The woman wore rubber gloves and a facemask in my local grocery store. It’s become an increasingly common site these days, not welcome, but common. She worked her way among the aisles, eyes sharp, consistently maintaining an appropriate distance from every person there. The store that has become so familiar to me was now so strange, so uncomfortable in it’s emptiness and fear.
Then it happened. Another shopper was having trouble, and they dropped an item. As I write this I can’t remember what it was. What I remember was the flash of panic in the eyes of the masked woman, the tension in her body as she froze in place, and the look of embarrassment on the face of the shopper in that position. The world has changed in a couple of weeks.
This was an hour before I was set to connect with Ken Caldwell. My last post was about reconnecting with his wife, Hope, who has always told me I should take time and hear his story. Hope told me it was incredible, and I now know her to be the queen of understatement.
So many of the people I have spoken to have been open. I’ve heard stories of struggle and triumph, smiles and cries. But in all of that time, I don’t think I’ve met someone as open as Ken.
Truth be told, I’ve struggled with how to tell Ken’s story here. I can’t seem to wrap my mind around how to tell it in a way that my heart will feel is adequate. So I’ve opted for simplicity here, for the straightforward talk of support groups. There’s a poetic reasoning and resonance in this choice you will come to understand.
Ken is an addict. Over the course of my life I have met many people who wrestled with this same struggle, but over the last couple of years I’ve developed a new appreciation for their struggle. My girlfriend has been dealing with her addiction since we’ve been together. In all honesty, she is the bravest woman I have ever met.
I find that same bravery reflected in Ken.
His story is full of wins and losses, of the moments he describes as “not yets.” I don’t have the time, or the skill, to realty do it justice. He tells me of the years, of addiction, both the joys and the destruction, of watching things slip away, and of facing death in a very real way. We talk of what is expected of us as people, of how we struggle to meet the expectations, and about the happiness found when we abandon them. Throughout it all, Ken’s smile can be heard over the phone.
In the midst of all of this, Ken tells me he has become grateful for this struggle. He didn’t understand how that could be when his journey began, and yet he does now. Living life, in the way it had unfolded for him, has taught him so much, opened his heart, and made him appreciate the world and the trust it takes to live in it. In the face of so many things that would make people crumble, he continues to move forward. Ken gets up in the morning and lives.
It’s the bravery that I’ve always admired. Not the kind we always applaud, but the kind that I think takes more. The courage to just get up and keep going, even when it all seems so overwhelming, but this isn’t what strikes me from our time together.
He reminds me of the greatest lesson I have learned. Everyone has baggage, and everyone is beautiful if you give him or her the opportunity. But that’s not the thing that really strikes me either.
Maybe Ken’s greatest wisdom is this. We may all look, act, and believe differently, but we are all very much the same.
We are all people, with all the brilliance and bullshit that accompany the condition. Our stories are full of smiles, cries, laughter, and the moments we raged against a God of our understanding.
I think back to the woman in the grocery store. Before this call I was outraged, angry that she would forget the humanity of another person. But Ken has reminded me that we are all the same. The woman is not malicious, not selfish, she is scared.
We all are, it’s just at different times and in different ways.
Two hours comes to an end. I ask him if there’s anything he wants me to keep out of this writing. As a custodian of stories I respect the people to whom they belong. He tells me no, nothing he can think of needs to be held back. I begin my struggle with how to share this gift immediately.
In the middle of a pandemic, two hours on the phone with a man I have never met have become an experience I will remember forever. An amazing story, a reminder of what it is to be human, and one of the bravest people I have ever met all over a simple phone that, just three weeks ago, I would have loved to throw away.
Ken, if you’re reading this, thank you.
Social distance and the isolation that accompanies it can be hard for many, especially when you combine it with the stress of our current situation. Please, reach out and connect with people. Share your stories and your time. Use the technology available to stay close to people.
If you want to be a part of this project and share some time and stories with others, or if you just need to connect with someone, reach out to me here.