On a dark, rainy winter’s evening about ten years ago, I found myself in a run-down urban trailer park trying to find a particular trailer. I don’t remember how I was supposed to identify it, but I do remember a man stepping in front of me whose face I couldn’t see in the dark. “I got some stuff. You want some?” “No, thanks,” I replied, moving on. By the light of trailer windows, I saw more shadowy figures moving about in the downpour, and I remember holding my AA Big Book in front of my heart like a shield, asking god to keep me safe. I was on a full-fledged 12th-step call, one of only a handful in my life.
Twelfth-step calls are less common today because treatment centers tend to be a first stop for addicts wanting help, but the woman whose trailer I was seeking had just been released from the most labor-camp-like detox/treatment center in Seattle – Sedrunar. A friend had called me about her. “Lena doesn’t have a car to get to meetings. She’s got two kids, and she’s gonna lose them if she uses again.”
I called Lena, though I was going to insist she take the bus to my house. But Lena, like any addict, was persuasive. She didn’t know anyone in the trailer park she could trust to watch her kids – who were seven and two. Could I please come just this once?
The seven-year-old opened the trailer door. She stared at me from eyes circled with dark shadows, silent as a spook. I heard yelled from inside: “Let her in!” I tried to greet the child cheerily, though to inhale the stinky, steamy air in there felt like an assault. On the floor was an old TV with a beanbag chair in front of it – that and piles of clothes. Bare walls. In came Lena, the toddler on her hip naked besides his diaper, food all over his face. Lena was a bit shorter than me and chunky, about 25. She shook my hand, apologizing for the mess, and handed the boy off to her daughter, pretty much barking at her to go in the bedroom and shut the door so she could talk to this lady – me.
We sat down at the yellow kitchen table. On the stove, mac & cheese dribbled from a saucepan in a way that reminded me of vomit, and smeared noodles dotted the table. Lena sat across from me and folded her hands expectantly as though I were about to recite poetry.
All I could say was, “Does that window open?” I gestured toward a dark pane at the the table’s end, the glass dripping with condensation.
Lena looked perplexed. “I’m trying to save heat.”
“I’d really appreciate it.”
Reluctantly she rose and slid the moldy aluminum frame aside about an inch. While she was up she grabbed a sponge and wiped away most of the noodles at my place, apologizing that she’d just fed her son.
I’d made up my mind that I would stay 30 minutes only. I began as I always do, by asking Lena to briefly tell me her story. Clearly practiced from treatment, she launched right into it – how she’d grown up picking crops in Yakima in a Hispanic community; how she’d gotten into meth as a teen. She was proud that both kids had the same father, but he was a drug dealer. She’d lost them twice to CPS – once for leaving them in the car outside a bar.
“I’m clean, now, 60 days. The judge told me this is an extra chance with my kids. I shouldn’t even have them now. I gotta stay clean. I gotta stay sober.” Here she changed, muscles in her face and throat working hard. She looked right at me and spoke distinctly: “I can’t… lose… my kids.”
“Well, you’ll need to find a sponsor,” I breezed, “but, unfortunately, I’m full.” This was somewhat true – I had a few sponsees. But, of course, I really said it to push away all this squalor. I wasn’t even sure whether this woman should have her kids. All I knew was that only 21 minutes stood between me and escape.
I sketched my own story briefly, Lena nodding attentively at every phrase. I explained that I couldn’t not drink on my own, but by working the 12 steps I’d accessed a higher power that had removed my craving for alcohol and kept me sober eleven years.
“Eleven years!” Lena marveled. “That’s what I want! I wanna know how you did that!”
I was starting to explain how I’d worked with a sponsor when we heard a ruckus and the squalling toddler, chased by the spooky girl, burst out of the bedroom. Hardly taking her eyes from me, Lena scooped her son into her lap and held him close. She gave the crown of his head tiny kisses and asked him if he wanted a bottle.
Right then – that’s when the voice started. Not really a voice, but an urging: Help her. Sponsor her. Love her.
No fucking way! my ego countered. I was busy. She was hopeless. Just eight minutes and I’d be outta this dump, back to the fresh air and my nice, clean life!
“He don’t talk,” Lena told me. “They told me he’s disabled, but it ain’t true. It’s just all he been through.” Watching the boy’s eyes, the way they moved from Lena to me and back again, I sensed she was right. Meanwhile the spooky girl joined us with a coloring book, promising to be quiet and asking where her crayons were. Lena grabbed them from the same box that had held her Big Book.
“It’s not me,” I heard myself telling her. “God has given me a life better than I ever dreamed of.” Some of the people who’d helped, giving me time and guidance, flashed through my mind. “I’m not the same person I was.” Lena nodded intently. She was not begging. She was not pleading. But every cell in her body was straining to hear me.
Just help her. Just love her.
But I was helping, dammit! I was steering her toward the program, right? Just not toward me. Anyone but me. But, with just three minutes to go, I made a big mistake. I looked into Lena’s eyes. Really looked. I saw there desperation and terror, but even more, a fierce love for her children. My own son was five. How were we any different?
The wall crumbled, compassion washing over me. “Okay, I’ll sponsor you,” I heard myself saying. Lena’s face lit up. “But not here! You’re gonna have to come meet me at a coffee shop!”
The rest of the story is like a fairy tale. Lena and I met every Friday to read the Big Book at a Starbucks while a sober neighbor watched her kids, after which I’d drive us to a meeting. She had a job riding in a municipal truck, collecting garbage, and within a couple of months she qualified to drive that truck. She moved into a shitty apartment not far from the trailer park, where I met with her for a while until she found childcare. She bought a crappy car and started driving herself to meetings. Whenever I showed up at her homegroup, her kids would ambush me either in the parking lot or when I came in – the little girl now beautiful and clear-eyed, the little boy talking up a storm. Their laughter still seemed incredible to me – a miracle.
In a little more than a year, we’d progressed to Step 9 when Lena, who was apprenticing as municipal gardener, leased a nice apartment too far north for us to keep meeting. I drove up and visited her there once. It was near Christmas. I remember white carpets, a new sofa, pictures on the walls. I remember the children bringing me a gift from under the Christmas tree and grinning while I opened it, and my own embarrassment that I had nothing for them. But I had given them something – and we all knew it.
Last night after eight years I went again to that meeting – Lena’s old home group. But she wasn’t there. Where she’s gone, what she’s doing, I don’t know. But I’m hopeful. I sent them prayers. Today, I’m so grateful that god opened my heart, and that it’s still opening.