Sand Whore

Christ Forgiving the Sinful Woman  from the Monastery of St. John, Makrinos, Greece

Christ Forgiving the Sinful Woman from the Monastery of St. John, Makrinos, Greece

I don’t know what Jesus wrote in the sand so that all her accusers dropped their rocks and left her alone. I wonder what he wrote on the ground next to her, crouching there.

*

I was waiting for the water to break. That’s why I never called for help. Now, I was squatting on the floor of my living room covered in sweat and water and blood. I was holding a naked newborn baby in my hands. His umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck twice. I untwined it and then I cut him away from my body with a pair of sewing scissors.

I had not told anyone in the world I was pregnant. I was ashamed to be in this predicament again. I could not be sure who the father might be so I ignored the familiar signs — I would not go there…pushing thoughts away as soon as they surfaced, never speaking of my condition…denying reality — never even looking at my own naked body in the mirror.

I woke up that morning to severe pains like I had never felt before. Now I know they were contractions. I was in labor. I don’t even recall thinking those words. I was too scared to admit to myself even then ” I am going to have a baby today”.

The pains got stronger and faster and closer together. I could not get comfortable at all. I couldn’t sit. I couldn’t lie down. I could only pace back and forth.

Walk. Walk. Walk. Lean up against the wall. Breathe.

This went on for about five hours. I was exhausted.

Whenever I tried to rest, I felt trapped, so I just kept pacing – leaning against the wall when the pains threatened to overcome me.

I remember very little of those hours. I stopped thinking – perceiving nothing but that body had become a machine and I couldn’t stop what was happening.

Then it was time.

Instinct took over.

I squatted and pushed.

It was the most painful thing I have EVER felt … and when his head came out he broke the water, and it sprayed like a fountain all over the walls.

As I scooped out this baby’s mouth with my finger and slapped him on his bottom to bring him to life, I knew I was a mother … when I heard his cry, and flipped him over to see his face, I knew that I had fallen deeply and madly in love for the first time in my life.

That day was October 23, 1986. I was 23 years old and I had just given birth to the only child I ever bore. I named him Karl Thomas Booth after my father and my mother’s father. I called him Bo.

When I rose up from the floor holding him in my arms there was a bright red pool of blood on the carpet. The stain never came out.

I put Bo to my breast, called my best friend and asked her to come over and bring some diapers, and then I cracked a beer.

*

Hi. My name is JB. I’m an alcoholic.

It’s easier to say that now than it was five years ago.

That was the first clear thought in my head the morning I woke up face down on my living room floor – a sand whore covered in seaweed.

“I’m an alcoholic.”

And then,

“I’m not wearing any pants.”

The night before, (5 years ago today) — I could not drink enough to shut off the tormenting voices in my head. I’d been drinking for 30 years. Managing somehow to stay one step in front of my lies until 2003 when my beautiful baby, the boy I called Bo, died from a drug overdose. He was sixteen.

Everything caught up to me that day, June 17, 2003. That day, I stopped managing the way I drank alcohol for 25 years, and started in earnest to drink the way I felt entitled to drink. And even though I felt like had the right to drink, I was still ashamed enough to be drinking secretly –a fifth of vodka a day besides what I drank in public.

When husband and my “normie” friends were around, I suffered through endless conversations with people who nurse their beer and sip their wine. I could not follow along because I fixated on their half-empty glasses of pinot noir sitting alone, velvet and sparkly.

Even today, when I watch the priest pour the wine into the cup and place it stark and shimmering on altar during Mass, I sometimes still want to run up there, grab it and lift it up to my lips to feel the rich redness warm my blood as it slides down my throat.

So…. March 2008 – Saint Patrick’s Day. I don’t believe in a loving and forgiving god anymore. I know I am being punished for my sins and there is a big, black aching empty hole of misery deep in my gut. Churning bile that I projectile vomit out of me as soon as the first gulps of caustic salvation taken straight from the bottle hit my stomach.

I do not find religion in churches or holidays or traditions – I hate them. I find my spirit in the bottom of a bottle. All I can believe in is getting drunk enough to stop the demons that torment me. Alcohol is my religion – and today, St. Patrick’s Day, is the holiest of days.

