This picture hangs in my living room. My kids all wrinkled up their noses when it came and I hung it because it was too morbid for their liking I suppose. The concept it represents is known as "The Red String of Fate". It's an ancient Asian concept, and there is some regional differentiation, but the premise of it is that before you are born, the gods tie a red string around you and fasten the other end of it to your soulmate. In one version, it is tethered to your finger; in another, your ankle. There is also some difference in whether or not you are meant to marry the person you are tethered to. Once the nuances are stripped down, what you are left with is the belief that there is a soul somewhere out there in this world that you are destined to collide with, regardless of circumstance, because the red string of fate has bound you to one another and it is meant to be. I first heard the legend years ago, and being young, was smitten with the idea that my true love was somewhere in the world and each day that passed brought me closer to that collision, that magical happenstance that marked the moment my life would never again be what it was. I am no longer a purist in the way I look at this story. Much like everything else I've learned, I pick and choose facets that suit me and discard those that I am unable to adapt and apply to myself and my life in a way that fits. I still believe in the simple truth that what is meant to be, will be. I've just moved beyond the idea that there is only one person in the world you are destined to come to. I find it too limiting. I believe there is an infinite number of souls with the potential to irrevocably alter your course, with boundless possibility of what it is these souls bring into your life. I believe the red string may very well be the blood that runs through our veins, binding us together in beautiful and sometimes tragic ways. To me, this is what it means to be human.
It's been almost four years already since my daughter went to rehab. It was the second family session, and I had already decided I hated almost every other parent in the room due to their reactions when it came out that I, too, am an addict. They reacted with equal parts condescension and disgust, sprinkled with maybe a little bit of relief that at least there was some variable in our equation that wasn't in theirs. Looking back, I'm sure they were grasping at anything they could because they were as terrified about their own children as we were about ours. Regardless, at the time, my heart was full of anger and black hate for their ignorance. There was no way for me to know that there was deep love and friendship waiting for me in that room, if I could just quiet the anger and fear in my head long enough to hear it call for me.
I'm surprised there was even a second one-on-one interaction between Susan, Howard and I after the first. We were all rubbed raw by the fact that our teenagers were in a facility for chemical dependency. We stood outside after the session and she commented to me that it must be nice for me and my daughter to be so close in age (relatively speaking) because we could be "friends". I've heard that more times than I can count in the last almost 20 years, and it has always pissed me off on a primal level. I am their mother, and just because there are fewer years between us than some has never changed the fact that I am no less mother, or more friend, to my children than anyone else. I know I was short in response and tone when I replied that no, she's my daughter, not my friend. It wasn't until after the next session that I had any clue there was a possibility of being friends. There was one particularly insufferable woman and whenever she spoke, Susan's face conveyed my thoughts. Her body language changed and you could tell by looking at her that she was holding back. Her husband, Howard, must've noticed too because he would lean back in the chair, cross his arms across his body, and looked like he was ready to take cover in case she blew. We exited the building after, and Susan came up alongside me and within earshot of this woman, said loudly to me that she was a fucking idiot. She called it like she saw it, without regard to who she angered in the process. I respect that, and in that moment I thought that had it been a different time or maybe we didn't meet while our kids were in rehab together, that I might actually be friends with this woman.
What a fool I am.
It turned out that the time and circumstance of our meeting meant absolutely nothing at all. In fact, I think our circumstances actually accelerated the process. Over the next several weeks, we forged a friendship over several meals and countless hours sitting in our cars together while our kids attended meetings. Sometimes Howard was with, sometimes he wasn't. The same went for Sean. The nucleus was always Susan and me. We didn't need to waste time getting to know each other. At that point, the superfluous bullshit about where we worked or vacationed or lived our lives outside of being parents to kids dealing with serious issues were an afterthought, if they were even a thought at all. Even though my friends and family were an incredible support at that point in our lives, Susan and Howard were a safe place for me to lay it all out there without fear of judgment or pity. I needed that so desperately, and I never had to ask for it. I've said it before, my pride is my downfall. Even though I would never hold anyone else to the same expectations I hold myself, I couldn't will myself to admit that I needed someone that understood exactly what it was I was going though and all the feelings of fear and anger and failure that ruled me. Asking for that would mean I was weak. That I couldn't suck it up or do it myself. It would be admitting defeat, something I don't do. I'd rather go down in flames than ask anyone for the hose. The most beautiful part of our friendship has been my ability to find myself vulnerable in their presence, but without the slightest hint of fear.
It's like our lives intertwining was meant to be.
Howard was diagnosed with ALS almost 2 years ago. Like my grandmother, there were things the doctors missed and it took awhile before they finally figured out what was that was going on. Like my grandmother, Howard will not win this fight. ALS is a cruel, merciless bitch. Banana and I did the ALS walk last year on Howard's team, Howard's Heroes. Susan headed up the team, and she is a goddamn force of nature when she decides to be. Howard was still in good spirits, even though it was clear the disease was starting to take it's toll. He was in a wheelchair, and managed to stand up for a few pictures, but it was already robbing him of being in control of his own body. His speech was already significantly deteriorated, but his smile was still so undeniably Howard. It hasn't even been a year since then but it already seems a lifetime ago.
Howard is now in end-stage hospice care. I went to see him and Susan on Saturday night. He was awake, and when I walked into the bedroom, he raised his right hand to wave and behind the oxygen mask, I saw the remnants of his smile greet me. That's the worst part of ALS, the body slowly becomes useless but the mind remains as it has always been. I sat at his bedside, talking to Susan as she waited for home health to come to attend to a problem they were having. She leaned over and ran her finger across his arm and commented about how dry his skin is. I asked her if she had any lotion and I asked Howard if it was ok if I lotioned up the dry spots on his arm. He shook his head once and Susan brought me the lotion. I warmed it up between my hands first and gently rubbed it into his skin. Even though I expected it, I was shocked at how paper-thin and pale it was. If I didn't know any better, I would have expected it to tear like tissue paper. Howard was a robust presence when I met him. He wore tie-dye Grateful Dead t-shirts that stood out in unapologetic contrast to Susan's conservative business attire. Even when she went casual, Susan has always been polished. Howard was big and soft and round in the middle, and had a smile that required his whole face. His laugh filled a room and there was no denying his presence. As I sat in their bedroom, holding his hand gently in mine, I realized that as much as it broke my heart to see him like that, and to know how tired and afraid Susan is, that moment was a privilege. There we all were, once again, in absolute vulnerability.
I wandered the house a little bit when home health got there and looked at the pictures of her boys as children on the walls. I didn't get to see either of them when I was there because one is off at college and the other is in jail. I can't wrap my head around how lonely she is, or how to help. I came across their wedding pictures on the coffee table, knowing the ones that were out are likely for his funeral. I had to ask her what year they were married because I didn't know. Some friends bond over coffee, we bonded over filling his morphine syringes in the kitchen. It's been unconventional, but our friendship has been so real I can feel it in my bones. I will never cease to be amazed at how time and again, some of the most beautiful people in my life have been found in some of the most tragic and heartbreaking of circumstances.
What is meant to be, will be. Carry it with you always.