Christmas Soul Savagery

December 23rd was a reminder for me. It was a reminder that there are still wounds covered with bandages that I’ve ignored too long. Bandages that, when removed unexpectedly, reopen the painful wounds of memories buried just below the surface. My emotional bandage was ripped off unexpectedly by an unsuspecting innocent bystander asking a simple question he’d been asking everyone all day. “Would you like to donate to….?”

The question stopped me in my tracks. I thought I could hold my composure as I responded. I was wrong. I was compelled to donate…..and started shaking as my hand pulled the bills from my pocket. Tears started rolling down my cheeks. It stung. No. Stung is an understatement. It was more piercing than a sting. It was broader. It covered more area. It ripped off a large bandage that had remained in place too long. The scab and the bandage had become one. The simple question reopened my deeper wounds to the air.

Perhaps I should start from the beginning. Or at least earlier in the story.

I lost my oldest son to an accident on September 18th, 2020. He was playing in his truck on the levees along the Illinois river. It was both where he worked and where he played. He was in his element, obviously enjoying himself. But it all went wrong in an instant. His truck flipped, he was ejected, and his truck landed on top of him. I received “the phone call” a few hours later. From T.J.’s phone. “Mr. Harden, I’m sorry, there’s been an accident……”

Holidays, birthdays, 18ths on the calendar…..they all changed significantly.

But there’s another part to T.J.’s (and my) story that spins and weaves itself inside the fibers of my emotional bandages. From older, deeper wounds. From longer running, more chronic pain. It wasn’t as sharp. It was a constant dull ache in the background that seldom ever really surfaced overtly. It was just there. Always there. For years.

T.J. was an addict. A recovering addict, but an addict nonetheless. Truth be told, I had been expecting “the phone call” for years. During the months of no contact from him or the seasons of intermittent contact. Some lucid. Some seemingly a bit off. Some just out there. In my mind, contact was contact. I knew he was still alive. But the dull, throbbing pain was there. Constant. Somewhere in the background. Weaving its way in and out between conscious and unconscious thought.

T.J. had been scratching and clawing to get away from the tentacles of addiction for years. Trying to make me proud of him. Trying to live up to the potential everyone else once saw in him. And he was succeeding. I think. He had a job he loved. He seemed happy. Genuinely happy. Finally.

He knew that I knew he was struggling at times. I’d get random phone calls or texts from him that I soon understood to be his way to fight the cravings. To get my help to break the tentacles free. And I think we were doing it. I think. I appreciate those SO much more now. After the fact.

T.J.’s drug screen was clear when his truck landed on him.

Roger's car with the Pilot convenience store in the background. TJ's name and birth and death date are on the windowSo, when I pushed my gas tank further than I’m usually comfortable with on the way to my son Drew’s house and ended up finally being forced to stop at a Pilot®/Wendy’s ® on the top of Monteagle pass in TN, the emotional bandages, long since ignored, were unceremoniously ripped off in an instant. It was as if I was supposed to push it that far. To end up at that truck stop on that day at that exact time.

I fueled up my truck and pulled into a parking spot to go inside to grab a burger. I noticed a man at a table outside the entrance. The table appeared to be covered with t-shirts. Judging by the red, white and blue colors I saw and by the one gentleman talking to the other, I assumed it was political in nature….so I ignored them as I passed.

After my burger and unsweet tea, I headed back out to my truck to head north. As I hurriedly walked back past the table I heard the man say “would you like to donate to …. addiction….recovery ….”. I froze inside. I asked him to repeat himself…”What did you say this is supporting?….” “Soul Savage Ministries. We are a faith-based, long term addiction recovery program.”

I said “Yes. Yes, I do.” And tried to figure out how to hold my tea and fish out cash from my pocket. I was losing it. I felt it. The man said it was OK to put the cup on the table. I still couldn’t quite do it in one motion. I was shaking as I fished the bills out of my pocket and tried to figure out what I had in my hand. Tears were flowing.

The look on his face was one of helpless confusion. He handed me a blue slip of paper as he was trying to tuck the bills away at the same time. I turned to grab my tea and walk back to my truck, still shaking. He asked if I was OK. I tried to explain the hyper-shortened version of T.J.’s story. I don’t think he fully grasped it all. Who could blame him? I didn’t fully grasp it all. How could I expect anyone else to?

Then he asked if he could pray with me. I said “Certainly” in a voice that surely cracked. He lifted his hand to put it on my shoulder and stopped short before asking permission. I agreed. He asked me my name, placed his hand on my shoulder, and prayed for me. By name.

TJ with sunglasses on his forehead in front of a tan house and window with a white frame. He's wearing a black t-shirt with the Soul Savages Ministry logo on the front.The bandage was completely ripped off. The long-hidden, raw emotion was fully exposed to the air. Tears flowed, off and on, for the rest of the trip.

I’m still not sure what it all means. The immediate answer was that maybe T.J. was telling me “Merry Christmas”. That he’s OK. That I need to peel the bandages off. That I need to let the wounds heal. Not that they’ll ever go away. But I can’t keep them completely wrapped up anymore. I need to face them. All of them.

As I sit here watching my grandsons this morning, I am realizing that I have sucked at Christmas for a long time. I’ve been subconsciously so wrapped up behind the bandages that I have undoubtedly done a disservice to the rest of my family. I need to fix that.

I’m sure I’ll learn more as time passes. I hope I will anyway. I’m also not sure what to do with it. Yet. The verse on the blue slip of paper tells me that I need to do something good with it. And I will.

To the man at Pilot ®, thank you. More than I can say.

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