A cab drops me off at a dive bar called Shuckers in Lincoln City, Oregon. I am alone. My husband is back in Portland working this week. I am at the beach “to get away” from the stress of being in the city. The reality is that I am hanging out alone in our beach house so I can drink the way I want to without upsetting him.

Tonight, I am at Shuckers looking for people to drink with me because I can’t stand my own company.

I am there for a party.

I am there to meet my new friend Earl – a man who, unlike my husband, drinks like I do.

Earl does not judge me.

When I am with Earl, I feel better than I really am, because he is so bad that I think I look good. So what happened that night, five years ago today?

That night, there was dancing and singing and kissing Earl for the luck of the Irish—and I drank and I drank and I drank – but no matter how much I drank, I could not catch the elusive feeling of ease and comfort I was looking for. I couldn’t even catch a buzz.

Predictably, I ended up in the bathroom on my knees, hands clutched around the porcelain bowl. I remember little things like the plunger inches from my face, plastered with little shitty pieces of toilet paper. I remember that I threw up yellow bile specked with tiny bright red drops of blood. I remember the need for more aching in my stomach and in my heart. I cherish those memories today.

Back out in the room waiting for another drink, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror behind the bar. This is the memory that I pray stays with me: my face in crystal clarity surrounded by glistening bottles of poison.

The guilty face of a bloated and blousy barfly — carousing with Earl in a dive bar called Shuckers while her husband worked a hundred miles away.

Worse than an adulterous wife, I saw, propped up against that bar, the woman who failed her son – who was just a child – just sixteen – with chipped black fingernail polish and his hair dyed bright blood red as the poppies in the funeral spray on his casket. A sight no mother, no matter how bad she is should ever have to see — her baby lying motionless, sleeping forever on a white satin pillow in a long wooden box.

I saw, in that bar room mirror, the woman who birthed Bo alone, who closed the lid on his coffin in front of all his grieving friends and family — the woman who could see the accusation shining through the sympathy in their eyes.

She looked at me and we both knew it was our fault.

I dropped everything and ran through crowd of people, through the bar, and out the door on to the street. I ran blindly across highway 101 to get away from that place where I could see myself clearly – running towards what I did not know.

The sound of an air horn blasted through the thickness in my head.

A flash of light and I was knocked out of the street down to the sidewalk by a sharp blast of air – the wake of an eighteen-wheel truck that barreled by, just missing me.

My upper right arm burned; there was gash in my shirt left by a loose cord that flailed off the trailer – an afterthought that lashed out – renting my clothing and leaving a faint mark so that I will be forever reminded that I have been saved.

On all fours, I cried salty tears into the concrete. I was drunk but the voices were still clear and excruciating. “You are a tramp. You don’t deserve love. You are a terrible mother who could not even get your baby grown up. You didn’t to listen to anyone — even your husband — who warned you that Bo was in trouble. You would not look at the truth because you didn’t want to see the truth about yourself. Now Bo is dead and it’s all your fault.”

I stayed crouched on the concrete and I prayed. This was not a prayer of thanksgiving for deliverance. Not a prayer of repentance and sorrow for my sins. Not a prayer for salvation.

It was a prayer of deep and painful regret that I was still here on this earth.

So here I am, on my knees on a sidewalk across the street from a bar called Shuckers. I am totally pissed off that the truck didn’t hit me. It would have been so quick – the constant overwhelming agony evaporated into a pink mist of oblivion. I beat my hands on the cement in anger and frustration while I berate God, the bastard who knocked me out of the way of that truck.

My palms are bleeding. I rock myself back onto my haunches. When I put my weight on my foot it hurts. I don’t want to walk the mile home on the highway where there might be more trucks.

So, taking a shortcut across the Siletz Bay seems like a good idea.

The moon is bright enough to show the tide is sort of out. The sand will be easier on my foot than the concrete. The glistening water looks like it will be comforting.

This is drunken reasoning at its finest.

 

Of course, it is a torture to walk. Each tentative step on the unstable, slippery sand feels like a nail driven into my heel. About half way across the bay, I stagger into what looks like a shallow stream only to be shocked by water that floods up to my waist and sweeps me off my feet. My mouth and nose fill with salt.

