My Favorite Drug Dealer.
At one time, Carly was one of San Diego’s most successful drug dealers. Her body guard packed a gun and she carried wads of cash in her purse. I met her several years later when she was in prison for the third time. She was eight months pregnant and about to be released from the California Institution for Women. Carly was 30 years old and had chosen us to adopt her baby after reviewing adoption profiles in prison. She had named her daughter Rachel and wanted her to have a better life. She wanted her to go to college like my oldest son Ken, who had just started at Harvard. And she wanted her to learn to play the piano like Andy. Mostly she wanted Rachel to have a father like Bruce. When Carly told me this on the phone a few weeks earlier, she started crying, because she never had a father, and she was certain her own life would have been different if she had.
I waited outside the prison for two hours. I strained my eyes to see her on the other side of the chain-link fencing. She waved to me and I ventured in her direction. A tower guard shouted at me to step back. I never got closer to the fence than about 500 feet. What had I gotten myself into? I am nothing like her. The divide between us seemed bigger than the fences, barbed wire, guard towers and armed prison security. I was intimidated by the whole situation. And I was nervous and anxious about meeting Carly. People cautioned me about trusting someone like Carly. After all, she had a history. But I held her letters in my hands. I had read them many times. Their frank sincerity always surprised me. I trusted her because… well… I don’t really know. I guess, because… I just did. When they finally released her, she hurried toward me. We hugged and cried and hugged again. And we wiped tears off each other’s faces. It was a strangely intimate moment for two people who had never met before. If I close my eyes, I can remember that moment, and I still marvel at it. I wonder if Carly remembers it the same way.
I know something of Carly’s past and I have made several attempts to describe it here, but in the end I always feel sick inside and delete it. But you can imagine it yourself and though the details will be wrong, the essence of what you imagine will be true enough. It has all the typical characters: a dead beat dad who disappears early on, an overwhelmed mother with her live-in boyfriends, a brother of questionable loyalty, and a sister she tries to protect. It’s a story of abuse and survival. A story of innocence lost far too young to remember ever having possessed it. At the same age when I was still safely cocooned in a world of loving parents and fanciful dreams of fairy princesses, Carly was trying to protect her sister by hiding her under the bed. Shouldn’t all this make you hard and bitter? Shouldn’t Carly have been skeptical of everything? Why did she cry when she first met me?
At 14 Carly started dealing drugs. No one had to teach her how. She knew what to do. If she had nothing else going for her, at least she had that instinct to survive. Her mother fretted, worried and booted her out of the house. In time Carly had four sons, all from different fathers. Carly’s mother sued for custody, won and denied her visitation. When Carly told me this story she explained that, at the time, she thought her mother was being mean. Only now could she see her mother as her guardian angel. Carly’s lifestyle did not lend itself to parental stability; it was no place for children, and it did them no favors to pop in and out of their lives with that kind of sporadic irregularity.
For a while, Carly had lived the high life. Once she was arrested at the hotel where she was living. The room cost her $3000/night. When the police took her away she had diamonds on her fingers and $30,000 cash in purse. She went to prison and when she came out, she had nothing. It was always that way. By the third time she was in prison she knew the routine. Whatever possessions she had, a shirt, a hairdryer and few books, they were all gone when she came out. None of her friends ever saved anything for her, they just took what they wanted. The rest was distributed to the four winds. I took Carly shopping for the basics, some t-shirts, pants, and a grey Mickey Mouse hoodie. She was in love with it the moment she saw it. I didn’t expect that. There was a certain innocence to the things she loved. Like the time she told me she always wanted a job at Walmart. It was like all the unfulfilled dreams of her youth were still alive, waiting for their chance. There was still something inside her untouched by all the trauma, an eager sort of gentleness and a budding hope that God might not forgotten her.
