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FTIAT: A Love Without Strings

Anna is a longtime friend of mine. Although she is not a blogger, her words in handwritten letters and emails alike have moved me for more than a decade.

I knew she would do well by the series with anything she submitted, but did not know just how deeply what she eventually sent would rock me. The moment I read her post’s concluding words, I knew hers would be the post to close out the FTIAT series. I have reread the post at least a dozen time since, and my conclusion is always the same.

I want the words Anna has written here to be the ones indelibly etched in people’s hearts when they recall this series. I want them to send long-lasting ripples of love and grace through those hearts the way they have done with mine.

And I want to thank Anna for not only writing but living by example, and for always, always loving without strings.

Recommended post: This one

A Love Without Strings

(Note: Out of respect for the recovering, some names have been changed)

I met Gabriel in my living room, where I was sunk into a fat flowery couch with my right foot propped up, recovering from ankle surgery. I was four months sober at the time and had been scared to death of general anesthesia– not because I thought I might not wake up, but because I was terrified I’d like the drugs so much they’d pull me back into the hell I’d just climbed out of.

Gabriel was a 28-year-old French-speaking guitar-playing wisecracking heroin addict. He was tall and cool, slouching down in the chair in my living room while his recovery teacher Mark chatted with me about God and friends and the world outside my living room.

Bless him. Mark and I weren’t a natural fit for good friends (one of my own teachers refers to him as my nemesis and spiritual guide), but he knew how scared I’d been of the surgery and how lonely and crazy I still was, stuck in the house where I’d drunk myself to the bottom of my alcoholism. Four months from the last drink is not a long time. We need each other badly in the beginning. So Mark came to see me, and Gabriel got dragged along. I remember I was so aware of Gabriel. I wondered what he was thinking of me in my baggy T-shirts with snacks all around. I found out later he had just detoxed and was pretty well paralyzed with fear, which is how we get when we first clean up, so he probably wasn’t really aware of me at all.

Gabriel went out, as we say, shortly after that. I knew from Mark that he was using again. That happens to lots of us, and I hadn’t known him well anyway, so I tootled along for the next year: learning things, trying things, getting all banged up, asking for help. Growing. It was a painful, messy, beautiful time. I was busy.

In the spring of that next year, 2008, Gabriel came back in. I found out when I went into a local detox place to give folks there the spiel about some of the sorts of help that are available to addicts and alcoholics. Understand, this is not a treatment center, this is straight-up detox: walk in, get medically supervised through your delirium tremens, your cramps, your aches, and your shakes, and walk out. The clientele is usually collectively doped out of its mind.

But we go, and we say who we are, and if someone wants to hear more about it, we talk. I thought I recognized Gabriel on a couch, and when Mark followed me onto the sidewalk afterward, he told me a secret: Gabriel remembered me, and while I was talking, he had leaned over to Mark and said, “Look. See that chick? Beautiful.”

Is it any wonder I liked him?

This time, Gabriel stayed clean. I had been sober about a year, and he and I started frequenting the same places. He was excellent company: smart, funny, and opinionated, exactly such stuff as crushes are made on. I had a pretty good idea about the trustworthiness of my taste in men (not currently on parole looks like a green light to me), and I asked my own teacher to point me in the right direction. I needed to learn to be friends with straight men my own age anyway; my only two speeds at the time, regardless of whether I was interested, were terrified flirting and complete shutdown. So I told her: I want to be Gabriel’s friend, but I’m kind of afraid he’s going to die. And this is what she said:

He might. We do. And if you think Gabriel might take you out, then don’t mess with it. You don’t need to die for him. But Anna, at some point in your life, you are going to have to decide whether you are the kind of person who only loves people she thinks she can control, or the kind of person who loves even people she knows might hurt her.

Whoa, right?

I did what we do: I listened, I wept, I prayed, and I surrendered. I understood exactly what she was saying, and I knew I did not want to live a life filled with narrow, fearful loves.

And I opened my heart to Gabriel. It might not have looked like much from the outside, but for the first time in my life I entered fully into a relationship without even the illusion of control.

We played backgammon. We argued. We talked poetry, journalism, Europe, dreams, family, and art. And the whole time, for the whole friendship, I knew he might die, I knew I could not stop him, and I loved him anyway.

Gabriel celebrated 90 days of sobriety at the end of that March. His mom came from Chicago and his sister came from Berkeley.  That’s how long he’d been a hardcore, death’s-door addict: his mama and his sister crossed state lines to see three months for themselves. They went to the coast for a day. There are beautiful photos. We went out to coffee and chocolate croissants one morning in a big group and I ended up talking to his mom for a while. I cannot imagine what it is like to parent a person like Gabriel. To know your baby is in the grips of something so powerful. Never to know whether you’ll see him alive again. His sister told me later he’d started talking about being a father himself, and he hadn’t talked like that in years. He had assumed– they all had– that he wouldn’t live that long. It was a joyous morning.

