Sometimes it takes a lemon to spark a dream.

Tom Meyer – Aaron House

Cling to the thought that in God’s hands the dark past is the greatest possession (you) have…the key to life and happiness for others. With it (you) can avert death and misery for them. Taken from the Big Book, p. 124.

The phone call all parents dread is worse than your mind will let you contemplate. One pleasant day in May I answered that call. The ring is the same, but the message, if not the messenger, is pure evil. Cold, harsh, unforgiving, eternity is set in motion with the first hello. All trust in God, hope in the future, and serenity smudged out in seconds. Material possessions turn to trash, friendships fracture, some shatter. One day in May, 2005.

Caller: “I’m calling from the Dane County Sheriff office, NE precinct. Are you Aaron Meyer’s father?”

Me: Yes I am.

Caller: “Mr. Meyer there was a one car accident in Windsor. Your son Aaron was involved.”

I exited the west bound beltline at Seminole Highway to hear the purpose of the caller. I exited life as it was

Me: “Is he OK?”

Caller: “I’m sorry to tell you, Aaron died.” I then listen to evil, insensitive, mean, judgmental, horrible words strung together to form sentences void of mercy.

Above the chatter on the cell phone, I could hear myself breathing. Attempting to sort out fractured scraps of truth from judgment, I tried to respond calmly to wicked news, my eyes burned back to my temples.

Almost four years later, I imagine what would life be if I had not answered that call? Would the darkness of death have called the next person on the list? Will evil pass if you don’t take its call? I wish I knew.

That day in May, 18-year-old Aaron was a year and a half into recovery from an addiction which included abuse of marijuana, and pain killers. A typical person will put two fingers, or even a hand into the cookie jar of mind altering substances. Aaron took one taste of the drugs and reached in with both hands… up to his elbows. In December 2003, the chaos at home had run its course. Before more misery or death could consume what remained of Aaron, our sanity, and family, we made a decision and took action. Cathy, Aaron’s mother, and I mortgaged everything to send Aaron to Mount Bachelor Academy (MBA) in Prineville, OR.

Escorted by two off duty, armed sheriff deputies, Aaron made the 1600 mile journey starting at 4:30 AM, arriving in the hills of tiny Prineville around 6:00 PM. His body was there. His mind would follow. A novel is a better tool to do justice to the immense emotional growth work a 16 year old is subjected to at Mt. Bachelor. Incredible challenges for mind and body. Incredible detachment required of the family. Let go, and let God. Those simple words would be more revealing in my life to come.

In January 2005, with emotion, sacrifice, forgiveness, mercy, savings expended by, Aaron, Cathy, Patrick, me, and counselors, the MBA experience ended. Aaron did the work and none of it was easy. He was alive and living. We were healing. A few high school credits, and a lifetime of addiction recovery work remained ahead. Aaron came home on a Saturday night. Exiting the plane, Aaron wore a t-shirt, a jean jacket, flip-flops, corduroy pants from a thrift store, a shaggy mop of hair, and a backpack with a peace symbol. A guitar was slung over his shoulder. Aaron was a picture of peace and contentment. Sure he was a little uneasy about seeing old friends, but comfortable with himself. He was nothing like the angry, rebel who exited the community through the same airport 14 months earlier.

Aaron carried home simple belongings and a simple plan. “I know what I want to do this summer. I’m going to go back out to Bend, Oregon and go to community college. I’ll live with my friends from MBA. We’ll get a house, get jobs, go to school, and see our mentors if we need help. We’ll help keep each other clean. It’ll work because no one knows what we go through like us. I love you Mom and Dad, but I can’t live at home, and I can’t live with my friends who aren’t in this with me.”

A young man with a plan is a beautiful thing.

Starting in 2001, Aaron the high school student was finding his way. English. Writing. History. Literature. Aaron was a young man with feelings and an appreciation for good writing. Math and sciences were not his companions. Stories and later art would be his friends. Many people were his friends too. More than I was comfortable with.

