Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Three sheets to the wind

"Look at 'er, she's three sheets to the wind already and it isn't even dinnertime." This was Mark, talking about his wife Sheri, who was panhandling on the opposite corner. "What was that?" I asked, "What does that mean, 'three sheets to the wind?'" "Oh, just something my dad used to say when he got drunk. It means you're drunk or stoned, like the wind is just, carrying you away or something, I don't know"

That was yesterday. Today, I spent most of the day with Sheri, trying to get her into a program to kick alcohol and heroin, a twenty-one day medical detox followed by a six-month residential aftercare. Sheri has been trying to get herself checked into the program for the last week and finding herself frustrated at every turn. She showed up at the "treatment on demand" clinic every day for nearly three weeks at 8:00 in the morning, only to be told that there were no beds, come back tomorrow. Yesterday, they finally had a bed available for her. But in order to get checked in, she needed blood work and a TB test, and she had to get these at the hospital on the other side of town, an hour bus ride each way. Then, because she has been exposed to TB and tests positive, she needed a chest x-ray, which meant going back to the hospital and waiting hours again. By this time, she was tired and desperate for a fix, and she didn't make it to the hospital or back to the clinic. So we invited them to spend the night at our place, sleeping on our hide-a-bed instead of in the alley, and the next day I would drive her over to the hospital early to get her chest x-ray, then back to the clinic to try and get her into the program.

The day got off to a rough start. Sheri had severe delerium tremens this morning when she got up. I poured her some rum, the only hard liquor I had in the house, so she could get settled down and hopefully drink some coffee and eat something, thinking all the while about a scene in the movie Fried Green Tomatoes where Idgie gives Smokey Lonesome a drink so he can sit down and eat. Later, she went out to get a shot of heroin. She then proclaimed herself ready to face the day, or at least the next several hours.

On the way to the hospital, she told me a little bit about her life. How she grew up in this city, has lived her all her life. How her dad started molesting her before she was a teenager, how he'd crook his finger at her and say "Come heeere" at night when her mom was at work and her brothers were asleep. How she left the house (she didn't call it "home") the day she turned 17. How later she asked her mom about it, and her mom said she knew what was going on at the time, but that she couldn't sacrifice the whole family for the sake of just one child.

She nodded to herself for a minute, then said, "That's fucked up, ain't it?"

When we got to the hospital, we found out the power had been out for a while, and that the computer system was really backed up, so that getting results would take longer than usual. I left Sheri slumped over and half-asleep in the waiting room while I went out to call the detox facility, where I got the first bad news of the day. They were no longer holding a bed for her, since she didn't make it back to the clinic yesterday. I pleaded with the person on the other end of the line, then the person she referred me to and the next person after that, trying to see if there was any chance of getting her into a bed today. In the end, I managed to get an "I'll see what I can do," and then it was back in to wait with Sheri.

It took three hours to get the chest x-ray, and by that time Sheri was starting to fade, getting edgy. I gave her two dollars to buy some vodka while I went and got the car, figuring it would be better to let her have a little now than to lose her altogether. On the way, I called the social worker back; they still didn't have a bed for her.

We stopped to get someting to eat, then drove down to the clinic, and there we got our first really good news: they had found a bed. Now we just had to wait for the results to come in from the very backed up system at the hospital. If they didn't get the results in by 4 PM, Sheri would lose the bed and have to come back tomorrow. Worse, I wasn't sure she would last until 4 PM without a fix.

Many phone calls and a lot of pleading later, we got the results, and Sheri was accepted into the program.

As we sat together waiting for the van to come and take her to the treatment facility, a beautiful African-American woman, one of the social workers, came into the room, radiant and smiling at Sheri. She said, "You're going to be OK honey. Everything's gonna be all right. You're doing a really good thing." In a day that was measured in the incremental advances of bureaucratic negotiation, this was grace wholesale and unexpected. In that moment, her voice sounded more like the voice of Christ than anything I had ever heard.

I noticed that Sheri was still nursing the cup of coffee I had bought her that morning at the hospital, and mentioned it to her. She nodded, and said, "Yeah, I poured my vodka into it." She nodded to herself a couple more times, then peered meditatively into the cup and said, "It's my last one."

I walked across the parking lot after they picked her up, and unexpected tears flowed. It was a release of tension, of all the things that could have gone wrong, all the things that had gone wrong for Sheri in this terrible fucked up world. But today, one little thing went right.

She was three sheets to the wind when the van picked her up. But "the wind bloweth where it listeth," and the Spirit also moves in mysterious ways. Maybe today I bought Sheri her last drink.

You're going to be OK, honey. Everything's going to be all right.

Genoito. Genoito.
Let it be so. Let it be so.
(Psalm 41:13)

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