The BC Epoch.
I sat cross legged on the powder blue carpet and gingerly lifted Lela’s bare foot to my lap. Conversation paused briefly as I applied lotion and gently began to massage. Her eyes closed as she inhaled and exhaled slowly, her frail body leaning back against the padded rocking chair, her arms resting on the armrests and a white knitted cap covering the place where her hair had once been. This wasn’t Lela’s first battle with cancer, but we both knew that it would be her last. At each weekly visit, I would gently massage her hands and feet while we talked.
At that moment I was immensely grateful for Susan, another friend who had emerged victorious from her battle with breast cancer, who explained how the chemo affected her hands and feet leaving them numb and tingly. It was through her experience that I learned that although I could not take away the reality, or the fear or the pain, I wasn’t completely powerless. I could at least massage those aching hands and feet and bring some small measure of comfort and relief. I could also listen. I couldn’t make it all better, but at least I could do something. Armed with those two meager tools I visited with her regularly during her recovery. With the lessons learned, literally at Susan’s feet, I was better prepared to respond when I learned of Lela’s relapse.
Lela and I had visited many times over a course of many years. I had been with her as she endured bouts of unemployment, illness, surgery, etc. and Lela always amazed me. Whenever I came to lift and encourage, it was always me who left lighter. Lela had a way of making me feel special and I loved to be with her.
At this visit, she evaluated her life and measured it against a blessing she had once been given where she was assured of her tremendous influence as a mother. She was concerned about her granddaughter who lived with her and who she helped raise since the girl’s mother had never married and wasn’t in a good place in her life. She was concerned about her husband’s future loneliness and her other grown children and the choices they were making. She laughed as she told me, “I told them I’d come back and haunt them if they don’t make good choices, and I’ll do it too.”
“I believe you Lela,” I smiled.
“What are they going to do without me?” she wondered.
“I think they’re going to have to grow up and start ‘adulting’ since they can’t rely on you to do it for them. The training wheels are coming off, and they’re going to rise to the occasion. I think they’ll be okay,” I reassured her.
She talked about her decades of service with the Boy Scouts and how many teenage boys she had mentored over the years. I was keenly aware of her service since my own son was one of the young men that she mentored.
When a Boy Scout earns the rank of Eagle, he is honored at an award ceremony and given two pins to bestow on others to symbolize that he didn’t accomplish this honor on his own. One is a mother ’s pin and the other is a mentor’s pin bestowed on a person who has been a significant influence in the young man’s life. Lela has more than a dozen mentor pins displayed on a plaque on her living room wall.
“I think my most successful ‘mothering’ has been to other people’s children,” Lela said.
“You felt drawn to serve in scouting, you knew that’s what you were supposed to be doing. I have no doubt that you have successfully completed your life’s mission. How many people can say that they know they completed what they came here to do? You did it and did it well. I’m proud of you.” I nodded.
I gently set her foot down and picked up the other one, applied lotion and began to massage. “Thank you,” she sighed and looked in my eyes. “Did you know that my favorite memory of you is the image of you standing in my garbage can?”
“Hardly complimentary,” I laughed.
“Do you remember that time? I was frustrated with my overgrown yard and had exhausted myself trimming rose bushes. I had piles of branches all over the yard and felt totally overwhelmed by the amount of work left to do. Then suddenly and without warning, you appeared, work gloves in hand, and started putting the branches into the garbage can. When the can was overflowing, you climbed in and stomped them down so there was room for more. I thought, ‘Why is this beautiful woman standing in my garbage can? Why would she do that for me?’” tears were flowing freely down her cheeks.
“Because you’re my friend and I love you,” tears coursed down my cheeks as well. I set down her foot and stood to embrace her. It was time for me to go, “Goodbye my friend.”
“Till we meet again,” she replied.
That was the last time I saw Lela before she passed away. It is a cherished memory and a highlight of my life.
We sat side by side on the freestanding porch swing in my backyard, gently rocking back and forth, enjoying the warm sensation of the late spring sunshine. Tina’s three young children played happily in the yard. The youngest came over and asked, “Can we pick the peas from the garden?”
“Go for it,” I smiled. He dashed away, delighted by the new experience of searching for ripe pods to pick and the thrill of finding edible hidden treasures in each one. I waited patiently until Tina was ready to speak.
Finally she blurted out, “Okay, I think I’m ready to do it. Thanks for letting me come over. I told you on the phone that I had to tell you something,” she rushed on before her courage failed, “I’m a recovering addict. I’m addicted to prescription painkillers, but I’ve been sober for two years now.” She cringed visibly waiting for my response.
“Sober for two years? That’s incredible! Overcoming addiction is so hard, that’s an amazing success. I’m so proud of you!” I exulted.
“Proud of me? I thought you’d be shocked to know that I’m an addict. I was afraid you wouldn’t want me around. I thought you’d be disgusted with me,” she continued, “I’m disgusted with myself. How could I fall this low? If you only knew the things I’ve done,” she looked away, “I’m a mom. I have three little kids. I know better.”
