re still here, aren’t you?”
I answered, “Yes.”
Then you put your hand on my shoulder and said, “That sounds like a miracle, if you ask me.”
I always wanted to be a part of something. I always wanted to feel as if I “Belonged,” or “Fit,” somewhere.
In a time when no one else wanted me around, you took me in.
In a time when I believed I could do nothing else but fail, you pushed me to achieve. I remember that.
You stepped in and played the role of a father to me and many others. I admit that I struggled for your attention. I admit I wanted to please you and I grew frustrated when I couldn’t. But when you smiled at me . . . it was as if my own Father was smiling at me and I loved you for that.
Age waits for us all. You taught me this. Sadly, the years grew between us and you hardly remembered me the last time we spoke. But I remember you. You are the man that gave me a chance, even when I didn’t want to take it. Had it not been for you, my name would be nothing more than another on the list of local tragedies. Had it not been for you, I would have been nothing more than another statistic, number or entry in an institution’s logbook.
I heard from John the other day. He said you had passed. Dave said you went peacefully in your sleep. Said the Alzheimer’s took you to the point where you couldn’t remember anyone except for your wife, Betty, and God.
Please know that I have never forgotten you. Know that my love for you is equal to my gratitude for all you’ve given me. I often hear the unfortunate statistics regarding the sobriety rate after rehab. Sadly, not a lot of people make it.
But I did.
And I made it because of you.
Who I am is because of who you taught me to be . . .
I remember that.
Sleep well, Tony.
May the angels that greet you, sit you close to The Father.