By John Thomas Tuft
Sherman could not sit still. He was nervous about even coming through the door into my counseling center office. His eyes never stopped darting around the room, his hands kept playing with the pack of cigarettes, and his feet bounced up and down. Finally, he asked if we could talk out in the courtyard instead, out in the open, where he paced as he started and stopped the telling of his story many times. Sherman had a history of abusing alcohol and was well on his way to losing complete control over it. He worked a dead-end job in a retail store, he was handsome, soft spoken, and gave the impression of a wandering soul with many a tale of woe.
Sherman had moved into the state just recently after some great disappointment in love, he told me. She was a beautiful, intelligent woman whom he adored. As a matter of fact, he was still in love with her. He had planned on being with her for the rest of their lives. A forever love. Somewhere along the line, however, her brother introduced her to cocaine. Over the ensuing months the drug had taken over her life. She insisted that she loved him, wanted him, wanted to be with him, needed him. But her actions said otherwise. The drug offered an immediate sense of well-being. The drug offered release and pleasure without asking anything in return.
Sherman said that he spent countless hours pleading with her to seek help. “Do it for me. Do it for our future. Do it for your kids. Do it for yourself. Just, please, do it!” Finally she agreed to enter a treatment facility to detox and get help. Sherman told her that was an act of love and to ease her mind, he told her that he would stay with her two children. For three long months, she was in treatment. Sherman worked hard providing for all the needs and care for the children. At one point he even had to sell his much-prized stereo equipment to help pay for her treatment. But he did it, willingly. She was so much a part of him, no price was too high; whatever it took.
Finally, the day arrived when she was to be released from the treatment center. Sherman drove with great excitement and relief to the hospital to bring her home. Their new life awaited. Their new life together could, at long last, begin. She came out of the building, all smiles. Once in the car, she greeted him with an eager kiss. Then, as he pulled away from the parking lot, she opened her bag, rummaged around, and took out a small cellophane package of white powder. She turned to Sherman and asked if he wanted to join her in celebrating by getting high.
The young man’s heart broke. Along with his spirit. A shudder passed through his body there in the courtyard as he recounted all of this to me. This final travesty, this mockery of his love, broke him. We sat in silence and stillness. Finally, he looked up and pointed to the cross hanging on the outside of the church building. “It would hurt less if she just crucified me.” He made another appointment to talk some more, but I never heard from him again.
Another setting, this time a large medical center where I am a chaplain. A fifteen-year-old boy, Jerry, stands alone in a sterile hallway. His father lies in the intensive care unit, stricken by a massive heart attack. The same father that his boy had to go fetch home from bars ever since he was eight years old. Now, as the oldest, he must be the head of the family, as he has been since forever. Dad is a confusing mix of hearty laughs, loneliness, fear, weeping shame and anger. Jerry has been expected to be the one to take care of dad, the one who is punished no matter which child misbehaved. At 13, he was driving his drunk father home from the bars at 2am. Jerry feels alone, angry, uncertain, old, unable to let anyone see inside of him to the his own fears.
Jerry dreamed of being a professional baseball player, but that is barely a memory now. He starred in Little League and he used to eagerly scan the bleachers, searching for his father’s face, imagining it filled with pride and joy, only to be disappointed. Every time. The coach encouraged him to keep playing, but Jerry has family to think of. There is no room for dreams. As we talk, his mother approaches, walking with hesitant steps, head bowed, fingers twisting nervously. She tells Jerry that the doctors have asked for a decision. His father is beyond help, being kept alive by machines. It is his decision, she tells him. It is up to this 15 year old to decide whether to turn off the machines keeping his father alive.
Jerry tries to protest, but she is already heading for the exit, her drab winter coat wrapped tightly to shut out the freezing winds. Minutes tick by as Jerry stares down the hallway without seeing anything in its unrelenting brightness. Finally, he pushes through the doors to the ICU. He spends a long moment looking down at the form of his father. In the stillness of creation holding its breath, he brings his own fingertips to his lips, kisses them, and gently presses them to his father’s tortured lips. To the waiting shadows, he whispers, “Yes. Turn them off. Let him go…”
At the end, when he turns to go, he stops, looks at me, and he asks, “Mister Chaplain, do you think it would hurt less if God crucified me?” On my action notes for the day, all I can manage is to scratch, “Ecce homo. Quo vadis?”
Words are magic and writers are wizards.