He was ready to give up, but a letter from his grandmother and a friend's invitation helped him start over again.
- Posted on Mar 25, 2019
The graveyard. This was where drugs and alcohol had led me. I was 34 and had never had a job until now, working at the cemetery. I’d just gotten my first assignment to dig a grave. As if I hadn’t been digging my own grave for years. Smoking pot, drinking beer, dropping out of school. Getting hooked on opioids. Getting in trouble with the law, landing in jail. I was the poster boy for addiction.
I’d fallen into the dead-end life I saw growing up, the only kind of life I knew. The steel and manufacturing industries here in West Virginia collapsed in the early 1980s, around the time I was born. There were mass layoffs, factory and mill shutdowns. My hometown of Huntington had been struggling to recover ever since. I grew up on the Southside in public housing, row upon row of squat, dingy apartment buildings where crime ran rampant. As a kid, I saw drug deals going down, fights, shootings.
My mother struggled with addiction. My father divorced her over it when I was in kindergarten. I didn’t see much of him after that. I smoked my first joint in elementary school. By middle school, I was smoking pot or drinking beer every day. When I was 18, a friend turned me on to opioids, pain pills.
Pretty crazy to think I’d ended up here in the cemetery, not in my own grave but digging someone else’s. My boss had given me the assignment that morning.
“Service is tomorrow,” he said, handing me the paperwork. “For now, just go mark the spot.”
I glanced down at the paper. The name jumped out at me. Mandy. I suddenly felt sick. Dear Lord, no, it can’t be.
“Something wrong?” my boss asked.
“Everything’s good,” I said, stuffing the paper in my pocket. I was only two months clean and sober. I couldn’t flake out. I needed this job.
But the sick feeling wouldn’t go away. I knew Mandy through her dad. We lived in the same public housing complex. Mandy was only in her twenties. Long blonde hair. Sparkling turquoise eyes. A sunny personality. And now she was dead. No one had to tell me how she died. Drug overdose. Here in Huntington, when a young person dies, that’s almost always the reason.
I found her plot, a bit of green among the sea of headstones, and began to mark off the eight-by-three-foot space with small flags. She’d had such promise. I thought of my own son. The life I wanted for him. But one thought crowded out the rest.
This could have been you, Gerry. It should have been you. Except for the grace of God.
Opioids were my thing, and snorting them gave me an even bigger rush than popping pills. I loved how the drugs made me feel, as if I could escape the hopelessness around me. I couldn’t get enough of them. That’s how I got to know Mandy’s dad. He was maybe 20 years older than me, always with a ready supply he was happy to share. We’d sit in his living room and get high while little Mandy watched TV. It never occurred to me the impression we were making on her.
Too late I realized that I was hooked, that drugs had become my problem, not an escape from them. By then I’d dropped out of school. Couldn’t find a job. Everywhere I applied did drug testing. I got a woman pregnant, had a son I couldn’t support. Started getting in trouble with the law—public intoxication, petty misdemeanors. People told me to get tight with God, that he would free me from my addictions. I’d heard kids talking about Jesus here and there in school, though I never went to church. I’d wanted to, but I couldn’t imagine it being a place I’d be welcomed. There was no way God could love someone like me. My grandmother was a churchgoer, sweet and hardworking, the complete opposite of me.
Nana called me Little Gerry because both my Papaw and dad were named Gerry. I felt ashamed being around her. I knew she didn’t approve of the life I was living.
One day when I was 25, I got in a fight with a guy. I was stoned. Got in my van and sprayed gravel all over his car, then rammed it. That’ll teach him to mess with me. The police arrested me. I got 10 days in county.
I’d been locked up before, a day here and there for the petty stuff I’d done. Behind bars, there was no getting around the fact that I was a loser. The last time I’d been thrown in jail, I told myself never again.
Now here I was, less than a year later. Hearing that cell door clang shut was like the final confirmation that I was no good to anyone. That I had nothing to live for. This was the end of the line. I was the only prisoner in my cell. Early one morning, I took the sheet from my bunk and twisted it until it wasn’t much thicker than a rope. I made a loop, just large enough to slip around my head, then ran one end of the sheet around it a couple times to make a noose. I was about to tie it to the upper bunk rail when I heard a booming voice. “Sowards! You got mail!” A guard.