Sometime in the summer after his sophomore year, 2003, Aaron discovered marijuana. School, job, athletics, friends, family, all were rejected as intrusions in Aaron’s pursuit of money and highs. The addictive qualities of pot today are well documented elsewhere. I won’t waste words trying to convince you that marijuana is evil. I learned of its power and that’s enough.

I’m Not Ready to Go Yet

Aaron died four days after turning 18. Clean and sober May 10th, 2005, Aaron started his day happy and eager. O.A.R’s A Wonderful Day blared from his room the same as always. He went to school for his first hour group session. At 9:20 AM, the group ended early and the teacher told Aaron he could leave. “I’ve still got 10 minutes, I’m not ready to go yet” was his response.

At noon Aaron was at home by himself. Eating half of his birthday coconut cream pie, sharing some with his dog Molly, playing Halo with someone, somewhere in the world, and charging his cell phone, Aaron took a phone call from a friend. The friend was a recovering addict. A convicted oxycontin dealer with jail time in his past and future, Aaron refused to turn his back on this 19 year old. “When I came home from MBA my biggest fear was that my friends would not be there for me. They were there and it meant everything to me. I am going to be there for this friend. He’s trying.” Being there for Aaron meant doing what he could do. Giving a guy a ride to a urine test, a ride to a job interview, or just talking and listening, was what Aaron could do with what he had. A ride from Windsor to DeForest for a job interview was the request. Aaron answered “I’ll be right there. I’m going to stop to cash a check and buy a pack of cigs.” The round trip effort would be less than ten miles. Aaron left the house about 12:12 PM to12:15 PM. His journey was 2.8 miles from driveway to heaven.

The Problem of Pain

My morning that day started with a group meeting. A woman handed me a piece of paper, 2″ x 2″, folded in half with TOM written on the outside. Inside was the prayer: Let me hear what you need me to hear. Let me speak what you need me to speak. Let my mind and heart be open. “Thank you. This is nice.” I said. I placed the note in the crease of a book where it can be found today. Eight hours after reading that prayer, I was on my hands, knees, and face crawling, sliding, across the living room floor in despair. Sobbing, begging God to take this horror away, trying to recall the words to that little prayer, I choked and gasped. Not able to remember the verse, I caught my breath long enough to pray the prayer that came to my mind: God, I do not want this burden, but if it is your will, then please help me do this with grace and dignity. I did pause to consider what God might require as I had been praying daily for wisdom. I let the prayer stand.

Eventually the horrible events associated with this tragedy settled into the places where they would remain. Explosions are instant flurry of blistering hot shards of metal, glass, burning chemicals, and destruction. Those closest to the blast are maimed. When the matter settles to earth all that remains is the proof that something that was is no more. People who care are left to sort out the meaning. Experts are consulted for their insight. Unexpected death of my son was the same burst.

For all of the technical advancement in our culture over the last 200 years, we have managed to move in a circle around the topic of grief resolution. Distraction, forgetting, strength, moving on,… anything but honoring and going through the pain are common perceptions of appropriate action. “Time heals all wounds. Aaron would want you to live. Be strong for each other. God has a plan. The good die young. He’s seen the face of Jesus. You’ll see each other again one day. You still have your memories. Be grateful you had him for 18 years.” Well meaning clichés offered by well meaning people who just want you to not hurt, I understand. But these words do nothing to lessen the despair. None of the clichés are correct. Accepting any of them would have meant certain misery for me. In my opinion, the clichés are all deadly wrong, but that’s a discussion for another day. Instead, we met people who had made progress in resolving their loss. The people who grew had found ways to continue their son’s meaningful way of affecting the world while they still walked the earth.

In the first months I was bewildered. I kept thinking back to that typical day. One moment, I was giving Aaron ideas for a summer job, and the next I was answering the question, “Do you want to have an autopsy performed, and would you donate organs, eyes, tissue?” Unfathomable, as if the question was “Honey, what do you want to do with the leftovers? Fridge or trash?” Living without my son would lead to insanity. Of this I was sure.