I thrash and struggle, trying to stand on something solid. My head breaks the water and I quickly suck in a breath of air before I slip under again. The shoe on my bad foot tears loose and floats away. Slippery strands of seaweed entwine around my ankles and knees. My hand bangs against something hard. I fight to get planted upright but I can’t get my feet under me. I tumble around in that creek like a rag doll in a washing machine.

While I am struggling, advice a friend gave me while we were drinking on the back of his boat pops into my head – “if you ever find yourself in in a place where you REALLY want to die, JB, drowning is the easiest way to go. Don’t struggle. Go limp. Just breathe in the water and you are on your way to Heaven. It will be peaceful.”

Bullshit! This is horrible!

When my head broke the water again, I cry out – “God, don’t let me die!!”

I don’t know why I asked for help. I don’t know if it was the guilt of knowing I would hurt my husband – like my son hurt me – or if it was a pure prideful reluctance to be an embarrassing news story in the Depoe Bay Beacon — fat drunk woman drowns in waist high creek – found by early morning clammers on their way to Mo’s for chowder.

Probably a longer headline than I deserved.

I went under one last time, thinking it was all over when I was lifted to my feet and thrown up out of the water on to hard sand.

I don’t remember anything after that.

The next morning, I woke face down on the living room floor of our beach house.

I itched.

The salty white crust on my arms and bare legs purified the alcohol fumes that usually reeked from my body in the morning.

My feet were encased in dried mud, hardened into cement shoes that probably should have held me down in the bottom of that bay.

When I reached up to touch my aching head and tentatively run my fingers across my scalp, my hair was so matted with muck and sand that I couldn’t get my hands through the snarls.

I didn’t know where my pants were.

Slowly and painfully I stood up heavy with the certainty that I could not go on like this.

I knew I was going to have to stop drinking.

I gathered up all the alcohol I had hidden in bottles stashed around the house and yard. When I saw what I had, I knew that I had enough to get me through the week.

I didn’t leave the house for five days fearing I would go to the liquor store to buy more.

Instead, I stayed inside and spent night and days pacing, crying, taking stock of my life… all the while taking scared little sips of the bitter poison just to keep from shaking.

I kept at it until I was almost dry.

I kept at it realizing I now loved booze more than I loved anyone or anything.

I kept at it for the rest of the week pretty sure that booze was the only thing that loved me back.

I kept at it realizing I was going to have to say good-bye to booze, too. And my heart was finally broken.

Sunday morning dawned more clear than I had seen in a long time.

I remembered going to bed the night before for the first time in many years.

But now I had to go back to Portland and start my new life without my only solace.

I was bitter.

I stopped at the D Sands beach on the way back to Portland where I would go to a meeting for people who wanted to quit drinking.

I got out of the car to have what felt like a last look at the surf before my party life ended forever — doomed to spend nights in church basement folding chairs under florescent lighting drinking bad coffee and listening to slogans like “one day at a time”.

As I stood there looking at the beautiful, roiling sea that could have been my gravesite, I noticed a woman wearing a trench coat and silk kerchief tied around her head. She was standing near me, smoking a cigarette. I couldn’t see her eyes behind her dark, round glasses. She turned her head in my direction.

“It’s a beautiful day.” I said, gearing up to ask for a cigarette.

“Yes! It is.” she agreed.

And then she said, “And it’s Easter.”

I froze. A hot pulse of anger I still don’t understand raged through me. I clenched my teeth. My gut roiled.

She smiled at me.

“Happy Easter”

She blew out a stream of smoke.

I didn’t have anything left in my stomach to vomit, so I when I opened my mouth to reply I spewed:

“Fuck Easter!”

She gasped and put her hand to her throat.

I turned and walked back to my car without bumming the cigarette I wanted.

I drove back to Portland, carrying the last bit of vodka with me in a pint bottle wrapped up in Bo’s red wool scarf as carefully as I would swaddle a baby.

When I got home that night, I poured it into a large crystal wine goblet and mixed it with enough cranberry juice to make it sweet and red. And then I sat alone in the dark and slowly and reverently sipped it until I had taken my last drink.

