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With our cousins – Tricia is on the far right; I’m third from the right

Let Me Stand

Mark Schloneger

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  • jeanne detellis

    Thank you for sharing your story and your heart that many of us can grasp and relate to some present relationships.

  • Betsey McCarley

    The symptoms and causes of addiction are always similar and always there in us and in front of us. I love my Trisha and see her in every word of this story. She is walking this path and is in jail right now. She is loving, giving, caring, and her vulnerability is both her strength and weakness. Thank you for writing with such insight and feeling. I pray you receive the forgiveness from her and from God and heal the shame you carry. Then help others heal and deal with their shame and their addiction. In Christ.

  • Brenda Becker

    Thank you for letting me meet your dear sister through this beautiful piece. I will keep her in prayer.

  • Charlie Carini

    After retiring I wanted more ways to encourage those addicted. I completed a program called Substance Abuse Councillor. Frankly that program wasn't for me a non substance abuse person as the work load is unending & the Business model is rife with overt flaws while even run by those of great compassion. So I do what I can. I find myself now volunteering locally with Vets on the Water and an after school program for youngster wanting to build boats. I forgive just about all, even myself. Yet I cannot come to forgive those in the pharma biz & certainly not those profiting in anyway. We may never get there but thanks for the encouragement.

  • Christine (OBrien) Avina

    Thanks for sharing. I remember your family . I am from North Clinton Mennonite Church. Your Father Bob married me in 1981. Your parents are very special people. Will keep your day in thought and prayer. God bless

  • Bill Chadwick

    Thank you so much Mark, for such a beautiful, and poignant remembrance of your sister Tricia. My heart breaks for you as I consider the words of your article; those in black print, and those in the white spaces of your very soul. I was taken by your account concerning the powerful anger you experienced.... against the "Heather's" of the world, yourself, and even God. I've experienced similar feelings throughout my life, but none so evil and powerful when in 1993 my beautiful 21 year old son's life was snuffed out in an instant by a drunk driver behind the wheel. Michael was the antithesis of Heather. He never "pushed Tricia down" and from childhood had always reached down to help his older sister up from a thousand falls since her birth.... the difficulty of living with Spina Bifida, a dreadful and debilitating disease. It was that love and compassion that guided his life of unfailing grace for those less fortunate than he was. We lost count of Michelle's surgeries around her 5th birthday... some 18 operations prior. We had always prepared ourselves for the day when she might succumb to her disease. The last thing we expected was that her brother, in perfect health, would beat her to the grave. Grief and mourning seem like such a natural process for women. Many women tend to "run towards the victim," openly expressing their emotions and sharing each other's pain. Men have much to learn in that regard. In the early days of debilitating grief and mourning... I learned that God indeed hears our prayers, even when we literally scream at Him! Ironically, one of the most influential mentors of my life is a well known member of the "Plough" community; the late Christoph Arnold. My story appeared in the original version of his book; "Seventy Times Seven." We became close friends over the years ... both of us loving and learning from the other. It was Christoph who helped me grasp the incredible free gift of God's unending Grace. It was through that relationship that I was able to begin the journey of forgiveness ... forgiving God, the drunk driver, and importantly.... myself. I love your words; "Lying on that sidewalk, pushed down by me and untold others, the Christ Child lies where my sister fell." I've now counseled many other "grieving Dad's" along my path of recovery.... many of them seething with anger at God. Today I know that when that car slammed into that concrete pillar that fateful night, when Michael drew his last breath, that God was the first one to cry. My God doesn't go around with His hands on steering wheels or His foot on the accelerator! “It is fate, destiny, nemesis. Perhaps the dawning of knowledge, the coming of sin. Or more prosaically, the catastrophe that awaits everyone from a single false move, wrong turn, fatal encounter. Every life has such a moment. What distinguishes us is whether—and how—we ever come back.” ― Charles Krauthammer When the pain of such a "fatal encounter" is so overwhelming that it cuts our legs out from under us and literally "brings us to our knees." It is there that many of us finally encounter the boundless personal love and grace of Jesus Christ. Looking back, I sometimes wonder why we shouldn't just stay there; still hurting.... but stronger in the broken places. Blessings!

