The Broad and Narrow Way

In my father’s memoir, The Other Belfast – An Irish Youth, he wrote about a painting his grandmother had on the wall of her bedroom in her cottage. It showed what the Bible calls “the broad and narrow way” – two roads, a wide one with all the easy to find sins of the world, loaded with sinners engaged in all kinds of debauchery, and a narrow one with one figure, walking uphill toward a light. My father said he studied that painting until every detail of it was seared into his mind. I have searched the internet for the image. It may have been this one –

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Here’s a more modern one – 

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As much as I love the power of the written word – the right words in the right order – I’m not sure which shapes the heart and mind more – words or images. Imagery, film in particular, may be gaining the upper hand in the modern world, as more people watch movies than read books. 

When I was in elementary school, police officers and others came to our school to teach us the evils of drug use. In a pamphlet they handed out, there was a healthy-looking kid who didn’t use drugs and a freaked-out, twitchy one who did. This was one of the pages from it –

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That did the trick with me. I never wanted to become the twitchy kid hiding in the old box.

I had the added emphasis of watching my brother go down the road of addiction. My earliest memory of discovering his problem was when I was ten years old and he was thirteen. I was skateboarding with some friends at our elementary school and one of them said, “Hey, isn’t that your brother?” I looked and saw him running down the sidewalk on the other side of the chain link fence, flapping his arms and trying to fly. I called him and he came running over with a wild look in his eyes. He said, “Hey, little brother, want to try some of these?” He held out a handful of pills. He was my brother but not my brother. I said no and he ran off down he street, still trying to fly. 

We used to play baseball and frisbee in the street. That stopped when the drugs started. I became a potential “fink” (tattletale) to him and his friends. In fact, he began to torture me psychologically and physically when my parents weren’t around. He hadn’t just changed. He became sadistic.

A few years after the day he offered me drugs, I had a dream that he and I were walking in an unfamiliar part of town. He wanted to go down an alley. I told him it was too dark and that we should go around. He turned down the alley and said, “Come on. It will be fine.” I yelled after him, begging him to stay, warning him that something bad was going to happen, until he disappeared into the darkness.

As time passed, he listened to bands like Korn and Cannibal Corpse. I listened to David Wilcox and The Beach Boys. Still trying to get him out of that dark alley, I warned him that the messages in music, like chants, are embedded into the psyche because of their melodic and repetitive nature. He laughed and said, “This music is what I loved when I was young. If I started listening to Air Supply or Neil Sedaka, I would age rapidly and die.” 

He kept walking down that alley until he died of a drug overdose at the age of 37.  

I’m still on the narrow road. I still medicate myself with music with positive messages, martial arts (hitting bags instead of people), singing, trying to absorb the beauty and innocence of my children, and, of course, writing.

I still seek God. I hope He’s at the end of this narrow path. And I hope my brother is with Him.

 

The Devil’s Best Tool – For Anyone with a Drug-Addicted or At-Risk Friend or Relative

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I usually try to keep it light but I was thinking a lot last night about my older brother, Paul, who died twenty years ago of a heroin overdose. He always used to say, “I’m only hurting myself”, either oblivious to or in denial about the pain he caused our parents and I watching his gradual decline from a bright-eyed, intelligent kid to a tattooed, toothless living ghost. Of course, his death, though expected, wasn’t pleasant, either, being our worst fear realized. The years since have been hard, too, and may have contributed to my father’s death. He told me that at least once a day, he would get a terrible heaviness in his chest, wondering what he might have said or done differently to prevent Paul’s tragic life. That’s a hell of a legacy to leave the people who brought him into the world.

I wrote the poem below to try to demonstrate that drug use doesn’t hurt only the user – in fact, it emanates outward from him/her to family, society, and the world. Every thing we do does. Every product we use, including drugs, has reverberations into places we’ll never see and lives we’ll never know.

