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.


A sense of belonging: Picking at the gauze in my heart

This is a lonely time of year for me. It’s not because I’m alone. My wife recognizes the change and surrounds me with tenderness.

I love my relationships with my children. I enjoy daily phone conversations with my son Joe. My daughter Emily and I talk basketball and her boyfriend Sammy. My college son Jacob texts me, “Hey old man,” followed by amiable insults. Last weekend I took my daughter Annie to get her nose pierced.  Everything’s fine at home.

No, it’s the season. I keep Christmas at arm’s length. While friends and family are posting holiday plans and photos of Christmas delicacies on Twitter and Facebook, I’ve changed my profile picture to a creepy clown smoking a cigarette.1017032_10201667383311684_872608623_n

There’s a tightness in my chest that feels like gauze shred over a rose bush. I keep picking at it, but can’t quite get it all.

I used to plan the holiday with a ceremonial bottle of Jack Daniels purchased a week before Christmas. I would imagine the warmth of the liquor and lights and my family around me on Christmas Eve. Imagining was the best I could do. Two days later I was buying a fresh bottle. By Christmas Eve I was on my third. On Christmas morning I awoke frustrated that I couldn’t remember everything that happened the night before. I resolved that it wouldn’t happen next year.

I shrink Christmas now. With good reason I try to make it like any other day.  I am grateful for it, but I have no illusions, no expectations.

During this season, I still feel the stirrings of something big coming, but I try to be sill and stand outside the rush.

The loneliness can slam into me hard. I miss my kids back in Missouri. I long for innocence lost. I feel the absence of loved ones who have died. And sometimes– for brief moments– I miss those bottles.

I went into a meeting on a Friday night last week, and on the wall was a huge sign that said, “Alcoholism is a disease of Loneliness.”

The small meeting of eight people read  from a book called “As Bill Sees It.” The person running the meeting happened to choose a series of readings on loneliness. As so often happens in this program, it seemed like the readings were speaking directly to me at that particular moment in my life.

I’ve been sober five years and eight months. One of the benefits of coming to these meetings is that they remind me where I came from and that I am not doing this alone. I was staring at a reading called “A Sense of Belonging” when emotion surprised me.

An elderly woman was talking nearby when I ducked my head and wiped away a tear.

It was the name of the reading more than the actual reading, I said to the others in the room when it was my turn to talk, trying to gather my composure.  Everyone nodded knowingly when I noted with a raspy laugh  how things tend to weave together. I was feeling sorry for myself that night, feeling lonely, and I walk into a meeting about loneliness.

I told the group about the  day in a St. Joseph, Mo., courtroom when a judge handed me a jail sentence for drunk driving. I was terrified, angry and lonely.

My attorney assured the judge that I was attending meetings and that I was sincere about sobriety. The judge gave me a 15 day jail sentence and two years probation. I left the courtroom. As I walked down the hallway, a gray-haired man in a suit got up from a nearby bench and greeted me. I recognized him as an attorney who had appeared before the judge three cases before mine. He had waited for me. He offered me his hand and told me to keep going to meetings. It works, he said warmly.  I was speechless for a moment then thanked him. He smiled kindly, squeezed my hand once more, and left.

Then, I left the courthouse and went up the hill to the jail to find out what I would need for my incarceration. As I entered the jailhouse, a bearded guard approached me. He was a gruff, older man, probably 65. Somehow he had heard I was coming. He had been sober for a long time, and he wanted to assure me that I was on the right path. Everything is going to be OK, he told me, you don’t have to do this alone.

With one more swell of emotion,  I looked around at the small Friday night meeting and whispered, “I don’t feel so lonely any more.”

The elderly lady approached me afterward, asked for a hug, and thanked me for sharing. “You feel better now, don’t you,” she said.

Yes, I admitted, my voice still rough.

I glanced at the big sign on the wall and walked into the night, breathing easier for the moment.