My Mother, Broken Hearts, and Class Rings

In honor of International Women’s Day, I penned this short story about my mother. My mother is the greatest person that I have ever known and she is directly responsible for the way I feel about women to this day. Thanks to her, I have everlasting respect and admiration for the battles that women must fight in our society, battles that we as men will never understand. My mother’s story is deep and mysterious, even to her children, of which there are seven. She raised all of us in poverty, and thanks to her ingenuity, determination, faith and strength, we never went without. Her quiet dignity is without parallel. I owe everything that I am to this woman and thanks to her, will never be intimidated by a strong woman. I love you Mom. 

I sat in the backyard of our house in the darkness and shadows adjacent to the plot of land that we had tilled up and called a garden. The Groundhogs, one of which I had named and raised, would not leave the vegetables alone, rendering all the work nearly useless. I angrily threw my recently re-acquired class ring away into the dimly light patch of weeds and broken fence, then stumbled, sobbing as only a sixteen year old boy whose heart had just been broken could. I had not been hurt like that before. I had never felt so betrayed, exposed, useless and more than anything else, lonely.

Not even my Grandmother’s passing the summer before hurt quite as much as this. I could wrap my brain around the fact that she could not continue the pain of living and feared the burden she would cause in years to come on her family more than she feared the brief and instant moment of a bullet passing through her heart. I could not understand why the living could betray one another. I thought I was in love. I thought I would die. My dog whined uneasily and the house that we had worked so hard to build and make a home was dark and silent. Nobody quite dared follow me, not knowing what to say. My little sisters, who were my constant companions, were already inside and in bed, not realizing the drama unfolding just outside. My car sat ticking in the cool night air and the breeze was redolent with peaches.

My mother found me. Silent as only she could be in her bare feet, she often seemed ethereal at night. She was filled with a strength that only a mother could have, bearing seven children in the poverty stricken highlands of the coal country. We took her for granted, as only children can. She was sometimes as silent as she was loving, as filled with mystery as the night sky, yet somehow so fragile in the dim light. Nobody really knew her. Not even her children. I would hear her at night, relentlessly cleaning, with her tears occasionally mingling with the bleach she scrubbed away imaginary germs with.

She didn’t say anything. She rarely did. She just gave away pieces of herself until I wondered if there was anything left. She comforted me as only she could, stealing out of the mist and placing one tender hand on my shoulder as I wept for all that was lost – my childhood, the innocent love without fear, the knowledge that I would soon be leaving for college, leaving behind the only thing that I knew. She cried with me that night and gave away another precious bit of herself.

Nearly a decade later I wept into a pay phone as the light went out of the sky in Apalachicola. The sun painted the sky an ethereal palette of color as I dialed her number from memory. Still the oldest of seven, I was again heartbroken and needed my mother. As the phosphorous in the surf twinkled in the early dark and the moon followed the sun into the sky, I once again wept as only the broken and spent can.

She didn’t say anything. She simply cried with me on the phone as I choked on bitter tears and the hurt and loneliness threatened to sweep me away. She gave another piece of herself so that I could live. Just as she had twenty-five years earlier during a screaming hot night in August of 1973 as she brought me into this world through the ferocity and shear will power that only a mother can possess, she beat my demons into the night with her force of will from her place in deep Appalachia.

Fourteen years later, with a young son and wife of my own, I screamed silently into the tile floor beside a toilet with no lid. I didn’t know where I was. The fluorescent lights beat me like an immortal enemy that would not be driven back. I shook violently, my fever skyrocketing as sweat poured off me in stinking, yellow waves. I shook with withdrawal as my nose bled into the drain in the middle of the pale yellow tile. The steel toilet silently took witness as I chewed my shirt to avoid swallowing my tongue. Slipping and sliding through the mist of the lonely place where most do not survive, I managed to scream out for her into the drain as darkness slid across my throat. Somewhere, the devil laughed. In the midst of all that agony and despair and fear, as I traversed a high place, staring at a near certain death, I felt a hand on my shoulder in the cold of the unblinking light. As I spiraled into darkness, I relaxed. No words were needed.

It was my mother.

The Boathouse Preview

My dearest family. I cannot express the sorrow that I feel. I cannot apologize enough, or sincerely enough, for my relapse into addiction. My sorrow, my pain, my apologies, my words: They are simply not enough. My actions must now speak for me. My day to day life must be my liaison, if such a thing applies. Every single day that I do not succumb to my addiction, every single day that I do not die from illness, is a battle won, a conflict scored in my favor. It would be so easy, at this point, to simply quit.

Three and a half years ago, there was a singular miracle in Roanoke, Virginia. There was a child born to parents, namely Laura Friedel Matney and Ronald N. Matney, II. The father had no real expectations of having a child. In 1997, he had himself checked for fertility, and the doctors decreed that he had 99.9% chance of not having a child. Nonetheless, on December 30, 2012, one Nolan Gray Matney, named after me, his father, and his Papa, his wife’s father, was born at 10:28 a.m. As his father, I was allowed to hold him first. The nurse released him from the bonds of the womb and handed him to me.

