Gabriel was nine months sober and waiting three more months to stand up and tell his story. He won’t be able to now, so I am going to tell his story the best way I can. I may not get all the facts straight, but this is what I know. It is a long story, and it is with a heavy heart that I share it. It’s also the most important story I’ve ever written.
He was thirty-four, born February, 17th, to a Mexican father he never came to know. He was raised by his mom and step-dad. His struggles with his step-dad were intense and, in part, due to his drugging behaviors. His mom and step-dad loved him dearly. He also had a sister and a brother.
What it was like:
In his early twenties, he started working in construction, making really good money and many “friends.” Even though he had seen the troubles his step-dad’s drinking had caused, he felt much pressure from his friends to drink and drug. The drinking was social and he always felt he had it under control, but the drugs made him feel powerful, invincible. Making good money, more and more of his earnings were spent on his drugs of choice, which were amphetamines, cocaine and pills.
Along with the drugs came risky behaviors. In his heart, he knew he was wrong, but the persuasion of the drugs was greater than his conscience. I won’t give you his drug-a-log or his drunk-a-log, suffice it to say, there were many instances where he had put his life or the lives of others at risk.
His family had tried everything in their power to alter his behavior, but he wasn’t ready to make any changes. He started living from pillar to post, burning bridges as he went. His life became harder, less manageable.
At age thirty, or thereabout, he and a friend walked into a Best Buy and walked out with a large screen TV. Right through the front door, they carried it, and were promptly arrested. At this time, he had more than $1000.00 in speeding tickets, willful and wanton reckless driving charges, and had a long history of theft by taking for which he had never gotten caught. Though he had driven all over the countryside, he had never taken the driver’s tests. He knew it was his turn to serve his time and the judge was not lenient on him, giving him three years in prison. During his time out, he had led his brother astray and felt much remorse for that.
Losing his freedoms and his rights, he saw that he was heading down the wrong road in life and knew he had to make changes. He had eaten enough black beans and rice, and pinto beans, to know he never wanted to return to prison, and the only way he could avoid that was to stay clean.
He first started a 12-Step recovery program in the jail and when he got out was absolutely convinced he needed to get a sponsor right away and work the steps. My husband, twelve years sober, has never protected his anonymity, he’s always hoped his openness might help someone else to see they, too, can stay sober. Gabriel, too, wanted people to know how the program had changed his life. Attraction, rather than promotion, is their motto, and he felt people needed to know it could be done. You could stay sober. He chose my husband as a sponsor.
Everybody had a hand in keeping Gabriel on track. It takes a village. He had many friends in the program and though offered a job back in his hometown in construction with his old friends, he knew he couldn’t go back to that environment. He started working for landscapers and loved the sense of freedom of being outside, working hard and making things beautiful.
His employers bragged on his work ethic and his drive. He was smart, fast, knowledgeable, and skilled. He could work every tool properly with care and took great pride in producing results. He also had a great sense of humor and kept them laughing through-out the day. He was a funny guy who worked hard but tried not to take life too seriously. His customers looked forward to his visits.
His first employer also became his first landlord and he paid half his wages in rent, but the guy had a drinking problem and his work ethic was not as strong as Gabriel’s. There was some major conflict between them. Then, Gabriel hurt his foot when a piece of metal pierced his shoe and drove into his foot. Unable to work and pay rent, he and his landlord had a major falling out. He found himself homeless, jobless, and injured…but he was set on working his program to stay sober. No matter the obstacles in his path, he kept coming back to meetings, worked his steps, and talked to his sponsor every day.
Even with his hurt foot, he was walking the neighborhoods looking for work, sleeping where he could, but making all the meetings he could attend. My husband talked to me about the possibility of Gabriel coming to stay with us for a couple of months until he could get back on his feet, literally. He had only sponsored Gabe for about four months and I had some reservations having dealt with addicts and alcoholics in the past. I feared the drama that might enter our lives, but conceded to have him come stay with us.
What it is like now:
He moved in with us in March. Gabriel quickly found work with a landscaping company. His foot heal fast and he was back at it. His work ethic was so strong, he would be up at 5:30 am making coffee for all of us every morning. He would work from 6:30 am till 2-3 pm in the hot sun, come home, shower, nap an hour and go out into our yard to work some more. He was never asked, but sprayed for weeds, weeded gardens, pressure washed the pool deck, sidewalks, and driveway. He trimmed trees and shrubbery, dug up stumps, worked with my husband on the boat and other vehicles, swept and mopped my floors, cleaned bathrooms, emptied the dishwasher, cleaned the pool, kept his room and laundry tidy and did everything possible to earn his keep and insisted on paying money toward his food.
He made us laugh every day and brought much joy into the family. He cracked jokes and played pranks. He had the most likable personality and my grandkids grew to love him and called him Uncle Gabriel. He played in the floor with them when they would come to visit. We trusted him to house/dog sit for us when we went away and he never let us down. We took him on vacation with us when we went. At the end of the last day, we went out on a sand bar at Big Pass overlooking the Gulf to watch the sunset. We had had a glorious day fishing and touring my husband’s old stomping grounds. He had caught the only keeper trout of the day. We had dined waterside at one of the best seafood spots on Sarasota Bay. Gabriel said those were the best scallops he had ever eaten. At the end of the day, he walked way out on the water and I snapped his picture. Later, when I posted that picture on my blog with his permission, I asked what he had been thinking about out there alone. He said, “I was praying prayers of gratitude for the beautiful day.”
