The Language of Love in the Trenches
I could hardly wait to see him. It was a beautiful sunny Florida morning in early March of 2019, the temperature was a balmy 79 degrees. As soon as I pulled my rented SUV out of the airport lot, I pulled over to let him know that I was on my way. We both had a sense that my presence was going to make things a little better for him.
The last seventeen months had been exhausting. There were many sleepless nights not knowing if he was dead or alive. So many nights, when my head would hit the pillow, I was often unable to close my eyes because I knew my mind would fill with the graphic imaginings of what he looked like strung out on crack cocaine on a hooker’s dingy sofa, in clothes he’d been wearing for days. Madras plaid shorts and a dirty pink tee shirt aren’t a fashion statement when they’re covered in three-day-old stains of saliva, coffee and sloppy droplets of convenience store food.
He’d sent me a text the night before, “Sorry I was so grumpy earlier. I can’t wait to have my mom here”.
The plan was to get him moved out of his sober living house and set up in an apartment with another guy in recovery. He had a job and was ready to forge ahead on the path of recovery and autonomy…with a little help from me. I sent him a text as soon as the plane landed, always hopeful when I got to Florida, and always relieved to be closer to my son. Randy sounded tired when he responded with the address of the sober living house where I was to pick him up. We planned to grab a coffee and begin the process of getting him what he needed for his apartment.
This was a little heartbreaking for me because Randy once had a beautiful home full of furniture including several pieces he’d inherited from my parents. He had quite an impressive wardrobe as well as a collection of sports memorabilia and a few pieces of art that he loved. After paying for his storage units for months, Randy assured me that he would take responsibility for the payments. It was, after all, his stuff. So, he paid…until he didn’t. By the time he asked me for help the entire storage unit had been sold. Everything he owned was in that unit.
Every. Single. Thing.
Randy hopped in the SUV and my stomach tightened into a knot. He looked miserable. I asked if he wanted to grab some breakfast. “No. I’m not hungry” he snapped and slumped further down in his seat. He already had a coffee in his hand.
Something was off - he wasn’t high but he wasn’t healthy. We went on to check out his new apartment. It was a typical Florida run-of-the-mill, two-bedroom, garden apartment. No bells. No whistles. The carpet and walls reeked of cheap deodorizers meant to disguise the smoke of too many previous tenants, but it was a huge step forward given how he’d been living. Our next stop was Habitat for Humanity where we picked out a sofa, two end tables and a dresser. Over the course of several hours and a quick stop for lamps and toiletries for him, we managed to get most of the furniture into my rental and his broken-down truck and head back to the apartment.
I figured we’d have a chance to catch up over an early dinner. When I asked where he’d like to go, he apologized without looking at me and said he had to be at a meeting that night at his sober house. I hadn’t expected that response; it was only 4:30. Meetings didn’t usually start until 8. He seemed so distracted. And miserable. He put his hand on my arm and said, “Don’t take it personally, Ma”. He perked up a little, and with that stunning half smile on his face he added, “there’s a really cool healthy food store close to the place where you’re staying. I think you’ll love it.” “We can go to dinner tomorrow night. I just have this thing at the house tonight. They’re counting on me”.
After he gave me the address, we hugged goodbye and I decided I needed a break from him and the nagging voice in my head that wanted to confront him, which I knew was a bad idea when I was really hungry or overwhelmingly sad.
The little market was “really cool” just as he’d promised. As soon as I walked in to the beautiful old building with wide plank pine floors and saw the array of cheeses and fruits and many other delicious offerings I smiled. Oh, how my son knew me.
This was how he let me know that he loved me.
Randy called two hours later to be sure that I was settled comfortably and to see if I’d found something good to eat. He was upbeat. Even though I couldn’t fully admit it to myself at the time, I know that that was the voice of someone relieved that his mom was ok and even more relieved that he could sneak off to get high.
The next morning, I really couldn’t wait to get to the Mattress store- I wanted to set up a soft and cozy place for him to end and begin each day. Randy met me there. He was in great spirits which gave me a feeling that things were going to move more smoothly. He looked good too. Clean and shaved. I knew he had to work that day but his schedule was very flexible which would allow for us to check in with each other throughout the day. We set delivery for the bed for later that afternoon. Randy went to work and I went on to buy his linens and towels. This made ME feel good; I was mindful to keep things simple and calm. I went to his apartment, washed the bed linens in the community laundry room, met the mattress delivery guys and proceeded to create a space that I’d hoped would provide him some peace.
I kept the bathroom serene too in soft gray and white and hung a sign over his toilet that said LEARN FROM EVERYTHING.
I started making his bed, glad that I’d splurged on an extra thick mattress pad. It made me feel like he’d be getting a hug each time he laid on it. And I believed he could use a hug at the end of the day especially because I knew he was in a constant battle with guilt and shame, trying to overcome a vicious substance use disorder. The sheets were soft and white like clouds, the duvet was down filled. It had a large gray and white plaid print with a small navy stripe running through it. I selected an inexpensive abstract painting for over his bed that was full of blues and whites. An arc brass floor lamp with a simple white shade flanked one side of the bed for reading and, on the other side was a small drop-leaf end table for his books.
Making Randy’s bed, I was reminded of how much love I felt when I was preparing his crib so many years before. Funny, I thought, the crib had also been dressed in soft white sheets surrounded by bumper pads of blue and white that matched the baby quilt. My Aunt Joan had made them both for him. I remembered laying him in that crib for the very first time and then staring at him for so long after I’d put him down afraid to leave his room. So full of love for my dear baby boy.
When Randy came to meet me later at the apartment he walked into his room. His face lit up. “Wow. I love it, Mom.” He hadn’t had a decent place to sleep in over two years. He walked into the bathroom and laughed. He said, “Well, that’s perfect. I’m glad I can look at it every day”, as he nodded to the sign. “I will think of you.”
He hugged me tightly. “Thank you for this, Mom. I love you”.
I hugged him back. Tightly. “I love you too, Randy. I love you so much. I hope you will embrace recovery here.”
Sometime during the following night, Randy died of an overdose. He was found in his plaid boxer shorts and his favorite long sleeved green tee shirt…in his new bed.
At Love In The Trenches, love is at the core of our relationship with our addicted loved one. It is often said that if there is breath there is hope. And always, I was Randy’s hopeful ally. I had seen my son in recovery. I knew what that could look like again. The hope was real. But should the worst happen, should our loved one take that last breath and all of our hope with it, what we have—what cannot be taken from us—is the love. It is mine. It is his. It is a real and tangible thing and learning through others who have traveled this journey that love is wholly separate from the anger, fear, and frustration is what comforts me and allows me to move forward. This Valentine’s Day I will be surrounded by the LITT community, family and friends--those who love me--and that includes the love of my beautiful son, Randy- always.