Seventy-one year-old Calvin’s three grandkids call him “PawPaw.” He met his wife of 42 years when they were in middle school. True “soulmates,” he says. “We still have so much affection and love.”
Storybook-sounding on the surface. You’d never know that beneath it all, Calvin and Gwendolyn were both were addicted to drugs and alcohol for years.
“Those were tough times to go through. Being homeless. Being jobless. I lost my job behind the drugs. I lost my home behind the drugs.”
Calvin hadn’t planned on telling me all this when I got in his car. At first we just talked about New Orleans, where he was born and raised and where I was visiting for a conference. I asked him what he loved most about his hometown. His answer: “Culture, love and warmth.”
He wore brown, horn-rimmed glasses that matched his complexion almost precisely. Huge lenses. His face was triangular in shape. Skin leathery, seemingly weathered not just by father time, but by the miles. Yet Calvin beamed a calm contentedness; a warm and peaceful smile that immediately made you strangely feel as if he weren’t a stranger.
As we began our half-hour drive from the French Quarter to the Tulane University campus, we talked about his city. About his family. It was then, right in the middle of his casual descriptions of life in Louisiana, that he just said it: “I’m 25 years clean from drinking and drugs.”
What had already been a pleasant conversation now had me leaning forward, rapt in attention. I started firing questions at him, which, ordinarily, would have seemed far too personal to ask any new acquaintance. But I figured Calvin’s stark disclosure had given me the green light.
How long were you in the grip? What substances? How did it all stop? How about Gwendolyn?
Calvin did not hesitate. He told me his story.
“I started in about 1984. It was recreational. Just for fun. And it escalated. When I first started, it was just cocaine. And after a while it was a waste of time, because I couldn’t feel nothing. They call it a tolerance level. Then after doing it for so long, the new thing come out. Freebasing. Crack. So, that gave you a faster high, and a higher high, then snorting cocaine. Eventually hooked me.”
Hooked for almost a decade. Until life changed.
“I was saved, gave my life to God. Twenty-five years ago I asked God to deliver me from drugs and alcohol. Send me to a place where I can get help, from drugs and alcohol. And he sent me to a place, a rehabilitation house. The house was a six-month to a year program. And I stayed in that program. And it was a HARD, HARD program. A hard program to complete. A lotta guys that went there with me or after me can’t say that they are clean, as of this time.”
Calvin had been steered to an inpatient facility called Adam House, which was affiliated with the St. Paul Church of God. I asked him if he could tell me more specifically HOW God had “sent you to that place.”
“I prayed for God to send me to a place. So he sent me to one guy, and that person knew of this place, and he sent me there. I knew him through the outpatient treatment I was already getting.”
The people at Calvin’s job at the time were seeking help for him, and through their contacts they introduced him to this person who knew of Adam House. To Calvin, this was without question divine intervention. And it’s how he discovered that to love life or to love anyone else, he first had to love himself. He says this came to him from God.
“Through his word. Through preaching. Through teaching. Because before I heard the word of God, I didn’t know how to love myself. I thought I was loving myself by treating myself to alcohol and drugs. Y’know, buying things that I thought I wanted. Things I thought I needed. By giving myself what I thought I deserved. Wrong. Wrong.”
We were getting near campus when I told Calvin that I had faced off with some similar demons not too long ago. I told him I admired him. Then I asked him two questions. The first: What have you learned over the past 25 years?
“I’ve learned through that test that there is nothing better than to be free of alcohol and drugs. There is no high better than being hooked on God, number one. Then, two, the state — the drama — the turmoil that drugs brings you through is not worth it. Not worth the feeling.”
Question number two: What are you grateful for?
“I got my health and strength. I’m still alive. I see so many people. I am a head Deacon in my church. St. Paul of God Church. I go to the hospitals. I go to the nursing homes, to pray over people. Pray with them and pray for them. And I have seen a lot of my childhood friends die — leave here — from drugs and alcohol. So, the thing I’m most grateful for, I’m glad to be here, be alive, and to be excited about life. Life.”
In the last few minutes that we were together, I thanked Calvin for sharing his story. For being so generous, so honest — to a total stranger. He pulled the car to a stop, turned around, and smiled at me.
“Well, that’s my testimony. I’m supposed to tell my testimony, because, like you expressed it to me, opened up to me, this was predestined to happen. This was meant for us to meet, at this time, at this point, so we could share, and talk like we’re talkin.’”
This conversation took place 11 months ago. I told Calvin that from time to time, I write articles about interesting folks and interesting ideas. Calvin said he wouldn’t mind at all if I wrote about his story if I became inspired to do so.
My final question to Calvin: If someone isn’t religious, as millions of Americans are not, what’s your answer for them if they get mired in the kind of trouble that runs this deep?
“Seek some form of God’s word. God is love.”
Amen, Deacon. And Happy New Year.