The call came in the dim, grey light before dawn. She fumbled for her phone in the dark, and saw the number; her stomach dropped and adrenaline and dread flooded her body, suddenly both wide awake and numb. The aging voice was fragile over the line, as she tried to make sense of the confusing jumble of words. Hospital. Collapse. David. Ambulance. Intubated. Heart failure. Non-responsive. Half-formed questions bubbled to her lips, interrupted by shock-formed half-answers from the other end. “Wait…? what…? how…? is there a nurse…someone I can talk to…?” she pleaded into the phone.
She was in Utah for the summer, nestled near Cache Valley and the northern peaks of the breathtaking Wasatch Mountains. Her children were all still asleep in various beds around her new in-laws’ house. They’d been playing outside the night before, getting to know cousins and grandparents again, and overjoyed with the deep azure sky, the pasture, the chickens, the enormous dog, and the sheep named Maverick.
She motioned for her husband to close the door- she didn’t want the children to hear any part of this phone call. Six years before, they had seen their father overdose. They had seen him, during the divorce, seizing and convulsing on the floor of his mother’s house, where she had taken the kids for a supervised visitation. She had screamed for her mother-in-law to keep the kids in the front room, to not let them see, as she rushed to call 911, but they saw anyway. They had seen the paramedics pounding on his chest, had seen the firemen rushing into their grandmother’s genteel living room, had seen the mad, brutal rush to save his life. They were too young, but she could not protect them from it.
He survived that day. She had gone in the ambulance at the paramedics’ insistence, while protesting that she wasn’t his wife anymore. She couldn’t make any decisions for him. Her head swam as she tried to answer the doctor’s questions in the ER. How many times? How much? Of what? He’d been in and out of rehab half a dozen times in the previous three years, before she finally filed for divorce. “If he does this again, he will die.” Yes. She knew.
He knew it, too. And over the next few years, he got help. He followed a program. He stayed sober. It was hard. Every day. There is a reason 12-step plans use the phrase “One day at a time”. For an addict, it’s often broken down into one hour, or one minute at a time. A day seems to large a hurdle. But a minute? A minute can be done. Until someday, for some reason, it cannot.
Less than a year earlier, she had had him fly out to stay with them on the east coast. She had invited him many times, but he was finally feeling strong enough, and he came for almost two weeks. He stayed in their home, met her new husband and her step-children, and immersed himself in his own children. It had been a singular joy watching the harmony between loved ones, and see the kids bask in that light. It had been a beautiful visit, and they had spoken about repeating it again this coming fall.
They talked frequently. She valued him- not only as the father of her children, but as a constant for more than twenty-five years. They had met when she was still a girl. He was her ex-husband, but prior to, and after that, he was also her friend.
Now the phone call she had feared for years had come. Waiting on a call-back from a nurse, her heart was leaden. He had been doing so well… But she knew the frailty of that protest. She knew how it could go, and how fast it could go.
Her husband joined her outside in the gathering dawn. His parents, out for their morning walk, were silhouetted against the rising sun as they approached. The cat had joined them and their giant dog on their walk- they made a peculiar and oddly beautiful quartet. Strange, the things you remember when the world is shifting.
It was Pioneer Day in Utah. July. It would be hot, and the roses were opening in ridiculous color and bloom, despite the early hour. She remembers noticing that, too, along with a stray chicken wandering in and out of the roses. The phone rang.
He was gone.
There are moments in life that transcend time, where everything stops, the birds hold their song, and the enormity of the silence is deafening in it’s vastness. There are moments where a person can, ever so briefly, see the curving arc of the horizon and can feel the curling crest of the wave of time under their feet. Thank God those moments are fleeting, because our earthly hearts really cannot breathe in that paralyzing enormity for long. In that moment, she understood why people fall to their knees before angels.
Before her lies the task of waking her children this beautiful summer morning, and telling them their father is dead. She cannot protect them from the paralyzing unfairness of life, or from the unforgiving hardness of the devastating reality of addiction. She wants to cry out for someone to shield them, someone more adequately prepared than her, someone who knows better than she how to shepherd children through a valley no child should walk. But there is no answer. So she will do it.
She can see the house over her husband’s shoulder, backlit by the rising sun, where her children are asleep, safe and happy, surrounded by family, summer roses, giant dogs, chickens, cousins and a sheep named Maverick.
She takes a deep breath, and tries to rub away her endless tears, and moves towards the sunrise and what she must do.
It takes extraordinary courage and strength to seek help, both for the addict and for the families and friends of those who love them. There are many who triumph over their demons; while recovery and finding a way to a happy and healthy life is possible, not everyone survives the night. When faced with addiction, it is not just the addict who needs support, but their families as well. Be kind. Err on the side of love.