The Pieces Slip Away


“I realize this type of story plays out constantly in the world for many, many families. The pieces slip away or no one cares to remember the details. We see the summation of cause and effect in a homeless face on the street every day. It can be too complicated, uncomfortable and painful to ask why.”Darcy Padilla

My best friend is a miracle.

He spent his formative years unwashed, unfed and on the streets. Somehow, though, despite his own addiction, arrest and whatever baggage comes with being a reluctantly adopted child, he’s grown up to be an inspiring human being.

In my past life as a sheltered Christian missionary’s kid, I’d have judged JT’s foul-mouthed, irreverent schtick as ungodly. I’d have written him off as a suburban party boy, out to have a good time more than make good of the time he has. A heathen (he is, though, thank God).

Little did I know.

As an adult, nearly six years after meeting the guy, I can honestly say he’s an anomaly – in every best sense of the word. He’s the only completely honest person I’ve met. The only one who can shirk insecurity so entirely that he’s fearless. The only one who’s forgiven me for so many inexcusable mistakes. The only one I could truly call my best friend.

Of everyone I’ve met, JT is the one person who could legitimately make excuses for his every problem if he wanted to.

His mom, by her actions, loved meth more than her kids. She let them go hungry, sleep in parks, wander the streets, wear dog-shit-covered clothes to school, suffer abuse by whatever hubby/boyfriend/drug fiend was her partner at the time.

But still, my best of friends is consistently forgiving, always accepting, never judgmental, never one to make excuses.

When I stumbled across a photo essay by award-winning photographer Darcy Padilla of an AIDS-infected woman named Julie, I saw so many similarities to my friend’s childhood. Julie’s story drew me to tears almost immediately, and definitely by the time I heard the audio recording of a dying Julie on the phone with one of her five children put up for adoption by the state.

JT’s mom may not have had AIDS, but her life, like Julie’s, was a losing battle to drug addiction.

JT’s mom was beautiful as a teenager – model pretty with long dark hair and a slender figure. She was 16 when she met JT’s dad, a curly-haired, pot-smoking, guitar-playing ex-sailor suffering from schizophrenia long before the actual diagnosis in his 40s. The two “fell in love,” smoked crank, punched each other in the face, went to jail, bore three children, broke up, moved out, became homeless and bigger addicts.

JT and his siblings went from apartment to trailer to run-down bungalow, from Arkansas to Cali to Washington and Antioch again. Only time they’d get a decent meal was when their auntie and uncle rescued them every so often for a holiday or birthday. JT, his brother and sister would smell so bad they’d bring the auntie and uncle to tears. They were so skinny, their ribs showed and their little bellies stuck out. Their clothes were too small, threadbare, grimy.

As kids, they couldn’t care less. And I can’t imagine.

Today, JT’s used-up, leather-faced mom lives in a trailer – again. She drinks – a lot. She bathes hardly ever. Her face and frame look decades older than her actual age. She is, in so many ways, like Julie.

Yet more than anyone on earth, I want to meet her.

This is the woman who broke my friend’s heart by being so strung out on drugs for so much of the time he knew her that he felt like he could never really know her. This is the woman who chased her son around the kitchen with a butcher knife, who rarely fed him enough, who exposed him to abuse, who showed him the meaning of emptiness with her three-day out-cold crashes after an amphetamine come-down.

This same woman created an amazing human being. A man I’m honored to call my best friend. I want to meet her, I want to thank her.

When I read Julie’s story on Darcy’s website today, I could think only of my best friend. I thought that for all the depth of poverty I’ve seen as daughter to a missionary to the third-world, I’ve never directly witnessed the desperation of a mother losing her children to addiction, alcoholism and abuse.

For all the pain I’ve known, for all the filth I’ve seen, I could never know what it’s like to look your mother in the eyes and see cranked-out detachment drowning out paternal affection.

My friend has seen that, and despite it all become the most loving person I’ve ever known.

That’s why I cried. Because JT has every excuse not to be kind, but he is.

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