Monday night, two days after the celebration. The family had gone home. I saw Mark’s number and I knew what it was. There’s no other reason for him to call me at that hour. Sure enough: “Well … Gabriel is dead.” I said oh no oh no and sank down onto the kitchen floor with my back pressed up against a cabinet. My roommate, a woman who’d been sober nearly 20 years, poked her head in, saw me on the floor, nodded grimly, and backed out. After I hung up, she came back in to debrief. You okay? Yes. I’m so sorry. Yes. This happens to us a lot. Yes.

I know. But God. Fuck. Gabriel.

Does it seem like a sad story? It doesn’t get less sad at the end, and there isn’t a sequel.

But ever since I got sober, stories like this have tended to have a miracle in them. The miracle in this one is the way my heart stayed open. Gabriel was my great teacher of love without strings. When a person walks up to me today and asks for love, my answer is yes. Not yes if you’ll do what I say, not yes if I believe you won’t hurt me. Just yes. Because the thing I’ve always been most afraid of finally happened– I said yes to a man I thought might die, and then he died– and my grief was wild, but it was pure, and I was open to joy and to other people, all at the same time. I had not protected myself, and so I had been deeply connected. I had no regrets.

Generosity means a lot to me today, and that, dear Deborah, is the gift for which I am thankful. When I have the opportunity to give– time, food, energy, support, love– and I feel that fearful instinct to shut down, I try to open up to it instead. Just say yes. The fear of giving is always based on a fear of lack: I will give, and you will not do the right thing with the gift, or you will keep it and no one else will give to me, and I will have lost something. There will not be enough for me. But what I’ve found is if I just say yes, just give without strings, this gorgeous universe has a way of replenishing everything I give with more. I have never yet given freely with an open heart and regretted it.

This does not mean, you understand, that every time anyone asks me for anything, I feel obligated to meet the expectation. I am no longer the boundaryless wonder I was when I first stopped drinking.  And I have not become a saintly person who responds instinctively to every need by offering more of myself.  But the truth is, I have an abundant life.  Keeping myself clutched to my chest because I’m afraid has served no one. Opening out to the world continues to connect me more deeply with the whole range of people and moments in it. Loving Gabriel was the beginning for me of generous love. And while I miss him, and I feel the loss of so many beautiful bright people like him, I do not for one moment wish I had protected myself from the experience.

 last : The Ocean Roars, Too. | These Arms Were Meant to Hold You : next

  1. December 21, 2012 at 4:44 am

    Such a beautiful post to end your series with.

  2. December 21, 2012 at 8:13 am

    What a gift you gave his mother.

    As a sappy, cheesy woman, I always look for The Gift. And there almost always is one. Loving you may very well have been the reason he stayed clean for a while. You said “Loving Gabriel was the beginning for me of generous love.” That was his gift to you. Loving him to a place where his mother could physically love him one last time was your gift to her. Her gift may yet be unknown, but will be given someday. Because that’s how love works. It lives in us. It grows in us.

    Thanks for sharing this love story, Anna.

  3. December 21, 2012 at 8:35 am

    This is just so stunning, so beautiful, so good. It’s a blessing. Thank you.

  4. December 21, 2012 at 11:19 am


  5. December 21, 2012 at 11:57 am

    A great story. And a true display of your strength – not just because you learned to love openly, but because you got through the grief without starting to use again. I’ve had friends with a variety of addictions, and I’ve seen at least two descend back into their private Hell, all the way. So you get congratulations on two points – learning how to love again, and learning how to LIVE with love again. Because death is all too often a part of love.
    Thank you, Anna.

  6. December 21, 2012 at 7:11 pm

    Very deep, I’m so glad I read this.

  7. December 21, 2012 at 8:27 pm

    Thank you for sharing this story about unconditional love–the best kind of love and the hardest to achieve. Well done, I will think about this for a long time. All the best to you, Anna.

  8. December 22, 2012 at 1:42 am

    Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful and inspiring. Thank you both.

  9. December 22, 2012 at 4:32 am

    As much as I will miss this series, this is beautifully done and perfectly balanced for its conclusion. My hardest lesson, to keep my heart open, to say yes. Thank you Anna for sharing your story so openly, thank you for lovingly giving to all of us who read Deb’s words and those of her guests.

    Thank you Deb, though I have yet again tears streaming down my face, they are good tears. Another lesson I will take and ponder this weekend. Something to add to my mantra of just breath.

  10. December 23, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    Yours is such a beautiful, wonderful soul…

  11. December 26, 2012 at 10:47 am

    Finally got to read this, and I’m so glad I did. I resonate with it. I live my life like this, too. Every time I think I just want to shut down and shut off the lights, I find myself remembering that life is an experience meant to be experienced. Loving is part of this, whether it’s joyous or sad, it’s a part of it. And, I’m grateful. Wonderful ending to a wonderful series! XOXO-SWM

  12. January 4, 2013 at 9:01 pm

    Wow. I can see why you wanted to end the series with this. (I do wish though that Anna was a blogger so that I could continue to read her.) I can’t think of a single lesson more important than keeping your heart open. I think too often we decide that love is either finite or unobtainable. And then we fear it, so we withhold. Thanks for posting this Deb.

  1. December 21, 2012 at 4:47 am
  2. December 21, 2012 at 4:52 am
  3. June 23, 2015 at 6:53 pm

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