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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.