He did not cry. Instead, this child of mine, this miracle of birth, looked about in amazement. Truth be told, on that day, I was only five days sober. I had been drinking for years, and my son; this baby; this human being to whom I shall be bound for all eternity, looked about while I was in the preliminary struggles of escaping my addiction. I had fought through it all to be sober for that moment, but I was shaking badly. I held my son, my only son, close, and I cried. I handed him to his mother, my wife, glowing in the moment. She was so strong, so resilient. I admired her strength and courage, and loved her with all my heart. I still do.

He looked about. The nurses laughed and marveled at his alertness, and it seemed everyone in the hospital came to see him, but there was nothing to shake the bond between the new mother and her child. For hours, he looked about. He noticed light. He noticed when the nurses came and went. He noticed when I spoke. But most of all, he gazed at his mother in what can only be described as adoration. It was if he was finally thrilled to see his mother’s face. For five hours, this child of mine looked about him, and analyzed the world. My wife sang to him. “Wagon Wheel” was his first song. Eventually, he gave into his exhaustion and slept. So did his mother.

I stole about, feeling ashamed and a bit intrusive. The nurses looked at me warily. In December of 2012, I weighed 312 pounds. Today, I weigh 165. I was horribly sick. I was jaundiced. I shook horribly from withdrawals. I could not discern between what was real and what was not. But I knew this: My son had just been born. So, I needed to man up, and be a Dad. I had never before had this feeling, this feeling of fierce love, and protection, and humility; I knew that in order to be a good Dad, I was going to have to be a sober Dad. Not one bound by addiction. Not one sick and weak and disgusting and handicapped by mental disorders.

So began my journey into sobriety, chronicled in detail elsewhere on this website and in an upcoming book, “Out of the Weeds.” What I first assumed would be easy was not. My body and mind had become dependent on alcohol and I was terribly sick during withdrawals. I kept trying, and failing. My wife watched nervously, preoccupied with our new son, but astute enough to realize something was terribly wrong. For three long months, long after my diagnosis with terminal liver cirrhosis, I fought for, but did not achieve, sobriety.

At long last, in March of 2013, I was finally hospitalized. My body was failing. My mind was shot. The harder I tried to kick my addiction, the tighter its grip became, until I could take no more. For five days, the doctors treated me with Benz opines, pain medication and fluids. I was finally sober. My wife was overjoyed! I was somewhat dubious, still in the grips of addiction and still not quite sure about the not drinking for the rest of my life thing.

Those first weeks were the worst. I distinctly remember driving to the liquor store, sitting in the parking lot, and crying. I took care of my son as my wife returned to work. My life became entangled with his, as he and my wife were all that kept me sober. Boredom set in as the weather was horrible and outside activities were limited. As soon as I was able, I walked. I walked for miles every day, accompanied by our Labrador Retriever, who was vastly confused by his sudden demotion from his position as head of household.

Let us fast forward, shall we? I can tell of you of my subsequent relapse, on my son’s baptism date, no less. My wife’s parents hrew a celebration, complete with Bloody Mary’s, not three months into my sobriety. Everyone watched me carefully, to make sure that I did not drink. I did not walk the walk or talk the talk. To say that I relapsed that day is an understatement. The thing, is, aside from my wife’s brother, not one person knew. The months following were hell. I hid it as best I could from my family, but there was no mistaking that I had fallen off the wagon.

Then there came total sobriety, of which I have written about at length. Three years. Three years, and not one drink. I ran half marathons. I defied the odds. I astonished the doctors. But I still, to quote my wife, was not happy. I railed against my situation. I grew more and more unhappy, for reasons that I did not understand. I blamed others, namely my wife, who did not understand, nor did I, my anger. My resentments grew and became festering sores, replacing the whiskey blisters that permeated my soul in the beginning of my sobriety.

So finally, came my final straw. I relapsed. Big time. I fell so hard, and so far, that angels feared tread where I was. I made an ass of myself, over and over. My family looked askance at where I was. I checked in and out of detox. I went to rehab. Nothing worked.

The day I checked out of rehab, I took a cab ride to BWI airport, to discover that my truck sat on three flats, had been broken into, and did not start. I managed to fix the flats and work my mechanics genius shit under the hood, and got it running. I was three hours late to my meeting with my lawyers, who had prepared divorce papers.

I could not sign the papers. I sat in their office, and for the first time, began to take ownership of what I had done. Of the addict that I am. With tears running down my face, I confessed to my legal team that I loved my wife. That I loved my family. That I regretted what I had done with all my heart. As the assimilated that information, the phone rang. And rang. And rang. On the line, someone explained to me that my father in law, a man for whom I have the deepest love and respect, had passed. I sat numb. I wept. I prayed for my wife and son, for the first time, I prayed for them, honestly and truly. I prayed for them to be at peace, despite me. I prayed for my beloved mother in law. How terrible she must feel. I prayed for the family, for a great man had passed. For the first time, I prayed for God to change the me, not the circumstance. It was not to be taken lightly, nor in stride. I stumbled out of the office, poured myself into my truck and headed south.