“Addiction is powerful. You become a slave to it, and it seems impossible to escape slavery. Some don’t even try. Many try and fail, but you’ve obviously been fighting and not only fighting, you’ve been winning. You said you’ve been sober for two years. I know that took tremendous effort and struggle. There’s a huge story in those words ‘I’ve been sober for two years.’” I looked into her eyes, “I’m amazed by you.”
She paused before saying her next words, “I’ve never thought to be proud of my sobriety, I’ve only been ashamed by my addiction.”
As her story unfolded, it seems to have started indirectly with a childhood accident. She slipped off a forty foot cliff during a family camping trip and it’s a miracle that she survived. She was rescued by a Boy Scout troop who were hiking nearby and the boys’ leaders carried her broken body back to her family. In retrospect, one of the foremost rules of first aid is that you should never move a person with a possible neck injury, but the adrenaline and panic of an emergency make people forget their first aid training. It’s a miracle that she wasn’t paralyzed. The recovery was long and slow and obviously included the use of painkillers.
Then you grow up and life happens. Your military husband is deployed leaving you alone to care for the constant needs of small children. You still deal with the ever present after-effects of that childhood injury. You require another surgery. The doctors prescribe painkillers and when you take them, you notice that not only has the physical pain decreased, but the emotional pain is numbed as well. For the first time in a long time you don’t feel completely miserable and hopeless. As the painkiller wears off and the pain of every kind returns, you long for the escape that comes in that bottle. Eventually, that escape becomes the most important thing in the world. More important than love for husband, responsibility to care for children, responsibility to manage a household, and relationships with parents and family. Certainly more important than honesty and integrity, and the necessary lies construct a web that seems impossible to untangle. Impossible to escape. Even moreso for Tina than in most cases, since she can never be completely free from painkillers. She needs them, legitimately needs them, so they’ll always be in the house. The willpower to use them as directed and not abuse them will be a challenge her entire life.
“My husband is being deployed again, and I’m afraid that I’ll slip back into former habits. I need some help and support. Can I report to you each week? Knowing that I’ll be accountable will really help me.”
“Of course,” I replied, “come each week just like you did today and we’ll sit on the swing and visit. The kids love playing here so it will be an outing for them as well. Besides,” I smiled, “it has the added benefit that I’ll get to see you often. That’s a plus for me.”
“Thank you, that means so much,” she said, “Oh there’s one more thing. Will you come to my ARP meeting with me?”
“Sure. What’s an ARP meeting?” I queried.
“Addiction recovery program,” she clarified.
“Oh, of course. When and where is the meeting?” I replied.
I loved the ARP meeting.
She saw me first even though I had been scanning frantically through the sea of faces to find her. “Linda,” she called out.
When I heard my name, I stopped and searched until I found the source of the voice. She was seated on a molded plastic seat, and I was somewhat surprised that she didn’t rush to meet me, but as I dashed toward her, she arose and we embraced. “I’m going to have to let go soon. I’m not supposed to touch anyone. They’re watching me,” she whispered quickly in my ear.
Somewhat confused, I let go and backed away while she quickly sat down again. There were two men seated on either side of her, watching us intently. It took a moment for my brain to register that these were plain clothes cops who were guarding her, or perhaps guarding people from her?
One spoke to me, “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
“My name is Linda. I am Meleofa’s friend and I’ve come to see her and say goodbye,” I replied.
“How did you know where to go? Who told you where she’d be? That’s classified information, no one was supposed to know,” he demanded.
“I didn’t know where she’d be. No one told me anything. All I knew is that she was being deported today. I searched on the computer to find every possible flight route that goes to Samoa today. I made a list of possible connecting flights and I planned to wait at the gate of each one until I found her. I got an airline ticket to San Diego so I could get past security,” I held up my boarding pass. “I got lucky, I’ve only been searching for an hour.”
“You shouldn’t be here,” he warned.
“I’m a ticketed passenger in an international airport, I have every right to be here,” I countered testily. “Look,” I added in a calmer voice, “I’m no threat to you. We’re in a public place, I’m not doing anything wrong. I haven’t seen Meleofa in person for ten months except one time and that was through a glass barrier where we got to speak over the phone. She’s leaving today and I may never get to see her again. I want her to know that she’s not alone. She needs to know that she has support and that people love her. I realize that you’re only doing your job, but you don’t know her. I do. I know her. She is my friend and she is wonderful.”
“I can see your point,” he softened. “Well,” he hesitated, “let’s go sit over there where there are less people and you can talk to her.”
We moved over to a section where there were a bank of empty chairs. I sat down next to her and she spoke quickly and quietly of the horrors of the past few days and the disappointment and anger that all of her petitions over the past ten months had been denied. We had had hopes dashed again and again as court hearing after court hearing was postponed and then came the final devastation of the court’s decision. Her ten months of incarceration led not to freedom and exoneration as we had hoped, but immediate deportation instead. During all that time, her husband and children had dealt with the loss of wife and mother and the humiliation of the whole situation. I had done what little I could, visiting the family regularly and offering support and help as needed, but no one can replace a wife and mother. That’s just not possible.
