The lingering scent of roses and her quiet strength stayed with him.
- Posted on Jun 25, 2018
I stumbled down the sidewalk, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. My gaunt body was that weak. It had been hours since I’d last shot up. If I didn’t score some heroin soon I’d collapse in an alley somewhere. I knew that for a fact. I’d been addicted for nearly 10 years. It was no longer about getting high. I needed dope just to feel okay. My body craved it. You might think I would hate it and maybe I did. But I couldn’t live without it. Heroin was the one thing I could count on.
It didn’t help that the day was sweltering. The temperature in the Baltimore suburb where I lived was over 100 degrees. I had just finished my shift at a pizza shop, passing out fliers with weekly specials. I spent almost every dollar I made on heroin. There was nothing left for housing, barely enough for food to eat. I lived on the streets, struggling through every day. Today was just one more long struggle.
The worst part was this two-and-a- half-mile walk. I preferred to stay away from this crime-ridden area, but it was the only place to find dealers. I pulled off my T-shirt, wet with sweat, and stopped to catch my breath. I caught a glimpse of my shadow on the sidewalk. My 6-foot-3-inch frame was completely hollowed out. I barely weighed 90 pounds, just skin over bones, my eyes sunk deep in their sockets.
Forty-five minutes I’d been walking with another half hour to go. My legs felt like lead weights. Light-headed, I was sure I was going to faint. Lord, please, just get me to where I need to go. I believed in God. I’d been sickly as a child. Even now I could remember the minister coming to our house and praying over me, and the comfort that gave me. “God watches over us,” my mother always told me. “He hears our prayers.”
But she couldn’t count on God to put food on the table. She was a single parent who worked three jobs to keep us going. As for me, I had to learn to take care of myself. The ways I found to do that weren’t always good. By the time I was nine I was drinking beer and smoking weed with my friends.
After high school I worked construction. Hard work, decent pay, not a bad life. Then I started having trouble sleeping. I took Valium, first by prescription, then from people willing to sell. But it got to be expensive. One day a woman I knew suggested heroin. “I can get you some cheap.” Magic words. What she bought for me was the size of a match head. What’s this going to do? I snorted it and…oh, man, the calm that came over me was like nothing I’d ever felt before.
I restricted my heroin use to weekends, and slept like a baby every night. Soon I found myself wanting more, and not just to help me sleep. It got to be a hunger, an intense, ravenous craving. First it was nightly fixes, then a hit before I went to work. My tolerance grew. I started shooting up. Before I knew it I couldn’t live without it. Getting that fix was all that mattered to me. The one thing I could count on to make me feel good. It was more important than work. More important than my friends and family, which was just as well because they wanted nothing to do with me. My mother kicked me out of the house. “You either need to get clean or leave,” she’d said. I’d been homeless ever since.
After getting kicked out, I’d learned every inch of these mean streets. I knew how heartless they were. If I collapsed no one would care. My head fell forward, my legs like Jell-O. But I kept moving. If I was going to get heroin, I had to get there myself. I wiped sweat off my forehead, barely noticing the white sedan that pulled to the curb. The passenger side door opened and an elderly, bespectacled woman leaned toward me. “Son, you must be thirsty,” she said.
I stared back at her in disbelief. Was this woman crazy? “Get in,” she continued, her voice soft but direct. “I’ll give you a ride.” From behind her glasses, her eyes, kind and loving, fixed on mine without fear. “C’mon,” she repeated. Who was I to argue? It wasn’t every day somebody offered a ride to a junkie like me. I slid in and shut the door. The unmistakable smell of roses enveloped me, as if I was in a flower shop. I looked around. The car was empty, but for the woman smiling back at me. She had curly gray hair and was dressed like she’d just come from church, wearing a nice skirt and blouse.
She reached to the floor beside her and handed me a bottle of water. “Here you go,” she said. It was ice cold, like it had just come out of a freezer. I gulped it down. Slowly I began to regain my strength. She pulled away from the curb and I told her where I wanted to go. “Son, if you keep heading down the road you’re on you are going to end up in jail. Or dead,” she said. Other people, my mom for one, had said these words, but never with the force or the conviction that this little old lady spoke with. There was no anger, but there was a quiet power to her, a strength that belied her appearance. A strength that seemed to be rooted in genuine love.
Still, like any junkie, my first reaction was to lie. “You got me all wrong,” I said. “I don’t do drugs.” She smiled and glanced toward me, her gaze piercing. “You must stop using and give your life to God. That’s your only hope.” She spoke of God’s love, how he wanted to help me if I’d only let him. I didn’t argue. What could I say? I just listened intently until we got to my corner. This lady couldn’t know what my life was like, how I couldn’t count on anyone but myself. And my dope.
She pulled to the curb. “Here you are,” she said. I thanked her and stepped out of the car. On the sidewalk stood four of my junkie friends. I slammed the passenger door behind me. “Where’d you come from?” one of the guys said. “I got a ride,” I said. I turned to point to the car, but it was gone. I looked both ways, the street straight, nothing to block my view. No sign of my ride. I stood there, stupefied, trying to make sense of the last two minutes. The woman…she was like…an answer to my prayer? Impossible, I thought. Why would God send an angel to help me get a fix?
I used heroin that day and the day after that. But the memory of the woman whose car smelled of roses stayed with me. Her words seemed to grow stronger, more insistent by the day, until there was no ignoring them. One night, a few months after the encounter, I called a friend I’d known from high school, a guy I hadn’t talked to in years, and told him I needed help, a place to stay. To my surprise he took me in. I got the help I needed, learned to live without drugs one day at a time.
I’ve now been drug free for 14 years. I own my own business, working as a handy man. I go to church and Bible study every week. That’s what I hunger for now— friends, a sense of community. In a word, love. That’s the only thing people can’t truly live without. And God gives it to us whether we deserve it or not. You can count on it.
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