The rest is history. I relapsed again. I nearly died. Again. My brother peeled me off the floor of his bathroom where I had lost over 80% of my blood. I recovered, despite myself. I fled deeper into the mountains, seeking solace in the rocks and moss of the familiar. Nothing would heal my wounds. Nothing. Now, here I am. Sober. Fighting for the ability to do the right thing. I prayed to God to change my circumstances. Then I realized that God is trying to change me. That is my only path. To change myself. To rid myself of the addiction, the selfishness, the pride, the wounded attitude. To admit what I have done wrong. To begin clearing the wreckage of what I have done. I pray that it is enough

The Hole In My Soul

His face was a mass of wrinkles and his old eyes were dim, but at 85, with 42 years sober, his mind was still intact. More than you can say for mine at this moment. He squinted at me. “Son, there was a hole in my soul. The wind blew through it. It hurt.” I feel his words. My spirit is bruised, broken, sick, weak, lonely and racked with sorrow. My body eerily resembles my spirit. Since May 30th, I have been in three short-term rehabilitation and/or terminal care clinics, one 30-Day Rehabilitation Program, three hospitals and one intensive care unit. I ran away. I missed my wife and son. I gave up. I limped back into town beaten, exhausted, destitute.

My doctor gave me no chance. He was impatient, brusque. He dismissed me from his office with strict instructions to go to the Emergency Room. Despite my best efforts, my life had fallen into shreds. I simply was not prepared to deal with the emotional and spiritual turmoil. Every time I lifted my head it seemed, something else slammed me back to the ground. I began to feel like a battered boxer, but with no hope of victory, just more punishment.

I crumpled like mist outside the ER and wept. For the first time in my adult life, I had no more hope. The hole in my soul howled with the wind sweeping off the Bay. Nowhere else to go. No chance. Nothing. My bank account stood in the negative, my meager life savings shredded in lawyer’s fees, hospital bills, and the cost of living out of one’s vehicle. I left my sunglasses on and thought of my son, my wife. How long it had been since I had seen them? July 10th. It seemed like an eternity ago, when I had burned with self-righteous anger. The self-righteousness had evaporated like mist on scorching pavement as the full realization of my offense magnified itself to me.

In desperation. I prayed. Not for me. Not for my life. Not for my sobriety. I prayed for my wife. What must she be going through? I prayed for my young son. I prayed for my wife’s family, for my friends, for everyone I could think of, everyone I had betrayed with my relapse and consequent actions. I prayed, finally, for me. For God to grant me the strength and the longevity to do what I must do. I must seek forgiveness.

On May 30th of this year, after nearly three years of total sobriety, I relapsed. There is no easy way to say this, although I have told the story so many times now that it seems redundant. I’m still dealing with the ramifications. I had promised my wife that I would never relapse. I had promised myself I would never relapse. I had sworn a solemn oath to my young son that I would never relapse. I promised everyone, including you, dear reader, that I would never relapse. I did. I bought a six pack of beer, intending on having a beer while I worked in the garden. After all, what is the harm? Other people I knew who had been alcoholics were enjoying a beer or two. I had watched them. Somewhat enviously, I might add.

One beer turned into all six which led to a bottle of tequila. I was ashamed, angry, and emotional. I must have read to my son for two hours that night, continuing on after he fell asleep. I called everyone I trusted to come help and even dove into Facebook, flirting with random women, seeking solace for my relapse. The next morning, I was awakened by my young son, who was miraculously clean, obviously fed, but very angry with me. At three, he knew something was wrong. In a fit of defiance at me, he scattered cereal all over the house, glaring at me the entire time. He then ran to the bathroom, where he proceeded to flush the toilet repeatedly. I ran after him, wondering what he was doing. There, in the doorway, the magnitude of what had happened hit me.

My three-year-old son, barely a toddler, had gathered up all the beer bottles and the empty bottle of tequila and thrown them into the toilet, where he was trying his hardest to flush them. He turned to me, and clearly asked, “Daddy, are you sick?” In a fit of despair, I burst into tears, picked him up, and for what would turn out to be the last time since, I held him alone, scrubbed the stubble of my beard over his scalp, something he has loved since he was an infant. I told him, yes, I’m sick, and I am so, so sorry. I called the doctor, the ER and finally answered my wife’s repeated phone calls. I confessed. My son and I cried together, although he possesses his mother and his late Papa’s strength of will and determination. I had never been more ashamed.

So began my descent into hell. My wife, true to her promise three years prior, left me. I was filled with indignation and rage. I did not realize at that time the depths of my addiction. True to an addict’s nature, I blamed everyone for my relapse, mainly my wife. It was her fault, I said. If she had only paid me more attention, given me more love, been a better wife, a closer friend. I denied the depths of my addiction.

I relapsed again. Again I committed myself to detox. I came out even more furious. My wife had changed the locks, taken my key, limited my visits with my son. I became angrier, blaming her even more. It was all her fault. My parents fault. Anyone’s fault but mine. The doctors removed me from the transplant list, where I had risen to near the top. Finally, after my third relapse, I checked myself into a 30-day facility, after extracting a half-hearted promise from my wife to come to counseling with me there and bring my son to visit.

Little was I to know the depths my addiction was to take me. I brooded and became morose, even though I participated in all counseling and threw myself into the rehab program. I vowed to make my wife let me see my son, and threatened to myself that I would sue her into submission. I spent the little money I had left on lawyers. They told me all I wanted to hear. It was everyone’s fault but mine. That’s their job. Then I found that my father-in-law, beloved by all, including me, the man I looked up to more than anyone, my wife’s hero and life, my best friend, one of the only to visit me in detox, had passed while I was in rehab. I had not been there for her. The magnitude of my addiction took on a knew note.