  • Donna King

    This account of your childhood brought tears and reminded me how shallow we are sometimes and oblivious to the needs of others. Not only did your sister have a "Heather"; I believe you also did, in your own way. May God bless others who read this story to reach out to not only persons who are struggling, but also to offer support and encourage to their families, who are also struggling. Praying that God will bless you and give you peace, knowing that you made things right with your sister.

  • stephen steiner

    Thanks Mark for sharing this tribute to Tricia and your own brokenness. I weeping from your meeting Jesus in this way.

  • Brenda Shelly

    How beautifully remembered and lovingly written. Thank you for sharing your story. I always enjoyed your Wednesday Word writings as well.

When my sister Tricia was three years old, Heather pushed her down. Heather, who lived in a neighboring house and was Tricia’s age, had been talking with her on the front stoop when the two girls had a difference of opinion. But it ended with a push from Heather, and Tricia on the ground.

Most young children would have forgotten the incident almost immediately. But not Tricia. To her, that push was an injustice that could not stand. “Heather pushed me down,” she proclaimed to Dad and Mom. “Heather pushed me down,” she informed me that night from the lower bunk. “Heather pushed me down,” she announced to aunts, uncles, grandmas, grandpas, and every subsequent visitor to our home. Several months later, when we moved to Ohio, she was still repeating the line to a whole new audience.

Tricia at age three

Tricia at age three All photographs courtesy of the author

Last year, grieving my sister’s death, I remembered the Heather Incident and wept. That’s because Heather turned out to be a recurring character in Tricia’s life story. “Heather pushed me down” was a three-year-old’s cry for justice, a tiny fist raised in defiance against the powers conspiring against her. Over and over and over, Tricia announced to the world what had happened to her and who had done it. Then, she stopped.

Sometimes, the Heathers she faced were people taking advantage of a vulnerable girl. Sometimes they were the result of her own choices. No matter their origin, Tricia’s Heathers kept pushing, pushing, pushing. At some point, she stopped believing it was an injustice worthy of protest. Maybe she simply accepted it, even came to expect it. As she grew older, I think she learned what the world seemed to be teaching her: “You deserve it.”

“Heather pushed me down.”

While the first three years of my life were spent in a protective, loving home, Tricia’s experience in her birth and foster homes must have been on earth as it is in hell. She struggled her entire life to find healing from the abuse she experienced as a baby and toddler. And, if she ever thought she could forget it, her body was there to remind her.

Whenever she looked in the mirror, cigarette burn scars appeared for her reflection. Whenever she touched her left wrist, another scar marked the hump it once carried, the broken bone that had gone untreated. Cosmetics and surgery hid the blemish, straightened the bone, and never touched the wound.

Until Tricia came into our family, I was the youngest of three boys. Suddenly, I was a new big brother, delighted to move up to the top bunk. Having a girl in the family meant I had to dig through endless Strawberry Shortcake accessories to get to my Hot Wheels in the family toy box. It was always Strawberry Shortcake for Tricia – they shared the same dazzling red hair.

On the evening of her first day in our family, we all ate popcorn and watched The Wizard of Oz on television. I was terrified by the flying monkeys and couldn’t finish the movie, but three-year-old Tricia stayed to the end, captivated. From that day and through all the years ahead, she watched The Wizard of Oz whenever it was on. We didn’t know, that first time, how much her life would resemble a lost girl on a strange road, looking for a way back.

Tricia in high school

Tricia in high school

In elementary school, a learning disability limited her progress and magnified her limitations. In middle school, she was raped by a boy a few years older than her, a family acquaintance. He threatened to kill her if she told anyone. She didn’t, until a few years ago. “Heather pushed me down?” That was for three-year-olds. Now, she raged against my parents, my brothers, and me. At night, I began locking my bedroom door.

In high school, I heard someone in the lunch line talking about Tricia. She was easy, he said. She put out. She was a slut.

I was enraged and embarrassed. I wanted to punch him, to push his head against the wall, to make him bleed. But I did nothing, said nothing.