Carly was full of paradoxes. On one hand, she seemed to fear nothing. She could walk alone into a dangerous San Diego neighborhood at 2am and not blink an eye. But in a hotel room a night when the blinds were open, she was genuinely afraid and could not relax until I shut them. She told me that once she was in a room when guy pulled a gun on another and threatened to kill him. “That was not a big deal,” she said. She was not afraid. But driving with me on the freeway and seeing a cop car 5 lanes away clearly paying us no mind… that made her jumpy. I had not even noticed the cop, he was so far away, I only saw Carly was upset.
I loved how Carly spoke so openly and honestly about her life and she rejoiced so genuinely about small things. When I took out the blessing gown I had purchased for Rachel, Carly clutched it to her chest and exclaimed it was perfect, “just Rachel’s style.” Which made me laugh, because Rachel wasn’t born yet and how can she know her style? I loved how Carly talked about the baby, as though she had always known her, and on this point we connected as well. We believed this baby was ours together and she had a purpose and this purpose was greater than either one of us. When I look back, I wonder if we were fools to dream so big, to believe so absolutely, to think God had put his hand into our lives and turned our feet onto a new path.
I spent five days with Carly: shopping for the baby, going to the doctor, visiting her parole officer, finding her a place to live. It was an education like no other for me to experience my environment through her eyes. I knew we lived in entirely different worlds, but I never understood these worlds were superimposed on each other, like two different dimensions occupying the same space. We walk on the same streets, shop in the same stores, eat in the same restaurants and even read the same books, but our worlds are different. She would point to someone on the street and say, “that guy over there is a dealer.” or “do you see the woman? She is an addict. I quit selling to her because she had a kid. I could never sell to someone who had kids at home. That is one boundary I managed to keep,” she said. “That, and I never sold my body. I have done a lot to things I am not proud of, but I never did that.” Everything about her life was foreign to me. And I think I was as much an alien to her too, someone with a freakishly stable life. I think it was as hard for her to wrap her head around my life as it was for me to wrap my head around hers. She would say things like “What? You never tried drugs?” or “You were a virgin when you married your husband?”
In those 5 days we spent together, we were never left each other’s side, except once, when I went to church on Sunday. Reentering my own world was jolting. I felt like no one there could understand who Carly was and why I loved her so much. Who could understand such a thing anyway? What connects a 40-year-old college professor with at 30-year-old drug dealer anyway? In what universe, do two people like that become so close? I tried to talk to one of the ladies at church about Carly. She was a sweet lady, but I was quite certain she could not understand. She leaned away ever so slightly as I explained about Carly. Perhaps, I misinterpreted her reaction, because she offered to help. But I felt or imagined that she would rather not get too involved. To this woman’s credit, she did end up giving a Carly a ride to her next doctor’s appointment a week later. But Carly felt awkward around her and found someone else to give her rides.
One month later, Carly started having doubts about her decision to place Rachel for adoption. She burst into tears on the phone, hardly able to speak the words, telling me she felt like a monster for even thinking about keeping Rachel. We cried together and I told her I was glad to know she loved Rachel so much. But what do you say in this situation? Mostly I tried to comfort her. In the end, I wrote her that letter (posted here), the one in which I give her permission to back out, if she feels it is the right thing. Still I never really believed she would.
When Carly told us she was keeping the baby, I held it together on the phone but felt apart afterwards. For days I could hardly get out of bed. When Rachel was born, I was the first person Carly called from the hospital. She was so happy and I sobbed into the phone. Carly listened to me and tried to comfort me. I will always love Carly for that, for being there for me even though my sadness surely must have tainted her joy. “Cindy,” she said. “You are the miracle in my life that made me believe I could be a mom. I am determined to live my life right–for Rachel’s sake.” In the end I think both of us were incredibly naïve. Being around each other made us think heartache could not touch us. But we both have had plenty of heartache since.
In the following weeks I tried to throw myself back into my work, but I spent a lot time crying in my office. It seemed like I cried all the time: in the car, at the grocery store, in bathroom. Bruce held me in his arms, called me often throughout the day, and kept propping me up again. My poor family hardly knew what to do. I kept telling myself to get over it. I kept telling myself to be strong for my kids’ sake. But grief doesn’t work like that. It is not something you can focus on intensely for a while and then cross it off your to-do list. I am a let’s-get-this-job-done kind of person and my practical skill-set was entirely useless for dealing with grief. And I realize this again, right now, as I write, because I suddenly noticed that I have been crying while writing.
