This weekend, my family hosted a huge party (around 90-100 people in attendance) in our quant little backyard of our house. Family and friends flew and drove from down the road and across the country to celebrate life and love with us. Fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, and biscuits were on the menu and assorted local wines (for the alcohol-drinking) and lemonade and sweet tea (for the rest of us) were on tap. Some of my favorite songs and desserts filled the steamy September air with beautiful songs and smells. And we got to share it all with the people whom we love.
The little joys and luxuries in life are not usually lost on me. My life has been tremendously fortunate but I know what it is like to experience intense pain, suffering, and loss and beautiful memories like this weekend serve as warm, humble reminders that such delights are not a given in life. My gratitude, to put it simply, overwhelms me.
Yesterday, I cleaned up for a couple hours afterwards. Stacked chairs, washed dishes, put away candles--everything that made the evening so perfect had served its role and now needed to get out of my kitchen. Really, I like a clean house and I love a clean kitchen, so though exhausting, the cleaning in itself was rewarding. As I plopped on the couch to watch professional football with my husband (eyeroll: I was really grading because college football is far more interesting to me and I just can't get into the NFL like I can Alabama football, roll tide), I opened up my computer to begin grading and peruse social media. When I was skimming through Facebook, I noticed an alarming number of posted ambiguously referencing a classmate of mine from high school. They were cryptic in content and I hadn't seen this man since we graduated (even then, I only knew him in passing and couldn't tell you if I actually saw him at all at graduation). The only commonality that was evident was that they were sad.
It turned out, this young man, my age, my peer at one point in life, had passed away over the weekend. A quick scan of his profile (we weren't "friends" but he had a number of things public) updated me on his life in the past few years. No longer living in Appalachia, he moved to Florida, apparently with another high school classmate of mine. They worked in landscaping, seemed to be in recovery from a drug addiction, and by all accounts was living the life he loved and was always destined to live. While I was arranging cake platters and instructing my helpers of how to refill the drink containers, where to place gifts and cards, and what candles I wanted them to light, he was fighting for his life, a struggle he could not overcome. He died that day of a drug overdose.
I didn't know him well and in death I still don't. I wasn't particularly sad, not on an individual level, since I felt no pangs of personal grief, though I obviously felt for his family and sorrowfully questioned why life could end like that for someone. When I think of my peer groups, I don't know many people addicted to drugs, at least to my knowledge. The heroine epidemic, the opioid crisis, these issues involving the health and well-being and lives of an entire generation are important to me, but admittedly in a distant sense. Homicide and suicide are issues with which I have deep connection to. Shooting up and passing out just don't seem as close to home.
With this man's death, though, and with friends of friends and every other overdose I read, policy I hear, etc., I have continually asked myself what I would do if it were my son or daughter. I don't think I am at risk for addiction, as I do not use any drugs (legal or not) and I do not drink; my husband is solid and has impressive self-control so I do not fear for him in the same way either. But what about our children, or our friends, or our family? I think it is easy to distance ourselves from community problem when it isn't an immediate family or personal problem and then I think, but that in and of itself is a problem.
I have compassion for the afflicted but compassion without action is a heart without legs or arms; it simply doesn't matter. The issues afflicting a community require the attention of a community. All of the community. Those who are directly influenced and those who aren't. It is a burden, yes, but more accurately than that, it is a responsibility. When I think back to our party, each of those people whom we invited were there because they meant something to us, they did something important in our lives or served in someway that motivated us to include them. I can recall fondly moments, events, issues that have shaped my character and helped define my identity with these people and how indebted I am to them for helping me develop into me.
Sometimes caring is easy, actually working is hard. It is easy to lament our woes than construct helpful solutions for change. And you can easily get stuck in that stigma if you let it pull you in and if you let it pull you in, it is only going to pull you down. Change is difficult, work is difficult and yet the only thing that is going to change the problems in the world around us--be it racial conflict, police relationships, free speech, drug epidemics, ailing poverty--is hard work. This isn't a policy outline or an in-depth analysis of the cost-benefit continue. It is a call to action and a concern of the future if we fail to head that call.