On Breaking Bad, Boxer, and Beauty in Dry Bones
The word ‘beauty’ is weary; limping along from overuse, and disappointed from being misunderstood (grant me the anthropomorphism – I’m convinced the poor word is actually suffering).
But beauty is the only word to describe something that caught me off guard, not long after my nephew Ryan died suddenly from an overdose of heroin and methamphetamine. Indulge me in the story?...
Many of us watch the destruction that can come from the angel-like experience of drugs on Breaking Bad. But Ryan was a brilliant young man with a broken heart and unnamed pain – he, in actuality, found drugs from dealers in Albuquerque. Those drugs took his joy. Those Albuquerque drugs took his life. Let me know if Hank Shrader is able to prosecute Walter White – our family needs to know.
Ryan and I were close. There was a sweet affection between us born in his childhood. He called me his ‘second mother.’ I write in the book about what happened immediately after his death:
Many (truly) beautiful things happened for our family in the midst of that horror. If someone you love has been snatched away, you understand the beauty that is a mystery too great for telling. But today I want to try – I want to tell you about a man named Boxer.
Four weeks after Ryan died, in the heavy fog of grief, I realized that I had something on my calendar. A Saturday had been set aside for a tour given to all the volunteers for an organization called Dry Bones – folks who befriend and assist homeless youth in Denver. I was brought into the goodness of what these folks do when they asked me to counsel some of the girls who had been brought into prostitution. The tour was to give all volunteers a clearer glimpse into the underworld underneath Denver. I had been anxious to take this tour; I wanted to understand a bit more of the stories of the girls (14 – 22) with whom I’d have the privilege of being. My step-daughter Sarah and I had planned to take this tour together, as she has deep heart for those forgotten in this world. Sarah loved Ryan – a lot. In our shared grief-born weariness, we decided to stick to the plan.
So we went.
The tour began on the 16th Street Mall, by Jos E Banks, jewelers, and restaurants. We then began, over three hours, to slowly descend. The Dry Bones guys asked us to pay close attention to the architecture, and how things changed each time we went down a ramp or a flight of stairs. Slowly the world changed. Somehow we were under the city we all know and love, in a world rarely seen and acknowledged. There are close to 12,000 folks without homes who live on Denver streets, estimates are that 6,000 of them are teenagers (kids who have fled abusive homes, completed the foster system with nowhere to go, etc.). This was their world. A world where mattresses are crammed into spaces beneath railroad tracks (meaning the trains run ten feet above their heads all night long); a world of homemade families, a tight camaraderie of courage- and a world filled with bottles and needles.
Okay, so you are still listening for what is beautiful. Hang in there – it is coming.
The tour ended in one of the largest tunnels under the city. Our Dry Bones friends went ahead of us to check to make sure we would not be interrupting anyone’s ‘home.’ The glare of low winter light hung just at the end of the tunnel, just enough light to reflect on the wrappers and discarded needles strewn around my feet. My gaze fell on a dollop of fresh blood, just near my feet, the vibrancy of life still in its clear red gleam.
My head started to spin. Ryan. All I could think about was Ryan. Sarah grabbed my hand, tears in her eyes.
Suddenly the outline of a man, not in our group, unexpectedly appeared at the end of the tunnel. Anyone at the end of a tunnel is going to look angelic. He was outlined in light, and he seemed earnest. He rested one forearm on the top of the tunnel, and held his hand to his forehead. The Dry Bones guys explained, “This is Boxer, and he has something he wants to say to us.” Boxer shifted slightly, cleared his throat and began what I can only describe as a guttural soliloquy to the horrific beauty of life on the streets.
“My name is Boxer, and I am a heroin addict. Where you are standing is our place.” He was not chiding; he just wanted us to know. “I want you to know that each and every one of us that has been in this space knows exactly what they are doing. We’re not bad people. Some of us have just given up. This place has been a place where we have found God by the enjoyment of being together. Some really bad things have happened here. I have found a few of my friends dead in here…”
Then Boxer did something - and I am convinced that what he did, he did for me without knowing. “I want to ask if we could hold hands and say a prayer together. None of us who have given up would ever make it if God didn’t find us. God came and found me, and now I am working to know our Lord. I would like to say a prayer to honor those who have died from heroin.” Once again I was light-headed. Did he just say that?
It all happened so fast. I knew going in to the day that my eyes would be opened. To what, I did not know. I did know that I liked the group that was taking me there – to the streets – because their ethic is so strongly one of respect, to break down the us/them mentality that somehow those without homes ‘need me’ or that somehow I won’t be given to or need them just as much. They were taking me in to these tunnels to show me how low some of us are forced to go because ‘up there’ does not welcome us, and we don’t have the heart or healing or resources to get ‘up there.’ To remind me of how low we all go.
But I did not see it coming. Sarah and I were given the gift of honoring Ryan on this day - the gift of remembering the one who I loved so deeply, one for whom there are a hundred irreconcilable questions, one for whom my heart hemorrhaged for frustrated vision for his life. There was a sacred acknowledgment of the evil behind the angel drug, the drug that without question brings a false taste of the divine to those who gather in the tunnel without loved ones, without family. I wanted to scream, “But Ryan did not die here in this filthy tunnel! His death may be from the same drug, but he did not die here.”
But my protest got washed away with Boxer's message. He was sad that drugs had taken his friends’ lives. Well, I was sad, too. It wasn’t about the tunnel, or a nice warm apartment. It was about all of our hearts, and those ‘giving up’ places in which we don’t know what to do. It was about how we get trapped, get caught, taken by something for which there is no margin for error.
It was unexpected communion; one I could not have thought up in a million years. And yes, it was beautiful. Beautiful – a word resurrected, new flesh on its bones. And truly, resurrection is the only beauty that matters.