I left rehab on a shaky note, scared, but no long sure of my self-righteousness. You see, I had started to realize some things. First and foremost, for lack of a better term, and because I like the word, my paradigm of sobriety had been wrong. When I achieved sobriety three years prior, I did it out of fear. I became a willing participant in all household chores, taking over cleaning, shopping, cooking – for the three years I was the primary caregiver for our son. Despite my joy in these activities, I wasn’t really sober. I was not drinking, but I was not sober. Only an addict can understand this. You see, my fear dictated my sobriety. I was only sober because I was afraid. I was afraid of losing my wife and son.

I wasn’t really sober. My mind still operated as an addict. I built resentments, real and imagined, but mostly imagined. I carefully dictated my diet, ran constantly, practiced yoga, and became arrogant in my self-will and abilities. I wasn’t really sober. My resentments grew, built, and became real in my mind. I began to blame my wife for my unhappiness. My wife is the greatest person I know. She is the smartest, most beautiful, most talented, most faithful, most loving person I have ever met. I would have been lucky to have ever crossed her path. But she married me!!! All she asked in return was that I be sober.

That day, sobbing outside the ER, I came to the full realization of my addiction. Shaking and swollen with Ascites, confused with Hepatic Encephalopathy, jaundiced and racked with depression, still weak from internal bleeding, sweating profusely, broken in mind and body, I realized the full magnitude of my betrayal. I had betrayed her. I had betrayed my son. Most of all, I had betrayed myself.

So, I did not admit myself to the ER. For the first time, I chose to face the magnitude of my life. After all, I knew what to do. In six days, I attended fourteen AA meetings. I cleaned up my diet. I walked everywhere. I limited my fluid intake, my caloric intake. I re-enrolled in an Intensive Outpatient Program for addicts and people suffering from acute illness. I got a sponsor in AA. For the first time ever, I honestly started working the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Today, despite what has been a tumultuous, stressful, and terrible week, I am actually getting better. I’m still not sleeping, but my hands have stopped shaking. My head is clearing. The ascites is subsiding. Most importantly, I am sober. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I am no longer thinking with an addict’s brain. Will I live long? I don’t think of that. I only think of today, and what I can do to be a better person, today. Will I see my beloved wife and son again and be able to tell them I love them and that I am sorry? I don’t know. I try not to think of that, although I can’t help it. Will I run a half-marathon again? I don’t know. I’ll be happy to be able to walk downtown.

I don’t know much of anything. Except that the hole in my soul needs to be fixed. Finally, I realize: That all starts with me.

A Long Way Back

The electrical cord banged against my calf. My headlamp barely cut through the cloud of rock dust ahead and my head rang from banging my hard hat into the top. Roof bolts stuck out at crazy angles and the wind, increasing in velocity as I neared the choke point, whipped at my clothes, intent on ripping them from me. The cloth was stiffened by repeated sweating, soakings in diesel and hydraulic fluid and then headlong falls into coal and rock dust. I was beginning to feel as though I were in Mordor, carrying some awful inheritance back from whence it came, to cast my birthright into the fiery pit of forgetfulness.  The man who was supposed to be accompanying me, twenty years my senior and spoiled from a lifetime of working in union mines, had long since turned back, handing me the end of the thousand-foot-long cable without a word. I could see the fear in his eyes, smell it on his clothes and in the air around him.

His stubble was soaked with sweat. The exertion was more than he had bargained for, when he gave up his union pension to return to work in the bowels of the earth, where the rocks groaned around us, a reminder that we were standing where no man should rightfully be. He played out the cable as I drug loop by loop forward, stumbling through the dust. Rock dust is sprayed liberally in these deep coal mines as a means of fire suppression, a feeble attempt to feign control in an unforgiving and hostile environment. It may save lives, but it chokes one’s lungs and makes finding secure purchase for your feet nearly impossible. You are forced to just stumble along, tripping and half-falling as you go, dragging heavy loads behind you.

A rock fall had forced the mine foreman to place massive pumps into the area in order to draw down the water enough to allow air, driven by great fans at the surface, to circulate through the mine, providing oxygen to breathe and ventilating carbon monoxide, sulfurous gases and methane into the outside atmosphere so that miners working underground could live. Groundwater had fallen from above from the fracturing of mining operations and drowned the shaft through which air had to pass. The pumps had shorted out and burned the cable into, causing a mine fire at the location of the fall, which was nearly two miles past the end of the track line, where diesel powered machinery could access.

Sparks flew from the ruined electrical cable as I trudged forward, my lungs screaming from the work and from the reduced oxygen in the atmosphere. Smoke tore at my lungs and I was soaked yet again as I blindly drug my cable through another area inundated with contaminated water. There was barely room enough to keep my head above water between the surface and the top. I turned my head sideways as my mouth disappeared into the bilge, breathing through my nose. I was shocked repeatedly by the current and I abstractly wondered why someone had not shut down the breaker for the electrical line. In places it writhed like an angry snake, shorting and sparking and angrily shaking its blind face in the darkness, briefly illuminated by my passing headlamp.

At times I was nearly paralyzed by fear. Despite my heritage, the last of many generations of miners who had dove deep into the earth to extract ore so that others may become rich, nothing had really prepared me for this. I could hear the rocks talking, booming with the stress placed on them by the sudden ripping away of strata. The grumbled as their slumber was disrupted, vexed by the disturbance, angry that someone had awakened them after hundreds of millions of years of peace. I begged them not to take me, to allow me to pass protected, to remember my ancestors and look kindly upon me as my whole future was still ahead.

