There we sat, three women in a crowded, noisy bar surrounded by out-of-town convention attendees letting off steam, and people loudly belting out karaoke tunes. We probably looked like any other group of women out for a ladies night--talking, laughing, gossiping and catching up. In reality, just a few hours before, I’d listened to one of the women, just 37 years old, read a heart-wrenching goodbye letter to her husband at his memorial service. I barely knew the second woman, having only met her earlier that evening.
The three of us have much in common, having been raised in typical, middle-class suburban families, attending neighborhood schools, never really wanting for material things or struggling just to get by. The two of them had both been on their high school drill team, pretty, popular, well-liked girls. In fact, they’d grown up in the same neighborhood my daughter now lives in with her dad, just several hundred yards away from my former home.
I’d met A just two weeks before, a few days after her husband’s death from a heroin overdose. He and my boyfriend, Mike, were longtime friends. The three of them had all gone to the same middle and high schools. Although I didn’t know her husband well, I’d spent time with him on more than one occasion. He was an intelligent, delightful, funny, charismatic person--the type who made everyone feel like they were an instant friend. I was looking forward to getting to know him better. We’d spent a few Friday nights sitting side-by-side, chatting at the bar where Mike bartends on Friday nights, with Mike joining our conversations when he wasn’t busy. Although he’d been candid and open with me about his many struggles over the last several years, sadly, I had no idea he was also fighting a heroin addiction.
Since his death I’ve spent time thinking about the private, personal demons so many people fight. It makes me sad to know that someone I knew was struggling. Despite some of our recent honest, heartfelt conversations about his struggles, he didn’t reach out to me, or to anyone, to let them know he was falling and needed help. Or perhaps, in his own way he did, and everyone missed the signals. It’s so hard to know sometimes. People we love deeply, and think we know well, die, alone, giving up the fight, whether intentionally or not. Those of us left behind are left to wonder what more we could have done, and hoping somehow, somewhere in their hearts they knew they were loved by us, and wishing they’d asked us for help.
It’s also made me reflect about how seemingly small, inconsequential choices we all make can unknowingly set us on an unintended path in life. First one choice, then another, leads in a direction, ending somewhere we never imagined. The other night in the bar, we talked about that very thing. Each of us came from remarkably similar backgrounds, were smart, savvy, college educated and had many options. But here we were, all of us living lives we didn’t imagine when as girls we’d dreamt of what adulthood would be like. We talked about things we had in common, but mostly we listened to A tell her story. She’d made many small choices that ultimately led to her own heroin addiction, which she’s currently fighting valiantly, having been clean for over a year.
I listened to her in amazement, the entire time wondering at which point exactly had her choices set her on a path so different than mine. Life as she knew it is over. She’d hit rock bottom over a year ago, and was still struggling to make sense of where she was, and where to take her life from here when her husband died. Now the challenges in front of her are even that much more staggering. Honestly, I was dumbfounded. I had no idea what to say. How on earth could I even begin to offer advice or wisdom? I have absolutely no frame of reference for what she’s experienced. Then I realized I didn’t need to offer advice or wisdom. The best things I could offer her were respect, hope, and support.
At the end of the day, despite the huge divide separating our current realities, we really aren’t that different. She’s human, and humans make mistakes. The great thing about it is she owns her mistakes, and is doing everything in her power not to make them again. That’s deserving of my respect. I’d met A expecting only to offer sympathy, but ended up with the opportunity to offer so much more. As she said in her final letter to her husband, she’ll do everything in her power to make sure his death wasn’t in vain, and to beat her addiction for both of them. I’ll proudly stand by her side, offering my support in whatever way I can.