Developing the past

In the midst of this weekend's spring cleaning flurry, I unearthed two of those Kodak disposable cameras, each with just a handful of pics left on them. To the best of my knowledge, we have been carting these cameras around with us for years, moving them from house to house, obviously with the intention of finding out what the hell is on them at some point. And so, on Saturday, in a fit of purposeful activity that will not likely be seen again for months, I not only added developing said film to my list, I actually took them to Target and dropped them off at the photo counter. Truth be told, I was a bit excited to find out what they would produce. It's been years since I've bought a disposable camera and I assumed these might be leftovers from the cameras we had on the tables at our wedding in 2001.

In fact, considering our wedding photos turned out to be pretty disastrous--the photographer was a friend who didn't know her flash didn't work--I allowed myself to hope that not only would these be wedding photos but they would be, somehow, AMAZING wedding photos. The perfect shots, in which not only would everyone be in focus and properly lit, but in which I would also be twenty pounds lighter. Time (and the imagination) can do amazing things, after all.

I returned to Target today to pick up the photos. To extend my anticipation, like the infant I am, I made myself purchase the items I needed from the store before I could go and get the photos, let alone look at them. Finally, I handed a surly youth at the photo counter the stubs they'd torn off my envelope, pretty proud that I'd actually a) kept them, b) found them and c) brought them with me. He didn't even glance at them. He asked my last name and proceeded to look up my order alphabetically. SO WHY THE HELL EVEN GIVE ME THE STUBS??

But I digress.

I took the packets of photos to my car and opened them with great anticipation. The first set, sadly, was a total dud, a series of photos of some ballpark in Cincinnati. (It turns out Chris took them years ago when he was writing for the Post-Dispatch about the then-still-hypothetical new ballpark.) So that was five bucks pretty much wasted.

The second pack took me back--and aback. Apart from a handful of blurry, faded photos I took on the way to Target the other day to use up the last few shots, there were another handful of blurry, faded photos--and not of our wedding. In fact, they were from even before, apparently at a small going-away soiree at my house before Chris and I moved (and moved in together) to Indianapolis in 2000.

I don't actually remember the gathering, but it appears to be me and the women who were then closest to me from my recovery program. We're in my house, back when it was still just "my" house and not yet "ours." There are packed cardboard boxes sitting on a sofa table I no longer own. We're drinking soda out of red plastic cups, my real glasses no doubt stashed away for the move. Of the six women there, only three of us, to my knowledge, are still sober today.

I remain in contact with just one of them, my friend A. The other one, my old sponsor L., moved to Iowa and got married. I'm pretty sure she's still out there, doing the deal, living a happy life. I'm among the still sober, having marked ten years in recovery last September.

Of the other three, two just faded from the program, as people are wont to do. Last I heard--and it's been years since I heard anything or, frankly, even thought of these women--they were both still using.

The third woman in the photographs is my friend Susan. There are two pictures of her, more than any of the others. In one picture, she's standing in my living room doorway. She's dressed up, in a black suit and black-and-white striped top, like she just came from work. Her hair is short, blonde and curly and her mouth's open slightly, as though she's talking while I'm trying to take her picture.

In the other picture, she's mid-laugh, mouth wide, eyes crinkled at the edges. Just over a year ago, Susan died of heart failure at the age of 44, alone in the apartment she'd just moved into. She was going through a rocky divorce from her husband. She was using at the time and she'd been dead for a couple of days when her teenage daughter found her body.

For those of you who don't understand what the disease of addiction is like, these stats are actually pretty good--that 50% of us who gathered in my house that night are still alive and sober is far above average. Research on this stuff is always a bit hazy, but there's enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that if even one of us was still sober, we'd be ahead of the game.

It's remarkable to me that I discovered these photos today. This morning I was at a meeting with a friend I've known for about a year. He's one of those people I came to love very quickly and very much and, like so many people I've seen over the years, is struggling to reconcile the lure of his old flashy drug-fueled life and the comparable boredom (perceived and real) of sobriety. I've been thinking a lot today about how tenuous all of this is, how delicate and unlikely long-term sobriety can be.

Today is also my incredible sponsor's 24th sobriety anniversary and I was already--even before I got the photos--teary-eyed with gratitude to her just for sticking around all this time and paving the way for those of us who are desperate to find a light on the path, anyone who will just show us how this is done. What we's not easy and there are no guarantees. That's not a plea for self pity; it's just a fact.

I've just taken another look at the photos and the fact that the film is grainiest and faded most on the photos of the women who have vanished is all a bit too dramatic, don't you think? If I wasn't holding them in my hands, if I saw this in a film, I'd declare it all too, too much. But that's just what they mean, isn't it, when they say that thing about life being stranger than fiction.

Chris has already pitched the ballpark photos into the trash can in his office. I'm not sure what I'll do with my set. Maybe I'll hang onto them for a little while. They'll sit on my desk for a few days, where I'll look at them and make a conscious effort to remember. Then I'm sure I'll stuff them in a box and, probably, move them with me next time we go somewhere. I suspect, at some point after that, they'll just vanish, just disappear, like photos and old friends sometimes do.