As an adult, Tricia was unable to give and receive love in a consistent way. She struggled with multiple addictions and was often jailed for drug-related offenses. She was regularly unemployed because she was regularly undependable. Her relationships with family members were often strained. She loved her two children deeply, but wasn’t able to mother them as she wanted and as they deserved. In her pain, she inflicted pain on others – and accepted the pain inflicted by others.

Then came the day when a doctor addressed Tricia’s complaints of chronic pain with an opioid prescription. When the prescription ran out, she turned to heroin. It was heroin that took over her life before taking her life.

One weekend in November, 2016, the small town of Wooster, Ohio, reported six heroin overdoses. The Channel 5 Evening News reported:

Like many Northeast Ohio cities, Wooster has seen an increase in the number of suspected heroin overdoses in recent months. But police say they’ve never seen anything like the surge that happened Thursday between 3 and 11 p.m. Wooster police chief Matt Fisher said two of the overdoses left people on life support.… “Listen, they’re somebody’s son,” said Fisher. “They’re somebody’s daughter, aunt, niece, nephew. There’s people that love them.”

This report garnered its share of Facebook comments, including someone’s attempted witticism, modified from a popular meme: “I’m not saying they deserve to die, but I’d unplug their life-support to charge my cell phone.”

Two people died that weekend. One of them was my sister. She was worth more than a cell phone.

The heroin epidemic in our towns and cities is nothing short of demonic. Heroin and other drugs gain a foothold in vulnerable people and then demand more space. They cause people to hurt themselves and to push away those who love them the most. They distort people’s images so they can’t be who they were created to be. They enter, coerce, possess, then kill. Do I believe in demons? You don’t doubt their existence when they’re on your doorstep, pushing.

With our cousins – Tricia is on the far right; I’m third from the right

With our cousins – Tricia is on the far right; I’m third from the right

But they are elsewhere too. There’s a spirit of evil alive in the callousness of those who have not been thrown down by addiction, who lightly post, as in another response to an overdose report: “Let them die. If they can afford [to] do the drugs.… We all have choices in life.”

There’s a spirit of evil alive in the callousness of those who have not been thrown down by addiction.

Yes, choices. Sometimes those choices are options like Fall and Fall Again. During Tricia’s last stint in jail, she wrote out her statement to the judge before her sentencing hearing: “I am forty-three years old, and I’ve had a lifetime of bad choices and decisions that have caused much destruction to all of those who love me. And I am done. I don’t want to live like this any longer. I just don’t have much fight and survival left in me. I want to truly have a chance at a normal, healthy life.” She described her plans to join a women’s support group because she “no longer wants to live under the influence of heroin and everything else that goes along [with it].”

“With prayer and God’s grace,” she wrote, “I will take one day and one step at a time.”

The jail chaplain and others who visited her vouched for her sincerity. They said that she truly wanted to make changes in her life, that she acknowledged her addiction and made plans to get an injection to help manage its power. They said that they liked her. I wasn’t surprised. In her later years, she was most truly herself when she was in jail: funny, charming, generous, and genuine.

Tricia was released from the Wayne County Jail on Thursday, November 3, 2016. Hours after her release, a friend and former supplier searched for her like a twisted shepherd looking for one lost sheep. He found her at her daughter’s apartment and then led her to the valley of death. This time, the heroin was laced with fentanyl. For the final time, Heather pushed Tricia down. She never got back up.

When I was around ten years old, I had a dream that shook me from sleep. It was one of those dreams that won’t fade in the morning sun. To this day, I remember it vividly. Tricia is chasing me. I sprint down streets, dart through yards, cut across fields, but I can’t escape her. I rush up the steps to a large house and stop to open the door. When Tricia comes up behind me, I spin around and push her with all of my strength. She tumbles backwards off the porch and down the steps, and lies still on the sidewalk below. When I go to look more closely, it’s not Tricia on the sidewalk. It’s the baby Jesus, looking up at me.

