All Through the House

Welcoming Swenny home was among the greatest joys of Christmas.  But as we worked our way through the weekend festivities and beyond, I began to feel crowded. From his escapes to quieter rooms, justifications for time alone and his seemingly endless tossing and turning at night, I knew he was feeling it, too.

When we embraced Swenny’s return home, we did so knowing that alcoholism crossed the threshold with him.  Bringing with it an uneasiness that lingers.  Crowding us and leaving little space for the joy that was so abundant just last week.  How do we make room for both?

I wondered this two nights ago, when I woke up to an empty bed and Swenny nowhere to be found. Like a habit that is hard to break, I listened for footsteps leading to old hiding spots and for pipes echoing in response to the removal of the bottles they once held. Hearing nothing, I waited in the dark for his return upstairs. When he arrived, I asked him where he had been. “Playing solitaire,” he said.

Seeking solace, I thought.  From the uneasiness stirring through the house.


This Christmas

Advent is the season of waiting. For our family, it has been in anticipation of Swenny’s return home. And last night, he did.

After what seemed like too many weeks away, he walked in after a very long day and called out, “I’m home.” This morning, I found his items returned to the medicine cabinet and his laundry in the basket. I awoke to the radio broadcast he plays while he gets ready, my coffee waiting for me on the bedside table, and a dog who has been out, fed and ready to seek warmth alongside whoever remains asleep.

Swenny is good to me. And he’s good for me. Because of him, I have taken claim to the perspective alcoholism has provided, and the joy to be found after enduring its challenges by celebrating every success, knowing that circumstances change…without expectation but with near certainty.

So this Christmas, among the gifts neatly wrapped under our tree there are others that cannot be seen. This year, Swenny and I give to each other honesty in acknowledging what we are facing, appreciation for what we have overcome, and wisdom in knowing that when the season of waiting is over, anticipation of further struggle will remain. And that’s okay because we also give one another the gift of believing…in us.

So that nothing is wasted

Eight years ago, someone gave an addict in longterm recovery a loaf of bread. He accepted it, and other gifts followed. Soon, he was rescuing food as fast as he could, but still so much was wasted.  The food that was saved he delivered to impoverished neighborhoods in our city.

Word spread about his ministry, and eventually restaurants, grocery stores, bakeries and caterers saw potential in the food they would discard to feed a person, a family and a community.  So they called the addict in longterm recovery and asked if he would rescue their food.  He said yes, even though it was coming in faster than it could be distributed.  “Just one more” became his mantra as he worked tirelessly to feed just one more.

Soon, volunteers came forward to help by picking up food, packaging meals and delivering them to people in need. Members of inner city congregations, residents in overlooked neighborhoods, people with AIDS and even alcoholic customers of an inner city corner liquor store benefited, and as the ministry began to take shape, donors took notice.

Philanthropic investment provided the founder with the means to strengthen his impact and help just one more. And another, and yet another.

Every meal delivered gave him purpose, so he invited others struggling with addiction to join him in making a difference.  He gave them jobs, hoping they too would find purpose.

And when I visited Just One More on Friday to surprise Swenny, his newest hire, I watched from the door while he packaged meals for the corner liquor store group alongside the man called to lead them from lives defined by alcoholism to something more. A better life that begins with a meal, shared with others in the church across the street. I met his coworker Eva, who three times each week leaves her job at Just One More to deliver meals throughout the night to homeless on the street. I listened to a discussion on how to reconcile bare shelves brought on by winter weather and holiday consumption with the increasing needs of partner agencies and the people they serve.

Eventually, I was handed a box of bakery and asked to weigh it for a partner picking up later that morning. And then pointed to a table full of donations needing to be weighed and sorted into meals.  As I worked, I wondered about the backstories of the people I was meeting, trying to understand how they all fit together, interested most in the chapter they are writing today. The one that includes my husband, and the ministry that has brought them together and given him purpose.  The ministry that started with an addict in longterm recovery accepting a loaf of bread.  A man named Chris.

Today, Just One More provides 3,400 meals per week. Partner organizations apply for assistance, and as the need grows, so does  the list of donors wanting to help. Fine dining restaurants, local grocers, large chain stores and  custom bakeries all do their part.  Their gifts are received, and shared. But not before they help change the lives of those in whose hands they first fall.  People like Swenny who are seeking purpose, and for whom sobriety isn’t necessarily the end, but the means.

John 6:12  Gather the leftovers, so that nothing is wasted.

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My job is in service to the elderly. Every day, I am enriched by their stories, their perspectives, and their experiences. When I visit with them, I study the deep lines of their faces for the features I see in the photographs from their younger days that flank them on tables arranged neatly in their apartments, and listen carefully as they recall the moments that have defined their families, their careers, their friendships.  Their lives.

Sometimes, they cry about the things they could not – or did not – change. Things that have forced the consequences which they now,  in their final years, accept.  And I find myself wondering about the consequences of Swenny’s alcoholism, and when, if ever, we will accept them.  Or if instead we will rage against them until our own good night.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The author of that famous poem from which this stanza was pulled, Dylan Thomas, did not rage. An alcoholic, he surrounded himself with others struggling with that same addiction, and together they enabled the very behavior that ended his life days before his 40th birthday. Why didn’t he take the same advice he was giving to his father, to rage against the dying of the light? To fight in order to be a part of the lives of those he loved, and who loved him?

I consider Swenny’s and my story a series of stanzas in a poem without a clear ending.  Longterm recovery is the light we are seeking, and alcoholism the cover that continues to be pulled over, extinguishing it before our very eyes.

During his time away from home, we are learning how to nurture that light so we always see it clearly, even in times where it is dimmed by circumstances of our own making. Realizing that relapses and missteps don’t eliminate it completely unless we accept the consequence we are working so hard to avoid.  I know now that one can make a fire from a flicker, and that the light, with careful handling, can rage, too.