I couldn’t accept that Aaron was dead, but I could say his body was not present. He was not going to walk in through one of the doors. I did not, and still will not, concede his true self exclusively to any world other than this one. I could reconcile that Aaron’s soul, spirit, true self, whatever you call his inner being, is greater than the elements which made up his body. Gravity and energy can destroy a body, but not a soul. There would be a way for Aaron to continue his vibes in the world while his family walked the earth. We were guided to the way by grace.

Simplicity, Simplicity, Simplicity

As long as possible live free and uncommitted. It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail. Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience.

In the backpack Aaron carried on his last day is a war protest flyer, and two books: Moby Dick, and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Because the mind cannot reach the person who has left this world, although I tried, I could not connect with Aaron. Smothering myself in a pile of his clothes, I could smell him. He had been there, but I could not reach him. The books were another way. The books found me when I looked in the backpack. What was he thinking in his last hours? What was he feeling in his soul? The books gave me insight. Moby Dick, the adventurous spirit, and man’s search for vengeance. Walden- detachment, simplicity, and virtue. What he carried opened the door to Aaron’s true self.

I read the books he carried and more. Our family huddled together. We cried, we dug in the dirt, we slept, we barely laughed, and cried more. Time heals no wounds. Time is a culprit. Time waits for no one. Time slips into the future. What one does in time makes all of the difference. There must be action and it is prudent that the action be of a nature that resists evil. Fighting has no future, but I considered it as an option. Angels guided me to another avenue.

As Aaron’s friends left home that summer to begin their college adventures every story of dorm rooms, apartments, new roommates added to the despair. More loss, more sorrow. The realness of life moving on was brutal. We saw these young people place Aaron’s casket in the back of the white hearse that night. The car pulled away, turned the corner leaving us standing in the dark. A few months later they were leaving. Misery, no company.

Connections Counseling

Madison has a wealth of opportunities for the opportunistic. There are some islands of hope for the hopeless. Connections Counseling owned by Shelly Dutch is a quiet blessing. Elaborate buildings, home to excessive undertakings, with giant endowments for the pleasure of a few, exist in our community alongside small endeavors of prudent temperance guided by the will of a few passionate people for the good or the community. Connections Counseling is an example of prudence in action. Young people in high school and young adults in college find new direction at Connections. A program of attraction, some young people find their way to Connections by the attraction of authority, others come willing. Groupies who arrive by either route stick to it by choice. Aaron might have become more attracted had he lived. Going to Connections was like going to day care. Objections were only about going. Once there he wanted to be there. After Aaron died, Shelly invited me to take his place in the groups. A way to walk where Aaron walked, Shelly knew a Dad in recovery could bring something to the group and leave with something in return. What happened was a miracle.

Celebrations are shared at 90 days of sobriety for the Groupies at Connections. Seeing young people celebrate 90 days of continuous sobriety with their parents and family at their sides was emotional. Gratitude for them and sorrow for my family and myself. Crying is a necessary outlet in grief recovery. It came freely to me daily. One day I heard what God wanted me to hear. Two young men were celebrating their 90 days of sobriety and each was asked: “What is your greatest challenge to continuing your sobriety?” The answers were the same as Aaron had told me. To paraphrase: Living with friends who use. And, Living with Mom and Dad who I love but they don’t get it.

Aaron had in his hand on the day he died a tiny seed of an idea—a house where recovery was first, work and education second, and peer support was crucial. That seed fell to the ground in the crash. I picture it falling from Aaron’s open hand falling to the fertile ground of the farmer’s field where it waited until these two young men pointed it out to me. “Pick that up and plant it where it can grow.” The fertile soil for the idea seed became a non-profit Foundation inspired by some of Aaron’s friends and their parents. With a wish to do something, and not just anything, the Aaron J. Meyer Foundation, Inc., www.AaronMeyerFoundation.org, listened to the idea. “Buy a house, create a program, provide wise support, and guidance, invite recovering young men to live there, and let them do the rest.” Simplicity, but not simple was the consensus of the group.

With the direction of smart people who cared to do things right, the Foundation sketched a plan and went to work raising awareness and money. What happened next is a miracle.

