April 18, 2016

The term "hitting rock bottom" is usually used when talking about someone with an addiction issue. Yet it is a powerful metaphor for many life-altering events. To my mind, it can actually be a good thing.

We humans can be so set on our paths, that unless something shattering happens, we never raise our heads to think about where we are going.

I've outlived three of my nephews. The first was 10 months old when he died of a congenital heart condition. Horrific, but it didn't leave anyone with a crushing sense of guilt. Everything was done that could have been done.

I recently lost a nephew who died in his sleep in his 40s. They still aren't sure what caused it. His older brother, David, died over 20 years ago. His life was tragic, and his death left guilt and second guessing in its wake.

Today, David would have been diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome. That term wasn't used in the early '70s. A dysfunctional home and a divorce meant that he spent his childhood bouncing between his mom's, his dad's and his grandparents' homes.

I took legal custody of him when he was 14. By then, he was an alcoholic. The next 10 years saw him bounce between rehab, jail and a variety of aunts and uncles, all trying to help him straighten out.

David eventually became homeless, selling his body for drug money. One night he crossed paths with the wrong john and was stabbed to death.

His killer was never prosecuted. He died before he got a chance to hit rock bottom. His death left my mother and my brothers with a profound sense of loss, and a strong sense of guilt and "what ifs."


For myself, I wondered, and still do, if there wasn't something more I could have done. I am left knowing that David had free will, and chose the life he led. I could blame his hard childhood, but the reality is that many people endure much worse childhoods and make different life choices.

My biggest regret is that I may have been partially to blame for him not hitting bottom. Every time I rescued him from jail or some back alley, I inadvertently prevented the consequences of his actions from hitting him solidly. My brothers and I kept making soft landings for him out of love.

I have often meditated on the story of the prodigal son. People write about him and his brother. I've always been more fascinated with the father. He was obviously a prominent man with a reasonable amount of wealth. I suspect he was well aware of the activities in which his son was engaging.

I visualize traders coming through and telling the father about where they had seen his son and what they saw him doing. My mother always told me to be careful what I did in public because it would certainly be reported back to her, and she was right.

Many fathers, when told their son is living on the streets or living with pigs, would have run to him and rescued him. This father didn't. He didn't go to the city and provide a soft landing for his son. His son fell hard. The son was allowed to hit rock bottom and come to his senses. That couldn't have been easy.


My mother said that finally refusing to accept David's call when he wanted to be bailed out of jail was one of the hardest things she ever had to do. I still go over in my mind the last time I saw him, when I finally turned him away. It haunts me.

I wondered if it was wrong to turn him away then. I've come to believe that I should have stopped rescuing him much earlier.


I've worked many hours in homeless shelters. People are surprised that I don't give money to homeless people on the street. The bottom line is that they will receive no real help while on the street. They need to be in a shelter or connected with a social service agency.

Every time I give them money for food or to feed their destructive habits, I prevent them from hitting bottom. Until they hit bottom and understand that they need help and reach out for it, they won't.

I don't want to do anything that enables someone to stay on the street for even a day longer. Sometimes true mercy feels like anything but.