Looking back, I remember some strange things kept happening in the first weeks after Rachel was born. Carly and Rachel followed me around in almost tangible ways. I went to the temple. It has always been a place for me to meditate and I have often found comfort and inspiration there. In the temple we receive the name of an ancestor. The name you get it random. When I received mine I started to shake. The name was Rachel. I cried through the whole service. A couple of weeks later my good friend, Jen, seeing my overwhelming grief, encouraged me to attend the temple again with her. I told her what happened the last time and insisted that I could not do that again right now. She assured me such a coincidence could not possibly happen again. I knew she was right, so I went. When I got my name I began shaking again. RACHEL! I will never forget the look on Jen’s face, shock and compassion all mixed together. She wrapped her arms around me. It was several months before I dared go to the temple again and I have never gotten that name since. I am not sure what to make of those incidents. Coincidence? Perhaps. But I choose to interpret it as a message. As if God were saying, “I see you, Cindy. I know you hurt. I have not forgotten you.”
A couple of weeks later we went to visit my sister in Idaho. It was good to get away. We all needed distraction. We attended church on Sunday with my sister. As we sat on the benches I picked up a hymn book. A name was stamped along the top edge of the book where all the pages stack together. It said “Carly”. I picked up another and another. Every hymn book in that chapel was stamped with the same name. I showed it my husband and he sat shaking his head. Apparently, we were in the Carly Chapel on a street with the same name. I thought about Carly and in this moment an idea occurred to me—it filled me with an odd sort of pleasure. I picked the nicest of the hymn books and slipped it into my purse. I was trying not to smile as I walked out of church that day with a stolen hymn book in my bag, clutching it to my chest and looking furtively about.
I have never stolen anything in my whole life. But somehow this just seemed like the absolutely right thing to do. When we got home from that trip, I wrote Carly a letter and sent her the hymn book. She called me. She could not believe I had STOLEN it for her. But I knew it could be no other way. This was my way of showing solidarity with my friend, a way of telling her that I see her and honor her life, all the good and the bad together.
I told my family about the book I stole. My father-in-law, an absolutely kind and honest man, asked me if I was going to replace the book I stole. In fact, he was gently reminding me that I should. How could I explain to him that could not do that? It was not about the money. I could easily spend 10 dollars on a book. But the book I gave Carly needed to be stolen. In my mind, only a stolen hymn book could bridge the chasm between my life and Carly’s. How could I explain to my father-in-law, that I felt God approved of my theft, maybe even inspired me to do it. I did not try explain. I just nodded contritely to my father-in-law and smiled to myself.
What is different about me now? I no longer see Carly and I on opposite sides of the prison’s chain link fence. In my mind, I see us standing together: both on the inside of the prison or both on the outside. That naive sense that I had somehow earned my comfortable place in life is gone. We are not so different. Given other circumstances, I could have been Carly! If I feel sad that I lost Rachel, I also feel grateful. What I learned from Carly cannot be learned from a book. I do not know how to pass it on to you. I am not even sure what I am trying to pass on. I certainly do not advise you to trust drug dealers. I guess, I just want you to know that out there among the people you are inclined to despise or avoid, there are souls like Carly’s—people worthy of your love, living YOUR alternate life, the one you would have had, if your circumstances had been any less.
You will not find Carly Street or Carly Chapel on a map. Carly is not her real name. But her real name really is on a street and there really is such a chapel. Those hymn books do exist and my sister uses them at church. This idea makes me happy and I still smile thinking about that book I stole. I doubt Carly has it anymore. Her life has been an up and down battle. The last time I spoke to her on the phone was in 2010. She said, “Cindy, I am afraid my life will always be a mess.” But I still have hope for her. I think she’ll figure it out. It takes time though, maybe a very long time.
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