My flawed tattoo: A reminder that letting go may be the only way to hold on

The artist wasn’t accustomed to creating imperfect tattoos, but I asked for imperfection; a single word scribbled on my forearm like a IMG_0902note from someone – a note too someone.

No computer font, so precise and formal, or florid script, so graceful and expressive, would do. I explained why my tattoo should be flawed. As artists are want to do he found meaning in my request.

He went to work with pencil and talent and returned with something perfectly imperfect, precisely imprecise.

My dearest friend died recently. Her body gave out and for the final two weeks her only response to doctors and family was a strong heartbeat.

I called from 2,000 miles and a friend placed the receiver to her ear and promised that she could hear me. I sang Bob Marley, off key.  Don’t be afraid I said, I love you, it’s ok to loosen your grip now. Then I joked that she was never much good at letting go.

In our marathon conversations we often talked about the word, now as permanent to me as addiction.

I promised that after our final farewells I would get the tattoo in honor of her and how hard she tried, but also as a warning to me. My friend died because she was sick, but her illness was a wild animal feeding off fear, more aggressive as her trust in the taming power of the word faltered.

The cunning baffling demon – our shared peril – conquered her because she thought she could conquer it.

It’s Ok to go, I told her again — we will all be fine. Your fight is ended.

I have to believe that she came to understand. As her heart weakend, she became resigned to her fate. She finally let go; somewhere beyond the silence, her ragged breathing and failed body, she accepted the blessing.

She was powerless and her life had become unmanageable.

Now we who love her are left to find our way through the over-analysis, guilt and regrets of grief. Or we can find acceptance in all that she was: vibrant and ill; strong and weak; engaging and lonely; a beautifully imperfect person who sought — too often — to please everyone she encountered, blinded to the impossibility of such a feat.

I must not be deceived; I look at the word on my arm to recognize the arrogance of believing I had the power to save her, to prevent her suffering and death.

She and I used to joke that people who are able to drink in moderation have a superpower. They might as well be able to fly, because we can do neither.

My tattoo is fresh and new today, the single word is simple and rough-edged. I remember my friend and long for one more phone call, to laugh and cry and learn answers to unanswered questions.

I try my best to reconcile her struggle against life and escape from herself with the liberation in death from all fear and torment. Maybe the word, so elusive to my lost friend, will provide me with faith, or maybe not.

I look at the tattoo and one thing is certain.
For today, “Surrender” is my superpower.

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My Dear Friend: You are courageous, no matter what the disease says

The back home area code was curious, then your mom’s voice, which I hadn’t heard in more than 20 years. 

People like us protect ourselves with a skill tested under fire: denial. As quick as a fright it clicked into place, like armor, when your mom said you were in the hospital. That’s not unexpected, but I’m sure she’s fine, I thought, ignoring distress signals from my brain.

“It doesn’t look like she’s going to make it.” 

A jolt like Everclear blurred everything. You are on life support. Our shared peril will not bind us for much longer. Oh, my friend, why didn’t you call, like so many times before, before succumbing to the cunning, baffling, powerful demon that possesses us.

You always ask, brightly, genuinely, How are you doing? How’s you’re beautiful wife? You listen. And you are gracious enough to allow me to listen, to suffer with you, as you suffer with me. 

Our conversations are open and raw and challenging. And I hope healing. Together we have clung to sobriety, shared parenting advice, cooled one another’s anguish, gushed about children and voiced our deepest fears. Mostly we laughed.

Over the past year there has been a quiver in your voice — fear, desperation, even panic. Every time we talked I reminded you that none of us has to do this alone. Many people want to help. As always you apologized for bothering me. As always I told you to stop. And as always you told me over and over how good a friend I was, that you know I will never turn my back or judge. You said you appreciate that I am a straight shooter who tells you the truth even if it isn’t what you want to hear.

 I am looking at a photo, you know the one, our handful of high school friends, arm in arm, smiling into the camera, just after graduation. Often, people look back at photos like this and wonder, What was I thinking at that moment? I don’t have to wonder. I had firm plans for later that night, to get drunk for the first time in my life. It had dominated my thoughts all day. It would dominate my life for the next 23 years.

You don’t seem to remember that I was a drunken disaster that first year at college, it was you who never judged or turned your back, no matter how belligerent or sloppy I was. You were the straight shooter, giving me the honesty I needed. You accepted apology after apology and took care of me when I passed out on your couch. Then, the next morning, you forgave me again.

So I am sorry, so very sorry for what I put you through. I am fortunate that you are my friend. I can’t say it enough; you have done so much for me.

A couple of decades later I stopped drinking, or more accurately, many people helped me stop. Not long after that, you courageously called and through tears asked me how I did it. I introduced you to a lot of people who fell in love with you and helped you do the same.

You have struggled so much with this. It certainly hasn’t helped that along the way some people you cared about have hurt and betrayed you, but you kept trying against all odds. You have never stopped fighting a terminal disease, praying for the remission that I have today, a remission with no guarantees. Through it all you never stopped loving. Loving with the passion of a great romantic poet– your children, your parents, your sister, family and friends. I’m honored to be on this list. And we all love you in return.

In our talks you told me that you felt like a failure, unworthy of the love of so many people. Especially during relapse.  I tried gentleness. I tried the raised voice of a coach. I begged you to see what I see, what we all see. I shook you from 2,000 miles away, trying to make you understand. Like a child, you asked if I was mad. Please, always know, as I have told you countless times before, that is an impossibllity. You recently called me at 3am and asked me if you were calling too late. Of course you were. Not because you woke me, but because I was worried that you were up at that time. In our previous phone call we had joked about how nothing good happens after two in the morning.

 Dearest friend, once, following a relapse, you wept and told me that you had thrown away all the time that you had been sober. 

I’m going to say this again, for what appears to be the final time.  Not only no, but hell no! You are wrong. Those moments, hours, days, months, years all counted. They mattered. The measure of your courage is how you continued to pull yourself up in the lonely darkness of despair.

We never had a chance against addiction until we surrendered and admitted we were powerless.  Harper Lee, the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a novel we both love, said, “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” Regardless of what this disease made you believe, you are courageous.

Today, my dear friend, I am suffering mightily. I am not “handling this,” as some might say. 

I wish you had called. I would have asked you to rest and let me carry your burden for a while. I would have told you to stop apologizing. I would have told you that you have helped me as much as I help you. We have been in this together for a long time. I would have said once again that I could never be mad at you. I would have told you not to be afraid.

I would have said I love you.

I told our mutual friend yesterday that I feel like I’m driving without a steering wheel, veering between weeping and some facsimile of composure.  Of course, you know that she told me to talk to my sponsor. Risking reprimand, I told her I don’t have one right now, haven’t even been going to meetings much. I have, however, attended regular meetings since the heartbreaking phone call from your mom. I don’t speak up much because I’m not sure I can hold it together. I think I’ve been looking for answers but I leave puzzled and angry.

I met a man recently who told me about a philosophy exam he took in college. He was confronted with an essay question that simply asked, “Why?” He answered, “Why not?” and walked out (He received an A).

That is my question right now. Why not me instead of you? To say I am blessed by God implies that you are not. For me that is personal heresy.

In recovery we talk a lot about accepting life on life’s terms. I have a feeling I will be trying to renegotiate these terms for some time. I weep not for my loss but rather for the loneliness of  those days before your family found you.

When your mom called she said she knows I understand. Honestly, I think at best I know that you have come to this place through no fault of your own. You came here at the end of a brutal, terrifying, lifelong battle against a disease that most of us don’t survive. 

But understand? Today, more than ever, I must admit, I don’t think I will ever understand this disease.