March 15, 2005
Hope this letter finds you well and enjoying the promise of spring. They keep saying, “it’s right around the corner”, but they never tell you that it’s the corner of 42nd and 10th. Nevertheless, I have nearly survived the winter and take it that you have too. Indeed, today I printed my first Palm Sunday Bulletin (drum roll, please). To be completely correct—the day is listed as both Palm/Passion Sunday and Passion/Palm Sunday. It’s all a matter of emphasis and scripture readings and personal preference, I guess. I am praying for passion with lots of waving palms.
Well, I started this letter and then took a short break to make some phone calls. It seems that 7:40 is the perfect time to give someone a ring. And so I made a few calls, short and sweet, and now I’m back. Letters to you often get interrupted. My apologies. There are not enough hours in the day for this job, yet all the time in the world—it’s a strange duality. There will be days when I think, “Wow, I should be home early. I’ll get some work done on the sermon; I’ll do some laundry”. But just as I’m thinking this lovely thought, the phone rings or there’s that knock on the office door. Around here, you might hear someone bellowing my name or just asking, “Where is she?” and it’s all over, forget the laundry, forget the sermon, forget that tuna fish sandwich.
Yesterday, I thought I was going to have an easy day then I drove a guy to the hospital so he could check himself in to detox and rehab. I sat in the van and watched him clean out his coat pockets. He tossed a couple of baggies of crack and a handful of pills into the woods on the edge of the hospital’s parking lot. Then without looking back, he walked across that parking lot and up the little hill to the emergency room. He didn’t want me to go with him up the hill. He wanted to do that alone, but he knew I was going to sit in the van and watch him till he walked in the door. He didn’t hesitate for a moment, just turned on his heels and waved—a big, broad wave and walked right in the hospital. I sat in the parking lot for a time, praying him securely into rehab. I didn’t see him today, so there’s hope.
He’s not the only one. The people look bruised and beaten up around here. Some days the neighborhood feels comprised of two kinds of human beings—those who are using drugs now and those who are kicking a habit. The most popular habits, the two addiction frontrunners, are alcohol and crack. I’ve heard the Hudson Valley is also known for it’s heroin, but I haven’t confirmed that in any guidebooks. I only know that when you look into their eyes, when they smile and you see their teeth and the pallor of their skin, you understand. You witness the evidence that screams—too many folks in this neck of the wilderness prefer their cocaine mixed with a little baking soda. I didn’t even know what that meant before I got here. Now that I’m beginning to see, it’s painful to watch. Crack is evil, and it’s not even a “medical detox”. Nobody saves a bed for a crack addict. Alcoholics need a nurse; crack addicts just need a miracle.
But the truth is, you can get in trouble with a quart of beer. On Friday, I went to family court and helped a woman surrender her child to the state. I suppose every word I’ve written in this letter so far has only been filler because this is the story I knew I had to tell you. This is what it’s all about.
On Friday, I handed a plump young woman with stringy blonde hair and a stained tee shirt a handful of tissues and patted her back and asked questions and pleaded and prayed and prayed some more and tried to listen. The woman has never been to our church, but she’s had lunch many times at our soup kitchen. It started a few weeks ago when she came to me crying, telling me they were going to take her child away. Her first child died of SIDS, she explained, and now they wanted to take away this one, her baby girl. “Don’t they know how horrible it is to lose a child?” She leaned forward as far as the church office chair allowed, and I could see tiny flecks of mascara clinging to her wet lower lashes.
Didn’t they know what that did to you, how much it tore you up inside? Maybe she had been feelin’ a little crazy. Her baby was dead! She was so sad all the time, and she couldn’t sleep. Maybe she’d even been drinking some, it’s true; she just needed a little beer to get to sleep at night, but she wasn’t a bad mother, and the rehab place was horrible; she had to leave, the place was full of convicts and she’s a hairdresser, and all they did was yard work, no therapy! Couldn’t she get some therapy and have another chance? She’s a good mother, and her lawyer is friends with the couple who want to adopt her little girl, and it isn’t fair, and couldn’t I write a letter and go to court with her? Her baby was dead and now they were trying to take away her baby girl! Please? Please wouldn’t somebody help her?
And so of course, I did.
It’s hard to put into words, but in court things get very real. Judges make things very real. They wanted the woman to voluntarily surrender her daughter; they wanted her to sign the papers and move on. They were all a bit annoyed. Seems the last date was postponed. Seems the young woman had arrived at court smelling of alcohol. Seems she’s missed lots of deadlines and blown lots of Breathalyzer’s. Seems they don’t just take your kid away here in the good ole’ USA unless you’ve messed up more than a few times. And her lawyer actually seemed like a good guy, and if she voluntarily surrendered she got some perks, but if she didn’t they were going on with a trial. And you just knew it wouldn’t be good for her.
So, the court took a break to work out a plan, and people paced the halls and talked on their cell phones. And the lawyer invited me into a private room with the woman. And we sat at a little round table, and the woman squeezed my hand while the lawyer talked to her and then talked to her some more, and finally the woman nodded her head in resignation. And the lawyer left the little room, and I prayed while the woman sobbed. And when the judge was ready, we went back into the courtroom. And the woman started to sign the voluntary surrender—her signature graced one copy of the three needed. Then she screamed she couldn’t do it and started out the door.
There was a collective intake of breath in the courtroom, as rehearsed and dramatic as a movie, and the judge said she couldn’t rule it voluntary—she was proceeding with a trial. But before anyone moved, our friend reappeared; she turned around and came back to the table, where I sat too somehow, as her soup kitchen pastor. A flutter of apprehension passed through the room and someone coughed, but the woman was safely seated at the table, as though she’d made it to base before the umpire’s call. The tears were gone, and she sat with a shaky smile pressuring her lips, composed enough to sign three copies of the official documents and hear the court officer’s first few words. Then she was gone again.
She got a head start because I didn’t run through the courthouse. When I got to the parking lot she was nearly a block away, and she wasn’t turning around. Someone from the new rehab, the good rehab with therapy, was supposed to pick her up. But there she was moving fast in the wrong direction. One of the caseworkers came out on my heels, but our friend wasn’t responding to either of us. I knew I had to run after her. I caught her on the corner.
All she wanted was a beer. Just a quart of beer. Life may as well be over anyway; her baby girl was gone. But I knew that she’d once lost her baby girl because of a quart of beer. Just a quart of beer. And she had the baby with her, and the cops stopped her. And then the baby was gone just like today. And we danced on the corner and wrestled and pushed and pulled. And I kept telling her to walk with me, walk with me. Walk with me back to the parking lot.
I was pulling her toward the courthouse, away from the deli across the street. They sell quarts of beer. And she pulled back, and the dance continued, back and forth, swaying in a pendulum pitch between the courthouse and the deli, locked like two Sumo wrestlers in a curbside embrace, wrestling over the future. And then the woman cried out in a mournful wail, “All I want is a fucking beer!” And I wailed back at her, “It all started with a fucking beer!” And everything stopped. A lingering pause gave way to realization—the struggle was over. Just like that, my use of the “f” word, like an unexpected splash of cold water, an arresting slap in the face, broke the spell and stopped the woman in her tracks. It jolted her to a second surrender, and she started walking with me. The path to salvation made smooth by the “f” word, we made it back to the parking lot. And the ride to the good rehab was waiting. What did I profess before? There’s always hope.
Of course, today wasn’t so bad. I bought a case of corned beef briskets for the soup kitchen in honor of St. Patrick and opened four cans of cat food for a parishioner with a broken arm and two fat cats. By the grace of God, they aren’t all dramatic.
Pray for me, and I will pray for you. Happy Easter!