Fear rode with me, as real as the breath that I took. I trusted that the atmosphere was safe, as I had no way to check it. I had left my canary, no longer a live breathing thing with feathers, but instead a sophisticated electrical device behind so that it would not be ruined by water. How I regretted that decision! Every mountain bump and groan made me realize that this could be my last. I could see my fear – it was green, angry, not the soft, multi-faceted green of the mountains or the sea, but shiny and hard, with shifting faces. I considered turning back, of leaving my fear in the darkness, of making my way back to the light, where I could be safe, where nothing could hurt me, at least not maliciously, where I could breathe without torture and not ring my head against the belly of a mountain. I stumbled on.

I found the pump, grounded and lifeless, drowned by water. I freed it from the mud and rock dust and muck that had cemented the intake nearly shut, wrenched it from the bottom, thankful for a moment for the water as it made handling the sheer mass of the pump a bit easier. I stripped the connections free, and wired up the small radio that I had carried with me into the live electrical line, wincing as current raced through me, stiffening my muscles and causing my heart to beat erratically. A roof bolt, weakened by its short struggle with the sandstone above it, suddenly shot out of the top and drove nearly a foot into the ground just by my bowed head. I worked on. I had put aside my fear, and I was carrying on with what had to be done.

I finished my task. I radioed out that the pump was live, and I heard a brief cheer as the water began to go down and the measured air velocity immediately jumped back into the safe zone on the computer equipment outside the mine, somewhere safe. I gathered my tools and prepared myself to return to the light. It was a long way back, working through my fear again as the mountain boomed and the old gods talked around me, their vexation palpable in the silence as the wind noise decreased. It would be a long way back, indeed.

But I would make it.

To Beat the Devil

I woke up for what must have been the eighth time, relieved to see it was finally 5:45. I could hear the wind picking up, but there was a glimmer of star shine visible through the window. A good omen, I hoped. My running clothes were where I had left them on the kitchen table. I slid as silently as I could through the house, trying not to wake my three-year-old son or his Mom. I ate a banana, checked my phone for the temperature, and pulled on my clothes. I’m superstitious about my socks. These things are ancient, the elastic barely there. I hand wash them now, knowing that they should be thrown out, what with my little toe, broken and healed so many times that it barely resembles a toe at all, hanging out of the once-white fabric. I lace up my shoes, broken in properly for once, wiggling my heel back into the shoe, a remnant movement, long since immortalized in my muscle memory from my brief track career as a walk on in college. I drink three pints of water, counting them. I pick up my keys, check to make sure my chip is laced into the shoes once more, like it could have gone anywhere, consciously kiss the stones on my necklace, and slide into the dark morning.

I don’t know where I am. My brain shrieks at me in fury, my heart slamming into my ribs. My thoughts jumble around one another, tangle into an undecipherable mess and then break, slumping into my brain like spaghetti into a bowl. My body is shrieking along with my brain now, my hands shaking uncontrollably. Cold sweat rolls down the side of my face and the bedclothes twisted around me are drenched. All I can think of is that I am dying. Without a doubt. I’m dying, and I have no idea where I am. It’s a hospitable of sorts, that much I can see. My eyelids do little to block out the residual light streaming in through the barred window from the streetlight outside. Shadows dance across the wall behind me and a crucifix, complete with mostly-naked Savior, fixes it’s unblinking, judgmental gaze on my pain.

The truck starts. I almost wish it wouldn’t for a moment. I’m nervous, my stomach is in knots and I feel the old familiar drum of increased blood pressure thrum against my forehead, where the skin feels suddenly tight and thin. I clear my head as best I can, and swing out onto the deserted road just as first light brightens the eastern sky. My mood elevates, and I suddenly grin at myself, the old familiar half-smile that always springs to my weathered face when I greet the sun in the morning. It’s a fine time, early morning. There’s always that feeling of things to do, places to go, adventures to be had. It all stretches out in front of you in the early morning. The anxiety over a half marathon suddenly slips away, replaced by a heightened sense of excitement about the day to come.

A sound from the other side of the room alerts me to the presence of another. A snort, sort of a muffled cough, then snoring. I realize I’m not alone and my howling brain, anxious for some diversion, fixates on identifying my sleeping roommate. I don’t know him. I feel relieved for some reason, knowing perhaps that I won’t be beholden to small talk when he wakes. I wish I could sleep again, and I trace the I.V. in my hand back to the bag by the bed. I try to read the contents held within the plastic, but my eyesight seems sorely unsuited for the task at hand. I try to lift one hand and discover my restraints. Canvas straps are secured around my torso and hands, which are trembling visibly. My legs are likewise bound to the bed, and by the looks of the remnants of my clothing, it appears I was not restrained willingly. I dizzily remember signing a waiver, my fingers willful and stubborn against my brains’ instruction to print legibly. I remember my name then, suddenly, where I am and why I am here. “Nolan” I whisper to myself. I have a son. His name is Nolan.