I dropped the sheet, hoping he wouldn’t notice. He handed me a square white envelope and left. Besides my mother, no one even knew I was in jail. She definitely wasn’t the letter-writing type.
I tore open the envelope, my hands shaking. “Dear Little Gerry,” the note read. Nana.
“You may think you’re all alone and forgotten,” she wrote. “But you’re not alone. You’re in my heart and prayers every minute. And God will never leave you or forget you. No matter what.”
I had no idea that I meant that much to Nana. To anyone, frankly. I untied the noose. I couldn’t do this to my grandmother. It would break her heart.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t go see Nana when I got out of jail. I didn’t deserve her love. I went right back to drinking and using. For years. But there was more of an edge, a desperation to it. Before then, I got high to feel good. Now I just wanted oblivion.
Sometimes I lived with my mother. Sometimes I crashed on a friend’s couch. Sometimes I slept on the banks of the Ohio River with the homeless folks. A kind of tent city, only I didn’t have a tent. It was a nasty, dirty place. Freezing cold in the winter. Blistering hot in the summer. I couldn’t imagine the effect our blood had on the mosquitoes that swarmed us.
One night, I was so miserable that I cried out to Nana’s God. Please, I don’t want to die like this. I have a son. I want him to be proud of me.
But the drugs were stronger. Stronger than me, for sure. Stronger than God, I suspected. I tried AA. It didn’t work, not for me.
I went to the methadone clinic, trying to wean myself off the opioids. It didn’t take, but I didn’t know where else to turn. I was headed to the clinic one day when I met a woman named Sassy. She was going to a rehab on the same street. “You should go,” she said. “It’s helped me get clean.”
“That’s not really my thing,” I said.
“Okay, nice meeting you,” she said. Then she was gone.
One night, I was sober enough to get a bed at the mission instead of the tent city. A guy I knew, a drunk like me, stumbled over to my bed. “I never talk to God, and I never pray,” he said, “but something’s telling me to pray with you.” He put his hand on my shoulder. “God, open the door to get this man the help he needs.”
Was this a message? Like the one from Nana?
The next morning, I woke up with a pounding head, needing a pint of something bad. I was a block from the liquor store, right outside McDonald’s, when I saw Sassy. “Hey, what are you doing?” she said.
“About to get a buzz on,” I said.
“Let me buy you some breakfast first,” she said. “You want a drink after we talk, I’ll buy it for you.”
How could I say no to that? I took a big bite of a sausage, egg and cheese biscuit, and my eyes fell on the big silver cross hanging from a chain around her neck. Was this another message? Another message from God?
We finished eating. “You’ve made it this long without a drink,” Sassy said. “Why don’t you come to AA with me?”
My craving for alcohol was gone. “Sure,” I said. “Why not?”
People told their stories, and for the first time, I really listened. They talked about hitting bottom. About feeling hopeless. About accepting that they needed help. At last I understood what Nana had been trying to tell me. I wasn’t alone. God wanted to help me, and he’d sent people to help me, good people who had been where I was. I just needed to let them—and him—into my life.
With Sassy’s encouragement, I went through five days of detox and 30 days of rehab. I read the Bible every day and surrendered my life to the Lord. I came out a different man. Still weak—but a man weak in the Lord. The first place i went was to see Nana, to finally thank her for that note she’d sent, the note that saved my life. She and Papaw asked me to move in with them. I reconnected with my son. I went to AA. And I started going to church. A few weeks later, I snagged this job at the cemetery.
Now I planted the last flag to mark where Mandy would be buried. “I’m sorry,” I said. “You deserved better.”
The next day, after the service, we lowered Mandy’s casket into the grave, placed the lid on it and sealed it. I covered it with dirt and tamped it down. Then I caught sight of a discarded bouquet of red roses on the ground.
“Mandy needs some flowers, God,” I said, arranging the roses on top of her grave.
My life had led me to this very spot, not out of hopelessness but for the chance to start anew. I couldn’t help Mandy, but maybe I could touch the lives of other addicts and share the love that had been given to me. I vowed then and there to stay clean. And I have. Three years later, I have so much to be grateful for. My sobriety. My new job, delivering medical equipment. My growing relationship with my son and with God. No, it shouldn’t have been me in that grave. It shouldn’t be any addict, with the love of God.