Reconnecting with vital relationships. by Alicea Jones
(Originally appeared in Now What? Magazine)
Tall, thin, and decided, he anchored our home and gave us a sense of completion. We held Daddy in awe; he taught us the Twenty-third Psalm, about God being our shepherd and walking with us even through death. He was a dreamer, and we dreamed right along with him: a big house, watermelon patches, chickens. It was all possible — until Daddy changed.
When I turned five, a heaviness crept over our home like a death angel. I could sense the worry and fear in my mother’s countenance. Valuables disappeared and money was tight. Daddy left and came back so many times, I lost count. One by one, the pieces of our world fell out, leaving a dull, gray, dreamless space. Something unspoken tore our family apart and was using my dad to do so.
A daughter’s desire
July in Pasadena: The smog was thick as stew and smelled like hot beer and asphalt. I ignored the sun singeing my neck and back; I had to know what my dad was doing. Maybe I could find out what had taken over him. On my knees outside, I cupped my eyes against the window, waiting until the image slowly developed. . . .
Getting a fix
He sat on the edge of the couch leaning forward, his elbows anchored in the softness above his knees. One of his hands held a kitchen spoon while the other passed a cigarette lighter back and forth under it. The spoon mesmerized him; nothing else mattered — not the world outside, not me.
He slid the needle into the fold of his arm and loosed the length of rubber tied around his bicep. Within seconds, the drug raced up his arm through his jugular to the crown of his head. It seemed to burst, shower back down his body like the embers of a firecracker, then up again, pulling down his eyelids and bending his neck and upper back forward. His head was a heavy annoyance, nodding and recovering, nodding and recovering. And my gut screamed, “No, Daddy, no!”
Guilt and shame
I struggled to straighten my body. My stomach clenched in denial while my palms scraped the stucco as I pulled myself up. I ran, forcing the blood back into my legs, patches of grass crunching under my feet. The sidewalk burned through the soles of my thongs after the second block, threatening to melt them and glue me to the pavement. Tears boiled in my throat and overflowed from my eyes.
No matter how fast I ran, the thoughts pelted me: I’m different. I’m less. I’m ashamed. I’m abnormal. I’m guilty. Children, I learned later, often feel responsible for the mishaps of their parents.
He tried to stop using so many times. Methadone. Cold turkey. But the heroine had too strong a hold on him.
By the time I was fourteen, I decided I didn’t need my father and was better off without him. I stopped hoping so I could stop hurting. I stopped going to church and never thought about praying. But I remembered the Twenty-third Psalm: God was still my shepherd, walking with me through a living death.
Over the next three decades, everything was about reinvention. If I could achieve enough, I could be good enough. Good grades, good clothes, good job, good promotions. If I earned enough accolades, I could redeem the ugly truth. I eventually learned that children of addicts try erasing by replacing.
I never thought of God or prayer. Not that I was angry with Him; I just never thought of asking Him for help or comfort. Yet Something was moving in my heart, calling me, even after all those years.
One quiet night the phone rang. It was Dad. Hearing his voice after so many years froze me. “Alicea, I need your help,” he said. “I’m on skid row; I have no money and no place to go. It’s dangerous down here and I’m afraid. No one will help me. I want to kick the habit. I mean it this time. I’m tired.”
Was he conning me again, or did he just need a fix? “If you come get me, I’ll never use drugs again. I’ve been praying.”
Power of prayer
Praying? A drug addict? What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just say no? Something was drawing me to my dad, trying to melt my defenses.
I hadn’t been to church since I was a little girl. But because Dad prayed, I did, too. All night I prayed. “Oh God, help me,” I cried. “Show me what to do. Is he for real or does he just want money? Please give me my father back.”
I was on the Harbor Freeway at 5:30 the next morning, driving into downtown Los Angeles, crying and still praying. Could it be? I wondered. What was I doing on the freeway in the dark of the morning, driving to a place where no woman should be alone? Is he really ready to quit? Oh Lord, let it be so.
I rolled slowly down 6th Street, windows up, doors locked. Greasy bags and newspapers and scraps of forgotten food splotched the street. Shadowy figures clothed in baggy hues of faded gray and brown stood in front of buildings and stared at the street.
There he was, standing on the curb waiting for me. Tired. Gaunt. Soon, we’d share the same space, closing the years between us, for better or for worse.
A week later, I delivered my father to a place not far from skid row. He walked into what looked like a storefront — flat, yellowed, no windows. It had a large wooden sign overhead with faded red letters that spoke of more prosperous times: Harbor Light. This was a place where addicts could detox while the heroine jealously tried to rip the life out of them.
I drove off, pleading with God, “Please, Lord, let this be the last time. Help him stop using drugs. I want my father back.”
Compassion and peace
Over the next several weeks, I visited him every day except when he couldn’t stop shaking and vomiting. I had to see him. Each time, I saw the indescribable suffering in his clouded eyes. I knew he was trying like never before.
His brokenness melted me. I wanted to help him, and I knew my visits had something to do with his recovery. He needed me, so I kept coming. And all the while, the Something that had moved me to answer his call was mysteriously giving me peace.
Pasadena is luscious in the fall. Fruit still hangs from the trees. No smog. The mountains stand clear and strong, as if someone reached out and finger painted them. As family members sat around the coffee table, plans for a reunion were bantered about.
Suggestions arced from every side of the table. Then suddenly, a solemn interjection halted the babble. “Before we continue,” my dad said with determination, “I want to say that I’m so glad to be here. Several years ago, my oldest daughter saved me. If it weren’t for her, I’d still be on skid row, or worse. Who knew she would rescue me. I thought her heart was closed to me. She saved my life, and I want everyone to know it.”
Twelve drug-free years. Dad says I rescued him, but I was rescued, too. There’s Something more powerful than the futile heart of a man. It moves us past our convictions and addictions if we surrender to it. God let us both get to the precipice of destruction where all we could do was leap or call on Him. He wooed my hardened heart and waited patiently for my dad to answer His call.
I gained two fathers that day on skid row: my earthly dad and my heavenly Father.