I sit with my back to the block YMCA building, watching, judging my competition. I know better than to think I will do anything but run this race, but a childhood spent in motocross, football, boxing, track and testing myself against others has molded me into the person I am today. In sobriety, I have rediscovered the relentless urge to push myself, to benchmark my performance. I notice that the runners are hard, lean, with restless eyes. There isn’t much conversation. Two women banter loudly and “Eye of the Tiger” beats mindlessly over the loudspeakers, too loud for this early hour. I fall back into myself, allowing my mind and body to just be still. I remember too little of the past decade. What memories I do carry are unpleasant at times, loud drumming of mistakes and fallacies.

The doctors have cautiously met with me. I realized by day two in this final stay in rehab that I was one of those for whom the caregivers had no hope. The meetings were perfunctory, quick. I could tell they were only going through the motions. They mistook my silence for sullenness, my lack of participation for resentment. I was trying with all my might to hold the center, to keep my core intact while the outer edges dissipated into the mist. It took all of me to hold that little bit of me, that tiny place that was still recognizable to me, intact. I could not eat. I could not sleep. I could not stop shaking. I could not manage more than a sip of water. I could not remember where I was, or my home phone number. My wife came to visit, without Nolan. She was white and furious, cold and distant. I tried to hold her hand and she ripped it away. I could not understand why she was so angry with me. I tried to remember what I had done to make her hate me so, and I could not. She left, and I returned to my room, free of the restraints, but a prisoner nonetheless. The iron grip of addiction was not relinquishing its hold on my body and brain. By the end of day two, I am firmly in the grips of Delirium Tremens.

The gun sounds, and we all start running. There are so few of us on this cold, windy, rainy morning that there is no particular order to our grouping. The fastest runners line up first, and rapidly draw away from the main body of the pack. This is my first half marathon, so I’m a bit unsure of myself. I’m amused for the first three miles by the press of bodies, passing people and listening to conversations around me. The runners, mostly silent pre-race, have bunched into conversational packs, talking amongst themselves, clearly having a good time despite the weather. I fall into a semi-comfortable pace somewhere around the middle, neither passing or being passed by anyone. The miles start to fall away. The wind and rain tears my eyes, and I find myself running at times with them closed, blinking away the water. I allow my mind to fall away once more, free to roam about, only nudging it in pleasant directions. Or at least I try to. Unbidden, a scene from one of those dark corners, unrehearsed and unwelcome, springs to the forefront.

I’m screaming, but the sound is distant, like the caterwauling of a lost and frenzied puma, calling out to its mate over the dregs or what was once it’s natural habitat, now destroyed by mountain top mining. The streams run red with acid mine drainage, the sandstone rocks rusty and brown in the murky water. I’m not even for sure it is me. The only thing I know for certain is that I must get out. I must escape from this terrible place, this iron prison of sand and death. My tortured brain no longer obeys my feeble attempts to place my sanity in the center, and once again the center begins to pull apart. I watch the whirlwind of dust descend behind my closed eyelids, and I swear on a thousand alien suns that I will not go into the darkness, that I will not leave my family, that I will not desert my son, still so tiny, so helpless, so dependent on his mother and so abandoned by me. An image of him, just born, still misshapen from the womb and so full of life, slides fleetingly by and I grab it and hold to it, firmly grasp it in my minds two hands, willing myself away from the abyss, where insanity and worse lurk, waiting for me, hungry with their need shame and failure and tortured souls like mine.

I snap back to reality, and I find myself crying as I run. Miles eight and nine have passed, and my legs are screaming with the pace I have subconsciously set. I am punishing myself now. I welcome the pain in my broken rib, the throbbing in my reconstructed ankle, the shock of my functionless liver dumping rapidly metabolizing adrenaline and damaged cells and metabolic waste straight into my brain stem. I fight through a moment of oblivion, when my brain re-routes memories and conscious thought into a new pattern, recognizable again in only a few seconds. Those seconds seem an eternity as I temporarily forget everything, and I grimly panic, then remember! My mother’s voice, distant on the phone a few weeks before: “I know why you run. I have seen it in my dreams. You run to beat the devil.” She is so right. Now, that is what I do. I am no longer running for me, or for enjoyment, or to beat anyone else. I am running for sorrow, for the pain my addiction has caused, for the family I let down, for the friends I disappointed, for the lost decade, ten entire years that I spent in the grips of alcoholism. More than anything, I am running for my son. I choke back tears, and channel the rage and fury and anger and pain and sorrow into the rest of me and I run like hell itself is after me.

I awake in a pool of water on the floor of my cell. My roommate is snoring, loudly enough to cause me some concern. I am still shaking, my shoulder throbbing from contact with the cold cement floor. I try to strip off the wet clothing, but I am too weak to attempt it. My hands shake uncontrollably, and my brain does not seem to function, but I know who I am. I climb back into bed and wait for morning. The doctors give me their prognosis: Certain death. Thirty to ninety days. If I stop drinking. I can tell from their tone of voice that they have no hope that I will do such a thing. From somewhere deep within, I find the strength to grin at them. “Don’t bet against me, doc.” He looks at me for a long moment. “Maybe so….I’ve seen stranger things.”

I see my son’s blonde head as I round the last turn into the grassy area by the YMCA. Another race is starting, so I know I’ve beaten my goal of a two-hour half marathon. I find out at the finish line that I did even better than I expected. My family is there, my wife grinning at me like I won the thing. I grab my son and pick him up, sweaty, cold and soaked to the bone. “I don’t even care,” I think, “if I won the thing or not. It’s enough to finish. To know that I ran every step.”