Tricia, Mom, and me

Tricia, Mom, and me

For many years, this dream tormented me. Throughout my life, I’ve been angry at Tricia as well as ashamed by her, afraid of her, and worried for her. I’ve been angry at God as I prayed for Tricia. I’ve been angry – am still angry – at those who abused her, used her, raped her, and discarded her. But my most consistent feeling concerning Tricia was guilt, a feeling that my dream seemed to reinforce.

With time, I came to understand how my desperate need to achieve, to earn approval, stemmed from a desire to prove to others that I was not like my sister. For a troubled girl seeking affirmation, how hard it must have been to have a brother determined to grasp the very things that would never be in her reach. For an exploited girl seeking solace, how hard it must have been to have a brother on a mission to prove that his sister was not his parents’ fault. For a vulnerable girl seeking safety, how hard it must have been to have a brother who wouldn’t speak and act in her defense. The truth is, I was one of Tricia’s Heathers.

My sister, my confessor, granted me the absolution that she never fully knew.

Several years ago, I felt convicted to ask Tricia for forgiveness. She was in jail at the time. By appearances, I was a successful brother – a pastor – generously leaving his loving family to visit his failure sister – a felon – languishing again behind bars. In reality, our positions were reversed. She held all of the power, and I was afraid. I had no idea how she might respond. I knew she couldn’t run away – she was in jail, after all – but we had never really talked on a deep level about anything, much less about how we had hurt each other. I didn’t know how she thought of these things, or if she ever did.

The guard unlocked, then re-locked, door after door. He ushered me into a bleak, block-walled room, and I sat down on a lopsided folding chair. When Tricia came in, she was happy, excited to see me, as always. We talked as we always did. She asked about my wife, Sarah, and each of our children. When I asked how things had been for her recently, she began evaluating area jails as if she were writing Yelp reviews. We laughed together, and I was tempted to leave with the good feeling of a good conversation during a good visit.

But then, with an aching lump in my throat, I choked into words the reason for my visit, spanning several decades of guilt. She listened as I asked for mercy. And then, she forgave me – immediately, completely, without minimizing my need. My sister, my confessor, granted me the absolution that she never fully knew.

Tricia, 2014

Tricia, 2014

After Tricia died, my thoughts returned to that vivid dream. It had haunted so many of my waking hours; now it became a comfort in my grieving ones. Lying on that sidewalk, pushed down by me and untold others, the Christ Child lies where my sister fell.

Tricia faced many Heathers in her life. Some were of her own creation, but others were people like me, broken people inflicting pain from a place of pain. In the end, the ­distinction does not matter. Are any of our choices made in complete isolation from the choices of others, for good or for ill? Can anyone be solely responsible for his or her successes or failures? Wouldn’t it be more truthful to acknowledge that people cannot solely navigate their lives as either helpless victims or solitary warriors?

In the end, these sorts of philosophical questions are asked only by people who are standing. Once you’ve fallen, it doesn’t matter how you got there. You just want to get up. You long for someone to help you, to take you by the hand, to lift you up, and to walk with you so that you won’t fall again.

When Tricia’s funeral service was over, everyone walked across the parking lot to share a meal in the church fellowship hall. That’s when Stacy, one of Tricia’s friends, waved me over and asked me where she could go for a smoke. Being at church, she didn’t want people to see her. I directed her to a place just around the corner, but she asked if I could go with her to show her.

But this I believe: the living Christ waits in the places where we fall.

My heart sank. I was physically and emotionally spent, and all I wanted to do was claim a seat with family members who I hadn’t seen in far too long. I had walked with Stacy only a few more steps when she stopped, lit up a cigarette, and told me to stay in front of her. She gave me no choice. I was her human shield against the condemnation she expected and the shame she felt. So she smoked, and I stood. And the more she smoked and the more I stood, the more I thought that this was the perfect way to remember my sister. With smoke on my clothes, I gave thanks to God for Tricia – deeply flawed, deeply human, deeply loved, and deeply loving. Only God knows how many times we fall. Only God knows how many times no one is there to pick us up. But this I believe: the living Christ waits in the places where we fall. Together, my sister, we rise.

Contributed By

Mark Schloneger is pastor of North Goshen Mennonite Church and lives in Goshen, Indiana, with his wife and three children.

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