She looked far healthier than when I saw her the first time, or later when I saw her photo, wearing a yellow smock on my daily jail report.
She made the perfect image of a pretty Saturday morning.
I meant nothing untoward when I looked at the young woman; she was just plain pretty, kneeling there in her front yard, carefully removing a store-bought plant from a black pot and placing it in a big concrete urn. I was waiting for the traffic to clear so I could make my turn without earning the ire of the hardcore beach-bound zealots, and flash of pink and yellow caught my eye. Were it not for the possibility of making her uncomfortable, I would have taken her picture, there among plants and flowers and growing green things.
The Flower Lady had apparently been hard at it since well before we finished feeding the livestock at our house, since fresh dirt rose richly around a line of carefully spaced flowers rescued from the black pots where they had languished in a nursery or a retailer’s garden center. Some were blooming, and others were threatening to do so at any moment. She had already planted a bright yellow bundle of zinnias in one urn, and was making sure its neighbor would provide a matching sentry for the steps leading to the mobile home with the neatly mown-yard.
Her hair was fighting to escape a bandanna; she wore a yellow t-shirt and a pair of those pants that I am told are not actually pajamas, although they strike me as such. Hers were pink.
I had seen her before as I drove by; indeed, even when she was moving in, it wasn’t the first time I had noticed her.
She looked far healthier than when I saw her the first time, or later, when I saw her photo, head cocked slightly to one side, wearing a yellow smock on my daily jail report.
I likely wouldn’t have remembered her at all if it weren’t for seeing her in a store I frequent. She used to live within walking distance of the store, in a much worse neighborhood. I speak to everyone I meet, and having been brought up a gentleman, I held the door for her to enter the store. She gave me a brief thank you then headed for the energy drinks. She never said anything untoward, and neither did I, but her skin tone, rail-thin body, and dirty clothes told the story of a serious addiction. I wasn’t surprising when she turned up on my crime report with the usual handful of drug charges that indicate a growing, festering drug problem.
I think convenience store clerks are like bartenders of a bygone era: they know everything. At the risk of seeming like a middle-aged predator, I mentioned one day that I hadn’t seen the woman in the store for a while. The clerk made a ‘tut-tut” sound.
“They picked her up for drugs,” the clerk told me. “May have been some other stuff – I don’t know.”
There was some other stuff, but not what the clerk hinted at. The other stuff was laid out in black and white beside the photo of the Flower Lady in the yellow smock. I shrugged and filed her away, just another lost soul amidst many. I am fairly sure I saw the young woman again in the courthouse one day not long afterward, with the nervous jitters of someone desperately fighting the cliched monkey riding her back. If it wasn’t her, it was somebody else’s daughter who made some bad choices and went down the wrong road.
Our church works closely with a drug and alcohol rehabilitation organization; almost every Sunday, we have a crowd of men who still struggle, and struggle mightily, to beat the pills, the powder, or the alcohol that helped them down a path to destruction. They have to want to be at Crossroads. Some end up coming back, but most learn to rely on God, not on man and his infernal chemical combinations when the going gets tough.
My experience is limited compared to most, but I have seen that painful shine in the eyes of those who are just starting their journey to sobriety, and the confident, triumphant look that comes from having been to the very bottom of the pit and brought back up through the patience and love of others.
The woman with the flowers stood up as I was making my turn, and I could see she wasn’t the drug-skinny waif she had been. She looked healthy and happy, even more so with an honest smudge or two of dirt on her face and her fingernails black with the promise hidden in potting soil. She waved and smiled.
She looked if not healed, then healing. I was happy for her.
A few years back, I ran into a fellow I’d written about time and again. Court-ordered rehab had been followed by a couple years behind bars, and he came out a changed man, at least for the time being.
He came up to me on the street one day as I was heading into a hardware store, and introduced himself as someone who’d spent time on my pages. I tensed, since some folks don’t appreciate it when they make the newspaper.
He admitted that he had stolen to support a drug habit, and said that he was a changed man.
“I ain’t like that no more,” he said, with a fervency I think he believed. I shook his hand (keeping my left hand reserved for a less-polite response if needed). Not long after that chance meeting, he was back in my crime pages.
Looking at the young woman planting flowers the other day, I wonder what caused her to take a different route from the overdoses and three-strike losers. Whatever it was, I am thankful for her choice, and even if I never know her name, I intend to pray that she stays clean. It’s got to be hard, especially in a spiteful, frustrating world like this, when you know what Kipling referred to as the “Sweet kiss of Mother Morphine,” albeit that kiss now usually comes in a pill. I can understand how if someone isn’t strong enough, or doesn’t have faith enough, that it would be easy to embrace the bliss when times get tough.
I sincerely hope the Flower Lady stays strong.
I sincerely hope she really, truly ain’t like that no more.