Buried Treasure

That night­–fall of my senior year–was a Saturday night, so I headed to a party. A bonfire tucked in the woods off Hwy. 55, where we could drink underage to excess. I had a bottle of Seagram’s in my jacket along with a liter of Seven Up.

Didn’t take long before I was smashed. I had decided to quit smoking pot at the beginning of the school year, which meant in the first three weeks I had been stoned only a half dozen times. Somebody asked if I wanted to get high. Sure. I forgot that I had quit.

So I was pretty wasted when the cops showed up.

They told us to leave. I told them to leave.

“Come on, John,” my buddies said, tugging on my arm. “Let’s get out of here.”

“No. We were here first.”

I was filled with all the righteous indignation of a teenager angry at the world, resentful of rules and limits imposed by parents, teachers, principals, and coaches. That night I laid it all on those two cops, the embodiment of authority.

I didn’t win the argument. They loaded me into the back of the squad car and took me downtown.

I woke up in detox. I did not have any identification on me, so I figured if I didn’t tell them who I was, I couldn’t get in trouble. I had no idea where I was (1800 Chicago, near Franklin, a rough part of Minneapolis, 15 miles from my home in the suburbs), but I plotted–once they tired of talking to me–to slip out, hitchhike back, and sneak into my bed without my parents ever realizing I’d taken a detour home through detox. Such were my delusions.

They put me in a small, windowless cell. After a while, the staff brought me into the office and tried talking to me again. “Don’t you think your parents might be worried?”

I looked at the clock. It was 5:45 a.m. A memory flashed through my mind. A time last summer that we had partied all night and I had not come home until dawn. When I finally walked into the house–expecting to crawl into my bed unnoticed–I found Mom and Dad sitting in the family room. The expression on their faces–a mixture of worry, relief, anger, and bewilderment–suddenly sobered me. I didn’t want to put them through that again.

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The expression on their faces–a mixture of worry, relief, anger, and bewilderment–suddenly sobered me. I didn’t want to put them through that again.I told the staff my name and phone number. Turns out Mom and Dad were awake–and worried. Sometime during the night, Dad had gotten up, noticed the lights still on, checked my bed, and discovered I wasn’t home. Shit. I felt awful.

Still, I expected them to come and pick me up. In the past, when I had gotten into trouble, they had fetched me from the police station or elsewhere. Seemed they were always there to defend me. This time, they surprised me. They didn’t bail me out.

I was pissed. If they didn’t pick me up, I was going to miss three days of school. I’d miss a student council meeting. I’d miss work after school. I’d miss seeing my friends. I’d miss getting high. I pleaded with them.

But they let me sit. I stayed in detox four days.

This was not where I had intended to end up when I set out to party with my friends on Saturday night. When they talked in group about the first step of Alcoholics Anonymous–“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable”–I had a faint understanding that unmanageable meant getting arrested and winding up in detox instead of home in my bed.

Detox referred me to treatment. There I began to make a deeper connection between my drinking and drugging and the consequences. Rather than continuing to blame others for what happened to me, I began to admit my part and my powerlessness.

So often we leave the most important things between us unsaidYears later, when my dad was dying of cancer, and it got down to his final days, he asked to speak to each of his four kids individually. When it came to my turn, I entered his room at the University of Minnesota hospital.

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He lay in bed, his body weakened but still strong in spirit. He had prepared an apology.

“When you were in detox, we didn’t come and get you,” he said. “It has always bothered me that I didn’t help you out. I want to apologize.”

I had been clean and sober since that night, September 26, 1981.

“Oh, Dad. That was the best thing you could have done for me. You didn’t rescue me. You let me face the consequences of my actions. That was the help I needed.”

I watched relief ease across his face.

So often we leave the most important things between us unsaid. I had never known he felt this way. And he had never known how I felt.

What if he hadn’t been about to die?

Moments before we closed the coffin for the final time, I slipped in the last medallion I had received for being sober–at that point, 24 years–to send with him a token of my gratitude.


John Rosengren is the author of A Clean Heart, a novel about addiction and recovery. www.johnrosengren.net.

Last Updated on January 12, 2021

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