I took a long drive to see an old friend at a time when he needed a friend most. He was a good friend and a good boy once. But that was a long time ago. The good boy I knew was buried beneath a history of child abuse from an alcoholic father. The boy I knew was buried beneath the scars of his lifestyle and buried beneath years of drug addiction, jail time, and beneath the life that comes with being a low-level street junkie. But years ago, I swear, his eyes were one of the brightest. His laugh was contagious and his character was enough to always catch attention.
There are things we never forget. For example, I will never forget the first time I went to a major league baseball game. I will never forget the first girl that let me kiss her or the first that allowed me to put my hand up her shirt. One thing I am certain of, I will never forget the boys from my old neighborhood. I will never forget the things we did or the wild nights. I will never forget the tragedies and the victories of my youth or those who I shared them with. This is my background. This is me and there is something else, which is equally important; I will never forget the people I was ‘Away’ with.
I will never forget my friends who were there in the beginning—especially the very beginning when I was unsure whether I would stay or go. I will never forget the ones who were like me.
I was young and scared. I was unsure of what to expect and unsure of what was expected from me. In times like this, a bond is formed. In times like this, I sat up late, talking with people I had only known for a few days—yet somehow, we were all so desperately close. And we swore to each other. We swore to keep in touch. We swore that if any of us ever needed anything—there would always be someone to reach out to. Unfortunately, promises like these are frequently broken. On the other hand, sometimes these promises are kept. In this case: my word was my bond.
I took a long drive to see an old friend who, out of respect for anonymity, I will change his name to something different to fit this story.
There is a strange smell that I cannot describe. This smell may exist in other places; however, the only place I have smelled it was waiting to pass through a gate in a county jail, where on the other side, an angry guard stood with his version of an intimidating smirk. Through the first gate, and then through a metal detector; I stepped in to a small room to be checked before stepping through a second door to a visiting room where long tables with semi-partitions down splitting the tables, lengthwise and down the middle, weaved around the room.
I was given a number and told to find a seat, which corresponded with the number. It was there where I sat, waiting for someone to come through the corridor and be directed by one of the guards towards my section of the table. One by one, inmates in orange jumpsuits walked out towards the visiting tables. There was no real contact allowed. Aside from a hug, or a kiss—if it was that kind of visit, there were to be no physical connections or contact made.
I sat in the chair, waiting, and wondering what my friend would look like. He was slightly taller than I was. And last I saw Paulie; he was in good shape, somewhat muscular and mostly clean from the junkie life. Last I saw him, Paulie was cleaning up and taking care of himself. However, the last I saw Paulie was the last time I saw him. A few years had passed since then and either eventually or inevitably, the life Paulie lived had called him back. Or as he put it, “It was only a matter of time.”
Aside from the nerves I felt about seeing an old friend who still carried importance in my heart; it was hardest to see a friend like Paulie here, locked up, and fulfilling one of the only three outcomes of addiction, which are jails, institutions, or death.
I was not sure if Paulie would recognize me. I was not sure if I would be able to recognize him. Soon enough, I would find out. Soon enough, a tall thin figure with black, mop-like curly hair, would emerge from the corridor and head towards the table. And there he was—Paulie.
Paulie was younger then me by a few years but he looked much older. He smiled initially, which meant he recognized me right away. Our hug was brief but meaningful. This was the kind of hug shared between two brothers who had fought wars with one another, but after separation, the two were joined again. I pulled my friend close and slapped my hand on his back, which is what men do when they hug each.
“Benny, man, it’s really good to see you.”
I could see it in Paulie’s eyes. The youthfulness was gone. The glimmer, the glisten—the twinkle in Paulie’s half-opened eyes weremuted and dim. There was only a hint of the boy I knew. It was just a small trace of the man I once knew.
Assuring my friend that he was not forgotten, I shrugged my shoulders; then I curled my arms up at the elbow while lifting my hands and exposing my palms with my fingers spread apart. “What can I say,” I asked Paulie. “I’m a man of my word.”
The word I had given was the same word Paulie and a few others had given as well. Regardless to where we were or how often we spoke, if one of us were ever in need, no matter what the circumstances may be—at least one of us would be there to help. And gratefully I was able to keep my word
Paulie and I talked with a light heart. We laughed about the old rehab days. We laughed about the stupid kids we used to be. We talked about the long group sessions and of course, we talked about the people we liked as well as the people we disliked.
This was a difficult visit for me. It was hard to see Paulie this way—lost to the junk-thieves and given in to addiction. Seeing him this way was painful. It was painful because I cared. It was also painful because there are more tragedies than victory in this game.
There are more losers than winners and with each loser comes another long list of casualties.
Paulie was lost and I did not come to find him. I came to keep my word to an old friend. I came to let Paulie know he was loved. I came to tell him there is a solution and there are other options. I did not come to preach. I came to show the love one brother has for another, and in this meeting, I came to offer whatever hope I could find.
I told my friend, “No matter what, I’m always gonna love you.”
Paulie thanked me.
“But if you stay like this, I’m just gonna have to love you from a distance.”
That was the last time Paulie and I ever spoke.
To this day, I have no idea where Paulie is or how he’s doing.
In Matthew 10:34 the Son of Man explains, “Do not suppose I came to bring you peace. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
In this case, the Son of Man regards the sword as information. It is with this information that the soul can be saved. This means, the sword is truth, and the truth is a double-edged blade, which means it cuts on both sides; perhaps this is why it hurts when I see friends like Paulie lose to a life of lies.
If the sword is information and the information is the truth, this means we are given the truth to defend ourselves.
The other day, I was asked if I ever wondered why I was able to get away when others were not. I was asked if I felt blessed or lucky.
To be more accurate, “Like, why you?” is what I was asked
I wasn’t sure how to answer this. Whatever I have is whatever I earned. Maybe I am blessed. Maybe this was a case of pure luck and I am who I am because I decided to head left instead of right one night. Maybe I’m this way because I was taken out of my environment. I was removed from my element and when I was out, I noticed that I wasn’t even missed—not for a minute.
It is true; I was given the opportunity to better myself but it was me that had to do the word. I had to earn my place in this circle. Yet still . . . it’s hard to watch others sink to a crazy sickness. It’s hard to believe when there’s so much to doubt to test my will.
It’s not always an easy thing to have faith . . .
“Behold, I send you out as sheep amongst the wolves.”
Then I shall do as The Book says:
“Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves.”