I was at a party shortly after my brother died and saw a group of people lining up cocaine on a tabletop. They saw the look of disapproval I gave them and asked if I wanted some, probably worried I was a cop or going to call one. I said no, impolitely. One of them asked if I had a problem. I said, “Yes, I do. Cops are being killed all over the world and here in America, and children are being decapitated in front of their parents by drug cartels so you can have your little recreational drug. You’re ignorant.” Things escalated. Friends got between us to prevent a fight. I guess I ruined their high. I hope so.

Anyway, here’s the poem. It has been used by DARE in schools. I hope it has done some good. If you know someone who thinks drugs are harmless fun, please share it with them. Preventing tragic lives and deaths like my brother’s is my way of making his life mean something. Thanks.

The Devil’s Best Tool

Can someone please explain to me
why kids think drugs will set them free?
Instead of reveling in their youth,
seeking health and art and truth,
they waste it all for some false high
as their golden chances pass them by
for success, pride, and the joy of giving,
all the things that make life worth living;
a victim of their own selfish needs
while everyone who loves them bleeds.

Yet users say, “I’m only hurting me”,
oblivious to the pain in their family.
They constantly whine and complain
about how their lives are full of pain.
And they have my sympathy, but here’s the rub –
If their lives are hard, they should join the club.
Many of us have lives that are filled with pain
but we don’t deal with it by destroying our brain.
We work hard and study and pray and fight
to conquer the demons that plague us at night.
We get up early each day and work hard and long
to make our lives better, to be noble and strong.

What good does it do to bury pain in that way?
The problem’s still there when the drug wears away.
How long can confronting it be postponed?
How long can such laziness be condoned?
There is sorrow and pain in life.  On that, I’d agree.
But beat it, don’t run from it, if you want to be free.
Using drugs just says that you’re helpless and weak
and shrouds even further the answers you seek.
Aside from the fact that it’s foolish and wrong,
it tells everyone that you’re not very strong.
Not strong enough to face life straight;
Not in control of your own fate.

Do you really think drugs are just harmless fun?
Then why does your dealer always carry a gun?
Have you ever really stopped to think it through . . .
The mayhem drugs cause on their way to you?
The habit drug users call “recreation”
causes death, despair, and devastation
in impoverished countries that they’ll never see
and right here at home in the land of the free.
But the land of the free has no room left in its jails
and the home of the brave is boarded and nailed
to keep out the rising legions of hell;
to hide in our sanctuaries and pretend all is well.

The experiment of America is becoming a sham
and drugs are the biggest chink in the dam.
All our institutions are beginning to fall
and if we lose our children, God help us all.
But day after day, the death toll repeats.
Dealers killing for control of the streets.
Gangs turning neighborhoods into war zones
where folks are afraid to leave their homes.
And when their only concern should be getting grades higher,
children have to worry about getting caught in crossfire.
In their lives, the specter of death always looms.
They don’t even feel safe anymore in their rooms.
Their sleep is uneasy when nighttime falls,
worried the bullets will come through their walls.
And peace officers, every day, have to die
just so some ignorant fool can get high.

If the buyers stopped coming, all this carnage would end
so if you have to keep using, at least don’t pretend
that you hurt no one else.  That’s an idiotic deduction.
No, you’re just one more stop on a trail of destruction.

My words may sound harsh but they’re written with love
because I can either hug you or give you a shove.
I’ll say anything to you and do whatever it takes
because if you gamble, you should know all the stakes.
I’m not a preacher or some self-righteous fool
but it seems that drugs are the devil’s best tool.
Drugs turn young boys with eyes clear and bright,
into homeless men sleeping in alleys at night.
Drugs make young girls start turning tricks,
selling their bodies for one more fix.
Drugs enter your life as a fun-loving guest
and slowly but surely rob you of your best.
You hardly notice as they become your master,
turning you and your life into a disaster.

So if you want to be part of the coolest crowd,
look for the people who are strong and proud.
Take it from me if you won’t from another.
because drugs took the life of my only brother.

For Paul William Rickerby – RIP