Easter. March 23, 2008.

*

A few years later, I come up out of sleep with a carousel of moments from last year playing behind my closed eyes.

Image: Priest on the concrete floor in red — reaching towards the horrible painting of Christ with His bloody thorns.

Image: Valerie looking like an angelic choir boy in white — kneeling on the step before the altar for the prayers of the people.

Image: People bending to kiss the large crucifix, cradling Jesus’ head, touching His feet, putting their lips on the cross where He is nailed.

Lazy and not ready to face the day, I try to fall back asleep, but memories from last year’s Good Friday service at the Downtown Chapel keep me awake.

I remember that I stepped over a man shrouded in a bright red blanket lying in front of the red doors of the downtown chapel. For three days I passed over him to enter the sanctuary – first for Recovery Mass on Wednesday and then for Holy Thursday and now for Good Friday.

 

When I entered the sanctuary, the only light on the bare altar was shining on a terrible painting of Christ’s tortured face that was hanging on the back wall in the place where the crucifix usually hung. I was captivated – His sad blue eyes looked like Bo’s, and the red spikes in his crown of thorns were the same poppy color as Bo’s hair was when he died.

We all knelt.

 

And then, Father Ron, wearing bright red entered the sanctuary, walked up the center aisle toward the altar and astonished me by laying face down on the concrete floor – his hands reaching out towards that terrible and beautiful painting of Our Lord.

 

He looked just like that guy who was lying outside on the concrete sidewalk.

My face burned fire hot with the recognition of something I did not understand.

 

We stood and knelt and prayed and stood and knelt and prayed.

 

And then something happened that I’d never seen before. The interns walking in front of the priest carried the crucifix up from the back of the sanctuary … and they bowed and kissed it.

I was horrified. Every Catholic prejudice I ever heard from my grandmother of idol worship rang in my ears. I wanted to avert my eyes in shame, but I was transfixed by what I was seeing.

 

I sat in that pew watching person after person embrace Jesus – lovingly kiss him, touch their hands to their lips and touch his feet… caressing his face like he was their brother or father or son….

 

Something changed in me as I witnessed the same people who stood on line day after day for socks or tiny bottles of shampoo – willingly stand in line again and without any shame or embarrassment that I could see, reverence the sign of salvation.

I wanted what they had.

I so wanted to get up there too.

But I couldn’t.

I could not get out of my seat, get in line, and kiss Jesus Christ on the Cross.

No way.

I was stuck in that pew — stubborn, alone, longing for love I knew I did not deserve.

 

The last person who approached was palsied, in a wheel chair, urine bag creeping out from under her lap robe. Hands and head shaking, she was barely able to purse her lips. But she strained forward to get closer as the boys who were holding that crucifix dropped to their knees to lift it up to her. Every ounce of her energy went into kissing the wood of the cross. While I sat frozen watching her — not able to get past the deep shame over how I had lived my life, I realized that was watching a person who had a better life than I did. I wanted what she had. I knew I was more paralyzed than her – and as broken as everyone else in that room.

 

When I returned the next night for Easter Vigil, I knew I wanted to receive the bread of Heaven and the cup of salvation.

I knew I would have to come to the Cross first.

NOW I am wide-awake, heart pounding. I am going to do this very thing today.

I am going to kiss the Cross.

I have serious doubts that I will be able to when it is time.

I jump out of bed.

It’s Good Friday, and I am going to volunteer at hospitality at the Red Doors today, and then I am going to the service where I will reverence the cross…. and then tomorrow night I will received into the Church and I will approach the Eucharist and I will be Catholic.

Oh. My. God.

Take one moment at a time, Julie Booth.

I’ve learned that much in three years of sobriety.

I get dressed before I can spend any more time freaking out.

*

We sit around the table upstairs in the hospitality center, someone reads the Gospel for Easter, and then Andy starts handing out assignments for the morning. I never volunteer for anything. I wait to see where Andy will put me because I believe he knows somehow the place I should end up.

He assigns me to the clothing closet.

Damn it.

I kind of actually don’t like — ok even hate being in the clothing closet.

