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The first thing I saw as I rounded the corner was Rick’s mud boot stuck out and resting on its heel on the dry ground. He was sitting on an old cinder block by one of our community’s first gardens and smoking a cigarette with a clear lack of hurry. His sunburned shoulders and neck were on display in his undershirt, but he still wore the bucket hat that was his ever-present summer time companion. I’ve never been very sneaky, so Rick heard me coming—but that was okay since I didn’t want to surprise him anyway. He had asked me to come, because he had something he needed to tell me. I already knew what he had to say, but sometimes the telling of a thing is as important as the hearing of it. I sat on the cinder block next to him and kept my eyes turned toward the garden so that the pressure wouldn’t grow too much. It can be hard to tell the truth sometimes, even when everybody already knows it.
“I screwed up,” Rick offered unprompted, “I had a good thing going and, I guess, I screwed that up.” I nodded and searched for words as I waited to see if he’d continue on his own. “I drank,” he offered up to the shared silence.
I nodded again before offering, “I’m sorry to hear that.” At six months long, it had been his longest run of sobriety since he was a teenager. Rick’s white hair was evidence for just how long it had been.
“Don’t you think I am, too?” Rick asked me with a mixture of anger and disappointment at the edges of his voice. He was spoiling for a fight and thought I might give him one if he pushed me.
“Of course you are,” I offered as conciliation, “you most of all, I’m sure.” After a short pause I added, “you know we still love you, right?”
“No, I don’t,” Rick said a little too loudly, “I know yall say it, but I don’t feel it.” Like the cork coming out of a bottle, this seemed to have made way for Rick to tell the truth: “I can see that yall love Bruce. That’s for sure. And sometimes I think you love me, too, but I just can’t feel it. I can’t see why or how. I want to, but I can’t.”
“I hear that,” I assured Rick as we both stared straight ahead at the garden, “but I don’t know what to say to that other than to say we really do—or, at least, we’re really trying.” Turning his gaze from the garden, Rick looked where my eyes would be if I’d only turn to face him. “And we’re not going anywhere,” I added as I made eye contact for the first time that afternoon. Rick held my eye contact for a few more seconds, as if he was weighing my promise against his experience. I waited for his verdict, but he only turned his eyes back to the garden. Following his lead, I joined him in a thoughtful silence. I tried to pray silently, and I guess I did, but it was a mostly wordless and uncertain thing.
Eventually, as the sun was dipping low behind us, we silently headed back up the hill. “Hey,” I offered uncertainly from the driver’s seat of my car, “when you’re ready to try again, we’re with you.” His nod, a mixture of understanding and irritation, was as fine a cue as I was going to get that I should leave. So, I drove away with a wave.
Rick wasn’t ready for a while. There were times when we wouldn’t see him for weeks. There were times when he slept outside or crashed on somebody’s couch. There were times when we’d see him somewhere and he’d fruitlessly try to hide how intoxicated he was. There were times when we’d put him up in a hotel room for a few nights. There was even a time when he called to let us know he was ready, but hid from us when we came to pick him up because he had started drinking in the short interim.
I must say that there were certainly times when we loved Rick well, but there were also times when we loved Rick poorly. Sure, we didn’t go anywhere, but we also didn’t always seek Rick out. But God never stopped loving Rick and never stopped seeking him out. Months later, Rick found his way to one of our hospitality houses and let us know that he was already a few weeks sober. “I’m ready to try again,” he said. “We’re ready to try again, too,” we said with our hugs, back slaps, and knee squeezes.
So, we did. We tried again to love not only in word but in action. We tried again to walk the road of recovery together. We tried again to share life in community. Trusting that trying is somehow enough, we tried again. It didn’t come easy, but it came nonetheless.
The other day, Jessica and I were giving a tour of the Urban Farm to a visitor from Richmond. Our daughter had come along for the visit and Rick also happened to be there. “Mr. Rick, Mr. Rick!” she yelled, “watch me swing!”
“I’m coming, sweetie,” he yelled back as he shook our visitor’s hand hastily. “Excuse me,” he added more quietly to us with an expansive smile, “I’ve got to go push a swing.” With over three years of sobriety under his belt, Rick has become one of our community’s leaders. He is quick to remind us at prayers that we need to keep loving each other and finding ways to show it. Rick is eager to tell us that he loves us and faithful in finding ways to make it felt. Sometimes that means pushing a swing.
A little while later, our daughter and Rick sat at the top of the stairs leading down into the garden and sang silly songs about monkeys and sharks. I was struck by their coincidental seating arrangement: side by side on some cinder blocks, looking down over a garden. There was no lack of eye contact this time, as our daughter giggled her way through another verse and shoulder-bumped Rick in his ribs. Over their shoulder, I saw Ryan, another friend of the community who Rick has taken into his home. Though they used to drink together on porches, Rick and Ryan now work together on the tool library and around the community. Ryan is one month clean and sober on the fourth attempt at recovery that I know of. We tell him we love him and we try to show it.
“He might not feel it yet,” Rick conceded to me one afternoon, “but he will. We’ll just keep trying.”
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