“Thanks for taking my daughter dress shopping for the prom and for going with her to get senior pictures,” she said.
“Oh, that was a pleasure, she’s so beautiful,” a smile briefly crossed my face as I thought of her lovely daughter, then frowned, “but I’m so sorry that you weren’t able to be the one who went with her. This whole thing is just so wrong.”
“Your country has stupid immigration laws,” she spat bitterly.
I nodded, noticing the way she emphasized the word “your” and feeling the betrayal in her voice that her home for decades no longer belonged to her.
I had brought a carry-on bag filled with books and treats to help distract her during the long flights ahead, but the guards wouldn’t let me give it to her. I couldn’t give her anything. The guards fidgeted uncomfortably as they watched us and listened to our conversation. After a while they decided that I really shouldn’t be seated next to her and asked me to move and sit in the seat directly across from her instead. I moved and sat down again. Our stolen time together was drawing to a close since it would soon be time for her to board the flight.
“My family is saving money so they can come visit me in Samoa in a few months. You could come too, if you want. You’re certainly invited,” she said.
I silently pondered the logistics involved. I’d never traveled to Samoa. It was so far away and would take several flights to get there. I would have to be away from my family for at least a week in order to get there, have time to visit, and return home. Could I make arrangements? Did I dare?
“Thanks for coming today. Thanks for being here for me through all of this, I don’t know how I would have made it through if I didn’t have you to talk to every day,” she said.
“Every day?” I asked with bewilderment audible in my voice. I had communicated as frequently as the law allowed, writing letters, occasional phone calls (she could call me collect, but I couldn’t call her), and a single in-person visit through a glass wall where the sight of her in an orange jumpsuit hurt my heart. She looked so forlorn and had lost a lot of weight. Usually I was updated on her status through her family and I spoke to them often, but not every day. “We didn’t talk every day.”
“No, we didn’t talk every day, but I talked to you every day. I had conversations with you constantly while I sat in my cell. I told you everything. You kept me company every step of the way,” she replied.
“Really? That’s awesome, I’ve always wanted to be an imaginary friend,” I teased, then added more seriously, “I’m glad I got to be there with you in some way. I’m glad that you didn’t feel completely alone.”
“We’re now ready to begin boarding flight 2260 to Los Angeles.” The intercom announcement signaled that it was time to go. We rose from our seats and embraced. I held her tightly, holding back the tears that wanted to come. It wasn’t time to cry yet; I wanted to leave her with a smile.
“Goodbye my friend. We’ll keep writing and I’ll be able to have a phone now,” she said.
“Oh, that will make a difference. Even though you’ll be farther away, we’ll be able to talk more. How ironic,” I mused. “Have a safe journey. I’ll miss you terribly, but I will see you again. I’m going to come to Samoa to visit you.”
And I did.
That’s the person that I used to be in my “BC” epoch; the time before I was crushed. That’s the person that I hope to be able to become again. I wasn’t rich or powerful or famous or glamorous, but I could stand in a garbage can, I could visit on a porch swing, and I could be an imaginary friend in a prison cell. I wasn’t perfect. I wasn’t a saint, unless I can use the definition that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying, I can claim that. I miss me. I miss the me that was merely broken and not completely crushed. When I was just broken, I could still function and I could still reach out and lift others. The crushed me is useless and wishes to cease to exist.
So which life experience crushed me? Was it experiencing poverty to the level where I couldn’t afford to buy milk and wondered how I would be able to feed my children? No, although I can’t say that I enjoyed that one, my husband and I worked our way through it. We traveled through poverty, but didn’t settle down and make it our permanent residence. Was it experiencing sickness so severe that I actually broke a rib coughing? No, I didn’t enjoy that one either, but the illness eventually ended and broken bones mend. Was it the time my son was in a motorcycle accident and I arrived at the scene of the accident in time to see my son’s broken body lying in the middle of an intersection surrounded by flashing lights and emergency personnel? No, although that’s an image that I will never forget, we rejoice in the fact that he wasn’t killed or paralyzed and his lengthy recovery was, in fact, a recovery. Was it the hellish night where we were awoken by a phone call that our nine-month-old grandson had been life flighted to Primary Children’s Hospital with hydrocephalus and required life-saving brain surgery? I’ll never forget the scene of holding my daughter-in-law’s hand through the night while she writhed on the floor and sobbed inconsolably, sick with bronchitis and unable to accompany her infant son to the hospital, as we awaited the expected news of his death. I felt so helpless. I couldn’t help my grandson and I couldn’t help my daughter-in-law. I couldn’t make it all better. It was indescribably awful, but that wasn’t what crushed me, and miraculously the surgery was successful and my grandson, although brain damaged, is alive.
Which life experience crushed me? Actually, I’m not going to divulge that. The particulars don’t matter anyway since our experiences are uniquely and individually tailored for each person and an experience that one person can endure might be just the thing that breaks or crushes another, like the experience that crushed my mother, and in turn led to my initial and lifelong brokenness.
Click here to find Crushed: A Journey Through Depression on Amazon