I think of my ancestors as I leave the rehabilitation center for the fight of my life. For my life. I think of the Native Americans, the Cherokee and Cree; and the Scottish Immigrants, all of whom had fought for their freedom and existence on this land. I wait for my wife to pull the car around. The cold rain falls and I realize with a jolt that it is nearly fall. I dare hope for a moment that it is not my last.

I’m winded and I enjoy the quiet of the house, the dark coffee, my son’s close company. It is nearly three years since that last fateful day in rehab and I am still alive. I attribute a great deal of that to running. It’s not just the physical act and mental benefits of the exercise. It’s the mentality that goes with it. I’m not just living. Not anymore.

I’m beating the devil.

Running

In January of 2015, for reasons that escape me now, I pulled on my old running shoes, walked to the end of our one-hundred-foot long drive, turned left, and jogged away. Like most memories that I have these days, this one is fuzzy. It was cold. I didn’t feel well. My liver disease was progressing rapidly, and I had ascites. Maybe ten to fifteen pounds of fluid retention, which the doctors repeatedly remind me isn’t very much. I don’t think the doctors have ever tried to run with ten pounds of fluid sloshing around in their abdominal cavity. I do think that the definition of “very much” would likely change if they did try it.

Regardless of the temperature, or the sloshing, I jogged off into the early morning air, feeling the pavement beneath my feet, listening to the sounds around me, watching the sun track its way across the land adjacent to the Chesapeake Bay. I didn’t run far. The evening before, I had driven past our drive and measured out a half mile. That was my target. A half mile.

I didn’t make it. My stamina sucked, my will power was weak, and the pain was more than I had bargained for. I stood still for a little while just shy of the half mile mark, feeling my knees shake and my head spin. I walked slowly back home, hoping no one was watching, but hardly caring. I wasn’t exhilarated, or particularly proud of what I had just done. I was just tired.

The next day, I did it again. Then again the following day. I ran in the cold. I ran in Florida, where we went to vacation for a few weeks. Hepatic Encephalopathy kicked in one day while I was running on the beach and I forgot where I was. I ran all over the small island, panic stricken by the end, trying to remember where our campsite was, repeating my own name in my head as my bare feet bruised and bled when I abandoned the beach for the roads to try and find my way back. I did.

I ran in the early spring, sticking to the same half mile beginning, expanding it to three miles, running alongside my wife on occasion. My blood tests continued to be the same, no improvement. An MRI, CT scan, and other associated tests confirmed the same thing, my liver was not really functioning. I was once again given six months, maybe a year, to live.

During a rain storm in June, I discovered that I was no longer just slogging along. There was a spring in my step that I had not noticed, a joy rediscovered in moving along under my own power, in charge for once of my own body. I stood in the rain as it steamed on the pavement around me and cried with joy, with sadness for the years lost to addiction, and for the person I would never become. I wept for the could-have-been me image locked forever in my mind.

I drove to a local running store that afternoon and bought a new pair of shoes. The store employee watched me run on the treadmill and pointed out how badly my over pronation was. She asked if I had ever run before. I thought of the countless miles in my early twenties, when I was young and proud and healthy and arrogant and believed I would live forever. I thought of the drunken car crashes, bar brawls, broken bones not properly set and surgeries to attempt to remedy the damage done. I didn’t answer her question.

I took the shoes home and took a picture of them. The next day I ran five miles instead of three, marveling at how light they seemed and how easy they were to run in. I thought of how I had almost died from alcohol abuse as I ran, and it seemed so long ago, as if it had happened to another person.

A friend of mine urged me to sign up for a race, and I did. I ran a 10k in November and it seemed magical. In a moment of maniacal glee, I signed up for two half marathons the next day. The dates were over six months away, an eternity to me.

The year passed as miles poured out the soles of my feet. My mileage increased along with my stamina and overall sense of well-being. The more I ran, the better I felt. The better I felt, the more carefully I ate. The circular loop of health closed and became more defined. I added yoga, getting over my fear of looking stupid in front of a room of females. After a few weeks, I even enjoyed that, and ran more as my soreness subsided faster after stretching and I slept better.

For the first time in years, I was sleeping most of the night without aides. No booze, sleeping pills, or drugs. I started feeling better, so I ran more.

So it goes, into 2016. I may or may not get a transplant. I’m mostly ok with that. I try not to think of it, as I think I’m a pretty lucky guy. I got to see my son turn three last year. More importantly, I remember it. I no longer get lost running on the beach, although I may again soon. None of us have any promise of tomorrow, but I am blessed in that I get to realize this fact more than most.

Someday, I’d like to surf a big wave. One named Jaws, or Mavericks, or some unnamed monster lurking in the Pacific Ocean somewhere. I know better than to think I’d do anything but survive, but I’d like to grin a lopsided grin at someone special as I drug my board ashore.  I’d like to ride the TT on the Isle of Man. I know better than to think I’d win, but I’d like to pull my helmet off and wipe the sweat of my face, grinning an old man’s grin at the young man’s winner’s circle.  I’d like to be a kitchen Chef again someday. All that would be ok, I guess.

But I’m pretty stoked to go running tomorrow.

Survivors

We sit on the back porch, facing the low hedge of trees at the property border, the edge row between forest and yard. Perhaps the most neglected place in western civilization, it is also the most vibrant with life. Even now, with the wee hours of morning rushing upon us, as we converse our troubles and woes, the sleepy calls of birds, night rustlings of small predators and their ilk keep my attention at least partially diverted from the young man trying desperately to vocalize his demons to me.

