“For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.”
(Slight but key details have been changed- names, locations, etc.- as my pseudonymity is pretty easily breached, and I don’t want to reveal too much of another person’s story. But the essence of the story is as it stands).
The Super Bowl is coming up this weekend, I guess. After the Super Bowl last year, I think the event will always remain a little tainted for me. The events of last year around this time are etched in my memory, and probably always will be. It’s taken me till now to write anything down about them, mostly because at the time I didn’t want to think about them any more than necessary. I don’t intend to draw any lessons from them, just to throw a few notes out there about the events and my experience.
Last year, around this time, “Dave”, the boyfriend of a very good friend of mine “Bridget”, died right after a Super Bowl party. This was one of my closest friends, that I knew from when I worked in the Peace Corps, and who had been one of the few Americans I was able to interact with for long stretches of time. I was out of town when this happened, staying with her and her boyfriend, actually.
He’d gone out to a Super Bowl party, had some drinks, and then was offered drugs by a friend of his. My friend had used drugs in the past, but had been clean for a year or so. I don’t know what made him make the fateful decision to try some more. Maybe it was that he wanted this to be his *last* adventure into the forbidden depths, before he surfaced for good. He had a young daughter, “Lena”, back home, who he wanted to bring up to live with him and “Bridget”; they were thinking about getting married, and Bridget got along wonderfully with Lena and seriously wanted to adopt her. Lena lived with Dave’s mother back home, as her mother was addicted to prescription drugs and unable to take care of her. My friend Dave was planning that this was going to be the year his life was going to finally turn around: he was going to bring his daughter to move in with them, marry Lena, get a commercial truckdriver’s licence, and give up on drugs for good.
Those plans ended in about fifteen minutes on the night of the Super Bowl. He went home with a friend of his from work- I’m using that term loosely- bought some drugs, and injected them. He passed out, and sometime within the next few minutes stopped breathing from an overdose. He slipped away, presumably, painlessly and almost without anyone noticing. Perhaps if they’d noticed a bit quicker, he might have been saved.
I was staying with Bridget that night, neither of us was at the party (which we will probably never forgive ourselves for).
If we had been, he probably wouldn’t have used those drugs on that night. We were woken up about five in the morning when the cops came to the door to inform her, and her dogs started freaking out and howling. At some intuitive, gut feeling I knew something terrible had happened. I wasn’t sure how I knew, but my skin started crawling, and I knew that the door was about to be opened on a tragic scene. Sometimes we know something is wrong in some unspoken, sub-rational way, that we can’t describe or even voice, but we know in our heart anyway.
Bridget broke down, and I did my best for the next hour or so to console her, in between talking to the cops. A couple of Dave’s friends came over, and we went to the hospital to identify his body. And then we went to an all-night diner, and I drank coffee while my friends chain-smoked cigarettes to calm their nerves, and we all tried to figure out how to deal with what had just happened.
I don’t need to go more into the details of the next week, but that weekend I flew out to Nebraska, where Dave’s and Bridget’s families lived. I flew into Kansas and drove from there, and thought about meeting up with the noted Mormon blogger Russell Arben Fox in Wichita, but that plan didn’t work out. I spent the weekend out at Bridget’s grandmother’s place. She was in her 70s, but still strong and healthy; she lived on a wheat and cattle farm, and each morning I woke up to the sight of rolling hills covered with wheat fields and grazing cows. Dave’s family lived not too far away, and they were a modern, “blended” family if ever there was one; it was Dave’s mother, her (relatively) new husband, his kids, her kids by two previous marriages, and Dave’s daughter. My friend’s father stopped in, but briefly; he and Dave’s mother had been divorced a long, long time ago, and for good reason.
One of the really interesting thing I remember from that funeral weekend is that it reminded me that what we hear from the conservative writers like Charles Murray, is in large part true. Family dynamics in America are rapidly changing, and today they’re changing rapidly in the working-class, particularly in Red states (i.e. the South and the Great Plains states like Nebraska). You wouldn’t have seen this kind of ‘blended’ family in the past. But what we often don’t think about is this: that while family instability and breakdown are often undesirable things that make people’s lives a lot harder, they also provide people with the opportunity to be, in a small way, heroic, and to freely undertake choices, out of love, that are more difficult and more demanding than most people make who have never faced equivalent challenges. As with other challenges and sources of adversity in life, a great many people in working-class America have responded by making extraordinary sacrifices out of love. Dave’s mother’s second husband chose to do so, when he adopted Dave and gave him his name. Dave’s mother also chose to do so, when she effectively adopted “Lena” and rescued her from a neglectful mother. One of the young women I met at the funeral had two young children, whom she was raising alone (their father had long since split): she’d been living in St. Louis, but had moved back to care for her dying father, who lived out in a small Great Plains town, which was rapidly losing people and hollowing out. She had become part of a small number of people, like Rod Dreher, bucking the tide and moving back to her small town roots, at substantial personal sacrifice, because of people she cared about.
We all know the overall shape of the trends, the economic abyss and the decline of farming and factory jobs, coupled with the fraying of social bonds and the weakening of the family, that are making the lives of working class people in the developed world harder and harder. Particularly here. But among those trends, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that the overall scope of history is made up of the free choices, for good and evil, of many millions of people. And each of those stories is, very often, a fascinating drama in and of itself, with episodes of tragedy as well as heroism and exceptional virtue.
I pray for the soul of my friend, Dave, who led such a tumultuous and an unhappily short life, and I hope that in the world to come, he will experience the peace and joy that he wasn’t able to experience here. And I also cherish the short time I was able to spend with his family, and the insight I got into the story and drama of their lives.