The Soup Stone

…the stranger pulled a large stone from his backpack and told the starving villagers, “This is a magic soup stone. All I need is a kettle of water, a fire, and a stick to stir, and you will have soup to feed your village until the famine passes. Immediately the fire was built, the kettle was filled with water, and ladle was given to the stranger. He placed the stone into the water and began to stir. Speaking to the villagers, he shared his memories of his favorite soup. A person offered that her own favorite soup included carrots and onions, which she had a bunch of both, and she added them to the hot water. Another suggested his basket of potatoes would taste just right with the mixture. Salt and pepper were tossed in by another starving person, and several varieties of meat were brought out from hiding in cold storage. More vegetables were shared and soon the kettle was overflowing with goodness. When the stranger removed his stone and returned it to the backpack, the villagers were enjoying their magic bounty. No one went hungry. The stranger left the village never to be seen again.

Aaron’s life journey was the stone we shared with groups of people all over Madison and the nearby communities. It was picked up on the internet by interested people. Seattle University included an article in their alumni magazine. Mount Bachelor Academy told their alumni families. Wisconsin Women Magazine, Madison Magazine, The State Journal, Capitol Times, DeForest Times and other local papers picked up the story. Money came in. Support was offered. Everyone who had something to share gave to the foundation. With nothing more than compassion, people gave. There was no house to see. There was no program to read, yet people believed in what they heard. In relatively short time, we had enough money, and trust to borrow some money to buy a property which would become The Aaron House.

Appropriate zoning and house size limits our options. We found a suitable structure which needed more than a little work to be less than a lot dangerous for habitation. Our board of directors includes people who move and shake and open doors. The door to the National Association of Home Remodeling Industry-Madison Chapter (NARI) was nudged open. We were invited to make a presentation to them of our idea. It was November ’06 and we took our place in the crowed dining room of Nakoma Country Club to make our presentation to the NARI membership. Telling Aaron’s story I could see and feel emotions in the room. They laughed, they cried, they laughed again. In the end they carried their talents and ideas up to us and lined up to contribute what they had to the “soup”. Our expectations were minimal and their promise and delivery was beyond comprehension. The work was completed in August ’07. More than $200,000 worth of time, labor, material, expertise, was contributed by NARI members. Aaron House opened on August 13, 2007 welcoming the first four student residents, house mentor, and clinical director. A year and a half after Aaron died, he was making vibrations in the world while we continued to walk the earth.

Today is Christmas, 2008. Aaron will be gone for four years in less than 5 months. There have been nine student residents living at the Aaron House at 850 E. Gorham Street since opening. We have four bedrooms for the student-residents and one for the House-Mentor. The Aaron Meyer Foundation raises money, connects the project to interested people, and Cathy, and Patrick, I speak to groups anywhere we are invited, to tell the story. The House-Mentor and Clinical-Director provide the professional service to the Student-Residents and they connect with service providers who might refer someone to the program for residency. Aaron’s idea never would have included staff and a professionally designed, written business plan. Those components were necessary for the projects relevance and longevity. Because the project is accountable, the leadership is responsible, and the community gets it, funds continue to come in.

The Aaron House has a life of its own today. The story is less about Aaron today, and more about the young men and their families. It’s about recovery and living. When I would describe the concept of Aaron House to people before we had tangible evidence, I told about the pain of holidays when your son or daughter, or family member was lost in addiction. On Thanksgiving 2003 we did not know if Aaron would see another Thanksgiving. The chaos was deadly. There was no peace in our home. As I told that part of the story, I told listeners that there were parents, right at that moment, who did not know if their son would see another holiday. These same parents would one day sit in the living room and kitchen of what would become “Aaron House” and “..give thanks to God for your gift so that this house would become reality.”

On November 29, 2008 I shared dinner, made by the Student-Residents for their families and staff, in the Aaron House. The gratitude in my heart that night was for them. They all had suffered a year earlier as had our family one day. My gratitude was also for my family. Because people care, because there is compassion in people, Aaron continues to affect the world in a meaningful way while we walk the earth. The next mission is to open a women’s house version of Aaron House. We will accomplish this by 2011. True story, Air-bear. True story.
Live well in heaven.

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