There are many paths to gratitude. Matt Clapper’s led him through a series of amends, and he is the better for it.
This is one of my favorite stories to tell. I was a sneaky, selfish, and self-centered teen. My mother had been divorced for several years and had met a man at her work named Ed Sharp.
He was a hard-working man with a sly sense of humor and no tolerance for liars and thieves.
Unfortunately I was both, so naturally I resented his intrusion into my little family—just my mother, my brother, and myself. In time Ed moved in and we established a mutual tolerance, I would cross boundaries he would set with regularity but little consequence. My mother had been my ally for years as my previous stepfather had been quite abusive verbally, and at times physically. I am sure that she and Ed had many a talk about how I was always getting away with things.
One day I had rode my motorcycle home from school and the clutch cable broke. I didn’t want to wait for Mom to get home to take me to get a replacement, so I went into their room and got a jar of half dollars that I knew Ed kept in his dresser drawer. I got the cable, put it on, and when my mom got home I told her what I had done. She was angry, but took me to the bank where we bought a quantity of half dollars to replace what I had taken.
As we arrived home I was a bit nervous to see that Ed had come home while we were gone. I figured he wouldn’t know what was up right away so I wasn’t too scared going into the house. My mom went first, I followed. As we came in the door I noticed Ed sitting on the couch, he looked up at us as we came in, and as he saw me his face flushed with fury and he lunged at me. I thought I was dead. My mom got between us and he stopped, but he poured out his fury toward me as he said he had been collecting those half dollars for years, many were gifts from his kids as they knew that he was saving them. None were old enough to have value greater than a half dollar, but they had sentimental value. I escaped as he and my mom argued about the situation. I had never been so afraid of anyone before that moment, I had seen hate in his eyes.
Things calmed down and we reverted to our mutual tolerance once again, but I continued to be a source of heartache and annoyance to those two fine people.
In time they separated, briefly, because it was just too much for them to tolerate, but my mom always gave me the benefit of the doubt. One day I sat across the table from my mother as I had just been caught doing one more thing to cause her distress and she looked me in the eyes and said, “I’m done. I am sick of you and how you treat us.”
Then she uttered the coup de grâce, “I hope you grow up and have kids just like you someday, no, wait … I wouldn’t wish that on anybody!”
I deserved that and I knew it. But it still hurt, and it fed an already growing self-hatred I felt inside. Those formative years set the stage for what would soon become chronic alcoholism and addiction. I believe that I had had an alcoholic predisposition long before I took a drink, and drinking and drugging became the medicine that I used to tolerate the self-prescribed misery that I felt about my life and how I lived it.
Fast-forward several years. I ended up in a drug and alcohol treatment center in Baker, Ore in 1987 at the ripe old age of 22. My probation officer, Russ Scharn, sent me there in lieu of getting a probation violation for a petty theft charge. Miracles never cease. I got sober and embraced recovery. Mom and Ed were very happy to see me start a new life; they were relieved and finally able to relax around me. I started working steadily and came to, and participated in, family functions. I apologized, and began a living amends. I got full legal custody of my daughter after divorcing my first wife—we had married in our teens and had only lived together about six months, but were still legally married. I remarried to a good woman and we started a clean life together. About seven years into my sobriety, we moved from Pendleton, Ore to The Dalles, Ore, and finally to Coeur d Alene, Idaho where my wife was from. I got a job at an Applebee’s restaurant working as a broil cook.
It was early December and we weren’t planning on going to Oregon for Christmas as we had our own little family now and it was a very long drive. One evening a waitress came back into the kitchen and announced that some customer had paid his dinner bill in half dollars. I instantly knew what I had to do. I approached her and bought all the coins that she had collected. The next day I added some more that I got from the bank. As I wrapped presents to send to my brother, mom, and Ed, I took the half dollars and filled a toilet paper tube with them. There was a little slack, but they pretty much filled it. I don’t remember how much money there was, but it was quite heavy, and I felt a strange sense of completeness as I sent the packages off.
About a week later I got a call from my mom, it was mid-December. She said they had received the package. I had wrapped all the gifts and sent them in one big box. As they pulled the packages out Ed had picked his up and gave it a gentle shake, and as he did the wrapping at the end of the tube gave way and all of the coins spilled to the floor, making a racket and rolling everywhere. Mom said Ed just froze and stared at the floor and all the coins … then he started crying, and they hugged and cried. I cried when she told me this, and I have tears as I write this now. At that moment we all connected, we all understood what the coins were for and the memories were softened by our tears. The tears we felt that day were tears of joy, of healing, and making right a long-standing wrong. We had healed as a family over those last seven years. I knew that day the power of amends, the power of forgiveness, and the power of love. I had gained an immense respect for Ed and his uncompromising integrity. I had learned from him that in order to gain respect one must earn it, and if you want to gain self-esteem, do esteem-able acts. My recovery program taught me that amends needed to be made in order make peace with the past and to not carry yesterday’s pain into today’s joy. I fully experienced just exactly what that meant, at how simple, thoughtful amends can change lives for the better—not just replacing an item that had been broken or stolen, but to give that person back their dignity and the security that I had robbed them of. I didn’t just take a few coins, I had caused Ed to feel pain and hate through my actions, both very powerful emotions that take a toll on one’s psyche, and discolored any future associations we would have together.
Ed died several years ago. I went to their home in LaGrande, Ore and stayed with my mother for a week as we prepared for the funeral and went through some of his things. There were no coins; they had long ago been disbursed, perhaps to a grandchild. But he had saved every gift I had ever given him, even the dumb ones a child picks out. Mom told me that he was very proud of me, and that he loved me very much. I knew he did, I had no doubt, and I had loved him very much as well. He treated my mother like gold, and they had a wonderful life together. He was the love of her life, and he deserved to be.
Over the years I have been able to help others in recovery initiate and go through the amends process as outlined in the 12 steps by simply telling this story—because I can transmit my genuine heartfelt gratitude for having our lives restored and renewed through the power of amends and forgiveness. The rewards are priceless.
Thank you, Ed, for being a man that showed me more true grit than John Wayne ever did.
Image: Flickr/Farther Along