Every day was beautiful to him, and he radiated happiness, and his presence brightened our days. In a short while, he had become like a son to us. He had served his prison sentence, paid off all of his debts, the tickets he owed, he had guided his brother back into the fold and away from a bad situation. He had reconciled with his parents. He had studied his Big Book, character defects (temper, impulsiveness, unwillingness to admit when he was wrong), made his amends, and took ownership for his part in things. He had cleaned up his side of the street. He worked his program diligently and attended all the meetings he could squeeze into a day, getting my husband involved in taking a meeting into a homeless shelter on Wednesday nights, as well as attending meetings with him a couple of other nights a week. He attended several different random meetings around town introducing himself to new people on weekends. He had started going to church with one member every Sunday morning. He made a decision to turn his will and his life over to God as he understood Him. He was living a beautiful life.
He had studied for and passed his written test to get his driver’s license back. He was set to get his driver’s road test done this morning. He had short and long term goals and his plan was to buy a truck and trailer and start his own landscape business. He had just started working with a new boss a couple of months ago who had more work for him to do than his old boss. He had saved up money toward the truck and was making real progress toward his goals.
Friday, July 8th, he came into the house around 2 pm. I asked if they were knocking off early. He smiled his big smile and grabbed a couple of sodas and told me, “Nah, we’re working right down the street. I’ll be back in a little while.” They had a couple more yards to do.
He didn’t come back in a little while. We really became worried at suppertime. We didn’t even know his new boss’s name. He picked him up at the front door every morning and dropped him off every afternoon. We were concerned that he might have gone back out to drink or drug. It was a logical thought. That’s what had happened with all of my husband’s prior sponsees. He was convinced Gabriel was different. We started calling hospitals, looking up inmate records. We had no numbers for his family or his boss. We spent the night at the computer, and went to bed in the early morning hours with his dinner plate still on the table and his supper still on the stove, hoping he would drag in at some hour.
He never did. That morning, we looked up highway patrol records and saw the only accident reported was a fatal motorcycle crash in Ethan’s Glenn, a subdivision near us. We dismissed it because he didn’t have a motorcycle. His family, mother, sister and two nephews and a niece came by around 2 pm to tell us he had been involved in a dirt bike accident in Ethan’s Glenn that snapped his neck and he was dead. I was devastated.
I was home alone at the time and my husband was at a local café with his sponsor. I called them to come home immediately and invited the family inside. They did and we talked a long while with his family as they collected his personal effects. Although we had been listed as emergency contact, once he was declared dead, they had to notify next of kin.
Gabriel had inherited a pocket watch from his grandfather who had died while he was living with us. The only reason his mom knew our address was because she was preparing to send him the watch and he had shared it with her. He had never even told his mom his sponsor’s name. She had felt he was doing so well, he deserved to take possession of the watch. He had called her every day to report on his progress and ask how she was doing. Sometimes speaking with her three or four times in a day. His sister said he had always loved dirt bikes, ATVs and three-wheelers…anything that would go fast. The temptation of the adrenaline rush was too great.
His boss came by Sunday to return his cell phone and tell us how things happened. It gave some sense of closure, but certainly didn’t lessen the pain.
After work, his boss was going to drop him off at our house as usual. Gabriel, who had been to his boss’s home before, offered to help him unload his equipment. They had to move the dirt-bike out of the garage to get the equipment inside. Gabriel had begged him to let him ride the racing bike in the past. His boss had told him it was a powerful bike, but promised him that he would take him out to the dirt track to ride some weekend when they weren’t working, as it wasn’t a bike to ride on the street. He was getting ready to sharpen his blades with his back to the garage door when he heard the bike crank up. He turned to see Gabriel flying down the street on the bike. Gabriel came into a curve and never braked.
When he hit the palm tree, his boss ran down expecting Gabe might have a broken arm and was yelling at him for his stupidity. When he arrived, he saw it was far more serious. The home owner had come out and they had to call 911 because the guy was hysterical and distraught. He could not believe the reality of what had just happened. They were doing CPR and took Gabriel away in the ambulance. The Florida Highway patrol arrived and pretty much said one passenger vehicle with one driver involved, and assured him they would contact us as we were listed as emergency contact on his phone. They never came.
His boss, eight years sober, had lost his little brother to drugs. Having taken him under his wing when his parents were forced to push him from the nest, his brother had been arrested. On Christmas Day, the jail called their father to say he had hung himself in the jail. We didn’t know this man, but we had heard these stories in the rooms, time and time again.
Gabriel’s story was different. He had made it. He was doing all of the next right things, one day at a time.
One bad decision. An impulse. A self-acknowledged character defect. And gone.
He went doing something his sister said he loved to do.
He will be cremated. His ashes given to his sister, brother and mother. His mom plans to sprinkle the remainder in a memorial garden where a memorial plaque will be erected. A service in his hometown will be held the 23rd or 24th.
I hesitated to be the one to tell someone else’s story. It’s not my place. But I also know how eagerly he anticipated the day that would come at one year sober when he could pick up his year chip and tell his story. We had spent many an evening on the lanai talking about the things he wanted to say. He was ready. There were times when he felt unloved. There were times when he couldn’t love. But he was loved by many. He had learned to love and be loved. In sobriety he found love.
He wanted everybody to know love heals.
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