Emailing the dead

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Finishing a book is never easy. How do you come up with the final words, the classic summarizing conclusion, the brilliant wrap-up?

Those last paragraphs always scare me but somehow — and I can’t explain this — they fly out of nowhere and fit seamlessly into place.

I’ll never forget the moment in Walla Walla’s Green Gables Bed and Breakfast, when William Cope Moyers and I were struggling to find a way to end his memoir, a book we’d been working on for almost three years.

He was frustrated, and I was relentless, repeating my question over and over again. “How do you stay sober?”

“I go to meetings,” he said.

“What else?”

“I keep going to meetings.”

I kept pushing. The book needed something more specific – something more “William.”

He jumped out of his chair and started to pace around the room. “What else do you want me to say?”

“We have to go deeper. We have to open that vein.”

I don’t know what I was looking for but I did know that while meetings were critically important to William’s sobriety, they were not the only reason he stayed sober. Something had to get him into those meetings.

“OK,” he said, throwing me a wild look. “OK! I email the dead.”

I remember sitting there with my pen poised in midair, my mouth dropped open.

“I email the dead,” he repeated, reaching for his cellphone. His hands were shaking as he scrolled through his emails.

“This email is from John K. I met him at a Monday night meeting in St. Paul. He was from Texas, not far from where my father grew up in Marshall. I mentioned Neely’s Brown Pig BBQ sauce, and he promised me that the next time he came to St. Paul, he’d bring me a bottle. Later he sent me this email.

“‘Give me a call and let’s have lunch, look forward to seeing you,’” William said, reading John’s message.

A few months later, John K. drank himself to death. But William still has the emails and every once in a while he’ll write to his old friend.

“‘Hi John,’” William said, reading again from his cellphone. “‘Wherever you are I want you to know I am thinking about you. I’m sorry we never got a chance to dip into that barbecue sauce.’”

The email returns moments later with an automated reply. “Undeliverable.”

“I email Paul F., a brilliant graduate student at UCLA who worked for Hazelden as a consultant on public policy issues,” William continued. “The last time I saw Paul was at a Hazelden benefit in New York in 2003.

“He looked elegant in his tuxedo, but as so often happens with addicted people, the outside didn’t match the inside. He was relapsing but was too scared to admit it. Ten days later he was dead.

“‘Damn you, Paul, why didn’t you ask for help?’ My email bounces back with a ‘fatal error’ message.

“I email Mike R., who I met at Fellowship Club in 1990. On Father’s Day two years ago, Mike wrote me a long, chatty email about his new job as a high school teacher and his 13-month-old daughter who was taking her first steps.

“Sobriety makes possible all the joys of my life,” Mike R. wrote.

“Three days later he was shot dead in his car by a teenager who was under the influence of drugs,” William said. There were tears in his eyes.

“I emailed him recently. ‘Dear Mike, I miss you.’ The email returned to me a few minutes later with the message ‘user unknown.’”

William gently placed his cellphone in his briefcase, putting the memories to rest for the time being.

“I email the dead,” he said, his tone softened to a near-whisper, “and they remind me that when we are gone, we can’t hear the cries for help any more than we can reach out to touch and be touched by the people we love.

“We are ‘undeliverable.’ ‘Unknown.’ Our addresses have ‘permanent, fatal errors.’

“I feel the emptiness,” William said. “I listen to the silence. And I am reminded once again that recovery is my life.”

Then, simply, the book’s final words:

“I want to live.”

Kathy Ketcham is the co-author of 14 books and co-founder of Trilogy Recovery Community. Email her at ketchak@gmail.com. For more information, go to www.trilogyrecovery.org.

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