It is tight and stinky. I cannot stay detached and removed from our guests in that place.

I almost want to tell Andy I’d rather just wash dishes in the kitchen, but I don’t — mostly because I don’t want him to think I am a wimp, and also because I’ve learned that I can’t say “no” to a reasonable request. Sometimes I have to do things that are not my idea.

It smelled really bad in the men’s clothing closet that day. Thick, rich, ripe…. not quite putrid. In two hours that felt like an eternity, I helped eight men find clean pants and shirts – two of them at a time and me crowded together in that little room. I admit I was really relieved when someone came and told me “last one, JB.”

On my way into the sanctuary for Good Friday service, I run smack into Fr. Ron — he is all in red like I remember from last year — all I have to do is see his face and my eyes fill with tears of anxiety. My hands flap as I blurt out “I just spent two hours in the clothing closet”

He looks at me thoughtfully. An idea occurs to him.

He touches my elbow.

“I wonder if you will do something, JB.”

The tears dry up immediately as I feel my eyes narrowing, suspiciously.

“I wonder, JB, if when it is time to reverence the cross, if you will join the other women in walking with the cross from the back of the sanctuary up to the front.”

He is nodding his head up and down at me so that I will mimic him and agree to his plan. My brow scrunches — is he asking me to do what I think is he asking me to do?

“We will lift the cross three times and you and the two other women will lift your hands up to the cross in a gesture of love, and then when we get to the front, you will reverence the cross before everyone else comes up.”

What????

“This will be the perfect thing for you to do with this energy.”

He lays his hand on my shoulder lightly until I nod my assent.

He smiles and walks quickly to the sacristy, his red chasuble floating out behind him like a superhero cape.

He turns just before he goes in.

“It will be fine.”

He always says that.

I am absolutely horrified.

I have been obsessing about this moment since I signed up for RCIA in September.

And that terrible Friday we call Good has finally come.

I am going to kiss that cross…..

going to really admit to God and myself and every other human being in this room that I need help — that I have to die to myself and let Jesus take on all the stuff I’ve been desperately clinging on to and I am going to have to cling to something else from now on.

And I am going to be admitting it in front of this community – where I, honestly, have held myself apart as “better than”…..

I am going to be in communion.

The idea takes me to my knees.

My legs are trembling and I have to hold the back of the pew to lower myself down. I look at my hands and see little red half moon scars on my palms where my nails have dug in.

I can smell the clothing closet on me.

We stand and kneel and pray and stand and kneel and pray and then it is time to get up and stand with the priest and the women in the back.

I am absolutely certain that I am going to burst into tears, vomit, and pee in my pants.

The priest lifts the cross says something and it sounds like it is coming from forever ago. All I can hear is my heart beating in my chest.

“Keep your eyes on the Cross” I think.

I am looking intently at Christ’s bent head and the nails in his hands and feet caught in the light. It’s the only thing I can see as we walk up the aisle — everything else has gone fuzzy at the edges. I wonder if I am going to faint so I look at Ron’s frayed sleeve.

It’s a little dirty.

Now it is time. I hold my breath like I am going underwater. My ears are full with watery muffled far away sound and I can hear waves crashing.

I have never been this close to a crucifix. This cross is not the shiny gold symbol I remember from my childhood. There is a twisted corpse nailed to it that is impossible to ignore.

I bend – and kiss — touching my lips lightly to the wood just under Christ’s feet.

A line from the third step prayer comes to me, “relieve me of the bondage of self”.

I am so tired I just want to lie down right there on the concrete floor but I go back to my seat and kneel with my head in my hands while everyone else takes their turn.

On the way out, we depart in silence. As we break through the red doors out on to the street again, a man I offered clothing to in the closet earlier, wearing the yellow shirt he was so happy to find there smiles at me.

“You’re OK, JB.” He says.

*

I don’t know what Jesus wrote in the sand so that all her accusers dropped their rocks and left her alone. I wonder what he wrote on the ground next to her, crouching there.

This story was written to be told, and was on March 17, 2013 at St. Andre Bessette Catholic Church as part of the Stories for the Journey Lenten Retreat. The audio from that telling is on Fr. Ron Raab’s website here.