For what reason, I wonder? Why do people tell me their problems, their misgivings, confess their fears, seek absolution from me, of all people? I am the least likely candidate for such a task. I have nothing to offer, no words of wisdom, moments of clarity or absolution. There are people who excel at such measures, when set upon by their lost brethren. Those wiser than I have something meaningful to say, the right words to fill the void of aching souls.

I try, in my own stumbling way, to articulate that fact to him. I feel that I have let him down, somehow. After all, he sought me out, told me of his battle with addiction after having learned of mine, and told me of his desperate hours, when all seemed bleak and desperate.

The tip of my cigar glows briefly for a moment as I shield the tip with my hand, a movement as lost in this time as an ancient warrior awakened from his long slumber to stalk the earth once more in confusion, sword and other clanking useless weapons at his side. There is no one out there in the fringe of forest from whence the rustlings of small killers emanate. There is no reason for me to keep my night vision by gazing constantly into the darkness rather than the light. I have no reason to fear someone, or something catching me unaware, predating me in space and time by the glow of a cigar, unwittingly allowed for a moment to be seen.

No reason at all. But I still do it, still block the ember from view. His next words hang between us. I had just vocalized that I have nothing to say, nothing at all. He turns to me again. “But, you are a survivor.”

I think of the time, many years past, when I laid in a frozen field and screamed at the stars in agony, my leg twisted beneath me, the broken bones pressing hard against the skin, bulging here and there. In my drunken stupor after an office party, I had stumbled out of the hotel lost, broken my leg just above my right ankle, and passed out. I awoke with frost in my hair and blood on my face, my dress shirt frozen in spots from the bitter cold.

Dragging myself along the hard ground, stopping to get my bearings and laugh hysterically at the pain in my twisted appendage, I made my way back to the isolated building, leaving my spoor in the frost behind under the hard gaze of the moon. I ground through landscaping, followed yellow parking space markings, and stumbled, partially upright, at long last to the front door. Still a long way from sober, I was coherent enough from the pain and terror of navigating what seemed to be miles of frozen ground through the pain of the bone fracture to realize my predicament.

The hotel was locked. The engineering firm I worked for had chosen the site for their yearly celebration of success in the moment before the great recession based on its remoteness from town, and in their wisdom, rented the entire hotel. The thinking was sound. Keep the debauchery contained to one location, remove the need for transportation after drinking all evening at open bars, then lock everyone in. Collateral damage minimized. Revelry contained. Except for me.

Fearing suddenly for my life as the realization that I was wounded, barely dressed, and exposed to sub-freezing temperatures with a rapidly plunging core temperature, I pounded on the door until the one person who did not imbibe the night before awoke and called the police.

The officer who helped me to my room was gracious, if not angry at being called out to such a stupid emergency. After I was safely placed in my room, my leg temporarily wrapped in an Ace bandage, he turned to me. “You should be dead.” I met his eyes for a moment. These are words I had heard most of my adult life. He shrugged for a moment, wanting to say more, but hesitant. “I can’t believe how far you wandered away from the hotel. I’ll have to give you this: You are a survivor.”

Management within the firm reacted quickly and harshly. The realization that one of their soon-to-be-senior engineers, one picked for upper management, had nearly died in a field next to the hotel during a company celebration did not sit well with the image they had created and carefully trimmed for themselves. I was targeted, so during my recovery at home from a torsional fracture of the right leg, my responsibilities were dissected, exposed and transferred to others. I returned to work with no fanfare, no get well soon card, no promotion and no job left. To save myself from the humiliation of being fired outright from a company for whom I had worked for years, I requested a transfer out of the office to one in a remote location. They happily obliged.

There was nothing for me to do at my destination office either, so rather than spend my days casting about, waiting on my termination, I left the company. My substance abuse worsened, and I vanished into the haze of addiction.

After recovery, I sought out my old bosses and tentatively felt out a reinstatement. I felt I owed them something. I was also desperate for work, needed to belong somewhere again and I deeply loved that company. I had first gone to work for them during college and spent many happy years under their tutelage. My former boss was honest, as usual. “I could never hire you back. They would never allow it. You are….” His voice trailed away on the phone. No other words were needed. I heard the explanation in the following silence.

Nobody really likes a survivor. The young man sitting by me on my back porch is not yet in that place, where his recovery would be earmarked as survival. He could enter rehab, clean up his life and carry on without anyone truly realizing how close to catastrophe his life was.

I start to tell him as much, then give myself pause. Life would, maybe, be better had I gotten control of my addiction earlier, before so much damage had been done. But, would it now be so precious? Would I appreciate the waxing light of the early dawn if I had more confidence that I would see another? Would the moments of warmth with my young son on my leg, my chin in his hair, be so momentous, if I took them for granted? Would I enjoy the miles passing beneath my feet as I run in the morning air quite so much, if my health were stable?

I don’t think I would. The brittleness of my existence is its greatest gift. I appreciate being a survivor. Regardless of how the rest of the world sees it, I am blessed. I pray a silent prayer for him, the young seeker of a path out of his own turmoil, for life is best enjoyed when the frailty of it is most evident. We put out our cigars and seek a few hours of rest before the sun if fully risen.